In 2003, a made-for-TV movie directed by Bobcat Goldthwait and starring an unknown stand-up comedian named Perry Caravello aired a handful of times on Comedy Central with virtually no fanfare. The film was called Windy City Heat, and it was a kinda-documentary about the making of a 1940s-style noir thriller concerning a Chicago-based sports detective named Stone Fury (played by Caravello) investigating the disappearance of Ernie Banks’s pants and William “The Refrigerator” Perry’s refrigerator.
The movie opens with Caravello striding purposefully on a slowly spinning surface in front of a green screen. “This is my town, Chi-town, Chicago, Illinois,” he says. “The land of big hearts, big shoulders, and broken dreams.” It is one of the few scenes in Windy City Heat in which the tempestuous Caravello isn’t screaming at somebody. He’s wearing a leather jacket and a floppy black fedora framed by shoulder-length, black curly hair. Imagine one of those “If They Mated” sketches from Conan pairing Ron Jeremy with Untouchables-era Robert De Niro, and you’ll get a rough visual equivalent of Caravello’s doughy mug. He recites his lines the way a gorilla plays the ukulele, but when the scene ends Goldthwait’s only note is that he’s “adding too many colors to a painting.” Caravello isn’t overly concerned with mastering the Method anyhow. A few minutes later, he announces, “I’ll do anything to be an actor — a star more than an actor.”
Based on what I’ve briefly related about Windy City Heat, you’ve likely reached an obvious conclusion: There’s no way that the film-within-the-film is for real. You’d have to be pretty dense not to recognize the signs — Caravello is clearly a terrible actor, the sports detective premise is ludicrous, and the Fridge is far too dignified to appear in such a low-rent project.
Sure enough, a series of inserts appearing over the opening scene informs the audience that all of this Stone Fury business is really an elaborate prank that everyone is in on except for Caravello. He isn’t actually starring in a film about a sports detective — the film is really about an incompetent actor who thinks he’s starring in a film about a sports detective. Windy City Heat is subsequently set up as The Truman Show in reverse: The main character is an average man situated inside a fabricated reality that perpetuates the illusion that he’s in the process of becoming a celebrity (as opposed to a celebrity who’s led to believe that he’s an average man).
For the next 90 minutes, we see Caravello run through a punishing battery of humiliating tasks that are uncomfortable (though often uncomfortably funny) to watch. He’s dropped repeatedly into a Dumpster that Goldthwait insists on filling with increasingly higher levels of manure. He’s then asked to drink several helpings of a toxic milkshake composed of Chinese food, cold pizza, beer, and raw eggs until he’s finally driven to diarrhea. The film ends [SPOILER ALERT] with the gala premiere of Windy City Heat, ostensibly Caravello’s moment of triumph, but he’s waylaid on the way to the screening by his costars (and WCH‘s chief prank-itects), Don Barris and Walter “Mole” Molinski, when the trio get roaring drunk with the limo driver. When they finally arrive, the driver accuses Caravello, within earshot of the press, of propositioning him for oral sex.
A few things you should know about me: I hate pranks. I can’t recall the last time someone actively tried to fool me for the express purpose of amusing himself and others. But if I could, the memory would immediately prompt me to punch the nearest bystander in the face. I also can’t comprehend being on the perpetrator side of a practical joke. What sort of person finds the profound embarrassment of a friend humorous? And how can we round up these people, load them into a rocket ship, and blast them the hell to Jupiter?
Perhaps this is why — in spite of seeing Windy City Heat four times — I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Because of my ardent anti-prank bias, I’m inclined to reject it outright. It instinctively feels wrong. But upon further contemplation, I realize this is purely an emotional reaction based on my own primal fear of being publicly vulnerable. Counterintuitively for a movie in which a garbage bin full of animal shit is vital to the plot, Windy City Heat improves when it gets inside your head and stimulates the analytical parts of your brain. (Which it will do if you see it more than once.) The “joke” of the movie is that Perry Caravello thinks Windy City Heat will make him a star. But Windy City Heat actually did just that — or at least it got Caravello closer to that goal than he would’ve gotten otherwise. It took an untrue situation that Caravello thought was true and really made it sort of true, all while keeping Caravello in the dark.
I should add that Windy City Heat also makes me laugh out loud, even when I’m cringing hard.
