Thursday, November 26, 2015

Chapter Six.


Happy Thanksgiving, you guys. Today I'm thankful for you. You keep coming back. You keep supporting my writing habit. I really appreciate that. I'm off for my first Bloody Mary whilst preparing today's meal. I invite you, today, to be thankful for... something. Love you guys.

Chapter Six
Planned Parenthood, and a History of Dumbasses

 If flying by the seat of my pants is what made me moderately successful on a moderately successful television series, then how I lived my life to that point had certainly prepared me for what I was asked to do on a weekly basis. Namely, make it up as you go along. While I admire people who have long-range goals, and can see the arc of their life and plan accordingly, I am not one of them. I have issues planning weekly meals at my house. I never learned how to set goals or look ahead, and I have, quite frankly, lived longer than I thought I was going to. (Not that I have ever entertained thoughts of suicide, mind you. But being un-ambitious and reactive as I am, I kind of thought natural selection would have caught up to me by now.) I am the living embodiment of the great line delivered by Indiana Jones who, on being asked by his companion how he intended to steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis said, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.
     But I can point to one very specific moment in my life where I decided that I would – nay I must – plan ahead and set goals. When I learned I was going to become a father, something shifted. Suddenly, I was going to be, not only responsible for another human life, but also largely culpable for the kind of human being that she would become. I have always overcompensated for my lack of higher education by being a voracious reader on just about every subject there is, and parenthood was no different. My wife and I burned through every book by every author, covering every possible angle of pregnancy, infancy, toddler years, tweens, teens, young adults, adulthood, middle-agers, seniors and death. We had (we believed) an understanding of every stage of her life, from the moment she would shoot out of the birth canal like a hazel-eyed cannonball, until the moment she shuffled off her mortal coil. I planned. I prepared. I was ready.
     “Everybody has a plan. Until they get hit.” That was, and remains, the only coherent thought that Mike Tyson ever uttered. It’s kind of how I feel about the experience of having my daughter come into the world. All that reading and planning and preparation, and within twenty-four hours of bringing our new infant daughter home, I took every single one of those here’s-what-you-need-to-know-about-having-a-baby books out back, piled them high, doused them with lighter fluid and set them ablaze. There is nothing – I repeat, nothing – that can adequately prepare you for being a new parent. The good news is that your only job for the first year or so is not to do anything that might kill the child. The better news is that babies are surprisingly hard to kill. I am awed and very thankful that my daughter survived her first few months with me as her father. In fact, her very first word was “Daddy.” She even pointed at me when she said it. But I believe what she was trying to say was “Dumbass.”
     Our family has a history of dumbasses. One that immediately springs to mind is that of an uncle I had. Let’s call him George, because I’m not sure if he’s still alive, or if he even learned to read, but why take chances? My Aunt Lillian owned a ranch in Marble Falls, which is smack dab in the middle of the Texas Hill Country and is some damn pretty scenery. It’s also good deer hunting, and Aunt Lillian had a deer lease. Of course every year she gave preference to family, and I remember being at the ranch one year when my dad was on a hunt, and my Uncle George was with him. Now, I cannot verify the accuracy of this story, because the main players are dead or off of my grid. But the way my mom tells it, Dad and George had gone off early in the morning, and had split up to each take a deer stand. A couple of hours later my dad heard a shot ring out. He vacated his stand and headed in George’s direction, to find him standing proudly over a recently deceased deer. The problem, my dad saw right away, was that George had killed a doe (a deer. A female deer.) As Dad and George only had licenses to shoot bucks, this was a flagrant violation. And, as Aunt Lillian’s lease backed up to the Lower Colorado River and was frequently policed by the Game Warden, Dad was none too happy with George. “Dammit, George, you better throw that thing in the river. We can’t take a doe back to the ranch or we’ll get fined,” Dad said.
     But Uncle George was unfazed. According to the story, he presented my dad with what he believed was an elegant solution. “No need to do that, “ he is reported to have said. “I’ll cut her head off and throw that in the river. We’ll take her back to camp, and if the Game Warden shows up he’ll never know it was a doe.”
     Evidently there was a long pause in the dialogue, during which time I like to believe that my dad was desperately waiting for a punch line that never came. When it became clear that Uncle George was serious about this course of action, my father is reported to have said the following: “George… are you trying to tell me that if I cut off your head right now, threw it in the river, and dragged your dead ass back to camp, that when the cops showed up they wouldn’t be able to tell if you were a male or a female?”
     I do not know how that story ended. I only know that it serves to prove my point that we have a decided lack of the common-sense gene in my family. Which brings me back to why I have a strong belief that what my daughter was really trying to say for her first word, as she was pointing at me, was “Dumbass.”

