In the summer of 1996, things were going great for the sketch comedy troupe Ectomorph. Its members--Bart Heird, Darren Bodeker, and Jim Kopsian--were regulars at the Improv nightclub, performing to enthusiastic crowds of up to 500 a night. Their rise to fame and fortune seemed assured.
Heird decided to cash in on Ectomorph's popularity, printing hundreds of T-shirts bearing the group's logo. He thought he could sell the shirts quickly to the tourists who frequented the club. But one night in July, he arrived at the Improv to find the doors locked. The club had closed for good. "I just remember sitting there on the sidewalk staring at a big box of clothing," Heird says, and laughs grimly. "At least they've been a great source of Christmas presents ever since."
The group disbanded not long after, but last year Ectomorph came roaring back with a vengeance. The troupe was a featured act at the Chicago Improv Festival in April and last month at the Surf Reality Comedy Festival in New York. They've just completed an appearance at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea and an eight-week run of Ectomorph's Vaudevillenium, a collection of old and new sketches, at Donny's Skybox Studio in Piper's Alley. They'll be reprising portions of that show this Saturday night as part of the Chicago Comedy Festival.
"We're like the Three Musketeers," explains Kopsian with a grand gesture. "Each one of us is funny by ourselves, but we're funnier as a group than as individuals. We're taking another chance to show that."
An Ectomorph show immediately transports the audience into an absurd world. The group takes the stage to the strains of Verdi's La forza del destino, and each member moves his arms mechanically and makes faces in time to the music. Gradually their gestures turn into menacing gang-style signals. Over the next 75 minutes, they portray a wide variety of situations and characters: from CTA passengers trapped amid the madness of unintelligible squawking announcements to a perverse children's show centering on horrific tales inappropriate for any age.
"We try not to play dirty because we want to elevate what we do," Kopsian says. "You can shock, but shock doesn't last. The reason Monty Python is funny 30 years later is because what they did was very intelligent."
"We also won't do parody," says Heird, "because it's real easy to do and we don't want to be like other groups."
Their disparate styles show disparate influences--they point to Monty Python as well as the Marx Brothers, with horror writer H.P. Lovecraft tossed in for good measure. "Lovecraft never described a monster--he just left you a few hints and let your mind fill in the blanks," says Kopsian. "We do the same with comedy, painting a sketch with broad strokes and letting people interpret the way they would a painting. We let the audience work it out in their heads."
Kopsian originally brought the trio together in 1993. He was already a veteran road comic, but the sudden death of his car had forced him to reevaluate his career. The owners of the Improv offered him a permanent spot if he could form a good sketch group. He soon met Bodeker and Heird at the Comedy Underground, another now-defunct club. Heird had started an act with Bodeker after a stint in the navy. The two had recently moved to Chicago from Florida, where they'd performed in "a guerrilla theater improv troupe," according to Bodeker. "We'd go to bars with rowdy drunk people and say the 'F' word." He says they migrated here because "it's not as busy as New York, not as nasty as LA, and Florida sucks."
Once the three agreed to join forces, the name Ectomorph came with surprising ease (it was also better than the runner-up: Moist Snout Parade). "The reason I picked Ectomorph is that of the three body types--ecto, endo, and meso--ecto is the tall, thin body type," says Kopsian. "At the time, we were all over six feet tall and relatively thin, because Bart was a lot more svelte in those days."
"Now Bart's a vegetarian who drinks a lot of Guinness," Bodeker observes.
The trio became a quick success at the Improv, a space so large Bodeker refers to it as "a barn." Their early performances were laid-back, amiable affairs, but they had to adapt for audiences of 500.
"We kept playing bigger and bigger until we're now at the point where we're like cartoons," says Kopsian. "And this was a stand-up crowd with expectations of bam-bam jokes, so we had to go faster, better, and hotter than the style of Second City or anyone else."
This new approach worked, earning them raves in the press and attracting a rabid fan base. Then came that summer night in 1996, when the Improv closed its doors. It was just two months after another frustrating event: Kopsian, Heird, and Bodeker had ponied up $1,500 to hire a professional camera crew and rent the Subterranean Cabaret for a taping of what was supposed to be their shot at a Comedy Central series.
Though the evening had sold out, it ended sadly. Someone they'd hired disappeared with the master tapes, never to be seen again. Faced with two disappointments in quick succession, they called it quits and tried to find regular jobs. Bodeker waited tables between stand-up gigs, and Heird started his own Web design business. "I got a job with the archdiocese of Chicago in their archives division," Kopsian recalls. "I was in charge of maintaining the permanent records of students from all the Catholic schools that had been closed down, and I found Bart's record and sent it to him."
"It was amazing to see what the nuns really had to say about me," Heird says.
But the daily grind was never satisfying. With friends and fans goading them into reuniting, the three again became one. They now realize why show business is called business, and they're determined to make the most of it this time around.
"Our ultimate goal is to have our own place where everyone works out of, to do a college tour for a year, or to get a TV show," says Bodeker. "And if this doesn't work out for us, we'll all get cameras and do a Blair Witch kind of film."
Maybe they'll finally get a chance to sell those T-shirts.
Ectomorph performs at 8 PM Saturday at the Second City, Donny's Skybox Studio, Piper's Alley, 1608 N. Wells (fourth floor). Japanese comedian Zen opens. Admission is $12; call 312-944-2200. For more on the Chicago Comedy Festival, see the sidebar in Section Three. --Carl Kozlowski
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.