bad words

I’ll be the first to admit that my language, when unfettered by social propriety, is pretty salty. I never agreed with pedants who claim that swearing just indicates a limited vocabulary (see–I even used the word ‘pedants’). But sometimes, when confronted with certain situations and certain people, swearing is the only appropriate response. These situations include the following:

  • automated phone menus that instruct you to simply say your choice but then pretend to not understand what you’ve said, taunting you like HAL from 2001
  • convenience store clerks who count out your change so slowly that it seems as if they’re seeing the various denominations of currency for the very first time
  • former members of the Bush cabal who won’t shut up because they can’t seem to understand that not only did their ilk create most of what we’re trying to fix but in addition to that they lost and so consequently IT’S NOT THEIR TURN ANYMORE

It just feels good, on a visceral, primal level, to believe that you’re actually saying “fuck you” to the annoying robotic phone lady, or the kid at the 7-11,  or Donald Trump.

Ironically, when I perform standup comedy, I swear less than I do in my offstage life. In performance, language rarely shocks anymore, and the word “fuck” , for most comics on the road, has become a bright shiny object held up to draw the focus away from some hackneyed, hollow joke. Don’t get me wrong–the word is still in my quiver, but I don’t reach for it as often as I used to.

I’m reminded of a comedian who, by way of explaining that he didn’t swear, would point out that it was because he couldn’t think of any words strong enough to express his anger. Which leads me to ‘gadzooks’.

I want to start a movement to bring back some classic, if archaic, words for those “hit your thumb with a hammer moments. A cathartic way of expleting, without deleting. I propose the following ‘starter set,’ with annotations.

  1. Zounds! This one has a little extra spriritual component (it’s short for “God’s wounds“), and as such is useful when you need to swear in a religious setting–“Zounds! How long is this funeral gonna last, anyway?” Strangely, Zounds is also the name of a manufacturer of hearing aids, so context is important.
  2. Holy Mackeral! I like that this one starts out religious, and then veers toward the surreal, allowing you to express the kind of anger that is so disorienting you actually start to imagine fish with supernatural properties.
  3. Yikes! My favorite. Short, punchy, hard ‘k’ sound…channel your inner B-movie star the next time you’re stuck waiting for the cable guy–“Yikes! I thought you’d never get here, my good man!” (note: the “my good man” part is optional)

Speaking of B-movies,  I’d also like to bring back some phrases from the era of black and white cinema, when you knew who the good guys were by the words they shouted, and you didn’t have all that pesky moral ambiguity you see in indie films. Have fun and make the travails of your workaday life into a melodrama!

  • For instance, when the waitress at Denny’s brings you a Grand Slam instead of the Moons Over My Hammy you ordered, bang your fist on the table, stand up and yell”This is an outrage!” It’s best to have one of your friends warm up the car if you feel this about to happen, as you’ll most likely need to move to a different restaurant.
  • Another standby from the movies works like this–someone has told you something you KNOW is wrong…all you need is one word–“LIAR!” The bank teller says you’re overdrawn? Look at her and loudly proclaim “LIAR!” The pompous twink at the Gap says something isn’t made in your size? “LIAR!” (note: this is most effective if said while pointing at the offending party)

Lastly, on the topic of name-calling…ever felt hamstrung by the fact that you reallyreallyreally wanted to call someone a name, but ‘dick’ seemed a little too eighth-grade, and, if a woman was the object of your scorn, well you just didn’t have the time in that moment to navigate shifting waters of feminist theory to determine whether you could use that particular word? Here are some possibilities:

  • Rapscallion–good to bring out in a bar fight, perhaps…if that doesn’t make them back down, try ‘wastrel‘.
  • Chowderhead–this has the advantage of being gender-neutral, with a certain upper-class sensibility…you can up the ante byprefacing it with “Now listen here, you”.
  • Ninnyhammer–now this is a multi-tasking insult–not only does it say to people  ‘I need four syllables to describe your incompetence,’ but it also sounds like the name of the tool with which you would hit them.

