Zero Days in Paris, One Day in New York

29 April, 2012 at 4:42 pm (film, performance)

"The Apartment" screenprint by M.OwenI was supposed to be in France right now. I haven’t done much in the way of traveling since jaunting off to Kathmandu several years ago to attend my sister’s wedding, and I was starting to get that itch to see something completely new just to really jolt one’s daily expectations. However, since my trip to France was going to happen under the auspices of chaperoning a student trip, it was not completely under my control and I didn’t make the chaperone cut (too many male chaperones, too many female students, and a justifiable need to try and achieve some balance). Instead, I have ended a quiet week off from work domestically revisiting former experiences in a slightly new way.

The first was that I attended Jason Reitman’s live reading of the screenplay of The Apartment at the Times Center in New York. Reitman had previously led a performance of this script as the second of his series of staged readings at LACMA in Los Angeles. I found out about it about a week and a half before the reading, and tickets were, despite a minimal charge of ten dollars, not sold out. I spent a frustrated few minutes with my cursor hovering over the purchase button, weighing whether it was worth it to abandon a prior commitment and fly out to L.A. for a single performance. It’s something I like to do — go to great lengths to attend a small event, not abandon commitments — I took a trip to Chicago just to see Terry Jones a few years ago, and once drove a crazed, weather-tossed twelve-hour round trip to see Peter S. Beagle for an hour. Both were minor, anecdotal adventures and well worth the stupidity.

In this case, however, I closed the ticket tab of my browser, told some L.A. friends about it, and resigned myself to missing it. It did sell out later that day, and a week later it was announced that Natalie Portman would be playing the role originated by Shirley MacLaine. Then Steve Carrell was announced in the role formerly occupied by Jack Lemmon. The casting coups for this tiny event went out over the entertainment wires, and all subsequent events in the series of six readings evaporated instantly upon pre-announcement. I had missed my chance to see something both star-studded and enviably ephemeral.

And then! Oh, yes, and then… things took a lovely turn. Read the rest of this entry »

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Expert Ease

7 November, 2010 at 1:35 pm (performance)

I listened to Roy Smiles’ play Pythonesque on BBC Listen Again a number of weeks back, and I just couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t just the uncomfortable dissonance between the voices of the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus that live in my aural memory and the impressions that were being done for the Radio 4 performance. No, I’d like to think that I can give actors a pass for not totally resembling a real-life person, and when I caught both Eric Idle’s Greedy Bastard Tour many years ago and the more recent An Evening Without Monty Python I found that listening to other people do the lines of established skits didn’t bother me. Their timing, on occasion, sure — the same way that any cover or live version of a song can mess with your internal metronome — but not the voices.

What I believe it reminded me of, more than anything, was my still-smoldering hatred for The Tao of Pooh, which remains, yea these seventeen years after I read it for philosophy class and threw it across my living room in a clichéd but honest fit of pure revulsion, my least favorite text in the English language, beating out the writings of both Dan Brown and Akiva Goldsman. The conversations in Pythonesque were staged in such a way that they felt robotic, both in that they were constructed in ways in which no people had ever talked to one another, and also in that they were jammed full of little notes and lines and references from the show and from the films. This was an attempt to win the audience over, to show that the writer knew the subject matter and to warm the cockles of our nostalgia. Instead, it made it feel to me like a Frankensteinian patchwork of words enjambed together in unnatural ways, with the halting, twitchy cadence of Werner Brandes’ security lapse.

Soon thereafter I had a chance to listen to Good Evening a play featuring a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch as Dudley Moore and three other actors as his comedic contemporaries. Despite having heard most of their names, I have never plumbed the depths of the work of Peter Cook, Moore, and the like; they are regularly namechecked as comedy establishment luminaries, but my instinct has always been that since I was so much a fan of the madcap subversion — by those like the Python troupe — that came after, that I might find them clever… but a little staid. However, I was enjoying the radio play, and it wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that I was suddenly struck by the suspicion that it was by the same author. I was running around in my head how interesting it was that the comedian characters were expressing their personal problems in the style of the style of the sketches they had written when the link suddenly became clear. But while Smiles’ Good Evening pulled this off, it was because it employed structure as artifice. There would be scenes of the characters together, as people, and then it would switch into a sketch narrative that served to illustrate the issues mentioned previously, with the characters playing the roles they’d made famous, but with a heaping dollop of subtext. The Guardian theatre critic says that Pythonesque was written “‘in the style of’ the troupe’s comedy”, which seems to translate into Smiles having the characters constantly whooping, chirping, and dropping references as if they never stopped inhabiting their roles from the television series. And while this might service the fantasies of some Python superfans, it simply doesn’t ring true.

