Sunday Nibble #39: A short guide to knowing your shit #3

I originally wrote these pieces for my friend Peter’s website, TheFlushed.com, back when they had been planning to expand their editorial content. However, the actual shitshow that 2020 turned into intervened, and we sort of forgot about it. Until now! Here, at least, you can read all about the anal emanations you’re likely to encounter in this ongoing series. How many of them do you recognize?

This one can come on just as strongly as Chocolate Rain and it may even come with sudden cramps. All you know is you’d better get to the facilities stat. You think you have barely enough time before the howitzer fires as you settle onto the pot, brace yourself, and then… nothing.

Okay, maybe a little assistance is required, so you bear down to try to exorcise the demon hiding in your rectum. There’s more rumbling and gurgling and maybe another cramp, so you give it another hard push and then it all comes out for what seems like an hour.

What’s most noticeable about this one is that while you don’t feel anything, you hear a lot. Your butt is now a thundercloud hovering over the upper Mid-West during the worst storm of the season and, while you don’t have lightning shooting out of your rosebud, it sure as heck sounds like you do. The windows rattle and you might even knock a picture or two off of the wall. Your pets have long since gone into hiding, and pity any roommates or loved ones who are in the same building. Did they hear you? Oh yes, they most certainly did and, by now, they can probably also smell you.

“This is going to be a full can of Febreze job,” you think to yourself as your butt-tuba continues to play its solo in your personal Symphony Number Two, First Movement. Perhaps, sloth-like, you won’t even have to poop for a whole week after this one.

At least the sounds on the inside have stopped and so has the cramping, but since this is a full symphony, there are still a few movements to go, broken only by the brief silences between them.

Then, finally, the clouds part and the Sun returns. You can’t wait to see exactly what monstrosity just used your heinie for some base-jumping. So you look in the bowl and there’s nothing. Zilch. Zip. Nada. This movement was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

You expected so much but, alas, ‘twas but a fart.

This is known as The Phantom

* * *

Sunday Nibble #38: A short guide to knowing your shit #2

I originally wrote these pieces for my friend Peter’s website, TheFlushed.com, back when they had been planning to expand their editorial content. However, the actual shitshow that 2020 turned into intervened, and we sort of forgot about it. Until now! Here, at least, you can read all about the anal emanations you’re likely to encounter in this ongoing series. How many of them do you recognize?

You knew that going to that new Indian-Mexican fusion place last night was a risky idea, but you’ve eaten there before and the food is just so damn awesome that the flaming chipotle sag paneer and tikka tacos with a side of chutney and mole salsa you had were totally worth it — until the next day, when you suffer Mahatmazuma’s Revenge.

It begins with a bit of rumbling and gurgling, then soon turns into a mad dash for the can, where you fumble your clothes into position for emergency evacuation, have a seat and, before you can say “Check, please,” the remains of last night’s meal blast out of you in a torrent that could launch a rocket for Elon Musk — and that’s just the beginning.

You didn’t even realize you could have this much in you, but every time you think you’re done, another wave hits the shore and firehoses its way out your nozzle. And the sound… oh, the noises you’re making! Just pray that this hit you at home and not anywhere you’d have to use a public bathroom, because the farts and gurgles and splats and splashes echoing in the porcelain bowl under your posterior could drown out all seven stages at Coachella combined, and the smell would make a skunk retch.

Did I mention how spicy that dinner was? Well, you’re experiencing that spiciness all over again, only this time via a more delicate opening. You subconsciously start humming Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as you hope that it’s over, but you’re only halfway there. Now you’re regretting buying that rougher TP because it was cheaper. Like Spider Man, the aftermath isn’t going to feel so good.

When it finally seems like you’ve blasted out all of your internal organs, there’s one last, final hold-out, the only solid bit of the experience — the sad little turd that had to wait until the deluge was over. At least this job only needed one painful wipe. You glance in the bowl before you flush and mutter, “Holy moley,” because it looks exactly like the Mexican sauce that came with last night’s food.

