Upon Further Review

I’ll always remember the first review I ever got for a stand-up comedy show. Sometime in the late eighties, when I had just started to land paying gigs, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune  reviewed a show that featured me and several other ‘up and coming’ comics. The reviewer, apparently having exhausted all of the show business metaphors then in use, and at a loss for a way to describe my act in comedy terms, instead went for a more visceral approach, describing my part of the show as being like:

…taking a cold bath with someone you dislike.

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it’s all about the chair

My Muse, sometimes, is like my first girlfriend after we broke up—yeah, I could call her, we might even get together, but nothing much is gonna come of it. You try to think of topics, as a writer, that haven’t been done to death. There aren’t any.

We have reached a point in civilization where everything has now officially been covered. Oh, and mocked. And there have also been pieces commenting about the mocking. It’s all been done. Move along, nothin’ to write here.

If you’re not a writer, and instead, say, actually make things people use, you probably don’t have much empathy for the whole ‘writer’s block’ thing. I think that’s the case with most stories about the ‘struggling artist.’ I’m pretty sure the reason the film of ‘A Chorus Line’ wasn’t a huge box-office hit is that,  for the typical American worker, the notion that ‘it’s really hard to dance in a show’ didn’t really resonate.

After trying for days to start a new comedy piece (weird term–“I think I’ll just have a piece of comedy, thanks”), I finally had a breakthrough. I now know the reason why I haven’t been able to write lately. It’s my chair. It doesn’t roll. Damned stupid, non-rolling, stationary chair.

I think a writer’s credibility goes up a notch with the rolling chair. There’s something profoundly powerful about…not having to get up. Since I live in a small studio apartment, I could conceivably spend an entire day sitting on my ass. That, my friends, is living the dream. If I feel a need for some exercise…well, I can read about exercise on the internet.

Having a rolling chair says a lot about a man. It implies, “He’s so busy he can’t take the time to stand.” It says. “He must have a lot of visitors, what with him needing a chair turns around like that.” It says, “That’s kinda sad that he needs to pretend he works in an office.”

So today, to procure said chair, I entered the Swedish labyrinth known as Ikea. I realize that, to use the math of the far right, that means I’m a socialist. After all, I’m shopping at a Swedish store, Sweden has socialized medicine, therefore I want to pull the plug on your grandparents.

Ikea actually frightens me. First of all, Ikea stores are too freaking big–I shouldn’t need a map after I’m already at my destination! Just because you’re a Swedish company, doesn’t mean your store needs to be the size of Sweden. If I’m getting two things, say, a rolling chair and a skillet, and I’ve found one of the two items, I shouldn’t need to consult a GPS device to locate the other.Here’s an idea–split up into multiple stores, each specializing in something. It’s called a mall, and the concept works.

Secondly, It’s all just a little too…efficient, don’t you think? You know who else was efficient, don’t you? The Third Reich. Seriously, is that an Ikea catalog, or Aryan Monthly? Everything in a nice, flat box? Lemme tell you something, Mister…Swedish guy. REAL LIFE doesn’t come in a nice flat box! And ya know what else, Sven? Oh, never mind, imaginary Swedish person.

Now, the idea of low prices because you build the shit yourself is fine, but why stop there? Why not have a store that’s just a pile of wood and particle board, with another big pile of random screws and bolts? And no cashiers—just boxes of money at the entrance out of which you make change. Imagine the savings! I wonder if Swedish grocery stores follow the same model. Shoppers wandering through aircraft-hangar sized warehouses, picking their own bananas, milking cows… “Honey, don’t forget we’re having lamb chops tonight—bring your mallet and your cleaver.”

I guess I’m just willing to spend a little more in order to arrive home with the actual thing I bought, and not a box representing that thing. Also, I am, mechanically speaking, a numbnuts. My stepdad wouldn’t let me go into our own garage after he watched me try to hammer two boards together.

In those high school aptitude tests, I would score 99th percentile on everything except what they called ‘spatial relationships.’ They would show a diagram of a bunch of pulleys and gears, and the question would be something like, “If pulley A turns counterclockwise, which direction would gear C turn?” And I would stare at the page as if trying to decode the Rosetta Stone, thinking, ‘who could possibly figure that out?’ I remember scoring right around the 43rd percentile on ‘spatial relationships,’ which is only slightly better than Bobo the Circus Orangutan would have ranked.

My one attempt at assembling an Ikea item was a desk, which took me three and a half hours, an hour of which was spent looking for more instructions than the half-page of sketches included in the box. When I was done, it looked like a desk, but I had four random pieces left over. I was afraid to use the desk, because I was worried at least one of those pieces was the piece responsible for actually supporting any kind of weight. I mostly put really light things on it, like postage stamps, and my keys.

So, I have a chair now, and it has wheels. Okay, I actually have some cushions, some metal thingies, a couple of plastic dealies, and some wheels. But I vow, someday, somehow, I will take those cushions, most of the metal thingies, at least one of the plastic dealies, and the wheels, and I will make me a chair. And then–yes then,  I will be able to write.