It seems Smiles goes to this well with some regularity… back in 2004 a play of his was produced called Ying Tong that featured the character of Spike Milligan and the various characters he’d played in The Goon Show, with the characters existing within the drama as manifestations of Milligan’s real-life bouts with mental illness. But again, the dramatic conceit here gives license to giving the fans the characters they loved while maintaining the humanity of the actual people behind them. I probably wouldn’t have minded Ying Tong, much in the same way I didn’t mind Good Evening. But my familiarity with The Goons is close to that of my familiarity with Python. I hope to see or hear Smiles’ Milligan play some day, as it might give me better insight as to whether my dislike for Pythonesque is born out of my proximity to the subject matter, or my analysis that while in his other works he constructs theatrical devices to allow for writers and their fictions to coexist.

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TV on Stage

13 July, 2010 at 9:54 pm (performance)

Klang! Collage Numero UnoThe-Man-who-isn’t-my-Father (that would all be one word in German) once saw Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson perform Shakespeare live. Considering that I’ve pretty much wanted to be Alan Rickman since I saw Robin Hood: Prince of Theives — not the film’s desired intent, I know, but there you are — and subsequently sought out and fell in love with Truly, Madly, Deeply, his experience is, in my eyes, perhaps the highest heights that one could aspire to have had. Since then, I have acquired a list of celebrity live performances that have vainly attempted to equal his. I probably would have, too, if I’d managed to see Kevin Kline in Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway, but I will instead have to content myself by having attended live performances and readings by John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Neil Innes, Mia Kirschner, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Elliott Gould, Suzanne Cryer, Joss Whedon, Patton Oswalt, Matt Groening, David Silverman, James L. Brooks, Anthony Daniels, and Jack Fucking Bristow, aka Victor Garber. </klang> (PS: This list to potentially include Christopher Lloyd in the near future.)

Yes, yes… I am celebrity-fawning scum (and that list doesn’t even include any literary Klangs). Or, at least, I previously have been. There’s been an arc to this process of acquisition of names worth dropping: I’ve gone from feverish and nervous of what to say, jittery and apprehensive, to vaguely dissatisfied and even irritable at the possibility of meeting someone well-known. It should come as no surprise to anyone that professional famous people don’t really give much of themselves to the people they meet at such events, particularly if they are well-heeled celebrities that have dealt with the peculiar imbalance of strangers feeling and believing that they know you because of how you’ve presented yourself on camera. At signings and receptions, they have greeted me and others with genuine, polite happiness for our appreciation of their works, undercut with equally sincere wariness. Any dissatisfaction I have felt after these events has always stemmed from a mild sourness at feeling I haven’t seen these people at their most honest; and it has absolutely been intertwined with a petty grumpiness that I wasn’t somehow special enough, intriguing enough to cut through the adverse circumstances and make an individual connection. (EDIT: For an alternate take, check out Glenn Kenny’s musings on celebrities and the clash of their private and public personae.)

Many, manymany people want their fifteen minutes of fame, and crave time in the spotlight. Whereas I find myself instead more partial to the fantasy espoused by Rob (and his mates in the film version) in High Fidelity:

“All my life I have wanted to go to bed with — no, have a relationship with — a musician: I’d want her to write songs at home, and ask me what I thought of them, and maybe include one of our private jokes in the lyrics, and thank me in the sleeve notes, maybe even include a picture of me on the inside cover, in the background somewhere…”

And not encountering that spark that would allow me to find that intimacy (the relationship part, not the first bit) whilst encountering famous people has caused me to take a step back and reevaluate why I was chasing celebrities in the first place. Thus I complete my story arc and resolve down to the more realistic expectation that I can simply be glad of whatever joy the moment or the person has brought me — from dissatisfied to at peace. And perhaps, one day, to finally one-up my not-my-father by seeing someone really impressive.

