angela

My friend Angela called me again today. She’s called every day for the past six or seven months, sometimes twice a day. She rarely leaves a message. I use the word ‘friend’ loosely, since I don’t know Angela’s last name or even what she looks like. I do know where she works though. Angela is a collections agent with Capital One.

Now you all know Capital One.The company that gives credit cards to people who can’t get credit cards because their credit sucks? Their catchphrase is “What’s in your wallet?” (what’s in my wallet? NOTHING! that’s why i need your credit card!)…anyhoo, you’d think they’d know how unlikely it is that the kind of person who actually need a Capital One card would ever have enough money to pay them back, but Angela believes in me.

You would also think that a 21st century financial company would have the technological savvy to understand cell phones and caller ID. Considering the number of companies to whom I owe money, I tend to not answer calls if the number starts with 800 or 888.  See, none of my friends have toll-free numbers. But here’s Cap One, thinking ‘Maybe this time he’ll pick up. He’s probably just busy figuring out how to pay us back.’ I can picture the supervisor saying”Angela–try him again–he’s gonna be home eventually.” As if after five hundred calls, I’m gonna pick up the phone and say “Ok, how much do I owe you Got it. I’ll send it out today.” I really should answer it one of these days, just for fun.

“Hello? Oh–hey Angie. Yeah, I guess you’ve been trying to get a hold of me for a while now. Sorry, I’ve just been really swamped. No, no it’s not you. It’s me. I just feel like you’re pressuring me. ? Ang, if this is about the money, I gotta tell ya–I just don’t have it. I know, I know. I let you down. Anyway, look–I gotta run. But call me anytime. Yeah, you can call me tomorrow. I may not be able to pick up, but just leave a message”

But my dear Angela never leaves a message. She has her friends do that. I particularly like the British chick that calls to say she’s from ‘Alliance Solutions’ (a collection agency) and would “really appreciate’ a call back. She always sounds upbeat in that kicky, Euro way, sorta like Emma Peel from the Avengers. And who wouldn’t want to call her back? I mean, she’s offering solutions. And she’s from…an alliance.

Actually last week, I accidentally answered. I didn’t have my glasses on, thought the ten digit number was a friend in Seattle calling, and I answered. It was my girl Angela. She didn’t sound very happy with me. She finally gets the chance to talk to me, and she takes this tone with me. All scolding, and judgemental. The conversation taught me one lesson: I would be a crappy spy, as I tried to pretend that I was my own roommate.

“Is this Michael?” “Uh, who’s calling for him?” “This is Angela.” “Uh, this is his roommate–let me see if he’s here…–no, sorry, he’s out.” “Do you know when he’ll be back?” At this point, Angie’s already on to me, but plays along like an expert criminal profiler. “No, sorry, he’s not very good at communicating (what?)–can I give him a message?” “It’s a personal matter.” Now for some reason, i continue the charade. “Well can I tell him what it’s about?” At this point, she’s done playing games. “Why would I tell you if you’re just his roommate? And I think I’m actually talking to Michael Dane.” I had no idea what to do. Hands sweating. Head spinning. Then, my masterful comeback. “No, this is…his roommate.” Her response? “Are you sure you’re not Michael Dane?” Atthis point I’m not sure of anything. Realizing she’s seen through my clever subterfuge, I decide there’s only one thing I can do. I hang up. She hasn’t called me in over a week, and I miss her.

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what’s in a name?

Sometimes when I’m creatively blocked I just start randomly typing things into Google. This time I wasn’t as random. Being a spiritual seeker, I searched for ‘God.’ Turns out, that search yielded 497,000,000 results, which I think explains why we can’t get along. Then, just to balance things out, I searched for the ‘Devil.’ Great news–only 160,000,000 results–clearly the Creator has a better handle on Search Engine Optimization. Now I’m figuring that the reason I’m not finding anything definitive is that I’m tied to archaic mythology, so I widened my search. For ‘evil,’ Google gave me 213,000,000 results, which means that there are at least 53,000,000 instances of evil for which the Devil is not responsible. This theology stuff is easy! But I wanted, at the very least, to have incontrovertible proof that is more good than evil in the world, and–voila! ‘ Good’ yields 2,060,000,000 hits! Good defeats evil! I’m a philosopher genius!

All that philosophizing took my mind off my piddling worries, but not for long. I’m just not sure where I fit in the grand scheme of things, and I’m just not feeling I’ve accomplished as much as I should. Granted I have nearly TEN regular readers of my blog, and as a standup comic, I am HUGE in Berwyn, Illinois. And Crest Hill. But I needed some perspective, so it was time to consult the Great Wireless Oracle once again.