I’m sure I’ll think of some others…oh yeah…here–I wrote it down on this…no wait–now I just had it…oh, bother!

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i’m running out of ellipses…

As a former card-carrying English major, and the kind of person who gets irritated by misplaced apostrophes (“Ladie’s Shoe’s on Sale!”), I have to make an embarrassing confession–I am addicted to ellipses…

I think I first saw the power of the magical three dots when I would read Larry King’s newspaper column. Larry would simply string together a handful of not-very-risky opinions (usually, but not exclusively, about celebrities), introduced by some regular guy phrase like “for my money” or “if you ask me”–add some ellipses, and you’ve got a column.

For my money, you couldn’t ask for a nicer guy than Will Smith…if you ask me, that Cristina Aguilera can really move…if you put a gun to my head, I’d have to to call cappellini my favorite noodle–not for nothing, but I love how it’s thicker than angel hair and not as thick as spaghetti…

Once I decided to share my unhinged ramblings with the world outside my apartment, it wasn’t long before I began using ellipses to excess…At first, I really believed I could use them responsibly—as something to compliment an otherwise well-reasoned essay. All my friends were using them anyway…besides, I knew I could always stop using them if it got out of control.

When I first started using them, it felt great! I could start a thought, and then just…trail off. Or I could set up some marvelous joke, and then simply…move on to another joke. No need for sticky segues or troublesome transitions…I would just start another thought after typing three periods.

I’d been using ellipses recreationally for years, but then things got crazy… They were just too easy to find—the period’s right there on the keyboard, and if you’re already using one, why not three?…I tried not to use them when I was alone—that would mean I had a problem…But then I started using them at home…on to-do-lists (“grocery store…library…Punctuation Anonymous meeting”)…on my resume (“clerk…cashier”)…my god, even on the memo line of a check (“cable bill…July”)…

I know I need to quit, but I don’t know how…I worry my writing won’t be as fun—maybe other writers won’t want to hang out with me if I’m not ellipsing…I want it to look like I’m just about to add something else…something even more important…

But I’m gonna try…one period at a time. Because if I can beat this, maybe I can stop beginning sentences with conjunctions…but at least prepositions are parts of speech I would never end a sentence with…OH MY GOD I CAN’T CONTROL MYSELF! The worst part is the fear…If I don’t end an idea with three dots, I’ll have to actually…make a point…and be done with it…it seems so final…as if I’ve got nothing else to say.

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getting my brood on

Here’s why I’m worried about my prospects as a writer: great writers, at least as they’ve been portrayed romatically, not only are able to write when their personal lives become unhinged, but actually produce their best work in their darkest days. Me–not so much. I have been moved and awed by the personal revelations written under extraordinary circumstances here–the bravery from people willing to lay their lives bare in print.

Yet when I am facing challenging times, that spigot seems to be turned off.  When I brood, I can’t seem to write. But isn’t that exactly when I should write?

I tend to plan my brooding–it’s not an organic thing that just comes over me. For instance, I normally buy one pack of cigarettes at a time, never a carton, because after all, if I buy a carton of cigarettes, then I would have to call myself a smoker, and I like to live in the delusion that any given pack might be my last. But a few days ago I bought two packs, because I intended to brood.

I’ve always loved ‘tortured’ artists. The notion of abusing oneself as a path to brilliant creative work really grabbed me, as I imagined myself scrawling bits of genius on the back of an envelope or a napkin while surrounded by overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles while listening to Billie Holiday, or Karen Carpenter. Unfortunately, I don’t quite have the hang of it. Mostly because I’m too OCD  to let that kind of righteous squalor accumulate.

Also, I can only write at the computer–when I do scrawl notes, my penmanship is so godawful and the notes are so sparse that within an hour they become indecipherable to me (what did I mean by ‘elephant religion’?–I think that says ‘elephant’). And lastly, when I’m in hibernation mode, I just…tend to not feel like writing. I find that being in a funk takes up most of my time. So basically I become Charles Bukowski, but without the literary output, sitting in a very tidy apartment.