It’s not much, but it keeps me from stalking people on Twitter.
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RETRO: Chucky P Redux

8 June, 2007 at 6:35 pm (literary, performance)

FLICKR: Stranger Than Fiction, autographedJust over a year ago, on 6/6/06 (ooOOooh…) I attended my first Chuck Palahniuk signing at the Brookline Booksmith in Beantown. This was was the… third, I think, time that Peter had attended a Chuck even at this location, having heard him read the infamous “Guts” well before its publication, and having his most precious copies of Fight Club autographed. Pete’s mad for Chucky P, and is pushing his “Collect ’em all!” habit to Charade-esque proportions, and had determined to collect every printing variation of every book Palahniuk writes. Because of this pledge, he had decided to purchase the special limited-edition copy of Rant in addition to the standard hardcover first edition that was the reason the Chuck was doing this signing tour in the first place. Pete was able to order it with an employee discount, thus bringing its $155 price tag down to something slightly less unreasonable, and this was the book he was going to have signed.

The question was, in addition to this obsessive expense, should Pete also shell out to find a wedding dress? Y’see, the word had gone out that at each event, one person wearing a wedding dress would be chosen to be the recipient of a spectacular prize. Pete was torn between the option of wearing a dress in public and the potentiality of being The Winnah! of something O so special and Chuck related for his obsessive collection. Upon finding a wedding dress at Goodwill for a scant fifteen bucks, the decision was simple.

FLICKR: Chuck Palahniuk and Pete, in wedding dressDue to a series of basic Boston traffic snarls we underestimated the time it would take to get to the reading — where prizes for good questions and awesome treats are always given out — we went straight to the signing, instead, and Pete squeezed himself into his dress on the sidewalk outside the bookstore. Where we discovered that everyone in a dress was going to be given a coupon for a the O so fabulous prize pack. Now that it wasn’t a competition, Pete relaxed into the event and was able to proudly display and get signed his uber-limited edition of the most recent novel… so uber-limited, in fact, that Chuck took a moment to look it over, as he hadn’t really examined the finished product himself.

Upon emerging back out into the street, Pete shed himself of the dress and was going to dispose himself of it, when someone asked if Pete wasn’t going to use it any more… would he mind donating it to a nice young woman standing in line? We handed it over with instructions that when she was done, she should pass it on to someone else in line… perhaps using a marker to keep a hashmark tally of how many people the dress passed between over the course of the evening. We left pleased at the idea that we may have started a little signing meme, a fun little thing for people to share. The next day a photo of the girl appeared on the bulletin board post about the signing… with no mention of the generosity of some random guy who had presented her with the dress, and no real indication that she had gone on to share the garment with anyone else. Pity.

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In Space, No One Can Hear Your Engine Cavitation

19 March, 2006 at 11:43 pm (film, gameplay, performance)

Went to go see the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science yesterday. I’ve been in Star Wars mode of late, really enjoying my nostalgic connection with the films. I dug out my Star Wars Lego sets from a couple of years back and reassembled them, noticing again how well designed they were and how old school the design was. Much of Lego’s current output relies heavily on the large, structural pre-fab elements that remove any resonance from the traditional term “Lego brick”. They are vastly un-brick-like. Rumours persist that this is because Lego had to design new and different building elements once their copyright on the traditional nubby blocks expired, and so in order to prevent their kits from falling into commercial obsolescence they have engaged in a number of marketing and licensing deals, and have increasingly built kits using their non-rectangular “bricks”. Whether this is completely accurate, it is one of the seeming failings of the upcoming Batman line of Lego kits, which seem flimsy and chi-chi, without the solidity of the classic kits. Amusingly, to further justify the bitterness of the prequel-hatahs, the Star Wars original trilogy Lego kits are largely designed like the kits that would have been their contemporaries in the 1980s.

Smithsonian Star Wars Exhibit - Leia and StormtrooperI had been to a Star Wars museum exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1998, and so I anticipated that this exhibit would be similarly enjoyable. However, except for the presence of an AT-ST, a jawa, an actual full-sized set-model of Luke’s Episode IV landspeeder, and some jedi outfits, there was little in this exhibit that I hadn’t seen before. Some artifacts and props were totally unfamiliar, and upon closer examination, I discovered that they were part of the world of design that underlay Episode III. How sad that I was so underwhelmed by the prequels that by the time it came to Revenge I wasn’t even paying attention to the world-building and prop and costume design that LucasArts has always done so well. Although, it must be said, the original trilogy was designed with the aim in mind that the used objects would have been well and truly used, that little would look clean or pristine. And the new films were designed at the apex of a civilization, with curves and opulence. And, frankly, I found it less interesting. The way in which an object wears and is distressed gives it a sense of history and tangibility. It makes it look less like a prop and more like a tool. And the little crater marks and dents on the Falcon and the landspeeder make them more interesting than any lovely Naboo creation.