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Chapter Five (My Life As A Dog, Part I).

     Holy shit. Chapter Four was heavy. Thanks to those of you who took the time to write me encouraging comments, even if it was just to say you're really, super-glad that it happened to me and not you. Let's lighten things up this week with the story of my first real foray into the world of television. It may also have been the very first job I worked where I was paid more than minimum wage. Off we go...

Chapter Five
My Life as a Dog (Part I)

 I didn’t land the role as the voice of Wishbone because I was an awesome actor. I got it because I could make shit up. In October of 1993 I was asked to audition for the voice of a character for a new children’s television show. Except it wasn’t a show, yet. It was just an idea. I showed up to the audition with only one piece of information: the character was a dog. I didn’t ingratiate myself to the audio engineer who was recording the auditions, as I started asking a bunch of questions that, had I thought a few seconds about it, I would have realized he couldn’t possibly have the answers to: Is this a cartoon? Is it a dude dressed up in a dog suit? (Which was followed immediately by a question I managed to keep in my own head  - (Oh Christ, if I get this gig will I have to dress up in a fucking dog suit?) What kind of dog is it? What’s the dog’s motivation? Is he more into toys, food, or licking his own balls?
     Whatever I did at the audition was at least enough to get me invited to the callback. A callback, for those of you not familiar with the term, is a second audition, usually one attended by the director, the producer, the writers, etc. This provides you with an opportunity to get more information about the project you are competing for, and gives the director a chance to see just how direct-able you are. That’s the upside. The downside is that a callback also gives you the opportunity to suck in front of a much larger group of people, thereby bringing shame and dishonor to your clan. This would turn out to be one of the strangest callbacks of my career, which, in the end, was probably a good thing.
     I was given an address by my agent and told to go there for the callback. I assumed this was another recording studio, but it turned out to be a house in the fashionable M Streets district of Dallas. I walked in to a living room packed with people. I was quickly introduced to the executive producer and creator of the project, the line producer, head writer, cinematographer, etc. Then I met the star of the show, which turned out to be a Jack Russell terrier, and I met his trainer. So, okay. It was a real dog. I would not have to dress up in a dog costume and dance around, which, for the record, I would have done for the right amount of money, and which also would likely have sent me down the path of alcohol and/or drug abuse.
     I had the opportunity to see how the callback would work because there was one voice actor in front of me to audition. They handed him a page of script, and told him that, while he read from it, the trainer would put the dog through a series of behaviors that were supposed to correspond with what he was reading. They recorded the auditions on a boom-box set up in the living room. So off he went, giving it his best, but the problem was the trainer was speaking commands to the dog at the same time this guy was trying to read the script, so it was kind of chaotic. Plus the dog wasn’t being terribly cooperative at the moment. The actor finished his read, everybody thanked him, and he left. I panicked, because I could think of no good way to do a good read the way they had it set up. I could tell everybody in the room was kind of stressed. Things were not going well. Just as the producer called me over and gave me the script, the trainer announced that the dog needed a break. With that, she took a tennis ball out of a pouch on her hip and tossed it to the dog – who immediately went bat-shit crazy with a ball in his mouth.
     Maybe it was because I had already written this callback off and felt I had nothing to lose. Maybe it was because the moment I saw how happy and animated that dog became with something as simple as a ball, I connected with something in the universe that drove me at that precise moment. I don’t know why I did what I did, but here is what I did: without being asked to or given any direction, I put down the script, opened my mouth, and started speaking what I thought must be going through the dog’s head at that moment. It was completely free form, stream-of-consciousness blather, Improvisation 101. Just me riffing on what I thought a dog with a ball might be thinking. I won’t try to recreate that moment on paper; it wouldn’t be funny, and I can’t remember exactly what I said, anyway.
     I had a vague notion of people in the room laughing, and I heard somebody say, “Thank you. That was great.” When I asked if they wanted me to go back and read the script, they said no. Turns out they had recorded the whole thing the minute I started talking and making shit up. That turned out to be my audition. I walked out of there thinking, Well, I fucked myself out of THAT gig. But I suppose I didn’t care. I made them laugh, and that was enough for that moment. A few months later I was sitting in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains when my agent called and told me I had the gig. When she told me how much money I’d be making per episode, I broke out in a rash. It certainly wasn’t much compared to a network television series (we landed on PBS), but to a poor white boy from Conroe, Texas, it was the freaking lottery. On the drive back to Texas, that’s all I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about what it was going to mean to be working on a national TV series.
     I had no idea what I was getting into.
     1994-1995 was a Big Year. I was still young enough to do a whole bunch of Life-Changing Things at the same time and think it wouldn’t have any adverse affects, as only the young and truly ignorant can think. In a single year I got married, moved to a new town, built a house, and started what amounted to a new full-time job. Basically four of the five most stressful things you do in your life. The only thing I didn’t do that year was murder a guy – which might actually have relieved some stress. I was working six days a week on the show. Monday through Friday was principal photography – the actual filming of the show. But dude, you may ask, you’re a voice actor. Why would you be needed on the set during filming?  A fair question. The first reason was they were paying me what I considered to be a shit-load of money. I would have done anything they asked me to do, up to and including crapping in my hand and throwing it around in a festive manner like a zoo monkey.
     The second reason was, I was needed. Speaking on set in character made life easier for the other actors, the director, and the editors. So that’s where I was five days a week. While on set I created a rough voice track for the editors to use after the show was in the can and in post-production. Saturday was my day to actually go in the recording studio and record “clean” on an episode that was most of the way through the editing process. We’d start from the beginning of the script, and I’d watch the episode on a monitor and open my mouth and speak accordingly. A lot of people have asked me over the years how many of the words that came out of my mouth and made it into the show were on the page, and how many were made up. I don’t really know. I can tell you that I worked for folks who trusted my instincts, and when something on the page didn’t seem to make sense, they would more often than not turn me loose on the scene to see what would happen. A lot of times it would turn out funny. A lot of times it would turn into a train wreck. But I’ve always enjoyed that kind of creative challenge.
A dog and his boy, circa 1995.

