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Articles about "What About Joan?"

Articles before the premiere of the show

Because she's worth it January 15, 2001

PASADENA, Calif.--There is a scene in what will be the first episode of Joan Cusack's new ABC sitcom that justifies it being shot on a soundstage on Chicago's West Side rather than in West Los Angeles.

Her character, a high-strung high schoolteacher named Joan Gallagher, shows up late for a dinner with her curiously stable boyfriend, Jake (Kyle Chandler of "Early Edition"). And, in a mere 13 seconds, she goes from workday drab to date-night glam.

At the table. Hilariously. Like no one else could.

The laughs have nothing to do with Chicago, which might as well be 2,000 miles away, and everything to do with Cusack, who simply wouldn't do a TV series that required her to begin and end each day apart from her husband, her kids and her hometown.

"Those are so important to me," said Cusack, a two-time Oscar nominee and "Saturday Night Live" alum whose still untitled series will make its debut March 27 at 8:30 p.m. on WLS-Channel 7. "They're huge. They're the ability to have a life and work--and that's hard in this business."

For years, networks have wanted Cusack to do a TV series. She would nod her head, sign the holding deals and eventually let them lapse without shooting a single scene. "It was hard to get people to go to Chicago," said Cusack, who would leave town for the occasional film role but not for the possible seven-year commitment of a TV series. "There's so much serendipity to these things."

It was, in fact, a conspiracy of coincidences that brought her to this show and this show to her in Chicago.

Hollywood power player James L. Brooks, whose TV and movie career runs from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Simpsons" to "Terms of Endearment" and "As Good As It Gets," wanted to do a comedy based on the wry essays of Evanston's Gwen Macsai that dealt with how female friends relate to one another and to the men in their lives.

Cusack was available, and Macsai's voice was not so different from her own. Like Macsai, Cusack went to Evanston Township High. Both women were pregnant when they first met last year. They hit it off.

But Cusack's steadfast refusal to move might well have had Brooks speed-dialing Janeane Garofalo's agent if it weren't for executive producer David Richardson, who had a son accepted at DePaul, and director Michael Lembeck, whose own son was at an area college. They were game to establish a base camp in what Hollywood execs consider "flyover country" between the coasts.

Suddenly Chicago seemed a destination of destiny.

"I can't get over the fact that people changed their lives and relocated to Chicago," Brooks said. "It makes everything fresh. I think when the network [brass] has to go on a plane instead of a car to come see the show, it sort of changes everything. . . . There's something raw about it.

"The pressure becomes more our pressure, just because you are this band out there in the middle of someplace where nobody has done a show before. But there's something great about that. It's not like the same experience of doing a show here in [Southern California]."

Cusack, like the local crew, seems to be making adjustments over the course of ABC's initial order of 13 episodes. She sometimes seems to project to the studio audience rather than dialing it down for the cameras and our living rooms.

But when she's at the top of her game--"I've never worked with somebody as physically gifted as Joan in comedy. . . . That's where she just rips," Brooks said--it's clear why all this has been worth the trouble.

"I pinch myself," Cusack said. "It is truly my dream come true, being able to do this show. It is something I've wanted to do for so long, and yeah, there's some pressure in it. . . . It's an ensemble show in a lot of ways because it's about relationships and how people are with each other, [but] you're in a lot of scenes."

And if she's going to lie awake worrying about how all of this will play in prime time, it might as well be in her own bed.

Waiting in queue for Cusack, January 14, 2001

It has been said that self-immolation is less painful than watching the taping of a television show, particularly a bad television show. Flubbed lines, forgotten lines, rewritten lines--it all means one thing: retakes. And multiple retakes, particularly if you're outside the inner circle that's filming or directing or acting, really, well, bite.

That said, "The Joan Cusack Show" (that's its title--for now), taped weekly right here in Sweet Home Chicago (that's its theme song--for now) and starring one of our town's favorite Academy Award nominees, does not bite at all. In fact, even in raw form, it's quite entertaining.

Why? Two words: minimal retakes. Of course, there's also the decisive directing, the skillful acting, the pithy writing and the dedicated crew. These kids are pros. But we'll get to them later.

