Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Worst Thing I've Ever Done 01 - Zoom Culture Calling

Here it is. I'm going to confess. The worst thing I've ever done. And I'm guilty, too. I did it. By the time I was done I'd be hunched over, both in body and soul.

It involves a bald cap, a chocolate coin, a cane, a drunk named Yoot, a camera, a retirement community, the oldest lady in the world, and a fatefully bad decision.

Wait. Let me back up a bit, so I can change the names of the innocent, and especially of the guilty.

Also, let me collect my thoughts. This is as much about how I got to that point as what I did when I got there. Maybe you'll see where I went wrong. But I hope you understand.

It started with a phone call from Lupo.

Lupo was the entrepreneur among my friends. You have one too. Always hustling. He had an intensity that belied his hacky-sack meets Birkenstock vibe, and a tangle of hair spaghetti mashed over thick glasses, but there was never any doubt that this was a business mofo. Lupo published my first book, a run of 100 copies. We advertised the book on college listserves and sold off the pool table in my fraternity house common area. Me? I'd have never even thought of it as a possibility, but Lupo just paid the printer in cash, and the printer coughed up 200 copies. Lupo was loaded through the college years, at least by typical college student terms. He would cold-sell educational books door-to-door all summer and drive in on orientation day in a new car and thirty grand in the bank. As a result, Lupo had his own place, a spare townie property rented from a hippie professor, where we'd go to stay clear of campus safety.

Now Lupo was on the phone, hustling.

We were three years out of college, and I was white-collaring in Indianapolis. Lupo was calling me from the North Carolina tech triangle, where he was an integral part of a late-nineties internet startup that wanted to put up online videos. They were like Shockwave, or Heavy, but with a twist: They wanted to put the power of production in the hands of the people. No. Not Youtube. These were some of the other guys. I'd visited Lupo in Chapel Hill, where he'd shown me around the offices and introduced me to this weird new search engine by the name of Google. The name of this startup was Zoom Culture, but don't hold that against them. They'd give college kids and other interested parties special Zoom Culture cameras to shoot what they would, and then ZC producers would load it up. "Why not let the people just upload right to your site?" I'd asked, in one of my very few moments of brilliant foresight. "You save production time and let the people decide what works and what doesn't."

"Not our business model," said Lupo, who probably didn't appreciate the way I'd just eliminated his entire job. "We need to push the best stuff forward and control our content." I shrugged. He was probably right, I figured.

That's right. I invented YouTube back in 1999. You can't prove I didn't.

But that was four months prior. Now he was on the phone, and he thought I might have the right stuff. The Zoom stuff.

"Goat," he said, "You have to make some skits for me." My friends and I had been theater geeks, and I had done four straight years of comedy troupe skits. Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, that sort of thing. Nothing original. I'd write the connective material, arrange the skits, put together the props and costumes list, and direct. We'd gotten decent at it, too. (Yes, there is video. No, you can't see it.) Now Lupo wanted me to make some original content for him. Create a sketch comedy troupe; something I'd always wanted to try.

"Make a half hour," Lupo declared. "If it takes off and gets hits, we'll talk business."

So I wrote the skits, sent them to Lupo, and Lupo-as-producer approved them.

It was time to round up the gang. Which meant that I was going back to Ann Arbor. To do skits, you should have around four or five people, and two of my still-viable prospects were living up there in the same house.

The way I figured it, we all had our role. I was the writer, the settled-down guy down Indianapolis with a corporate job. I was pretty good at straight man roles, or parts where the comedy came from how crazy the otherwise regular-seeming person was behaving. Also I could play a squirrel, if need be, but we all hoped it wouldn't come to that.

Morgan and Lee (along with my good friend and non-participant Herring) were living the dream in a house that was quickly becoming area legend-fodder. Essentially it had become a room of our fraternity house, expanded to house size, plus money. It was nearly completely void of responsibility, nearly completely full of rapidly accumulating garbage and cigarette butts, and nearly completely fun for the first 23 hours of a 24-hour visit. After that, it sort of became hard to breath for a weekend warrior, which is (I had to face it) what I had become.

Morgan was a mad scientist, driven by curiosity. An engineering grad, sort of, he could figure out how to do it, as long as long as you wanted it done in the most interesting and inefficient way. In his room was his bed and two broken floor-to ceiling amps that he'd found out on the curb in the rain, broken. He had a plan for them, which may have involved converting them into homeless shelters for raccoons for all I know, but that plan was still coalescing (or congealing). In the meanwhile, he had to climb over the things each night to crash, if he wanted to crash in his own bed. As a result, Morgan typically crashed at his girlfriend's place. Morgan was a solid actor, but had a unique style, which involved doing odd things that completely trashed the scene, except when they were total comic genius, a style that I figured would be perfect for multiple takes. A body of pipe cleaners set at acute angles, with a perfect oval, a recumbent egg, of a head on top. Quick movements. If you were in the right frame of mind, he reminded you of a man-sized newt. An odd newt, yes, but he had a certain intensity and conviction that helped him with the ladies (his lady friend of the time was quickly recruited to play the wife in "Sorry, I Killed Your Mom"). He spoke in insistent staccato, and was perhaps the best person you'd ever want to have around if what you desired was a long and complicated debate, topic beside the point. He was rarely correct, but then again, he was rarely wrong, either. He was uncommonly competent and totally impossible to count on. He loved MDMA like a Marine loves his rifle. He was going to be good at the off-kilter character actor bits, probably a lot of juicy roles. That is, if he showed up.

Maybe he still has those amps.

Lee was a hurricane, driven by pure energy. Physically verbose, outsize in appearance, personal attire, accoutrement, and scope of ambition. He had Elvis muttonchops and drove a cherry red 1973 Caddy with white vinyl soft-top, and the 8 track inside it was usually blasting soul power. Lee never thought of an insane project that didn't sound both possible and immediately necessary. He brought a certain frenzied commitment to his characters. His stage laugh was improbable and off-putting. Imagine a polite and nervous titter, the kind a librarian makes when confronted with Bootsy Collins. Now, imagine a boisterous roaring laugh, the kind of laugh a lumberjack makes as he cuts down a sequoia. Now, imagine them both together. Now you have Lee's stage laugh. For us, Lee was going to play apoplectic dads, hyper-intense authority figures, Santa Clauses, chimney sweeps, simple man-children, lawn chairs, things like that. And, unless things had changed in the three months since my previous visit, his girlfriend, Tiff, was a U of M film major. In other words, Tiff had access to things that daunted me, like cameras and editing equipment, and any understanding whatsoever about how to operate a camera or editing equipment. I called. Things had not changed. And Tiff was excited to dovetail a semester's end project with a potential business venture.

I sent the skits. I asked if they'd be interested in performing the skits. They said they would, and Lee agreed to be set designer, so it was on like Megatron. I planned to jam up from Naptown the next week, and we'd work a bit on the script, scout locations, and get as many props and costumes together as possible.

Now I needed to find my fourth main cast member. I needed the wild card. I needed The Mad Valdez.

Next Week: The Mad Valdez, The New Skit, and A Favor to the Director

Story and Art by Julius_Goat.


SirFWALGMan said...

Wow something I actually enjoyed reading.. I knew if I kept trying I would find something good! Nice writeup!

Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

This is great man, keep it going.

Mike Maloney said...

Ann Arbor? Is this really just a fan fic piece on the Dharma Initiative?

Emily of Deutschland said...

OOooohhhh, I *know* this story. It's worth waiting for the coming installments. Just trust the sister. I know all these characters, and by characters, I mean old friends of mine. Nice work here, brother.