One other thought on the exhibit: the gift shop had a number of t-shirts and hats and the like featuring the visage and color scheme of Darth Vader. Most of these were accompanied by various logos that spelled out “Vader” or “Sith” in gangland fonts reminiscent of tags and tattoos and tribal markings. And while this was relatively cool, I am totally bemused at the idea that The Empire, an ultimate expression of a monolithic Establishment, could be successfully sold as teen-friendly rebellious street-wear. S’all I’m sayin’.

Jaden Sumpthinorother, from JEDI ACADEMYAnd what has caused all of this fondness for the creative works of a man I had largely disavowed? Star Wars: Jedi Academy. I am now up to level three, and the difficulty level has progressed to the point where my ass is being handed to me by Sith on a regular basis. With the most recent upgrade to my powers, I had the option of sticking with one lightsaber and being able to wield it as strong levels, or to use two sabers simultaneously, or to use a Darth Maul-stylee dual-bladed weapon. Frankly, the hilt designs on the dual-saber were all terrible, but after fighting a bunch of Sith apprentices, I was keen on the idea of being able to see more than one color laser-blade while zooping about the maps. However, the fact that I can’t seem to defend myself with two blades, thus causing me to die shrieking every couple of minutes is causing me to seriously consider jumping back to a previous save point so that I can stick with one supah-strong blade.

But while working valiantly to get to my current stalemate, I was having a really good time. Despite the fact that I needed to consult the walkthrough about four out of every five missions at some seemingly impassible point — a mark of shame, as it clearly indicates that I could never buy a video game on its release date, as I would hit some intractable puzzle and have to wait a few weeks until someone else had taken the time to map everything out… how demoralizing — the gameplay and the action have been incredibly compelling. Wired magazine mirrored my opinions to a T recently when they pointed out that the best movies George Lucas has released lately have been Star Wars video games. The blend of sound effects and soundtrack, and the complex action sequences are exactly what I want out of a Star Wars film, and i have the ability to skip past the lame dialogue. These are the adventures I would have played in my backyard in 1980, with gun-shaped sticks and the occasional Mattel product. And that is a most satisfying nostalgia, far more fulfilling than trying to justify the failing vision of a once-inventive director.

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Lawrence

25 October, 2005 at 12:33 am (film, literary, performance)

Ceremonial robe given to T.E. Lawrence, and a photo of him with the the type of motorcycle he died on.Lawrence of Arabia is, in my opinion, the best film I’ve ever seen. It’s magnificent to watch, and compellingly unusual in its characterization. I have vague memories of my great-aunt Edie having a bit of a thing about T.E. Lawrence, and one of these days I will have to make sure I buckle down and overcome my habitual resistance to reading non-fiction so that I can further investigate the man and the politics in which he was embroiled.

Given the chance, I’d love to start this journey at the exhibit that just opened at the London Imperial War Museum, all about Lawrence and his life, his career, and his bizarre death — in fact, the exhibit includes the very motorcycle on which he died, a particularly macabre piece of inclusion that only a war museum could probably get away with. It will be open for a respectably lenghty period of time, and if I started saving money today… I still wouldn’t have enough for plane fare by the time the exhibit folds in mid-April. Anyone interested in getting me an early graduation present is hereby duly winked at.

Nominally, the exhibit has opened because of the seventieth anniversary of Lawrence’s death… except that the seventieth anniversary doesn’t seem all that numerically significant. Apparently it qualifies for “Platinum Jubilee” status, according to the Big Book of Anniversary Proceedings, so apparently when something has lasted seventy years, we’re less picky about the manner in which we carve up the number one hundred. I merely mention that being dead for a long time isn’t actually much of an acheivement, as everyone will be able to do that with certainty.

However, the War Museum seems to be getting significant mileage out of the fact that Lawrence, in his unique position as cultural ambassador, had a particular understanding of the conflicts and peoples of the region, and was bitterly opposed to the way in which Araby was divided by the European governents. A map with Lawrence’s alternative proposal is on display at the museum, and the implication seems to be that the Mid-East conflict would be significanly different today if the map had been drawn by someone, like Lawrence, who knew “the facts on the ground [and] the people of those areas.”