First, let us examine closely, much more closely than is actually necessary, this beast called Live Studio Audience. You were probably exposed to it early on in your TV-watching life. This, for example: " `Happy Days' is filmed before a live studio audience." You can hear Tom Bosley's voice now.

There is much love in the grandstands at tapings of the "Cusack Show," whose audiences are peopled with parents and spouses and friends and siblings, and also scores of fans, many of them native Chicagoans, who come to cheer their hometown girl.

Most of these folks, ticket holders all, are corralled into a large tent outside the front entrance of Chicago Studio City, a cavernous, otherwise unremarkable structure located on a stark industrial plot near the Eisenhower Expy. on the Far West Side. For those lucky enough to make "the list" (i.e. family, friends, and, yes, press-- indoors, but we use the same lovely Port-a-Johns), the waiting--there's much waiting in TV Land--takes place in a long, dimly lit corridor behind the stage area.

We're all loading up on caffeine and gabbing about whatever while pricking our ears for an official word from the sassy woman with the official-looking headset, through which she receives frequent commands, status reports and possibly Steve Dahl's radio show. She's the Pied Piper, and when she says, "Move," we move, following her dutifully to our seats in an elevated area facing the set.

On the way, nearly every one of us snags a bottle of water (natural spring) and a white-butcher-paper-wrapped 6-inch hoagie stuffed with turkey, ham or cheese and all the fixin's, only one per person, please, purchased in bulk by Columbia Tri-Star, which owns the show. Not surprisingly, most of us devour our grub within minutes. For one, free food always tastes better. Also, we know there will be no other sustenance for hours, save, perhaps, for surreptitious noshing of trail mix and tic-tacs.

Though it's probably imprudent to nosh during taping, especially if the noshing involves crumpling and crinkling and crunching, as the mikes suspended above our chairs pick up every sound, or so we're told. In other words, and this is merely hypothetical, if you attend one of these events--and they are events--and you happen to think the gaffer is the most hideous dude you've ever seen and you say so to the person next to you, the sound man, who hears all, will tell the gaffer and the gaffer will be deeply hurt and sulk for days. That, or he'll burn down your tool shed. Only kidding. (You're fully insured, though, right?)

When the audience has settled, the usually zany comedian who's been hired to entertain and, often, playfully humiliate us before takes and between takes and after takes starts in with his shtick. Sometimes it is witty shtick, sometimes it is lame shtick. But no matter what kind of shtick it is, he--it's a male-dominated profession--will invariably remind the flock to "laugh hard, they like that."

And most of us do laugh hard, some a bit too hard, especially if there is an autographed script or a T-shirt in the kitty for "the one who laughs the hardest." Still, even without free merchandise, the vast majority of chuckles are genuine and loud.

And it's a good thing, too, because if this puppy weren't funny, it would be agonizing. Three hours, the average time it takes to get enough editable footage for a 22-minute sitcom, is a long spell to sit like a human veal in the tightly packed peanut gallery. But at the "Cusack Show," time generally flies, so much so that you're hardly aware of any deep-vein thrombosis that might be worming its way toward your heart.

In general, tapings unfold much like a play, each scene shot in chronological succession. Most often, it's two takes followed by the declaration: "Moving on!" Ecstasy. The ensemble has worked together for mere months, and already they're grooving in fine synchronization like Magic's Lakers, like Sinatra's Pack, like Puffy's Posse.

Cusack, around whom much of the action revolves, is the queen of comic angst, and she is capable of conveying it merely by cocking an eyebrow or biting a thumb. Quite often, though, her emotional innards spill out more animatedly, as they do in the third episode when she, wrecked on martinis, Riverdances on her friend's coffee table.

Her character, Joan Gallagher, is a high school teacher with a new boyfriend (played by "Early Edition's" Kyle Chandler) and oceans of angst. Fortunately for her, she has some swell gal pals on whom to lean. And they, in turn, lean right back. This wacky symbiosis, in tandem with Cusack's trademark manic energy, drives the plot lines and inspires many laughs.