Ten years after its Comedy Central premiere, Windy City Heat feels like an underappreciated turning point for the reality genre. Ten years ago, there was still lingering weariness about a show like The Osbournes being “scripted,” which made enjoying the exploits of a doddering, drug-damaged rock icon seem illegitimate. What changed? Public perception about the unreality of reality entertainment shifted because the focus of the unreality shifted. Rather than “trick” the audience with trumped-up cinema vérité, many reality shows are now geared toward deluding their protagonists in collusion with the audience. In the wake of Windy City Heat came the Real Housewives series, Jersey Shore, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, where buffoons are encouraged to exhibit the dimmest sides of themselves in exchange for a measure of fame (and therefore validation). We humor them, and they amuse us.
I’m not suggesting that Windy City Heat was influential, because not nearly enough people have seen it for it to be influential. Windy City Heat is more like The Velvet Underground & Nico of this brand of reality TV — a prescient outlier that seems more contemporary now than it did in 2003. (Also like The Velvet Underground & Nico, you’ll want to take a shower after experiencing it for the first time.) Anyone who watches Windy City Heat must grapple with two questions: (1) Should I be laughing at this? (2) Is Perry Caravello really this gullible? However the viewer decides to answer the second question will inevitably influence their feelings about the first question.
The so-called “Perry Project” began in 1992, when Caravello first walked into the Westwood branch of the world-famous L.A. club the Comedy Store for open-mic night. The host was Don Barris, a bald, husky, Lex Luthor–gone-to-seed type who had been a Comedy Store regular since the mid-’80s, back when it was still hopping with current and future stars like Roseanne Barr, Andrew Dice Clay, and Caravello’s hero, Sam Kinison. Like Kinison, Caravello was a roiling cauldron of insufficiently contained white male angst who punctuated his act with hyperbolic outbursts.
“The yelling was like how my dad used to yell, because he would always get in people’s faces,” Caravello barked over the phone when I called him last week. “So that’s what got me into being like Sam. I would never take shit from anybody, and Sam is the same way. I still have to take shit from a guy like Don, because he’s my big boss.”
A native of the Chicago area, Caravello departed the land of big hearts, big shoulders, and broken dreams for Southern California when he was a teenager in 1974. He soon took up skateboarding, though he quit the hobby five years later after a serious car accident put him in a coma for three weeks. (He didn’t skate again until seven years ago.)
“I was driving,” he said. “I had my license for three weeks. Driving and not quite making it home. Yeah, I ended up taking a nap — I’m going to say it politely, positively.”1
In the ’80s, Caravello booked gigs for hair bands like Poison and L.A. Guns and wound up onstage as an emcee. By 1988, he was doing comedy, though he was too intimidated to venture down to the Sunset Strip Comedy Store, which at the time was still considered a breeding ground for prospective comedy legends. The way Caravello remembers it, Barris took one look at him and declared, “I’m going to make you a star. And I kind of rolled my eyes when I heard that. ‘Oh yeah, all right.'”
Barris recalls his first encounter with Caravello differently. “He was the biggest pain in the ass,” he said. “He was loud and screaming, ‘I want to get a spot!’ And I immediately saw that this guy was nuts. I told him, ‘You can’t just come and act like a crazy person.'”
Barris threatened to ban Caravello because of his obnoxious behavior, but instead offered him a strange, sadomasochistic challenge. “Someone had a razor and I said, ‘Would you shave your chest with no soap onstage?’ And he shaved. I put the mic near his chest and you would just hear the blade ripping. I thought, OK, you’re back in. His chest was bleeding, but he proved that he wanted it.”
The stunt didn’t merely get Caravello into the Westwood Comedy Store, it got him a regular spot at the mother ship on Sunset. He became the first star of what is now the longest-running weekly event in the history of the Comedy Store, Monday night’s Ding Dong Show. Created and hosted by Barris and named by the Comedy Store’s famously acidic owner Mitzi Shore, the Ding Dong Show takes place in the club’s smallest space, the Belly Room, located in the building’s rear. It runs concurrently with the open-mic “potluck” night downstairs — Barris often recruits new cast members from the ranks of the Comedy Store’s most out-there would-be comedians. (Barris prefers to describe his Ding Dongers as “colorful” rather than the frequently applied epithet “crazy.”) In the earliest days of the Ding Dong Show, Caravello was featured alongside a “Weird” Al Yankovic impersonator and a 4-foot-8 Mexican woman who dressed as a nun and conducted music with a ruler.
