“I’m not that good,” the comic says in that unmistakable voice, deep, growling, loud–a roar actually, something that should emanate from the mouth of a cartoon lion. “I’m really, really, really not that good.”
Who’s he trying to kid?
“I was never good at Second City. In all the companies I was ever in I was never the best in my company. I was never one of the bright lights of my company. I was never a good improviser.”
When Aaron Freeman wants to make a point, he can hammer away at it until his listener, nearly exhausted, says, “You know, I think you’ve got something there.” It’s not that the listener’s lying. It’s the Patty Hearst syndrome–after listening to a captor’s rantings long enough, the captive begins to absorb them.
Take the entire city of Chicago. Beginning in 1983 the citizens heard Freeman’s term “Council Wars” so many times over the next couple of years that most thought he was a brilliant stand-up comic. He hammered Council Wars home at CrossCurrents, at Second City, during TV and radio interviews, and in newspaper guest editorials. It became a staple gag in Kup’s column and Walter Jacobson’s commentaries. Even national magazines, out-of-town newspapers, and USA Today adopted the phrase. Simple logic: Council Wars was Chicago, Aaron Freeman was Council Wars, ergo Aaron Freeman was Chicago.
Name any other local comedian or comic actor who hit it big in the 80s. Tim Kazurinsky, Jim Belushi, Nora Dunn, Joan Cusack–the list goes on and on. Now name one bit, one line, one joke that immediately identifies any of them.
Can’t do it.
But in the mid-80s if you uttered the words “Council Wars” your aunt in Elmwood Park probably knew they were Aaron Freeman’s. What a genius.
“No, seriously, I’m the patron saint of mediocre skills,” Freeman says. “I worked with Mike Myers at Second City. Now Mike Myers is a guy with talent. I worked with Tim Kazurinsky and Jim Belushi. These are guys with talent. Anybody who’s worked with me at Second City will tell you I wasn’t that good! Any comic who’s ever worked with me will tell you I’m not that good a comic!”
Yet he can’t leave town without some gossip columnist blurbing about his trip. He becomes a father and “Inc.” has it. He considers converting to a different religion and Zwecker’s on it. How does this “mediocrity” do it?
Well, he’s a salesman. But the product he’s peddling isn’t simply comedy or trenchant political satire or witty observations on the state of race relations, economics, or nuclear weapons. His product is all these things and more. His product is Aaron Freeman.
We’re speeding north on the Kennedy Expressway at dusk on this late-winter Sunday, Freeman at the wheel of his black Toyota sedan equipped with a radar detector. His familiar growl takes on the hard edges and gutturals of a German accent. It’s ludicrous to think of this American black man with a shaved head and pop eyes who grew up on the riot-scarred west side as a Fatherland-loving middle-aged Aryan, but if I close my eyes I can see Wolfgang. Somehow the accent works. Perhaps it’s the growl.
Freeman, whom I’ve known for ten years, is taking Wolfgang up to Highland Park, to a home that will be filled with more Jews than a Jackie Mason performance. He’s worried about Wolfgang. He’s already test marketed the character before a small crowd of Lincoln Parkers that included an ample number of Jews, the first of a half dozen preview performances he conducted of his one-man show Disguised as a Grownup before it opened in late March at the Royal George Theatre Center cabaret. Previews are Freeman’s way of working the kinks out of new material. He asks the crowd afterward what they liked least about the show. The Lincoln Parkers, especially the Jews, could have done quite well without Wolfgang. Freeman wasn’t happy. He wants his audience to like Wolfgang, who gets caught up in a skinhead attack on a Dusseldorf housing project for foreigners. His point: there’s a little bit of Wolfgang in all of us. Freeman has worked on Wolfgang all Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, softening him, making him more palatable, more seductive. The Highland Park crowd will be a stiff test.
“I verk aht der Pizza Hut,” Freeman says as we hit the Edens junction. “I hahv nutzing against zeez foreigners, alzough zey ahre everywhere and zey drive all ze trains.” Bob Curry sits in the backseat nodding his head vigorously and repeating, “Yeah, yeah, uh huh!” Curry is the show’s director. He smokes cigarettes, coughs, and then pumps an asthma inhaler into his mouth with alarming regularity.
Curry, the first African American performer in Second City, is something of a legend in local theater circles. He’s won two Jeff awards and is acknowledged as a fine director. He’s also off the wall. There was the time he attended a meeting in Wheaton of potential investors in a theatrical project he was involved with and at some point that night was allegedly observed sitting on the bar naked asking the staid suburbanites what they’d like to drink. Another time Curry was having difficulty motivating the cast of a show he was directing and came to rehearsals days before the show was to open and refused to speak English, giving all directions in Latin and Russian. Fearing he was deranged, the cast members pulled together and focused on the show.
