A BLAST FROM MY PAST
My Life as an Improviser, Pt. 2
By TOM SOTER
"Tom, you'd better sit down," said the voice on the other end of the line. "I want you to be prepared for what I'm about to tell you."
"I'm sitting down," I said, not recognizing the name "Janet Smith" on my caller ID nor the voice of the man on the phone.
"This is Jerry Patterson, Tom."
"Jerry Patterson," I said slowly. I paused. "It's been a long time."
Twenty-five years, in fact.
It was aroung 1984 or 1985 and I had just been involved in improv comedy for a few years. I had been studying with Carol Schindler, an excellent teacher at Chicago City Limits, when Jerry turned up. He was a short, stout guy, with a nervous smile and an obsequious manner, who said he had studied improv in Florida and now hoped to make a splash here. One thing was certain: he was trying to ingratiate himself with everyone in the CCL class circuit. From small to large, there wasn't any assistance that Jerry wouldn't offer. He volunteered to help on the set of my public access cable TV show, Videosyncracies, and was very useful. After class, he'd treat people to drinks, praising their work and modestly downgrading his own.
Everyone found Jerry a nice enough guy, although he seemed to try too hard and was, well, you'd have to admit it, a little weird. One improv class we took together, for instance, was devoted to an exercise called "Fantasies," in which an improviser was allowed to play-act a favorite fantasy and his fellow performers had to go along with him. Jerry's fantasy was as odd as the guy, both ingratiating and self-destructive. He wanted to be a talk show host "with Carol Schindler and Tom Soter" as his guests. But as we played it out, he interpreted everything Carol or I said to him as an insult, as though we were putting him down. Which we weren't. So, his fantasy, really, was to be a talk show host who is insulted by his guests, Carol Schindler and Tom Soter.
Jerry's self-destructive nature was fully revealed in his last days at CCL. It turned out that he had been borrowing money from his fellow students by passing bad checks among them; he had even paid for classes with rubber money. Since everyone hung out together from class, it was inevitable that we would exchange notes and find out. But, Jerry obviously wanted to be found out. It was probably another fantasy of his.
The last straw came when he paid Mike Honda, his roommate and my classmate, with two bad checks. He had also, Mike said, stolen a shirt of his. Mike had reported Jerry to the police, but Jerry had apparently skipped town. Then, the police called Mike: they had found Jerry at the 34th Street YMCA. They had picked him up and wanted Mike to go to the station house. Mike brought me along with him.
We entered the squad room at the precinct. It looked like a set for Law & Order. Jerry was seated by the side of a desk, with a plainclothes detective working at the desk. He stood up as he saw, awkwardly because, I noted, one hand was handcuffed to the desk. "Sit down, Jerry," said the cop, without looking up from his paperwork. I wondered, Was this a Jerry fantasy, too?
The detective who had brought us in took us aside and asked us what we wanted to do. Did we want to press charges? Mike, feeling sorry for Jerry, turned to me.
"What should we do?" he asked.
I, in turn, said to the detective: "If Mike doesn't press charges what happens to him?"
"We turn him loose."
"And he'll probably do more of the same?”
“If we press charges?”
“We book him and he spends the night in jail before his arraignment tomorrow.”
I looked at Mike, he nodded, and then, for the only time in my life, I was able to play cop for a moment and said, “Book him!”
The last time I saw Jerry was when Mike and I were downstairs at the phone booth, as two cops brought Jerry out in handcuffs and hustled him off to a jail cell. I never heard from him again. Until now.
“Jerry Patterson,” I said. “The last time I saw you was in a precinct.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I wanted to audition for your show, Sunday Night Improv.”
“There aren’t a lot of improv venues out there,” he said matter-of-factly.
Or suckers willing to be burned again, I thought.
“I’ve straightened myself out,” he said, as though he had read my mind.
“I’m not holding auditions right now,” I said, diplomatically adding: “Why don’t you just come to the show and see if it’s something you want to get involved with?”
“Let’s play it by ear.”
“Okay,” he said awkwardly. “Maybe I’ll see you in the fall.” He hung up.
What was that all about? I thought. Was he legit? Or maybe my rejecting him was just another episode in the Jerry Patterson Fantasy Show.
August 27, 2010
(Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect me.)