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Detour de France

Mark Nutter rides high with the oddball hit "Le Comedie du Bicyclette."

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Actor, writer, and composer Mark Nutter left town over a decade ago, but now he's back with Le Comedie du Bicyclette, a musical parody that displays his gift for smart silliness. "This show is basically 'room stuff,'" says Nutter, whose credits include writing for Saturday Night Live, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and the Chris Farley films Black Sheep and Almost Heroes. "When you're working on a sitcom staff--'and then the funny neighbor comes in, joke joke joke'--'room stuff' is what you get when you take a break from your regular writing and amuse yourself with the most disgusting and ridiculous ideas you can come up with."

Le Comedie du Bicyclette, a hit last spring at ImprovOlympic's Hollywood outlet, played at ImprovOlympic here in July and was so well received it moved to a larger venue, the Lakeshore Theater. Written and performed by Nutter and fellow ex-Chicagoans Dave Lewman, Joe Liss, and John Rubano--aka the Bicycle Men--it's a satirically surreal cross between a Twilight Zone episode, a French art film, and a sketch revue in the style of Second City or Nutter's old comedy group Friends of the Zoo. Its hero, played by the clean-cut Lewman, is a genial American whose tour of France is ruined when he crashes his bike. Stranded in a rural village, he's insulted by bicycle repairmen, forced to share a bunk in a youth hostel with a Dutch boy who shrilly sings himself to sleep, tweaked by a cloying mime, mocked by a bawdy puppet show, and forced to appear in a cabaret variety show alongside a dog-turd-tasting act before undergoing a tranformative encounter with a spandex-clad bike god.

Le Comedie du Bicyclette is also a vehicle for Nutter's oddball yet sophisticated songwriting. Like Tom Lehrer, he's a master of musical pastiche who can knock off a convincing melody in most any style and then outfit it with wickedly witty lyrics. A jive jazz novelty number, "White Guys," pays homage to bandleader Louis Jordan as it tells of two suburban palefaces who crash an inner-city fish fry and earn the partyers' enmity by lecturing against eating fried food. (One couplet rhymes "nasty fish" with "angioplasty fish.") The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan inspired a patter song about an "Unremarkable Man" who turns out to be a creepy perv: "In China babies do accrue / So I adopted one or two," the smug patriarch declares, but later he admits, "I don't approve of watching women have sex with animals / Unless it's done in a way that doesn't exploit the animal." The chorus responds, "He's a creepy, most remarkable man." A lilting lullaby advises its infant listener that there's no God, "love" is only lust, and your pets would just as soon eat you. And a send-up of A Chorus Line features Lewman (a veteran of Chicago dinner theater) singing a Broadway-style show tune to persuade his tormentors that "I'm in a Musical, but I'm Hetero": "I eat all that manly stuff up with a spoon / Like broads and booze / When you look at me, don't think of Tommy Tune / Think Tom Cruise / (Wait, bad example)."

Nutter grew up in New Lenox, near Joliet. "It was basically farmland, very rural," he says. "My high school had the largest Future Farmers of America chapter in Illinois. I was five when I started taking piano lessons. I played organ at the Marley Baptist Community Church, a couple of miles from my home."

Home was the Haven Motel, which the Nutter family owned. "My mom made up the beds, and my dad would charge rates based on the look of the customer." The Haven began as a family-oriented accommodation. "But--like with the Bates Motel--when a new highway was built the traffic moved elsewhere. So my father was forced to start renting out at hot-sheet rates. When I was growing up my folks would tell me that the people who came in for an hour were driving cross-country and checked in to take a nap."

Today most of Nutter's income comes from writing for film and TV, but he trained as an actor. "I came to Loyola University in 1972," he says, "and studied under [Victory Gardens artistic director] Dennis Zacek." But after three years Nutter dropped out of college to join a band. "It was called Richard Markow's Living Cartoon Orchestra. Markow was called a 'living cartoon' because he had one eye that looked left and one that looked right. A really disturbing comedic presence onstage."

Nutter's first legit stage job was a Goodman production of Sam Shepard's Chicago, directed by Zacek. That led to roles at the fabled Saint Nicholas Theatre, where he worked with such rising young talents as William H. Macy and David Mamet. He starred in Mamet and Alaric Jans's kids' musical Revenge of the Space Pandas, whose cast included Robert Falls, now Goodman Theatre's artistic director, as a panda.

The 70s and 80s were a fertile time for comedy groups that appeared in theatrical spaces such as Victory Gardens as well as in nightclubs--including the late, lamented Cross-Currents, where Nutter met his wife, writer-producer Christine Zander. "My intro to improv was being in the Reification Company," he says. The group specialized in improvised musical-comedy sketches. Nutter later played keyboard for the Second City touring company at Chateau Louise in Dundee and the Organic Theater's sci-fi epic Warp! at the Apollo Theater on Lincoln Avenue. His Chicago career peaked with Friends of the Zoo, whose six sketch revues reveled in absurdist comedy, and with the 1992 musical Wild Men!, a sleeper hit (coauthored with Peter Burns, Rob Riley, and Tom Wolfe) about a group of guys on a self-discovery retreat.

When Nutter's wife joined Saturday Night Live at the end of the 80s, the couple relocated to New York. "I worked as a guest writer for SNL but never really broke in," he says. "After Chris had done five or six SNL seasons and we had a baby, we headed to California, since there aren't that many TV opportunities in New York. I wrote a spec Seinfeld, and that got me hired on a show called Woops! It was basically Gilligan's Island with a twist--it was about the last six people alive on earth after a nuclear holocaust. It has the distinction of being on TV Guide's list of the 100 worst shows ever."

Nutter bounced around writing scripts while his wife worked her way up to executive producer of 3rd Rock From the Sun. Among the sitcom's staff writers were Wild Men! costars Liss and Lewman. Then 3rd Rock went off the air, the economy went south, and reality TV started making writers irrelevant. The guys found themselves with time on their hands--and voila! The Bicycle Men.

"We got together as a quartet and began brainstorming material," says Nutter. "We were all improvisers--and that definitely informs our writing technique. I said, 'Who among us really cares passionately about something?' Right away Joe and Dave came up with bicycles, because Rubano has this overwhelming passion for cycling. He thinks he's normal. It was Joe and Dave who saw the comic potential. The bike thing led to the French thing. This was a year and a half ago, long before 'freedom fries' and the like.

"I brought the project to ImprovOlympic's producer, Charna Halpern. I knew her from about 20 years ago when she was studying improv. My wife is executive producer of Less Than Perfect, a TV series starring another ImprovOlympic alum, Andy Dick. So Charna dropped by the taping one night and said, 'Whatever you want you got it. Pick a night.' Our first performance was in April at ImprovOlympic West. We said, let's do a month and see how it goes. The response blew us away."

Audiences and critics here have been similarly enthusiastic, prompting questions about whether the show can prolong its run beyond its scheduled September 28 closing. "There's no way we can extend," Nutter says. "Rubano has a Vegas gig with the Blues Brothers," Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi's musical act. But ImprovOlympic is looking at other options, including keeping the production running with a new cast and entertaining offers from New York producers.

"This has been one of the best years of my life--following one of the worst years of my life," Nutter says. "The turning point was that I started running--I ran the LA marathon in March, a week before my 49th birthday--and I hooked up with the Bicycle Men."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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