In totally unrelated news, I have no idea how, precisely, to interpret the juxtaposition of this image and the accompanying title, but it’s my favourite new web-thingy. EDIT:The Beat has switched publishers, and the archive of that post no longer exists, but I believe it was the headline “This is going to be one of those days” and then this picture.

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Ambrosia Parsley

9 October, 2005 at 5:05 am (music, performance)

“My parents weren’t really hippies. They were a cross between hippies… and bikers, and… and my father was a lineman for the county. And we lived in Reseda, me and my twin brother and my older brother, and my mother and father. And one day we heard that a CostCo was coming to the area. And this was a huge thing, this was like the Emerald City. And my father was able to get a get a card, and so he and my mom went to the store, and left my older brother to babysit me and my twin bother until they got back. And they were gone for, like, three hours. And we sat at home and, and we had all these visions of, you know, these huge packages that they might bring back, like a container with two hundred and eight Twinkies. And when they finally got back, all that they’d bought was an enormous bottle of NyQuil — and really, it was huge, it was like… this big — this huge bottle of NyQuil and a giant container of Flinstones Chewable Vitamins.

“So, the next time my parents went to CostCo, leaving my twin brother and I to be watched by my older brother, we really liked cowboy movies. We would always watch John Wayne movies and so we went out into the back yard and we stacked up six cinder blocks, three on one side, one on top of the other, and three on the other side. And then we put a piece of plywood across it, and this was our bar. Because in cowboy movies, all the important stuff happened at the bar. And we got out the bottle of NyQuil because it came with that little shot glass as part of the cap, and people were always doing shots in cowboy movies. Another thing we used to watch a lot was Three’s Company, and there was a bar in that too, the, uh, the Regal Beagle. Right, the Regal Beagle. And they were always eating little bar snacks out of a bowl at the bar of the Regal Beagle. And, well, we had a bowl… it was wooden, you know, parquet… and so, we poured a bunch of Flinstones vitamins into that for bar snacks and placed it down at the end of the piece of plywood.

“And so we took turns. One would be the bartender, and the other would have to go all the way to the other end of the yard. And you’d hook your thumbs in your belt loops and walk towards the bar. And we made the sound of spurs with out mouths as we walked. ‘Ching. Ching. Ching.’ And when you’d get to the bar, you’d pour out a NyQuil slammer and slide it across the bar and knock it back. And then you’d eat bar snacks. And then we’d switch, and then we’d switch again.

“I don’t know how long we did this, but I remember seeing my brother lying on the floor of the hallway… and then I remember blacking out.

“When I woke up my dad was there and there was a doctor in the house. I’d never seen a doctor make an actual house call, but there he was, and he had a black bag and everything. And out of the black bag he took some Ipecac and he gave it to us. And so we were sitting on the couch, and they brought in these saucepans, and we were throwing up and crying because no one likes throwing up. And my dad was trying to cheer us up, and he was pointing into the saucepans full of this green… and he was saying, Oh look, that’s a good one. Look you can still see Betty’s head. Oh, there’s Dino…

“So, this next song has nothing to do with that. This was written about my first crush. He was 15 and I was 12. And then he was killed. And I went to his funeral. He was my first dead boy. Yeah.”

Ambrosia ParsleyThe above is a approximate and reconstructed retelling of the introduction Ambrosia Parsley of Shivaree gave to a song tonight during a performance at MassMoCA. It was not only hilarious, and a fascinating combination of rambling and expertly-told, but it great fun to watch the other five members of the band settle and wait for the conclusion of the tale. Their reactions ranged from the totally impassive, to the entertained, to the deeply impatient.

Anyway, just to say that I always pay particular attention to a musician’s ability to create patter between herself and the audience, to establish rapport and to speak what is usually fairly canned material in a naturalistic way. In a concert that involved a minor amount of technical heckling from the audience (I rather feel that some people were not expecting the cacaphonic and occasionally dissonant phantasmagoric sound mix that is the predominant sound of the group), and some excellent return heckling from the frontwoman, perhaps ten to fiteen minutes were taken up with similar storytelling. Not seques, particularly, but clearly performances in their own right, even if they weren’t actually on the set list.

