Going back up the family tree

I became fascinated with genealogy years ago, and used to spend many a Wednesday evening in the Family History Center next to the Mormon Temple near Century City in Los Angeles. Say what you want about them as a religion, but their work in preserving family history has been invaluable and amazing, even if it did originally start out for the most racist of reasons wrapped in a cloak of theological justification. Fortunately, the nasty justifications have long since been removed, and if it takes believing that all family members throughout time are forever bound together in order for the Mormons to keep on doing what they do in this area, then so be it.

It had been a while since I’d actively done any research, largely because I no longer had time for it, but back in the day, I did manage to follow one branch, the ancestors of my father’s father’s mother’s mother, also known as my great-great grandmother, to find that at some point this line had been traced back to the magic date of 1500.

Why is that date magic? Well, if you do genealogy, you know. If you manage to trace all of your own family lines back that far, you can turn your research over to the LDS, and they will do the rest for you. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t easy to get all of your branches back to 1500, and certain ancestries naturally create blocks to progress. For example, if you’re descended from Holocaust survivors, you’re probably SOL for any time during or prior to WW II. Likewise if you’re descended from slaves, or your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, you’re not going to find many records after a few generations.

This is, of course, because paper records can easily be lost. For example, almost all of the records from the U.S. Census of 1890 were destroyed by a fire in 1921. During the period from June 1, 1880 to June 2, 1890 — the span between the two censuses — around 5.2 million people legally immigrated into the country. At the same time, the population grew from just over fifty million to just under sixty-three million. Or, in other words, the major and official historical record of just over eleven million people newly arrived in the country, through birth or immigration, were destroyed forever, with no backup.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, science has developed a way of researching genealogy that cannot be destroyed because every single one of us carries it within us, and that’s called DNA, which can now be tested to match family members. On the upside, it can reveal a lot about your ancestry. Oh, sure, it can’t reveal names and dates and all that on its own, but it can tell you which general populations you’re descended from. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. At its most benign, you might find out that the ancestry you always thought you had is wrong. At its worst, you may learn about family infidelities and other dark secrets.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but my half-brother did, and his girlfriend recently contacted me to reveal that at least one family secret fell out of it, although it doesn’t involve either my brother or me. Instead, it looks like a cousin of ours fathered an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, oddly enough, that woman lives in the same town as my brother’s girlfriend.

Of course, the test also came with a minor existential shock for me, since she gave me the logon and password to look at the data. It turns out that my half-brother’s ancestry is 68% British Isles and 15% each from Scandinavia and Iberia. Now, since we have different mothers, the latter two may have come from there, but the surprising part was that there is nary a sign of French or German, although our common great-grandfather, an Alsatian, is documented to have emigrated from the part of Germany that regularly gets bounced back and forth with France, and the family name is totally German. I even have records from a professional genealogist and historian who happened to find the small village my great-grandfather came from, and my brother’s girlfriend tracked down the passenger list that documented his arrival in America from Germany on a boat that sailed from France.

But that wasn’t the troublesome part of the conversation. What was troubling was finding out that one of my cousins, her husband, and two of their kids had all died, most of them young, and I had no idea that they were all gone. This led me to search online for obituaries only to wind up at familysearch.org, which is the Mormon-run online genealogy website, and decide to create an account. Once I did, I searched to connect my name to my father’s, and… boom.

See, the last time I’d done any family research, which was at least a decade ago, I’d only managed to creep up one line into ancient history, as in found an ancestor that the Mormons had decided to research. This was the line that told me I was descended from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine via an illegitimate child of King John of England. This time, things were different, possibly due to DNA testing, possibly due to better connection of data. Whatever it was, though, wow.

Suddenly, I started out on my father’s father’s father’s side of things and kept clicking up and… damn. After a journey through England and back to Scottish royalty and beyond, I wound up hitting a long chain of Vikings that eventually exploded into probably legendary bullshit, as in a supposed ancestor who is actually mentioned in the opening chapter of Beowulf. That would make my high school English teacher happy, but it’s probably not true.

The one flaw of Mormon genealogy: Their goal is to trace everyone’s ancestry back to Adam, and so shit gets really dubious at some point.

But… if you’re willing to write off everything claimed for you before maybe Charlemagne’s grandmother, then you will find interesting stuff, and the stuff I found after clicking up a few lines was, well… definitely interesting, and maybe reinforced the idea that, despite a German great-great-granddad, my half-bro and I are apparently British as bollocks for one simple reason: Everybody and his uncle invaded Britain over the centuries, including the Romans, the Vikings, the Danish, the Gauls, the Celts, and so on.

