Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ciao, Motherfu*kers.

     I know, I know. Late again. I didn't post last week because I was having yet another hard look at the next chapter of the book (Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life, which, if you don't know what that is by now, I really can't help you), and I realized that it's just essentially a blog piece (one of my earliest) that I already wrote what seems like a hundred years ago (it was three years ago, and yes, I'm aware that I exaggerate, thank you very much), and which you can read right here.

     Then Prince died, and I had to - literally had to - listen to the Purple Rain soundtrack twenty-three times in a row, and grieve the loss of a truly original human being, while at the same time celebrating his life and legacy by shredding the shit out of "Let's Go Crazy" on air guitar.

     So, no. I didn't post last week.

     And I'm posting early this week, because tomorrow, KC (the beautiful red-haired girlfriend, I've mentioned her a few times) and I are going here:

Well, I mean, maybe not EXACTLY here. I just presume all of Switzerland looks like this.

     No shit. We're going to Switzerland. Home of Alps, and cheese, and chocolate, and I just realized I'm probably not going to the bathroom for like a month after this trip. No matter. KC has friends in Geneva and Bern who are going to show us around. I have been informed that we will hike in the Swiss Alps. I have also been informed that my girlfriend will feel compelled to belt out the entire soundtrack to The Sound of Music when we get up there, and I am (mostly) okay with that. I imagine it's hard to be in a bad mood in literally the second happiest country on Earth (Switzerland only got beat out by Denmark, and only probably because of those "drug consumption rooms" I keep hearing about). So I'm going to eat fondue in the place where it was invented, and I'm going to eat chocolate so good that I'll almost assuredly become a choco-snob, and I'm going to hike in the Alps and listen to the love of my life channel her inner Julie Andrews, and it's going to be awesome.

     But wait. There's more.

Two words: Florence fucking Italy.

     The rest of our trip will be spent in Italy. Which is to say that if I don't have arteriosclerosis by the time we leave Switzerland, it's a pretty safe bet I'll be coming home with it after Milan, Florence, and Bologna. Which is still better than syphilis. 

     I'm excited. Bordering on giddy. I've never been to Europe. I've never been to lots of places, but that begins to change tomorrow. I can't promise I'm going to post while I'm there; I'm not bringing the laptop, and I hate trying to write on my phone. I'll probably take a lot of pictures and keep a journal, then get it all down when I get back. 

     Until then, as the Italians say: Ciao, motherfuckers!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Chapter Twenty-Five.


     One of the biggest challenges of dealing with a depressive disorder is that your brain can decide to mind-fuck you on a dime. This morning I had a kick-ass workout (for me, I mean. I'm about to be goddam fifty years old, so my definition of "kick-ass" has appropriately shaded to reflect that hard fact), it's great weather outside, I get to see Boo this afternoon, and I get to ride a magnificent horse this evening - and get paid for it. Pretty awesome, right?

     And then I am reminded - not harshly, just reminded - that I'm not doing all that great. I'm having to accept the fact that the career I've had for almost all my adult life just isn't paying the bills anymore. And I have no idea what the fuck else there is to do. Except I have to. I have to figure out how to make a living outside of performance. It's the kind of thought that makes you reach straight for the Xanax - which I did. (But not the whiskey. Don't drink and self-medicate and think you can ride a giant fucking horse.)

     And so it's with a very astute awareness of irony that I publish the next chapter of Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life, because it's all about giving thanks to a couple of people who were instrumental in my becoming a performer. Maybe putting this chapter out here (hell, maybe the reason I'm putting the whole book out here), is sort of my way of finally letting that go. (I always thought when I gave up performance I'd have some kind of Viking funeral, except I would have to be in the burning boat as it rolled out to sea, and fuck that idea with icing on top.)

     And so here you go. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the book. You've literally helped keep the lights on, and I appreciate the shit out of you.

