Saturday, August 28, 2010

What're Those People Doin' Now?

An unmowed lawn is the suburban fuck you. It tells your neighbors that you don't care what they think, that you have better things to do than manicure your yard. Like write blog posts about how much you hate lawn work and suburbia in general.

My yard has a special bonus: a long mound of dirt from when the main sewer line was replaced. It's been a year and I haven't done shit to plant new grass or cover it with straw. For one thing, the mound is still settling. Planting grass in it would be wasted money and energy. After hard rains, I've shoveled the top layer, turning the dirt over then raking it in a smooth line. I don't know what this does, other than give my voyeuristic neighbors the illusion that I'm attending to the eyesore. If nothing else, it's good exercise for the upper body.

I've got nothing against neighborhoods or neighbors. In New York, you spoke to people in your building and on your block. Park Slope was especially neighborly, at least when I lived there. I knew the newspaper stand owner, the coffee shop cashier, the Mexican restaurant hostess, and most importantly, the bartenders at Jack's, a dark quiet restaurant across the street from my apartment.

One pretty guy was a struggling actor, as was the cute blonde woman who mixed my large martinis. I don't recall her name, but I still see her beautiful face. She had a great body, was friendly and flirty. We talked about film, theater, music. My anecdotes and one-liners usually won me free rounds, but not her sweet touch. No matter. I wouldn't have acted on it anyway.

The other bartender worked as a part-time private investigator. He was a dead ringer for comedian Jim Breuer, and loved to discuss comedy. When writing and editing Mr. Mike, I spent a lot of time around this guy. I sat at the far corner of the bar, manuscript in front of me, red pen in hand, martini and a lit American Spirit framing my furrowed face. The wonderful thing about New York was that I was pretty much left alone. A writer in Brooklyn was not a strange sight. The bartender eventually asked what I was working on, and when I told him, he opened up.

"Mr. Mike! That guy was fuckin' twisted, man! You knew him?"

"A little, yeah."

"Righteous. Here -- next one's on me."

He witnessed me going from manuscript to proofs to final edit to publication. All the while we talked about the old SNL, and I shared my experiences meeting and interviewing the original members of the show. He knew his shit. Appreciated different forms. When I gave him a signed copy of my book, he seemed elated, and clearly read it quickly, for soon he was quizzing me about obscure references in the text. He even promoted me to P.J. O'Rourke, the former Lampoon editor who refused to be interviewed. O'Rourke was in Manhattan signing his latest GOP joke book when my bartender pal approached him.

"Have you read Mr. Mike by Dennis Perrin yet?"

"No," O'Rourke reportedly replied. "Michael was a genius, and I won't read some tabloid book about him."

"But it's not a tabloid book. It's really serious about comedy. You should definitely check it out."

"Maybe I will," said O'Rourke. Maybe he did. Who the fuck knows or cares.

I've lived in southeastern Michigan for a decade now, and have never come close to this kind of community. One exception: the nationalist Greek neighbor who lived next door to our second house.

He always had people on his back porch, drinking, shouting, laughing. If he saw me outside, no matter what I was doing, he'd yell, "Hey Dennis! Come over for a drink, eh?" And I did, trying to find my place amid the locals. While they were welcoming, they talked about nothing, just the minutiae of their daily lives. They had no interest in the wider wicked world. I rarely broached this topic, but when I did, they would stare at their feet. The awkward silence was usually broken with predictions for Michigan's football team.

My Greek neighbor occasionally waxed political, primarily when drunk. His right wing views seemed based on emotion, because his logic was pathetic. He loved Fox News, thought CNN promoted communism and Islam, supported US wars, and bemoaned the lack of rigid order in his native country. He'd get mystical about fascist Greece, remembering how happy he was as a kid when the generals ran things. "Too much freedom now!" he'd lament. "People need to be controlled."

"Um, right. Thanks for the drink. Gotta run!"

"Hey! Come on! One more! Just one!"

I accepted, but rarely went over there again. Within a few months, we moved to our present location. Haven't talked to the guy since.

Nobody talks to us over here. Nor much to each other. But there's a lot of staring out of windows. On my corner, nearly everyone is Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched. Too bad I'm not a warlock. Oh, the show I'd give them! My sloppy yard will have to suffice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Come As You Are

High school still feels ominous, endless walls of lockers, identical rooms, loud kids clogging the halls. Save for a brief time in my junior year, when I was involved with the drama department (led by the wonderfully intense Paris Goodrum), I was pretty much an outcast, on the margins, ignored. I had a small circle of friends, mostly other kung fu geeks, and a girlfriend who only made out and occasionally dry humped. But overall I was nobody, which in retrospect was a good thing.

