HeadCheese Fat Boss reimagines Scrooge, Beat-style
It started as a true Dickensian Christmas tale. Tyler Bohne's younger sister, who had cerebral palsy and was born unable to walk, needed emergency treatment—extremely expensive treatment.
Just before the 2000 holiday season, when the hospital held a benefit to raise funds for his sister, Bohne and his longtime friend and collaborator, Patrick Zielinski, provided the entertainment: a two-man, 15-minute, Beat-style A Christmas Carol, inspired by beatnik poet Lord Buckley's version called Scrooge. The benefit raised enough money for Bohne's sister to undergo the treatment, though it wouldn't provide the hoped-for result. (Now 30, she lives with their parents in Wisconsin.)
But the benefit had an unintended ripple effect. After Bohne and Zielinski's performance, people came up to them and asked if they had a CD. They didn't, but when the holidays rolled around again, they decided to make their sketch an hour-long show.
Yet when they sat down to write it, they were stumped. They knew something was missing.
This is the point in a play when the phone suddenly rings; somebody calls with just the right answer. And that's exactly what happened. It was their friend, blues musician Robert Rial.
"He calls up and he's like, 'I just broke up with my girlfriend, I'm kind of bummed, I need a creative project, can you guys help me out?' And it was the exact same night we were sitting there writing the script," Bohne says. "So he comes over, and the next thing you know we're riffing off the story. It's very much like a jazz band would riff off a tune in a club."
Rial's bluesy guitar improvisation proved to be the inspiration Bohne and Zielinski needed. The black suit–clad duo, playing the narrators and 25 of Dickens's characters, act out the entire story, accompanied by Rial throughout.
It sounds a bit like a particularly kinky ménage a trois: Victorian Dickens, Beat poetry and Chicago blues. But then Bohne starts scatting: "Now to begin with, Jacob Marley was dead, dead-dead, deader than a doornail. No thump in his head, no blood flowing red. Seven years now that cat had been gone, and there were no proper good-byes, no tears welled up in anyone's eyes." Beat is right; your fingers itch to snap along.
"It's hip as in beatnik, as in cool, as in Rat Pack," says Bohne, who wants to be clear: The Hipmas Carol is not "hip" as in "hip-hop."
Bohne, 34, and Zielinski, 32, met at their Wisconsin high school during a comedy-improv class. After graduation, when they rented a house together, one of Bohne's many day jobs was driving an ice-cream truck, run by this "really shady mob–wanna-be kind of character," Bohne says, "and he was the meanest bastard"—in other words, a bona fide Scrooge. After his first and last day on the job, Bohne angrily called him "the head cheese, the fat boss." When Zielinski stopped laughing, he knew the duo had found a company name: HeadCheese Fat Boss Productions.
In 1999, they left Milwaukee for Chicago to study with local legend Del Close at I.O. (then ImprovOlympic). Bohne recalls one time when the famously hard-to-please Close was so impressed with Bohne and Zielinski that "he kept on saying [in a gruff voice], 'That's what I'm talking about, that's the energy.'...But if you tried to talk to him after class, it wasn't pretty." As it turned out, that class was the last one Close taught. The curmudgeonly master of improv died six weeks into the course.
Going into the underground holiday hit's sixth year, Bohne thinks Hipmas Carol's success owes a lot to its yuletide appeal to non-Christians. He says some of the show's biggest admirers have been Jewish. "Some people are like, 'I'm not going to see A Christmas Carol, that's a Christian story,'" Bohne says. "Well, we've replaced the word Christmas with Hipmas, and some of [our] fans have never celebrated Christmas their entire life."
The Hipmas Carol is happenin', man, starting Wednesday 7.