Friday, April 30, 2010

Pink Mist Memories

While the long-term effects of Iceland's volcanic ash are unknown, Europeans are happy that the crisis has passed.

When will Americans wake up to the growing fascist threat?

Out of work since Michael Vick's conviction, Juicy and Chronic are reduced to street pantomime.

Iraq's Abu Ghraib Players stage their version of The Breakfast Club.

Utah's top firing squad relaxes between gigs.

Breakthroughs in human/insect communication have proven ephemeral at best.

Too much potassium may feed political apathy.

Devin's community spirit was as infectious as his skin.

Unless he finds the Lord, this is what Hell has in store for Jim Carrey.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happy Trigger Opposites

When you catch the right riff, it's exhilarating. When I do, I remember little of what I say -- a pre-written line and I'm off, riding the room's energy. It's a vibrant, peaceful sensation that ends much too quickly. As I move on to longer sets, I'll see how far I can take it. But for now it's brief bursts to that clean edge and back. And yes, inner-circle, I plan to start taping them.

I especially feel this at the Village Lantern, an inmate-run dump of a space where anything goes and usually does. This is without doubt Ray Combs' room. There are other Lantern emcees, but Ray's mics inspire comic anarchy unlike anything I've seen. The tiny place is packed when Ray hosts, and he doesn't disappoint, unless you have thin skin or are unsure of your talent. Then you might be in trouble. But even here, Ray will help you help yourself. You need only let go and body surf those waves.

Before the show, I apologized to Ray for not delivering a boffo-laffo set for his friends at the hostel. Ray blew it off. There was nothing to feel badly about, he insisted, though he did relay what his friends said about my set. The emcee's partner, who was extremely nice to me after that show, thought my stuff was too UCB for his room. Fair enough. The emcee, however, was pissed about my set, thinking that I didn't care that I bombed on his stage. Ray didn't believe this, and shouldn't, since it's not the case.

I knew about a minute into my set that I was wrong for the room. My energy and material were diametrically opposed to the prevailing tone. It happens. That I didn't start flailing about, seeking any cheap laugh to "save" my set is what irked the emcee. I went off book, commenting on the audience's silence, but not in an inorganic way. If my act was insult/baiting-based, then yeah, I'd probably crank up the abuse. However, I'm working toward something else. There are bound to be quiet, confused, unamused crowds along the way. This was one.

Not only did I care about that set, I learned a valuable lesson about trusting the riff. So I saw it as a positive experience. Afterward, I stuck around to talk to him, since his displeasure was evident. But he avoided me, wouldn't look me in the eye, focused all his attention on another (and very bright) comic. His partner was more polite and curious, asking if the story about the Muslims was true. "Pretty much," I replied. "Of course, I was tripping at the time." Finally, I gave up trying to engage the emcee, and walked with the other comic back to the Village, having a nice chat about influences and approaches.

The Lantern's basement was a different story. Comic after comic flirted with, pushed against, and dove into the room's semi-controlled chaos. One English comic was upset with Ray over a joke about her delivery, and she spent her time interrogating Ray who was off-stage. When she finished, Ray took the mic and apologized. He wasn't serious about his jibe, but it clearly cut the delicate comic. Then Ray announced that as contrition, he would go back to a nicer period of comedy, circa 1986.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Improv is proud to bring up this next comic, who's working on a screenplay called Pizza Man for another up-and-comer, Bill Maher -- give it up for Dennis Perrin!"

I rolled with Ray's premise. "Thank you! Give a hand to Ray Combs Sr.! Expect big things from him very soon! He's gonna be around a long time!"

Ray laughed, as did the other comics, however cautiously. Apart from Ray, I haven't seen another comedian make fun of his Dad. And to be fair, Ray doesn't really mock his old man, but is clearly working through complex emotions about his father's career, private meltdown, and suicide. My feelings about Ray Sr. are also mixed, though mostly positive, as he did much to feed my young ambition. So I guess I'm allowed to make Dead Ray jokes as well.

I improvised a brief 1986 set, mentioning Reagan, Iran/contra, Leno, and Howie Mandel, whose future I predicted amid Mandel's old screaming "What? What?" routine. Then I snapped back to 2010 and said, "The beautiful thing about getting fucked in the ass is that you can't fake a reaction. It's perhaps the most honest form of human communication." From there I riffed about how anal sex explains contemporary power relationships, referring to gays in the military, corporate rape, and the recently-exposed video of US servicemen massacring Iraqis from the air. I don't recall the exact wording, since I only wrote the opening lines, but it flowed and felt great. The room responded favorably, and I ended with a word about love, quoting and crediting O'Donoghue: "Love is a death camp in a costume." Good night!