These memories flooded me as I registered my son for his freshman year. Unlike my anxiety-ridden frosh self, Henry's secure in his skin, laid back, relaxed. There was some edginess in his eyes as he assessed his new school, but that was the extent of it. His pop, on the other hand, wrestled with this transition, trying not to project it on the kid. I worry that Henry will be swallowed whole, lost, in over his head. I remember how shabbily other kids treated him in elementary school, but this bothered me more than it ever did him. Middle school went smoothly, a small, alternative space created for artistic kids. Now Henry's jumping back into the mainstream where jocks are revered, the vacant noise of suburban teens its soundtrack. So I silently fret.

No matter how rocky our marriage, Nan and I always put the kids first. Trina was more difficult, a brilliant raw nerve tearing through space. The more freedom we allowed, the more Trina felt confined. She needed to bounce off walls regardless of distance. Trina moved east over a year ago, anxious to get the adult thing moving. Real life has balanced her out a bit. She's learning that you can't emotionally explode at every obstacle or frustration. Most grown ups tend to look down on that. When I talk to her, she's really cool and forthcoming. There were times when Nan and I felt that we failed with her. But we didn't. I can hear it in Trina's voice. She finally understands what we tried to instill. She's gotten serious about her music, composing and singing original songs. I'm happy that her intensity is flowing in a positive direction.

Henry is the complete opposite. He's more of an observer, tossing off one-liners when the mood hits. He's clever and quick but young. Some of his remarks are shapeless and unformed. Still, he goes for it; that's his nature. I can't wait to see how his mind integrates all the new learning coming his way. There's certainly no shortage of ripe material.

At 6'2", Henry's one of the taller freshman coming in. This was not lost on the lacrosse team, who badgered Henry to consider their sport. He shook his head and walked right through them. The freshman basketball coach latched onto Henry as well, asking him to try out for the team. Henry smiled and shrugged. He doesn't have a jock bone in his body. Nor the mentality. He's physically strong but gawky, and he isn't finished growing. I suspect when he hits 6'4"or 5", the coaches will be all over him. I remind Henry that just because he's tall doesn't mean sport is the sole option. Both Chevy and Brian McConnachie are 6'4", and they've done well with their wit. But it's his choice.

No matter how much I worry about my son, a warm feeling dominates. He has incredible potential, is kind and fair-minded. Nan and I have done a remarkable job with him, and now we'll see how he navigates new waters. I got through mine, splashing, crashing and flailing along the way. Henry's nowhere near the wreck I was. He goes with the flow, Kurt Cobain bangs over large blue eyes. A tender age in bloom.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Too Much Is Real

Beggars are back in force. Homeless sleeping on cardboard, too. People asking for spare change on the subway aren't as theatrical as they used to be (in the 80s, there was a panhandling clown with flaking greasepaint and the most depressed look I've seen on a human face), and a few need to project a bit louder, but they have returned. Problem is, there are more technological distractions than ever, so they are easily ignored. Twenty-first century begging is rough.

Expressions of poverty haven't changed, long blank stares, heads nodding, yellowed eyes and darkened teeth. Many are young; whether they're truly hurting or playing bum is hard to say. The unwashed-anarcho-vegan-ripped-clothes-holding-a-dog look is very retro, but so is everything else, so I can't fault them on style points. If you're white, early-20s, living on the street, I suppose this passes for your uniform. The only thing missing is class hatred. Back in the day, homeless anarchists would bait better-dressed pedestrians. "Spare some American Express?" they'd shout, "Yuppie scum" and "pig" part of the mix. The kids I saw this time were much too polite. Retro-living is increasingly content free.

Unlike Giuliani's regime, which tried to make the city North Korean clean, Bloomberg seems indifferent to the rise in beggars. Maybe, as with Park51, he's ceding them property rights. Maybe he doesn't give a shit. Or maybe Bloomberg considers them city mascots, identifiable characters in Manhattan's theme park. With city tourism at an all time high, street people provide some gritty color. Then again, given the national economy, destitution isn't strictly a New York phenomenon. Why travel when you can see poor people struggle at home?

Strip malls are eyesores when busy. When deserted and vacant, they are sad reminders of needless expansion. More and more Michigan strips malls are closed, For Lease signs a daily sight. Weeds grow through cracked, empty parking lots, beer cans strewn over broken glass. The one nearest me is especially depressing, an older Black man pushing a battered shopping cart filled with pop bottles across fading parking stripes. In (Nothing But) Flowers, David Byrne sings about Pizza Huts and shopping malls covered in daisies. Beautiful thought, but far from what I see around here. An economic neutron bomb went off, clearing everything save for the ugly architecture. I did spot two rabbits inside the former beautician school. Good place to hide from predators. Might prove cozy come winter.