The Ding Dong Show is comparable to Howard Stern and early (some might say “meaner”) David Letterman. It’s set up like a panel discussion, with Barris acting as moderator; in lieu of jokes, the cast talk about their deeply weird lives and worldviews. Barris doesn’t see what he does as mocking — he facilitates whatever parts of the cast’s personalities prove to be the most amenable to laughs. In Barris’s view, Ding Dongers are naturally funny characters who need him to tease out the gold that they don’t know how to mine themselves.
From the beginning, Caravello was Barris’s richest find. Along with Mole (also known as Tony Barbieri, who met Barris at the Comedy Store as a budding comic before going on to become an Emmy-winning writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live), Barris and Caravello became “The Big 3,” a postmodern comedy team with humor derived primarily from Barris and Mole agitating Caravello to the point of emotional combustion. (Caravello refers to them in Windy City Heat as “the Three Stooges of the new millennium,” which is actually about right.) In addition to performing at the Ding Dong Show, the trio started hanging out in their spare time, with Barris and Barbieri constantly setting up fanciful scenarios for Caravello to stumble into so they could videotape the resulting fallout.
Eventually the Big 3 landed its own show on Los Angeles public-access television in the mid-’90s, which is when avowed prank addict Jimmy Kimmel entered their orbit as a Big 3 obsessive and occasional co-conspirator. Kimmel went on to hire Barris as an audience warm-up comic on Win Ben Stein’s Money, then The Man Show, and finally Jimmy Kimmel Live, where Barris has worked for 11 years. Kimmel was also the Big 3’s connection to Comedy Central, which paved the way for Windy City Heat.2
To this day, Kimmel is the person most responsible for spreading the Windy City Heat gospel. After Comedy Central essentially buried the film upon its initial release (Barris blames a change in network leadership), Kimmel pushed it on his celebrity friends. Over time, Windy City Heat garnered a small cult following. Musicians like John Lydon and the guys in Kings of Leon made it a viewing staple on their tour buses. Eminem was such a big fan he invited the Big 3 to a video shoot. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Mike Judge expressed their admiration. Somehow, the Windy City Heat saga was given new life: In 2010, the Big 3 launched their own podcast, and they’re currently crowd-funding for Windy City Heat 2.3
“My ultimate goal is to make some kind of reality series about our journey to make a movie,” Barris said. “Either we get the funds to make a movie, or it just ends.”
The project is presently about $492,000 short of the $500,000 Barris is soliciting, with 15 days to go. If Barris can get the money he’s seeking (an unlikely “if” at this point), he knows that WCH2 will have an audience. In October, hundreds of devotees descended on the Comedy Store for the Windy Weekend, commemorating the film’s 10th anniversary. For $500, the hardest of the hard-cores watched a live podcast taping, attended a screening of Windy City Heat, took home a T-shirt and some buttons, and (most enticing of all) hung out at Caravello’s house for a chili cook-off.
“The people that didn’t have the $500 tickets went to his place with signs outside, so eventually I let them come in,” Barris said. “At the end of the weekend, they were saying good-bye to me, and these fans were crying on my shoulder. I was like, ‘Oh my god, they love this.’ People see themselves as Perry in a powerful way. It’s crazy.”
If you believe that Caravello is more self-aware than he lets on, enjoying Windy City Heat no longer seems like a guilt-tainted exercise. If you don’t believe that, it’s hard not to feel implicated in the poor guy’s deception.
For those who want to believe that Caravello understood what was happening to him as it unfolded, there’s a smattering of clues in Windy City Heat to support this hypothesis. For instance, when Perry shows up on set for the first day of shooting, he’s told that Charlton Heston is occupying his trailer. But even he can see that the awful Heston impersonator in his trailer isn’t actually Charlton Heston, and says so. (Caravello’s awareness level is undermined immediately afterward when he unquestioningly encounters a gladiator-suit-clad Adam Carolla, who claims to be shooting a dog-buddy picture called Air Caligula.) Caravello also claims on the DVD commentary track that he recognized Dane Cook when the comic introduces himself as Windy City Heat‘s casting director Roman Polanski, though he doesn’t acknowledge it.