Later, up in the bar, I had friendly conversations with a few younger comics, buying them a round of pints. Then I ran into Ray's emcee friend who showed up for the mic, shaking his hand, smiling. Ray joined us and acted as facilitator, trying to smooth out whatever differences existed. There were none on my end, though I did say I didn't appreciate his cold shoulder after my set. If he had any problems with me, I was right there to hear them. Clearly, direct critical engagement is tough for this guy. But in the end, none of it mattered. If he doesn't want to book me in his rooms, fine. There are plenty of other stages. I'm not for everyone, nor am I trying to be.

The Project is not about comedy feuds, rivalries, or career envy. There's a larger purpose here. What it is precisely I still cannot say. That's being worked through, stage by stage. But it's already generating positive reactions, which is inspiring. It's a labor of love, liberated from its costumed death camp.

NEXT: Laughter and nothingness.

Friday, April 23, 2010

We Died Easily

Bombing comes down to perspective. Depends on your belief in the material, type of audience and venue, personal expectations and objective conditions. Every comic has eaten it, and I've done my share of choking. The trick is gazing into that abyss without having the abyss throw something at your head.

For my second set, I'd planned to hit Penny's Open Mic, an East Village free-for-all Ray Combs recommended. Penny features not just comics, but singers, poets, jugglers, tap dancers, ventriloquists, and sword swallowers for all I know. A nice if exhausting change of pace. Then another comic-emcee emailed and invited me to appear on his stage the same night. He knows Ray, who talked me up, and was willing to try my act. While Penny's was appealing, this other gig might mean more work. So I put away my tuba and roller skates and reviewed possible bits.

The gig was at an international youth hostel in Chelsea, a weekly parade of stand-ups killing the kids' boredom. There was no stage -- just a cleared corner of a small dining area, like playing someone's kitchen. The sound system was a portable mic set-up attached to a little speaker, the lighting harsh florescent. No place to hide. The audience was right in your face, reminiscent of a Scared Straight prison setting. And man, was this crowd young.

The emcee and his partner greeted me with smiles. They had no idea what I did or had planned, but Ray's endorsement clearly carried weight. Still, they placed me near the end of the show, just in case. Didn't matter to me. A few minutes warning and a pleasant intro was all I needed. The only question was, which bit do I perform?

Originally I wanted to talk about my weird sexual fascination with right wing women, the nuttier the hotter. This began in my childhood when I got erections looking at pictures and film of Eva Braun, whose flowing peasant dress concealed a smoldering Aryan sex drive. The utter wrongness of it was of course part of the appeal, but there was something deeper, uncompromising, strange. I've never been able to define it. When I debated or mixed with right wing women in my political days, this attraction remained. Lefty women were obvious and familiar. But reactionary babes revved a hidden motor. I wanted to fuck those who worshipped Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. The more I hated their politics, the stronger my desire.

As I watched the first few comics spar with the crowd, I decided that this bit was too arcane for the room. I toyed with an evolving premise about power relationships based on extreme porn categories, but again thought it not right. So I returned to the Black Muslim Acid set. Drugs, racism, hallucinatory revelations -- surely the kids would be hip to that. Right?

The comics before me performed more or less the same material. Different energy levels, some sharper and funnier than others, but not an eclectic range of topics. And again, nothing really political or social. There was also a lot of talking to the audience, making fun of each person's country and stereotyped culture (the Germans as Nazis, the British having bad teeth). The kids seemed to like it, yet this was not what I had in mind. When I was introduced, I improvised a few opening lines, then went directly into the bit.

Silence. Stares. When I got to the Blacks giving me acid and their features morphing into Disney crows, the lone Black audience member got up and went outside. The guy was from the Bronx, so there wasn't a cultural divide. He simply had no interest in my story. When you're confessing your inner-racist core and a Black guy walks out, you know you're fucked. And I was decidedly that. The energy shifted from giddy and silly to weirdly tense.