And, true enough… up one line, I wind up descended from nothing but Vikings. Up another, from but Vandals and Goths. Several lines tell me I’m descended from a King of Denmark. Along another path, it’s the Franks, house of Charlemagne, except that the Mormons tell me I’m descended from there long before Karl Magnus himself. Several other lines, including that King John one, I’m more Welsh than the Doctor Who production company. And there are all the royal houses: Swabia, Burgundy, Thuringia, etc., as well as several Holy Roman Emperors, and kings of France, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the English, that are dancing a pavane in every cell in my body.

So, what does it all mean? On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to flip back through history and look up people from past centuries — bonus points if they made enough of a dent in time to at least have some records to look up, and big ups if they appear in Wikipedia. On the other hand, you only have to go back six generations — to your great, great, great grandparents, to find a point where each of the 32 of them contributed less than one whole chromosome to your genetic make-up. About 40 generations back, each ancestor could not have contributed more than a single atom from that DNA to you, and before that, it gets meaningless. (I’ll leave you to do the math, but it’s about 8.5 billion atoms per chromosome, times 46.)

Yet… life and time marches on. A lot of our history is oral or traditional or recorded on paper. A lot of it is false, although science is marching us toward a sort of truth. Maybe I’m not as German as I thought, but I won’t know until I test my own DNA, and may very likely run into the ancestral roadblock on my mother’s side common to people of Irish descent — ironically because people of English descent were such right bastards a few hundred years ago. That’s one set of ancestors trying to wipe out another.

But if you go back far enough, what you learn about humans is what you learn about air and water. By this point in time, every molecule of air has been through countless lungs and every molecule of water has been through countless plants, animals, and people. All of us now living have literally breathed the same air and drunk and excreted the same water. We have shared precious resources that keep us alive. Likewise, our human DNA has been through each of us, has existed long before any of us, and ultimately came from the same primordial ooze of long ago, and is also essential to our continued existence as a species.

Or, in other words, while it’s fun to do genealogy to try to pin specifics on our ancestors, there’s really only one truth. We are all related to each other. We should all treat each other like family. And this circles back to the Mormons. While they might try to justify their interest in family history based on some sort of theological belief, they’re still on the right track. Yes — all family members are sealed to each other throughout history. The thing is, all humans are family.

That’d be all humans, no exceptions. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing about studying genealogy. All roads lead to the idea that borders, nationalities, differences in belief, and separations by geography are complete and total bullshit. There’s another religion that put it succinctly and nicely. They were founded about twenty years after Mormonism, and they’re known as the Bahá’í. Their motto is “One planet, one people, please.

I think that’s a motto we can all get behind right now. It’s one we need to. Otherwise, we’re not going to leave any people on this planet to carry on our DNA.

British and American words that mean different things

In 1887 in the book The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde wrote, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” He was speaking from the point of view of an Irishman living in Britain, but he was more correct than not. Like Spanish in Latin America vs. Spanish in Spain, there are some big differences between the American and British versions. Let’s leave aside spelling and terms that are mutually unknown (oven vs. cooker, for example), and just look at the words that, while they look the same in both countries, mean something very different depending upon which side of the Atlantic (aka “The Pond”) you’re on.

Clothing and Accessories

  1. Jumper — In the UK, this is a piece of outerwear, frequently knit, and designed to be worn over a shirt or blouse. In the U.S., we call it a sweater. To us, a jumper is someone who commits suicide by diving off of a high place.
  2. Fancy dress — In the UK, this is costume party, akin to what Americans would have for Halloween. In the U.S., this refers to a very formal occasion, usually with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. The Oscar ceremony is American fancy dress.
  3. Trainers — In the UK, these are shoes, generally of the type Americans would call tennis shoes or sneakers. In the U.S., a trainer is a person who screams at you in a gym in order to motivate you to work out.
  4. Pants — In the UK, you wear your pants under your trousers, which we call underwear. In the U.S., pants are your trousers.
  5. Braces — In the UK, braces keep your pants up and we call them suspenders, In the U.S., braces are something to straighten your teeth.
  6. Vest — In the UK, this is a sleeveless T-shirt meant as an undergarment, something Americans might call an A-front or (very disturbingly) a “wife-beater.” In the U.S., a vest is part of a three-piece suit, worn under the jacket.
  7. Purse — In the UK, this is a wallet kept in a handbag. In the U.S. it’s a bag to keep your wallet in.
  8. Boob tube — In the UK, this is a garment with no sleeves that is basically held up by friction, hope, and boobs. In the U.S., it is an old slang word for television.


