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posted: 9/22/2015 5:30 AM

Metropolis director hired Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell before they were famous

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  • Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe talks about his years working with Hollywood's top comedic talent at Second City.

      Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe talks about his years working with Hollywood's top comedic talent at Second City.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe says he's hired most comedians in the business, including Rachel Dratch and Pat Finn.

    Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe says he's hired most comedians in the business, including Rachel Dratch and Pat Finn.
    courtesy of Joe Keefe

  • Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe, of Glencoe, poses with actor and comedian David Koechner.

    Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe, of Glencoe, poses with actor and comedian David Koechner.
    courtesy of Joe Keefe

  • Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe poses with comedian and actor Scott Adsit.

    Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe poses with comedian and actor Scott Adsit.
    courtesy of Joe Keefe

  • Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe, posing in the Arlington Heights theater, talks about his years working with Hollywood's top comedic talent at Second City.

      Metropolis Performing Arts Centre Executive Director Joe Keefe, posing in the Arlington Heights theater, talks about his years working with Hollywood's top comedic talent at Second City.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 

Years ago, Joe Keefe produced a Las Vegas comedy show called "The No Budget Circus" and hired two not-yet-famous Second City comedians to co-star in it, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.

Together, they performed acts such as kitten taming, a low-wire walk and a high dive into a sponge.

"Steve (Carell) says, to this day, it's the worst show he's ever been in. And he'd also say, 'You still owe me money,'" said Keefe, 57, reminiscing in his office at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, where he's in his first year as executive director. "It was a hilariously funny show. But you had these half-drunk conventioneers heckling them all the time and they were merciless."

Keefe, who grew up in Wilmette and now lives in Glencoe, has trained, hired and, in some cases, fired just about every well-known Hollywood comedian during his 22 years as a producer at Second City Communications, the production arm of Second City. The list of talent he's helped cultivate includes Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, David Koechner and many more.

"I've hired everyone except Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill," he said. "And I fired Chris Farley six times, for showing up late. But I always ended up rehiring him because he was so good."

During a wide-ranging interview about everything from God to Rob Petrie from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" ("I want to live his life. That's my goal."), Keefe reflected on his decades working in the Chicago theater and comedy scene.

He has lots of compelling stories. Among them: hanging out with Chris Farley the night before he died and begging his driver to take him to rehab; struggling to convince everyone that Rachel Dratch was a really talented comedian; and reading Tina Fey's first Second City comedy script and thinking, "Yep, she's got it."

After the interview, as we walked through the Metropolis' offices, Keefe bragged to colleagues that he was being featured in the Suburbs to Showbiz column.

"I'm Mr. September. I was told there'd be a foldout," he said. "It's a surfing theme, right?"

Keefe's showbiz career began at age 5, with a recurring "science nerd" character on "Romper Room." He graduated to doing TV commercials and then comedy shows with his friends at Chicago folk clubs, including Mister Kelly's.

"We were funny, but we ripped off everyone's material. ... I mean, we paid homage to them," he said.

At 23, Keefe was hired by Second City, where he started working less on stage and more behind the scenes "because the audience told me it was time." He wrote comedy scripts and produced theater and TV shows, including the 1996 late night sketch comedy show "The Sports Bar."

Keefe left Second City in 2001 to do corporate television production, book writing and a wide range of other things such as teaching at Columbia College and serving as a Glencoe village trustee.

In his new job at the Metropolis, Keefe often reflects on lessons he learned from Second City's co-founder, the late Bernie Sahlins. Among them, "Focus on the character development, not the props," and "Stage presence is everything. Always cast for stage presence."

Keefe did that with the Metropolis' current production of "Spamalot," which he is really excited about.

"It's big, it's beautiful, it's funny ... and it has a crackling energy to it that our space deserves. It's the best value in Chicago theater by far," he said. "The future for (Metropolis) looks as it should, which is unbelievably shiny and bright. I'll put this season up against anybody's."

-- Jamie Sotonoff

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are working in showbiz. If you know someone, email Dann and Jamie at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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