Serious students of Windy City Heat will also notice that in the DVD extras, when Barris and Barbieri show Caravello the movie for the first time — the real movie, the one where it says Caravello is a victim of a gag right in the opening minutes — there’s a poster for the Andy Kaufman biopic The Man on the Moon on Caravello’s bathroom door. Part of me wants to believe this poster is an Easter egg of some kind, a nod of recognition that not everything in Windy City Heat is what it seems.
When I phoned Caravello to talk about Windy City Heat, I asked whether the antagonism that exists between him, Barris, and Barbieri in the movie is real, or if it’s exaggerated. “Do I have to answer this one?” he replied with a conspiratorial gleam. “It can be real, and it can be just for show. But I’m mostly a realist, and I like to have everything real. But Don and Mole like to play all the time, but that’s also what makes it funny. Because sometimes I’m not in the mood to play, and I’m not in the mood to be funny, where I’m in the mood I’m in right now and want to talk serious business, and they’re still joking around with me and I get PO’ed at that. But, again, that’s what makes this funny.”
So, Perry appears to understand why he’s funny, as well as how he makes people laugh. But what about Windy City Heat? Does he get the what? I asked him about the Kaufman poster and whether he was an admirer. “Oh yeah, him, Kinison, dear god, all of them,” he said. “They all influenced me, from Jackie Cooper to Bob Hope. Even Jerry Lewis, playing retarded like Jerry Lewis likes to play. I don’t like to say the word ‘retard’ like it’s a positive thing — it’s actually not a positive thing, it’s a negative thing. But it’s dorky, and dorky at times can be funny as hell.”
After 45 minutes of conversation, I found Caravello to be no more delusional than most people trying to break into show business. When it comes to assessing his own talent, Caravello’s grasp on reality is tenuous. “I want to spread my wings and fly, meaning that I would like to work with well-known comedians like Robin Williams or Tom Hanks,” he told me at one point. “I would love to work with Howard Stern. I would love to work with Jenny McCarthy, I’d love to work with Melanie Griffith. Let’s go back a few years — yeah, I’d like to work with Marilyn Monroe.” But otherwise Caravello appears to be a pragmatist. Being the butt of the joke has gotten him to where he is, and he’s not about to stop being the butt now.
When I mentioned to Barris that Caravello seemed more self-aware than I expected, he dismissed it as the product of people reaching out to Caravello online and cluing him in after the fact. Caravello’s knowledge of the machinations of Windy City Heat and the Big 3 podcast is a virus Barris is constantly warding off.
“I’m a huge Andy Kaufman fan,” he said. “This whole thing is the opposite of Andy Kaufman. He tried to pull a joke on the whole world, and this is the whole world pulling a joke on one person. A lot of people think the Internet was the greatest thing ever invented. To me, it’s the worst thing, because now Perry has access to the truth.”
Barbieri has a simple retort to anyone who feels bad about laughing at Caravello’s misadventures (or argues that you should feel bad). “He’s a pretty terrible person,” he said. Indeed, there’s evidence of this hypothesis in Windy City Heat as well. Caravello objectifies women, he reacts violently to minor annoyances, and he cravenly pursues fame above all else. (He was also once caught on video stealing money out of Barris’s wallet.) One of Heat‘s funniest scenes tweaks Caravello’s unrepentant homophobia, deploying Mr. Show alum Tom Kenny as a handsy and prominently mustachioed gay costume designer attempting to measure his inseam.
“If he’s not an asshole, then we’re the assholes,” Barbieri said.
Understanding Windy City Heat requires putting it in the context of the dark, unforgiving place from whence it came. Founded in 1972 by comedians Sammy Shore and Rudy DeLuca, and then taken over by Sammy’s wife Mitzi in the wake of their divorce settlement the following year, the Comedy Store was one of L.A.’s first major comedy clubs. In the early years, Shore fostered a Comedian University vibe — it was a place to hone your craft, try out new material, and, hopefully, be seen by someone important in show biz. (For years, Shore used this rationale to justify not paying her comics, like a real university with its student-athletes.) The Comedy Store is where young and hungry comics like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, and Robin Williams went to rub shoulders with big-time comedy stars like Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield, and maybe get discovered by a talent scout from The Tonight Show.
