I was a loyal Sprint customer starting in 1986, when "U.S. Sprint" had the cheapest rates I could find. I traveled constantly even then, so long distance was a necessity, and saving a few cents per minute could really add up.
For more than 15 years, I accumulated points in the Sprint Rewards program, eventually racking up enough for several round-trip flights to Europe. I never took those, however, because in July 2002, Sprint suddenly changed the rules, politely telling screwing hundreds of thousands of customers to go screw themselves. The company is now subject to a class action complaint.
Obviously, I stopped being a Sprint customer, but I would have left anyway. T-Mobile had a much better deal for international travellers at the time, although now Skype is the way to go.
Nonetheless, two years ago, in January 2006, I got an unsolicited email from Sprint, totally out of the blue, asking me to be a part of the Sprint Ambassador program. Google around, and you’ll find that this was a klutzy attempt at guerrilla marketing, where Sprint shoved free phones at hundreds of bloggers, almost randomly, promising to engage our feedback while really just hoping we’d all be so blown away by a free phone — yippee! — that we’d froth pure joy to a cumulative hundreds of thousands of readers.
Thing is, the phone was OK, nothing more. Sprint hardly has a reputation for genius innovation. I put the phone on a shelf, figuring I’d give it to somebody who needed it someday. Meanwhile, the program didn’t quite get the desired results, and they shut it down about ten weeks ago with one last email farewell, including a phone number for anyone with Ambassador-related questions.
Still, I have a friend who still has Sprint service (I don’t let this come between us, though) and needs a new phone, so I figure maybe I can give her my old unused Sprint Ambassador handset.
So I contact Sprint today, hoping to get a few simple obvious questions answered. Or I try to. The Sprint Ambassador web presence? Gone; it now auto-forwards weirdly to some tech forum. The Sprint Ambassador customer service number, sent out just last January? Already dead.
OK, try Sprint’s regular customer service… and not only had the guy not ever heard of the program, he all but accused me, basically, of making it up. And no, he wouldn’t let me speak to a supervisor, not at first. When the supervisor finally came on the line, she hadn’t heard of the program, either, questioning the program’s existence even after I begged her to use that obscure research tool called Google.
Her actual suggestion: I should print out the emails from Sprint and take them to a Sprint retail store, and hope I could convince somebody there that the program actually existed.
Let’s review: Sprint shuts down the contact mechanism for one of its programs so thoroughly that now I’m supposed to bring Sprint its own emails in order to prove to Sprint its own programs existed?
Wow. I don’t want to call the Better Business Bureau. I want to call Franz Kafka.
This hereby completes my lifetime interactions with Sprint. I hope.
When I was 22, I tossed my engineering degree away, moved to Chicago, slept in the YMCA (and worse), and took telemarketing jobs in order to study acting and improv comedy.
By far the most interesting, inventive, terrifying, brilliant, disturbing, and ultimately effective teacher I ever had was Del Close.
Del, who died in 1999, is a legend in comedy. Look into cutting-edge comedy almost anywhere in America in the second half of the 20th century — from the Compass Players to Second City to the Committee to Saturday Night Live to the Upright Citizens Brigade — Del was there.
Ever laugh at John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, or Stephen Colbert? Del influenced them all.
But for a period in the late 1980s, when his personal struggles had briefly brought him to ground (again), Del was teaching night classes in the back of a poorly lit bar called CrossCurrents just off Belmont Avenue, practically under the thundering elevated train tracks. All you had to be to study with Del at that time was financially solvent, somewhat punctual, and coherent enough onstage to pass a preliminary class taught by his partner, Charna Halpern.
Suddenly a fidgety doofus like me, fresh from Dilbertland and with no legitimate training, could receive personal instruction from a guy who’d directed some of Second City’s greatest revues and played sold-out shows with Nichols and May. I mean, holy crap.
So for about two years starting in 1985, my crappy disposable day jobs were just enough to pay for the YMCA, nightly chow at a horrid greasy dump called the Fleets Inn — super taco (chili slopped into a pita bread), just $1 — and my one big main expense, Del’s classes.
Del was no hero to me, mind you — aw, hell, no. He may have had a longer list of personal shortcomings than any ten ordinary people, and his teaching skill seemed to vary nightly with his chemical makeup. There were times I despised the man. But he also had the inspiration, adventurousness, and joy in high weirdness of any ten people, too, and when Del was tuned in, you’d suddenly find yourself doing better work than you ever dared imagine. He was like a brilliant and deranged uncle you knew could tell truths about things that nobody else would even discuss.
Eventually, in one of my first creative baby steps, I tried a one-man show at the old Roxy on Fullerton. Looking back, it was too long, not fully thought out, and mounted on a budget that would barely buy lunch. I’d been studying with Del for about a year at that point, and one night, to my surprise, joy, and horror, Del showed up unexpectedly. It was the first and last time I ever felt genuine peril onstage. Fortunately, he laughed heartily — that big, bellowing, voice-of-doom-in-a-funhouse laugh — in the exact places where I was secretly praying he might. And somewhere around that time I started to think maybe I might just have a career doing fun stuff after all. Two decades later, the memory is fresh, and I am still grateful.
It was at CrossCurrents that I met my old friend Kim "Howard" Johnson, the same guy I helped out on Millionaire. Howard just wrote the definitive biography of Del — the Funniest One in the Room: the Lives and Legends of Del Close. Here’s today’s Chicago Sun-Times piece on the book.
If anybody reading this enjoyed Prisoner of Trebekistan, I never would have considered something as absurd as studying for Jeopardy! if Del hadn’t taught that we’re all capable of more than we imagine.
If you have laughed at anything in the last 50 years, and you’d like to know more about one of the truly tortured asshole genius humanitarian comic minds ever, I heartily recommend the read.
PS — Del always considered improv as more than just an exercise — done properly, it was an art form that could be extended into full 90-minute shows that audiences would willingly pay to see. Sound unlikely? Lots of his contemporaries, including bigshots at Second City, thought so.
But next time you’re in New York, Chicago, or L.A., Baby Wants Candy does a full-length musical, accompanied by a live band, spontaneously and wonderfully, every single week — all based on some random blurt from the crowd. Go. See. Laugh.