My friends, you’ve just experienced Chocolate Rain

* * *

To be or not to be… fearless in comedy

There has been a lot of debate lately over what is appropriate in comedy or not, but let me give one example from 37 years ago. And here’s an interesting add-on — 38 years before this music video came out was just after the end of the Nazi reign in Europe.

So… we are about as far from this video as its intended satirical target was when it came out. But more on which after the jump. Please give it a watch.

Okay, yeah, there is a lot of shit to unpack here, but I’ll start with the obvious note. All of this was created by Mel Brooks in order to market a film he starred in at the time, To Be or not to Be, which was itself a remake of a Jack Benny movie of the same name that was originally released during WW II.

Both films absolutely parody Hitler and company, by the way. Benny was far more daring because he did it while that asshole was in power, although Brooks certainly earned the right to remake it by virtue of being Jewish.

Which brings us back to the linked video, which I hope you’ve watched because, again… unpacking time.

First of all. the year was 1983. Brooks was around 56. Rap music was barely a thing white people knew about. Second, Brooks unabashedly decided to headline the music video as… Hitler. Nowadays, this probably wouldn’t fly, but there was a little bit of a precedent at the time he did it in ’83.

See, he’d made this little film called The Producers in which two con-artists attempted to make a fortune by over-funding a musical about Hitler they thought would fail, except that it didn’t. And Brooks quotes one of the more famous lines from that film and the Broadway show: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!”

Anyway… once the video gets rolling with Brooks as hero Hitler, we pack on more levels with some S&M women and some clearly gay dancing boys, the latter of which brings up one often missed trope in Brooks’ oeuvre: While it may have seemed otherwise, he was always homo-positive in his works, just like Blake Edwards. Sure, sometimes it was only via pure Camp, but look at the ending of Blazing Saddles, for one. And for another…

The film I’m bringing up here, Brooks’ To Be or not to Be, was the first Hollywood feature film to even mention the fact that homosexuals were exterminated in the death camps, and the actor who played the role of the character who revealed that information was in real life a grandfather who came out really late in life, and whom Brooks met while going to a drag show in the Valley.

But I think I did digress. Here’s the point. Sure. Brooks played Hitler in a 1983 music video. But do you know why? Simple. It was in fact to ridicule the shit out of people like him. It’s also why he made The Producers and To Be or not to Be, or anything else.

If anything, Brooks exceeded at destroying his enemies by taking on their personas. And that is something that should absolutely be allowed and not fall to cancel culture.

Only the targets of possible hateful humor should be able to judge it, and if a member of a particular identified group happens to be creating that humor with a purpose, that’s their decision.

Some of the performers on RuPaul’s Drag Race glamp it so far over the top that they bring every possible negative stereotype about gay men being flamboyant and effeminate to the table and then double down. But that’s the point, and they are presumably all representative of one part or another of the LGBTQ+ community.

Comedy can be offensive, but remember that word has two meanings. The one people think of in this context is humor that, well, offends someone, either by insulting something near and dear to them, or is definitely designed to cause anger, outrage, or emotional harm to someone from an identified group.

I’m not defending the latter by any means. In fact, exactly the opposite. But regarding the first part, a lot of people are easily offended by different things but this doesn’t merit the comedy being banned. It just tells that audience member they probably shouldn’t follow the comic.

For example, imagine a routine in which a comedian describes their day and how it went off the rails, but every single thing that went wrong was clearly absolutely their own fault. The only target of the piece is the comic telling the story. A lot of people would probably find it engaging, funny, and relatable.

But then you have those handful of people who are suddenly absolutely offended because the punchline to the whole thing is: “Then I looked at the clock and realized that it was only 10:30 in the morning. Shit!”

Yes, there are adults, believe it or not, who literally lose their shit at any kind of cursing, and it can be as extreme as the comic using “dammit” or “crap” instead, or it may only be trigged by the holy Anglo Saxon curse word supreme, “fuck.” But the reaction has nothing to do with the humor and everything to do with the person.

