Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Broken Roads Meet

Memories of LA comedy run mainly through Ray Combs. I'd done improv at the Improv, some stray stand up, but writing for Ray put me near the real game.

Ray's comedy wasn't really mine. I'd been submitted to Letterman and SNL by the time I was 25, but youth and the lack of Harvard connections worked against me. (Letterman was nice enough to perform a concept from my submission). Ray was about to break open in LA. He loved my writing and wanted whatever "edge" I could lend him without losing his theme park appeal. So west I went, moving in with Ray and his family.

There are so many stories about my time with Ray. I've shared a couple here, but I'm saving the choice ones for the book. It was an unreal experience. I saw firsthand how Hollywood comedy worked and it intimidated me. I'd adapted quickly to New York, but LA was a larger beast. I rarely felt comfortable in its presence. When offered entry I fled east. The space-time continuum apparently demanded it.

Interviewing SNL and National Lampoon vets for Mr. Mike was a more pleasant experience. This took me all over LA and into the Valley (those exciting pre-GPS days), and I got to talk humor with several influences. I stayed with Nelson Lyon, O'Donoghue's writing partner and the chief model for the Mr. Mike character. Nelson was intense, quick, brilliant. He had connections everywhere, from William S. Burroughs to Devo. Tall, strong, shaven head, clad in black, Nelson made LA tolerable for me (haunting, too -- John Belushi's spirit reportedly occupied the house where his final drug binge began). Yet still I felt a tremendous distance.

It had been 15 years since my last LA visit. Life since then changed in ways I'd never anticipated, forging a tougher mindset from that eager first-time author. Despite lingering anxiety, I was ready to perform, confident in my material and approach. Friends advised that I avoid the standard venues. In the main rooms, comedy is pretty much the same on both coasts. But unlike New York, where to my knowledge only a few alternative outlets exist, LA offers a variety of stages that avoid the typical stand-up conga lines of self-hatred and diminished expectations.

I didn't have time to check out every alternate stage, but Barry Crimmins sped the process along by getting me on a late night bill. Ron Lynch, a Boston comedy veteran and regular at Barry's Ding Ho club in the 1980s, hosts a weekly show at the Steve Allen Theater on Hollywood Boulevard called Tomorrow. Every Saturday at midnight, Ron and a guest emcee present comedians, musicians, storytellers, performance artists, and random What the fuck was that? acts to a young, energetic audience. This is no open mic; each act is distinctive from the other. After a year of honing my act amid the steady bleakness of the New York scene, Ron's approach exhilarated me. Actual variety. What an idea!

It's a measure of Barry's influence and belief in my Project that Ron accepted me without question. Ron didn't know me, had never seen my act, but based on Barry's word he put me in his show. Pressure to excel existed, but Ron was welcoming and open to whatever I wanted to do.

There were several stand up approaches I considered, ideas that received stares in NYC. But The Project's not strictly a stand up vehicle. The point of stand up was to regain my stage legs, establish flow, sharpen my improv skills regardless of reception. My year on those sad New York stages helped in ways I hadn't considered. Those rough nights proved vital. At times I wondered what the fuck I was I doing. Now it makes perfect sense.

I told Ron that I wanted to give a reading. I hadn't attempted this back east, but wanted to try for some time. Ron said sure, keep it to 10 minutes or so, and have fun. Fun! That's a word I've not heard since going back on stage. And fun is what Ron's Tomorrow show is all about.

The show opened with music and singing by The Damselles and The TC4, sassy upbeat numbers that set the night's tone. They were followed by Ron and David Higgins, a character actor best known for his role as Craig Feldspar on Malcolm in the Middle. Before hitting the sitcom jackpot (he was also a regular on Ellen before she became the gay Oprah), David was part of a trio called The Higgins Boys and Gruber that made an alternative comedy mark. (David's brother Steve is Jimmy Fallon's announcer/sidekick.) Ron and David were casual but sharp, their timing professional, assured. They engaged the audience, mostly twentysomethings, feeding an anticipatory energy. The mood was playful, absurdist, but never mean or cruel. Laughter and applause felt -- dare I say it? -- humane. Everyone present shared it. How could you not respond in kind?

Ron and David introduced me by mentioning Mr. Mike, eliciting favorable recognition. It still amazes me how many people love that book. I regularly receive emails from kids who've just discovered it. Being billed as an author made my reading seem natural. I walked to the mic, papers in hand. The first page was heavily shadowed by the lights, and I adjusted several times to get a clear view. The audience assumed this was intentional and began laughing. So I played off that and stretched the fidgety silence a bit more. Finally, I read a recent piece from my blog:

"Shadow dog fighting spares canine lives, but it's pointless to bet on. Yet there's always a rube who picks the shadow. You feel bad taking his money until you remember that money buys commodities that bring pleasure to life. Then you remember that you're a Buddhist and that all life is suffering. You try to remember why you became a Buddhist in the first place. As you strain to remember, you run a red light and kill a pedestrian. You smile at the irony and hit the gas. Suffering at home beats suffering in prison."

Step back and bow. Laughter and scattered applause. They weren't sure what this was or where I was going, but they embraced it. Such is the vibe at Ron's show. I followed with some TV series pitches as the audience played producers looking to buy. They bought into the premise, reacting favorably to shows like Pussy Hunt with David Spade and Queer Heil for the Skeletal Gal with Ann Coulter. What surprised me was how much they liked Get Off My Lawn, Man, a vanity project where I harangue kids about my generation's superior music and comedy, doing Python and SNL routines in my robe amid uncut grass. Looking at me, they probably thought it was too real to be a parody.

I closed with a remembrance of an older woman I long ago dated, her two loves being fried rabbit and Jesus. My tone instantly shifted, but the audience went along. They appreciated what I did and the love was mutual. My Boston gig with Barry was great; those nights when I connected in New York stand out. But this was something deeper. I wanted more the instant I got offstage.

In the reception area I met one of The Walsh Brothers, Chris, whose set with sibling David was perhaps the evening's highlight. The Brothers combine a traditional comedy team approach with odd theatrical choices, no fourth wall (Chris came to the stage by climbing over the audience, yelling, spilling popcorn everywhere), contrasting energies that complement their pieces. This was the kind of comedy I vainly sought in New York.

Chris and I traded compliments. He told me how much he enjoyed Mr. Mike and that O'Donoghue influenced his work. This gladdened me. If only Michael could see some of his offspring, I thought. More importantly, Chris lacked any noticeable cynicism. When he talked about his humor, he was positive and inspired. Yet another difference, but I think by now I've driven that point well into your skull.

David Higgins was even sweeter. Chatting after the show, I told David how much my son loves him on Malcolm in the Middle. "You have a camera?" he asked. I had a Flip which I used to tape my set. "Let's say hi to Henry," David said.

Henry beamed when he saw the tape. Craig Feldspar hanging with his Dad, talking directly to him. A beautiful ending to a wonderful night and uplifting visit. I don't know if LA is in my immediate future, but I plan to return. I'm starting to see The Project's effect, a promise beginning to unfold.