When he's on the set, as he was for the first two tapings, some of the most pronounced laughs belong to the show's best-known executive producer, Jim Brooks, a k a James L. Brooks of "The Simpsons" and "Taxi" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" fame, whose tenor honk will occasionally rise above all other sounds in the room. It is an infectious honk (though he insists otherwise), and when you hear it, whether or not your funny bone has actually been tickled, you've no choice but to follow suit.

During the pilot show in early October--the network bought 13 episodes flat out, so "pilot" is merely a technical term in this case--Cusack's parents sat front and center. A couple of times, her obviously proud father, actor and director Dick Cusack, got her attention by pumping his fist in the air as if to proclaim, "That's my girl!" Soon thereafter, the warmup comic got the elder Cusack's attention by invading his personal space and meowing, "Do I make you horny, baby?" Much chortling ensued.

Midway through the evening, the very same comic, who'd positioned himself mere inches away from front-row spectators, balanced an 8-foot ladder on his chin while juggling plastic bowling pins. Even the cast and crew paused to watch. It was, after all, very neat.

Slated to premiere in March as a mid-season replacement on ABC, the "Cusack Show," given the right time slot and some high-profile buzz, could sprout wings, soar like Icarus. Then again, shortly after takeoff Icarus plummeted to earth and died.

The point is, as always in television (excepting shows by Aaron Spelling), success is largely unpredictable and failure often unavoidable. Though if, when the the program finally debuts, viewers in living rooms across America are even half as thrilled as the ones at the tapings, Cusack and Company will surely do Chicago proud. Not that they haven't already.

Name that show

They've flirted with "The Joan Cusack Show," "Joan," and "Joanie," but each seemed too close to "The Geena Davis Show" and "Bette." They considered "Sweet Home Chicago," if only to use the song as a theme, but it had nothing to do with the show.

"I Married Joan," "Joanie Loves Chachi" and "The ABC Afterschool Special" all have been used before.

With only 10 weeks till its premiere, the ABC comedy remains untitled, and this is something of a problem.

"I pitched `Kyle,' but they didn't go for it," said Kyle Chandler, the former "Early Edition" star who plays Jake, the boyfriend of high-school teacher Joan Gallagher (Cusack) in this series about the imperfect intimacies of friends and lovers.

"I'm always terrible at titles," Oscar- and Emmy Award-winning executive producer James L. Brooks said. "We're at ground zero on [this one], and now, when we finally come up with a title, it's going to be insipid and you'll say, `They never did solve it.' '

So why don't we give Brooks, Cusack and company a hand? They're under no obligation to take our suggestions. But you never know. We might strike gold. At the very least, some of them will wind up in the newspaper.

"Sure," Brooks said. "Why not?"

Send your title, along with your name, address, age and phone number to: NAME THAT SHOW, c/o TV critic Phil Rosenthal, 401 N. Wabash, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

Joan Cusack is starring in new midseason comedy on ABC, Jan 15, 2001
By Tim Kiska / Detroit News Television Critic

    PASADENA, Calif. -- On paper, the midseason replacement show looks as good as it gets for television.
   The untitled ABC comedy, which debuts March 27, has actress Joan Cusack -- an Academy Award nominee for her work in Working Girl and In & Out. It has producer James L. Brooks, who won Academy Awards for Terms of Endearment, scored several Oscar nominations for As Good As It Gets and was a creative force behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
   It's a "can't miss."
   But then again, this season's Bette Midler and Geena Davis comedies looked good on paper, but neither has gained the audience share or critical acclaim one would expect from two such high-profile actresses.
   The lesson, according to Cusack: "It (television) is so hard to do and to get it right," she told the country's television critics in Pasadena to preview the TV networks midseason replacement shows. "You realize (from the Midler and Davis experiences) why it doesn't always work so well."
   The new program features Cusack as one of a group of high school teachers trying to muddle through work and life.
   Cusack's character, a single woman, is nervous about her relationship with her boyfriend. He has popped the question, but she's frightened by the prospect of that kind of intimacy. The pilot, trotted out for critics Friday by ABC, has a certain energy that is lacking in many sitcoms.
   One thing separates this series from the typical sitcom: the program, scheduled for a six-week run, will be shot entirely in Chicago, where Cusack lives.
   She insisted on that. It's where she grew up. It's where she lives with her husband and two young sons (the youngest being 7 months old).
   "Those (Chicago elements) are so important to me. They're huge," Cusack said. "You know, they're the ability to have a life and work. And that's hard in this business."
   "I wish I could convey the experience of doing it in Chicago," Brooks said. "There's something raw about it. There's something about the pressure (because) you are this band out there in the middle of someplace where nobody has done a show before.
   "It's not like the same experience of doing a show here in town. It's so great that I plan to visit them sometime," he joked.