I mentioned previously that comedy should be offensive, and this is where the other term comes in. If you’re a football fan, have military experience, or work in PR, then you’re probably already thinking it.

Offensive can also mean to go on the attack at its most extreme, or to take action against an expected negative consequence in advance. For example, a famous celebrity may have been photographed by paparazzi in an intimate moment with someone not their spouse and realized it. The offensive action in this case would be for that celeb to just come right to the press and say, “Okay. This happened,” and then apologize for it. That neutralizes any value in the photos and blunts the scandal instantly.

But that’s not funny. The way comics use comedy offensively is to do what’s known as “punching up.” That is, going after targets with greater power and privilege than the comic and their audience.

Doing an entire routine about how stupid the bagger at your local supermarket is and yet they want a $15 an hour minimum wage? Punching down and highly offensive.

Doing an entire routine about how the CEO of that supermarket chain can’t shop in their own stores because they have no idea how groceries work, and then extending that to a series of everyday situations to show how out of touch that CEO is? Punching up, and hilarious.

“He tea-bagged the scanner in the self-check aisle because he thought it was some sort of testicular cancer screening machine.”

Remember this line from Arrested Development, delivered by the always amazing Jessica Walter as the amazingly vile Lucille Bluth: “How much could a banana cost? Ten dollars?” In eight words, this captures how out of touch with the “little” people she is, and how much she likely pays for common items compared to them, if she does the paying at all.

“A hundred and fifty dollars for a pair of panties? It’s a steal.”

And so on. The point is that you’d have to be pretty unaware to watch Brooks’ video and think that it’s an endorsement of Hitler. You’d also have to be pretty blind to not realize that Brooks rigged it to appear heteronormative while being jam-packed with homoeroticism.

Watch the video again, and pay attention to the male dancers. There’s the hidden message. In 1983, it was the very beginning of the AIDS crisis and just over a decade past Stonewall.

For the pre TQ+ LGB audience at the time, the real question was: “To be or not to be… myself?”

Image © 1983 20th Century Fox, courtesy the imdb gallery page for the film.

Screamin’ Muskrat Love!

UPDATE, March 16, 2020: As the COVID-19 situation rapidly evolves, we have decided to postpone the show for the safety of our cast, crew, and audiences. The new premiere date is tentatively May 8, 2020, but watch this space for future updates.

UPDATE, July 5, 2020: And, as we will remember from history, theatre ended in March of 2020, at least for a while, so Screamin’ Muskrat Love! was put on permanent hold when it became clear that May wouldn’t work, either. Ironically, this is the second time this same play almost made it into production, with the same Producer/Director but then, due to circumstances beyond our control, it didn’t happen.

Hey, fans… if you’re in Southern California and want to come down and see a farce that I wrote, now’s your chance. It opens April 3rd at Defiance Theatre Company, directed by Charlie Vaughn, and with an amazing cast. Here’s our trailer.

Hell, that makes me want to see it, and I wrote it. The play itself was actually based on true events from my own life but which were then spun way out of control. But I’ll be writing more about that next Thursday. Stay tuned!

(Warning: This play contains adult themes and nudity. PG-13 at least; possibly an R.)

Going completely out of my head

I took a circuitous route into the world of improv performance and although I’d had acting training as part of my minor in college and have appeared in various theatrical productions both then and in the more recent past, my primary focus was behind the scenes as a writer. I hadn’t had any formal improv training up until a few years ago.

Now, as an actor, I didn’t have a problem developing and holding onto a character, and as a writer I was creating them all the time, generally acting them out in my mind as I transcribed their words. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do it in these situations because you have the one luxury that improvisers don’t. Time.

So when I was playing an entire Shakespeare show with an Irish accent, I had the time to learn it and practice it and make it stick because it had become second nature. Likewise when I played a bear, or the trippy Spanish-speaking mystical Jesus stand-in in Tennessee Williams’s weirdest play, I had rehearsal time to make all of the discoveries in the text and the performance in order to hone the character.