I wonder how deep this current spate of Islamophobia runs. It's certainly vile on the surface, anti-Arab/Persian/Pashtun racism on shameless display. Yet I suspect that the majority of Americans aren't terribly disturbed by mosques and social centers. They've got enough to deal with as it is.

You really have to crank it up to get crazed about an Islamic conquest of the US. The fact that this will never happen must be dismissed, making room for bizarre concepts like Terror Babies, the demographic 9/11. Believing that Obama's a secret Muslim agent putting plans like this in action requires additional breaks from reality. Frankly, I don't see people trying to save their homes having time for this insanity. Maybe they're waiting for Mitt Romney to be elected, conserving energy for Mormon bashing. In America, everybody gets their turn.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kiss The Wound [Updated]

Housekeeping hadn't touched the room all week. I made sure of that. Extended hotel stays hermitize me, and the thought of others rearranging and deodorizing my space on a daily basis was too much to take. I need private disorder to make sense of the outside world. Newspapers stacked in the corner. Empty bottles drying in large paper bags. Food containers scattered around. Bed permanently unmade. TV constantly tuned to either ESPN or NY1, muted or not, depending on mood.

The hotel's wireless connection came and went, which was aggravating, but I'm old enough to appreciate the technological advance, so my cursing desire to throw my laptop out the window remained checked. The laptop's used for screeds, fingers stabbing keys as observations and emotions race through my mind. My notebook's on the bed for when I want a tactile connection to words. My handwriting's gotten worse with age; not quite as scrambled as Carrie Fisher's acid-drenched letters to O'Donoghue that I found in his files, but close. Still, I love the feel of pen on paper. A step away from marking cave walls. That must be a sensual rush.

Jugs of Poland Spring keep me hydrated. Organic fruit shakes keep me somewhat healthy, undone by Absolut and Heineiken. I prefer Dan Aykroyd's Crystal Head vodka, the cleanest, best-tasting vodka I've ever had, but Danny's brand is 50 bucks a Head. So it's an occasional treat. Given the way I feel these days, sucking spirits out of a crystal skull makes more sense. Danny attaches mystical properties to his vodka, and after a few deep swigs you begin to see why. For now, I rely on the Swedes to deliver those visions, with some psychoactive seasoning . Then it's pound the keyboard, or watch well-dressed blowhards on ESPN HD argue about Brett Favre, LeBron James, or Eli Manning's toughness. Whatever the moment dictates.

Up till now, I've been better disciplined in my hotel behavior. I imbibe smaller doses at pre-planned intervals. This trip has been different. There's so much going on -- disease and death, creative transition, living two lives, one in Michigan, the other in New York. The latter reality informs so much else, leading to anxiety, sadness, and wistful meditations. The Project has exacerbated these feelings, as I suspected it would. I simply had no idea how hard it would hit me.

Without going into intimate detail, my 15-year-old marriage is at a crossroads. Our relationship has hit countless rocks, yet kept moving along, blossoming here, blowing up there, always fluid at one level or another. We are two intense people, so butting heads was expected, at times creating wonderful moments, both of us in sync. But it has also caused pain, anger, and fighting. Distances expand. Differences grow jagged. After awhile, you wonder what the point of it is.

Love and respect remain, but have moved into different areas. The wife has observed that in many senses, we should never have gotten married. I tend to agree, not out of regret, but based on the evidence. We jumped into this without really knowing each other. We both wanted it, needed it, so we did it. We produced a beautiful son, the shared love of our lives.

Yet over time, our conflicting personalities emerged, leading to scenes of incredible rage and hurt feelings. We yelled at each other from separate planets. Having grown up in a home where this was common behavior, I wasn't new to the sensation, only now I was the husband, not the kid listening behind his bedroom door. Her family experienced much less insanity on this front, her anger forged in young adult life. Whatever the source, we could go at it. And have.

All this came to a head while I was in NYC. It was very painful for us both. I had a set planned a day or so after we clashed, and wasn't sure if I could go through with it. I had a burning desire to get on stage, yet questioned the urge. A friend was giving a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club earlier the same night in the same neighborhood, so I figured I'd watch him and see how I felt later. Plus, I'm looking to perform at poetry spaces, and his connections could help.

I arrived on time, but he wasn't there. I stood in the back of the darkened room, watching older poets slowly read their verse. Checked my watch -- I had twenty minutes to reach the Teneleven Bar and sign up for its Freakshow Mic. My friend remained absent. On stage, a throbbing, strobe-light silent film flashed images of people in various positions, lending a Warhol Factory vibe to the place. Then a young man plugged in a guitar and played asymmetrical notes, plucking the strings as if picking stubborn flowers. Finally, my friend arrived in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I whispered that I had to leave. I knew what to do.