'Joan Cusack Project'
W. Taylor, metromix.com

Joan Cusack in "Runaway Bride"A new half-hour comedy series taping in her hometown in front of a live audience Fridays at 7 p.m. at Chicago Studio City.
Cusack stars as a single teacher and the show centers around her life, her girlfriends and their unique perspectives on relationships.

The series focuses on the private lives of an intimate group of high school teachers, exploring the complexity and endurance of close friendships among women, as well as the challenging relationship between Joan Gallagher (Cusack) and Jake, portrayed by Kyle Chandler ("Early Edition," "Homefront").

Also in the cast: Joan Gallagher's two best friends, Ruby, played by Tony Award-winner Donna Murphy ("The King & I," "Passion"), is a psychiatrist, and Betsy, played by Jessica Hecht ("Friends," "The Single Guy"), is a music teacher at the school.

Fellow teacher Mark, portrayed by Wally Langham ("Veronica's Closet," "The Larry Sanders Show") and new student teacher at the high school, Alice Adams, played by Kellie Williams ("Family Matters"). Created by Gwen Macsai and produced by Gracie Films and Columbia TriStar Television. The show is executive produced by James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai and David Richardson. Directed by Michael Lembeck and Lee Shallat.

For tickets, call 773-473-8224.

Production Begins On 'Joan Cusack Show'
Mon, Oct 30, 2000 06:08 PM PDT

LOS ANGELES (Zap2it.com) - Production has begun on "The Joan Cusack Show," a new comedy series starring actress Joan Cusack ("In & Out," "Working Girl" ) that will be shot entirely on location in Chicago. The series focuses on the private lives of a group of high school teachers, exploring friendships among women, in addtion to the relationship between Joan Gallagher (Cusack) and Jake, portrayed by Kyle Chandler ("Early Edition," "Homefront") as they head toward intimacy. The series will air on ABC in 2001.

Rounding out the cast of characters are Ruby (Donna Murphy), who is a psychiatrist, and Betsy (Jessica Hecht), who is a music teacher at the school. Joan also bonds with Alice Adams, played by "Family Matters'" Kellie Williams, a new student teacher at the high school. Gwen Macsai, the creator of the series, represents her own unique view about girlfriends, family and relationships. She and Cusack are working mothers residing in Chicago and attended the same high school, although several years apart.

"The Joan Cusack Show"

First Geena Davis, Gabriel Byrne, Bette Midler, Martin Sheen, Lili Taylor... and now Joan Cusack? Established movie stars are flocking en masse to the small screen and Cusack is the latest to join their ranks as the star of ABC's new romantic comedy series titled surprise, surprise, "The Joan Cusack Show."

Shot in Chicago, the ensemble series focuses on the private lives of teachers and the enduring friendships among women. The Academy Award-nominated Cusack will portray Joan Gallagher, a high school teacher who depends on the daily support of her two best friends Betsy (Jessica Hecht, "Friends") and Ruby (Donna Murphy, "Murder One"). Cusack's love interest will be played by "Early Edition's" Kyle Chandler.

Cusack's television credits include a stint as a performer and writer on "Saturday Night Live." She also starred in the feature films "In & Out," "Addams Family Values," "Sixteen Candles," "Runaway Bride" and "Arlington Road."

"The Joan Cusack Show" will air on ABC in 2001. The series is executive-produced by James L. Brooks ("As Good As It Gets," "The Simpsons") and Richard Sakai ("Jerry Maguire," "The Simpsons").

4.) [...] Kyle Chandler ("Early Edition") has been cast as Joan Cusack's boyfriend in her new ABC midseason sitcom.

The series, based on the writings of Evanston's Gwen Macsai and produced by James L. Brooks, is being produced here in Chicago.