  1. Chips — In the UK, these are French fries; in the U.S. they are thin, crunchy salty snacks made from fried potatoes. American chips are British crisps.
  2. Biscuit — In the UK, a sweet treat made of baked dough, and you might find chocolate chips or jam in it. In the U.S., a biscuit is a dense chunk of buttery dough, generally not sweet, and frequently associated with Southern cooking, as in biscuits and gravy.
  3. Banger — In the UK, a banger is a sausage. In the U.S., it’s a gang member.


  1. Solicitor — This is a type of lawyer in the UK, and probably useful. In the U.S., it’s anybody who goes door-to-door to try to sell you something, and is considered very annoying. The category includes salespeople and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other pests.
  2. Boot — In the UK, this is the storage space in the back of your car. In the U.S., it’s a type of shoe that goes on your foot and usually extends at least to your ankle if not higher.
  3. Bonnet — In the UK, this is the thing that covers the engine of your car. In the U.S., it covers your head, but only if you’re a baby or a rather quaint woman.
  4. Trolley — UK version, this is what you put your purchases into while you’re at Tesco (that’s a grocery store); in the U.S., this is a form of public transit that frequently but not always runs on rails down city streets. San Francisco is famous for its trolley cars.
  5. Coach — In the UK, you’ll take this to transport a bunch of people from one place to another, although it won’t be called Greyhound. In the U.S., this is the person in charge of whipping a sports team into shape.
  6. Fag — In the UK, it’s a cigarette. In the U.S., it’s very derogatory term for a homosexual male and should be avoided. (Although in a lot of parts of the U.S., smoking has also become very verboten, which is a good thing.)
  7. Dummy — Use this to keep your UK baby quiet and happy as they suck on it. In the U.S., use it in a store to model clothes or as a general human-shaped object for whatever purpose.
  8. Comforter — Another word in the UK for a dummy. In the U.S., it’s a duvet, as in a big, stuffed fluffy blanket that goes on top of your sheets.
  9. Bomb — In UK theater and media, a huge hit. In U.S. theater and media, a huge failure. Note, though, that “the bomb” (or “da bomb”) in the U.S. also refers to a huge hit. Nuance matters here.
  10. Flannel — In the UK, a piece of cloth you use for washing up your face or hands. In the U.S., a type of material, usually plaid, and most often used to make shirts or blankets.
  11. Hamper — Absolutely necessary for carrying your food around for a picnic in Britain; absolutely necessary for carrying around your dirty laundry in the U.S.
  12. Casket — In the UK, this is a small box for jewelry. In the U.S., it’s a big box for a dead body.


  1. First floor — In the UK, one story up above the ground. In the U.S., the story that’s on the ground
  2. A&E — In the UK, where you go for urgent care of an injury (“accident and emergency”), what’s called the ER in the U.S. In the U.S., A&E is a cable network showing Arts and Entertainment

Unfortunate Confusions

  1. Rubber — In the UK, the thing, usually on the back of a pencil, used to rub out mistakes. In the U.S., the thing you put on your dong before sex in order to avoid mistakes.
  2. Hoo-ha — In the UK, this is an argument or disagreement. In the U.S., it’s slang for a vagina
  3. Pissed — In the UK, you’re drunk. In the U.S., you’re angry.
  4. Blow off — A very British fart. A very American way to skip a commitment or appointment without making any excuses or giving warning.

And there you have it. Can you think of any other examples? Share them in the comments!

Going, gone, went…

When it comes to verb conjugations, English can be a little weird. Some verbs seem to barely change. For example, a regular verb like “to look” uses the present form look for I, you, we, and they. The only one that changes is third person singular — he/she/it looks. The past participle is looked for all persons, and so forth.

But then we get the irregular verbs, which can be even more irregular than they are in other languages: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are. But one of the stranger ones, which I hear misused a lot by both English learners and native speakers, is the compound past tense of “to go.” (Note: for some reason, to be and to go seem to be totally irregular in every language, which is strange considering how common they are.)

The present of “to go” is regular — go or goes, the same as to look, above. But there are two forms we can use in the past: gone and went. You’d never say “I goed away.” It’s “I went,” and the form is went for all persons as well. This is great right up until you combine it with an auxiliary verb. Logic might seem to be that “I had went” would be correct, but it isn’t. This is where the other version comes in. The correct phrasing is “I had gone.” And, by the way, it’s also “had” for any person: You had gone, she had gone, etc.