“Bobby’s brilliant,” says Joe Doyle, a former member of Second City and a close friend of Freeman’s. “But he’s absolutely impossible. He’s madder than a hatter. He’s always been nuts ever since I first met him. Very lovable nuts–he loves people, very friendly. He knows comedy. He can hit Aaron between the eyeballs and make him slow down. It’s very rare that anybody can do that.”
Curry was the first director of Freeman’s long-running show Do the White Thing, but quit just before the show opened for health reasons. Occasionally he must be hospitalized after a severe asthma attack. He may give up cigarettes for a short time, but he invariably starts bumming one, then a few, until he resumes chain-smoking. Freeman paid Curry when the show became a hit even though he’d hired another director. But when Freeman later cut off the payments, Curry demanded what he considered his rightful money and hired a lawyer. Freeman swears Curry also began making late-night phone calls telling Freeman he was nothing without his help. According to Freeman, the phone calls stopped two weeks before Curry was hired to direct Disguised as a Grownup.
In the car heading to Highland Park, Curry, between coughs, congratulates Freeman on the new, improved Wolfgang. “You see, it makes the whole show better.”
“What do you mean?” Freeman demands in his own voice. “You told me the show was great!”
“I told you it wasn’t,” Curry replies.
“Yes you did,” Freeman shoots back.
“No I didn’t.”
The exchange continues at this level for a bit. Then another controversial topic, the running order of the new show, somehow pops up. Freeman argues he should begin with a monologue because the audience expects his brand of topical humor and because a monologue can organize the points the show will make. “It’s like a business meeting. You tell them what you’re going to say, you say what you’re going to say, then you tell them what you said.”
Curry shakes his head so forcefully his glasses slip off. “It’s better to show them what you want to say rather than tell them what you want to say.”
“Uh uh,” Freeman says.
“I guess I don’t know anything,” Curry mutters under his breath.
“Don’t you see it has to be this way?” Freeman pleads.
Curry responds, “But don’t you see . . . ”
And so on until we hit the Route 41 split. Yet before we turn off onto Deerfield Road, Freeman and Curry are singing Stephen Sondheim hits together.
There’s a temptation to call the 36-year-old Freeman worldly when perhaps earthy would be better. He was raised by his father’s parents on a small farm in Pembroke, just outside Kankakee. His parents–Leona, owner of a west-side beauty salon, and James, a factory worker and television repairman–shipped him off before he was a year old. “That was an old tradition,” Freeman says. “People in the south have been doing that forever. The parents have to work, and they send the kids to get raised by the grandparents.”
His grandparents’ farm produced only enough food to feed the household, which also included Aaron’s sister Veronica. But the young Freeman thought he lived in paradise. “That was a stupendous life I had on my grandparents’ farm. A walk of 25 feet would get you pears and apples, another 25 feet would get you strawberries and blueberries, another 25 feet would get you cherries and grapes. It was a garden. You’d just pull an onion out of the ground, blow off the bugs and eat that sucker! Big giant watermelons. Food–big food. Farm animals. The farm fed us.”
This future skewer of big-city mayors lived in a mighty small universe as a child. His reach never extended beyond Pembroke. “It was such a small town that I clearly remember it was fun–big fun!–to go down and watch people drive on the new blacktop. We would get dressed up for that. No shit!”
Freeman’s parents sent for him and Veronica when he was ready to attend school. The family home existed in an entirely separate universe. Rather than pulling vegetables out of the ground to eat as snacks, Freeman learned to play softball and hide-and-seek in the glass-strewn alleys near Adams and Damen. “My parents didn’t want me to grow up to be a dumb hick in the country, so I came to Chicago to be a dumb punk in the city.”
Around this time students from Mundelein Seminary started trekking into the west side like missionaries. But instead of guns and Bibles, they toted acoustic guitars and basketballs. Little Aaron and Veronica took up with a couple of students named Frank and Marty. Soon Leona Freeman noticed. “My mother discovered that Catholics were into civil rights. Catholics were the white people most actively opposed to Mayor Richard J. Daley, which was all it took to make them her favorite white people on earth. She converted. And then you didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that your kids were going to get a better education at a Catholic school.” Leona pulled her children out of the neighborhood public elementary school and enrolled them in nearby Saint Jarlath.