Contrast that to improv, where if you’re lucky you might get a character prompt and have twenty or thirty seconds to think about it while the referee explains the game to the audience. More likely, though, you only get mere seconds, if that, as the ref turns to the audience for a scene suggestion and you won’t know what it is until they turn back and shout, “Your suggestion is earbuds. Players, are you ready?”

“Yes!”

Whistle. “Begin!”

And that’s all of the character development time we get. Early on, it would always trip me up and I’d wind up playing myself because I was too busy trying to come up with the “platform” of the scene — who, what, and where — for however many of us went on stage to start, or to fill in  if somebody provided part of the platform.

What? Create an entire character on top of that? Are you crazy?

As I’ve written about previously, I learned that my big challenge was letting go of thinking, but it wasn’t until our ComedySportz Rec League coach and improv mentor shared a particular technique with us that I suddenly started to make big breakthroughs.

It’s called VAPAPO, but I’m only going to discuss a couple parts of the acronym so you can get a taste. If you really want to know all about (and get some great improv advice that applies to life as well), you can go buy Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv for only five bucks plus two dollars shipping. It’s only fair, since she created the method.

There’s a logical split between the two halves, with the APO being a more advanced and trickier take on the VAP, so I’ll just explain the first three letters and how they helped me.

In case it wasn’t clear already, VAPAPO is a quick character development technique, one that can be activated instantly at the top of any improv scene and quickly drop you into a character. And remember, it doesn’t matter what character you land on. It’s even good to surprise yourself, because that will take you further out of your head and lead to more discoveries and surprises for you and the audience.

So… what do the V, A, and P stand for? Voice, attitude, posture. Pick one, dive into it, and boom. Instant character.

And it really does work. We recently spent an entire workshop practicing each one of the letters, and I surprised myself with what I came up with. For example, Voice is simply that, and a great place to just play around. Experiment with what it’s like if you speak higher or lower; use an accent or dialect; alter the natural rhythm of your speaking between staccato and drawn out; whatever you can imagine. Then take whatever voice you landed on and live it the character it creates.

You’ll find that focusing on the voice affects everything else you do in the scene. For example, in one exercise, I started playing around with a very drawn out, Mid-Atlantic sort of accent, and it wasn’t long before it affected everything else, so that I was standing very upright with my chin in the air, literally looking down on everyone else, and boom — judgmental, elitist  critic of everything was born.

Of course, quite the opposite happened when I let my voice become very become very… stutter… and doubtful about… everything, doubling back, restarting, repeating, etc. And suddenly I found myself with very submissive and docile body language, though still a lot of energy. It’s just that all of that energy was suddenly be expended in self-defense, self-deprecation, and justification attempts of everything. Instant neurosis!

The second letter, A, is for attitude, which just means picking a general outlook on life. Is this person optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, cynical, naïve, jaded, or whatever? Grab one and run with it. Now imagine how it can change a scene. Let’s say the other performer begins with, “Margaret, happy birthday. I made your favorite breakfast for my favorite daughter. Pancakes!”

Grab an attitude and stick to it, and you could reply with…

“Pancakes, mother? Seriously? You know I’ve eliminated gluten.”

“Pancakes? Oh my god, my favorite. I love you mommy! Did I mention that’s why I’m never moving out?”

“Pancakes. Waffles. Toast. Whatever. Brent dumped me. Life is bleak and meaningless…”

Or so many more, because in improv there are no right answers.

Note that not only do these give your character a strong point of view, they give the other improviser something to react to in an equally strong way, It’s a gift in both directions.

And this brings us finally to P, which is for posture, although you can also think of it as physicality. Basically, it’s everything your body is doing and, personally, I’ve found it to be my strongest “get out of my head” tool. If I just throw myself into some odd shape or movement and follow that, voice and character tend to follow automatically.

Of course, it does work the other way around, where the voice or attitude will tell the body what to do, but for be the advantage of working from the body up instead of the brain down is twofold. There’s the obvious and aforementioned getting out of my head, but the other advantage is that it’s often good to start a scene with some silent space work instead of just launching into the dialogue, so taking the posture/physicality approach kills two birds with one stone.