The difference is that went is the past tense, while gone is the past participle. Again, this is one of those areas where sometimes English words change a little and sometimes they change a lot. For “to look,” for example, the past tense and participle are both the same: looked. The difference is that the participle always needs another verb before it while the past does not. So if the word before is not a verb, the word you want is went. Otherwise, it’s gone.

To add to the confusion: Gone can also be an adjective but went cannot, so we can have a sentence like “They will be gone for the month of November,” but not “They will be went for the month of November.” Even though gone in the first sentence follows a verb, it’s functioning as an adjective there, describing the state they will be in for November.

On a related note, I also hear the present continuous conjugation of “to stand” formed incorrectly a lot. Present continuous is the tense that combines the verb “to be” with the present participle of another verb, which is the –ing tense in English. For example, “We are looking for a few good men.” That one is pretty straightforward, so it would seem obvious that the correct form is “He is standing in the street.”

It might seem obvious, and yet I hear abominations like “He is stood in the street” all the time. Okay, that form of to stand doesn’t have the obvious –ed ending of a lot of English past participles, but at least it does have a D. On top of that, I never hear anyone say something like “You are looked for Waldo.” That just makes no sense.

So yeah, a sentence like “We had went outside and now are stood on the corner” would make my skin crawl. Oddly enough, the same thing can happen with the verb to sit, as in the incorrect “She is sat at the table” versus the proper “She is sitting at the table.” The former is non-standard English and should be avoided.

The article I linked in the previous paragraph has some useful examples of irregular verbs that do make the error obvious if you test them: I was ran down the road, and he is flown to New York. Even though they don’t follow the usual –ed construction of the participle, the incorrectness should be pretty obvious to native speakers. Ironically, though “he was flown” can be a proper construction if the verb becomes transitive. That is, “he” becomes the direct object of the sentence: He was flown to New York by the contest sponsors.

Isn’t language just so much fun?

The one thing I will say about the mongrel beast that is my native language English: It can put up with a lot of mangling and still make perfect sense, or at least be understandable. A lot of other languages cannot handle that. Misplace a pronoun or adjective or derp up a verb, and the entire sentence becomes gibberish.

One of the most classic examples of this, which long ago achieved meme status, is the entire opening dialogue from a 1989 video game called Zero Wing. I encourage you to click that opening dialogue link and read the “Official Translation” column, because it a glowing example of machine translation gone wrong. Nothing is right in how the words went from Japanese to English, and yet it still makes sense. This is the source of several famous internet memes, including “Somebody set up us the bomb” and “All your base are belong to us.”

And for an example that intentionally aims for gibberish and yet still makes sense, you can’t beat Lewis Carrol’s classic poem “Jabberwocky.” The man was weird, but he was a genius all the same. (Just check out “The Hunting of the Snark,” for example.)

Then again, English is also absolutely capable of sentences that make complete sense semantically, and yet still mean nothing. Try to wrap your head around “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” for example. It’s a noun adjective combo that can verb in an adverbial way, and yet…

Don’t think about it too hard, or else you may find that you have went mad and aren’t sure where you’re now stood.

That hurt to write.

How the world almost ended once

I happen to firmly believe that climate change is real, it is happening, and humans are contributing to and largely responsible for it, but don’t worry — this isn’t going to be a political story. And I’ll admit that I can completely understand some of the deniers’ arguments. No, not the ones that say that “global warming” is a hoax made up so that “evil liberals” in government can tax everyone even more. The understandable arguments are the ones that say, “How could mere humans have such a big effect on the world’s climate?” and “Climate change is cyclic and will happen with or without us.”

That second argument is actually true, but it doesn’t change the fact that our industrialization has had a direct and measurable impact in terms of more greenhouse gases emitted and the planet heating up. Also note: Just because you’re freezing your ass off under the polar vortex doesn’t mean that Earth isn’t getting hotter. Heat just means that there’s more energy in the system and with more energy comes more chaos. Hot places will be hotter. Cold places will be colder. Weather in general will become more violent.

As for the first argument, that a single species, like humans, really can’t have all that great an effect on this big, giant planet, I’d like to tell you a story that will demonstrate how wrong that idea is, and it begins nearly 2.5 billion years ago with the Great Oxygenation Event.

