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Tom Alesia Wisconsin State Journal

Comedy Takes Center Screen In The Upcoming Wisconsin Film Festival

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)
Copyright Madison Newspapers, Inc.
Story by Tom Alesia Wisconsin State Journal

Opening Thursday, the four-day Wisconsin Film Festival will present dozens of insightful documentaries, serious features and longtime classics.


Then there’s “Chump Change.”

This is the festival’s secret weapon: A witty, Wisconsin-fueled comedy — set and filmed in Milwaukee and Los Angeles — with more laughs than there are calories in a beer keg.

If the second annual Madison festival launches a film toward national prominence, it will be “Chump Change.”

Based on his show-business experiences, suburban Milwaukee native Steve Burrows wrote, directed and starred in “Chump Change.”

A 1984 UW-Madison grad, Burrows, 37, finished the film three weeks ago, but an early version persuaded festival officials to showcase it on opening night at the Orpheum Theatre’s 280-seat Stage Door venue.

Thursday’s 7 p.m. screening will be “Chump Change’s” first public showing. It will be repeated at 5 p.m. Saturday.

“We thought this would be the perfect place to start the ball rolling on the film,” Burrows said.

Like virtually all independent films, “Chump Change” was completed without a distributor. Studios showed interest initially, but Burrows backed away when they wanted to meddle with the script.

In particular, Burrows would not waver on the film’s heavy Dairyland influence. With that intact, he’s now eager to land a distribution deal.

“Even some of my investors were reluctant to film in Wisconsin,” Burrows said. “One crew member said we could shoot the whole Wisconsin part in Burbank. I said, ‘No, no, you don’t understand. The state is really a character.’ “

“Chump Change” follows a struggling comic actor and screenwriter named Milwaukee Steve (played by Burrows), who is best known for appearing in a jock-itch TV commercial.

Returning to his mother’s house in Milwaukee, Steve becomes friends with his mom’s boarder and begins describing his oddball career to her.

“Chump Change” shifts between warm Los Angeles’ materialism and chilly Milwaukee’s provincialism. Burrows filled the cast with familiar actors including Tim Matheson, Jerry Stiller, Fred Willard and Abe Vigoda.

The biggest surprise, however, is Traci Lords, the former porn star who plays the no-nonsense but sweet boarder.

“People ask, ‘Is she clothed?’ She wears a parka the whole movie,” said Burrows, who called Lords “basically our film’s Meg Ryan.”

Still, in a case of corporate paranoia, a Milwaukee sausage company wouldn’t let its mascots participate in the January 1999 filming because of Lords’ involvement.

That’s nearly as bizarre as Burrows’ own experiences with casting directors, agents and studio officials presented in “Chump Change.”

And the film’s seemingly most far-fetched scene actually happened. In 1991, Burrows made a short film about his awful appearance on “Wheel of Fortune” that became a cult hit in Los Angeles — until “Wheel” creator Merv Griffin sued him.

Burrows’ background in Madison didn’t suggest a show-business future. He studied political science at UW and worked at a Madison plasma center before moving to Chicago, where he studied improvisational comedy.

In 1988, he headed to Los Angeles, where he earned numerous credits, including a guest spot on “Seinfeld,” and spent five years with the renowned Groundlings comedy troupe.

Burrows, who still lives in Los Angeles, and “Chump Change’s” producer will attend the Madison screenings to gauge audience reaction.

“I’m so tired of going to comedy movies and there are only four or five laughs. People should be laughing all the time,” Burrows said.

“I know I’m an unknown, but I hope people in Madison will take a chance on ‘Chump Change.’ They won’t waste 90 minutes. They will laugh.”



February 1, 2004
by Tom Alesia

‘Spellbound,’ ‘Chump Change’ out on DVD

In this section, I’ve trumpeted two films: One, “Spellbound,” didn’t need any help; the other never received a theatrical released despite having been purchased by Miramax and being very funny.

Both films are now out on DVD.

“Spellbound,” the Oscar-nominated documentary following the fiercely competitive national spelling bee, updates us on its eight young subjects. Everyone seems to be doing fine, although it’s disappointing that the updates are just short synopsis not filmed segments.

In addition, “Spellbound” filmmakers add three spellers it followed but didn’t use.

“Chump Change” is the Wisconsin-based comedy that’s finally out five years after it finished filming. Goofy and witty, it skewers Hollywood while finding a firm base in the Dairyland.

Director and writer Steve Burrows, who also stars in the film, adds a hilarious extra on the DVD. He reads the handful of horribly written and negative comment cards from the film’s test screenings.