Icons passing

One sure sign of incredible talent is becoming a cultural icon. What defines a cultural icon? Somebody who is famous for generations after they’ve actually done their final work. One of the major examples in the Western World is, of course, William Shakespeare. You know his name. You know his plays. All of this even though he died 408 years ago, which is 287 years before anyone now living was born. Yes, you read both of those numbers correctly.

Closer to home, though, there are names of people I can mention who did their final work and/or died long ago that are still known to all current living generations, right down to Millennials, and probably even Gen-Z: Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Marilyn Monroe. James Dean. The Marx Brothers. Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. I mean, just the fact that every one of those links goes to an official site for the named person should tell you a lot, considering that they all died before the internet was officially born.

It can go back even further — Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Aeschylus. And if you throw in political leaders like presidents and monarchs and emperors, the list gets really long. In your own lives, it includes your parents and grandparents and, if you’re lucky, maybe even at least a great-grand round, if not great-great.

So when we lose true icons during our own lifetimes, they become a matter of mass mourning across generations, and we lost two of them this week. I’m referring, of course, to Doris Day and Tim Conway. It’s a perfect example of how humans are naturally drawn to contrasts — it is far more tragic when comedic actors pass away.

It’s also very telling that their deaths blew up social media.

I saw posts from people of all generations about both of them, even though Day was 97 and Conway was 85. She made her last two films in 1968, then went on to focus on animal welfare, only coming back to do a brief TV talk show in the 1980s, most notable for her interview of previous co-star and good friend Rock Hudson, who was visibly emaciated due to AIDS. He would die because of it a year later — the first high-profile public figure to be outed in this manner. Ironically (because he’d always been closeted until then), this was a big impetus for the whole gay rights AIDS treatment/ACT UP movements. Doris stuck by him through it all and all the way to the end, which says a lot about her character. This also made her a gay icon, more on which below.

Her film career and music career almost completely overlap — 1948 to 1968 for the former, and 1945 to 1967 for the latter.

As for Conway, although he kept working into this century, after doing one episode of 30 Rock in 2008, he only made two more appearances in 2013 and 2015 on TNT and the Hallmark Channel. Arguably, though, he is probably most well-known for his role in The Carol Burnett Show from 1975 until it ended in 1978 — kind of surprising, really, since the show actually ran for eleven seasons, beginning in 1967, and yet he is mainly associated with it. The big reason that Conway became iconic for those three years is because the show was syndicated and, like I Love Lucy, has been rerun almost continuously since it went off the air.

There’s another icon for you. Lucille Ball. When Gillian Anderson popped up playing her in American Gods, you didn’t need any explanation no matter how young you are. See how that works?

For me, I first saw a lot of those classic Doris Day films in the 80s and 90s thanks to the miracle of video rental. And, by that point, since we all knew that Hudson was gay and he was dead, it made those rom-coms they made together in the 50s and 60s all the more… interesting. She always had this reputation as being virginal and he’d always had the reputation of being homosexual, so they were sort of the perfect couple. Toss in Tony Randall — who was the prissiest straight man on the planet — and it became really entertaining high camp.

There’s a reason that Doris became a gay icon, at least in WeHo in the 80s and 90s, and a lot of that had to do with a place called Video West — sadly, another victim of the internet and streaming. They had all of her movies, and I think they might have even had a Doris Day section, so the old queens who ran the place passed the torch to us twinks who were renting.

And so on.

But she also became an icon to everyone else for very similar reasons. She did the right thing when it was necessary, and she made some really entertaining films over the course of only twenty years. Imagine that for a second. Her film career was only about one fifth of her life.

As for Conway, as I mentioned above, he  actually benefited from the internet, because so many of his clips from The Carol Burnett Show wound up online thanks to that show being replayed constantly, and a YouTube search for “Tim Conway Carol Burnett” will turn up a treasure trove of clips. (Currently, of course, it will also result in a lot of news stories lamenting his passing, but that’s just how it works.)

One thing I loved about Tim was that he could make anyone else on stage with him crack in a heartbeat while keeping a straight face, and one of the most famous moments in which he did that is his “Elephant Story” from a “Mama’s Family” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show. Here it is:

If this one doesn’t make you fall on the floor laughing, you have no soul. He’s clearly making it up on the fly, so he’s an improviser after my own heart, but the more sincerely he does it, the harder he makes it for everyone else not to just lose it. This is comedic brilliance, it is why Mr. Tim Conway is an icon, now and forever, even if you were born two or three decades after he last appeared on Carol’s show. (And Vicki Lawrence is no slouch for having added the button to the scene that kills everyone.)

As for Doris, let me leave you with this — one of her most famous songs in a famous Hitchcock film, Que Será Será from his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

By the way, she really nails the Spanish pronunciation, too. In context, she’s singing the song in order to send a signal to her kidnapped son that Mom and Dad are here, which makes the lyrics even more meaningful near the end. This is basically a woman with a metaphorical gun held to her head trying to put on a brave face, and Doris nailed it.

So there you go. There are reasons that people become icons, and Doris and Tim definitely earned that status. The Earth is a sadder place for them having left it, but we are fortunate that what they left behind is so damn wonderful. Search them up, watch their stuff, and enjoy. They’d like that.

Who are your favorite icons who died long before you were born? Share in the comments!

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.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television