The difference between voicing a cartoon versus a live-action sequence is one of chronology. In animation, you do the voice acting first. Sure, you have storyboards, and you know what your characters look like, but the acting performance comes first, and then the animators work with what you give them. On Wishbone we did just the opposite. The on-camera work had to come first. Soccer (that was the dog’s real name) would get suited up as Robin Hood, or Oliver Twist, or whoever he was going to be that week, and the trainers would put him to work, and all the human actors would play off of that, and that’s how you shoot a television show. Thing was, Soccer didn’t always stick to the script. Some times, he would do something that he was definitely not asked to do, but it was so charming or interesting or funny that the director would want to keep the shot. So now it’s in the final edit, and there are no scripted words for it. That’s when I would make shit up. It wasn’t always comedy gold, but it beat the living hell out of working in a cubicle. 

     Next week, Chapter Six: Planned Parenthood, And A History Of Dumbasses

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Chapter Four.

    Hey, y'all. Time for the next installment of my memoir, Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life. A version of this chapter was published earlier this year; some of you may be familiar with the basics. Spoiler Alert: it's not really a feel-good chapter. I still think there's some funny bits, though. Anyway, here you go:

Chapter Four
Dad at the End

  So, let’s talk about my dad. I’ll begin with the end, because it’s what I remember the clearest. On July 8, 1980, he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I was thirteen years old; my sister was nine. He didn’t kill himself in our home, though I’m sure he would have, given the opportunity. He was, as I mentioned earlier, in a shitty little trailer. He was in a shitty little trailer because my mom had finally had enough of his raging, and his lying, and his infidelity, and kicked him out. She was actually in the process of divorcing him when, one summer night while we were at home the phone rang and mom picked up and I could tell she was talking to my dad. A few minutes later she screamed and ran out the door, jumped in the car and drove off. I was used to being home alone with my sister, so I just hung out in my room and listened to my Uncle Terry’s record collection. Uncle Terry was my dad’s younger brother, and as there were zero employment opportunities for a young man living in Crossett, Arkansas (unless you wanted to work at the paper mill, which he emphatically did not), Terry had come down to Texas to see what he could find. Brantleys have always had terrifically horrible timing, and so he arrived just as my mom had kicked dad out of the house and the family was breaking apart. As Dad had no room for another human being in his shitty trailer, my mom had agreed to let Uncle Terry stay with us – which I thought was awesome. My Uncle Terry had essentially introduced me to rock ‘n roll while driving me around Crossett (he called it “cruising”) in his Chevy Vega, replete with eight-track tape deck, and a wickedly cool assortment of tapes ranging from Aerosmith to Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, to Credence Clearwater Revival to Boston, to Louisiana’s LeRoux. I had a profound belief as a kid that my Uncle Terry was the coolest dude on the planet.
     Anyway, Terry was rooming with me (we had bunk beds, baby!), and I had an all-access pass to his record collection. And that’s what I was into when, about an hour or so later, one of mom’s friends from work arrived at the front door. I think it was Ms. Kitty (I swear that’s her real name). I was trying to explain to her that mom wasn’t home while she was trying to explain to me that mom had called her and asked her to come and stay with us, as she was going to be out late. This naturally produced an interrogative from me (Why?), which was met with what I later understood was a terrified silence. See, Kitty already knew. She knew my dad was dead. She knew because my mom had called her from my dad’s trailer where she and my Uncle Terry found him sprawled on his bed with the back of his head mostly missing, and had told her to get over to the house but to say nothing to me or my sister. Can you fucking imagine being put in that position? I mean sure, I get it. The kids need watching, and that kind of news has to come from family. She couldn’t have just walked in and said, “Hey kiddos. I’m sorry, but your dad just killed himself and your mom and uncle are going to be with the police for the next several hours sorting things out. Who wants to watch The Rockford Files?