Like many suddenly black Catholic parishes in the 60s, Saint Jarlath soon closed its doors. Leona promptly sent her children to Notre Dame parish school, in the middle of Little Italy near the new University of Illinois campus, a much longer walk. Freeman was one of the few nonwhite, non-Italian kids attending the school. “The people there had mind-boggling racist attitudes,” he says. “There was Monica. I had a crush on her. I asked her one time if she thought I was good-looking. She said, ‘For a nigger.’ I felt good! She meant it as a compliment. I took it as a compliment. I was happy!”
Freeman became friends with one Italian kid whose father was a judge. “Every time I came to his house, his father, the judge, told his wife, ‘Yeah, you know, Martin Luther King, he gets along with all these fuckin’ white women.’ Actually, it’s unbelievable what I tolerated. Just the verbal stuff–it was routine. You know, ‘woolhead,’ all of this shit. I don’t know why I didn’t get more pissed off about it. I don’t know if I accepted it as the price of integration. Maybe I thought it was the treatment one would expect to get. It was the treatment I got, so I accepted it.”
One warm April evening the 11-year-old Freeman was sitting at home watching Bewitched on television. His mother came into the room and announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed. “The next day we were at school. That’s when all hell broke loose. They were crazy. My mother saw it. She saw white people getting pulled off buses, stores going up, and all that shit. She came and got Veronica and me, and we went home.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I mean, I knew what rioting was, but it wasn’t going to hurt me–I was a kid! People were crazy. They were insane with anger, wild with grief. They were just attacking and destroying whatever they could see. There were National Guard troops on every corner. My mother brought them coffee and cake; they were protecting her beauty salon. We just knew we didn’t have to go to school on Monday.”
Freeman got a dose of reality when classes resumed at Notre Dame. “I got beat up at school. It was like ‘Your guys are beating up our guys, so we gotta beat up your guys.'”
As the 60s became the 70s even the most saintly lost their tempers. “When [Black Panther leader Fred] Hampton got killed my mother was so pissed off she had me call up Sheriff Elrod’s office and tell them that we were all armed. We were in the living room. My mother told me what to say, that I was a black youth, and my family had guns, and if they wanted to come over and make trouble we were ready.”
Yet Freeman was still living in a world of his own. “I wanted to be a physicist. Physics and science were all I ever cared about. I didn’t even want to be an actor until high school. It’s the biggest shock to people who knew me in grade school. They can’t believe I’m a comedian. I wasn’t even close to being a comedian. I was the nerd! I was so shy that in grade school in the fourth grade–in the beginning of class the priest came in, and everybody was supposed to stand up and give their names. I hid under my desk because I couldn’t bear the notion of standing up and saying my name.”
We park in front of one of countless mock-Tudor houses lining culs-de-sac like fingers around a palm, the home of the parents of Todd Whitman, a producer of Freeman’s Sunday-evening talk show on Channel 50 as well as Disguised as a Grownup. We’re met at the door by Todd’s mother, Jan, and a yip-yapping little tan cockapoo named Chelsea.
Curry removes his jacket and surveys the living room. He decides to set the stage in front of a fireplace and giant television. Jan says the piano must be moved from an adjoining room into the living room. Freeman has vanished, gone to prepare himself for the show, so it’s up to Curry and me to move the piano. Freeman would have been much better suited–he’s strong and nearly six feet tall. Curry is several inches shorter, whippet-thin, asthmatic.
Jan implores us not to scratch the blond wood floor. Curry bends over to lift the piano but must wait for a coughing jag to pass. It sounds as if his lungs are flapping loose inside his thorax. After a minute he sucks on his inhaler, gulps some air, and says, “OK.” Somehow we manage to maneuver the instrument into place without harming Jan’s floor. Freeman reappears, followed by Todd, another strapping man. Curry has to take another long suck from his inhaler before he can begin to give Freeman stage directions.
After Freeman’s accompanist Margaret Bell arrives, Todd’s father, Shelly, a big, jovial white-haired man, snaps photos of Freeman, Bell, and Curry, making certain a Whitman family portrait and the Emmy statuette Todd won for producing Kup’s show, both on shelves behind the piano, are in the frame.
Guests begin to arrive as 7:30 approaches. Jan greets Jerry and Fran and Al and Judy at the door, directing them into the living room, where Shelly takes their coats and offers them drinks. Freeman has again retreated to the laundry room to prepare for his entrance. Soon the living room is full of chatty, slightly more than middle-aged white people, all of whom appear fairly well-to-do.