In earlier days, this would have derailed me. I would've panicked, gone rogue, sprayed the room with anger and expletives. But this is a different mindset. A certain calm embraced me, and I smiled at the kids who found nothing I said funny. I commented on their silence, not in a hostile way, but trying to gauge where their heads were at. I riffed about this being the sociological part of the evening, and the guys from Argentina smiled and chuckled. I turned to two long-haired boys from Berkeley and joked that I was upset with their lack of support.

"Come on, Berkeley. Racism? Drugs? White guilt? This shit's right up your alley! What's wrong with you?"

I got smiles and nods out of them. I finished the bit, thanked the crowd, walked over to the emcee, smiled, shrugged, shook his hand. I went outside for air and immediate reflection.

Obviously, my act was all wrong for this room. I'm not an insult comic, so I wasn't going to drop everything and start hammering global clich├ęs. The Berkeley barb was more appeal than put down. But I should have improvised more, trusted my gut. My belief in this material blinded me to that truth. Keep the spine, lose the fat. Leap and the net will appear, to quote a refrigerator magnet.

One of the Berkeley boys approached me outside. "I thought your material was great."

"Really? You could've fooled me."

"That thing about being whitey on the moon was funny."

"So why didn't you laugh?"

"I was laughing on the inside."

"Well, if I ever perform inside of you, I expect to kill."

He laughed. "That's good! You should use that!"

I've heard worse suggestions.

NEXT: Fun and confrontation at the Lantern.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Call Out The Instigators

"Fuck you, Pakistan! You're all crazy, blowing yourselves up! Drive into the river!"

My Jamaican cab driver was miffed by a reckless peer who cut him off. So at the next light he shared his feelings, which were reciprocated, though I couldn't make out the words. Looked like angry ones from the backseat.

If it hadn't taken me ten minutes to grab a cab, I would've gotten out and hailed another. So I tried to relax my driver with some stupid line about too much caffeine, which he ignored, shaking his head. On the radio, a talk show caller was upset because he can't wear his favorite handgun on his belt, for fear of arrest. Then I wondered if my driver was packing. Then I thought of something else.

This was my ride to La Guardia, capping one of the best weeks in eons. Made sense. Given the energy and emotion I'd encountered and channeled, a boring cab to the airport would have been anticlimactic. Sometimes it's best not to struggle against the universe.

My first night back set the week's tone. I snagged a spot in Ochi's Motel late show, a basement stage beneath the glittering Comix club. After watching a few early acts, I walked up 9th Avenue to my friend's Chelsea gallery which hosted a charity auction featuring the cast of Ugly Betty. I've never seen this show, so perhaps the sight of Vanessa Williams schmoozing with Judith Light held some related meaning. Most of the crowd was your standard artster types, disheveled boho boys here, nattily-dressed queers there, smatterings of yuppies all around (has the New England preppie look ever died?). I had a drink, leaned back and took in the scene.

A pretty pert woman attached to a French artist wore a 50's housewife dress, something June Cleaver or Betty Draper would shine in.

"I love your dress."

"Thank you."

"Very retro. I see you serving martinis at a pool party and all the neighborhood husbands are secretly lusting after you."

"You're sweet," she laughed. "Suburban caged heat -- that's me."

As we discussed the sex lives of classic TV moms (Donna Reed a tigress waiting to explode, Mrs. Cleaver a dominatrix), her French boyfriend wandered in, asking what would make a good theme for a show.

"Regret," I said.

He scrunched his face. "You cannot paint regret."

"Why not?" his girlfriend asked.

"It is too subjective. You need broader themes that pull the viewer in."

"There's always love," I offered.

"Ah!" he smiled, forefinger in the air. "You can never go wrong with love. It contains all meanings."

"It's also lucrative," I added.

"Yes. That too."

I finished my drink, said goodbye to my new friends and headed back to Ochi's Motel, bracing Spring breeze on my face.

Entering the cramped club, I noticed a few comics I'd met at the Village Lantern during my last trip. The guy who loved Mr. Mike smiled and shook my hand, welcoming me back. He was leaving for another gig, but was very friendly and encouraging. The other comics either didn't recognize me or were deep inside their heads as they waited to be called. Unlike the first trip, I didn't feel nervous pangs, wondering how I'd fare. I felt at peace, relaxed, while some of the younger guys anxiously paced. When introduced, they bounded on stage, letting their energy rip.