Other cast members include Jessica Hecht ("The Single Guy"), Kellie Shanygne Williams ("Family Matters"), Wallace Langham ("Veronica's Closet") and Tony winner Donna Murphy. [...]


By Allan Johnson
Chicago Tribune January 3, 2001

Friday is "tape night" for dozens of situation comedies around the Los Angeles area. The sights on this particular sound stage are no different, except that it is on the West Side of Chicago -- not the West Side of Los Angeles.

And that's just where the star of "The Joan Cusack Show" (working title) wants it to be, even if it does make a little history in the process as the first network television sitcom to be taped entirely in Chicago.

Nearly 300 people are being "warmed up" by a comedian while sitting on bleachers overlooking several sets. A production crew of roughly 50 scurries among the sets, which include mockups of a combination kitchen-living room, a bedroom and a lounge with a corresponding hallway.

Soon, the stage is quieted for the first taped scene of the night, in which actor Kyle Chandler walks over to the "kitchen" to prepare some coffee.

"Hey, Joanie, you're out of coffee filters," he calls to North Side resident Joan Cusack.

"Use the cupcake paper," Cusack calls back, the audience tittering at the thought.

"Well," Chandler says, "I guess we're going to have very small cups of coffee this morning."

Director Michael Lembeck stops the scene soon after to give small notes to the actors. After Cusack takes a short stretch to calm herself, Lembeck shoots another take of the scene:

"You're not going to wear that shirt when you meet my sister for the first time," Cusack says to Chandler, her boyfriend in this new romantic comedy.

He responds dryly: "Apparently not."

Joan Cusack, left, Jessica Hecht and director Michael Lembeck of tentatively titled 'The Joan Cusack Show.'

Lembeck calls for a cut, is satisfied with the progress, and announces production is "moving on" to tape the next scene. The warm-up comic triumphantly echoes Lembeck's words, and the bleachers crowd applauds as if sharing in a victory.

Cusack, who was nominated for Oscars for "Working Girl" and "In & Out," was adamant about getting her new ABC sitcom (a romantic ensemble comedy in which she plays a Chicago high school teacher) shot entirely on location here. She said she wouldn't have made "The Joan Cusack Show" if it had been shot in Los Angeles because "it would have been really hard on my family."

Several dramatic series have been filmed here, at least in part, from "Chicago Story" in the early 1980s, to "The Untouchables" in the early '90s, to "Early Edition," which wrapped production earlier this year after four seasons on CBS. (Most, like "ER," shoot some exteriors here and do the principal photography elsewhere.) And nationally syndicated reality shows with Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer and Judge Greg Mathis are situated here. Not to mention Oprah.

But Illinois Film Office director Ron Ver Kuilen says this is the first time a sitcom has ever taped in its entirety anywhere besides New York and Los Angeles. "They haven't even really gone into Canada yet," he added of the country Hollywood has moved a lot of its production to because of cheaper costs -- a sharp contrast to the cost of producing in Chicago.

"It was a lifestyle choice," said Cusack. "I guess my goal now is to have a meaningful life."

Cusack's definition of a "meaningful life" is living on the North Side with attorney husband Richard Burke and their two small children.

"When I started having kids, I just wanted that structure for them and for me, and just to have my family life be a real priority," Cusack said days after the Friday taping.

For an actor, having the stability required for a family with small children often means working on a sitcom, which has fairly flexible hours, weekends off, and several months of down time during the spring and summer.

Cusack, born in New York but raised in Evanston, has a career heavy on movies, including "Addams Family Values," "Runaway Bride" and "Grosse Pointe Blank," one of several films she has made with actor brother John Cusack.

And although she was a member of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" from 1985 to '86, she never thought about doing comedies on television "until I realized that I wanted to have a family life. That was important to me."

About five years ago, Cusack began exploring the possibilities of sitcom work. "When I first started trying to do it," she said, "it was a time when they were looking for comedic female people to star in shows." This was partly because longtime ABC comedy "Roseanne" had just gone off the air, and CBS' "Murphy Brown" was on its way out.

"Because I had that comedy background, they thought, oh, this could be a good bet," said Cusack, who has been acting ever since attending the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston at the age of 7.