“She’s tough,” says former Second City member Joe Doyle of Freeman’s mother. “She’s the reason for Aaron’s success.” Freeman’s mother not only ran her own business but managed an H&R Block office and helped organize the Mile Square Health Center in her neighborhood. “She’s a hard worker and a black middle-class hustler. Not hustler in a criminal sense, but hustler in the sense that if she sees an opportunity she’ll push her kids right into it.”
“It was understood from the time my children came in the world that nobody’s going to take care of them as adults,” Leona Freeman says. “They were going to have to prepare to take care of themselves. They’ve always known that.”
She sent Aaron to Saint Michael’s High School–like Saint Jarlath and Notre Dame, now closed–where he met a kindred spirit named Michael and began to learn the beauty and force of the prank, the gag, the howler.
“We were these asshole, arrogant smart kids,” Freeman says. “While everybody else was studying, we would sit in the back of the class and play chess. Our game was to see who could get the best grades without actually learning anything. Then we’d get As on all of our tests.
“I had this brilliant idea in my junior year to show my utter contempt for the kids who actually had to study to get anywhere. I announced to my teachers that I was going to flunk everything in the third quarter. I thought it would really be funny: A, A, F, A. I wouldn’t even pretend to pay attention.” None of his teachers laughed. Most dour about the whole affair was his algebra teacher, who failed him for the whole year. “I was so pissed!” he says.
“I was always reading the Bible because I always wanted to argue with the priests. The Catholics didn’t want you to read the Bible. They said, ‘It’ll confuse you.'”
In 1972 Freeman participated in an international youth conference that was held in Chicago. He went to a seminar conducted by the noted cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, where he announced that he was a greater soul than Mead. He told her, righteously, that he was a vegetarian. As Freeman remembers it, Mead replied, “Aw, you idiot, I eat food, not ideology.”
“Aaron is exasperating because he’s contrarian,” says Rob Kolson, Freeman’s partner onstage in Do the White Thing and a close friend. “Sometimes he likes to argue, and sometimes it’s not fun because he’s full of shit–he’s not trying to learn from the argument, all he’s trying to do is win. It gets to the point where sometimes I don’t even want to talk to him. He’ll bring up issues, and I’ll say, ‘Aaron, I agree.’ That frustrates him.”
In high school Freeman was smart enough to know that his superiority was a role–and that’s how he drifted into acting. He tried out for a high school play, got the part, and was hooked. “I hate to say this because it’s such a cliche, but in character, in a performance, you were somebody else. I was insecure about being me. I was more comfortable with being the persona. It is therapy. Someone had a great quote about comedy: ‘Comedy is a way of life that makes happy endings seem inevitable.'”
Yet there was a grain of truth in Freeman’s perception of himself as superior. He earned early admission to New York University, attending classes there during what should have been his senior year in high school.
Freeman began his professional stage career in New York, appearing at Catch a Rising Star and doing some dramatic acting. The director he did stage work for got a contract to put on four plays in London and asked Freeman to come with him. Freeman left NYU without graduating and assumed the role of British stage actor. “It was a long way from the farm,” he says.
When the London contract ended in 1976, Freeman mapped out a course for himself. “My plan was to come back to Chicago, visit my family, go to San Francisco, and become a famous stand-up comic.” But while he was in Chicago he won a job at Second City and was made a member of the suburban Chateau Louise company.
At Second City Freeman met Joe Doyle, a former cop who became disenchanted with enforcing the law during the Watergate scandal. “When I saw and read all that was going on with Watergate, I thought, ‘I’m putting teenagers from Cabrini-Green in jail for three years for stealing a gold watch, and this son of a bitch Nixon is going to completely corrupt the country.'” Doyle told his sergeant he was going to quit and become an actor, then sold all his possessions, including his car, moved to New York, and eventually landed some off-off-Broadway parts. He returned to Chicago, took a Second City workshop, and became a member of the company.
Doyle noticed Freeman immediately. “He had a Rolls Royce grille on his VW, and I thought that was cool. We just sat down like I’d known him all my life. If there’s anything to those past-life things, maybe we knew each other, because we had absolutely no problem adapting to and caring for each other. He liked to hear cop stories.” Freeman based one of the characters in Disguised as a Grownup, Vito, on Doyle–a smart, college-educated police officer who’s no better or worse than you and me.