It’s called ‘ego-surfing,’ and it involves simply typing your own name (in quotation marks) into your favorite search engine. According to the magical Google, 9,700 pages on the internet have at least one reference to ‘Michael Dane.’ So to boost my self-esteem, I decided to see how my life’s work stacks up against that of some the other Michael Danes. Instead of comparing myself to everyone on the planet, or even everyone in show business, let’s just see if I’m one of the most successful people named ‘Michael Dane.’

The first result I found was for a karaoke singer in Spokane, Washington. You can see a video here. Pleasant enough fellow, but I’m way funnier. Next I found a guy in Mooresville, North Carolina. Now he does own his own company, Dane Construction, but federal campaign records show he donated $1000 to both Kay Hagen AND Elizabeth Dole in their senate race, so that tells me he’s wishy-washy and not to be trusted. Take a stand, pal! Then, rounding out the first fifty, I get worried, because there’s a Michael Dane who’s listed as a ‘voice talent.’  But I went to his website, and first of all, he’s based in Athens, Texas, which is isn’t even the hippest Athens in the U.S. And his bio says that he was a DJ at a club called ‘Toppless,’ so I actually feel o.k. about doing comedy at Bada Brew in Crest Hill. At least I was the headliner.

The next result led me to one of the most fun time-wasting sites I’ve found in ages. Iit gives you statistical information on how your name (first, last or both as a combination) ranks in popularity, and it tells you where people with your name live. Indescribable nerd fun. There are 33 ‘Michael Dane’ listings in the entire country (making it the 613,590th most popular name), and I/we can be found in 20 states (with five of me/us in Massachusettes!).

Back to the search for my doppleganger. There’s a link to the MySpace page of a twenty-one year old girl in Lorain, Ohio, but I didn’t like the looks of her friends. She could do better. Then I think I might have real competition–an actor, and he’s actually listed on IMDB. But here’s his entire resume: in the 1985 film ‘A Certain Sacrifice,’ he played ‘Transvestite Steve,’ and in the 1987 movie ‘Hangman’ he is credited as…’Bad Guy.’ I feel much better. No disrespect, Mike, but neither of your characters had last names.

Still in the field of entertainment, Canadian singer Michael Dane apparently had a minor hit with the 12″ disco single “Let’s Make Love” (the flip side, as we all remember, was “The Dead Are Making Love), but that was in 1981, and I’ve seen no evidence of a comeback. Or a resurgence of Canadian disco.

The next contender was fun to read about. An English professor at two colleges in Hawaii, he’s listed on ratemyprofessors.com . Here’s a few quotes about Professor Dane (overall rating–4.6 out of 10):

Sometimes he seems like he’s weird but he’s very helpful.

We don’t seem to do much in class at all. He is entertaining to listen to, but jokes can be repetitive.

First impression make Dane seem intimidating. He has a strange sense of humor.

Finishing the top 100 ‘Michael Dane’ results, there’s:

a goth kid who takes pictures of himself

a lawyer in Kirtland, Ohio who in 37 years of practice has never had an instance of professional misconduct (and has apparently never left Kirtland Ohio),

a guy who owns an ‘architectural products’ company in Phoenix with a sharp-looking website where twelve of the sixteen links say ‘Coming Soon.’

a guy credited on the album “A Victorian Christmas For Brass” who didn’t play any brass–he’s listed as ‘bellringer’

So, all in all, I think I represent the Michael Danes of the world quite well.  In fact, two results of the first hundred actually quote a joke of mine, and my calendar from my website is result #104. But my favorite result actually referred to a character named ‘Michael Dane.’ In the 1923 John Ford silent film “North of Hudson Bay,”  legendary cowboy Tom Mix played a rancher named Michael Dane, and check out this synopsis from the book  “John Ford” by Tag Gallagher:

Rancher Michael Dane falls in love with Estelle while en route to Northern California where his brother Peter had struck gold. But there he finds his brother dead and his partner MacKenzie sentenced to walk the ‘death trail’…Dane tries to help MacKenzie, earns the same sentence but both excape, battling wolves, and meet Estelle, pursued by her uncle, the real murderer, who dies after a canoe chase over a waterfall.

Now that would beat the hell out of telling jokes in bars. But I am having trouble imagining the pitch meeting for that movie–it’s not exactly what you’d call ‘high concept.’ Sadly, according to the book, ‘only portions’ of the film survive, ‘with titles in Czech.’ No idea why.

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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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