It gives you something to do and creates your attitude about it in silence while allowing a moment for the voice and character to emerge.

There’s an old joke from my stage acting days that usually emerged when doing period pieces that were not in modern dress, and it was this: “When in doubt, play the costume.”

Funny thing is, it works. Why? Because the costume can dictate your posture or physicality without you even having to try. Imagine that you’re playing in some Victorian era show that has all of the women in bustles, corsets, and high-heeled buttoned boots. Or that puts the men in high, tight starched collars, waistcoats and tails. That gives you a much different physicality than, say, a cast in jeans and T-shirts, or full Elizabethan regalia, or doing a nude scene.

In every single case, you’d move differently as a human and an actor. The trick for improvisers is that we don’t actually have the costume, we have to imagine it, but if the suggestion for your scene is, say, “hazmat clean-up,” what a gift from your audience is that? Because, from the get-go, you’re suddenly wearing one of those bulky hazmat suits, and everything else about you comes right out of that.

Or it should. And the best part is that even if you have three or four performers onstage all doing the hazmat suit thing, the experience of being in it will affect each one of them differently, so that you won’t get a cookie cutter. Rather, you’ll get a smorgasbord.

The following quote is apparently from Jill, but it came via my improv mentor and I can’t find a link back to an attribution for her, so please take this as another plug to buy her book, because it’s full of gems like this that, again, reply to the real world as well: “The fact that you don’t have the same life experiences or perspective as everyone else on your team is your superpower. The ways in which you are uniquely you are an asset. Improv that stays the same and draws from the same well is dull and will die out. You’re necessary. Shoot across the sky and illuminate the night.”

And that, dear readers, is how you get out of your head and experience the wonderful juggling act that is doing improv.

The only way is ‘Yes, and…’

Improv isn’t just a way for performers to entertain an audience. It’s a way to improve your social and interpersonal skills, which is why taking classes in it can be so useful and why it’s also a valuable tool for people in business. It’s also a great way to create an interactive holiday party or group outing for any occasion.

Okay, shameless plugs are over, but I do believe all of these things about improv because I’ve gone through the classes, I regularly perform in improv shows myself — something I wouldn’t have thought possible just three years ago — and I use the skills I’ve learned in the real world all the time.

And I also get to watch as people regularly fail at those skills. The first of these is a skill described by Keith Johnstone: “Listen like a thief.” What this means is pay attention to everything anyone else in a scene says, because you’re going to need that info at some point to keep the scene going. Listen for names as they are introduced, as well as other “endowments,” meaning characteristics assigned to characters. Did Player A refer to the other player as Aunt Nancy, and wonder why she’s so nervous? Did Player B mention that they’re both waiting for Uncle Ralph to come around with Sunday dinner? Every one of those details creates the character that you might get to enter with, but if you’re not listening intently for every little clue, you could miss something which can lead to the far too common improv faux pas of calling a character established as Nancy by the name Sally, or walking in to a Sunday scene on Tuesday.

Aside from Johnstone’s aphorism, there are two big rules in improv. The first is Make Each Other Look Good. That is, your job is to make sure that you’re doing what you can to support your scene partners and give them stuff to work with. If you walk into a scene and say to the other character, “Hi!” then you’ve given them nothing. But if you walk in and say, “Hi, Mom. Let me help you with those groceries,” you’ve suddenly taken a lot of pressure off the other person by telling them who they are and what they’re doing.

Very much related to this is the concept of always saying, “Yes, and…” to anything that happens on stage. To do otherwise kills the forward moment of a scene. You should never reply to another player’s offer with “Yes, but,” and should absolutely never reply with “No” (with a very specific exception.)

This is one of those examples best taught in the negative, and a common exercise we use to teach it is to improv planning some hypothetical event. For example, say it’s a birthday party. Each person in turn suggests something, and the next person “yes, ands” it. So the first three steps might go like this:

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, and that’s why we’re hiring the world-famous party planner Dante of Miami!”

