Sunday, September 28, 2008

Brian Noonan

UPDATED January 2012


Rick: Things have changed a bit for you since we last spoke, haven't they?

Brian: Wow, I can't believe it's been almost 3 1/2 years since you were gracious enough to interview me the first time. To say a lot has changed for me at WGN would be an understatement. The time since last November 2010 has been the most eventful, but the two years before that need to be addressed so I'm not accused of having "selective memory".

My weekend overnight shows were doing very well. I had two great producers and news guys to work with and we were really hitting our stride and growing our audience. Some of the goofiness that I put out was really good, some was awful, but we were having fun doing it and the audience seemed to be having fun too. I was doing a lot of fill-ins during the overnight shift during the week as well. It's no secret that during that time, WGN got new management that implemented a lot of changes. For reasons known only to them, I was not part of their plans. Luckily, since I held down the last segment of the schedule they were worried about, I was able to keep my head down and avoid their wrath, except for losing all fill-in spots. Just when I had gotten some indications that the end of my run at WGN was on the horizon, all those people were sent packing, and without any exaggeration, within 24 hours my fortunes changed.

Rick: So who saw the diamond in the rough?

Brian: The day after the changes, WGN's GM Tom Langmyer asked me to fill-in on some of the newly vacated 7-10pm shifts. He had a vision for a show that was "sports focused, but not exclusively an X's & O's sports show." One that would cover a wide range of topics, while still being true to WGN's sports tradition. I did that show for about six week's and then it was announced that David Kaplan would be returning to that spot to do the new show "Sports Night" with a group of rotating co-hosts. I was asked to be one of the group, which was great since I was the only "non-sports" guy in the rotation. The show would also include Andrea Darlas in a combination role of news anchor and co-host. Kap and I had never worked together before the first show, but something happened, and the chemistry was perfect. By the end of February it was decided that there would be no more "rotating hosts" and that the lineup of Kap, Andrea and I would be the faces of the franchise, to put it in sports parlance. We've been together for a year and the show seems to be doing very well. Most people really seem to enjoy the fact that we can talk sports, but also go wherever we want. Each of us brings something different to the program, and the combination seems to be working.

Rick: And I'm also hearing you a lot in other dayparts as well...

Brian: My new role on "Sports Night" combined with new management that seems to value what I do, has lead to other changes as well. I'm doing a lot more daytime fill-ins during the week, and on December 31st 2011, I did my final overnight show. Starting January 22, I will be on Sunday evenings from 6-9. I'm looking forward to the new spot and bringing some of the "Radio Irreverence" that we had in the overnights to a new audience. Leaving the overnight slot was a little bittersweet. While it will be nice to sleep at normal hours, the audience during the overnight is very loyal and diverse, and I will miss the interaction I had with many of them. Oh yeah, I also got an office that I share with our "Sports Night" producer. I'm like George Jefferson, movin' on up.

Rick: And if a man can say this to another man, I have to say, you look fantastic these days. You're a shell of your old self. What's going on there?

Brian: For a number of reasons, not the least of which is that because of "Sports Night" we're doing more remotes and I'm in the presence of professional athletes, I've lost nearly 100 pounds. I've still got a way to go, but watch out. Soon, I'll be in nothing but leather pants and mesh t-shirts. With that horrifying visual, I'll thank you again for asking me to do this and apologize for being so long winded. It might have something to do with filling a six hour overnight shift for the last few years.

The original interview follows...

Brian Noonan is a comedian, an actor, and the weekend overnight host at WGN Radio.

Rick: I know you grew up on the south side. Who were some of the local Chicago radio guys who influenced you the most?

Brian: I really think I started being influenced by some of the great Chicago radio talents before I even realized it. Not to be a company shill, but when I was a kid, there wasn’t a day that went by that WGN wasn’t on in our house. I listened to Wally Phillips, Bob Collins (photo) and Roy Leonard for years before I found out that there were other radio stations out there. They had an ability to connect with an audience which I see now is what made them so successful.

As I got older, I was a big fan of Larry Lujack, Bob Sirott, and John Landecker. Then Johnny B. came to town and I was under his spell like everyone else I knew. The guy who I’m sure has influenced me the most is Steve Dahl (photo), both as a solo act and during his legendary run with Garry Meier. I was and still am a huge fan. I learned from him that you can share personal stories, comment on the news and be a social critic as long as, above all else, you are funny and genuine. I know I’m leaving out some fantastic talents, but I’ve always loved radio, so the list of guys I admire and who influenced me would be epic.

