Seven years ago Jim Carrane seemed on the verge of something big. The theater group he’d helped found, the Annoyance, was white-hot. His one-man show there, I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and I Sell Office Supplies, was a big hit. He began to get TV gigs. He says his subject–Gen X-ers who move back home after college–“was very trendy back then. I even got on Jenny Jones.”

Carrane’s show ran for about a year and a half. In that time he turned 28, moved out of his parents’ home, and found more rewarding employment working in a New Age bookstore and writing comedy material for corporate shows. “I even had a girlfriend for a couple months,” he says. “We’d get in fights all the time. I’d say, ‘You need to be in therapy.’ And she’d say, ‘You need to be in therapy.'”

Soon after Carrane closed the show his father, a respected, prosperous lawyer, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $3 million from two banks and several individuals. Carrane’s family was torn apart. “There was a lot of anger in the family–people weren’t talking to people,” he says. “It was an awful mess.”

Then Carrane created another one-man show. Since We Last Talked described in detail his trips to court to watch his father’s trial and portrayed his family’s sudden loss of status in Kenilworth, where Carrane had grown up. “That was a very difficult show,” he says. “It was much angrier than I’m 27. The sad thing was that I went into the show thinking it was going to be very funny. How could it be funny?” The show opened at Live Bait Theater, received mixed reviews, attracted only sparse audiences, and closed after six weeks. “Sharon Evans [Live Bait’s artistic director] wanted to extend the show,” he says, “but I said no.”

He sank into a deep funk. “That was a very hard time,” he says, “a real lull in my creativity.” He was no longer a member of the Annoyance ensemble, no longer the guy in the hot one-man show, no longer even on great terms with his family. To make matters worse, his improv buddies were beginning to succeed. Andy Richter, who costarred in Carrane’s first show, Ayn Rand Gives Me a Boner, now had a regular gig on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Carrane’s former roommate Dave Koechner was on Saturday Night Live.

Carrane auditioned for Second City’s touring company and failed to get in. He tried again, and again he didn’t make the cut. “I needed Second City. Second City was going to validate me as a performer. Who cares about these 28 reviews of I’m 27?” It became harder for him to get up in the morning. “I got out of bed just to go get some coffee cake.”

Slowly Carrane’s mood improved. He began reading Julia Cameron’s New Age book The Artist’s Way, and he performed with Stephnie Weir in a fully improvised show called Naked. The show wasn’t a hit, but critics liked it.

Carrane decided it was time to go to LA. “LA was a very scary experience for me,” he says. “They didn’t understand my sense of humor. I kept having to say, ‘I’m kidding, I’m kidding.’ It got exhausting.” One day he was at lunch with a prospective agent, and they seemed to be hitting it off. “She admitted to me that her secret vice was that she loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then she asked Carrane what his dream role would be in TV or films. “I told her that my dream was to be on Dawson’s Creek, but not as a teacher or as Dawson’s crazy uncle. I wanted to be cast as Dawson’s best friend. She just stared at me. In LA they really think if you’re acting sarcastic that you’re putting one over on them.”

After five weeks Carrane ran out of money. He had no prospects for a straight job, he says. “I have no computer skills. I can’t type.” He moved back to the family home in Kenilworth and began to walk dogs for a living. “It was easy money, dog-sitting. The second part of dog-sitting is sitting, and I like that.”

While he was dog-sitting, Carrane began to daydream about putting together another one-man show. “I took a lot of time with my first show,” he says. “I basically improvised the material over several months with Gary Ruderman [the show’s director] helping me shape material and edit it down. I put my second show together too quickly. It was written, not improvised, and we put it on its feet before it was ready. This time Sharon Evans has let me take my time putting this together.”

Dog Tales opens Friday. “The show is a compilation of stories of all the dog-sitting jobs I’ve ever taken,” Carrane says. “I also talk about LA and my experiences there, and my experiences in Chicago before and after LA.” He’s cautiously optimistic about how it will be received, because it’s been so long since his only big success. “I still run into people who recognize me from I’m 27.” He sighs. “I was the unofficial spokesman for Generation X–for like an hour and a half.”

Dog Tales runs through August 8 at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark. Shows are at 8 PM on Fridays and Sundays; tickets are $10. Call 773-871-1212.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.