In the early 80s Freeman, Doyle, and another Second City player, Ron Dean, made a movie called Vegetable House, a takeoff on Animal House. The three were hired by some video producers Doyle knew through his family to make an hour-long video movie, one of the first ever released. “Joe told them he could produce an hour video for $33,000,” says Freeman. “Joe said this only because we were all taking this workshop at Second City with Del Close. Del has his ‘rule of threes’ in comedy. So Joe said $33,000.”
The producers set the three up with a porn-movie crew from Los Angeles to shoot the video. “I directed by default,” Doyle says. “We shot it in four days and edited it in a week. We didn’t know how to make a movie. We filled up an hour with what we thought was comedic. Some of it was really terrible, but some of it was very funny.”
“Me and Joe and Ron had to fly to LA to edit,” Freeman says. “We get to the screening, the rough edit. Not only was this the least funny, worst, most horrible piece of pseudocomedy you’ve ever seen–badly lit, badly shot–but there wasn’t enough of it! We had to give them 60 minutes, and we only had 42. We had already spent all the money. So the three of us are riding around LA going, “What are we gonna do?’ Joe calls up the executive producer who was writing the checks. The guy says, ‘No! You don’t spend any more money! If you spend any more, you’re paying for it!’
“So we get our porno director, who was shooting his porno videos, and in between takes he shoots little bits for us. We were over in his house in Ventura. We made up all these little bits–we were shooting in between the eight-person-orgy scene and the two-girls-and-a-dildo scene. We ended up having the looongest credits in history.”
“It’s still running,” Doyle says. “I ran into somebody in LA who had just rented it at a video store.”
Five years after Freeman joined Second City Chateau Louise closed. Freeman was not asked to join the main company on Wells Street. “If they wouldn’t hire me, I was going to make my own Second City,” he says. He called on Bob Curry to help him mount a show called With Sex in the Title, which played at CrossCurrents and later at the Taste Entertainment Center.
Around this time Freeman hit on his Harold Skytalker and Lord Darth Vrdolyak characters. His Council Wars sketches made such a splash that Freeman was invited back to Second City in 1986.
A couple of years later he was laid off again. He began working on new sketches and planned to move to LA and find sitcom work. But then he put his life on hold for a few months to tend to the dying Max Robinson, the Emmy Award-winning ABC TV news anchor. Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, a friend of both men, had introduced them. Robinson was attempting to write his memoirs on a Macintosh computer, which he’d never worked on before. Freeman was a Macintosh devotee. Page suggested Robinson take lessons from Freeman.
Freeman called Robinson every day for a few days after the first lesson. Freeman described the period in a Chicago magazine article: “‘What time are you coming over tomorrow?’ Max asked after one of my phone calls. I realized then that he was a man in need of a friend, a peer to be there for him. I had heard about people who acted as ‘buddies’ to AIDS patients, caring for them, comforting them, standing by them to the end. I wondered how this new commitment would fit into my already hectic life. Did I really need to take on a terminally ill friend?
“Looking back on it, I think I decided to be Max’s ‘buddy’ because there didn’t seem to be anyone else to do it. Sure, he had many friends in town, but they weren’t the ones he was calling. Maybe he was too proud to ask old friends for help. Maybe he figured they were too busy for the kind of commitment he needed.”
Eventually Robinson became too weak to write. But his relationship with Freeman lasted until he died five days before Christmas 1988.
“He’s a wonderful friend,” Rob Kolson says of Freeman. “There are a lot of people that’ll do things for you as friends, but if something really terrible happened to you would they sacrifice part of their life for you? Outside of my family, there are two people that would, and Aaron’s one of them.”
Yet a couple of weeks after Robinson died I saw Freeman driving Robinson’s gold Mercedes sedan. I asked him what he was doing driving it, and he replied matter-of-factly, “I ought to be able to drive Max Robinson’s car. I fed him for the last three months of his life.”
Freeman went to LA, but a few months later he was back. “That’s what you do when there’s no work–you go out to LA, where there’s no work,” he says.
In late 1989 he began working with Kolson, putting up Do the White Thing. Kolson had met Freeman in 1985, when Freeman was the house comic at the now-closed Raccoon Club in River North. Kolson, a friend of the owner, was a habitue. He listened to Freeman’s routines and took note of the singing the comic did as a regular part of his show. One day he introduced himself. “I went up to him and said, ‘You know, you really should have some accompaniment.’ So I worked out some musical arrangements for what he had been singing a cappella. ”
Kolson had been playing around with some musical-comedy material, based on the world he’d known as an investment banker and teacher at the University of Chicago business school. “He really liked the stuff I was doing,” Kolson says, “which I couldn’t believe because it was so arcane–it was all financial satire.”