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drawing a blank

I’ve typically dismissed horror stories about social networking sites as so much Luddite paranoia, partly because, as a relatively unknown comedian and novice print humorist, it probably wouldn’t hurt my career to have someone stalking me. I need visibility. Hell, I’d give you my social security number if you told me you liked one of my shows.

But now, I understand the dark side. I get an email tonight from someone who apparently found me through classmates.com which led him to MySpace. I think I registered for MySpace two years ago, never went back because it seemed to skew a bit…adolescent for my tastes, and though I have joined Facebook, I still don’t check MySpace because I really only need one black hole of time-wasting in my life.

Here’s the thing. He was a high school classmate of mine, and I DON’T REMEMBER WHO HE IS. At all. His name did not ring even the tiniest of bells. Forget about being afraid of being tracked by some creepy, deranged,  obsessed psycho–it is FAR more frightening to realize that someone who liked me well enough to get back in touch after thirty years has dropped entirely from my memory. I mean, what else have I forgotten? Because, if I’ve forgotten it, obviously I wouldn’t know I forgot it.

The worst part of this is that I replied to him and tried to (ever so light-heartedly) get him to jog my clearly age-enfeebled memory. Iwrote–“catch me up.” His email back to me was three long paragraphs about his life (and it sounds like we could really connect based on what he’s been doing) and that of another (apparently) mutual friend of ours whom I ALSO DO NOT REMEMBER.

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you can’t teach that

For the first time in a while, I’ll be teaching again this week. Before you start congratulating me for re-entering this most noble of professions, it’s not like I’ll be teaching about the towering figures in modern literature, or advances in higher mathematics, or, really anything with practical value. I teach stand-up comedy.

There are some problems with this as a way to make money. First, I’m not sure why anyone would take a stand-up comedy class, since the stand-up ‘boom’ ended in the early 1990s. It seems rather like studying to be an apothecary, or a harpsichord repairman. Yeah, there are still comedy clubs, and a few hundred dive bars that might have a ‘comedy night’ in which they move the karaoke machine out of the way for an hour and a half (“You guys have to be done by 9:30, because the Metallica tribute band needs to set up”).

But it’s not like it was in the eighties, when every town with a sewer system offered a place to perform in front of a faux brick wall to an audience of drunk twenty-somethings. Sadly, the golden days of stand-up ended when it got over-exposed on TV and—sorry, I almost turned into an old vaudevillian bemoaning how radio killed his career.

More to the point, although I’ve taught comedy classes in the past (even taught ‘advanced stand-up’—and what the hell is that? Really complicated jokes? Longer…segues?), I’ve never been convinced you can actually teach stand-up comedy.

I think you can teach someone how to hold a microphone, and you can teach some tricks about putting jokes in a certain order (‘Don’t end your set with a joke about abortion,’ or ‘Don’t open by mentioning the Holocaust’), but you cannot teach someone to be funny. You need to bring funny with you to the first class.

However, I guess there will always be people lured by the prospect of a fifty-dollar Thursday gig in Dickinson, North Dakota, and for these brave souls, I offer four two-hour sessions, culminating in a three-minute performance at one of the local chuckle joints. The real problem is that if you want to be a comic, you should be at a comedy club, not in a classroom. You should be showing up at open mics trying out your shit in front of an audience (I’m really not selling my class very well—must learn how to market myself better.)

See, comedy’s different than other forms of ‘art,’ say, violin playing. You would never hear a violinist at Orchestra Hall say “This is something I’m just kinda trying out—it’s new–not sure if it’s gonna be any good.” But with standup, the ONLY way to know if something is funny is to say it in front of an audience—you can’t practice it in front of a mirror or say it into a tape recorder (are there still tape recorders? must update references…).

So the demographic that would sit at home and think “I want a more theoretical approach to the whole comedy thing, and I want to learn in an environment that’s entirely unlike any place comedy might actually happen” are people who, by and large, aren’t toting a lot of funny around with them. They’re taking my class for the same reason they might take a class in bungee jumping, or macramé—something they always thought about trying, because it could be fun.