"My stipulation was that it be in Chicago," she said, "which narrowed down who could be involved and who would be willing to move." One of the producers Cusack had discussions with was James L. Brooks, who directed her in "Broadcast News."

"I talked about that I was thinking of doing a show, and he said to me, `Well, there is serendipity to these things, Joan.' And at the time it wasn't what I had wanted to hear."

However, serendipity has played a huge part in the making of "The Joan Cusack Show." Brooks, whose television production credits range from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "The Simpsons," is executive producing Cusack's show, which has an order for 13 episodes.

The series was created by former National Public Radio essayist Gwen Macsai, who not only was born in Chicago but also was two years ahead of Cusack when both attended Evanston Township High School. Macsai graduated with Cusack's sister Ann, also an actress.

This is Macsai's first television writing experience, and like Cusack, she is glad it is happening in Chicago, because she also has family -- a husband and three kids -- she didn't want to uproot.

"Thank God. I'm so grateful for that," Macsai said. "I mean, if it were in L.A. I don't know if I could do it."

It is almost like the show being shot here was fated to be. Co-star Chandler starred as future-altering hero Gary Hobson on "Early Edition."

Executive producer David Richardson and Lembeck, who is directing several episodes, both have children attending college in Chicago.

According to Ver Kuilen, shooting a sitcom episode can run from $800,000 to $1.2 million. Richardson wouldn't say how much is being spent to make an episode of Cusack's show, although he did admit filming outside either of the coasts in the United States "certainly makes it more expensive" because of the production facilities and manpower needed.

A recent Crain's Chicago Business story reported about $20 million has been budgeted in startup and production costs. Ver Kuilen said Illinois will make $10 million from the series taping here.

Chicago Studio City, the production facility where the show is taped, had to be fitted to be "audience receptive," Richardson said. Ver Kuilen said sets had to be made. Personnel, including several members of the show's ensemble, were flown in and housed, and some cameramen here had to be trained to shoot in the three-camera format required by a sitcom.

Brooks isn't in Chicago overseeing production, but he is still active via the Internet. He watches the episode taping through a Web camera feed, and then he relays suggestions to those on the set on how to make scenes better.

Producers haven't had a problem finding talent for in front of the camera. Richardson said mostly every actor outside the regular cast has come from Chicago's vast acting pool, which he considers "an untapped source of great talent and unfamiliar faces. So it's not the same people that you see week after week."

Everyone involved says the public reception has been positive.

"People are so supportive and warm and open and interested," Cusack said.

One of those fascinated was 26-year-old Michelle Dooley of Lincoln Park, who attended the making of the show's fourth episode. "I think it's great. So before, we thought we only have Oprah, and now we can come see this, too."

"The Joan Cusack Show" is being taped at Chicago Studio City, 5660 W. Taylor St. Call 773-473-8224 for tickets.

Cusack learns you can go home again

By JOANNE WEINTRAUB, Journal Sentinel TV critic, Last Updated: March 21, 2001

It's not that Joan Cusack hasn't tried, over the years, to become more 90210. It's just that, in some mysterious but bone-deep way, she's congenitally, irreversibly 60202.

So she's very grateful that "What About Joan," her new ABC sitcom, which premieres at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on Channel 12, is being taped not in Beverly Hills or Burbank but on the west side of Chicago, just a few postal zones away from the Evanston, Ill., neighborhood where she grew up. Sometimes, if you're good enough at what you do, you get to pick your own ZIP code.

The 38-year-old Cusack, who earned her stripes at Chicago's celebrated Story Theatre and the Ark Repertory Theater in Madison, is good enough and then some.

With 30 movies and two Oscar nominations - for 1988's "Working Girl" and 1997's "In & Out" - to her credit, Cusack is a distinctive comic presence, the kind of offbeat character actress who can upstage the leads without even trying. Film critic Molly Haskell, in a recent New York Times essay, singled her out as one of the last of a vanishing breed of "wise and wisecracking (women) in the venerable sidekick tradition."

The problem is, working in films usually means working in Southern California, 2,000 miles away from the Chicago home Cusack shares with her husband, Internet attorney Dick Burke, and their two children, 31/2-year-old Dylan and 9-month-old Miles.

