After five-plus years and 58 shows, a Chicago musical-comedy gem bids farewell. Tomorrow night at the Hideout, Shame That Tune wraps its run of shaming Chicagoans on a monthly basis via familiar pop melodies. Begun in 2010 by piano man and former Baby Teeth front man Abraham Levitan and Outer Minds drummer and Reader contributor Brian Costello, the bizarro game show is a kind of self-inflicted musical roast presented in a wayward style that’s only slightly similar to This Is Your Life, and is also accompanied by a Wheel of Fortune-like “shame wheel.”
Pretty straightforward, right? Mostly the show taps into a singular talent possessed by Levitan (which is explained in greater detail in the 2013 People Issue interview I conducted with him). During the course of an hour he composes three songs on the fly that not only celebrate contestants’ most embarrassing moments but also correspond with the melody of whatever tune comes up on the wheel (like, say, Van Halen’s “Right Now,” for example).
I’ve seen about two dozen Shame That Tune performances (and been a contestant on one) and I have never tired of the rapport between Levitan and cohost Costello—it’s a kind of hammed-up slapstick drowned in goofy sarcasm. Costello plays the role of interviewer—he delves deeper into contestants’ stories once they’ve sufficiently shamed themselves (this is partially done for the sake of comedy and partially so that Levitan is given more time to whip up lyrics). He often delivers a kind of quick-hitting snark in a tone that resembles Charlie Rose, only with purposeful inelegance.
“I’ve always been surprised that people have been willing to discuss the more horrific moments of their lives,” he tells me. “And then some people are reluctant—but they come around.”
Costello went on to explain the simple (almost deliberately clichéd) reasons for ending Shame That Tune:
“We’re all moving to different priorities in our lives, and we didn’t want to get to a point in which someone brought it up in conversation and is like, ‘Oh, you’re still doing that?’ Just wanted to stop while we were ahead.”
For tomorrow’s 59th and final show, the Shame That Tune staff—which also includes Bare Mutants’ Jeanine O’Toole as the bumbling intern and local stand-up man Nick Rouley as the calm and collected life coach—will be the contestants. Costello will compose and play the song for Levitan. The life coach will interview Costello. The intern, who never speaks, will tell her story via sign language translated by the life coach. It’ll undoubtedly be a pleasant mess. “Very last episode-y,” as Costello puts it.
The game-show portion begins at 7 PM, but it will be preceded at 6:30 PM by a recording of every fictional, hilarious local commercial the Shame That Tune team composed throughout the years, which ran in between contestants’ appearances. Following the show—and until the Hideout hits last call—DJ James Deia will spin records while Costello and Levitan pour tears into their beers and remember the good times. The show is going to sell out if it hasn’t already, so you are encouraged to get your tickets in advance.
As one of the show’s hosts, it’s probably pretty intimidating to come up with your own story of shame. Costello agrees with me. He told me a few days ago that while Levitan, O’Toole, and Rouley had their stories ready to roll, he was still stumped.
“I don’t know what the hell I’m going to tell. People ask me all the time, ‘Well, what are your stories?’ I don’t know. I’ve repressed it all with Irish-Catholic guilt. My whole life is shame.”
Check out the archives of Shame That Tune for video recordings of past shows.