Prior to that point in time, the Earth was mostly populated by anaerobic organisms — that is, organisms that do not use oxygen in their metabolism. In fact, oxygen is toxic to them. The oceans were full of bacteria of this variety. The atmosphere at the time was about 30% carbon dioxide and close to 70% nitrogen, with perhaps a hint of methane, but no oxygen at all. Compare this to the atmosphere of Mars today, which is 95% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, and less than 2% other gases. Side note: This makes the movie Mars Attacks! very wrong, because a major plot point was that the Martians could only breathe nitrogen, which is currently 78% of our atmosphere but almost absent in theirs. Oops!

But back to those anaerobic days and what changed them: A species of algae called cyanobacteria figured out the trick to photosynthesis — that is, producing energy not from food, but from sunlight and a few neat chemical processes. (Incidentally, this was also the first step on the evolutionary path to eyes.) Basically, these microscopic fauna would take in water and carbon dioxide, use the power of photons to break some bonds, and then unleash the oxygen from both of those elements while using the remaining carbon and hydrogen.

At first, things were okay because oxygen tended to be trapped by organic matter (any carbon containing compound) or iron (this is how rust is made), and there were plenty of both floating around to do the job, so both forms of bacteria got along fine. But there eventually became a point when there were not enough oxygen traps, and so things started to go off the rails. Instead of being safely sequestered, the oxygen started to get out into the atmosphere, with several devastating results.

First, of course, was that this element was toxic to the anaerobic bacteria, and so it started to kill them off big time. They just couldn’t deal with it, so they either died or adapted to a new ecological niche in low-oxygen environments, like the bottom of the sea. Second, though, and more impactful: All of this oxygen wound up taking our whatever atmospheric methane was left and converting it into carbon dioxide. Now the former is a more powerful greenhouse gas, and so was keeping the planet warm. The latter was and still is less effective. The end result of the change was a sudden and very long ice age known as the Huronian glaciation, which lasted for 300 million years — the oldest and longest ice age to date. The result of this was that most of the cyanobacteria died off as well.

So there you have it. A microscopic organism, much smaller than any of us and without any kind of technology or even intelligence to speak of, almost managed to wipe out all life forms on the planet and completely alter the climate for tens of millions of years, and they may have tipped the balance in as little as a million years.

We are much, much bigger than bacteria — about a million times, actually — and so our impact on the world is proportionally larger, even if they vastly outnumbered our current population of around 7.5 billion. But these tiny, mindless organisms managed to wipe out most of the life on Earth at the time and change the climate for far longer than humans have even existed.

Don’t kid yourself by thinking that humanity cannot and is not doing the same thing right now. Whether we’ll manage to turn the planet into Venus or Pluto is still up for debate. Maybe we’ll get a little of both. But to try to hand-wave it away by claiming we really can’t have that much of an impact is the road to perdition. If single-celled organisms could destroy the entire ecosystem, imagine how much worse we can do with our roughly 30 to 40 trillion cells, and then do your best to not contribute to that destruction.

The power of making stuff up

As I’ve mentioned before, ComedySportz doesn’t just do improv shows. They also do classes for adults, kids, and teens, and improv training for businesses and other forms of team building. And this is the true power of the art form. Improv can teach you so much more than just being funny on stage.

It can teach you how to think on your feet, and adapt to the situation under changing circumstances. Do you deal with customers or clients on a daily basis? Are you in law enforcement and have to defuse tense situations? Are you a teacher who has to handle an audience of rowdy kids every day? Then improv is for you.

It can teach you how to listen. Do you deal with coworkers? Are you in a mental health or medical profession, customer service, or a lawyer or accountant or whatever? Learning how to really hear what other people say and respond accordingly is a very important skill.

It can teach you how to work together. The golden rule of ComedySportz is this: “We make each other look good.” A corollary is “Got your back,” and most of what we do is to bail out our fellow players before they flop on their face, often by jumping in with no fear of looking bad ourselves despite having no ideas — because we have other team members who will have our backs as well. “Do, don’t think” is a guiding principal, built on the idea that everyone else will be there to catch you before you fall.

One of the warm-up games we use that really demonstrates this principal is called “Pencils are good for…”  Basically, we get a suggestion (not pencils) and then have to jump out and rattle off as many things we can think of that fit the form. For example, if the suggestion is “pickles,” then there we go: “Pickles are good for…” Putting on sandwiches, sticking in jars, making little hats for hamsters, using as tiny Frisbees, making toadstools in tiny ponds, relishing an idea, using as really bad darts, (mumble mumble)… and the next player jumps in to toss that life preserver.

And the whole point here is to not leave your fellow player hanging. And the other idea is to jump in whether you have a good suggestion or not. “Because it rhymes with nickels” would be a totally valid save, even if it weren’t a funny joke, for example.