Shivaree’s excellent singles are available for MP3 download: “Goodnight Moon” is the potentially-familiar radio single from the 1999 album, I Oughta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump. The newest album, Who’s Got Trouble has a completely different line-up of collaborators and backing musicians, but the single “Close My Eyes” is catchy and fantastic.

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Comedy Reruns

20 March, 2005 at 10:33 pm (performance)

Be forewarned: I shall be waxing speculative about High Concepts in this entry. Feel free to ignore anything remotely philosophical and simply look at the pictures.

The Upright Citizens' Brigade and the Second City touring companyRight. What with Spring Fever and all, I was feeling that I rather needed to get out of my bleedin’ apartment and shake some of the cobwebs loose from my rafters, so I was pleased to find upon reading The Valley Advocate, my local free (but invaluable) entertainment tabloid, that the Second City touring company was going to be in Keene, NH the next evening. I had found out about a SC troupe performance in Manchester last year in even more immediate circumstances, and tickets to good seats had still been readily available, so I wasn’t overly concerned that I would be able to gain admission on such short notice. What did worry me was whether the show was ready for me to see it again so soon. It had been about 45 weeks since my attendance at their previous performance, and my hand hovered over the “confirm ticket order” button as I tried to guess how much repeat material I was signing myself up for,

In an interview with Steven Wright I once read, he said that in the sixty-odd shows he performs each year, he adds about eight new yokes to his routine, discarding an equal amount. In this way, he replaces about a third of his act each year. I saw Wright in 2000 and again in 2002, and in the interim he hadn’t rotated out enough jokes to keep my interest during the second performance. So I worried, would the Second Citizens be doing enough new material to keep me laughing? Or would I be a chilly spot of jaded in difference in the Colonial Theatre mezzanine? I decided to gamble on the being sufficient potential to risk it, based on my need to get out of the house and my awareness that a significant portion of their act was improvisational… and that material is never likely to be repeated.

I turns out that there are three different touring troupes from the Second City, color-coded blue, red, and green in an thankfully unpatriotic sidestep. Despite this, I ended up seeing the same troupe I had seen in Manchester: Green Company. Of this I was glad, as it allowed me two luxuries: the ability to better judge how much skit rotation had gone on in the interim, and the chance to learn the names of the comics. For a organization with such a rich history of performers and writers, the Second City doesn’t seem to go out of its way to provide its audiences with the ability to recognize and track their alumni/ae. There are no programs given out and no introductions made, so if Megan Grano or Mike Bradecich go on to national careers in the footsteps of Joe Flaherty and Tina Fey, who will know? No one from New Hampshire, I’m guessing.

Steven Wright, Phil Jupitus, and Jon StewartAll in all, I’m guessing I only saw six repeated skits between the two performances, an excellent track record for a two hour show. And most of those repeated skits were what Second City calls “blackouts”, short comic strip-esque skits, with a set up, a punchline, and a general exeunt omnes in the space of between 15 and 45 seconds. A marvelous technique, and one that probably requires a great deal of practice, as each one has a lot to do with acting as much as comic timing, as the participants need to establish relationships and characteristics in body language, stance, and vocal tone almost instantly. Good improv, like the classic Freeze exercise, emphasizes this technique: within a pair of lines, the actors need to have clearly communicated to the audience and to each other the necessary information for the skit to continue. That level of speed in craft was unfortunately absent in recent performance of The Upright Citizen’s Brigade I saw recently. The casual, gregarious atmosphere that the UCB members seemed to be trying to instill in the room and their audience was nice, and interesting, but it didn’t lend itself to the sort of sheer laughter and enjoyment that Second City was able to accomplish with their accelerated timing.

And I think that timing must make the difference between being willing to hear a joke repeatedly and being bored. When Jon Stewart performed at The Bushnell in late January, I had been regularly watching The Daily Show for about two months, and so every time he cribbed from a broadcast in his stand-up routine, I remembered. And because of Stewart’s pacing of his delivery, complete with reflective pauses and minor tangents, I had the ability to settle back in my chair and wait for him to change topics, to move on to fresher pastures. Towards the end of his set, he was riffing on the lack of connection between Easter and eggs, and I was able to compose whole paragraphs about the history of the word “oestre” and its relevance to the topic at hand because of his casual pacing. For me, that could have been a deadly joke to end his routine on, as it didn’t cover anything that I considered to be inventive or worthy of commentary (he was able to redeem himself, by the way, with the concept of “the Judas Egg”). And as inventive and jaw-droppingly clever as Steven Wright can be, his deadpan deliver and timeclock pacing was deadly to someone who knew the jokes. I still think I need to wait another year or two before I can see him live again.

