Almost 15 years ago, Oak Park dad Carlo Cooper was taking improv lessons from Tina Fey in Chicago, learning how to, among other things, eat an imaginary apple. Fast forward to today, and Fey has become wildly famous, writing movies, books and TV shows alike. And Cooper is trying to do a little of the same, touring the standup comedy circuit from Berwyn to New York City.
Cooper, 42, just did his first set in the Big Apple last week, which he said went well. And he’s got another show coming up on Sept. 3 at Cigars and Stripes, 6715 W. Ogden in Berwyn. He hasn’t been able to quit his day job, yet, as a manager at the Oak Park Trader Joe’s, but he hopes his talent can carry him far enough to support his wife and two kids.
“I’d like to take it up a notch or two, and I think by coming out to New York, that’s causing me to play a bigger game, but without jeopardizing my family or my health,” Cooper said Friday by phone from Manhattan.
Cooper was born in Oak Park but raised in Wooddale and Itasca. His was a blue collar family, with his dad selling bolts and screws, and his mom a housewife and later a secretary. He was the goofy middle child of three, always cracking jokes, but he never really talked about doing standup, said his mom, Gladyce Cooper (though he did grow up listening to Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Bill Cosby).
“He was very funny and clever as a child, always making his friends laugh, and lots of antics,” said Gladyce Cooper, who lives in Schaumburg. “He never said anything about wanting to do comedy, but he was a natural.”
In 1997, Cooper’s sense of humor and desire to be in front of people led him to The Second City in Chicago, where he took improvisational classes for about a year. There, he was taught by performers such as Tina Fey, Dobie Maxwell and Jim Zulevic.
Cooper didn’t walk away from Second City with a ticket to Hollywood, though he did meet his wife of 10 years, Colleen Campbell. They both tried out for the main stage at Second City but lost out, possibly because of their normal-looking appearance.
“We didn’t have anything quirky about us,” Cooper said. “The people who got through the auditions were heavyset or lanky or had big eyes. They took the people that were more visually interesting to look at, from our observation.”
The couple tried their hand at serious acting, but Cooper said it wasn’t for him. Then standup got a test drive, and Cooper liked it, though he ended up abandoning it in the late ’90s, worried about long tours and nights of heckling.
For awhile, he and his wife did corporate training, where Cooper got his fix standing in front of people, but the company stalled out after the terrorist attacks in September 2011.
Campbell and Cooper eventually made their way to Oak Park for the schools and had three kids. About five years ago, while working a sales job, Cooper jumped onstage and did 10 minutes of standup at a conference in front of 50 people. The audience dug it, so he started writing again and honing his act.
Most of his material focuses on marriage, kids and “life in general.” He says he’s a big fan of comparisons and analogies.
“Life goes by so weird. One minute you’re single, you’re horny and you’re looking for your next target,” he said, relating one of his bits. “Next thing you know, you wake up and you’re married, you’re horny and you’re shopping at Target.”
Cigars & Stripes has become one of Cooper’s main stomping grounds in recent years. After “kicking ass” during one open-mic night, owner Ronnie Lottz has watched Cooper perfect his routine. Lottz has been impressed by Cooper’s lack of ego and ability to constantly rotate in new jokes.
“He does the whole ‘I’m a dad’ and ‘I have a wife’ thing, which I think works well for him because kids are just filled with nonstop material,” Lottz said.
Regardless of whether he strikes it big, Cooper is just trying to have a good time, and make people crack a smile or slap a knee.
“Underneath it all, everybody wants to make a difference, and I love making people laugh. That’s what I’m good at,” he said. “So if I don’t do it, I’m cheating myself and other people out of it.”