In my experience, there are certain types of people who take Introduction to Stand-up Comedy.

  • The Frat Boy Type: believes he’s funny because he can make his ‘bros’ laugh at a kegger by doing a drunk impression of his boss followed by armpit farts—sadly, this doesn’t always translate in front of a real crowd
  • The Cubicle Guy: wants to try something different to shake up his nine-to-five life, but prior performing experience limited to emceeing the raffle at the company picnic, during which he attempted part of a Bill Cosby routine
  • The Hipster: watches too much Comedy Central, thinks he could do comedy because ‘they’re just saying a bunch of random shit anyway’
  • The Saucy Mom: has read a lot of Erma Bombeck, and now that kids have moved out, finally is trying what she ‘always wanted to do,’ but mostly wants to say inappropriate things and swear a lot
  • The Comedy Writer: has none of the personality required to be a performer, but has a chapbook filled with wacky ideas, most of which are only funny to him
  • The Toastmaster: Unclear on the distinction between public speaking and stand-up; would ideally prefer to read from note cards at a podium (tells people what he’s going to tell them, then tells them, then tells them what he’s told them)

Another challenge in teaching the ‘rules’ of comedy is that almost by definition, comedy is about seeming like you’re breaking the rules—saying those very things that you’ve been trained to suppress since fourth grade when you were sent home with a note saying ‘cuts up in class—always disrupting lessons with jokes.’

Of course, there will always be the stand-up student who simply wants to be like whoever the hot comic is at the moment, and I essentially have to beat that out of them so they find their own comic voice, and so the world isn’t overrun with clones of Dane Cook. But every so often, I come across students with a spark, that ineffable flair that makes you want to listen to whatever they feel like talking about.

It’s what my beatnik friend Eugene used to call ‘the thang.’ And though I try my damndest to give every student the tools they need to pull a few laughs out of increasingly jaded audiences, it’s that one in twenty, the one who has that ‘thang,’ who makes me want to teach comedy. Just don’t expect me to teach you to be funny.

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the comedy trenches

Thought I’d give you a comic’s-eye view of your basic road gig…

I’m on a bus headed to Minnesota. On Saturday night I begin my return to standup comedy, with a performance for the Rotary Club of Buffalo, Minnesota. On the surface, none of that exactly screams ‘show business’-not Rotary Club, not Buffalo, not Minnesota. But, it is a gig. I feel a bit like Michael Corleone in The Godfather–no matter how many times I try to leave standup, “it keeps pulling me back in.”I’m not even sure how I feel about getting back in the game. Excited, sure. And, in a weird way, a little resigned. So now I’m playing catch-up with all the hipster, alternative and most importantly, young comedians working today. And here I am, the Grandpa Moses of comedy.

First thing I have to do is throw out a chunk of my material, because I used to do topical jokes, and a lot of those are past their freshness date. Back in the day, I used to have bits about an out-of touch, incompetent president risking American lives in wrong-headed military action motivated by oil, while the economy stagnated and inner-city violence soared. Well, maybe I don’t have to rewrite that much material.

I also need to figure out how to market myself . Used to be if I wanted work as a comic, I’d send a VHS tape of a show to the club owner. Now I need to have a website, a clip on YouTube, I probably should have a MySpace page and I’m sure there’s some way to implant a microchip in the heads of prospective audience members so they’re forced to watch my show in an endless loop. Well, at least I’ve got the website and the clip, which you can view here.

I realize I’m sounding like an old vaudevillian here (‘why, if radio hadn’t come along I’d still be somebody”), but it’s a little scary getting back on the horse. I was lucky enough to get into standup when it was booming, in the eighties, when every town with a sewer system had ‘comedy night’ at the local bar. If you had twenty minutes of material and a car, you could make a decent living. Then comedy got devalued when the market was flooded with 18,000 mediocre twenty-something comics who realized it was easy money and you got to work in bars and occasionally get laid because for forty-five minutes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa you were a star. Yeah, I’m a little bitter. But it’s good to be back.

