This article appeared in the Feb. 23, 2007 Jewish Advocate.


Disorder in the classroom:

Boston native Carrie Aizley makes her mark on late-night TV

By Susie Davidson

Would you pause if you saw Jason Alexander, Penny Marshall, Janeane Garofalo or Ed Begley, Jr. cutting it up with two wacky, middle-aged college co-eds? For viewers of the Oxygen Network series “Campus Ladies,” the answer is a resounding yes.

The show, which just finished its second season, has become a hit because of all the things it’s not. It isn’t hip, or politically correct (barbaric and naïve would be more apt). It’s not academic, nor even scripted. Rather, the show, which stars the comedy team Carrie Aizley and Christen Sussin, is entirely improvised. All told, it’s one of the most hysterical half-hours to be found on TV.

Ditzy but endearing, fearlessly uncouth, Barri (Sussin) and Joan (Aizley) bumble through freshman rites and skewer any and all collegiate protocol at the fictional University of the Midwest, where the two have enrolled following respective divorce and widowhood. Aizley and Sussin, both Massachusetts natives, met as members of the venerable Groundlings Los Angeles improv company, which launched the careers of notable comics who include Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Griffin, Pee Wee Herman and Laraine Newman. Groundlings alum have worked in Saturday Night Live, Suddenly Susan and Mad TV, among other shows.

Success has been hard-earned for Aizley, who has appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm; in the Christopher Guest films “For Your Consideration” (2006) and Best in Show” (2000); and alongside Jennifer Aniston in “The Thin Pink Line” (1998). She took acting lessons as a child in New Jersey and then as a teenager in South Natick, at The Freelance Players in Chestnut Hill. “My parents would drive a bunch of my friends to the Woodland T stop,” she recalled. The group performed original musicals at the Boston Public Library and other sites.

Aizley also attended the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover and took voice lessons at the Boston Conservatory. She began doing improv during high school at the Cambridge School of Weston, and performed at the Next Move Theater in Boston. Following a semester at the Herbert Berghof Studio in Manhattan, she returned to Boston to attend Emerson College and then B.U., where she earned a degree in elementary education. She taught at the Driscoll and the Park Schools in Brookline.

“While at Park, friends and I started an improv company called Play It By Ear,“ she recalled. In 1993, she auditioned at the Charles Playhouse for “The Real Live Brady Bunch Touring Company” and landed the role of Jan.

“Carrie arrived dressed and with her hair exactly like Jan Brady,” said musician and “schlock-opera” producer Faith Soloway, who created the Brady tour with her sister Jill. “She was really funny, and quirky, and knew the show and the role.” Encouraged by her mother, the late abstract/collage artist and psychoanalyst Sandra Aizley, Aizley made the jump, and toured for a year and a half in colleges and in major theaters including D.C.’s Kennedy Center and the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.

“I remember Jill and I trying to almost talk her into it,” said Soloway. “She was going to have to burn her career bridge at Park School, and maybe she knew she was jumping into show business, never to come back,” she said. “It was a huge gamble for her, but I think it was one that paid off.”

Several cast members decided to move to L.A. together. “I had all kinds of jobs - I babysat, walked dogs, did telemarketing,” said Aizley, while adding that she never waited the proverbial tables. She did shows in small area theaters before enrolling at Groundling. “It’s an improv sketch theater,” she said. “You either get invited to the next level, or get kicked out.” She met Sussin after she passed the fourth level and was invited to join the B, or Sunday company. “You write sketches all week long and perform them on Sunday nights,” she explained. “It's a hard-core writing program.”

Theatrical manager Paul Young encouraged them to develop a show for television. Cheryl Hines, a Groundling alum who now executive produces “Campus Ladies,” got Oxygen interested. “We invited HBO, NBC and major network reps,” said Aizley. “Oxygen was the one that bit.”

It could certainly be said that performing was in Aizley’s blood. Her maternal great-grandfather, Sam Ross, ran a Yiddish theater in New York that featured Broadway performer Henrietta Jacobson. Ross’ daughter Gussie married Henrietta’s actor brother Irving. “Many of our family members are still involved in theater,” said Carrie’s sister Harlie Aizley, a Brandeis and Harvard graduate and author, whose “Buying Dad” chronicles achieving parenthood with Faith Soloway (the two met through the Brady run). Maternal cousins include TV and movie actress Leslie Ackerman and Los Angeles-based film colorist Jordan Fox.

Aizley’s paternal grandmother Goldie (Abrams) Aizley’s cousin Abe “Ford” Abrams operated the renowned Ford Theatrical Agency with his vaudevillian brothers Ben and Jack, who began as a tapdance and acrobatic duo. The Tremont Street agency booked stars ranging from Jackie Gleason, Ella Fitzgerald, Totie Fields, Johnny Cash, Buddy Hackett and Louis Armstrong to football games and wrestling spectaculars at the Boston Garden with Muhammad Ali, Haystacks Calhoun, Bruno Sammartino and Killer Kowalski. Boxer Sammy “Ford” Abrams tended bar below, at the Iron Horse Bar and Grille as well as at the Ye Olde Brown Jug at Morton St. in Dorchester. The Fords, who booked Blinstrub’s and owned the Rio Casino and the Tic Toc Club, passed an eight-year-old, truant Sammy Davis Jr. off as a midget and were approached by Jay Leno for representation.

“The Aizleys were the only academics in the family,” said Judy Abrams of Brookline. “The rest of us were ‘lowlifes,’” she said, “who were mainly in the arts.” (Full disclosure: this writer is also an Abrams, and an Aizley cousin.) Judy Abrams’ grandmother, a wigmaker, was fixed up with another “lowlife,” a musician, Saul Drootin. His sons Buzzy and Al became the American Big Band mainstays The Drootin Brothers. Leonard Nimoy is another cousin.

“The Abrams are or were a colorful bunch,” said Paul Aizley, a math professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Carrie’s uncle. “A grandmother who made gin in her bathtub during prohibition,” he continued. “An aunt who may have been the first female bookie in the North End. Boxers for uncles and a cousin who wrestled and painted. A great aunt’s brother-in-law was gunned down in a Miami phone booth. They may have been un-schooled, but they were interesting.”

“Carrie was always very theatrical,” said Harlie Aizley. “In fact, she spent many years perfecting her imitation of me.” The two would make up games of their own. “Carrie made up one called ‘Inappropriate Thought,’ where during a conversation we’d have to convey something else,” she said. “She was always very funny and quick - she would make everybody laugh.”

Carrie Aizley hopes to audition during this year's “pilot season,” which runs for several months in Los Angeles. She stopped doing the weekly Groundling shows when she became a mom - she and husband Kevin Neustadt have two young sons, Jonah and Sammy. Neustadt, whose great-grandfather was a rabbi in Indiana, is an Orange County native and graduate of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A Jewish Big Brother for many years, he included his Little Brother in their wedding. Shared parental duties include taking the kids to preschool at Temple Isaiah in West L.A., where they are members.

And along with many remote controls and TiVo devices, she is waiting for the big decision on “Campus Ladies’” potential third season. Hopefully, network execs will agree that with good ratings, big name guest stars and guaranteed late-night laughs, the show has created a solid foundation as it has broken new ground.