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Laying Down the Lines

It took him a while, but Kim Clark figured out who he was.

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By Jack Helbig

On any given Monday Kim Clark is sitting in a room at Second City, with 10 or 15 other writers, listening to scripts and carefully critiquing them. He runs the weekly "comedy jam," where anyone with a script and five dollars is welcome.

The rest of the week, Clark might be at home in the South Loop working on his own screenplay or fixing someone else's. Or he might be in LA taking a meeting or rustling up another script-doctoring job. Or he might be in Michigan at his cottage ghostwriting another book.

Clark didn't start out wanting to be a writer, much less a hot-shot Hollywood writer. In his words, he "evolved" into one. "I moved here to study at Moody Bible Institute," he says. "As a teenager growing up in Dallas I was looking for truth, and the first group of people I ran into who presented themselves as having the truth were religious groups."

Clark felt like he had a calling, but his father wasn't pleased.

"He wanted me to go in 'oll,' like he was." Clark says. "That's how he pronounced it--'oll.' He'd spent his life working for Sun Oil Company and really wanted me to join him in the business. He didn't care what I did as long as I was in 'oll.' At one point he would have settled for me to be the backhoe guy--you know, the guy who digs the trenches." But Clark was adamant. He wanted a religious education, and Moody gave him a full scholarship.

The Chicago Clark moved to in 1977 was a rougher, meaner, dirtier place than it is today, especially around Moody's dorms on LaSalle near Chicago Avenue. "The north side was not a pretty place then," he says. "There were whorehouses, there were still porn houses in the neighborhood. The area was not the gentrified Gold Coast it has become. That was the biggest plus to going to Moody."

When he wasn't in class, Clark roamed the neighborhood, striking up conversations with the hookers, the hustlers, and the homeless, trying to get them to convert, but also just to hear their stories. Later Clark wrote down his adventures "kind of like John Boy Walton. I was completely naive, dumb as a brick. I'd be walking in the afternoon and the hookers would lean out of the window and shout, 'Honey, I got something for your ass, darling. For five dollars I can make you a happy man.'

"I especially loved Bughouse Square, Washington Square, in front of the Newberry Library. I thought this was the most fertile territory. I would walk over there and wait to be propositioned by a man or a woman and start up a conversation."

Clark particularly remembers meeting a man who made a living turning tricks in the park. "He had a kid and a family and he realized the best way to make money was to sell himself. So every day he would hustle all day and then go home with a hundred dollars. He hated himself."

Clark tried to convert him. "And he kept telling me, 'No, no, you are out of your mind,' and he would walk away from me." Clark followed him. "And he kept saying, 'I don't believe you, I don't believe you.'"

The man got to a bus stop just as a bus was pulling up. He started to board it, Clark says, and then he turned completely around and said, "Pray for me." "And then he stepped on the bus and the bus pulled away. It was chilling. And my first inkling of how paradoxical human nature is."

Clark loved the city, but he was having trouble at Moody. In his search for truth, he kept running into authority. "Once I was in a class, I think we were discussing Corinthians, a section where Paul is admonishing people for the way they were celebrating the sacrament of the seder. He says, You are sitting around and drinking and you are getting drunk. And this is supposed to be a religious ceremony.

"I raised my hand and said, 'Excuse me. Moody teaches that the wine spoken about here is new wine, which is wine that hasn't yet fermented.' That's why at Moody when we had wine, we drank Welch's grape juice. 'How is it they are getting drunk on grape juice?'

"'Obviously, Mr. Clark,' my teacher said, 'you have pointed out a critical issue--that we will talk about later.' And he glossed over it. And never looked at it again. It was then I thought, 'Uh-oh.'"

But Clark's dissatisfaction with Moody wasn't just intellectual: around the same time he became aware that his sex life might not be acceptable there either. "My sexuality didn't fit into anyone's neat categories. I was attracted to anything that walked. I had a couple of gay flings at Moody. I say flings, but really they lasted only an hour or so. And these would make me feel terribly guilty.

"I sought out a counselor at Moody and I articulated that I was attracted to men. I told him, 'I have these feelings and I am a little scared.' He told me not to masturbate, that he was pretty sure that was wrong, and that if I came to him again talking about being attracted to men again, he'd have to write it down and Moody would probably throw me out.

"I came away feeling very angry. I felt like I had been the victim of assault and battery rather than someone they had helped."

Nevertheless Clark did try to follow the counselor's advice. "I was also attracted to women and enjoyed dating. But I shelved my attraction to other men."

Clark knew he wasn't in the right place, but he couldn't seem to get off the track he was on. He completed the three-year program at Moody and then enrolled at Loyola University, in part because they accepted all of his credits. He'd taken a job in the mail room at the Cosmopolitan Bank across the street from Moody and kept working there while he studied at Loyola. By the time he graduated with a degree in psychology, he'd risen to vice president.