But for all the success associated with the Comedy Store’s first decade, there was also plenty of failure and despair. Shore was known for her vindictiveness, which translated into comedians she perceived to have crossed her getting frozen out of precious stage time. The most tragic instance of this was Steve Lubetkin, a never-was comic who believed that Shore had blackballed him in the wake of the 1979 comedians’ strike4 and responded by hurling himself off the roof of the Continental Hyatt House next door. After that, the Comedy Store took on a noticeably harder, scarier, more rock-and-roll edge. In the ’80s, the Monday-night potlucks were notorious for being thick with cocaine dealers, porn stars, and all the other freaks populating the Strip.
Today, the Comedy Store is neither as buzzy nor as evil as it was back in the bad old days. Studio executives are far more likely to find the next big star at UCB (or on YouTube) than at the Comedy Store. When I arrived just after 9:30 p.m. on a balmy Monday night last month, there was a small coterie of male comedians hanging out in the outdoor patio area situated between the Main Room (which is reserved for headliners) and the Original Room (where the potluck was taking place). As I scribbled in my notebook, a Terence Trent D’Arby song played over the PA. Suddenly, I heard a slightly effeminate stoner-guy drawl over my shoulder. “I love coming here, it’s so much fun,” the voice said, noncommittally. I looked up, and sure enough it was the Weasel (and Mitzi’s son) himself, Pauly Shore.
This may sound like an underattended museum exhibit about the history of ’70s and ’80s comedy. But that’s not how it felt to sit outside the place. It might’ve been easy to scoff at Marc Maron describing the Comedy Store on the WTF podcast as some kind of dark palace of comedy, but sitting there, waiting for Barris to show up for that night’s edition of the Ding Dong Show, I could feel the negative vibes emanating from the pitch-black walls littered with signatures of past regulars (a significant number of whom are dead) bathed in satanic red light. I stepped inside to catch a few minutes of the potluck, and the comic onstage started a bit by saying, “Anybody do coke in here?” The audience alternated between stagnant indifference and indefinite hostility. What once was the hip center of the L.A. entertainment industrial complex now seemed like its seamy, used-up underbelly. I decided to wait for Don back on the patio.
“They say the Original Room is the hardest room to work in the world, and I believe it,” Barris told me later. “I don’t go to a lot of other comedy clubs because the Comedy Store is a block away from where I live and I can’t really go on the road because I have to do the Jimmy Kimmel gig. But anytime I do a different club of any kind, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, I forgot this is funny material.'”
Barris comes here every night after he’s done working on the Kimmel show. By his estimation, he has missed only 12 days in the past 15 years. He’s among the longest-tenured comics currently working there. For years, Barris had trouble getting spots and weathered the intense psychological warfare waged by Kinison and his cronies on any newcomers he perceived to be weak or a threat. When he was on Maron’s podcast last summer, Barris talked about being so poor when he first moved to L.A. from Saginaw Township, Michigan, that he lived in his car for months. He’d park outside the Comedy Store, and then when the janitors showed up in the morning he’d sneak inside and sleep backstage in the Main Room. (He claims he saw a ghost there once.) Barris didn’t find his niche at the Comedy Store until he volunteered to host the potluck night, which in the old days meant working from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.
“I have a lot of wonderful memories, and I’m glad I went through them. But if I didn’t have that mentality of making it no matter what, I would’ve been eaten alive,” he said. “I didn’t really get respected until Windy City Heat came out.”
Barris still closes out the potluck once the Ding Dong Show wraps after midnight. It’s a gig many comedians with his experience would never accept, but Barris likes the freedom to do whatever he wants onstage. I wonder if anyone in L.A. has personally witnessed as many bad stand-up sets as Barris, and how this has affected him.
“There are a lot of people who do stand-up comedy that never get beyond the potluck level,” he said. “I know this guy who had been doing potluck comedy — I’ve been doing comedy for over 25 years now, and when I came there, he was a potlucker. Not only at the Comedy Store, but at these coffee shops that had comedy nights. He recently passed away. He’d been doing comedy that long and he probably never got a paid gig. In this show, the Ding Dong Show, I’ve taken people that will do that all their life, and there’s at least some success.”
