This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in our March 2013 issue.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
He doesn’t remember the fifth-grade joke, just the big laughs it got. “And I went, ‘Oh, they like me.’” Now 68, Dick Chudnow turned funny into a lifetime pursuit, eventually creating Milwaukee’s ComedySportz improv theater, which has outposts in 21 cities. He graduated from Shorewood High class clown to UW-Madison college cutup. And he was a founding member of Madison’s legendary Kentucky Fried Theatre, moving the show to Los Angeles with fellow funnymen Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker in 1972. But the partnership ended – largely due to Chudnow’s ill-fated first marriage – right before his three friends made millions with The Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane! and a slew of other spoofs. Chudnow would write some flicks, too – Pray TV, Off the Wall and the 1996 Leslie Nielsen movie Spy Hard. But he was miserable in California, finally divorcing and returning to Milwaukee in 1982. Back home, he found a happy life, starting ComedySportz in ’84, and a happy wife, marrying actress Jennifer Rupp in 1988, with whom he has a son, Nick. Dick now co-owns the business with Bob Orvis and teaches improv classes for UW-Milwaukee. He’s also slowly turning his ComedySportz responsibilities over to Nick. But his penchant for funny business shows no sign of stopping.
Were you a funny kid?
In high school, I was more of a disturbingly disturbed kid. I was probably ADD. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I’d sit in class, and I would have to do something to entertain myself. High school was a mess. Did not like it.
There weren’t a lot of chances for creativity. It was about the rules. I was a C student. Burned my notebooks in the parking lot. Now, they probably would have sent me to a therapist.
So when did you get serious about theater?
It was the only class I enjoyed in high school. I loved all the aspects of it. But I couldn’t memorize lines. So I didn’t do that in college.
Did your grades make for any trouble getting into college?
No. That’s when they let everybody in if you lived in Wisconsin. But I was still nuts. I would go to the library, and in my briefcase would be a candelabra, candle, place settings and marshmallows, and I’d roast marshmallows over the candelabra and play nice dinner music. Abrahams and I were roommates. We’d go in the bathroom with a whoopee cushion, and I’d go in the toilet and do the whoopee cushion, and he’d be at the sink going, “Chud, you OK? You all right?” And he couldn’t keep a straight face, so he had to go to the bathroom and do it.
These aren’t normal things.
But it makes your life a lot more fun, and you’re making people laugh. You feel good about that. I didn’t care if people thought I was crazy. It was almost a compliment.
After college, you did a little teaching. How did that go?
I was a pretty good teacher because the kids liked me. I’ll tell you one story. You intern on your final semester and you teach. And you get reviewed. Your sponsor comes in and looks at your class and writes a report. But they tell you that they’re gonna come in. So I told my students, “OK, my adviser’s coming in, and she’s gonna critique me and give me a grade. So what we should do is that, no matter what I ask, you raise your hand. If you know the answer, raise your right hand. If you don’t know the answer, raise your left hand. She came in, and I’d say “OK, who wrote such and such.” Every single hand shot up. And I’d call on the kid with the right hand up. Maybe one. And she thought I was the greatest teacher that ever lived. I liked teaching, and I would’ve done that for the rest of my life. That would’ve been fine.
But instead, you helped start Kentucky Fried Theatre. What happened after you took it to Los Angeles?
This woman comes into the theater. Everybody told me not to marry her. But the more they told me, the more I wanted to. It was a disaster. The worst thing about it, and it turned out to be the best thing, is that the guys hated her. And we voted on everything. They voted she couldn’t come around anymore. So I left, and shortly after that, Kentucky Fried Movie came out. I’m in this horrible marriage, driving an ice cream truck and seeing billboards for Airplane!, probably the most depressing time in my life. I went to a therapist who gave me the best advice I ever got. Got me out of the marriage. I believe if I’d stayed there, I’d have died from drugs or something.
Was there any thought about trying to reconnect with the guys?
They were pissed. But it turned out to be the best thing for them. I believe in the Rule of Threes. I was No. 4. And we were having arguments all the time. So that was really good for them that I left, I think. And it was good for me. I got out of L.A., and I was really happy back here.
How did you get over it?
It took starting ComedySportz. I had a focus. I had a mission.
Why did you keep ComedySportz family-friendly?
I knew my parents were gonna see the show. I also knew there was a whole segment of the audience that would be eliminated. And dirty improv is just too easy.
Once ComedySportz got going, what did your folks think of it?
It’s mother-father. Your mother thinks you’re a genius. Your father thinks you’re an idiot. The first time he saw the show, I was watching him. And he’s scratching his head the whole show. He didn’t get it.
Why did you think it would work in Milwaukee?
Because it was a sport. People understood sports. The problem with the name was that they thought it was about sports. Some people still think it’s about sports. Not about sports. It is a sport. People told me, “No, you can’t do comedy in Milwaukee. People don’t go to comedy here.” I was told that it was a fool’s game to try to do comedy in Milwaukee.
Do you have any more scripts in the pipeline?
I have a script that I wrote. I’d have to rewrite it. I don’t know if I’m going to because the process of trying to sell a movie is a disgusting, horrible job. You meet the most insincere people on the planet.
How did you start teaching improv at UW-Milwaukee?
Jennifer got me into it. She’s the most important person that I’ve ever had in my life. She’s really everything. Telling me, “You should do this, you should do that.” Just to get me out of the house. Because she’s got a couple of guys that she invites over. I think that’s happening now. If you go now, you’ll just make it.
How do you teach somebody to be funny?
You don’t. You can’t. That’s what I tell my classes. “If you’re in here because you think you’ll end up funnier, you’re in the wrong class.” It’s the games. Spontaneity makes you funny. If you just play the rules of the game, you’ll be hysterical.
Who were your comic heroes?
Jerry Lewis. When I was a kid, I used to do Jerry Lewis impersonations. And I’d hear him on radio, his timing was unbelievable. That brightness, that sensibility, the timing. I always had a sense of timing, even as a little kid.
What has it been like watching Nick follow in your footsteps?
I never scheduled him over someone who was there longer and was good. He worked his way in. I always used to be jealous of this guy in ComedySportz from Quad Cities. Both his sons went into ComedySportz. What a great relationship. They play together. And that’s a trip, doing a show with Nick. I’ve got to play again. I used to have fun, but I’m self-conscious about being the really old guy.
What kind of guy are you?
My biggest fear in life would be to end up on your death bed and think, “I should’ve done that thing. Crap.” I can’t imagine it. But I consider myself really lucky. So many things happened serendipitously.
Are you worried about Nick feeling pressured take over the business?
I did for a while. But it’s pretty clear now that this is what he wants to do. I think it’s great. I’ve had that conversation with him, “I don’t want you to feel pressured to do this.” He can do anything else he wants. It’s not gonna hurt my feelings.
When does your curtain drop?
I’m slowly letting it go. In 2014, that’s 30 years, and I hope by then, Nick can just do it. I’ll still show up. Just to be a pain in the ass. What’s freaky is thinking about when I’m dead, and it’s still going. That’s weird. It’s like not seeing what your kid ends up being.