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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Kill Buzz

Is Libya still getting shelled? I stepped away from all media, took a walk through campus, encountered no urgency, elation, fear, or disgust. And certainly no protests. Michigan students love Obama almost as much as they love themselves. Gazing on their smug young faces, you'd never know we were throttling Libya. So I figured that Obama shot his Humanitarian load and we were back to just three wars.

Alas, no. To be expected. At this point, if we aren't attacking a smaller, poorer country, we'd have to check the mirror to see if it's still us. Americans are supposedly tired of the Terror Wars. If so, they're sure fucking quiet about it. That's the beauty of a privatized military: it kills and destroys with little public connection. If you know no one in uniform, chances are you don't think about cruise missile strikes or kill teams turning their prey into fetish items. Fifty people vaporized in an instant doesn't register. That you pay for it and it's done in your name stirs nothing. An Afghan child's severed arm landing at your feet might move you if the song on your iPod wasn't so awesome.

Several readers and friends suggest that I write an updated version of Savage Mules. "You called it!" they say. Well, I did, but so what? No clairvoyant skills were needed to see where Obama was obviously heading. And despite some wounded supporters and soured fans, Obama retains solid liberal allegiance. Especially with re-election time approaching. So revising Mules would be wasted energy. What more can one say about Democrats and endless war?

Those critical of Obama's adventure lean heavily on constitutional arguments. When you base your concern on the Constitution, the game's pretty much over. The Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Poor Richard's Almanack, and Thomas Jefferson's French porn stash mean nothing to our betters, and rarely apply to everyday life. "It's the law!" some shout, hands over star-spangled hearts. The President of the United States bound by law. How cute. Nixon understood: when the president does it, it's not illegal. Nixon's faux pas was openly admitting it. Thank God we have a man in the White House with better manners.

Reading comment threads at liberal sites (primarily Crooked Timber and Mother Jones, where David Corn auditioned to be Obama's George Stephanopoulos), "the law" was tossed around a lot. Pro-war libs countered by favorably citing the War Powers Act, something I doubt many of them did during Bush's reign. But Obama's different, Libya's not Iraq, these cruise missiles care, and as with Serbia we're bombing for moral reasons.

What's striking about pro-war libs is how good Obama's assault makes them feel. Many appear in blissful moods, like they just donated clothes and canned goods to the local mission. They are only too happy to help Libyan rebels -- whoever they are, or whatever beliefs they may hold. It really doesn't matter, so long as American liberals feel better about themselves.

Of course, this is all in their heads. Exulting over the Boer War would have the same political impact. Maybe that's the key to happiness: finding a war you like and playing it over and over in your mind. You can even change outcomes, reverse losses, establish post-war utopias where your support for the struggle is celebrated and taught to children.

Think I'll go with the Federation against the Romulan Empire. Those mad dog butchers have been flouting decency and suppressing democracy for too long. Give me full power, Scotty! Sulu, fire main phasers!

Monday, March 21, 2011

This Time For Sure

Our latest Humanitarian exercise follows a worn script, players pro and con assuming their standard roles. It's so predictable it's funny. You'd think that after a decade of constant war in numerous countries, our betters would whip up a different scenario, for variety's sake if nothing else. But I'm a romantic. I like to believe that people crave originality. Yet the sad reality is that Americans happily feed on redundant themes, the simpler the better. And you can't get much simpler than violence wrapped in piety. If we don't save the world, who will?

Bill Hicks once likened US foreign policy to old westerns where a gunman forces an unarmed man to pick up a pistol and then kills him when he does. But I think our national values are closer to The Sopranos -- armed sociopaths trying to maintain their power and wealth by any means necessary. And if a former friend/ally/business partner becomes inconvenient, two in the back of his head. Bada bang. It's only business.

I had my doubts about a Western assault on Libya. I didn't think it would happen. It made no sense. But I stupidly disregarded a sudden imperial shift, and for that I apologize. No matter how closely Gaddafi worked with imperial powers, he wasn't one of them. His early defiance (The Most Dangerous Man in the World, recall) suggested potential deviation, and a Sopranos foreign policy can't risk that. Plus, Gaddafi is easily demonized. He plays his role with relish. So sending cruise missiles his way is simple to justify. Obama sounded bored announcing it.