I toyed with several bits already written or thought out, but for some reason the strobe flick suggested a different route. I would talk about the state of my marriage.

Now, I had no material for this, no jokes or clever twists. All I had were my emotions, which surged each block closer to the bar. I improvised numerous lines in my head as I walked, rejecting most, a few workable. Whatever humor existed rose organically from the pain, no contrivance needed. Entering Teneleven, I let it all go in order to focus on the room. And the first comic I saw was Jeff, the shaven-headed joke writer I enjoyed at the gig where I received blank stares. If he remembered me, he didn't let on; he has a very guarded persona. I told Jeff how much I liked his material, advising him to get an agent pronto.

"You could easily write for late night TV," I informed him.

"Yeah, um, I don't know how to do that."

"Work whatever connections you have. Get an agent to see you perform. They're always looking for potential cuts of someone's income."

Jeff shrugged his shoulders and sipped his beer. Another comic Niles and I traded lines, with Jeff occasionally jumping in. A nice little riff-fest before the main show, hosted by an exuberant comic/actress, Margaret. The small back room filled up, and the conga line of comedians began moving.

My spot was in the middle of the pack. I sat directly off-stage, drinking a pint, studying each comic while considering possible approaches. Once my name was called, I took the mike, tremendous emotion ready to spill over. But before diving directly into what possessed me, I said that there were various routines I could do: Black Muslims on acid, Flavor Aid's forgotten Jonestown connection (a brand injustice of historic proportions), America's addiction to food porn. Yet because of how I currently felt, performing those bits would be false, which is what I'm trying to avoid on this path.

Brief pause. Then I just said it: "It seems my marriage is ending."

Half of the audience were women, several comics among them. As soon as I said that, they leaned in a bit to hear what was next. I had no idea what was next, but out it poured, the pain and anxiety of it, the sadness, the confusion, the guilt. I roamed the stage, gesturing, crouching, voice fluctuating, expressions changing. I honored my wife's life, looks, creativity and intelligence. I talked about how it used to be between us. I wondered if love is doomed to fade, or at least radically change its temperature. I made fun of the idea of me being single after all this time.

"The one thing about modern single life that perplexes me isn't the awkwardness of starting over, or trying to understand new women. It's the apparent need for today's single men to shave their balls."

This got a big laugh from the crowd, the women especially.

"You women demand bald balls. Why is that? Revenge for our sexist demands? If you shave your legs, then we gotta make our sacks slick? Okay. Fine. I'll do it, but what do I use? Gillette Mach3 Turbo blades? Or the Schick Xtreme? A little feedback would be appreciated."

This was easily my best set so far. Everything flowed beautifully. My stage presence held the room. My material connected on an intimate level. Even minor observations scored laughs. It felt great. It truly was a breakthrough. Sadly, it came from a crisis in my private life, something The Project touches on and more.

"Wow Dennis!" Margaret said retaking the stage. "The best comedy really is personal."

I guess. But am I still doing comedy?

AND NOW: The wife weighs in.

Monday, August 16, 2010

In Gawd's Image

The proposed mosque near Ground Zero, peeling paint and rust, was quiet when I visited. No action news teams, no outraged 9/11 survivors or those who claim to speak for them, no jihadists or Death To America chants. Just an old building awaiting renewal. I stood there and stared at it, waiting for something to happen. Given all the reactionary clamor, I half expected the building to rise in the air, fly over the city, then crash into the Chrysler Building.

Ground Zero seems less a holy site and more like Terror Disney, hundreds of tourists smiling and waving for cameras as giant cranes lumber behind them. No one knelt and prayed. No one pounded the construction wall and wept. People just milled around the hole as they would a county fair. I'm mildly surprised that some enterprising soul hasn't set up a shooting gallery with large Osama bin Laden targets, or Dunk The Muslim featuring a dark-skinned actor yelling Arabic gibberish at baseball-throwing rubes. Profit from the Prophet. It's the American way.

There's been loud heavy talk of "tolerance" of late, and like much of the national discourse, it's tinged with halitosis. Americans love beating their chests and patting their backs simultaneously, congratulating themselves for courageous, righteous behavior. Why anyone desires to preside over this revolting display escapes me, but I'm slow when it comes to power hunger. Obama's rather tame, routine remarks about the mosque fed our domestic jackals, though admittedly it takes mere scraps to whet their snouts. Having to be the president of all the people blows. Pretending to care about idiots and lunatics must wear you down, which is probably why presidents relish missile strikes on anonymous others.