Rick: I've heard your show on WGN a few times, and I think you really have something there. How would you describe the show to people who haven't heard it before?

Brian: Thanks for the compliment. Trying to describe my own show is a difficult task, because when you boil it down, the show is me. It’s my life, opinions and my interaction with listeners. It’s definitely humor driven and I try to not take myself or anything else too seriously. I can and do talk about important stories with the proper reverence, but within a few minutes I’m laughing about something else. Depending on the day it’s also me doing silly characters, telling tall tales and just having a good time.

My first producer described me as an “every man” and I think that’s accurate. I have a lot of the same problems, concerns and experiences as most people, but its how I deal with them, the way I tell a story and my willingness to share the details that hopefully set me apart. I think it’s my ability to connect with people and be genuine that makes listeners comfortable spending time with me. I also think the listener can tell I’m having a ball and that atmosphere of fun is contagious. I try to keep a quote from Dean Martin in mind whenever I’m doing the show, “just tryin’ to have a little fun folks, that’s all.”

Rick: I've done the overnight shift before, and I know how much it messes with your body clock. You've filled in for Steve & Johnny several times and had to do it for more than a few days in a row. With a young daughter at home, it must be a rough schedule. When do you find time to sleep?

Brian: I have had the honor and pleasure of being the main fill-in for Steve and Johnnie (photo) for the last year and a half. I cover the 2-5 am portion of their show and it’s always a great time. Their audience and crew have been welcoming and I always look forward to keeping their seats warm. Boy, that doesn’t sound right, but you know what I mean.

I had a hard time adjusting my sleep schedule when I started covering for them and even with doing the weekend overnights. Should I sleep right when I come home, take short naps, sleep later in the day, or just forget it and get so pumped up on coffee and energy drinks that sleep doesn’t matter? Getting home at 6 am is proving a little easier now that school is back in session. My daughter is in band, so that requires us to get up at six every morning anyway. I usually come home, wake her up and go about my normal routine. Then I stay up and work on the next day’s show, do my mundane errands and then hit the sack around noon. I’ll get my full amount of sleep and then be up in time to spend some time with my wife and daughter, watch some TV and then it’s back to the station. It is definitely an adjustment, especially doing the shift sporadically, but I enjoy being the voice crying out in the darkness.

Rick: Your career is like a radio sandwich. Radio, then stand up comedy, and then back to radio again. I know you do both radio and comedy these days. Do you consider yourself more of a radio guy doing stand up or a stand up guy doing radio?

Brian: Wow, why do you want to box me in? I can’t be compartmentalized. This is an interesting question because it’s a perception that can work against you in both areas. I think both stand-ups and radio people are very territorial and don’t like the idea of interlopers “trying” their craft. I can see their point. I respect and enjoy both very much. Now that I’ve stalled it’s time to answer your question. I would say I’m neither. I’m an entertainer first and foremost. I have developed and continue to develop the skills I need to do a great job in both forums. I enjoy different aspects of each job. Whether it’s the live performance and instant feedback of stand-up, or the theater of the mind creation, and local connection of radio, in the end, being able to deliver funny content and being relatable are the most important things to both jobs.

Rick: You were out in LA for awhile and managed to get a few pretty impressive credits on the resume. One of your gigs was a recurring role on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno as a sketch player. Talk about that experience a little.

Brian: TV work is great if you can get it. I recommend everyone try. You get treated great, no matter how small your part may be, you’re compensated well and let’s be honest, being on TV is cool. I did my first sketch on The Tonight Show when they were doing a week of shows from the Rosemont Theater. I played a guy who demanded a hot dog from Jay Leno (photo) and then in a video montage, the hotdog was brought to me by various Chicago celebrities and sports stars. The best thing to come out of that day was meeting Walter Payton. It was right before he got sick. He was very friendly and I was like a little kid I was so excited.

When I moved to L.A., I contacted the producer who had hired me in Chicago and was fortunate enough to do a few more things for them. One of the “highlights” was appearing topless in a sketch parodying the now defunct XFL. Another giant man and I were cheering for the “XPGA”. Nothing says quality television like shirtless, overweight men jumping up and down with painted stomachs. Unfortunately that was not my only topless TV appearance. Did I mention they pay well?