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i must make a list

I’ve never been a particularly linear thinker. My mind has never worked that way. And, I probably have ADD. This is a challenge if I’m writing, because when people read something, they usually expect it to be in some sort of order. But frankly, sometimes I just have a whole bunch of randomness. I’ve got ideas coming out of my ass (which, admittedly, is a weird way to write), but stringing them together and having some sort of through line—

So, once a week or so, I end up with a basket full of disconnected thoughts that I want to fling at the screen. While I’d love to become known as the Jackson Pollack of comedy writing, you damned readers seem to want a structure. So I need to do the writer’s work of shaping, and connecting, and focusing. Cool–Hulu is running the first episode of “Fringe.”

Now, I try to avoid lists, for several reasons:

  1. they’re limiting
  2. they’re overdone
  3. they’re too easy
  4. I get bored making lists
  5. I could get confused and accidentally include items from an entirely different list
  6. eggs

Besides, after a certain number of list items readers start to become annoyed and think the writer just doesn’t know how to compose a paragraph so they move on to another piece and even an ironic self-referential run-on sentence won’t get them to stay.

At a time like this, I usually fall back on that old standby, ‘things that irritate me.’ The danger with that is if you only list one or two things that irritate you, readers get to the end and think “Sure seemed like there was gonna be more to that.” And, if you list too many things that irritate you, you turn into the print version of my eighty-year old uncle. Or Andy Rooney. Seriously, how many years has he been bitching at the end of “60 Minutes”? You’d think he’d eventually run out of things that bother him. You know, since I brought it up, there are a couple of things…well, these things don’t bother me as much a they baffle me.

Gadgets Which Combine Things That Were Perfectly Good By Themselves

You’ll find this kind of gadget in your Sharper Image, your Hammacher-Schlemmer, or the Skymall catalog you look at instead of listening to the flight attendant’s safety instructions (if they ever change the protocol for a plane crash, a lot of people are gonna be screwed, because nobody pays attention). For example, it looks like a ballpoint pen, but the ad tells you that if you think of something important, you can click the pen and record a thirty-second voice message to yourself. Or, and I’m thinking way outside the box here, you’re holding a pen—you could write it down! Obviously if you have a pen, you had the intention of writing something, so go the extra step and carry a notepad. These are sometimes advertised as being ‘stealth’ recorders, but really, isn’t jotting a note down on a scrap of paper more stealthy than…talking to your pen

People Who, After I Leave A Voice Message, Call Me Back Without Listening To The Message

“Yeah, Michael—I see that you called? What’s up?” Forget for a moment that I might have wanted to JUST leave you a message and the message didn’t need any conversation (“Don’t forget to bring the fifty bucks for the hookers” is pretty self-explanatory).

There’s also the possibility I left a message saying “Yeah, Matt—listen, some Honduran guerillas are holding me hostage…they’ve got a manifesto…it’s a whole big thing…anyway they’ve got me wired to some explosives which will detonate if my phone rings, so no need to call me back.”

What baffles me is this. Why you would look at your phone, see that I called and that you have a voice mail, and not use the very same phone your holding TO FIND OUT WHAT’S UP? See, voicemail can work like a handy record of why people called you! Otherwise you might as well get rid of your phone, go back to 1985 and get a pager. You can put it in the pocket of your Members Only jacket. Using your phone to just see who called is like getting a laptop just so you can use the calculator on it.

Lest you think these are the ONLY two things I don’t understand in the world, rest assured I also don’t get

  • the success of “Two and a Half Men”
  • football in a domed stadium
  • snuggies
  • pub crawls
  • Snuggie pub crawls
  • drinking games, as opposed to just drinking
  • why Scientology gets tax-exempt status despite the fact that it’s founder actually acknowledged that ‘the best way to make a million dollars is to start a religion”
  • eggplant
  • most of what airs on Cartoon Network after about 1 AM
  • return library books

Well, I feel better now. And I feel productive. I’ll try to write something else tomorrow, or at least I’ll make a list of things I should write.

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9.11.01–a comedian’s take

It was a couple of weeks after my friend Kevin had called me and said “Turn on the TV—we’re under attack.” Now, I’m not a morning person, so my first instinct was to hang up. But then I started to assemble the words into some sort of sense—we’re…under…attack.

I then spent the better part of the day staring at my laptop. I was so overwhelmed, I’m not even sure I felt sad for the first hour or so. There wasn’t any room in my skull for sad. My head was too busy saying “what the fuck” on some sort of endless tape loop for it to admit any other feelings. I watched footage of the second plane (and that was really the one that scared us, because the first one, we all prayed, was just a freak accident)…

I watched that footage hundreds of times on September 11th. I realize now that I kept watching it to numb myself to it. Maybe if I watched it enough, I would be able to process it –react to it—and then put it in a box and on a shelf with other things I just watched on TV. (By the way, at this point, I’m sure you’re wondering, “When does the comedy start? I mean, the guy calls himself ‘Mister Comedy,’ fer chrissake.” )

Listen, I was three when JFK was shot. I was eight when we lost Dr. King. I only vaguely remember shots of balconies and hooded gunmen in Munich in 1972. But this. I knew when the second plane hit that this would be the defining moment of my generation. I think if your country is attacked when you’re twenty…well, you’re invincible when your twenty. But I think when your country’s attacked and you’re forty-one, you have more of a feeling of…ownership of the place.