“Yes, and we’re giving him an unlimited budget!”

That party gets pretty cool pretty fast, right? And the scene will just build from there to ridiculous and wonderful heights. Now, let’s see what happens with “Yes, but.”

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, but it didn’t go so well the last time you tried that.”

“Yes, but that’s because no one helped…”

And you can feel the energy and momentum fall away immediately and everything gets small. As for “No,” that pretty much kills it instantly.

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“No.”

And… scene.

It’s not even necessary to literally say “yes, and,” “yes, but” or “no” in order to have the same effect. For example:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Oh my god, he’s beautiful. I’m so glad you brought him.”

And there’s a yes, and.

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Did you see the sign that says ‘No predatory birds allowed?’”

That’s a yes, but. It might seem like a no, but it’s not, because it does acknowledge the bird, but just gives a reason for it to not be there. The other player may be able to work around it, but it does throw up a roadblock and add another step. Finally:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“What falcon? Are you okay, or did you stop taking your meds?”

And this is a hard “no,” because it doesn’t give the other player anywhere to go.

The one sort of exception to the “No” is this:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“No, David. You know allergic I am to birds!”

While this starts with “no,” it doesn’t deny that Jimmy is there. Rather, it’s a backwards “yes, and” that gives to the other performer, because now the person endowed as David knows that he’s got a thing he can trigger your character with, namely a bird allergy — and he has a bird. And since one of the things we love to do in improv is to constantly make it worse — either for our own character or others — this kind of fake “No” is just an enormous gift to give to the other players onstage. “Here’s what my character would hate, not have  at it so can get to play.”

Beautiful, really.

Now keep all of this (or most of it) in mind as we segue to part two: Why and how these skills are so important in everyday life, and especially in the working world, because here’s what I see constantly in Muggleville.

First off, no one listens like a thief. In fact, no one listens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard as a conversation has started with one person asking a very specific question, only for the other person to have clearly missed all of the details, and then go on to either “Yes, but” or “No” the asker.

Imagine this improv scene.

Player A: “Oh, Mom, I’m so glad you invited us all to this picnic, and my wife, Loretta, is going to be so happy that you did.”

Player B: “We’re not having a picnic. And David, I told you, put that topiary on the other side of the yard. You’re my gardener, you should know better.”

Hard “no” there. And that’s pretty much how it goes — “I didn’t listen to what you just said, so I’m going to respond with whatever I was thinking from the couple of words I paid attention to, okay?”

This leads to a conversation that may be something more like:

Player A: “I talked to so-and-so about buying radio model A, but they really like model B.”

Player B: “If they’re interested in drones, then you should have just taken a message and referred it to Player C.”

Player A: “They’re not interested in drones. What does Player C have to do with this?”

Player B: “Player C handles drones.”

Player A: “I know. I’m asking about radio.”

Player B: “Player C doesn’t handle radio.”

Player A: “So should our customer buy radio model A even though they prefer model B?”

Player B: “(Sigh.) Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

Me, on the sidelines: (Head/face/desk). Over and over and over.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of listening like a thief, “Yes, and,” or “make each other look good” going on during this, either.

To abstract it a bit, try this convo:

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“No, I don’t sell toothpaste.”

“I don’t want toothpaste. Where’s the bathroom?”

“Yes, you can brush your teeth there.”

“Right, but where is it?”

“Why didn’t you ask me that then, instead of about toothpaste?”

“I didn’t ask about toothpaste.”

“Then why did you ask about the bathroom?”

“Where is it?”

“Down the hall two doors, on the left.”

That went nowhere fast, didn’t it? Way too typical of way too many conversation I overhear everywhere.

If this sounds like your co-workers no matter what field you’re all in, consider turning them on to improv one way or another. At the very least, it’ll turn all those work spaces into much safer, saner, and more fun spaces. And remember: You can’t spell “improve” without “improv.” Cheesy, but true.

185 improvisers walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry. We’re closed.” And the improvisers say, “”Yes… and?”