Now, to get to Buffalo, you drive west from Minneapolis (which is an actual city) about 45 minutes, past the suburbs, past all signs of civilization, until you see the lights of a town. That town isn’t Buffalo. You keep driving.Interestingly enough, for the 20 or so miles before you get to Buffalo, there are no signs along the freeway saying ‘Buffalo–20 miles” or “Buffalo–next exit” or…anything. The only signs you see tell you to watch your speed, because you certainly wouldn’t want to get to Buffalo too quickly. Also on that stretch of freeway, they’ve painted white dots in the middle of the road, with signs saying “2 dots equals 3 seconds.”

So you keep driving and counting dots until you see the Menard’s, take a right, and there it is–the Buffalo Civic Center. However, whereas ‘civic center’ implies a rather grand structure, where…big events might happen, this place looks like an aircraft hangar built on top of a high-school gymnasium. An old gymnasium with god-awful fake ‘turf’ duct-taped to the floor. Guess my ‘comeback’ had to start somewhere.

This was the Buffalo Rotary Club’s yearly fundraiser, during which they raffle off a new car. Now one of the fundamental rules of comedy, along with “Always Be Nice To The Guy Paying You” and “Don’t Make Fun Of The Girlfriend Of The Guy Paying You” is ‘Never Follow A Raffle.” See, everyone is there trying to win something, and when you go on, they realize you’re not giving away any prizes. You never want you introduction to start with the phrase ‘and don’t forget we still have a comedian.’

The three hundred or so people who didn’t win a new car dejectedly head for their own car (I mean it was almost ten o’clock in Minnesota after all) and I’m left with fifty or so people, who thanks a prime rib dinner and an open bar are either drunk or napping. The head guy of the Rotary Club then spends five minutes trying to get the drunk people quiet enough to hear my show, and to get them really pumped, gives me this introduction:

“Alright, so we’ve got a guy here from Chicago to entertain you. Here’s Michael Dane.”

The ‘audience’ is seated at gigantic round tables, thereby making sure that two-thirds of them aren’t actually facing the ’stage’, which is not really a stage but a three-inch high riser made of unfinished plywood. I start off playing with the crowd a little, and I had been given some notes on a few of the notables in the group to riff on. Unfortunately, none of the people for whom I had notes were still there. So I play with some people at the front tables, and I see a woman with big frizzy hair, and suggest that she was “the victim of a tragic home-perm accident.” Not brilliant, but the kind of line that loosens up the crowd before I get into my material. Well this crowd wasn’t too clear on the notion that comics…make shit up. No real grasp of sarcasm. So, a woman next to the frizzy-haired woman felt compelled to yell in the middle of my next joke “that’s natural–that’s her real hair!” I clearly had entered some sort of bizarre Literal Land, so I decided to just get to the act.

Although a core group in the crowd was clearly digging my routine, I spent much of my contractually-obligated hour essentially babysitting. Apropos of nothing I would be talking about, someone would announce loudly “I’m getting a drink–anyone need anything?” or “I gotta take a piss.” If I turned to the right, the people on the left would start talking. If I turned to the left, a canasta game would break out on the right.  On every other joke, if I didn’t yell the punchline, they seemed unable to tell that it was the end of a joke, and their cue to laugh. And, since it was an room full of Minnesotans, when they did laugh, wasn’t able to tell. The innate Lutheran-ness of Minnesotans doesn’t exactly lead to boisterous response.

It was also the whitest group of people assembled outside of the Republican National Convention.  The only person of color in the auditorium was the black security guard. Not even sure why he was there–Rotary Club events don’t tend to draw your rabble-rousers and troublemakers, even when they have an open bar.

I pushed through, though, eventually got to most of my actual jokes, and at the end, quite a few people said the had a great time (again, not that I could tell they had fun). Did my political stuff, did my pot stuff, even did my bisexual stuff (now I know why the security guard was there). Afterwards, I went to the open bar, had a gin and tonic in a plastic cup, got my money in cash, and headed out of Buffalo. Showbiz, baby! Bottom line–I got as much out of a Rotary Club raffle crowd in Western Minnesota as any comedian could have.

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