Back to the original premise: Knowing how to improv will help you in every bit of your everyday life. Job interview? Think on your feet and you’ll nail it. Company meeting designed to generate ideas? Bing bang boom, go into pun game mode, and you’ll blow them away. Any sort of meeting or consultation with another person? Learn how to listen, then really listen, and you’ll win. Customer service? Make the interaction an improv game in your mind, and, if you live on tips, you’re probably going to start rolling in them.

The basic lesson is this: Every single interaction we have with another human being every day is basically an exercise in improv. We usually do this without even thinking about it. But… if we learn how to think about it and pay attention and focus, then we will learn how to be in control of our interactions — and this bit alone is probably the best way to completely end any sort of social anxiety that we have. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If we learn how to approach life like that, then we will have no more stage fright. Learn how to improv and kiss social anxiety good-bye. Really.

Yes, and…

The improv company I work for and take classes from, ComedySportz L.A., doesn’t just have teams or classes for actors and other performers. A big part of their business — for all of the ComedySportz Teams worldwide — is to provide training in improvisation for major companies using improv’s “unique ability to foster collaboration, inspiration, gratitude and fun.” Non-performers use these techniques for various reasons, from becoming better public speakers, to being better problem solvers who can think on their feet, to being better listeners.

I’m not plugging the company here, although if you own a business and want to do some great team-building, or want to just have a talented troupe of professional improvisers come out to entertain you, give them a call and tell them I sent you.

What I really wanted to write about was my personal experience with this synergy of art and business. One of the things that CSz (the official abbreviation) does is to have one-day intensive workshops that serve as both a refresher in basic skills for experienced improvisers as well as intros to the art form for people who’ve never done it before, whether they’re experienced actors or non-performers. My original entrée to ComedySportz was via a one-day intensive as a performer who’d never really done improv before (because it scared the crap out of me), and that got me hooked.

Since then, whenever the opportunity has come up to do an intensive and I’ve been able to, you can be sure I’ve done it — one of the great things about them is that it’s usually a different teacher every time, and that’s another way to build experience. They’ll explain things slightly differently than another teacher and see things in your strengths and weaknesses that the others haven’t.

Last Saturday, was another re-visit to the basics. This time around, there were five students. Besides myself, there was one other experienced improviser who’s also a friend of mine because of the company, and our teacher has decades of experience. The other three students, though, were not only first-time improvisers, but none of them were performers, either.

And this is where the true power of improvisation shines, and why everybody should give it a try at least once in a safe and controlled environment like this — because, time and time again, I’ve watched people who’ve never even been on stage before start out being very self-conscious and nervous and afraid to do anything, but within forty-five minutes, all of that has vanished, and they’re just going for it and having a lot of fun.

Don’t think that actors or singers have it any easier, though. I’d performed on stage a bunch of times since an early age first as a musician and then as an actor before I took my first improv class, and I was just as self-conscious and nervous and afraid, too. See, musicians and actors usually get to rehearse and frequently have sheet music and scripts, so it’s easy. Make it up on the spot? Oh no! Scary!

Except, there’s this funny thing about humans. We are natural story-tellers. We may not always realize it, but think about every single conversation you’ve ever had. You enter it with a point of view, and probably with some purpose in having it, whether it’s to ask a stranger for directions or explain to your boss why the Fergus account documents aren’t ready yet. We naturally arrange things with a beginning, middle, and ending, too, whether we know it or not.

“When I went out to my car this morning” (beginning) “there was a moose sitting on my hood” (middle, and some complication) “and I couldn’t do anything until animal control showed up and led it away” (more middle, and some resolution) “But I had to catch an Uber because my car was squished, so, sorry I’m late” (ending, along with the reason for the story).

It’s easy when we do it in real life. The trick is to realize that we do it in real life, then figure out how to bring real life onto the stage. And here’s big ol’ bonus tip for any performer or artist or writer: When you bring real life into it, you bring your audience into it. Period. Sure, you can be clever and intellectual as hell, and that’ll amuse some people, but (and, as a lit nerd, it pains me to write this…) how many people have read Finnegans Wake vs. how many people have read the Fifty Shades books? Or, beyond actually reading either, how many people in general could tell you anything about the former, vs. non-fans who could still tell you quite a bit about the latter?