Soon after that he started dating a woman at work and they moved in together. After four years they got married, even though "I knew this was definitely the wrong step. The wedding made me realize I'd formalized not ever exploring my sexual feelings about men. I felt trapped--I felt I had no choices left."

He convinced himself his unhappiness lay in his job and took an executive position with a company that set up office networks. "We wired several floors in the Sears Tower." The dissatisfaction didn't go away, and Clark buried himself in his work, as did his wife.

In 1993 Clark was at a seder he and his wife had been invited to as part of a Jewish congregation's attempt to reach out to gentiles. He struck up a conversation with a woman there. "Several days later I got a call from this woman," he recalls. "She had some computer problem she wanted help on. She came over, and while we were working on my computer she saw some letter I was writing. 'Honey, you have a beautiful writing style,' she said. 'Thank you,' I said. 'But this is none of your business, this letter is private.'"

A week after that, the woman called Clark again, this time from New York. "She told me she was working for an ad agency and she needed writers desperately."

The offer shook Clark out of his haze. "I remember sitting in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking it over." He decided to take her up on it. He took a leave of absence from his job and left for New York. His wife stayed behind.

What Clark was faced with upon his arrival was a full-fledged disaster. The agency had purchased airtime in two weeks for a client and nothing had been filmed. Clark cooked up a quick-and-dirty solution: a commercial using people on the street talking about the product.

"Now everyone does this," he says. "I don't want to sound like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet, but I really was the one who originally started doing ads with real people in them."

The client liked the idea, and the agency gave Clark a permanent job. His responsibilities gradually increased, and soon he began writing for television. But the work he did was not exactly groundbreaking. "I did a special for MTV, and the next day on the street I ran into a colleague who said to me in a not very pleasant voice, 'I saw your show on MTV. Thanks for changing the box!' For the first two years I walked around New York and felt like a fraud. Like I really wasn't a writer."

Clark was also in the process of coming out. The defining moment happened one evening when he and a female coworker were having dinner at a posh restaurant. "There's this waiter staring at me," says Clark. "He stares me down and I stare him down. And I'm like, god damn it, what's wrong with you. I go to the bathroom and the waiter's at the phone. I confront him and I say, 'Look, I don't know why you are staring at me. I don't know whether to punch you in the nose or ask you out on a date.' And he says, 'I see the wedding ring. Isn't it kind of bold to pick up other men while you are having dinner with your wife?' 'She's not my wife,' I tell him. At this moment a woman who has been overhearing the whole thing breaks in: 'Oh my God, this is fabulous. You're here with another woman. He's picking you up. Only in New York.' And she goes off laughing." Clark and the waiter ended up dating off and on for two years.

Meanwhile Clark's writing career was flourishing. He began to get assignments to tweak movie scripts. But he's cagey about whether any of them were made into feature films. "I really can't say," he smiles. He also got jobs as a ghostwriter. "Again I can't say for whom. You have heard of them, but part of the deal is that I stay completely in the background."

"I was making tons of money," he says, but by 1995 he was beginning to feel unfulfilled again. So far, every time he'd taken a risk, he'd managed to move forward. Now he wasn't sure what would happen. "It was Christmas Eve, and I was searching my soul. I was starting to feel I could do the same thing for the rest of my life--not exactly the same thing, but projects that were basically the same--and make a lot of money. Or I could return to Chicago and take care of some personal business and do something different."

He decided to come back to Chicago. He and his wife divorced amicably, and after a few years of freelancing Clark was hired as the director of Second City's training program. Two years ago he started working on a project he had been cooking up in New York: "I wanted to put together a sketch comedy show for television that was funny and smart and interesting. Something that wouldn't be the same thing everyone else is doing, something that involved new writers with new ideas playing around with the medium the way Ernie Kovacs did back before there were all these rules." He felt he could do it only in Chicago, where the show would be protected from critical producers and greedy casting directors as it incubated.

Clark dubbed his group the Paper Monkeys, taking the name from friend and Factory Theatre founder Amy Seeley's slang for writers. Clark calls it "satire based on a smarter sense of comedy than is usual for TV--weird but smart. It's almost existential." One skit has a female photographer trying to evoke an atmosphere of sensuality during a session with an underwear model: "Imagine your ass is all alone, like Jesus at Gethsemane."

The show will be performed this Sunday at the Park West. Meanwhile they're videotaping the best sketches, which Clark hopes to assemble into a low-budget comedy show and sell to a cable channel.

"New ideas are virtually impossible to sell," he says. "It is funny--we call this a creative profession, yet we punish creativity in a hundred different ways on a daily basis."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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