I'm not sure what the end game is here. Even if I did know, it wouldn't matter. (Friend Richard Seymour offers what I think is the best explanation.) We have zero power over our owners, who can bomb any country they want with no public input or debate. The real comedy comes when public commentators act as if their two cents have currency.

Some of the pro-bombing arguments I've read are true howlers, filled with ass-kickin' rhetoric and testaments to nobility. In an earlier day I'd link to them, mock them, engage them. But I lack desire to exchange flames with pro-war liberals. You probably know who they are, and if not, you're better off.

Trading insults won't stop these expanding wars, nor will heroic postures save Libyan lives. We are mere spectators to violence and power. Pretending that our concerns matter to those pushing launch buttons delays any chance at liberation. The sooner we accept our powerlessness, the closer we'll be to forging actual politics.

Then again, I'm a romantic.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Evidence Of Possibility

When a Terror War ally behaves in Terror War ways, why the shocked surprise? Hypocrisy covers only so much. At this late date, hypocrisy is sawdust on a wet floor. Gaddafi's violent effort to maintain power confuses and twists minds across the spectrum. An instructive display. Neocons call for war. Liberals call for no-fly zones. Radicals call for Libyan state support. The narrative is shattering, forcing those inclined to chase after shards in high winds.

Some say these are revolutionary times in the Arab/Persian world, potentially everywhere else. Could be. I've never lived through a world revolution, so I don't know the signs. Clearly, inmates are restless. Increasingly dispossessed angry restless. Hence elite concern and accelerated class war from above.

These motherfuckers are trying to take it with them, trampling millions along the way. Question is, How deep is the inmate uprising? How resilient? Most importantly, how adaptive? Imperialists scramble about, seeking hooks and explanations. Events confuse them, which means that fear is setting in. This has been building for several years, and a united inmate resistance could gain significant ground right now. Problem is, old narratives chain high and low alike.

The idea of a US/NATO assault on Libya is absurd. It may happen, but to what end? With whose money? Gaddafi has been a loyal servant to global powers, much more than Saddam. There's really no reason for the US to overthrow his regime. Gaddafi's more predictable and reliable than any unknown quantity. And he's willing to crush opposition. That's long been a plus. Most "humanitarian" chatter misses this rather large reality, and I'm not sure who they think they're fooling with their so-called sorrow.

No-fly zones are an Iraq meth high. That Saddam wasn't allowed to touch the Kurds is considered a great democratic triumph. Never mind NATO Turkey's treatment of Kurds -- no no-fly zones for them. Iraq's Kurds caught a major break thanks to an imperial shift, and soon began sorting out their own personal grievances and tribal claims.

Some liberals believe that no-fly zones are a one-size-fits-all solution, a proven problem solver. It might slow Gaddafi, but not weaken him. If anything, he could point to the planes as imperialist interference, which would be true. But again, why would the US undermine a staunch ally like Gaddafi? To prove a rhetorical point? Many liberals think that the imperial state must behave ethically. And you wonder why the Democrats are still in business?

Radicals who see Gaddafi as a flawed yet stalwart revolutionary nationalist have nowhere to go. Marginalization frees them to spout any theory, for what traction do they enjoy? That some embrace dated scenarios simply deepens their irrelevance. I understand. Old arguments require no new thinking. They serve as life rafts in a wading pool. I've done my share of wading pool floating. It's pleasant, so long as the sun's not too direct and your drink has plenty of ice.

The takeaway? Our owners are nervous. Perhaps vulnerable. They still own the firepower, which is hard to get around. But I'm all for trying. What else is there to do?

Monday, March 7, 2011

World Gone Oink

Never tell the truth, much less The Truth. Lower case truth makes people uncomfortable. Upper case Truth provokes riots, rampages, mass suicides, building demolitions, tsunamis, and rapid devaluation of currencies, save for the yen. Despite war, earthquakes, and crippling diseases, the Japanese find ways to survive. Except for Pink Lady. Man, was that one bad musical concept. Good riddance.

