"A good comedy team is all about learning to compromise," says Joe Dempsey, a hint of sadness in his voice. "You may fight, you may bicker, you may have your clashes of ego. But in the end you find a way to reconcile your differences, because the show must go on."
Dempsey and Jeff Rogers met several years ago at Second City, where they were performing with the touring company. "We realized almost instantly that we had the makings of a great comedy team," says Dempsey. "But before we were able to make arrangements for our first show we had an unfortunate falling out. We couldn't agree on whose name would appear first in the billing, and so, after only three hours, the pairing of Rogers and Dempsey was no more."
Over the years, they claim, they made several fruitless attempts to reunite. Once, when they were both struggling with alcoholism, they both passed out before reaching the theater. Not long after that they started arguing during rehearsals. "Joe insisted that I gain 50 pounds because "fat is funny,"' says Rogers. "I disagreed, and we settled the dispute with punches. I'm bigger than Joe anyway, so I left him with some serious damage. We were never the same after that."
In May they managed to make an appearance on Quick Wits, a cable comedy special that has yet to be seen outside of Wisconsin. They insist the studio audience thought their performance was brilliant, even though they started throwing punches when each suspected the other of sleeping with his wife.
David Razowsky, another Second City alum who appeared on Quick Wits, was so impressed he begged them to let him direct their first show. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would get the chance to work with, much less direct, a show with Dempsey and Rogers," he writes in a press release for the duo's show Oh, By the Way . . ., which will run through July at Cafe Voltaire. "Their skill and comic prowess make my knuckles tingle and clean my spine of cumbersome pathos."
Rogers and Dempsey are not discouraged by their relative obscurity. In fact, they almost seem to believe they are the toast of Chicago. "We have not just reunited for us, we have reunited for our fans," says Rogers. "They have given so much to us over the years, it's time to give something back. According to our calculations, we have received over 11 million claps. That breaks down to about 19 claps per scene. Our show is a way of saying, "We have heard your claps, and they have been tabulated."'
But will Rogers and Dempsey live up to the reputation they have managed to create without doing much of anything? Will they be able to duplicate the rare chemistry that made the great comedy teams so legendary? Only time will tell. But their biggest advantage may be in the nature of their work.
"Every other comedian in Chicago is either doing stand-up or ensemble work," says Rogers. "What we're doing is unlike anything Chicago has seen in a while. We could even succeed for no other reason than that we have no competition. All the old comedy duos are no longer working together--many of them are dead. You just can't beat those odds."
But Dempsey has a warning. "Some of the old conflicts have come back," he says. "Rogers is losing weight. I'm rediscovering the joys of alcoholism. And Razowsky has been making suggestive comments to our wives. We may not last the entire run."
Oh, By the Way . . . will be at Cafe Voltaire, 3231 N. Clark, through July 28. Performances are at 9 PM on Thursdays and Fridays; tickets are $7. Call 862-8631.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.