Limitations lead to imitations which lead to innovations

The theater where I work for ComedySportz L.A. and perform on their Rec League is inside of a building known as the El Portal Theater. It was originally built in 1926 as a vaudeville house and then became a movie theater. The Northridge Earthquake of 1994 wrecked the interior of the building and exposed the asbestos in it, so the entire interior was gutted and redone. It eventually reopened, again a live theater, but this time with two spaces inside — the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage, the Monroe Forum (home of ComedySportz), and the Studio Theater, home of Stuart Rogers Studios and the Acting Tribe.

In case you’re wondering… Debbie’s and Marilyn’s names are plastered all over the building because they used to see movies there as kids, and Debbie performed on the mainstage many times and donated some of the furniture in the lobby, which appeared in her 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in which she played Kathy Bates. Er… the character Kathy Bates played in Titanic. (Bates arguably resembled the real-life Margaret “Molly” Brown much more closely, but Debbie was a better dancer and singer — unless you ask Gene Kelly, although, to be fair, he was kind of a dick, and not really a great actor.)

There’s your location. And notice that both the Monroe Forum and the Studio Theater have resident companies. Meanwhile, the big house, with its 360 seats, does not. Instead, it functions as a rather pricey rental house — starting at $3,000 an evening or $10,000 per week, plus labor, which adds $120 per hour for three techs and a house manager, although I’m sure that none of them actually get the published rates after the house takes its cut.

As a direct result of this, most of the shows that appear on the mainstage fall into one of two categories: Vanity projects by people with more money than talent — every single one a musical! — or tribute bands, impersonators, or cover shows. And the damn things tend to sell right the hell out. Meanwhile, in our theater, we do sell well, but obviously we’re only filling 94 seats a night, not 360.

Now what’s the big difference between the two? Simple. By its very nature, improv is different every single time. Okay, sure — each of our shows has the same general format: the ref and teams are introduced, the ref explains the rules and fouls, then warms the audience up. We then have the “coin toss,” which never involves a coin, and this is followed by a team vs. team game that generally is scored based on either elimination or rotations, a pair of individual team games rated by audience applause, sometimes followed by another pair, depending on which League is playing, and then another team vs. team game to end the half. The second half is team vs. team, two individual games, and then final team vs. team, which itself is usually always a pun-based “jump-out” game.

But… it’s improv, so while that skeleton is always the same, the flesh and muscle poured on top of it is as varied — or even more so — as every human being on Earth. And, c’mon — every one of us, short of amputations or medical conditions, basically has the same number of bones. Everything on top of them, though, is hugely variable.

But on the mainstage, barring the vanity projects, what do we get? One imitation after another. I can’t tell you how many Elvis shows I’ve seen pass through here. Recently, there was a John Lennon impersonator with band — although he was good — and an ABBA tribute band that looked and sounded like the real thing. A couple of months back, we had a David Bowie (not so good, but apparently he was under the weather), and, as I mentioned, way too many Elvi. There was also an old band I’d never heard of, the Four Freshmen, which has apparently completely replaced its members several dozen times since it was founded right after the end of World War II. That one sold the place out for a weekend.

Think about that, anyone who is a marketer, and especially a millennial. A theater in the Valley stuffed itself full, and the age ranges of the audiences are enormous. Most nights, they probably literally have everyone from nine to ninety. Some shows are skewed more toward the latter, but the point is that no matter how cheesy you might think these productions are, they sell.

Pop quiz. There’s going to be a tribute band show coming up. How interested are you in seeing them? Here are your choices: A) A tribute band for an unspecified group for a specified decade, from 1940s to 1990s, or B) A tribute band for a specific group or artist that you name.

You all voted for option B, didn’t you? Because of course you did, and the band you voted for is one of your favorites, and most likely is one that you either saw live when you were in your teens or twenties or one whose music you love but you never got a chance to see them live. Chances are also good that it’s a band or artist that either is no longer together or isn’t currently touring or performing. Or, sadly, alive.

We can see this need for the familiar in formats other than live concerts, though. For example, look at movies, where the dominant forms for several decades now have been franchises, some of them running for years — Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Marvel and DC Universes, and Lord of the Rings. There’s also the one notable series that made the jump from being a multi-program television franchise to becoming a long-running movie franchise, Star Trek. And we can’t forget the granddaddy of them all — James Bond, which has been cranking out movies now for nearly sixty years.