Most dictators are driven from power through bloodshed, but a few have abdicated with embarrassed shrugs and What was I thinking? History never notes those former strongmen. Lucius Brane of Madagascar. Colonel Qam of Java. Togo's Psycho Twins. What do they have to show for their peaceful resignations? Apart from billions stashed in offshore accounts?

Whenever you curse human stupidity, remember that you're human too. If that's too depressing, punch every person you encounter. If that's too dangerous, keep to yourself and drink. After a few shots, things won't seem so bad.

She asked if I could ever forgive her. I already did in my mind, but after admiring my crazy face in the mirror, I thought I'd stay "mad" for another hour. Why waste a good crazy face?

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.

My cousin jumped on the porch, lit firecrackers taped to his chest. POP POP POP. "I'm a suicide bomber!" he yelled, laughing. I didn't see the humor. He just ruined the sports shirt I bought for his birthday.

Will humanity survive this turbulent era? How should I know? I spent 20 years trying to save the whales. Humans are on their own.

Insanity is an acquired taste. And no, not like baby's blood. What's wrong with you?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spider From Mars

Sheen grabs the back of my head and pulls down. He's stronger than I thought. If he takes me to the ground, I'm done.

I slip from his grasp, lock his right arm with an old Aikido move, drive him into the wall. The girls scream but don't interfere. Sheen's smiling through the sweat. His bleached teeth look ready for ripping. Bruce Lee said that biting was an effective combat option, to be used in tight situations. As I put more pressure on Sheen's arm, his head pressed against the wall, I see he's weighing that option. For me to finish this I need to adjust, and that might give Sheen the opening he needs. So we stand there, straining, sweating.

"Is that all you got, bro?" Sheen asks.

"It's enough for now."

"Dude, don't bring a dog leash to a tiger fight."

Sheen's left elbow smashes into my ribs. Agreeing to fight naked means no protection, and the sudden pain loosens my hold. Sheen swiftly spins and strikes my sternum with a stiff palm. I stagger back, block two punches to my head, drop, throw a quick fist to Sheen's solar plexus then grab his balls and squeeze.

Most guys would buckle. Sheen simply laughs.

"Bro, if you wanted to blow me, we didn't need this foreplay."

Sheen's cupped hands slam my ears. The ringing dizzies me. I think I hear applause but am not sure. Sheen pushes me to the floor with his foot and stands over me.

"Winning!" he yells. The girls jump around. I hold my ears and look up. Sheen's cock is growing near my face.

"I think we have a new Sober Valley Ranch girl," he says. "Let's see how you look in lingerie."

For all the media moral scolds (the New York Times, that paragon of adult responsibility, most especially), I think Charlie Sheen knows exactly what he's doing. Or has a basic idea. He's a Hollywood kid; PR courses through his tiger blood. In a rigid corporate environment where everyone must behave themselves, Sheen's outbursts and lifestyle burn bright. There are as many who envy him as revile him, a guy who says whatever he likes, tells his boss to fuck off (flirting with ethnic slurs), lives with porn stars, and makes a shitload of money. That it's all about him is consistent with our celebrity-worship culture. Sheen understands this, which is why he's currently the most famous face in America.

Muammar Gaddafi knows about celebrity culture, too. Since 1981, when US media outlets deemed him The World's Most Dangerous Man, Gaddafi played the role with Ian Fleming flourish. Over time, Gaddafi drifted back into the imperial fold, making peace with his scriptwriters and publicists. After 9/11, Gaddafi became a Terror War ally. He had matured by accepting his place in the global power arrangement.

I'm sure he suffered Saddam-like shock when it suddenly turned to shit, and like Saddam had no hesitation butchering those who challenged his rule. His bombing of Libyan civilians not only surpassed Ronald Reagan's body count in 1986, it showed that Gaddafi finally approached his original billing. Unlike Charlie Sheen, whose career is far from over, Gaddafi faces the final act. It was a long run and served its purpose. The lingering problem is cleansing the stage of so much blood.