The young emcee bungled my name, calling me Dave for some reason. I gently corrected him, then dove right into the Black Muslim Acid bit. This was only the second time I'd performed it, playing with it, looking to see what legs it had. As with Upright Citizens Brigade, I received laughs where I wanted them; and like UCB, they were a bit delayed, the images sinking in after a beat. My stuff was so different from the other comics that I had the room's attention, but there was tension as well. I noticed this last time. The current NYC scene, at least those parts I've encountered, seems really uncomfortable with, at times hostile to, political/social material. This would be confirmed the next night.

No matter. The set felt good, and as I came off stage, a Black patron who laughed through my bit gave me an appreciative nod. For a beautifully brief instant, I was Whitey on The Moon, Gil Scott-Perrin smoking lunar dust. This revolution will be syndicated.

NEXT: Bombing internationally, but in a positive way.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

If Only Iraq Had Blown Bill

Friday, April 16, 2010

Get It While You Can

"You should live in Europe. You seem very European."

Sofie smiled under bright red bangs, sipping a microbrew.

"Naw. I'm as American as you'll get," I replied. "It's embarrassing how American I am."

Sofie's two companions giggled. We sat on the front steps of my friend's Chelsea art gallery, watching the older rich and younger hipsters stroll by. Sofie and her friends were visiting from Belgium. They saw me sitting alone, drinking a beer, and decided I was harmless enough to engage. We talked about art, politics, life. They were friendly and very cute. They refused to believe my age, which was flattering. Their soft young features warmed me, and it felt great to be alive in the city I love.

After bidding the women goodbye, my friend closed the gallery and we walked along High Line park, commenting on the new buildings reserved for the city's elite, the architecture stunning, the remoteness extreme. It was a clear Spring night, so beautiful to make you weep. The surrounding energy flowed through me, a rush akin to a psilocybin high, images, sounds and colors connected, whole. For a moment I was swallowed by the city, and I happily surrendered, dopey smile on my face.

I experienced tremendous anxiety before this current trip, sensing trouble or some potential hazard. But this was lingering fear of transition, happiness and success clawing at my mind, trying to keep me down. That motherfucker has had so much power over me that it believes it has sovereignty, but in reality its grip has weakened. The further along this path I go, the more that motherfucker fades. Good riddance.

This outing has been fantastic -- dare I say uplifting? I performed three sets in my first three nights, each a story in itself, which I'll get to in subsequent posts. I hope to squeeze in another set or two before returning to Michigan, but if not, that's fine. I'll soon return for more. I've caught glimpses of a potentially explosive future, and I like how it looks. As a part of my brain that's been caged for the better part of a decade recently told me, "It's about fucking time, dude." No shit.

Yesterday I traveled upstate to see Brian McConnachie, a writer for the original National Lampoon, SNL, and SCTV. Brian's also scored numerous character acting roles, from Caddyshack to several Woody Allen films. He's extremely intelligent, alert, funny and soft-spoken. We walked along the Hudson River and talked about various topics, comedy chief among them. It's always nice to make an influence laugh, and Brian was generous in that regard.

We stopped for lunch at a little cafe in a tiny town where the locals know Brian and waved hello. As we dined on chicken sandwiches and Blue Moon ale, Brian aired some recent concepts he's playing around with, spoke about his just-finished novel, and at my urging, told some great stories about working with the SCTV cast. They were as brilliant off-camera as they were on, though not above some competitive tussles, primarily over casting. Still, as Brian explained, the SCTV experience was much more fulfilling than his first stint on SNL, where cocaine, cruelty and pettiness were a daily experience. (Brian later returned to SNL for various stints with different casts.) He loved them all, but highlighted his work with Catherine O'Hara, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis. I sat there like a kid, a very lucky kid, taking it in. It was the best lunch I'd had in some time.

We went back to Brian's rural house where he showed me pages from Rick Meyerowitz's forthcoming book, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great. It's filled with remembrances, appreciations, Lampoon pieces, and countless photos of the magazine's stars, a good number of which I'd never seen. There's a series of snapshots of Michael O'Donoghue dancing around the Lampoon offices, while a younger Brian sits nearby, straight-looking in white shirt and bow tie. "Wow" was all I could say. "You said it" was Brian's reply.

Then Brian turned to an appreciation of himself, told by Chris Kelly, son of Lampoon legend Sean Kelly and writer for Bill Maher. "Check it out" he said, and there at the top was my name, connected to O'Donoghue's. While it's been years since Mr. Mike was published, I still get a childlike thrill to see my name mentioned alongside these comedy greats. It's truly humbling. Thanks Chris (and if Bill needs some bizarro material for his monologues, you know where to find me).