Chapter Twenty-Five
Gratitudinal Propers
  But influences are less important, I think, than those people who, early in your life, recognize that you are tinkering with the building blocks of the person you are going to become and give you the opportunity to try it out. And two of the most important people in my life – who gave me the shots to take early on – were Mr. Gilliam, and Barbara Murphy Garner. They are two people you never heard of, and they were both highly influential in my achieving whatever I have that can be called career success.
     Mr. Gilliam was my Home Room teacher in sixth grade (O.A. Reaves in Conroe, I think it’s an elementary school now), and I was a complete shit in sixth grade. I was around eleven years old, and I had discovered that making people laugh made me feel good. And, sort of, in a tragic-clown type of way, popular. So I was doing it all the time. In Science class, I would use my dissected frog as a puppet and make him do a little dance. In English, as the teacher was reading a long and boring passage (or so I then thought) from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I would pretend to fall asleep, then fall over backwards in my chair. I would listen to comedy albums from Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Gabe Kaplan (remember Welcome Back, Kotter?), and then tell those jokes at school, not even censoring myself, but happily throwing words around like ass, pussy, and motherfucker. I never told those routines in front of teachers, mind you. I was too much of a chicken-shit to be a Bad Boy. But I did enjoy being a Funny Guy.
     All of these shenanigans naturally frustrated my teachers – though never enough to get me into real trouble. The bullies in my schools (and there were plenty of them) always took the real heat: the trips to the principal’s office, the ass-whippings (you could still whip a kid’s ass in those days), the suspensions. I don’t think I ever got a note sent home informing my parents that I was a troublesome kid. But I was definitely a distraction, and Mr. Gilliam was the first teacher I ever had who figured out how to co-opt my tomfoolery. He made a deal with me: every morning, before roll call and announcements, I would get one minute. Sixty seconds to tell a joke, fall over in my chair, do an impression. To an eleven year-old kid with a debilitating need for attention, this was pure gold.
     And it worked. I was still the class clown, but now I had an attentive audience for one minute every day – and it was okay. I never realized until much later what a genius move this was on Mr. Gilliam’s part. He was just trying to maintain control of a bunch of rowdy kids. He could have squashed me, but he didn’t. He gave me a shot. I got to be funny, even if I was never picked by the school principal to be a guest DJ for morning announcements over the loudspeaker. Fuck that noise, anyway. I didn’t want to be mainstream.
Mr. Gilliam, and my first captive audience. See the poor bastard dead center with the horizontal stripes? Bingo.

     The next opportunity I got was in high school. My sophomore year I was in competitive speech and debate, and we got a new teacher/coach. (A word about competitive speech and debate: yes, mostly populated by nerds and other social outcasts. Yes, some of the more interesting, genuine, and funny people I ever hung out with, many of whom I am friends with even into Middle Age. So there.) She was a young, fresh-faced woman not terribly older than us, and after one day of putting up with our shit looked about as shell-shocked as an artillery officer in the First World War. Imagine being thrown into a classroom of teenagers who are too intelligent for their own good, and all of them desperate attention hounds. It’s a wonder we never drove her to suicide; I’m certain we drove her to drink.
     Her name at the time was Barbara Murphy (later she remarried and became Barbara Murphy Garner), but I always called her Mom. I think I called her that from the first day, which, in retrospect, probably made her feel older than she actually was. But everyone I really care about in life I attach a term of endearment to. I always have. And she became Mom Murphy.
     The way competitive speech worked in those days was you selected a category of competition (mine was usually Humorous or Dramatic Interpretation, and yes, I can be dramatic, and not in a Drama-Queen type of way, though probably sometimes). Then you selected a literary piece to perform. The operative word there is “literary.” The piece you performed had to be from a published play, or novel, short story, etc. You then did your “interpretation” of the piece, in a classroom, in front of judges and your opponents. No stage, no costumes, makeup, or props; just you and your emotions, facial expressions, movement – no bells and whistles. It was a bracket competition, filtering out through preliminaries, quarter and semi finals, and finals. I guess for me this is really where the possibility of acting for a living took hold. The problem was, I wasn’t a rule-follower.
     Mom Murphy tried, bless her heart, to help me select performance pieces of high literary merit: Christopher Durang, Woody Allen, William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller. To which I was all, like, no fucking way. I wasn’t interested in that stuff, because it didn’t make me laugh. I wanted to perform Monty Python sketches. I wanted to perform scenes from movies, or stand-up routines from my favorite comics. In short, I wanted to perform the most non-literary shit I could find. And here’s the thing: Mom Murphy let me do that. She recognized that the only way I was ever going to learn anything about performance – what worked, what didn’t, and why – was to let me try on my own terms and fail. And when I landed flat on my ass – which I did, often – she never said, “I told you so.”  But she always asked, “What did you learn?”  And that was when I think I became unafraid of failure. And a good thing, too, because I have failed a shitload in my life.
     When Wishbone hit the airwaves, my first “big” interview was with The Hollywood Reporter. 
And when they asked me who had the biggest influence on my career, I didn’t hesitate. (This was back before anybody could Google “Barbara Murphy Garner,” and the blank look on the reporter’s face was priceless. He was also terribly disappointed that I didn’t mention somebody famous.) Give credit where it’s due. Mom Murphy and Mr. Gilliam: couldn’t have done it without you.

Next Week, Chapter Twenty-Six: Some Shit I Watched

Make a contribution to the book by clicking HERE.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Chapter Twenty-Four.

     Do you have any idea how fucking difficult it is for me to be sitting in front of a screen right now? It's Spring in Texas, and we're actually having a proper Spring, which means the temperatures are actually Spring-like (as opposed to temperatures that are considered "Summer" or "Deadly" to the rest of the country), it's perfect motorcycle weather, baseball is back, and somewhere there is a forlorn patio, waiting for me to sit down on it and drink margaritas until I believe I can actually speak Spanish. But I'm trying to publish a chapter a week of the book until I get to The End, after which I have no goddam idea if I'll even still feel like writing on this space (but probably yes), and so here's Chapter Twenty-Four coming at you.