So if you’ve had human experience, you already have relatable material to bring to the table. All you need to do then is to hang on to the recognizable parts of it while getting fanciful with the details. Take the mundane bits of your work life, but play them out in terms of a medieval knight and his squire. Describe the day that you had the worst commute ever because the train broke down, there was a taxi strike, and all the ride shares were on surge pricing, but you’re part of the Time Patrol trying to save Mars from certain destruction. Tell us about that stupid bureaucratic encounter you had at the DMV where a smudged line on one stupid form threatened to put your appointment off for eight months, except that now you’re Columbus in line at the Royal Trip Funding office, trying to convince some flunky of Ferdinand and Isobel to finance your expedition.

The permutations are endless. Basically, take what you know, tell it as you know it, but change the details and have fun. Maybe the characters are animals, or historical figures, or inanimate objects. Whatever. Endow them with that, then follow through.

For example — if Columbus and his crew had all been rabbits, what would the logical end result have been once those ships had been out to sea for a while?

But I’m jumping ahead and behind myself. The real point here is how amazing it is to watch non-performers go through these improv exercises and very quickly move from “Oh no, I’m scared, people will make fun of me” to “OMG this is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on! What’s next?”

And that’s been my real experience. I’ve watched people be too afraid to really even make it through their class introduction without stuttering, muttering, and practically wetting themselves. Three exercises later, boom. They are dancing and prancing and making stupid sounds and having a blast with the rest of us, without a care about what anyone else thinks. A little bit later, they are coming up with scary creative stuff because they’ve turned off that censor-chip in their head — and that is where the magic happens. Stop editing, stop censoring, start being… boom. Creativity explodes.

And then we get to the inevitable end of the intensive, which ends the same way that all of the CSz L.A. shows do: Time for a jump-out pun game, and this is when something really interesting happens, every single time. All of that creativity and fearlessness in the first-timers goes away, and it’s fascinating to watch because it’s so relatable.

One of the games that we usually end these classes with is called 185, although the number may vary depending on which company or city it’s being performed in. The basic set-up is this: the players get an audience suggestion and then tells this joke:

“185 [suggestions] walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve [suggestions] here!’ And the [suggestions] say, [joke].”

(Aside: A more recent variation has the bartender say instead that the bar is closed, and I actually prefer that one because the old wording calls back to days when humans were refused service based on race or religion, even if the game only deals with objects or abstract concepts.)

Here’s an example of the joke with the blanks filled in:

“185 pencils walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve pencils here!’ And the pencils say, ‘Well, this trip was pointless.’”

Yes, these jokes are supposed to be the worst of every conceivable pun or dad joke around. And, as I’ve discovered over the time I’ve been doing it, making puns for games like this is one of my improv superpowers. However, it’s not an impossible skill to acquire, and our teacher on Saturday shared a bit of knowledge with us that I’d never thought of before, maybe because it’s what I’ve always instinctively done.

For a game like this, think about the suggestion, either in broad or narrow terms. For example, if the suggestion is “cars,” you can think about all the things a car has — wheels, brakes, hood, headlights, gear-shift, transmission, etc. — or you can think of kinds of car — sedan, limousine, Mercedes, beater, VW, Uber, etc. Then, all you have to do is come up with a phrase or sentence that ends with that word. Boom — there’s your pun game joke.

Now this bit of advice came after we’d been through a few suggestions and it turned out that either I or the other regular performer had to jump out most of the time because nobody else was taking the chance. Lo and behold, once our teacher explained, then had everybody think of one thing associated with the suggestion (tightrope walker), and told them that this was going to be their punchline, ta-da: Five jokes in a row, every one of which worked.

“185 improvisers walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the improvisers say, ‘Hey, are you trying to be punny?’”

I didn’t say you always got good jokes, but you’d be surprised how hard an audience will laugh at the stupidest puns if you deliver them with conviction. And so I will end this tale with both a pun and good advice: How is a good performer like a prisoner?

Neither one gets there without conviction.

Thanks and good night, and don’t forget to tip your server…

The odd origins of 7 city names in Los Angeles County

A lot of place names for cities and streets are pretty straightforward. They come from famous people, frequently those involved with its founding: Burbank, Lankershim, Van Nuys; or from physical features: La Mirada, La Puente, Eagle Rock. But some place names have slightly weirder origins. Here are a few from my home county of Los Angeles.