Little sister, Dad and self, taking the obligatory "bluebonnet pic" that is required by Texas law every Spring.
     I just had to walk away from the computer for nearly an hour. Thirty-five years and this shit is still hard. I’m older than my dad was when he died. I have been on earth for more years without him than with him. Plus, I’m finding it really hard to find anything funny to say about this story. I’m worried that some readers are going to think I tricked them into a really tragic, unutterably sad life story, like Angela’s Ashes without the witty Irish banter. It’s been said that all comedy is born out of tragedy. I have my doubts about that, simply because I’ve never been able to imagine farting in an elevator as tragic. Maybe if the fart triggered a brain aneurism, okay, that’s awful. That would suck. But then I immediately think about the guy delivering the eulogy. How do you tell the story of your best friend’s death from a fart in a crowded elevator, the pressure of which triggered an aneurism, without laughing yourself insane? Maybe all comedy is born of tragedy.
     I’m getting sidetracked. We’re at the part where Ms. Kitty has come to stay with us, and she knows the terrible truth but my sister and me don’t yet. I remember asking a few more questions that made Kitty even more uncomfortable, and I finally deduced that something was going on with my dad. So I called him at his shitty trailer. It was really late by now. The first time the phone rang and rang, so I hung up and called again. This time somebody picks up and I hear a dude say, “Hello?
     I’m looking for John Brantley.”
     (Long pause.) “Yeah?
     Who is this?
     This is Detective (whatever the hell his name was) from the Conroe Police Department.
     Um, okay. Is this the residence of John Brantley?
     (Longer pause.) “This is his former residence. Who is this?
     This is his son. What do you mean by former…
     The fucker hung up on me. The motherfucking cop who was investigating my dad’s death, who was, at that moment, poking around my dad’s trailer and his meager earthly possessions, who was interviewing my mom standing not five feet away, fucking hung up on me. When I called back nobody picked up.
     Later, when my mom finally returned with Uncle Terry, both of them in tears, and I asked what was going on, they told me my father was dead. And when I asked how this had happened, they both leaned on a time-honored Brantley tradition when dealing with really bad news: they lied their asses off. I was told my dad had died as a result of an accidental discharge from the pistol he kept under his pillow. Now, I knew right off the bat this was a big-ass lie. My father was not an educated man. He was denied certain opportunities in life due to his father being a raging alcoholic asshole who could keep a job but spent most of his wages on booze. My dad grew up poor, and angry. He also grew up around guns. He knew how to handle them, and he respected them. A respect for firearms was one of the pitifully few good things he ever taught me. So when my mom looked at me and fed me that line about his accidentally blowing his own head off, I smelled, but could not call, bullshit.
     A day or two later I caught her out. She was on the phone with a friend and I overheard her talking about my dad having killed himself. When she looked up and saw me, I just stared her down until she got off the phone. That was when she laid the truth on me, after which I was to regret not believing the lie she tried to feed me. Believing the lie would have made the next several years a little easier, maybe.
     According to my mom, dad called that night, July 8, while we were all at home. She said he sounded drunk. She was getting a lot of angry, drunken calls from him ever since they had separated. She was about to do what she usually did – hang up – when he said something that brought her up short. According to Mom, what my dad said was, “I want you to remember this sound for the rest of your life.” She heard a sharp crack and, being a farm-raised girl, knew a gunshot when she heard it. She said the last thing she heard before she dropped the phone and ran out the door was a song coming through the receiver, a country song by George Jones:
     He Stopped Loving Her Today.
     I’ve never doubted that version of events. That kind of over-the-top melodramatic insanity was just the kind of thing my dad was capable of. I’ve tried long and hard to think about what would have to happen to me in my life to make me so vindictive as to blow my own head off, knowing that it would completely fuck over the other person’s life. Disassociated from reality as only the suicidal can be, still I believe my father knew what he was doing. He knew my mother would carry the guilt of his suicide around, and he knew she wouldn’t be able to handle it. And she couldn’t. Right after the funeral she crawled inside a bottle, and she didn’t come out of it until over twenty years later.