Brian drove me to the train station early, and we sat in his car, waiting for the 3:09 to Manhattan. He asked about The Project. I explained what I have in mind and had already achieved. Brian smiled warmly, put his hand on my shoulder and offered genuine encouragement. It was a beautiful moment, among many I've experienced on this trip. We hugged, shook hands, and I boarded the train. I tried to read the Arts section of the Times, but the tears in my eyes blurred my vision. Instead I watched the Hudson River flow by, counting my blessings.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Into The Crevasse

I'm off to NYC for another week of stage diving. Will provide updates as needed, but the bulk of tales will come after. Aloha.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Last Call

The Moonlight Lounge was in the back of Ross Hall, near the rear exit. By day it served as a dorm room, but at night it became Butler's alternative scene, especially on the weekends.

The room was large, a bit sunken, big comfy couch in the middle, primo stereo system along the left wall. Many parties were thrown there, but they rarely degenerated into simple college noise. We did a lot of talking, debating, arguing, performing. Unlike the frats and sororities, there was no class line to cross. If you could intellectually hang, you were welcome. If not, you were in for a rough ride, unless you brought booze or weed. Chemical contributions helped ease your entry.

Thinking back, there were moments of class baiting, primarily when preppies and frat boys dropped in. I recall one night a friend who was on a Republican kick (he supported George H.W. Bush over Ronald Reagan) dragging in a couple straight from the Omegas in Animal House. They wore matching plaid outfits, were well-scrubbed, looked around with pinched expressions. A Moonlight regular Zone and I had just hit a bong, so the air was fragrant. Then Zone, a cute punkish girl from Jersey, put on Oh Shit! by the Buzzcocks.

She cranked up the volume, nodding her head to the beat. When the song finished, she played it again. And again. The preppies got the hint, and left soon after. Kids!

Moonlight was where I cut my teeth as a political debater. An editor of the campus paper, Kurt, was the most left-wing person I had yet encountered. He regularly received threats from reactionary students, but he never shrunk from sight. His dorm room door had fliers opposing US missiles in Western Europe, on which some student scrawled "Commie!" Inside, a huge poster of Fidel Castro hung over his bed, lefty publications strewn around. This was where I first read The Militant, organ of the Socialist Workers Party, an organization my Army superiors warned us to avoid. But with headlines openly celebrating the Sandinista revolution, my curiosity trumped my patriotism. Within weeks, I regularly had copies of The Militant in my barracks room. Nobody cared. Amazing that we won the Cold War, eh?

Despite this new reading material, I was still a mainstream liberal who supported Ted Kennedy and then John Anderson. Kurt attacked me from the left, which was a new sensation. (I heard that after graduating, Kurt moved to the right and worked for a Republican politico, an honored American tradition.) But in time I returned the favor to Kurt's friend, Mike, who claimed to be a communist, a map of Eastern Europe on his dorm wall.

After reading and digesting numerous reports of Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the territories and southern Lebanon, I began questioning the official narrative of plucky little Israel fighting off the savages. This sent Mike into hysterics. "The PLO puts anti-aircraft weapons in schoolyards and hospital grounds! They force Israel to bomb those targets!" That was the first but not last time I'd hear that defense. It also taught me that Zionism cuts across ideological lines. Back then, you couldn't critically say the word Zionist, lest you be considered a Nazi. It was all too emotional for me, yet exciting. (Mike did introduce me to Oingo Boingo, their album Only A Lad a Lounge favorite.*) Some of these conversations began seeping into my scripts for Kamakaze Radio, the official comedy group of the Moonlight Lounge.

I spent countless weekends in that room, spanning 1980 to '82. I spent so much time at Butler that some acquaintances thought I went to school there. I did, on occasion, attend classes with my friend Dave. I also dined in Atherton Hall, using Dave's student ID, where I was introduced to vegetarianism by Dave's roommate, Brett, a brilliant guy whom I idolized at the time. I was very confused, raw, lost, angry, seeking some kind of balance, while Brett seemed complete and together, confident, funny, and cool. The lack of a father figure as a kid did a serious number on my young mind, so I sought replacements. Brett was the first of many.