The other format of the familiar is, of course, the remake, along with its more recent cousin the “reboot,” which just seems to be a way of saying “we’re remaking this way too soon.” (I’m looking at you, Spider Man franchise.) But we’ve been seeing remakes since forever. The recent fourth version of A Star Is Born is just one example, but the remake craze hit Hollywood in the 1930s. As soon as sound became a thing, there was frenzy of remaking silent movies in this new format.

Yes, totally original works do catch on, but if you want to create a cash machine, recycle the familiar. Why does this work? Well, on the one hand, it’s because of the power of nostalgia. In short, it’s the often mistaken belief that everything was better during X era. Quite frequently, if you’re over 30, that era corresponds to when you were a kid or maybe a teen, but things only seemed better because you didn’t have any adult responsibilities at the time. If you’re under 30, then that nostalgia may settle on one or two decades before the one you were born in. That is, if you were born in the 90s, you might be nostalgic for the 80s or 70s. And this one happens because, face it, you’re young, you don’t have a lot of money, people don’t take you seriously — it can’t have been that bad for people my age ten or twenty years ago, right?

But there’s another force that has nothing to do with nostalgia, and it was summed up perfectly by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in their magnum opus The Illuminatus! Trilogy. You really should seek out and read all of Wilson’s works. I was fortunate enough to attend a couple of his live weekend-long seminars long ago, and they were amazing. Plus one of them also landed me a date (and sex) with a smoking hot nerd from UCLA — although hot and nerd are redundant in my book. But I do digress…

I’ll just drop the relevant quote from the trilogy here, because it says it all:

“All humans are irrational, but there are two different kinds of irrationality — those who love old ideas and hate and fear new ones, and those who despise old ideas and joyfully embrace new ones: Homo neophobus and Homo neophilus. Neophobus is the original human stock, the stock that hardly changed for the first four million years of human history. Neophilus is the creative mutation that has been popping up at regular intervals during the past million years, giving the race little forward pushes… Neophilus makes a lot of mistakes, but he or she moves. They live life the way it should be lived, ninety-nine percent mistakes and one percent viable mutations.”

Neophobus are still the majority, sadly, which is why tribute bands and remakes are so popular. Personally, as a total neophilus, I just don’t get it. I mean, okay, sure I have my own favorite shows and movies, but there are very few of those I watch over and over. I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are among the few movies that I will watch again and again. On the TV side of things, the winners are Father Ted, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who. Oh, all right. And Are You Being Served? But then I look at that list and realize that every single one has something in common.

They are all from the British Isles, even if the director of 2001 was American, and nearly half of them are related to Monty Python. But this just goes right back to the nostalgia thing, actually, because every one of these but Father Ted and 12 Monkeys (from the 90s) came out when I was a kid, or even before I was a human.

Oh yeah… of course the musical Spamalot! pulled me right because it was based on… well, you know. So I’m not immune to the lure of the familiar either, I’d just like to think that I’m more immune to it than a lot of people. But I think the real lesson here is this. It’s okay to fall back on the familiar once in a while, but we all need to make a more concerted effort to seek out the new and novel. After all, every single one of those artists or bands who now has a cover or tribute show has that for one simple reason: They were so novel in their own time that they made a mark and often changed artistic history. They were the giant pebble dropped in the pond of what was, and the ripples they left turned into the waves that created what is.

Elvis. The Beatles. Bowie. Elton. Queen. Prince. And so on. They may be oft-imitated now because they are deeply embedded in so many of our psyches, but the important lesson for all artists is this: imitate, and then innovate. Stand on the shoulders of giants in order to eventually make yourself taller and drag your audience with you to a higher viewpoint. Manage that, and one day they’ll be doing tribute bands or remakes or reboots of what you have created.

Letting go of thinking

Here’s the funny thing about improv and letting go of thinking. When I first started taking classes and then performing, two games scared the ever-loving crap out of me: “What are you doing?” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” For the life of me, in “What Are You Doing,” I couldn’t come up with descriptions of what I was doing and had a really hard time avoiding the dreaded and prohibited “I’m…” The reason “I’m” isn’t allowed is because it’s a form of hesitating — although we certainly hear it in the clip linked above. (Side note: although this is a ComedySportz LA clip from almost seven years ago, some of the players here are still with us.

And in the latter game, “Da Doo Ron Ron, I used to consistently stumble over my own tongue by either whiffing the rhyme or repeating someone else and always getting called outta there no later than third. Note that the linked version here is from a different city, so they do it slightly differently than we do, with the “5, 6, 7, 8” intro, and by rotating players instead of eliminating them. And, although this is a ComedySportz clip from New Orleans from over a decade ago… yeah, you guessed it. I know one of the players here, who is now on the Los Angeles team.