     Whatever else he was – strong, charismatic, mentally unbalanced – my father was, in the end, an asshole. I don’t say that lightly. It’s not an easy thing to admit that your father was an asshole, particularly in light of the old saying that the apple doesn’t fall far from the asshole tree. I have tried really, really hard over the last thirty-three years to recall one positive memory of my father. Something I could point to and go See? My dad had his faults, but when he did this thing here for me, that was a really positive, awesome memory! Except I can’t. I’m serious. I’m not trying to garner sympathy here, people. I would happily break laws if it meant I could pull up even one happy father / son anecdote.  How about that time he took you fishing? Yeah, I remember. We were sitting on a dock at Lake Conroe, I’d had my line in the water for seven hours (it wasn’t seven hours, it was probably seven minutes), I got up to walk around, and the rod and reel I’d left sitting on the dock – which belonged to a friend of Dad’s and who was letting me borrow it – suddenly sprang to life, jumped in the lake and swam away. In the 21st century we might call that a “teaching moment.” In 1979 he just screamed at me until I started crying. Then he screamed at me for crying.
     Well, how about that time in little league baseball when you actually made a good play? You know, that terrific throw from right field all the way to third base to cut down a runner who was trying to stretch a double into a triple? Yeah, I remember. Dad wasn’t at that game. Okay, then. What about the time in judo class where you - as a white belt – executed a perfectly timed throw of a larger, more experienced opponent who was definitely not taking it easy on you? And your dad was right there, and he saw the whole thing! Yeah, I remember. His exact words were, “We gotta go.”
     I’m not saying I have no good childhood memories. I’m just saying that the ones I have don’t involve him. So, just so you don’t walk away thinking I’m a total Debbie Downer, here are some of my more cherished moments from childhood:
     My first 45 single: it was “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group, and I traded my Evel Knievel action figure with Stunt Cycle to get my hands on that tune. That was THE moment that music became an intimate and integral part of my life.
     My first French kiss: was with Stacey P., and she was “going” with my best friend at the time, so I suppose I should have been more conflicted about it. But the first time an actual girl (and a pretty one, too) put her tongue in my mouth, time stood still, the universe exploded in a kaleidoscope of colors I didn’t even know existed, and every soft-rock ballad I’d ever heard in my life to that point was playing in my head at the same time. I would go so far as to say that my first French kiss was actually better than my first sexual experience, which was way more funny than it was intimate. Making out is still one of my favorite things in life.
     Funyuns and CARtoons: when our family first moved to Conroe, Texas, I was in elementary school. We moved into an apartment that was called a townhouse simply because you had to walk upstairs to get to the living room. That first weekend we went grocery shopping, and I was allowed to pick out a snack, and something to read from the magazine rack. For my snack I chose a bag of Funyuns. Not because I’d had them before and enjoyed them as a snack, but because they had the word “Fun” in the name and they vaguely resembled onion rings. I was perusing through my usual choice in comic books (basically anything from the Marvel universe; DC Comics were for pussies), when something altogether different caught my eye. It was the front cover of a comic book I’d never heard of: a brilliant caricature of a 1972 Dodge Challenger, with its big block engine poking up sky-high out of the hood, huge mag wheels in the back, cherry red with black rally stripes. And sitting behind the wheel was this kind of ordinary guy, thin, with glasses. And sitting beside him was this hot babe, and their muscle car was bearing down on this muscle-bound dude who you just knew, without even knowing the story of this picture, used to pick on the guy driving the car. From that moment on I bought every single issue of CARtoons magazine until they folded in 1991. And I will still, on occasion, eat a bag of Funyuns. Though typically the occasion is either a road trip, or when I’m drunk enough to think that eating a bag of Funyuns at my age is actually a good idea.

     Next Week, Chapter Five:My Life As A Dog (Part I)