Cleetus Friedman spent most of his childhood with his eyes glued to the TV set. “I was absolutely obsessed with Sanford and Son when I was growing up,” he says. “I used to walk around the house, puffing out my chest and honing my Fred Sanford impression. It probably irritated everyone around me, but I got really good at it. I idolized Richard Pryor and Robin Williams too. From that point on, I knew I wanted to be a comedian.”

His family was another source of inspiration. His parents divorced when he was six, so he and his older sister divided their time between radically different households in an upper-middle-class, predominantly Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Their father was a practical joker who spent his time with his kids trying to make them laugh. Their mother was at the opposite end of the spectrum: practical, grounded, and extremely overprotective.

At his father’s house, Friedman was free to poke through his stacks of old soul and R & B records, but his massive collection of antique toys and comic books was off-limits. “I hated those toys when I was younger, because he wouldn’t let us near them,” notes Friedman. “If you wanted to see one, he’d reluctantly take it out of its mint box and wind it up for you.”

During his senior year at the University of Maryland, Friedman learned that his father had been diagnosed with scleroderma, a disease that causes skin and other organ tissue to harden. He was given less than a year to live. To lift his father’s spirits, Friedman made plans to accompany him on his annual pilgrimage to Atlantic City, home of the country’s largest collectible-toy convention. “We got him this electric wheelchair for the trip,” says Friedman. “I’d ride on the back of this thing and we’d fly down the boardwalk, where he took great pleasure in bumping into people and making a big spectacle of himself. One time, he took a wrong turn and slammed into a door. Everyone around us looked aghast–they must have wondered why I was torturing this poor, crippled man. We both cracked up on the spot.”

About a month before Friedman’s college graduation in 1995, his father passed away. Friedman’s grandfather died a month later. Shaken, Friedman reconsidered his postgraduate plans of teaching English in Japan and decided to move to Chicago to pursue his comedy aspirations. “It wasn’t hard arriving at that decision–the anxiety surrounded the idea of breaking it to my mother,” he recalls. “When I finally worked up the courage to tell her, she didn’t say a word. It was like that for a month until we went out to lunch with one of her friends, and she said, ‘My son is going to Chicago to get into comedy.’ That moment was huge!”

Before he’d even found an apartment, Friedman began taking classes at ImprovOlympic and was soon placed on a house team. Later he hooked up with Baby Fishmouth, a tight-knit group of ImprovOlympic alums that was a fixture at small venues like Sheffield’s and Cafe Voltaire. But after two and a half years with the troupe, Friedman was beginning to get frustrated with the limitations of performing with a group and bored with the routine. He was ready to give up on comedy completely when he went to see Eric Bogosian at the Park West in the fall of 1997.

“Watching him made me realize that you can do absolutely anything onstage as long as you remain committed to it,” says Friedman. “It kind of opened my brain to all of these characters I had floating around in my head, fragments and impressions that I had been carrying with me for years. And it clued me in to what I had been feeling for a while–that I needed to work on my own material and do my own thing.”

With a little help from Baby Fishmouth pal Michael Greco and a lot of prodding from his girlfriend and eventual wife, Jennifer Wark, Friedman opened his first one-man show, Don’t Burn My House, at the now-defunct SweetCorn Playhouse in January 1999. A clever combination of character monologues and sketches, many of them developed from observations in a journal he’d been keeping since college, the show also gave Friedman an opportunity to explore his love of hip-hop music and culture–something that took the form of a handful of off-the-cuff and surprisingly nimble raps, such as a parody of an airline-safety speech. “After that show, I had a lot of people tell me that I was pretty good for a white guy, which is pretty ridiculous,” says Friedman. “Sure, hip-hop is a predominantly black musical form, but I was just trying to do what any other rapper would do: use hip-hop as a way to communicate my own experiences.”

Friedman spent a year tweaking the material for his second effort, In Full Effect, for which he dug even further into his past–such as a warts-and-all meditation on his wasted teenage years through the guise of a Def Leppard-obsessed pothead. While the result was less cohesive than his first show, the monologues showed signs of improvement.

Friedman admits he’s still working out kinks in his material. When he was putting together Cracker: An Experiment in Hip-Hop Theater, a collection of the best pieces from his first two shows, he edited and revised most of them. And he’s joined forces with DJ Savage, whose turntable skills have helped Friedman add a musical backbone to his raps and improve the pacing of the show.

“What I’m hoping is that my material will continue to provoke questions and reactions in people,” says Friedman. “I can’t think of anything better than that. Well, one thing: if I could just make a comfortable living doing theater, I’d be an incredibly happy man.”

Cracker opens Friday, September 29, at 10:30 PM and runs Fridays and Saturdays through November 4 at Angel Island, 731 W. Sheridan. Tickets are $10. Call 312-446-8969.

–Nick Green

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