I recently experienced a weird mix of tolerance and insanity at the Village Lantern, the basement stage that's sort of home base. It feels that way when Ray Combs hosts, but Ray is on hiatus, leaving the Lantern in less nimble hands. The night I performed the host was Hassan, a large, boisterous comic for whom no genitalia joke is too extreme. I like Hassan and have shared post-show pints with him. His humor doesn't send me, but he's pretty loose on stage, sometimes recklessly so. Hassan held it together for much of the night, mocking and chiding in his inimitable way. Then up came another Lantern regular, Ratnesh, who seems to invite emcee abuse, and certainly doesn't shy away from it.

I've yet to fully understand Ratnesh's routines, partly because his English isn't great (but then, neither is my Marathi), but mostly because he's all over the place. This night he took especial interest in the female comics, of whom there were many for once, yet I wasn't sure if he was complementing or hitting on them. He appeared eager to disprove any notion of queer tendencies, which other male comics, Hassan included, suggest he possesses (fag-baiting is a regular feature of NYC stand up, alas). Ratnesh finished his set and sat back down as Hassan retook the stage.

"Let's hear it for Nesh!" yelled Hassan.

"My name is Ratnesh! Ratnesh! Not 'Nesh'!"

Hassan chuckled. "Hey man, I'm trying to give you a nickname. Nesh is a great nickname."

This enraged Ratnesh. "No it is not! Fuck you! You don't understand its meaning! Go fuck yourself!"

Hassan looked surprised, becoming angry in return. "Look fucker, you're in America now. We have nicknames. Get used to it, asshole!"

"No I will not!" Ratnesh screamed at the top of his lungs. "Fuck you! I'm from Mumbai! Our names mean something!"

"Who gives a fuck? What's your problem, dickhead?"

"You are my problem! So fuck you again!"

"Fuck you back! Sucking dicks made you a jerk!"

"I do not suck dicks! You suck dicks!"

The hostility was so tangible that in most cases you'd expect a fist fight. But comics rarely throw down, preferring schoolyard insults to physical altercations. Hassan told Ratnesh that the show had to go on, and Ratnesh fell silent. Shaking his head in disbelief, Hassan introduced the next comic, who of course was yours truly.

I came onstage, kissed Hassan's nicotine-stained hand, grabbed the mike and stared at the crowd.

"Thanks Hassan, Ratnesh for warming up the audience. It's always nice to see comics of color get along. Gives me hope. I want to keep the love train moving, but before I do -- Ratnesh, you say you're from Mumbai?"

"Yes sir."

"Well, I know that blowing up things is common there, but this is the Village. Tone it down, man."

Mercifully, Ratnesh laughed.

I squinted into the stage lights. "Is Hassan still in the room?"


"Hassan, you know I love you. I love you so much that if you left a smoking SUV in Times Square, I wouldn't turn you in." I extended a clenched fist. "You and me, brother."

The audience laughed as Hassan went outside for a smoke.

I launched into an autobiographical bit about the work required to watch early porn: setting up the Super 8 projector, loading the film, running to the window with my pants down to see if my mother had pulled into the driveway, and if she had, unplugging and quickly stashing the projector in the closet. Kids today have it easy with Web porn, not giving a thought to we masturbatory pioneers whose passion and dedication ensured leisurely pleasure for later generations of jerk-offs.

The audience enjoyed the bit, which is part of a larger routine about cultural changes and attitudes toward sex. But the Mumbai/Yemeni rumble sucked a lot of energy from the room, so who knows how much better the bit would've done without that madness.

Afterward, I walked through the late night streets of the Village, reflecting on the set and The Project. My stage presence grows stronger each time out, my material at times problematic, depending on the room. Whatever mixed emotions I feel, strolling the city calms me. I lose myself in its embrace, familiar rhythms soothing.

NEXT: A painful breakthrough.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Past Is Plastics

Tim and I sat at the Tile Bar, surrounded by loud twentysomethings, two ghosts lost in time.

"Man, this place has changed."

"Just the crowd, not the decor."

True. Tile's interior is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago. Same photos on the wall. Same Stranger Than Paradise movie poster near the door. Same neon clock over the same jukebox playing many of the same songs. Only the mounted flat-screen TV reveals the actual date. Take away the kids, and it could be 1992. And Tim and I would be there.

I've said before how much the East Village has changed. But of all my old stomping grounds, the EV retains elements that refuse to yield to time. Tile is one of them, though the patrons are more white collar than back in the day. Tim reminded me of a fight between two drunk women, punching, clawing, rolling on the floor. No one lifted a finger or called the cops. The bartender sighed, grabbed a baseball bat, came around and confronted the women, pushing them out the door. Drinking and chatting resumed.

Hard to see that happening with this manicured crowd, though I'm sure a few would capture the fight on their phones and post it to YouTube.

Tim is one of my oldest friends. He used to illustrate my column in New York Perspectives. He has taken me into areas of the city I never knew existed nor would ever visit alone. Like me, Tim's a Midwestern transplant with deep redneck roots. To us, NYC was and has remained Mecca. We've never lost our sense of awe. We float through the crowds, aging stardust in our eyes.