Freeman pushed Second City’s music director to hire Kolson to play keyboards. When an offer finally came Kolson turned it down. Freeman called him and nearly tore his ear off. Kolson took the job, and the two became friends. “Thanks to Aaron Freeman I am where I am today,” Kolson says. “He pushes you to limits that you didn’t think you had.”
Later Freeman suggested the two work together on Freeman’s new show Do the White Thing. Again Kolson declined the offer, telling Freeman he didn’t have time. Freeman told Kolson he’d only have to give up a few weekends, and Kolson reluctantly agreed.
Kolson arrived at the first rehearsal and worked on a scene with Freeman, then each went home to rewrite the scene. When they met again they found they worked well as a team. “From that point on we just wrote the show together,” says Kolson, who became a costar and later the show’s producer.
“It was supposed to run for six weeks,” says Freeman. “It ran for three years.” He’d invested $1,500 in the show, and by his accounting it grossed $2.5 million.
After the last guests have arrived, Jan, nervously fingering a slip of notebook paper, makes her way to the stage Curry has set up and clears her throat loudly. Everyone else takes a seat. “All right, boys and girls,” she announces. “Quiet!”
She begins to read precisely from her handwritten notes. “I would like to welcome you to the new little theater of the northern suburbs.” She describes Freeman as “brilliant” and “fabulous.” Then she signals Margaret Bell to begin playing the show’s snappy overture. Minutes later Freeman bounds into the room to the applause of the audience.
He banters with the guests like a Vegas lounge singer. “Hey, that’s a nice shirt,” he says to a gentleman with an ample belly. “What is that?”
The man points to his belly and says, “This?”
“That’s a shirt,” the man says. He looks around proudly as his friends laugh.
“Astute observation,” Freeman counters. “Boy. No wonder your people rule!” The guests titter nervously. The question of whether Freeman means white people in general or Jews in particular is never voiced, never answered.
As Freeman continues, Chelsea patrols the floor, sniffing shoes, pants legs, and drinks people have set on the floor. Shelly tries to attract her attention by snapping his fingers, but succeeds only in attracting the attention of everybody in the room, including Freeman.
Freeman launches into a bit featuring Calvin, perhaps his favorite character of the show. Calvin, it seems, once was in the Navy and was smitten with a dashing fighter pilot named Baker. After some fits and starts, Calvin relates, he and Baker met near midnight one night on the empty foredeck of their ship. Baker took Calvin in his arms and kissed him passionately. Freeman looks at that moment at a man who’s been sitting glumly in a folding chair in the corner, never once laughing. “I knew heaven,” Calvin sighs. The man in the corner looks away.
“My mother is one of 16 kids–eight girls–and all eight girls have their own businesses,” Freeman says. “I do believe in entrepreneurship. I believe in capitalism. I believe in accepting responsibility for your own life. I’m in my office at seven o’clock, and I work until late at night.” In addition to working on Disguised as a Grownup and Do the White Thing, Freeman has written movie scripts, a book, Confessions of a Lottery Ball–The Inside Out World of Aaron Freeman, articles for Playboy magazine, and countless guest editorials for both the Tribune and the Sun-Times. He has produced a WMAQ TV documentary called Do What You Love profiling three teens who turned their leisure pursuits into businesses. He has appeared in numerous television commercials and a done a few bit parts in movies. He’s been an essayist on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, and he rents himself out as a speaker. And then there’s the weekly talk show on Channel 50. It’s all hard work, but it’s also all money.
“I’m an entrepreneur. That I can do. I can envision a project and make it happen from nothing.” His blue-collar work ethic and his belief that the market will reward those who stay true and steady and are self-sufficient are clues to his public support of Ronald Reagan. I asked Freeman nearly ten years ago if his Reagan cheerleading was honest conviction or a shameless prank. His answer then and now is the same: “I supported him.” Only now he adds, “At least I have the decency to feel guilty about it.”
He explains: “I supported Ronald Reagan for the same reason I like Louis Farrakhan. He helped contribute to the notion that the government will not save you. People all over the country said, ‘Oh, you mean it’s up to moi?’ I’m a big believer in self-reliance. The best thing the federal government can do for black America is to abolish public aid.”
One man achieved the heights Freeman is grasping for. “Will Rogers,” he says. “He is absolutely, unequivocally, positively, bar none, far and away better than anybody. He wrote for the New York Times, he was the biggest movie star of his day, the highest-paid vaudeville act, he traveled all over the world, people would read his shit into the Congressional Record. Presidents to this day open their speeches quoting him. Who’s ever done anything even remotely close to that? I want to be that good.”