And yet I still don’t know how to distinguish between the mood state that makes one joke predictable and one joke anticipatory. My first ever venture into live stand-up comedy was in watching Phil Jupitus in London. I was drawn there by watching clip of him do a routine on the character of Chewbacca in Star Wars. And when he worked his way ’round to that part of the script when I was watching him live, I giggled cheerfully in the pauses as he set up the joke, ready for him to say it, like it was a favored movie I was watching on video, ready for that perfect line that I could recite by heart. I have always dismissed the incessant repetition of great lines from comedy films as behavior based more around the experience of solidarity than in actually revisiting the funny moment. People quote Python or The Simpsons or whatever Michael Myers/Will Ferrel/Owen Wilson film is current in vogue amongst the proletariat not because the lines are fiercely funny out of context, but because they are recreating the context with their friends in The Know. But last night, there were scenes when I knew, I was certain what was going to be said next — without ever having seen the skit before — that were funnier because the audience had to wait for the actor to take his time, savouring the delivery of the punchline. And the expectation of those lines made it better, as it made even the long, awkward silences part of the note-perfect metronomic timing.

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Kaplan’s Groucho

26 June, 2004 at 4:52 pm (performance)

Gabe Kaplan, looking nothing at all like Julius MarxI’ve never seen WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, but as a teacher currently working at his former high school, I may well appreciate some of its content. But for me, it has always blended into the morass of TV shows that I have never seen live or in reruns due to my extremely limited exposure to television programming over the course of my youth. I have not been privy to the enculturating joys of SILVER SPOONS, THE WONDER YEARS, THE LOVE BOAT, HAPPY DAYS, or anything starring Scott Baio. Jimmy Baio, yes; Scott, no.

Regardless, aside from the fervored testimonials about the show from characters on FREAKS AND GEEKS, KOTTER was not a name to conjure with in my book. So the news that a local production of Arthur Marx‘s play GROUCHO was to star Mr. Kotter himself left me with no attendant feelings of awe and with no stars in my eyes. The fact that the script had been penned by Groucho’s son did pique my interest, though, and a fortnight into the run of the play, I wandered down to the Stoneham Theatre and plonked down a pretty penny for a fifth-row seat.

47 Grins, 34 Laughs, 11 GuffawsKaplan immediately got my respect for addressing the basic difficulties of the performance: he doesn’t much look like Groucho. “He’s too tall,” Kaplan said about himself, beginning the play daringly out of character. “His face is too round, his nose is too big, his nose isn’t big enough…” I laughed, as the round face was what had first struck me. I was impressed that he was able to anticipate our varied responses so accurately. It turns out that Kaplan has been playing the part for some time, and a stage performance of the part was filmed for video back in 1982. He’s had a lot of time to work through quirks of the production, and with the one essential difficulty that he has a moustache and yet has to wear Groucho’s patented greasepaint moustache at one point, the technical aspects of the show were almost flawless. With a notable and wonderful exception: archival photographs from the Marx Brothers’ lives were projected on a screen throughout the play, and at one point a slide failed to appear. Kaplan effortless ad libbed and continued gamely. At other points, he departed from the script to poke fun at a fellow actor with a case of the giggles and to respond to the moments that made themselves available.

Most impressive, though, was Kaplan’s transformation from old Groucho to ancient Groucho. His vocal mannerisms and body language were so fragile, with the meticulous breathlessness of the dying. His glacial interplay with the young reporter that comes to visit him in his last years was amongst the funniest portions of the script because of Groucho’s dogged desire to make all of the jokes that he came up with in response to a situation, even if he could no longer crack them out rapid-fire. The timing was wonderfully funny and dry, even if it was the complete opposite of the style that had made him famous in his heyday. I have no idea if the timing was Kaplan’s or based on actual accounts and footage of Groucho in his end days. Regardless, it was convincing and real to a hilarious and heart-wrenching degree.

Lastly, let me say that while my first reaction to Mr. Kaplan was the response that he anticipated, the final moment of the play was him standing onstage with a large picture of Groucho in last years. And the resemblance was spot on. Kaplan may not have resembled Groucho in his film days, but the play was about his end days, and the visual parallels were uncanny. I sat there and had to eat my previous agreement: it worked.

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