  1. Agoura Hills: This somewhat rustic and suburban enclave is located on the extreme western edge of the county, a bit beyond the West Valley made famous as the birthplace of the Valley Girl archetype. Originally, most of it belonged to a sheep ranch owned in the 19th century by a man named Pierre Agoure. By the 20th century, the place was called “Picture City,” because Paramount studios owned their own ranch out there and various film companies used it to shoot their own. When the residents needed to establish a post office, they had to come up with a name, and they voted in 1927. In a very pre-internet version of Boaty McBoatface, the winner decided to name it after that sheep rancher, but whether the person who made the nomination goofed up or the government worker who tallied the entries is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, Pierre Agoure became the namesake of Agoura, later Agoura Hills.
  2. Azusa: This is a neighborhood out beyond Pasadena. Marketers would love to have you think that this town was named because it has “Everything from A to Z in the USA,” but that’s just a bunch of bunk. In reality, like many place names in California, this one was stolen from the natives, in this case the Tongva, who called the area Asuksagna, their word for “skunk place.” As someone who’s driven on the freeway through the area multiple times on evenings when, as we like to put it, “a skunk went off in the hills,” it’s a rather apt description. You can smell those cute but dank little buggers for miles, whether your windows are up or down. Other place names Tongva have given us are Canoga Park and Tujunga.
  1. Echo Park: Located not too far from downtown, you’ve probably seen this lake and its fountains in many a film and music video. This is one of those place name origins that will sound like a total urban legend until you get to the explanation. When this artificial lake was built in 1892, Superintendent of City Parks Joseph Henry Tomlinson picked the name Echo Park because, well, that’s what he heard when people shouted at the construction site — but those echoes went away as soon as the project was finished. It sounds weird until you realize that, in order to create an artificial lake, human engineers had to create a gigantic concrete quarry first, so while that thing was set up and empty, of course it was echo city. But as soon as it was filled with water, ta-da: Echoes no more. Doesn’t seem so weird now, does it?
  1. Los Feliz: Directly south of Griffith Park and probably most famous because Swingers was shot in the Dresden Room right in the middle of town, Los Feliz is one of those interesting places in L.A. that not only seems to be named wrong, but which everyone pronounces wrong. On its face, “los” is a plural article but “feliz” is a singular noun. It’s a Spanish thing, but the expression should be either el or la feliz, for “the happy one” (feliz doesn’t change regarding the gender) or los or las felices, for “the happy ones.” On top of that, people in L.A. tend to pronounce it as “Las FEELis,” rather than the correct way, “Los FayLEASE.” (If you know the song “Feliz Navidad,” then you know how the word is supposed to be pronounced.) Now here’s where it gets more interesting. “Los Feliz” is actually correct, but for only one reason. It doesn’t refer to a happy person or persons. Rather, it refers to an entire family with the surname Feliz, founded by a Spanish explorer named José Feliz. They owned land in the area for years, had a very colorful history, and, in this case, Los Feliz correctly refers to the Feliz family. Unlike English, where you might refer to “The Smiths” to mean the entire Smith Family, Spanish only changes the article, so “Los Feliz” really means “the Feliz family.”
  1. Sylmar: This is way up on the north central part of the San Fernando Valley, and a place that is more known by name than by anyone actually ever going there. This one is short and sweet. The name was created by cobbling together the Latin words for forest and sea: sylvia and mar. (Sylvia is also part of the name of the state of Pennsylvania — Penn’s forest.) At the time it was named, the place had a lot of olive trees and was the location of Olive View Hospital, which was destroyed in an event that will be forever associated with the city, the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971.
  1. Tarzana: Mostly known as that bedroom community stuck up in the hills that tries to keep Woodland Hills and Reseda from banging into each other, Tarzana has a simple etymology that looks like it’s made up, but it’s not. It’s where Edgar Rice Burroughs eventually retired to. Ol’ Edgar was most famous for creating the character called Tarzan. The place needed a name, he was a famous resident. Ta-da: Tarzana.
  1. Venice: While it’s not a huge leap to realize that Venice, California, was named after Venice, Italy, if you only know this hippie/hipster hangout stuck between Santa Monica and LAX for its boardwalk and colorful people and street vendors, it’s easy to forget that it was originally absolutely intended to recreate the original Venice, right down to the canals — some of which are still there, although you do have to travel a bit inland to find them. The main plaza leading to the beach was also designed to resemble Piazza San Marco in the original Venice, although on a much smaller scale. Its founder, Abbot Kinney, was a polyglot who spoke six languages, and eventually made his fortune from tobacco. Originally called Venice of America, it opened in 1905, and was an immediate success. Kinney died of lung cancer as karma took its revenge in 1920. Nearly a century later, Venice is still a success as one of the more recognizable and unique parts of L.A., and well worth the visit for tourists and locals alike.

What are some interesting place names with weird origins where you live? Share in the comments!