Tuesday, August 31, 2010

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.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Your Weekly Dose Of Awesome

More writeology soon. But for now . . .

One nation under a groove, knuckling under to the dictatorial regime just for the funk of it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Your Weekly Dose Of Awesome

Ever wonder what would happen if you combined the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Sesame Street, Mickey Mouse, and the entire comics page?

Here you go: Betty Boop and Beyond the Infinite:

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Your Weekly Dose Of Crazy

Hi there.

Get ready to never stop screaming.

It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault.

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.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Spewday 02: Electric Somethingloo

The inaugural Spewday was big fun, yo. A heady mixture of Mookie regulars and Cardrunners types, a few of them red pros. Deep stacks, deep thinking . . . who am I kidding? It's a spewfest, get in there!

Let's play two!

Tuesday Spewday
Full Tilt Poker

Tournament #174055893
Tuesday, Aug. 3
21:00 ET -
NLHE Deepstacks
password: spewday

Tournament #174065188
Tuesday, Aug. 3
21:00 ET
NLHE Super Turbo KO
password: spewday

Get in there and say you were part of the inaugural event! I did. You should, too. I didn't even mention the best part: Winner gets a million bucks and a pony*!

* This may or may not be true.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Advanced Monkey Enragement Methods!

Read this:

Monkeys Hate Flying Squirrels, Report Monkey Annoyance Experts.

First of all, I don't think there can be a better headline this year. Not possible. A few extrapolations from this:

1) There are monkey annoyance experts.

2) They have developed ways of enraging monkeys.

3) These ways are not as efficient as they could be. I imagine this sort of scene playing out in countless laboratories over the decades.

Scientist 1: Are the monkeys enraged yet?

Scientist 2: Well. Yeah. They're pretty angry.

Scientist 1: But are they ENRAGED?

Scientist 2: I think so.

Scientist 1: You . . . THINK?

Scientist 2: They're peevish.

Scientist 1: Dammit! That's just not good enough and you KNOW it, Hector!

Scientist 2: I've been showing them Season 3 of Heroes on a loop for days, I tell you, days! If you know of a better way to piss off a primate, I'm all ears, Skellan!

Scientist 1: I don't know a better way . . . [puts on sunglasses] But I'm going to FIND one.

4) It is important to be able to enrage monkeys, and it is important enough to fund research on finding new and more advanced ways of accomplishing this.

5) They've found one!

The world is a better place now that I know this has been happening all along.

Years from now, we'll all be sitting around, reminiscing about a time when it took a dog, a tube of lube, and three pounds of jalapeno poppers to fully enrage a single monkey. And even then you're talking about an all day project.

Now? You can go from sleeping monkey to full on Hulk Monkey in like 3 minutes.

Thanks, science!

Your Weekly Dose Of Crazy

You know, I want to laugh at this guy, but I think if all the messages I've ever left on voice mail boxes and answering machines were collected, the average level of coherence would be similar.

In case you think this is just "deer in the headlights" syndrome when faced with cameras and an (invisible) audience of thousands, however, a trip to his website shows that he may be reading his own prepared speech off of a teleprompter.


What the hell, he's still be more speak English good than Palin.