Freeman is a conscientious self-promoter, even calling newspaper editors to ask them to run stories on him. He thinks there’s plenty of room for celebrities in Chicago. “There’s Oprah, there’s Siskel and Ebert. Then there’s, like, Steve Deshler of Channel Seven.” He laughs. “It’s a small pool.”
His ability to find his way into the newspapers at least once every month does make him a local celebrity, but it also makes him an object of scorn. For all those who see him as a brilliant comic, there are just as many who see his omnipresence as tiresome mugging. “That’s certainly what [WLUP radio personalities] Steve Dahl and Garry Meier say about me,” Freeman says. “I’m certainly grateful that people write about me. I don’t think I’m so great. I do the best I can. I guess I can understand why that would bug people, because Lord knows there’s a lot of people better than me. Anybody that says my skills don’t deserve the luck I’ve had, I agree with them! I’ve been lucky. I don’t claim to be anything special. I never have. It’s a living,” he concludes. “You’ve gotta make a living.”
Perhaps he is part noble lunch-bucket worker. He doesn’t wear flashy clothes, and his home is a modest A-frame in Bucktown, where he now lives with Rhonda Steakley, the mother of his eight-month-old twin daughters (a couple of years ago he was living with two women in a menage a trois). “I don’t get out much,” he says. “I have a fairly boring life. When Rhonda and I go out, we go to lectures at IIT. We’re science groupies. Our idea of a great time is to go tour Fermilab again or go have dinner with [Loyola University professor] David Slavsky and ask him dumb questions about cosmology. Or we watch our old tapes of Nova. Rhonda’s the only person I know that would do that with me.”
The nerd never really went away. “I love being able to talk about the General Dynamics F-16 Falcon with digital integrated attack navigational equipment capable of flying the machine as low as treetop level, dropping its bombs, and returning to its carrier without the pilot looking out the window,” he says, grinning. “I went to the commissioning of the USS Chicago. I was on the fuckin’ ship. Here was the Tomahawk Cruise Missile. I patted that little motherfucker on the head and said ‘God speed you, old fellow.’ And I had my finger on the button! I think they’re all beautiful. I love all those toys. I’m a boy. All boys love that stuff.”
My theory is that much of Freeman’s life is a collection of comedy bits. “That’s a good way to put it,” Kolson says. “To tell you the truth, some of the things that captivate him . . . ” He pauses for a moment, then shakes his head. “He’s from a different planet than I am.”
Between characters Freeman launches into stand-up routines covering current events and his personal life. He mentions his daughters, gesturing to imply it was his virility that produced twins. “You know, the old Freeman semen.” A woman in a black leather skirt, red top, and lots of gold jewelry purses her deeply red lips into an O and looks around the room.
His performance half over, Freeman finally gets the man in the corner to crack a smile when he laments the fact that his old friend Carol Moseley-Braun began her term under the cloud of scandal. “The first black woman senator, and it’s got to be welfare fraud. I mean, why didn’t she just steal a watermelon!”
Moments later he tells a joke about Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. “It sounds like a bulimic term. You know, you Slobodan all this food down, then you Milosevic it all back up again.” The laughter here in prime bulimia territory is not universal.
A bit featuring Bill Clinton alone in a Vancouver hotel room with Boris Yeltsin follows, with the two tripping over their own tongues as they try to get their summit under way. A bombastic Jesse Jackson comes to the rescue, but his endless rhyming drives the two leaders to agree to anything he wants as long as he’ll shut up. The audience cheers.
Then Freeman does Wolfgang. He takes the German into an Amsterdam disco where hashish is openly smoked, through a Nazi memorabilia store, and onto the autobahn at 120 miles per hour. At a skinhead rally outside housing for Indians Wolfgang and a pal join in the rock throwing. Freeman’s audience is dead silent. But they aren’t disgusted by this character. They’re fascinated. When Freeman finishes the bit they applaud mightily.
Freeman finishes his show with a portrait of Vito, the cop, seeking his childhood parish priest’s advice about something magical that happened while he was serving a volunteer stint in Somalia. Freeman intends the bit to neatly tie up the whole show, linking religion, faith, a child’s awe, an adult’s understanding, and the paranormal. The audience–with the exception of the woman in the black leather skirt, who’s slumped low, her head back, her eyelids heavy, her mouth slack–is rapt. When Vito demonstrates to the old Catholic priest that he’s seen magic, the audience utters a collective “Oh!” Then Freeman sings a song about the nature of God.
