Secrets Of A Creative Mind: Talking With Steve Gadlin
12/31/10, TribLocal, by Teme Ring
Talking to Steve Gadlin is like attending a master class in creativity. His is a rare mind, blending creative versatility with marketing savvy. By day, this Evanston native and married father of two is a web developer for Weigel Broadcasting (home of WCIU). Nights and weekends find him creating game shows, producing plays, hosting programs on cable access and, lately, taking Groupon by storm. In this latest venture, Groupon accepted Gadlin’s proposal to sell his cat drawings, normally $9.95 through www.iwanttodrawacatforyou.com, for the bargain basement price of $ 3.00 each. The offer quickly sold out. But it will take more than one thousand cat commissions to slow down Gadlin.
On January 8, Gadlin brings his long-running game show, “Don’t Spit The Water” to the Wilmette Theatre. TribLocal spoke with Gadlin to learn the secrets behind his success and to find out exactly how one plays, “Don’t Spit The Water.”
Q: How did your theater career start?
A: I did a lot of improv in college. When I came back to Chicago, I spent a few years taking classes and doing improv shows. In 2004, I decided to start creating shows because the type of stuff I wanted to do didn’t exist. Instead of being frustrated about it, I decided to start creating the type of thing that I wish had been here.
Q: What was the first show you created?
A: “Don’t Spit The Water,” which started in October 2004. I signed up to write a sketch show at the Playground Theater for a four week run. But with a few weeks to go, I realized we hadn’t written any sketches. So I hurriedly put together this format for a game show so we’d have something to do when the run started. We had our first real rehearsal two days before the show opened. But I could tell I got lucky and put together a really good group of comics. We were in tears during our tech rehearsal because it was so funny. So, I thought, ok, this will at least carry us for four weeks. We ended up running it for four years.
Q: How did you come up with the concept?
A: I was under a lot of pressure. And I like game shows. To me, a game show is fun, it’s entertaining, it’s something the audience wants to play. I thought through different game show ideas and that one stuck with me. I remembered the old “Make Me Laugh” format and thought this will be really good if the contestants have to fill their cheeks with water. Then for the audience, there’s no question of whether they laughed or not. It’s a really explosive moment.
Q: What are the rules?
A: We pull contestants up from the audience. They fill their cheeks with water and then we have three comics who get one or two minutes to make them laugh. If they spit the water, the contestant gets as many points as seconds that they were able to last. And if they don’t, then they get all the points. There’s a betting round, too, where the other contestants wager points whether or not they think the person will spit.
There’s a sudden death round where our final two contestants are face-to-face with their cheeks puffed, so if they do spit the water, they drench the other person.
Q: What’s the shortest time anyone has lasted?
A: We’ve had instant spits. We’ve had the contestant spit just based on the costume the comic is wearing when they come out.
We’ve had some people who are a little too drunk to play and when they spit the water, they vomited all over the stage. We’ve had that happen four or five times. So we try to vet the contestants to make sure they’re not too wasted.
Q: That’s an aspect I hadn’t thought about.
A: Oh, neither did we. When it first happened, it was a bit of a surprise.
Q: Is participation voluntary?
A: Yes. When people come into the theater, they sign up if they want to be a contestant. We know people up there are pretty vulnerable. We have rules. The comics can’t touch the contestants and if someone really doesn’t want to be up there, we’re not going to force them.
Q: I read that you almost set fire to a theater. I have to ask. How did that happen?
A: More than just a game show, we try to be a variety show. We find alternative comics in the city and give them spots during intermission to do weird, random acts and one of the acts that we had a few times was this lady who did fire-eating. We’d had her on a couple of times before. She was never nervous, always real calm and cool. We had a packed house and for whatever reason, her hands were a little shaky as she brought out her lighter fluid. And then the stage caught fire. The fire grew kind of large, but luckily, our stage manager was quick enough to pull out the fire extinguisher and blast it. We tried to continue the show, but the fumes from the extinguisher were overwhelming, so everybody left. With their lives, though. I remember being so impressed because we all stayed in character the whole time, even though we were scared to death.
Q: Was that your most memorable “Don’t Spit The Water” moment?
A: That’s the one I still have nightmares about. It was after the Great White nightclub fire where all those people were trampled. Every once in a while I think about it and think, oh, man, that could have ended so differently.
I would say our throw-ups have also been memorable. I’m trying to think of good memorable things. Most of the ones I think of are disasters. But there’ve been a lot of really cool moments because we have a type of performance that you don’t see anywhere else. So when everyone on stage is losing control because it’s so funny … Moments like that that are pretty memorable.
Q: Have you always liked game shows?
A: I have. I’ve always wanted to be on one and I’ve had several close calls, but have never made it. I was almost on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” years ago, when you had to call in and answer a quiz on the phone. I got through the two different qualifying rounds and to the point where they said, if you get a call between this hour and this hour on this day, then you’re on the show. I was in some information technology class that day, hating it, just wanting some rescue from that wretched class, but the phone never rang.