Revisiting the Butler campus during Final Four weekend brought back these and many other memories. It reminded me that for a brief time, being a Hoosier wasn't a complete drag. Most of us were Indiana natives, some of us looking to leave for bigger stages. We shared many tastes, forged a deep camaraderie that still exists, however yellowed its edges. Though it has a few new buildings, Butler University remains the small school where my mind and muse expanded. I suppose that's why I wept when Butler narrowly lost to Duke in the national championship game. The team's tournament run stirred up old emotions, put me in touch with those I've hadn't spoke to in years. We all felt the magic of now, the passion of then. I don't know how we would've felt had Gordon Hayward's shot hit at the buzzer, but I suspect it would have been pretty fucking powerful. It still feels pretty sweet, all things considered.

HOW CLOSE? Sport Science does the math on Hayward's final shot. Man oh man oh man.

*OTHER LOUNGE FAVES: Ramones, The Clash, B-52s, Boomtown Rats, Sex Pistols, English Beat, The Specials, Bob Marley, Blondie, Devo, Talking Heads, X, Adrian Belew, King Crimson, Adam and The Ants, Psychedelic Furs, The Go Gos, Pretenders, Dead Kennedys, Suburban Lawns, Gang of Four. What sides did you bring?

Friday, April 9, 2010

All The Children Are Insane

Several readers have asked what I think about the snuff tape from Iraq that's making the rounds. Well, you should already know what I think. Empires, dying or otherwise, have numerous willing executioners. Teach them to use advanced weaponry, drill them in the righteousness of the imperial cause, then sit back and watch foreign bodies explode. And the sorry thing is, that tape is tame compared to other tales of slaughter in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. Slap a laugh track on it, get some shit comedian to crack wise over the killings, and you have a Spike TV series. Ho hum. Another day in paradise.

Jon Schwarz is covering this quite well, with help from John Caruso. If you have yet to read them, do so now. But for me, Bill Hicks caught this condition in the crosshairs, if you'll excuse the ballistic metaphor. Like Jack Black's Wonderboy, Bill preferred mind bullets to the real thing.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


The last time I wept when a favorite team lost was in 1972. Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Bob Moose threw a wild pitch, allowing George Foster of the Cincinnati Reds to score from third, sending the despised Reds to the World Series.

I watched this at a friend's house (who's now a sports radio host in Seattle), burst into tears, walked home sobbing, hoping not to encounter any of my large tormentors on the way. I was a big Roberto Clemente fan, and the thought of him and the Pirates not repeating as world champs killed me. Little did I know that two months later, Clemente would die in a plane crash, assisting victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. That put the Pirates' loss in the proper perspective.

Tuesday morning, hung-over from wine and emotion, I looked at the front page of the Indianapolis Star. The bold head read SO CLOSE over a large photo of the Butler basketball team leaving the floor, oblivious to the streamers and confetti falling for Duke around them. Their blank, shocked expressions hit me, and I began sobbing.

Why? To be honest, I really haven't followed Butler this season. I passively rooted for them, nodding appreciatively when I saw they'd scored another victory, the longest winning streak in men's hoops this year. But I felt no intense connection with the Bulldogs. My mind has been consumed with other issues, college basketball well down the list. When the NCAA tournament began, I had no real stake in who would win it. I made predictions to friends (West Virginia in the Final Four my most accurate pick), and was sympathetic to Syracuse out of loyalty to my pal Barry Crimmins, who bleeds Orange when not wearing Yankee pinstripes, but that was about it. Butler was at best on the periphery.

My father told me about Butler early on. Dad's a longtime Bulldogs fan, attends many home games. Earlier this season, he was raving about this team. I replied that yes, Butler has a solid hoops program, one of the better mid-majors, alongside Gonzaga and Xavier. Dad shot down this comparison. "Son, they're better than that. This is one of the best teams in the country."

I considered this booster talk, nothing more. Whatever makes the old man happy. But once the tournament started, it became clear that something was happening. Dad said, "Just you wait. You ain't seen nothing yet."

I watched highlights of Butler's first two games, impressed with their tenacity and grit, their team defense beautifully suffocating. When they moved on to play top-seeded Syracuse, I thought, well, the road ends here. Not a bad run. Yet the Dawgs hampered the Orange, absorbed solid hits and kept coming. The ball bounced their way enough to pull the upset. While I felt bad for Barry, I was stoked by Butler. Only Kansas State stood between them and the Final Four.