That's the general feeling. The stage gigs yank you into the immediate present, a different world that takes time to navigate. I'm getting better at this, picking up on cues that months ago perplexed me. When Tim and I walked into the club for my set, I instantly knew that my material would not connect, at least not on the level I'm attempting to reach.

It was a very young gathering, large framed glasses on narrow faces, stovepipe jeans, bored expressions. The emcee, quite nice and welcoming, looked to be around 18. The three comics before me did pretty much the same material: I hate my job, don't like my life, watch too much porn, jerk off a lot, and aren't blowjobs funny? No mention of the wider, violent, insane world. That's my trip.

I pointed out how cultural distractions short circuit attempts to oppose war and corporate theft. I mentioned a blue collar acquaintance of mine who was swayed to question the Terror Wars on class grounds (he and his buddies serving as imperial fodder), until he realized that part of these campaigns is based on control of oil reserves. "Fuck those ragheads!" he blurted out. "No oil? That would fuck up NASCAR!" A sacred cause worth killing for. The same goes for the Drug War. Eliminate that, and goodbye cop and prison shows.

"Have you seen that show about prison riots?" I asked.

Indifferent stares. A few near the back were busy texting.

"Well, there's a weekly show that highlights inmate violence. But I think this corrupts the whole prison riot experience. I mean, how many inmates are genuinely engaged in reprisal killing, and how many are just playing to the camera?"

I then became a British TV director admonishing the inmates for their lack of realism. "Pit Bull, when you stab Crazy Rape in the neck, don't hold back. Let us really feel the hatred!"

A few chuckles, several smiles, but mostly stares. What is this old man doing? What the fuck is he talking about? Doesn't he know that blowjobs are funny?

To be fair, my set was too short to fully explore the premise. That's the problem with what I'm working toward, which is more long-form, satirical and confessional. These brief sets make this nearly impossible to develop. Part of me says to throw it all out and go back to writing jokes. A tall, thin comic with a shaved head who followed me did just that. He was good, the best of the lot. Later, outside, I shook his hand and said how strong his material was, that he's a fine joke writer.

"Uh, thanks man," he replied, avoiding eye contact.

I smiled back, then took off with Tim to the Tile Bar.

"You're really smooth on stage," Tim observed over drinks. "You look the audience in the eyes, stay loose with the mic, and don't get rattled when they don't laugh."

"I'm getting used to that."

The problem, said Tim, is that I'm speaking a foreign language to people half my age.

"Maybe I'm just not funny."

Tim laughed. "No, you're funny. Hell, the fact that you're doing this at your age shows how funny you are. Maybe these comedy mics are the wrong venue."

I've thought of that. On the one hand, playing to stares has seasoned me. But maybe I should be working in poetry spaces, where free-form confessions are welcome. There, humor is a plus, whereas in the clubs, social awareness is a decided demerit. Another item to consider.

The bartender refreshed our drinks. Tim and I stared at our reflections behind the bar. Two old timers on once familiar ground shifting under tired feet.

NEXT: More Lantern chaos.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cage Match Moist

About to engage in more NYC stage thumping. The Project's getting clearer and better defined each time out. Still, there's some heaviness of heart, nothing dire or depressive, just a lingering sense of loss. Part of this is connected to Tom Davis dying, alongside another figure from my young life who's also wasting away. The latter person raises emotions I haven't dealt with in some time, so there's an ephemeral feeling of sadness around. Perfect for comedy. Ha cha cha!

My son and I watched a show about troubled comics the other day, the standard litany of Kinison, Farley, Belushi, Freddie Prinze, and for some reason Bill Hicks, who succumbed to cancer, not speedballs, booze and a gun in the mouth. His philosophical bent stood apart from the frenzied others, and my son thought Hicks and I shared an attitude. Perhaps. I certainly wouldn't reject it. But Bill wrestled and finessed his demons differently than I do, his comedy penetrating fresh minds long after his death. I'm still in workshop mode, trying to find which stray wires best connect.

Making a lasting mark is a crap shoot. There are times when I wonder if legacies are worth it. Inspiration? Sure. I've spilled paragraphs about influential examples. But where does this lead? To what end? The present culture is so loud, crass and ugly that cutting through the noise is a marathon in itself. Delivering a different vibe is entirely another task. It can be done, but it's a fucking test of endurance. Maybe the battle alone is the point.

Richard Jeni was also featured on the show, a victim of suicidal depression. I never understood why Jeni didn't break bigger. He was a solid, crowd-pleasing pro who appealed to mainstream tastes. Apparently, his ultimate goal was to land a sitcom, which he eventually did, but it didn't last. Then the clouds rolled in, leading Jeni to pull the trigger.

