Much has been written and said about the embattled, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich over the past few months. And yet in this very blog, it is my pleasure to report some brand new, breaking news you might not have known about Blago:
He’s been paying my mortgage since February.
No, Blago hasn’t been funneling money into my checking account as if he was Shawn Kemp and I was a horny NBA groupie in the mid-1990’s. But he did serve as the impetus for a musical I co-wrote for The Second City, “Rod Blagojevich Superstar,” currently playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. My writing partner Ed Furman and I wrote the show shortly after word of Blagojevich’s impeachment became front-page news. It was only supposed to run for a short time at Second City e.t.c.; and at least one critic who shall remain nameless (OK, no he won’t: it was some dude I’d never heard of named Dan Zeff) assured his readers, in so many words, that the show would be short-lived and quickly forgotten.
That review was published shortly after the Steelers won the Super Bowl, in February. In the four months that have passed, Dick Cheney has become America’s leading advocate for gay marriage, Sarah Palin has tried (and, naturally, failed) to turn David Letterman into a dangerous pedophile, and “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” is entering its’ fifth month; playing to packed houses who can’t get enough of Springfield’s former least favorite son.
The show was recently extended through August 9, and to announce the extension, a far-fetched idea was dreamed up to have Rod Blagojevich “guest star” during a performance of the show. The idea was, at best, a laughable pipe dream. Even someone as self-involved as Rod Blagojevich wouldn’t dream of being part of a show in which he’s so ruthlessly satirized, right?
Leave it to Blago to prove us wrong. Orchestrated by Second City vice-president Kelly Leonard, who’s also my boss and is therefore the single greatest human being of all time (please tell him I said that), Blago actually agreed to do the show. He was paid a nominal fee for his time; a portion of which was donated to the much deserving charity, Gilda’s Club. He was to participate in the opening musical number, (which features lyrics like “are you as nuts as we think you are?”) announce the extension, and be a part of the improvised second act. The cast, crew and creative team were in disbelief once his appearance was confirmed. Could this really be happening? Would he actually show up? Would one of us get punched in the face once he heard the lyrics ascribed to his wife in her tender ballad, “I Don’t Know How to F**king Love Him?”
Blago showed up around 6 for a 7 p.m. curtain and was quickly implemented into the opening number amongst a mostly speechless cast. From the get-go, he seemed excited – if a little nervous – to be with us. He appeared oblivious to the potential of the mercilessly wicked satire of his own life that was to come, which was fine by us. As part of his agreement to appear in the show, he would soon join the audience in a choice aisle seat to watch the show. Imagine your personal life, and the rise and fall of your career, satirized by Second City for an hour through one liners and show-tunes, all while you sat and watched about 20 feet away. You probably wouldn’t want to sit through that. Then again, you’re not Rod Blagojevich. You’re welcome.
I had the opportunity to speak with Blago backstage before the show, and found him to be genial, interesting and hilarious. He also attempted to convince the cast and crew of his innocence, insisting in an all too familiar way for anyone who’s followed this saga that a majority of the otherwise incriminating wire-taped phone conversations the public has yet to hear will exonerate him of any wrongdoing. He held court backstage to an enraptured cast and crew, as we listened to his stories about Jesse Jackson Jr., his wife’s experience on the NBC reality show, “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here,” (he asked us to vote for her) his acrimonious relationship through the years with Mayor Daley, among many other unprintable topics in this family-friendly blog. One thing was clear: the man loves to talk. Cameras or no cameras, he told stories for nearly a full hour as we all listened in disbelief. As the clock neared seven, the cast and Mr. Blagojevich did a brief warm up – you’d have to see Blago warming up with a hearty round of “Zip-Zap-Zop” for yourself to believe it.
The cast and Blago received their places call, and Ed and I were ushered to our seats. The audience was buzzing, completely unsure of what to expect – not unlike those of us personally involved in the proceedings. The house lights dimmed, the opening notes emanated from the piano, and from an upstage chair rose Rod Blagojevich. The audience responded just as I’d expected: with wild cheers and applause. For one brief moment, Rod Blagojvich had more in common with Barack Obama than he did George Ryan. Scandal be damned, the public – at least those assembled at Chicago Shakespeare Theater that night – were caught up in the outrageousness and uniqueness of that particular moment, and just went with it.
Shortly after Blago appeared onstage, he read a short monologue that told of the extension. He also used the opportunity onstage to tell a few jokes, including, immediately following the raucous applause, “where were you when I was getting impeached?” It was clear that the enormity and strangeness of the moment didn’t seem to phase him, nor did coming back to perform in the improvised second act, where the supremely talented and nimble cast improvised off of comments Blago made about his life.
That Blago stuck around after the show concluded was amazing in itself. I was seated in the balcony, directly above Blago, and it was obvious that he smiled infrequently during the show, and occasionally held his head in his hands; as did I every time I knew an offensive lyric or joke was coming. (And there are many.) Despite this, once the show was over, he thanked the cast, laughingly called the entire show “bulls**t”, then was briskly escorted from the theater. Blago had saved his last surprise for the end of the evening. Upon seeing the throng of assembled national media gathered in the press room, he did the last thing we expected – he kept his mouth shut and got the hell out of the theater faster than a White Sox fan leaving U.S. Cellular field at the end of a night game.
As the evening concluded, most of us involved in the show – a collection of cynical creative types – came to a strangely similar conclusion: maybe Blago isn’t deserving of all the scorn heaped upon him. After all, there are many other public figures who are even more worthy of our disrespect; whether they’re politicians who’ve ensured that we’ll forever pay through the nose to merely park on a city street, or media blowhards who believe it’s inherently patriotic to wish failure for President Obama. Folks like these make Rod Blagojevich look like “J.D. Power’s 2009 Man Of The Year”.
After my night backstage with Blago, I’m still not entirely certain what his motives are. Even Dr. Freud would likely be stumped trying to figure this one out. (But oy; all those billable hours trying to do it!) That said, he absolutely exuded a charm, likeability, and, however misguided, a doggedness that gave me legitimate reason to re-think my perhaps over-inflated outrage at the man’s actions.
And yet, that very over-inflated outrage is a big reason why “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” is such a hit. Therein lies the dilemma: can one be sympathetic towards a person who made some of the worst decisions of any elected official in a state historically full of them?
The answer is yes. As long as he keeps paying my mortgage.
T.J. Shanoff is a writer, director, and musical director for The Second City. Click here to read his full bio, and here for more information on “Rod Blagojevich Superstar” now extended through August 9 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater .