Sunday, August 29, 2010
The Worst Thing I've Ever Done 02 - The Mad Valdez and the Giraffes
The skits were going to run together in a loop.
"Jerry and Stu" was going to open with the titular characters watching explosions on TV and laughing, and then we'd go to credits. After credits, we'd open back up with "Sorry I Killed Your Mother". This would segue into "The Tommy Faliki Story" as the mother-in-law slaughtering (but good-natured) husband's explanations were interrupted by wannabe Girl Scout Tommy Faliki, age 23. Tommy would be selling girl scout cookies in an futile attempt to impress the troop and be allowed to join. The documentary-style skit would follow his foolish quest for inclusion, and would culminate in a brief news story in typical "little lost white girl" cable news style, about Tommy Faliki, completely incompetent at scouting, and now lost in the woods. From here, we'd toss to the governor's mansion, where the services of Biff Tarkington, Wilderness Savior had been called upon. Tarkington was barking mad, unfortunately, and after tormenting Tommy from a hidden camera, would set off a series of explosions. These would be heard off-screen as the camera pulled back to show that the Tarkington skit was being watched on TV by Jerry and Stu, who were laughing at the explosions. The end.
In college, I had generally handled the casting as I put the script together, and so I took that liberty now. As long as you managed to give everybody one good part, you wouldn't get much blowback from a jilted actor, and in any case, since this time we were doing my own skits instead of long-time favorites from Monty Python, there wouldn't be any jockeying for a favored role. I was proud of my first attempt, but this wasn't exactly Dead Parrot-quality material.
I'd determined already that, given that Tiff was going to be busy actually directing and setting up shots, most of the rest of the troubleshooting -- last minute prop procurement, on-the-fly re-writes, acting adjustments, various and sundry details -- would probably fall to me. For that reason, I planned on taking mostly supporting roles. However, I decided to give myself one plum part, Jerry, from the "Stu and Jerry" skit, which had a monologue I knew I'd particularly enjoy. Morgan would be playing Stu, the more depressive of the two. Lee would be playing the murderous husband in the black and white, 50's era, "Sorry I Killed Your Mom" and Morgan's girlfriend, blonde and perky, would be perfect for the housewife. Lee's boisterous attitude seemed just about right for Biff Tarkington. Morgan would play the governor.
The linchpin skit was "Tommy Faliki", though, and the crucial key role was going to be Tommy. Because the humor of Tommy stemmed from his innocent pathos at being excluded from the girl scouts, I knew that we needed to get the tone exactly right. Tommy's utter obliviousness to the creepiness inherent in the disparity of gender and age between himself and the troop needed to be absolutely convincing or the whole thing would take an icky turn that would ultimately mean comedy death.
The answer was the Mad Valdez. Valdez was a 97-lb. first generation Latvian emigrant, possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of film and literature. He'd spoken only Latvian at the time he'd been enrolled in 2nd grade by well-meaning parents, and the resultant culture clash had mashed his potatoes. Here's the thing about the Mad Valdez: He was a total innocent, interested in writing and pop culture and being left free to indulge in these things, kind enough that he was always in danger of being taken advantage of, self-possessed enough to counterfeit an air of aloofness as a defensive mechanism, incorrect enough in his pronouncements to occasionally appear unintentionally comical, and slight enough to resemble Mr. Burns of The Simpsons to an uncanny degree. Here's the other thing about the Mad Valdez: He was a genuinely weird person, and on stage, his sui generis presence would result in only one of only two possible impressions:
1) That guy is completely out of character! Let's laugh at him!
2) That guy is HILARIOUS! Let's laugh at him!
The only way to get option 2 instead of option one was to cast him in a character who was supposed to be odd in undefinable ways. So, if you were putting on Much Ado About Nothing, you would find yourself in the middle of a first-degree disaster were you to put him in the role of Leonado, but you could cast him as Dogberry and just sit back and collect the laughs.
It's hard to say if Valdez acted. To say that he "acted" would be like saying Einstein "did math." To be sure, Valdez did take upon himself an affect while on stage, so that he clearly became distinguishable from his everyday persona. And, certainly, Valdez would emote as he delivered his lines. But acted? I just can't say. He just became whatever it was that he was going to become, and from that he would not deviate. In truth, it's likely he could not. Not that it mattered; whatever that was would be entirely convincing . . . for what it was. The trick would be to adjust so that whatever Valdez was doing fit into the whole. Mad Valdez was the cosmic hippo of sketch comedy. He was the improbability drive. He was the martini with a beach ball garnish. He was the halibut that orbits Jupiter. But one thing that The Mad Valdez could not be was threatening.
What I am saying to you is this: Only Valdez could be Tommy. Furthermore, Valdez would ONLY be Tommy, the better for him to come out of nowhere, delivering maximum oddness effect, and then disappear.
I picked up Valdez in Lansing on my way up to Ann Arbor, and he told me his theory that Apocalypse Now was actually a dream that existed exclusively in the head of the cow that was butchered in the film's climax. I nodded sagely and laughed at him, but Valdez didn't mind.
It was 'round midnight when we got into Ann Arbor, and a party, as expected, was in swing. This was fine; I had no thoughts to attempt anything businesslike until late morning at the earliest. No point in trying to redirect the path of a mighty river. However, at one point Tiff buttonholed me with the shoot on her mind.
"I'm glad you're here. Nobody else is taking this seriously."
"Good to be here," I said, and I meant it -- but Tiff's statement wasn't exactly surprising. This was a lark for everybody else, but for her it was a grade.
"Listen, you've got to help."
"If I can."
"Just make sure that you back me if there's some question about how things need to be done."
"Sure," I said.
Tiff didn't know it, but she'd struck a nerve.
I will now take you on a lengthy digression, which will hopefully eventually seem relevant.
My first experience on stage had been a bit part in a Neil Simon one-act farce my freshman year, and the student director (a ninny who'd spent a term in England and now sported a fake British accent) had exhibited a profound lack of understanding of even the most basic rules of the genre. Allow me to give you the most pertinent example:
The premise of the play is this: An hour before her wedding, a bride has locked herself into the bathroom of her parents' suite at the Plaza. The parents spend the entire play freaking out in comical-but-still-believable ways to try to get her out, all the time exhibiting the kind of marital example that has given their daughter cold feet about her own impending nuptials. Finally, the mother and father, out of options, call the groom, who comes up, listens to a brief synopsis of the situation, nods, walks to the door, says, "Mimsey. It's Borden. Cool it!" and then walks right out without waiting to even see if Mimsey (that's the bride) will come out. Which, of course, she immediately does. That's the joke. All that running around, yelling and screaming and fussing and fighting, and it's all solved by one simple "cool it."
Borden's the groom. The guy who says "cool it." In case you didn't guess, that was me.
Now here's what Miss Fakebritish wanted to do. She wanted to make sure that the audience understood that I, Bordon, was the hero. Here's how she decided she was going to make that happen:
1) I was to leap in through the door with one hand outstretched, like Errol Flynn. Or Richard Simmons.
2) The mother and father were to fall on one knee before me.
3) There was to be a loud sound cue for trumpet fanfare.
4) I was to rip open my tuxedo shirt to reveal a Superman shirt underneath.
5) I am not making one of these things up.
What you have probably noticed by now, even as a casual (and bored) observer, is that the director was preparing to totally blow the punchline to the entire play. She was taking a moment that needed to be as naturalistic and matter-of-fact as possible in order to work, and putting a clown nose on it. She was basically deciding to engage in the theater equivalent of laughing at her own joke.
As a freshman in my first college play, I didn't understand it like that. Here's what I said:
"That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard in my life. It's like comedy cancer. I won't do it."
We went to war about it for the whole rehearsal. Eventually I got it talked down to Errol + knee, but no trumpet and no Superman shirt. It still killed the joke, because of course it did.
I wasn't in another play for over a year. Eventually I heard through the grapevine what should have at that point been evident: It turns out that directors talk to directors, and, if you have a bit part with one line and decide to hold up the whole rehearsal to fight with the director, you're going to be (rightly) branded a problem even if you're generally correct on substance.
I am telling you all this to tell you this: When Tiff asked me to back her, I determined to do so, even if I didn't necessarily agree. I decided not to be proprietary about my skits.
This is what is known in narrative fiction as "foreshadowing."
The next morning the main troupe met to make sure we had all of our flakes frosted. Tiff and I went over the inventory/costume/props list to see what we needed to procure. Lee had agreed to set design, which essentially meant that he had agreed to make fellow house-mate Herring's bedroom look like it was full from floor to ceiling with girl scout cookies (Herring having agreed to clear out and crash at his girlfriend's place while we used his room). Lee, having been given a challenge that would be as difficult as it was ridiculous, was enthused and clearly up to the challenge. "I probably only need to make about 20 individual boxes," he said. "I'll just mock up long printouts that look like the sides of cookie boxes and paste them up against solid cardboard pillars."
Morgan made an appearance, but as it was generally understood that he'd only be acting, it wasn't problematic when he disappeared. "As long as we can find him next week when the cameras are rolling," Tiff muttered.
The Mad Valdez sat on the couch, watching TV. He handled all the cigarette smoking that was needed, and was doing a fine job. The ashtray was starting to invade the coffee table.
There were two main obstacles.
The first was location. I'd purposely written the material so that our series of apartments and parks could realistically accommodate them, but we were going to need an upper-middle class home, furnished, for "Sorry I Killed Your Mother", and we would need a study that could reasonably pass for one found in a governor's mansion for "Biff Tarkington." Eventually, we settled on Tiff's parents house for "Killed" and Morgan's parents study for "Biff."
The second obstacle was Lee. He had an idea for a skit. Not, as far as I could tell, a workable one.
"... and so THEN it turns out that the commemorative coin for the commemorative plates actually turns him into a racist, so he is saying all these outrageously racist things, and so then his friends have to break the plates with lasers, and so then the third plate breaks and a giraffe appears, so we have this shot of him and a few circus clowns leading the giraffes down the street on a leash . . ."
"Let me stop you right there," I said, "And I'll tell you why."
What you always had to remember when dealing with Lee was that he was, psychically speaking, Barry Sanders. There was no stopping him, there was only containing him. You had to make him run laterally for 2 minutes and a 3 yard gain. For that reason, it was plain to me that trying to stop this skit from happening would be futile. I needed to focus the skit into something comprehensible or Lee was going to be taking a fast train to obsession. Besides, this man had agreed to create over 1000 fake girl scout cookie boxes for me in a week's time. I owed it to him to make at least some of his vision came into being.
"You mentioned a commemorative coin that commemorates a series of commemorative plates," I said. "That's pretty funny. Let's focus on that. My grandpa collects the state quarters, and he's really excited about it. What if we focused on how the commemorative industry targets old people?"
We hatched a skit about a commemorative coin that commemorated a line of commemorative plates that commemorated the commemorative figurines for the 10th anniversary of The Golden Girls premier. Then, when the scam is realized, the company apologizes by putting out a commemorative coin commemorating the scam and how sorry they are for it all. Not bad. It was a simple and workable skit with a funny hook.
With such simple and unassuming beginnings is a soul crushed.
NEXT WEEK: Yoot.