When you look at his career, the question about comedy's meaning crops up again. Jeni connected with audiences that momentarily connected with each other. He clearly left many strangers smiling and happy, but was it all to realize TV notoriety? I hope that's not true, yet given the way things are arranged, what else is there? Some of the younger comics I've seen regard TV exposure as the promised land. I want to ask them what comes after, assuming they get that far. But I'm speaking from a different world, the dimensions of which I'm still trying to define. It would be the hu-of-bris to quiz them on their realities.

What's the takeaway here? No idea. Just spouting off before heading east. I'll file reports from NYC, most likely with performance video, but that'll depend on the set. Some non-comedic activities may also occur, and if so, I'll fill you all in. Until then, make the spirit of Pearl Bailey smile and keep lovin' on each other, hear?

ALSO: My second appearance on Funny Is Money, hosted by Bob Illes and Tom Kramer, airs every night this week at 11PM Eastern, 8PM Pacific. Click on Listen Now, and enjoy old stories about LA sitcom traps and Fridays minutiae. It's as if time stopped, and nobody gave a shit.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Turn It Up

Recently, a friend sent hours of audio pleasure, more Jack Benny and Fred Allen, Bill Hicks bootlegs, Hunter Thompson rambling to college kids in 1977, Devo in Japan, 1980. But what really jazzed me was The National Lampoon Radio Hour, sixty minutes of satirical assaults at the peak of that magazine's power. The timing of this arrival couldn't be more perfect.

I haven't heard these shows since I listened to O'Donoghue's master tapes, none of which I was allowed to copy due to their fragility. The Radio Hour was a brilliant if doomed attempt to re-energize the form, and I can't think of anyone trying it today, certainly not on the same scale, much less with comparable talent. In one long bit (one of many -- filling time quickly became a concern), O'Donoghue, George Trow, Henry Beard, Doug Kenney, Anne Beatts, Brian McConnachie, Sean Kelly, and Gerald Sussman discuss humor as a source of natural energy that, like oil, is running out and must be conserved.

"We consume 61 percent of the world's humor," Beard says, "and produce somewhat less than nine percent."

Beatts and Brian suggest that in order to save humorous energy, tell jokes only to those who'll appreciate them. O'D adds that telling jokes to the elderly and non-English speaking people is wasteful. Kenney laments extinct jokes, sharing the last known elephant joke ever uttered.

Q: How can you tell an elephant is dying?

A: It rolls around, twitches, trumpets in pain, blood runs out of its trunk and vultures come and pick out its eyes.

Trow gently admonishes, "You could've saved that one, Doug."

"We may need to ration humor on a need-to-laugh basis," warns Beard.

"We've always heard, 'Always leave them laughing,'" says O'D. "Well, we can't do that anymore. Sometimes we just have to leave them smiling. Sometimes we just have to leave."

While there are some clearly scripted lines, there's also a lot of riffing. Listening to these Lampoon greats talk over each other, try to top each other, and laugh with each other gives a taste of what Lampoon meetings and dinners must have been like. Not for the shy or slow-witted. With these minds going at it for several intense years, it's no surprise that the Lampoon cannibalized itself, letting the likes of P.J. O'Rourke to lord over the ruins, steering the enterprise toward frat/jock humor. There was no rationing of racist, queer-baiting jokes under O'Rourke. He enjoyed a surplus.

Listening to the Radio Hour also brings back Chevy, Belushi, Gilda, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, and Harold Ramis from their pre-SNL/SCTV/Animal House/Caddyshack period. They were energetically different, somewhat radical, sometimes wistful, despite all the death humor. Once big money and celebrity beckoned . . . well, that story's been told.

These shows inspire and sadden me. As I continue down the performance path, to be resumed next week in NYC, much of the older forms I'm comfortable with are flaking away, revealing a persona I've yet to fully understand. The Radio Hour reminds me of the beginning, listening with my friend Mike when we were 13, many references over our heads, but creative fire blazing our minds. Amid the horror of my young life, these voices suggested another path. I'll let you know if I ever reach its end.

I hadn't seen this piece until recently. It's O'D at his professional zenith in 1980, just before his return to SNL and career frustration and marginalization. Michael's living large here, playing the enfant terrible for the camera, his apartment a prop and memento filled backdrop (and of course I love the Mondo mask). I spent years in that place and remember every thematic display. There were moments when I closed my eyes and quickly reopened them, expecting to be back in Indiana. It seemed like a dream. Maybe it was.