By Ding Dong Show standards, the night I visited was uneventful. By normal comedy show standards, however, it was pretty odd.
Barris told me minutes before showtime that one of the regular cast members, a ditzy party girl named Jessica Shores, wasn’t coming because she recently fell off a horse. I stifled a laugh — not because falling off a horse is funny but because I assumed Barris was goofing. (He wasn’t. Shores apparently was injured.) Another Ding Dong Show star, Tennessee Ernie Tuxedo, was also missing. Ernie’s story is more complicated: His participation in a documentary spearheaded by an unnamed “hack comic” who frequents the Comedy Store has been the topic of much griping lately by Barris, who believes he’s been unceremoniously usurped after spending years cultivating Ernie’s comic persona. In short, he feels that he’s been stabbed in the back. “Fuck them!” Barris spat venomously when the subject came up during the show.
That left Ding Dong Show mainstays like Sam the Armenian Comedian (who acts as the show’s arrogant heel), the Schizophrenic Surfer (who is Sam’s sweet-natured and spaced-out counterpoint), and Roller Girl (a buxom porn actress who wears roller skates à la Heather Graham in Boogie Nights). With Shores out for the night, the stage was set for Roller Girl to shine, but instead Roller Girl’s friend — a highly articulate adult-film actress, DJ, and podcaster named Amanda Blow — upstaged her. During a lull, Blow asked to spank Katie Manzella, a pretty Paris Hilton look-alike who returned to the show eight months ago after taking a year off to get a grip on her drug and alcohol abuse. Barris originally enlisted Manzella because she was fucked up all the time. Now she acts as the show’s relatively level-headed voice of reason, which means she was naturally reluctant to be spanked. So the Schizophrenic Surfer, at Barris’s urging, lowered his pants instead.
“When I first started out, I was strung out on Adderall. Now I can survive a show without having an emotional breakdown,” Manzella told me a few weeks later. Both Barris and Manzella describe their relationship as having a father-daughter dynamic; Barris says the Comedy Store can be a horrible place for female comics,5 and Manzella knows that he’s got her back. Manzella, in turn, has learned to distance herself emotionally from what happens during the Ding Dong Show; she’s not quite as open about her personal life onstage as she once was, especially now that the show is recorded for a podcast.
“He gives people a platform to be who they are,” she said of Barris. “We get to speak our truth. But we know it’s not serious. It’s a comedy show.”
Barris’s background helps to explain why, in spite of the initial whiff of exploitation, he remains (in Barbieri’s words) “the Mother Teresa of lunatic comics”: He’s basically a higher-functioning version of his cast members. At his core, he empathizes with them. “There’s some people that look at me and go, ‘You’re going to hell for everything you’ve done with these people.’ And that’s a possibility,” he said. “But my personal feeling is, they have a place to go every Monday. They get laughs, they have fun, they get to hang out. It’s the time of their life.”
Like many things in Barris’s life, talk of the Ding Dong Show leads back to Caravello. If he can get the money for Windy City Heat 2, Barris wants to use it as a template for a reality show starring the current cast of the Ding Dong Show. That’s where his heart is lately — he says he’s grown tired of Perry and wants to try something else. Perry is just too hard to control now. Barris talks about Windy City Heat 2 like a thief in a crime movie planning one last heist — he’ll get some money in Perry’s pocket and then finally walk away.
“I can’t go through the frustration of this anymore. It’s just too tough on me, it takes up too much of my time mentally,” he said.
Me, I’m not sure I can believe in the dissolution of the Big 3. Barris and Caravello have a symbiotic relationship. If either man is remembered at all, it will be for Windy City Heat. They’re both comedy lifers, refusing to stop no matter how loudly the universe tells them to give up. Barris literally has scars from knock-down, drag-out fights he’s had with Caravello over the years. But they’ve been together longer than most bands. And what do bands that stay together forever inevitably do? They keep moving forward.
“I’m Perry’s best friend in the world,” Barris said. “He would never admit that.” And vice versa, I suspect. Barris seemed to confirm this a few weeks later, when I phoned for a follow-up interview.
“The reason I’ve been doing it for 21 years is that I couldn’t let him go.”