If you didn’t get it from the videos or didn’t watch the videos, I’ll  give some explanation. “What Are You Doing” is an opener game, and it works like this. There’s an audience suggestion of a place, occupation, or theme, like “Pet Store.” First player starts with a motion that’s totally random. Other player demands, “What Are You Doing?” And first player replies with something related to the suggestion, like, “Feeding hamsters!” but which has nothing at all to do with the gestures they’re making. Second player acts out feeding hamsters, then first player demands “What Are You Doing?” and second player describes something completely different from the action but related to the suggestion, like “grooming puppies!” It continues until someone hesitates or whiffs it entirely.

Later on in the game, there’s an extra complication. The Ref will ask an audience member, “What are you initials,” getting either two or three. After that, all of the answers to “What Are You Doing” have to start with those letters. For example, if the letters are PJB, you’d get stuff like “Projecting jelly beans” or “Pretending Jedis breathe” or “Postulating justifiable bingos,” or whatever. And it can get messy fast, but in a good way — the more nonsensical the better, because then there’s the added challenge of the players having to act out things that are totally non-existent or even impossible.

The other game, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” is a singing and rhyming game that I’ve written about before, although not by name. It’s based on the old song. The pattern is pretty simple. The Ref gets a name, then person one sings a line that ends with that name: “I met a dude whose name was Pete” — “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” The next person rhymes that: “He was really very sweet,” followed by “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” And now it gets tricky, because the next player has to come up with three rhymes, and fast. “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He has big feet.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He doesn’t eat meat.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He hates defeat.” “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.”

One of the games within the game is turning that “yeah” into a challenge to the player who has to come up with the three rhymes, as if we’re basically saying, “So, what you got?” The other complication is that each time around after someone gets called out, the tempo gets faster.

So, back to the top… way back when I was learning improv, both of these games scared the living shit out of me, but then a funny thing happened as I’ve played them more and more and let go of the thinky part of my brain. I’ve relaxed into them, and these games that used to terrify me have become two of my favorites to play. And I’ve somehow managed to pretty consistently make it to the final round in “Da Doo Ron Ron” every damn time, as well as at least carry out much longer streaks in “What are you doing?” than I ever did before.

For “What Are You Doing,” it really is a matter of not planning ahead at all, which is especially fun when we get into the initials part of it. For “Da Doo,” there is some planning, but it’s really only a matter of holding three rhymes in my head at all times, then replacing any that get used — but the important part of that strategy is listening so that I can make the switch while remembering what’s already been used.

The next thing on my “Holy crap that scares me” list? Scene games. But I’m guessing that my amazing coach already knows that, and has a plan to guide me through that nasty land mine of terror.

And did I mention that doing this thing that once upon a time terrified me has actually turned out to be  the bestest thing ever? ‘Cause, yeah… it has. Well, okay. Second bestest. The bestest wold be a human being, but they also never terrified me, so there’s that.

Time of the signs

As I’ve mentioned here many times before, I spend a lot of time working and performing in North Hollywood, which has really sort of become the de facto downtown of the San Fernando Valley even though Van Nuys is where all of the L.A. City Government stuff is and Burbank is considered the hub of the entertainment industry, although only one of the Big 5 movie studios is actually there. That’s because most of the smaller production companies and post-production houses are in that city.

But North Hollywood, along with Universal City (guess which studio is there, even if one word in their official name is a lie), are the two Valley communities that are directly connected by the L.A. Metro Red Line to Hollywood and Downtown L.A. (DTLA) themselves. In fact, it was the opening of the North Hollywood Red Line Metro Station on June 24, 2000 that jump-started the process of North Hollywood rapidly changing (some would say gentrifying) from a place that you would not have wanted to be after sunset to a place that has a thriving night-life and a rich artistic culture. There are theaters both live and film, art galleries, several escape rooms, educational spaces, coffee shops, tons of restaurants, and tons of actors and artists who live here.. It’s also home to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, i.e. the Emmy People.

Despite the gentrification, it still has some of the cheaper apartments and housing available in the Valley, all conveniently within walking distance of those theaters and performance spaces and the subway. And while it was long known as North Hollywood, sometime during this whole process it was rebranded as NoHo. To be honest, that’s an expression I first used in an unproduced play of mine years before anyone else said it, and in my take it was a put down — emphasis on “No,” but I’m not bitter, and that’s not the point here.

