Kevin Reome has been an improv instructor at The Second City Training Center in Chicago since 2005. Reome's written, directed, produced, performed in many scripted and improvised shows (The Eulogist, Rahm Zombie, Jam Sandwich, Lightfoot Loose) and teaches improv workshops around the country and in corporate settings.
In 1994 I took improv classes at Improv Olympic and was eventually put on a performance team by the owner Charna Halpern. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were also on that team, along with about 10 other dudes at the start. Generically we were named "Team A" and tasked to come up with an actual team name.
There were five of us at The Naming. Tina and Poehler were neither of the five. They were invited. Everyone was invited, but only 5 could make it. The plan was to meet over drinks and name our improv team. We met at the Old Town Ale House across from The Second City Chicago. The Ale House—the obvious choice to meet for such an occasion. This dank bar was, and is, the perfect extension of improv. It is warm booze and late nights and Tamale Guy and edgy wall art and improv students and improv professionals and a great after-show watering hole. It's where improv gets discussed but also provides a distraction from it. One time a friend saw Robert Plant there.
"Did you snap a picture of him?" I asked.
"No. That's why he went to the Ale House." Plant and my friend shared the code of the Ale House. Let people be.
Our group sat at the sticky front table looking out across North Avenue. Me. Ross Foti. Jason Weisberger. Martin Gobee. Andy Cobb. I drove and picked some people up, and I remember Cobb taunting me from the backseat of my car with his new belly button piercing, relishing how bad it smelled. He used the word "horrific" and said, "Reome, you gotta smell this," threatening to put his navel-crusty finger under my nose.
"Get away! I will wreck this car!" I yelled.
In case you don't know, getting together with other new improvisers, who are comedy superstars in their own minds, to name a team, is equal to threading a needle in low light—you might get it, but it's going to be frustrating for a long time. My advice? Hang out or rehearse with your improv friends and let whatever inside joke present itself. That's your name. Here are some of my improv classes names, all borne out of hilarious scenes: "Dinosaur Triplets! Rawr!", "70 Alcohols", "Savvy As Balls". The key is, let the name come to you. This must be true for music bands too.
Going into The Naming I armed myself with one single "clever" name ready to present to my cohorts. I really thought I had a winner and we were going to be done early. I let that one rip right at the top.
"In Through The Outhouse!"
That was the collective response to just about everything anybody put out there.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
All of our clay pigeon offerings were shot immediately after being launched.
I spotted the marquee of the Piper's Alley movie theater, which used to operate where Second City's Harold Ramis Film School is now. Two of the art house movies showing were "Farewell My Concubine" and "The Snapper". The entire names of those movies couldn't fit on the marquee so it said "Farewell" and under that "My Snapper".
"I've got it! There it is! Our team name is "Farewell My Snapper!" I said.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Barely a consideration. Sometimes silence hovered over the table, an awkward respite. Five dudes staring listlessly towards the center of the table, desperately searching their twenty-something brains for anything remotely clever.
"I saw…a title in a video machine last week," I said lethargically. "It was me and Clampitt. We were at J. J. Peppers, that convenience store on Belmont and Sheffield. There was this enormous, like, vending machine, but for movies."
Remember, this was 1994. Redbox was not nearly a thing yet. We hadn't seen anything like this self serve video system. Now, think of how big a VHS cassette is. This thing not only had a decent selection of current movies in a giant windowed case, but they also had an adult section. It was just like getting your pizza flavored Combos out of a vending machine, but instead of the untwisting coil to release your treat, this monstrosity had its own way. It sent a robot claw on a track to grab your movie and drop it to the bottom door for retrieval. Jeff Clampitt (Jeff was on the team, but not at The Naming) and I entertained ourselves with the names of the adult films. One of these titles came to me at the Old Town Ale House that night.
"…vending machine, but for movies," I paused. "Shoot, I wanna get it right. Let me think." I knew it was a Russian name and I almost said "Dmitri". "Inside Dmitri" could have been our name? I'm glad I got that right. A second later it came to me.
The table exploded with laughter.
"That's it!" someone said.
"What? Are you serious?"
Now, Jason Weisberger was the toughest critic at The Naming. His double-barreled skeet-shooting shotgun had a few extra barrels. He didn't play, and would let you know how bad your suggestion sucked. Refreshing yet daunting.
"You know it's a gay porn…" I said.
"Yeah, we know," Jason said through a laugh.
