Chicago Tribune
October 14, 2000
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Special to the Tribune
August 11, 1999

Tim Losczyk has a unique hold on the media elite of Chicago. As the creator and host of "The Big Fat Nude Hippo Show," the 28-year-old has inspired TV anchors, radio hosts and even politicians to show a wacky side Chicagoans rarely get to see under their buttoned-down exteriors.

The comedic talk show, which broadcasts live at 7 p.m. Thursdays on public access Channel 25, is probably the only place viewers will see WMAQ-Ch.5 anchor Warner Saunders engaged in a humorous workout session with Secretary of State Jesse White and a man named Mr. Skin, who specializes in cataloging nude scenes of movie stars.

Local celebrities also have shown just how little they know about their hometown by guessing wrong in "The Hippo Challenge," an occasional game-show segment focusing on Windy City trivia. One game featured radio rivals Jim Johnson (WLS) and Spike O'Dell (WGN) trading barbs so pointed they could cut through TV screens citywide.

No matter how frenzied the action gets, Losczyk is happy to be steering a show where anything can happen.

"There's never a show that quite goes the way we planned, and it's something that we've learned to adjust to," says Losczyk, who goes by the name Tony Lossano on the air. "We have a quote on the show: What can go wrong will go wrong, so who cares? At least no one's ever gotten hurt."

That sense of anything-goes abandon makes "The Big Fat Nude Hippo Show" unlike anything else on Chicago television. The show hit the public-access airwaves on Channel 19 in 1995, after Losczyk and partners Julie Esterline (also his wife) and Nick Rosario completed TV production classes at the Chicago Access Network.

Four years later, the show had become such a cult favorite in its initial 10 p.m. Saturday slot that city cable commissioner Joyce Gallagher selected it to jump to Channel 25, a city-owned station that allows producers to sell commercial airtime.

Losczyk credits much of the attention to the program's bizarre name, a gimmick he knew would be necessary to stand out in the crowded field of America's third-largest television market.

"It works because every time I call someone for a booking, it gets their attention," Losczyk says. "We always knew the word `nude' or `naked' had to be in the title and that the title had to have nothing to do with the show. I saw a commercial where a kid said, `You're a big fat hippo,' and that tied it all together."

Running his own talk show has been a lifelong dream for Losczyk. A rabid fan of hosts from Johnny Carson to Conan O'Brien, with a strong sense of Steve Allen-era history for good measure, he thought that the youth audience was a segment too often overlooked by the genre.

"I first got the idea because I had to explain a lot of Carson's jokes to my younger sister when we were kids, and I thought there should be a talk show that kids could understand," he says. "It's been an interesting struggle to make a show that both kids and adult fans of talk shows will enjoy, because the title of the show alone makes people wonder if it's a porno or a kids' show."

Their sense of manic mayhem helped the "Nude Hippo" gang achieve a breakthrough. Dave McBride, one of Steve Dahl's sidekicks at WCKG-FM 105.9, discovered the show while channel surfing one night and was so humorously baffled by the show's mix of entertainment that he proceeded to rant about it on the air the following Monday.

That fateful episode was the first live broadcast for "Nude Hippo" and featured WBBM-Ch. 2 weatherman Steve Deshler, the Jesse White Tumblers, a pumpkin-carving contest and a performance by local band Fun Zone that precipitated its immediate post-show breakup.

Soon Dahl was fixated on the program as well, inviting Losczyk to discuss the show on the radio and bringing it to the attention of a whole new audience. McBride soon began joining in as a guest, with three appearances so far.

"I recall it as a cheesy `Ed Sullivan' experience, because I followed a guy who juggled while standing on a platform balanced atop a rolling ball," McBride says of one episode. "But I always enjoy my association with them because they are an island of innocence in the overly fabricated media of today."

After that infamous first try, the "Nude Hippo" staff went live on a monthly basis, interspersing with taped episodes in other weeks. The show received its second break when Losczyk persuaded the Museum of Broadcast Communications to allow a live weekly broadcast from its television facilities.

"Tim exemplifies the Chicago school of television in that he brings an enthusiasm and creativity to the show," says museum founder and president Bruce DuMont. "It's low budget, but there's a chemistry between Tim and his guests and between Tim and his audience. We're very happy to serve as a creative incubator for them."

As the show prepares to go live each week, the studio indeed resembles an incubator -- a highly lit, enclosed area where young talents are given a chance to grow. As the clock ticks down the final seconds before airtime, crew members (mostly Columbia College students) scramble for their places, scripts are dispensed and commands shouted.

But when the show hits the airwaves, the star-studded interviews often come off without a hitch. Losczyk says he learned the importance of being prepared for guests after former "Chicago Tonight" host John Callaway realized Losczyk hadn't read the book Callaway was on the show to promote.

"He's the master of interviews and figured it out pretty quick," says Losczyk, laughing. "But he really liked the spirit of what we're doing and has been one of our most frequent guests."

The show's staff is working on the hit-and-miss ratio of its comedy segments, as script changes often come down to the wire. But for actors like Doug Wynne, a former Cook County prosecutor in the midst of a career change, the experience of regular TV appearances is invaluable.

"I always wanted to act for a living, but until this show I didn't have the opportunity to build credentials and confidence," Wynne says. "This has been an incredible opportunity to develop."

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