But that’s just background to this piece, and the TL;DR is that at one point in time, up to about twenty years ago, NoHo was a shithole of a place. Once the arts started to flourish here, so did the neighborhood itself, and it’s still great. But it is starting to show some cracks. For one thing, there has been a sudden, recent influx of homeless people in the area. Here’s a paradox, though. Winding up with a lot of homeless people is actually a sign of success of an area, not failure. That’s because people without the security of a place to live are not going to risk trying to survive on the streets in a place in which it is not even safe to live inside. Homeless people don’t flock to Detroit, or the South Side of Chicago, or South Central L.A.

Fortunately, voters in the city of Los Angeles passed things like Proposition HHH and Measure H, designed to help the homeless, and we’re starting to see the benefits. (Ironically, the big hold up to making this happen isn’t government red tape. It’s the inevitable NIMBYs who want to help… unless they think it will affect them directly.)

So, back to the original point and reason for this article. One of the projects that popped up after NoHo started to recover was a place called NoHo Commons, a mixed-use development that combines living and commercial space, as in apartments and condos on top of commercial businesses and next to office space, all of it on top of or adjacent to public transportation hubs, like the Metro Red Line NoHo Station which connects to a ton of bus lines, as well as the Orange Line that crosses the Valley from east to west.

And, oddly enough, it’s been a big success. Or maybe not oddly at all. Hey — connect a transportation hub to housing, arts, places with jobs, several schools, thriving nightlife, and places with some sort of tourist interest, and you are going to have to make a concerted effort to fail. (Update: As I was working on this article, I found out that the Art Institute of California-Hollywood, across the street from the theater I work at, was abruptly shut down due to alleged fraud on the part of administrators. So I guess that some people did make a concerted effort to fail, which kind of proves my point.)

So the easy success in a community like this is what makes me so curious about the phenomenon documented in the photo up above. That LED sign is officially called “Drive By.” It’s 240 feet (73.2 meters) long and six feet (1.83 meters) tall, and at one point was activated by passing traffic. Apparently, it used to alternate between displaying famous movie quotes and showing abstract patterns based on cars driving below, replacing approaching yellow blocks with red splats when one lane passed another in the opposite direction. It was created by the City of L.A.’s public arts program in 2007. Ironically, it was shut down not long after by an ordinance from the city’s own Department of Building & Safety because it was (wait for it) classified as advertising. To be fair, though, it may have been more the result of ambiguous wording in that law rather than malice, and the sign was brought back in 2011.

But I’ve been hanging out in NoHo for a while now, and the one thing that has struck me all during that time is how obviously “Drive By” is in bad repair. A lot of the quotes are not readable because of missing or burnt-out LEDS, and there are times when the display itself stutters into jiggly blocks of nothing before tossing up another quote with many missing letters or words. And I have to wonder, what’s going on?

I contacted the city’s public arts program to ask who is responsible for the sign’s upkeep now — is it still the city, or is it now a private entity? And is its current state of repair due to a lack of funding? If so, is there any way that concerned citizens can help. Unfortunately, I haven’t received a reply yet but I’d like to get this story up, so I will update that part if I do get some answers.

I suspect that it’s most likely that the public arts program is spread thin at the moment, because there’s just so much public art in Los Angeles, so maybe they just haven’t noticed yet. It may not be a funding issue, because the programs derive their money in two ways: a one percent levy on the cost of construction, improvement, or renovation jobs done by the city, and an assessment on owners of private development with projected values over half a million dollars, based on either a per-square foot fee or one percent of the project’s Building and Safety valuation, whichever is less. Given all the development and construction going on in the city right now, these are probably not trivial amounts.

And it’s not like NoHo Commons is hurting. Their ground floor storefronts along Weddington, Lankershim, and Chandler are full of thriving businesses, most of them some sort of fast casual restaurant, and they have Wells Fargo Bank as a corner anchor, plus 24 Hour Fitness as the upper floor tenant. The two apartment buildings attached, The Gallery and The Lofts, seem to be well-occupied as well. There’s never been a time that I’ve been in the area that it hasn’t been crowded with people.

So the sad state of repair of “Drive By” is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but probably emblematic of the natural dichotomy that is a part of every major urban area: The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the pristine and the decayed, all jam together in the same public space in an endless waltz between two partners who, while mismatched, brought each other to the dance, and so are destined to keep on spinning around together forever, neither one of them sure who’s leading.

Photo credit: Jon Bastian