I realized that from March 30, 1960 through September 10th, 2001, I had not felt patriotism. I had, to be sure, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sung the National Anthem, and even, in fourth grade, constructed a map of the United States out of salt dough. But until about 9:15 on that morning, I didn’t really feel like I was a part of an ‘us.’

That’s also when I truly fell in love with New York. When I saw news reports of New Yorkers lining up for miles to donate blood, I wanted to move there. I’m from earthquake country, and went through the Northridge quake in ’92, and I don’t remember anything like the sense of community I witnessed from three thousand miles away. (I’m not saying that all Angelenos are selfish, craven, career-driven barnacles on an apocalyptic ship…I’m just sayin’…)

So…I wrote this piece about two weeks after the towers fell, and I think it’s a fair representation of what comedians dealt with in the aftermath of 9/11.

Everyone who works as a comedian (admittedly an oxymoron to begin with) had the same thought on September 11th–“I’m gonna have to get a real job–nothing’s ever going to be funny again!!!”

So here’s the deal. Humor is healing. It is what we do when we can’t wrap our brains around really bad things. It’s a wonderful form of collective denial that’s been around since the first really bad thing happened. Though there are no records of this, I’m pretty sure that there were people doing Pompeii jokes after the volcano hit (“Hey gang–real estate tip–next time you buy property, remember these four words–IS THE VOLCANO ACTIVE?”

It’s like that Star  Trek episode where the scary alien energy presence thingie was eventually defeated because the crew of the Enterprise laughed at it. OK, it’s not a lot like that, but you get my point. Or maybe you don’t.

Anyway, the bottom line is, I don’t know any comic who thinks three thousand dead people is funny. But for those of us still here, we have to joke–because if we tried to understand the level of evil we’re talking about here, our heads would explode.

As much of a lefty as I am, I actually feel sorry for George W. (In my defense, at the time I didn’t realize he would lead us into a misguided war as the puppet of some truly evil motherfuckers–I just thought he was stupid.) I mean, he just got the job–hell, he’s probably still figuring out where all the bathrooms are. “Hey–I wonder where this leads…” “Uh, Mr. President, you have a briefing in an hour…Mr. President? Oh shit–would somebody please find W. and point him toward the press room?”

The most telling video clip is the one where Bush was in a classroom being told about the attack. Rule of thumb: any time a guy in a dark suit whispers to the President of the United States, something bad has happened. And thank God the smirk is gone. W. hasn’t smirked since September 11th. Smirking is, I think, a bad thing for a president to do. Credibility-wise.

Saddam Hussein offered to help the United States–if we asked. OK, guy–let’s assume we, as a nation, forgot about the whole accessory-to-terrorism,  biological-warfare-capable, burning-our-presidents-in-effigy-because-we’re–the-Great-Satan thing. How exactly, could you help us? “Mr. President, Hussein sent that shipment of rocks and sand we need…”(Again–my bad. I was naive and bought into the whole ‘biological-weapons-capable’ deal.)

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that, judging by who I saw on the street that night,  the largest number of American flags seem to have been purchased by a group I call ‘tattoo patriots’–and I’m not sure I feel safe with a front line of rednecks and trailer trash defending me. I mean, I just don’t like it that the most vocal people seem to be the type of guys that think  “Hell, me and a couple of buddies ought to just go over there and kick some ass.” It just doesn’t seem the time for rational dialogue right now…

But once again, the true heroes in this national crisis have been the rock stars who, instead of giving some of their gazillions of dollars to the victims of the attack, chose to–sing. But the thing about September 11th that made it unique amongst the challenges we’ve faced, it that nobody knew how they were supposed to react.

The most unfortunate choice of words in the first two weeks–the announcer for a New York Mets I watched who, after a game-winning home run, said “Shea Stadium has just exploded!”. Imagine some poor working-stiff bastard, just wants to hear a little of the ball game, take his mind off the tragedy, and right when he turns on the radio he hears that.

Actually,  think we should all cut Bush a little slack (in retrospect, I take that line back). I’m serious–we’ve all gotten a new job and then a couple months in realized we’re not quite sure we can handle it–you know, they train you at Starbucks and then all of a sudden they start selling some new kind of coffee, and there’s a huge line, and you’re not sure what button to push on the register, and you panic, and the assistant manager tells you don’t worry, just go clean the tables.

Which is sort of what W. probably went through— “Um…guys…nobody told  me what to do if the bad guys CRASH OUR PLANES INTO OUR BUILDINGS!!!” He’s frantically flipping through The Presidency for Dummies–meanwhile I imagine Cheney being a total jerk– “OK ,Mr. President–you need to call the president of   Pakistan—–and his name would be…?” “C’mon Dick–stop messin’ with me–it’s–I know it starts with an M…”

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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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