     I borrowed heavily for this chapter from a piece I published on the blog right here, but it's still a decent insight into how I came to do what I do. By which I mean be funny. Not masturbation. Which I also have done, though not nearly as much these days, because I have a girlfriend. And now I'm very uncomfortably going to try and steer the conversation back to this week's chapter. And away from masturbation.

     Chapter Twenty-Four
On the Origins of Making Shit Up

 I am invariably asked about my early influences. Who was my inspiration? Who did I want to be when I was a kid? Well, first I thought I wanted to be Mel Blanc, until I saw a picture of Mel (pre-Internet, remember?), and I found him to be very old. I didn’t want to be old. Still, he had great character range and perfect timing. So yeah, he was an early influence.
Mighty Mel.
 So was the late, great Jonathan Winters, from whom I developed the love of making shit up as I went. You always got the feeling, watching Uncle Jonathan, that he was just as curious as you to see where the sketch was going and that he – like you – had no idea where that was. But he always got there.
Uncle Jonathan.
      I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus around the same time I discovered masturbation – which is to say that age 12 was a very good year for me. That was the first time I ever saw a group of people working together for the express purpose of being funny. I didn’t know what “creative collaboration” was back then; I only knew that it took all of those guys to make the show so good. Circus was also my first exposure to a culturally different kind of funny, and I can tie that experience directly to my love of history. As a twelve year-old American boy, I could watch sketches like Dead Parrot and Upper Class Twit of the Year and Cheese Shop, and understand that they were funny. But I wanted to know why English people thought they were funny. Python taught me that a real understanding of your audience can make what you’re doing even funnier. This was a huge influence for me as I began doing Wishbone, and learning that it wasn’t just little kids watching our show, but college students, parents, etc. I began to develop an irreverence in the character of the dog that played well to older viewers. I began to understand my audience, and I owe that nugget of wisdom to the Pythons. 
Funny fucking Brits. And one weird American.

      But the biggest influence of all – the guy who taught me that making shit up was not only funny, but could be done for a living - was Robin Williams.
     And I even got to meet him, once.
     There was some video industry award ceremony in Los Angeles, and Wishbone
had been asked to be a presenter. So the dog, the dog's trainer, our

producers and I got on a plane and went to California. I don't remember most of that

evening. I remember getting to see Kenny Loggins doing his sound check. I

remember Howie Mandel was the emcee, and he was an egotistical prick. The only

 other thing I remember from that evening was being backstage, just hanging

 around until we were told what to do, when the hairiest man I'd ever seen walked

 right up to Jackie Kaptan (Wishbone's trainer), and asked, very politely, "Is it okay if

I pet him?"

     And he knelt down to pet the dog. Three feet in front of me. The man whose

 comedic hurricane blew into my sails at an early age, and charted the only course I

 was ever going to take.

     In 1979, everybody knew who Robin Williams was. Literally. Everybody. 60 million people a week tuned in to watch Mork & Mindy. And when the show aired on Thursday night, I memorized every good line and repeated them all day Friday at O.A. Reaves Intermediate, in my sixth grade homeroom class. But what most of the god-fearing, conservative citizens of Conroe, Texas did NOT know about Mr. Williams was his cutting-edge, stream-of-consciousness, and very adult-themed stand-up material.
     My best friend, Steve Woodson, managed to get his hands on that album. Probably because his parents were way cooler than mine. We played the shit out of that record. When Williams opened his show impersonating a Russian doing a New York echo (“Helloooooo.........Shut the fuck up!”), that's when I knew. I had already cemented my reputation as the class clown. Robin showed me that I could take it further. He revealed to me that I could - if I chose - actually make my tiny part of the world just a little brighter; that I could make comedy stop being for me, and make it for all of them.
     Flash forward to 1997. A stupid video industry award show. Backstage. And he's on one knee, three feet in front of me, petting a dog. My long-distance mentor. My hero. And an opportunity I knew I would never, ever, have again:
     Me: Mr. Williams? 
    RW (standing and shaking my hand): Hello.
     Me: Thank you. For everything. You're the reason I decided to make my living being funny.
     RW: Wow. You're welcome. What an incredible thing to say.
    That was it. His handlers whisked him off to wherever he was supposed to be. I looked around at my friends, the people I had spent so much time with working on our own show. We were all blinking rapidly, like we'd just looked directly into the sun for a second. How many kids get to meet their hero?
     When I heard of his death by suicide in 2014, I was a hot fucking mess for days. Naturally, I thought about my father, and how it could be that now two of my male role models had checked out of this existence in the same manner. In the end, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to look my comedy hero in his eye, and say, simply, thank you. Not “Oh my God, you’re so awesome!,” or “Where do you come up with this shit?”
     Just Thank You.

     Next Week, Chapter Twenty-Five: Gratitudinal Propers

     Make a contribution to the book by clicking HERE.