Rick: OK, let's talk about LA versus Chicago. They say that Chicago people who move to LA never seem to fit in to the LA world. Did you find that to be true, and if so, why do you think that is?

Brian: Except for my four years at Southern Illinois University, I had always lived in the Chicago area, so any move would have been an adjustment. I think it’s easy for people to bash L.A., but overall I really enjoyed my time there. That may be because I didn’t live in the belly of the beast. We were very fortunate. A week after arriving I was on a game show and won enough money to put a down payment on a house. We lived in the Santa Clarita Valley which is about thirty miles North of Hollywood. Mine was a typical suburban life except for my unusual job. I might have had a harder time adjusting if I lived in Hollywood with four other guys in a cramped apartment. Most of the people I met weren’t native Californians anyway, so everyone could relate to making adjustments.

There were definitely things I missed about living in Chicago, but I came back often enough to satisfy my culinary needs and enjoy three days of snow. I didn’t miss the humidity or the mosquitoes and loved eating Christmas Eve dinner outside. The biggest differences I found were based in the show biz world where people were always looking over your shoulder to see if someone more important was in the room, and an overall sense of superficiality. I never bought into that, so I enjoyed my time there and never thought we would move back to Chicago, but you know what they say about best laid plans.

Rick: You're also an actor, which is one of the reasons you were out in LA. I take it there isn't a ton of acting work here in Chicago. Are you still keeping your hands in it (doing commercials, etc)?

Brian: You’d be surprised how much acting work is available Chicago. There is a lot of commercial production and Hollywood is taking more notice of our beautiful city and bringing movie production here. The industry is still entrenched in L.A., but opportunities for Chicago actors are increasing. I still audition for anyone that will have me and have been fortunate enough to book some commercial work since coming back. It’s just another avenue to be creative. I’m always ready for my close up, but I don’t know if the public is ready. Did I mention the topless appearances?

Rick: Working at WGN radio has got to be a big thrill for someone who grew up in Chicago. It's the ultimate destination for radio professionals. How did you get your foot in the door there, and what do you consider some of the highlights of your time at WGN?

Brian: The fact that I get to roam the same halls and work in the same studios as some of the legends of Chicago radio is never lost on me. There is a history at WGN that has to be respected, and it is a thrill to be able to do my part. The fact that my entire family is lifelong WGN listeners, so I get a little respect during holiday dinners is another bonus.

I got my foot in the door in a non-traditional way. I had decided that it was time to get back to radio and had put together a demo made up of my appearances on various shows. Tim Dukes who was the P.D. at the Loop at the time, heard that demo and asked me to put together a show with myself as the lead. I got a studio, asked another comic to be my sidekick, found a woman to add another voice and did a mock show. Despite very positive response, The Loop hired some guy named Jonathon Brandmeier. Maybe you’ve heard of him. I think he’s got potential. I sent the demo to WGN because Todd Manley was acting P.D. Todd and I had both attended S.I.U. and were acquaintances, so I figured I had nothing to lose except the postage. To be honest, I never thought I’d hear from him. It was WGN after all. Todd heard something he liked and asked me to come in, but by the time I did, there was a new P.D. who didn’t share his vision. That guy was gone fast, and Todd and Kurt Vanderah brought me in. Those guys were big supporters of mine and I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me the shot. I was teamed with Laura Hirsch at first, but she left after eight months and I’ve been going it alone ever since.

There have been so many highlights for me since I started at WGN. The biggest one was the first time I got to do the legal I.D. and throw it to news. To me, that meant I was really on the station. Since then I’ve been thrilled to meet the other fine voices at the station, do cross talk with Spike, Orion and Max, fill in for Steve and Johnnie, and meet a lot of great listeners. I’ve also enjoyed building the show to a point where we’re starting to attract quality guests at off peak hours.

Rick: What do you think your show needs to take it to the next level?

Brian: This is a tricky one because if I really knew the answer I’d have moved to that level, but here’s what I think. To successfully move to the next level, the first thing I need is more reps. Nobody grows without constant effort and repetition. The weeks I fill in and do eight or nine shows, things are really humming. I get into a rhythm like all the good ones do. Since the hiring part is out of my control, I also need someone with the foresight and imagination to not worry about where I’ve been, but to see where I can go and give me a shot. Add in a great support staff, management support, a heaping dose of luck, then click your heels together three times, say “full time gig” and there you have it. (Oh yeah, getting to do an interview always helps too.)