A Q&A with the Q&A guy

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Start onstage at The Hideout during the Funny Ha Ha Show with a live presentation of Mark Bazer's humorous musings from a regular column in RedEye, a free Chicago daily print publication at the time. Add in some influence from old episodes of the Dick Cavett Show, and some journalistic interview experience in high school, and you've got the recipe for a fully-baked talk show, cooked up 12 years ago. Now The Interview Show is in its fifth season on WTTW.

"We all started season one not having ever made a TV show," said host Bazer, an Oak Park resident. "Some of us had done other shows in some capacity, but the main team had never built a TV show. We didn't hire some big producer; we just figured it out. Part of figuring it out is getting better. Every year I've felt this way, but this year especially, I feel we are doing it."

With 8-9 episodes per season, the production team has grown and the show has become more technically polished over the years, refining post-production audio and adding a fourth camera angle this year. Meanwhile, the heart of the show remains unchanged: Bazer's humor, his guest list of thought-provoking personalities from Chicagoland and beyond, and the ability to intelligently converse with everyone from scientists and sociologists to chefs of top restaurants to celebrities to poets and musicians in front of a live audience of up to 90.

"The ultimate goal for the show has stayed exactly the same — conversations that are both substantive and entertaining, not needing to be one or the other, hopefully being both," he said.

Bazer is hands on, booking guests, doing extensive research for interviews, setting the schedule, securing sponsors and even carrying the interviewee couch back upstairs when the show is done taping for the night. 

Is that by design? Bazer replies, "It's by budget."

His research includes reading entire books by guests who are authors, from Oak Park native Claire Lombardo's 532-page novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, to Fermi Lab Astrophysicist Dan Hooper's, At the Edge of Time: Exploring the Mysteries of Our Universe's First Seconds. Hooper, also an Oak Parker, will appear on The Interview Show on WTTW this Friday.

The level of Bazer's research shows through in the depth of the interviews, in which he rarely refers to notes and questions. Bazer nonchalantly chalks up his encyclopedic knowledge, gleaned from reading and research and level of understanding of the topics, to having a month between shows.

That may be so, but Bazer does have a day job. He works at advertising agency Leo Burnett as editorial director of New Business. He lives in Oak Park with his wife Gina and their two sons. But "I get antsy, and need Friday night plans," he said with a laugh.

His show gig is wholeheartedly supported by his family; Gina has only missed one show in 12 years (and also listens to her husband worries about it, he said) and his in-laws have signed on to watch their kids on Friday nights. 

The Interview Show debuted in February 2008 at The Hideout, a bar and entertainment venue north of Goose Island in Chicago. Bazer had been performing his columns and wanted to expand on that.

"I went to the owners of The Hideout, and the story that's famous in my own little brain is that I said to them, 'Hey, I'd like to try doing a talk show once and here's who I'd like to have on,'" Bazer recalled. "They said 'Great, but if you're going to do it once, you're going to have to commit to doing it monthly because that is the only way to build an audience.'"

In 2016, The Interview Show was picked up by WTTW. Though the bar performances were posted to YouTube, a production crew was needed to make a show suitable for television. A set was designed by Oak Parker Dan George, and recently redesigned by George to reflect some changes to The Hideout neighborhood. A new couch for guests had already debuted with some fanfare. Chicago musician Tony Rogers wrote and performed a song ushering out the old couch and welcoming the new. 

"We had people come and triumphantly bring it out and bring the new one in," Bazer said.

Debuting last spring was The Interview Show podcast. Featuring past interviews from shows and new interviews recorded during the off season, 15 episodes are now available. Catch Lombardo's interview from Season 4, or another Oak Park author, Alex Kotlowitz. There are also interviews with a chef, musicians, a movie-maker, experts on climate change and Chicago neighborhoods, and musical performances.

For those who want to be part of the live-show taping experience, advance tickets are sold at The Hideout. The bar, opened in 1934, feels frozen in time. The separate room where performances and the "make-shift studio" where The Interview Show takes place is intimate, every seat close to the action. It is shot in live-on-tape style, but there are occasional breaks for face blotting or "take two" of an intro or the like.

The next taping is on Jan. 10, with Oak Parker Peter Sagal, host of NPR's popular Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me as one of the guests, along with Carrie Coon of HBO's The Leftovers and Steppenwolf's Bug, musicians Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart of Ohmme, and tenor Rod Dixon who performs in Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah. There is one more taping for this season on Friday, Feb. 7.

Reflecting on airing his fifth season, Bazer is pragmatic. Besides "just figuring out ways to make it better," there is only one goal.

"Keep enjoying it or don't do it," he said.

Attend a live taping of The Interview Show, Friday, Jan. 10 at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., Chicago, 6:30 to 8 p.m., $15, 21+. Tickets: theinterviewshowchicago.com/see-the-show-live.

See episode 2 of season 5 on WTTW11, starting Friday, Jan. 10 at 8:30 p.m., including Hooper and Lauren Michele Jackson: Author of "White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation." View other episodes at interactive.wttw.com/interview-show.

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