Limitations lead to imitations which lead to innovations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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