This blurb ran in Bill Zwecker’s Sun-Times gossip column the morning of Freeman’s preview show at the Whitman home in Highland Park: COMIC CONVERSION: Comedian Aaron Freeman, a former Roman Catholic, is converting to Judaism. “Jews own guilt, Catholics only lease it. I’m tired of leasing,” he said.
What kind of a prank is this? “I’m serious,” Freeman swears.
This will be Freeman’s third religion, and he isn’t even 40. His parents were Baptists until Leona embraced Catholicism. But Freeman had other ideas even as a small child. “I was exposed to Judaism because as Veronica and I dressed for mass every Sunday morning we watched The Magic Door on Channel 2,” Freeman writes in an autobiographical sketch he includes in his thick press kit. “We loved Tiny Tov and his acorn house and all his little puppet pals. We’d bop into the presence of the Blessed Virgin singing ‘Dradle, dradle, dradle, I made it out of clay.'”
Only God knows if the conversion is a bit. “I’ve been considering Judaism since at least high school,” Freeman says. “When I was at Saint Michael’s High School I took off for Rosh Hashanah.” He raises his hand as if swearing to tell the truth. “You have to take a course at the Spertus College of Judaica down on Michigan Avenue. Then you have to go through a conversion ceremony where some wrinkled old mohel grabs your manhood.”
Didn’t you believe in Jesus Christ when you were a little boy? “As long as I didn’t think about it, I did,” he says. “The point about Judaism is it’s a way cool tribe. I like that tribe, and I wish to join that tribe. Look at the tribes that are around. Like Second City’s a good tribe, a collection of people with some fundamental things in common. The comedians are a very cool tribe, a very neat, smart tribe. Jews are a very cool tribe. I like the traditions of the tribe, I like what it stands for. It’s less a matter of theology.
“I hate to say anything about biblical basics because everything I know changes daily. I understand the Bible less and less the more I know about it. Throughout history it was ‘One God, one God.’ And then Christianity comes along saying, ‘No! It’s three Gods–and they’re all guys! And God doesn’t like sex now!’ Paul had his own sexual problems. Lord knows I’m not knocking Christianity. I owe everything to Christianity, all that I am, because the Catholics came to my neighborhood and pulled us all out. The Mundelein students, Marty and Frank.”
Freeman has a timetable. “When the show opens up I can start classes. It’s a 13-week course. Then you get yourself a mohel. I have a friend who’s a mohel, and she’s not an old Jewish guy.”
And what will Leona say when she finds out? “I haven’t discussed it with my mother, actually,” he confides conspiratorially.
Will she be angry? “Oh, I doubt it. My mother kind of accepts me.” He laughs.
The show over, Freeman swings his leg over a folding chair, rests his elbows on its back, and asks what the audience liked least about the show. No one offers criticism, so Freeman prompts them. “Was it too long?” The man in the corner who seldom cracked a smile nods vigorously. “It seemed too long to you?” Freeman asks.
“Yeah,” the man says. “I’m sitting in a hard chair!” He suggests Freeman add more music to the show. “It would add a little gaiety. There was a lot of heaviness.”
Moments later Freeman asks the audience if they’d like the show better if he’d used costumes. The man in the corner pipes up, “It would have been wonderful if Vito could have sprouted wings.” He illustrates his point by half rising out of his chair and grandly flapping his arms over his head. “Otherwise it was good. I loved it.”
“What about Wolfgang,” Freeman asks. “Did you like him?”
Only one woman voices displeasure. “I hated him,” she says. “He was evil. I would have enjoyed it all much better without that part.”
The rest leap to Freeman’s defense, several speaking at once. Oh no, they say, he had to be there, didn’t you get it? Freeman smiles at them. (Wolfgang has since disappeared from the show, but Freeman hopes to bring him back.)
Jan and Shelly invite everyone into the dining room for pastries and coffee. Guests crowd around Freeman congratulating him, asking him questions, basking in his glow. Freeman eats nothing but quickly knocks down a glass of wine. After a few minutes he begins to edge his way toward the front door. Some of the guests have begun to leave.
The woman who hated Wolfgang slips into her coat and grasps Freeman’s hand with both of hers. “I loved it,” she says.
“If you change it a little bit,” she says, winking, “I’ll bring lots of people.”
Freeman laughs, a big, explosive lion’s roar. “Bring a lot of people anyway,” he tells her.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.