'Chump' Off the Old Block
Long, hard slog lands Greendale native's comedy at festival
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thursday, November 6, 2003
By Duane Dudek
The debut film written and directed by comedian and Greendale native Stephen Burrows is a comedy of errors, in fact and execution.
"Chump Change (Fame, Fortune, Cheese & Beer)," a semi-autobiographical tale of a Wisconsin man who returns home after a harrowing experience in Hollywood, is an only slightly exaggerated version of Burrows' real-life, pratfall-filled lunge for the golden ring.
The names were changed to protect the guilty and dearly departed.
"You read the timeline, right?" Burrows asked, referring to materials for the film that follow his writing the script in 1998 through its release on DVD by Miramax in January.
"I had no idea it was going to take so long," he said. "Nobody told me it was a marathon."
Along the way, there were technical snafus, money shortages and casting problems. When Liza Minnelli went into rehab, for example, Abe Vigoda, whom Burrows met in line at a Starbucks, filled in.
"That poor guy - think how many acting jobs he lost because people think he's dead," Burrows said.
But why should making the film be any easier than the events were to live through?
The happy ending occurs at 7:30 tonight, when "Chump Change" takes a victory lap before family, friends and paying customers at the Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., as part of the Milwaukee International Film Festival.
The film festival, in its first year, started Thursday and runs through Nov. 16, with screenings at the Oriental, the Downer Theatre, the UWM Union Theatre and the Times Cinema.
"Chump Change" is a dry-witted farce punctuated with physical humor. Burrows plays a fledgling screenwriter at the mercy of agents, managers and studio types whose contradictory and illogical words of advice are a slightly embellished version of his actual experiences.
One studio executive, whose real-life counterpart died in an accident, is played by Tim Matheson. Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller and Fred Willard appear as variations on showbiz types Burrows encountered. And Traci Lords is the Wisconsin woman Burrows falls for upon returning home.
Lords and Matheson are tentatively scheduled to appear at tonight's screening.
Burrows has traded shoveling snow for cleaning ash from recent wildfires off his car since moving to California, but he still wears his cheesehead like a badge of honor. "Chump Change" was partly filmed in Wisconsin and has more iconic area references - the Holler House, the Chicken Dance, the 24 Outdoor Theater and bicycle-riding Shriners - than you can shake a bratwurst at.
"Everything in there, as far as I'm concerned, is a childhood memory and a term of endearment," he said of the affectionate but arguably stereotypical portrait of Wisconsin residents as snowbound, beer-drinking carnivores.
Burrows' winding journey to the middle began when he took an acting class during his last semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He graduated in 1984 with degrees in political science and communication arts, after which he joined a "Second City" spinoff group in Chicago.
Soon after, he drove to Los Angeles with his wife, Margo, performed with the Groundlings improvisational troupe and began working as an actor and writer, appearing on shows like "Seinfeld" and in nearly 100 TV commercials. Through "Chump Change," he has landed a screenwriting deal with Miramax and found steady work directing commercials.
But perhaps it wasn't that acting class that changed his life. Perhaps his fate was sealed when he saw his father on "The Gong Show," playing a musical saw. He shared first place with a singing dog.
Actual videotape of that performance is included in "Chump Change." Burrows describes watching it when it first aired as being "one of the big three events in my lifetime."
If the other two events are half as inspirational, can a sequel be far behind?
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