I worried about K-State's speed and offensive firepower. With Syracuse gone, I'm sure they thought Butler's luck would fade. That might explain the frustrated, confused looks on K-State's faces as the Bulldogs slowed them down, cut off easy threes, harassed them into turnovers. As the clock ticked down to yet another Butler victory, I jumped around my living room, yelling and laughing. Given some of my bizarre private behavior, this celebration was positively sane. Butler was going to the Final Four in their hometown. No way I was going to miss this up close.

My relationship with Indianapolis is complicated. I was born there, grew up there, spent my Army enlistment there. I knew Indy intimately, and like most intimate arrangements, you clearly see negative features. I hated Indy's provincialism, its conservatism, its dullness. I couldn't wait to leave for New York, an urge that began when I was 14. At 22, I finally did.

But in the three years leading up to my departure, I spent significant time on the Butler campus. Several close friends were enrolled there, most of whom were pre-med. I was stationed across town at Fort Ben Harrison, fulfilling my duty to Sam. Whenever I had free time, I drove my dented, grill-less, weed-reeking, fast food wrapper and 8-track tape cluttered Mercury to Butler. It remains one of the happiest periods of my life.

NEXT: My non-college college years, and coming to terms with Hoosier roots.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Curious Indeed

It's no secret that Hollywood fucks up much of what it touches, especially in franchise efforts. Too many thumbs smudge the lens. In most cases the source material is so dreadful that it doesn't matter, save to financial backers. But once in a great while the source is worthy of respect and care, which naturally guarantees the opposite. Better source material is usually an affront to mechanized minds, so it must be dumbed down for the public's benefit. Anything less would be elitist.

Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is a loud exploding example of this, Conan Doyle's creation rewired to fight Terminators. Hell, if Ritchie had introduced Victorian-era cyborgs, I wouldn't have blinked. They would have been right at home. This Sherlock Holmes more resembles Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West than the original stories. All that's missing is a big music/dance number over the closing credits.

Being a Holmesian geek, my perspective is skewed. I read Conan Doyle's stories as a kid (alongside the Hardy Boys and Sad Sack comics), and while I didn't understand every utterance or period reference, I embraced the mysteries Holmes was hired to solve. I saw Holmes as a superhero, his Baker Street flat his Bat cave, his use of drugs his spinach. I liked the idea of wrestling with clues and ideas in a snug private space, a conceit that remains, as anyone who's lived with me can wearily attest.

Re-reading the stories over time, I grew closer to cold, calculated Holmes. While I would never presume to match his intelligence, there are traits we share: the obsessive focus on subjects, the sensitivity to crowds and public noise, the use of chemicals to expand/quell the mind, the personal mess and clutter. One major difference is that I would never try to capture violent criminals. I'm too delicate for such excursions.

Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes isn't quite right. It's a different approach, which is fine, but confused. A disheveled inconsistency. His English accent is slight to non-existent. Perhaps because there've been so many Holmeses, Downey decided to strip his down to nothing. Hard to tell. I'm a big fan of Downey's and consider him a first-rate talent. If Holmes were a new character, maybe his approach would work. But I simply don't recognize the old detective.

Jude Law's Watson is more Jude Law than Watson. And I don't recall the good doctor being so handy with his fists and feet, much less adept at stick fighting. Watson was brave and armed himself when necessary, but he wasn't Kato to Holmes' Green Hornet. Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler is stunningly bad. Adler, "the woman" as Holmes called her, was one of the few who could mentally match Holmes. McAdams conveys nothing of the kind. Her presence is a distraction, which is an achievement considering the other distractions Guy Ritchie has flying around the screen. As with so much else in this film, McAdams is anachronistic -- modern Hollywood playing dress up against a CGI London. The bastards simply can't help themselves.

As do numerous fans, I consider Jeremy Brett to be the best screened Holmes. Brett not only caressed Conan Doyle's cadences, he looked much like the illustrated Holmes, at least early on. Age and weight made Brett's later outings hard to watch, but in the original episodes, his Holmes crackles with intensity and intelligence. Here Watson (David Burke) returns from a trip to find Holmes meditating before a fire. Holmes' thoughts on mental stagnation were uttered by Downey as well, only Downey rushed his lines while crawling on the floor. Brett takes his time.

In Ritchie's film, Professor Moriarty remains cloaked in darkness, doubtless being saved for the sequel. In the Granada series, Moriarty is seen in the light of day, a criminal mastermind going about his business. Here Moriarty invades Holmes' flat to issue a final warning. Two equal intellects ("He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order") serving different masters.