`Daily Show' meets Second City in `Wigfield' tour

By Nina Metz
Special to the Tribune
Published April 27, 2003

On a recent episode of "The Daily Show," senior correspondent (and Second City alum) Stephen Colbert and host Jon Stewart debated the role of the media during the war in Iraq.

"The media has no responsibility during wartime," Colbert deadpanned in his trademark hyper-serious, condescending inflection. "The government is on top of this. The media can sit this one out."

For the past several years, Colbert has perfected the role of the idiotic, self-important journalist on "The Daily Show." Now he brings this talent to the page, teaming up with fellow Second City alums Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. Their book, "Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not" (Hyperion, $22.95), the story of one journalist's sad sack attempt to document a town's demise, hits stores on May 7.

In lieu of a traditional book tour ("Hyperion couldn't afford to send us on one, since there's three of us," Sedaris explains brightly), the trio has scheduled a series of staged readings, the first of which comes to the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts Friday and Saturday. From Chicago, they'll head to New York, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Boston.

It's not the first time they've pooled their satiric talents. In a sense, Colbert, Sedaris (sister of NPR's David Sedaris) and Dinello are the holy trinity of quirky comedy. They are the creators of two Comedy Central TV shows: The sketch-based "Exit 57" and the spoof of after-school specials, "Strangers With Candy," which gained a cult following during its short run.

So why write a book?

Forget the worm

"Well, people have always been asking us, you know, when are you going to do a book?" Sedaris says. "Originally Paul and I went to Hyperion to pitch a funny children's book about a worm. . . . They weren't really into that idea, and they were like, `What else you got?'"

So Sedaris and Dinello blurted out "Wigfield," which is the name of a make-believe town Sedaris concocted in her youth. She would pretend to be different townsfolk, and, "I used to change my wig for all these different characters, so I called it Wigfield," she says.

But by their own account, the initial idea was rather vague until they brought in Colbert.

"When I joined the project, all they had was the name of this town, Wigfield," says Colbert dryly. Pause. "A certain amount of shaping was required, you could say."

The resulting plotline, about a ramshackle town and its rather unusual inhabitants, was, Colbert says, "based on a story I did for `The Daily Show' about this town called Jefferson, W.Va., that was basically a tax shelter for strip clubs and auto-parts dealers."

"There was this mayor who was running on the platform that, `If you elect me, I'll dissolve the town,' just because it was such a seamy place," Colbert continues. "So this candidate wins the election, and then all these people living there contest it and organize this fight to save the town."

"It was one of those times," Colbert says, "when I'll do a piece for `The Daily Show' and go, `Oh, God, I could do 40 minutes on these people, instead of just 3 1/2.'"

While some of the small-town idiosyncrasies detailed in the book may indeed be based on Colbert's observations in Jefferson, the 20-odd characters in the book are pure fiction, devised by the antic minds of Colbert and Dinello, who did the bulk of the writing.

"They're really the writers," Sedaris says. "I'm more of a visual person. My job is to bring it alive. Do you know what I mean? I get it on its feet," and flesh out the personalities, giving them three dimensions.

The character that anchors the book is Russell Hokes, a puffed-up, slovenly version of the kind of self-important journalist Colbert portrays on "The Daily Show." Hokes, a moocher and procrastinator in the grandest sense, decides to write a book about Wigfield, and haphazardly goes about interviewing the town's residents. His internal dialogues, a litany of excuses for writer's block and selfish behavior, make for some of the book's funniest passages. For the upcoming staged reading, Colbert will assume the role of Hokes.

Bad journalist

"The book allowed us to cross the self-important, hyperbolic journalism idea with the kind of character quality of `Strangers With Candy,'" Colbert says. "It's really about the self-imposed stupidity of journalists." Pause. "And when I say journalists, I mean bad journalists. Not you."

The distinct, clever-silly writing style "became sort of clear once we created the Hokes character," says Dinello. "Because we had never written a book, we created a character who had never written a book and probably never read one. This sort of covered our inadequacies, as well as freed us up to use the language in any way that Hokes saw fit, because he was not aware of any of the rules."

Take, for example, Hokes' idea of what it means to be a good houseguest. It's not hard to imagine Colbert's voice rattling off this self-serving ditty:

"First I would clean off the dishes, starting with the pie plate, which had inadvertently been filled with pie and left to bake in the oven at 350 degrees. But, before I could properly clean it of pie I had to cool it. Luckily, I found a leftover gallon of ice cream sitting in the freezer. This quickly done, I cleaned up a few leftover dollars from their savings tin and like a magical sprite out of a fairy tale, hurriedly slipped out the back door."

For the theatrical reading, Sedaris and Dinello will portray the various citizens of Wigfield, among them the town arsonist/police chief ("His voice is a cross between my little brother and Ross Perot," Sedaris says), a drunken strip-club bouncer, two women who each claim to be the oldest person in town, a thuggish taxidermist and three men who claim to be mayor.

There will be no major costume changes. Instead, large photos of each character will be projected on a screen set up behind the trio. These pictures, which are also included in the book, were taken by fashion designer Todd Oldham. They feature Colbert, Sedaris and Dinello in elaborate costumes and makeup. Determining which of the book's authors is actually underneath each getup is something of a challenge, particularly since a few of the photos involve gender bending.

Met in Chicago

This is not, one would assume, the first time these three have engaged in a little cross-dressing in the name of comedy. The trio, now based in the New York area, met in the early 1990s here in Chicago as performers with Second City, where they worked with another future correspondent on "The Daily Show," Steve Carell, as well as the late Chris Farley. Dave Razowsky, director of Second City's current main stage revue, "No Seriously, We're All Gonna Die," was also part of that ensemble.

"I remember looking at Amy and thinking, `Who is this little pixie who comes out and says anything she wants to onstage?'" Razowsky says. "Colbert, that guy is the pinnacle of class, he always had these really clean, clear ideas about how to make a scene work. All three of them, they were the magic trio."

Though Dinello's name may not be as well known as his counterparts, Second City senior associate producer Beth Kligerman says he is "the most handsome person to come out of 43 years of Second City," a not-so-shabby claim to fame.

"Imagine suddenly getting paid to do what you love, and until a week before, you were gladly performing in bars for free," says Dinello, an Oak Park native, about his years at Second City.

"And not only getting paid, but sharing the stage with the funniest people in the city and in front of sold-out audiences. . . . It was like going to the greatest college in the world. A place where you could learn, you were encouraged to fail, you got paid and the beer was free."

Though a work of fiction, certain parts of the book are apt re-creations of their own very real, agonizing struggles to write the book, a la the recent Nicolas Cage film, "Adaptation." Russell Hokes' constant worries, what Colbert calls "all that stuff about being desperate and sweating over getting the book done -- that's really the most honest thing we wrote."

"We had written about 2,500 words and figured we were done," he says. "And then we bothered to look at the book contract, and it said 50,000 words. And we were like, `Do they really mean that?' They did."

Sedaris jumps in helpfully: "Hyperion was very patient with us."

"And we with them," Colbert says without missing a beat.

The book-writing process itself "was a very refreshing experience," says Sedaris, to which Colbert can't help adding, "If by refreshing you mean frustrating,"

It is this sort of wham-bam timing that the three will bring to the stage for the "Wigfield" tour. It may be about selling books, but as Sedaris puts it, "If you ask Stephen and Paul, it's really just about getting laughs."

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"Wigfield," a page-to-stage event, Friday and Saturday (two shows each night) at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green St.; tickets: $30; 312-327-2000.

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