And then a few years ago, I was called back for a “Deal Or No Deal” audition. I had another of those moments where they said, ok, if you get a call in the next couple of weeks, we’ll fly you out to be on the show. And it never happened. But it’s always been a dream of mine to play some sort of game show. So that’s what a lot of this stuff is. If I can’t play them, I can at least make them. And then other people get to play them and that’s pretty cool.
Q: How did you think of “I Want To Draw A Cat For You”?
A: I wanted a simple idea for a business so I could try cool ways of marketing it and see what kind of buzz I could create. So to me, that was a nice, simple business and once I got the web site up, I was free to promote it however I wanted.
Q: Which of the one thousand Groupon orders are you on now?
A: I’ve drawn about 650. I’d sold about 150 before Groupon. About 400 of the Groupons have been redeemed. But there were a lot of orders after Groupon, too, because of the publicity.
Q: If you could have a dream request to draw a cat for anybody, for whom would it be?
A: What would be cool would be to draw one for Conan O’Brien or for Ellen or for somebody who just by tweeting it would send the link out to hundreds of thousands of people.
Q: If you asked yourself for a cat, what would the cat be doing? Or maybe the cat would not be drawing a cat.
A: Actually, that’s it. I would draw a cat that’s done drawing cats for a while.
Q: You have little kids, you work as a web developer and you develop all these shows. How do you balance everything?
A: One, I have a very forgiving wife. She knows that every time I’ve tried to stop doing this stuff, it pops up in one way or another. There’s this drive in me to do these ridiculous, creative projects. I think we all in my family understand that now and don’t try to fight it. I’m somewhat decent at carving out nights where I won’t work on this stuff.
And two, I work with really great people on these projects who are able to shoulder a lot. None of this is a solo venture for me. It’s a whole production staff setting everything up, doing tech, performing. So it takes a lot off of my shoulders.
Q: How do you come up with your ideas?
A: A lot of it is sitting around thinking until an idea strikes. At this point, I have a somewhat decent filter for knowing if it’s worth putting in the time or not. I think about the kind of show that I wish someone else would have made for me. What’s nice about Chicago, too, is there really are no limits.
When I was stuck doing a lot of improv, every show was the same format, the same kind of show. Didn’t really consider the audience at all or how fun it would be to perform. What I’m learning is, if you can think of something that sounds fun to do and you can find enough people to have fun doing it, it usually makes for an entertaining show.
Q: Did it take time to develop your filter or do you have a natural sense of what will work and what won’t?
A: The reason it took five years of performing improv before I did my own show was that I was cautious about trying something new. I’d have ideas that I was pretty sure could work, but tradition would tell you that they wouldn’t. My filter is now more developed for having done this for a while. It’s also now easier for me to turn the filter off. Part of a filter is having a lack of a filter. Now I’m more confident about taking these ideas and doing something with them.
Q: What is the secret to thinking creatively? Is one born with it or can one learn to develop ideas?
A: It’s removing filters. “Creative” doesn’t mean being able to sit down and think about creative things. It’s an action word. Just by creating, you are creative; by not censoring yourself, by doing, doing, doing. The more you practice creating, the more creative you become.
What generally stops people from being creative is thinking of something and deciding, oh, that’s a dumb idea. But you know, what I think Blewt! [Gadlin’s production company] has done a lot of is to take the dumbest of our ideas and carry them out. We follow through on them and as a result, some really cool things have happened.
Q: What advice would you give someone who has ideas, but doesn’t know how to turn them into reality?
A: Look at the people around you, pool your skills together and see what is realistic. I’m a web developer by trade and I’ve used the web to drive a lot of my projects. That way, I’m not thinking of things that are impossible for me to execute. If you find like-minded people to work with, that always helps. And the biggest piece of advice is just do.
Q: What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
A: Hopefully, more of the same, but bigger and better. We have had several attempts at turning our stuff into TV projects. We haven’t hit it on any of those yet, but that’s something I’m going to keep on trying to do. That to me, is a natural extension of a lot of the stuff we do, especially since it’s so game-showy. And I like the idea of projects that use the web and TV in new ways.
Q: Any unexpected facts about you to share?
A: I’m very serious. All this comedy stuff, I take very seriously. I know a lot of the concepts behind what I do are very goofy and wacky, but I think the reason they succeed is I tackle them very methodically. I know a lot of the concepts seem kind of dumb, but I think I’m pretty smart. Maybe that’s the surprise.
“Don’t Spit the Water,” Chicago’s immensely popular crazy live comedy game show brought to you by the comedy geniuses of Blewt!, returns to the Wilmette Theatre on Saturday, January 8 at 9:30 p.m. for a special performance.