Let me be completely honest here. I still think porn movie titles with filthy spins on mainstream movies can be funny. Do I think gay titles make it funnier or more edgy? I don't. Now. Unfortunately, my nascent Chicago self then did. I'm not exactly proud of that and we know what all of my excuses would be but, let's not. I'm still evolving. Apologies to all LGBTQ friends from my ignorant, immature younger self.
Our work that night was done. We had our name. Or did we? I would have to run it by Tina the next day (couldn't immediately text her, because…1994). Martin, Amy Poehler's roommate, would tell her that night. The 5 bros at the Ale House might have thought they came up with the perfect name but what if they were just being knuckleheads? I called Tina the following day. She had a bit of Jason's critical edge to her and could easily blow this one out of the air and send us back to the Old Town drawing board. Nervously, I told her. She burst out laughing. Again, I responded with, "Seriously? You're good with that?"
"Yeah, it's hilarious," she said.
Our giddiness on the night we first used that name was embarrassing. We could barely contain ourselves, like 3 year-olds with a big secret. We were at the 2nd floor stage at the Wrigleyside bar on Clark Street. Downstairs was a total sports bar. Upstairs—a very fun improv stage with cool curves and levels. We were the opening team for the house team, probably Mr. Blonde. We fidgeted nervously in the back by the bathrooms when Charna took the stage to introduce the night's show.
"Oh my God. She's gonna say it."
"Did you tell her our name?"
"Yes. I just told her."
"I can't believe it. She has to say it now."
"…let's bring up our first team of the night…Inside Vladmir?" Charna said inquisitively through a smile.
"She said it!" we squealed like nitwits. We took to the stage and turned in a delightfully lackluster sub par performance.
In the coming weeks Jeff Clampitt hosted an Inside Vladimir get-together with chili and drinks, to really solidify the group. He lived on Sheffield near Belmont, very close to the infamous J.J. Peppers. On the way to Clampitt's place I went there to buy beer with another person from the team. I'm not sure who I was with, but I was excited to show them our namesake in the video vending machine. I pointed to the right area and…it was gone. Checked out. An empty slot where it once sat. We returned to Clampitt's and once everyone had arrived (yes, Tina and Amy were both there) Martin Gobee made an announcement to the group.
"I have a little surprise for everyone," and he pulled out a VHS cassette that said "Inside Vladimir" on the label. "We're watching it. Right now." And he put it in the VCR.
"YOU checked it out! We saw the empty slot at the store. Dammit, I should have known," I said.
The film started out with a buff guy doing lat pull downs on a chrome exercise machine. The voiceover was a man with a Russian accent. "I came to this country from Russia…" and the full title of the film came on screen. "Inside Vladimir Correa." A big star in the adult film world? Apparently. The spine of the tape didn't allow for the full title to be printed or we might have had a longer name.
Again, the movie was not any more horrifying because of the gay sex, it was just the idea of watching any kind of naked activity in a group setting that was thrilling and anxious and uncomfortable for people of that age and in that time. We yelled and pitched in unison as if we were going up and down the hills of a rollercoaster with what was on the screen. And for the record, toe-sucking, hetero or otherwise, was no one's favorite, but that was how the movie opened. We screamed.
In the coming weeks we became a legitimate house team at Improv Olympic. The evening we took our team photo standing in Lake Michigan we also performed later that same night and Inside Vladimir took a major step forward. We were trying out a new long-form, inspired by what Del Close was teaching us at the time. We didn't yet have a name for it but as the sun set on Oak Street Beach and the city lights slowly came on, the pink neon "The Drake" sign (The Drake Hotel) appeared and we named our form after it. We went to iO on Belmont and performed a "Drake". Charna exploded saying, "You did it! That was unbelievable!" and uncharacteristically hugged us all afterward and the name became more than just an infantile snickering innuendo. I think we all started to forget what it came from and were proud of the team we became. Tina and Amy just kept getting better week after week and helped Inside Vladimir be a reliably funny team at iO. Seeing those two with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show several years later, explaining the Inside Vladimir name and mentioning J.J. Peppers was such a surreal culmination to the whole thing. Our Lake Michigan team photo on page 106 of Poehler's book, that's pretty good too.
Here is the full list of Inside Vladimir players in 1994:
- Jeff Ahern
- Jeff Clampitt
- Andy Cobb
- Tina Fey
- Ross Foti
- Charles Glen
- Martin Gobee
- Jim Jarvis
- Mike Meiners
- Amy Poehler
- Kevin Reome
- Jason Weisberger
- Witt (cannot remember last name)