Monday, August 2, 2010

For Richer, For Richer

If only those attending Chelsea Clinton's wedding wore pig masks, not just as a nod to Terry Southern, but to simply show who they truly are. Yes, we're all God's creatures, each loved in our own special way, yet some are more porcine than others, rolling in wealth and grandeur in the midst of imperial destruction and economic need. As a friend on Twitter put it, Chelsea should be happy that her wedding didn't end Afghan-style, where drones explode at "I do." Thankfully, the airspace overhead was closed so that the pigs could cavort free of fear, much of it on the taxpayers' dime. Seeing how much they give to us, it's only fair that we help them party in private.

I wish that this porkfest would extinguish liberal love for the Clintons, but it won't, not on a large scale, anyway. As a breathless subject confessed to the New York Times, the Clintons are liberal royalty, sterling examples for all to honor and follow. Right wing attacks on the Clintons help ensure liberal allegiance, just as reactionary howling about Obama keeps most of the flock in line. A sweet racket for elite Dems, whose hunger for privilege and power place them closer to their antagonists than to their obedient base. That this is open for all to see makes it worse, for acceptance is based on delusion, not ignorance. The ignorant can learn. The deluded keep dreaming regardless of reality. Throw pig slop in their faces and they'll insist it's fine cuisine, or at least tastier than Republican slop. That difference alone keeps them dozing in shit.

A reader mailed a poll showing that 84 percent of assembled liberals at the latest Netroots Nation still supported Obama, despite his continuation and expansion of Bush/Cheney policies. The reader added, "You called this years ago." Um, yeah, I did. What did it accomplish, other than to raise my blood pressure? That others are making the same arguments I made at the height of Obamamania is encouraging, but I suspect fruitless, at least in the short term. Once Campaign '12 begins, we'll be told that if Our President isn't re-elected, yahoo fascism will prevail, ushering in another dark age. Hey, if that's what it takes to get an antiwar movement off its ass . . .

Netroots fealty is no surprise. I shared my experience at Yearly Kos, where Dem worship rocked the Richter scale. Hillary was the main star that year, with Obama coming on strong, and Edwards providing eye candy. I remember feeling bad for the lone person at Bill Richardson's campaign booth, ignored by the Netroots kids. (Richardson is this generation's Mo Udall, or maybe Birch Bayh, minus Great Society trappings.) I don't recall seeing any Kucinich supporters, which would make sense given Kos' mockery of his antiwar views. Indeed, there was little mention of imperialism, apart from my panel with Juan Cole, Manan Ahmed, and John Mearsheimer. We were decidedly the Netroots sideshow, well attended, but not taken very seriously by the conference organizers.

I don't know if there were any dissident panels at this year's Netroots, but if so, they had no effect on the overall gathering. Mainstream American liberalism remains firmly behind the war state and continued corporate plunder -- so long as "smart" people are in charge.

The Times ran a charming piece about American children studying Krav Magda, the Israeli military's fighting system. Kids were quoted celebrating physical damage to opponents, and while their instructor warned against indiscriminate use, the main thrust took glee in Krav Magda's lethal features.

Naturally, Israel was painted as a defensive country, Krav Magda one part of repelling the Arab hordes. It's amazing that this fiction endures, but with the rise of anti-Arab racism and violence in Israel, stateside supporters must toil overtime to keep the preferred narrative intact. I can only imagine what the Times, or any mainstream outlet, would say if American kids were studying Silat Mubai, a Muslim martial art, in order to defend against Zionist attackers. "Jihad Jitsu: Brainwashing Through Fitness." The thing writes itself.

After a stellar fourth season premiere, Mad Men's second episode was all over the place, narrative strands going into what seem like dull areas. But then, Matthew Weiner's baby has been here before, usually righting itself in unexpected ways. The main characters appear lost in time as 1965 approaches, Don Draper most especially, his drinking getting worse, his age starting to show. Don is paying for his many sins, his psyche flailed in The Passion of the Draper. We knew this was coming, but man, the Mad Ave wiz has really let himself go. Perhaps another baptism in ocean waves will help.

Bert Cooper's fear of the Civil Rights Act was funny, and accurate. Granting African-Americans equal status (whatever the reality) was seen by the Coopers of that day as creeping socialism, another extension of the welfare state. Unlike the 1960 election, where Nixon was the agency's choice, neither Cooper nor Roger Sterling mention the '64 campaign, maybe because of LBJ's landslide. What point would there be in mourning Barry Goldwater? Still, given Cooper's bizarro Ayn Rand/libertarian mindset, you'd think that he'd celebrate Goldwater, who was much closer to his thinking than was Nixon.

Cheer up, Bert. History is on your side. You probably won't live to see Reagan elected, the Dems turn rightward, social programs gutted, tax cuts for the wealthy, imperial war expanded, but it's coming. Dream about a future you'd approve of, while we fantasize about a glamorous past that never was.