Besides, she admits, Hollywood's unwritten but unbreakable rules - do lunch at this place, be seen with that person - drive her a little crazy.

"It can really get to you," Cusack says in a phone interview from Chicago, where she has just finished taping an episode of the show. "You try to do your work and ignore it, but it's hard not to look over your shoulder. There's always someone funner and hipper and richer and cooler and younger than you are."

In "What About Joan," Cusack plays Joan Gallagher, a high school teacher who's fun but isn't particularly cool, thin or rich. She's surrounded by a banker boyfriend (Kyle Chandler, "Early Edition") and an assortment of mildly quirky friends and associates (Wallace Langham, Donna Murphy, Kellie Williams, Jessica Hecht).

Like Cusack, the show's creator, Gwen Macsai, is a graduate of Evanston High School and an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But, separated by several years, they'd never met before the show brought them together - or, if you accept Macsai's version of events, they'd met very, very briefly.

"I'm positive Joan did my makeup in (a high school production of) 'Fiddler on the Roof' in 1978," Macsai says, "though she denies it. She doesn't remember me, but I remember her."

What nobody denies is that the real matchmaker was James L. Brooks, the prolific writer, director and producer whose credits include "Terms of Endearment," "As Good as It Gets," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the "The Simpsons."

A few years ago, after hearing some of Macsai's wry commentary on National Public Radio, Brooks contacted her and optioned her work for production. Macsai's radio essays, some of which are collected in her 2000 book, Lipshtick," feature the sort of personal observations on growing up female that touch a universal chord. Brooks believed they had series potential.

A natural pairing

When Cusack became available - on the condition that she wouldn't have to move her family - the pairing of comedy writer and comic actress seemed like a natural to Brooks, who had directed Cusack in the small but hilarious role of a jittery go-fer in "Broadcast News." To make things even sweeter, Macsai, who still lives in Evanston with her husband and three children, could stay put, too.

"Before I was married, I think moving to Hollywood would have seemed incredibly glamorous," says Macsai, who serves as one of the show's writer-producers. "But at this point in my life, it doesn't have much appeal."

Macsai attended UW-Madison for just two years before moving on, but Cusack graduated with a degree in English and philosophy.

"My father, that wise man, told me that I should learn as much as I could about as many things as possible in college," Cusack says. "And I didn't know at that point whether I could really make a career out of acting."

Cusack was still in grade school when her parents, hoping to cure her self-consciousness, sent her to a theater workshop for kids. There, acting was literally child's play - "I remember sitting on a pretend bus and a pretend train," she says - and Cusack quickly took to it.

Next came improvisation work with Story Theatre. At just 16, thanks to her stage training, she won a role in the low-budget teen hit "My Bodyguard."

Joan of Ark

With Madison's Ark group - based in the famously funky Club de Wash in the Hotel Washington, which has since burned down - Cusack got the chance to do more improv work.

"I got a real education in theater there, even though it wasn't a formal education," she says. "Improvisation is great for developing a voice."

Cusack's film career has continued to build from small roles in movies such as "Sixteen Candles" to meatier ones in "Grosse Pointe Blank" and "High Fidelity," the latter two starring her younger brother, John.

But apart from a single forgettable season, 1985-'86, in "Saturday Night Live," Cusack has done little television.

She and Macsai hope the new show's Chicago base will give it a slightly different look and feel from other sitcoms. If nothing else, they say, working with fellow Midwesterners has been a pleasant experience.

They also report that the West Coast types who came east to work on the series had a little trouble adjusting to this howling bear of a Chicago winter.

Macsai, thoughtful Midwestern girl that she is, even provided a set of itch-free long underwear to the show's shivering head writer.

"I just felt so sorry for him," she says, laughing.

As for Cusack, she welcomed every snowflake, storm cloud and Windy City gust.

Her brother and frequent acting partner, happily ensconced near Los Angeles, likes to remind Cusack that she's 2,000 miles from where the real action is. She reminds him that there's plenty of action in a household occupied by two children under the age of 4.

"I love visiting John," she says. "It's just that - well, you know. I wouldn't want to live there."

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