Wednesday Wonders: Facing the music

For some reason, face morphing in music videos really took off, and the whole thing was launched with Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White in 1991. If you’re a 90s kid, you remember a good solid decade of music videos using face-morphing left and right.

Hell, I remember at the time picking up a face-morphing app in the five dollar bin at Fry’s, and although it ran slow as shit on my PC at the time, it did the job and morphed faces and, luckily, it never got killed by the “Oops, Windows isn’t backward compatible with this” problem, so it runs fast as hell now. Well, whenever I last used it, and it’s been a hot minute.

If you’ve never worked with the software, it basically goes like this. You load two photos, the before and after. Then, you mark out reference points on the first photo.

These are generally single dots marking common facial landmarks: inside and outside of each eye, likewise the eyebrows and mouth, bridge of the nose, outside and inside of the nostrils, top and bottom of where the ear hits the face, major landmarks along the hairline, and otherwise places where there are major changes of angle.

Next, you play connect the dots, at first in general, but then it becomes a game of triangles. If you’re patient enough and do it right, you wind up with a first image that is pretty closely mapped with a bunch of little triangles.

Meanwhile, this entire time, your software has been plopping that same mapping onto the second image. But, at least with the software I was working with then (and this may have changed) it only plops those points relative to the boundaries of the image, and not the features in it.

Oh yeah — first essential step in the process: Start with two images of identical dimensions, and faces placed about the same way in each.

The next step in the morph is to painstakingly drag each of the points overlaid on the second image to its corresponding face part. Depending upon how detailed you were in the first image, this can take a long, long time. At least the resizing of all those triangles happens automatically.

When you think you’ve got it, click the magic button, and the first image should morph into the second, based on the other parameters you gave it, which are mostly screen rate.

And that’s just for a still image. For a music video, repeat that for however many seconds any particular transition takes, times 24 frames per second. Ouch!

I think this will give you a greater appreciation of what Jackson’s producers did.

However… this was only the first computerized attempt at the effect in a music video. Six years earlier in 1985, the English duo Godley & Creme (one half of 10cc so… 5cc?) released their video Cry, and their face morphing effect is full-on analog. They didn’t have the advantage of powerful (or even wimpy) computers back then. Oh, sure, they had pulled off kind of early CGI effects for TRON in 1982, but those simple graphics were nowhere near good enough to swap faces.

So Godley & Crème did it the old fashioned way, and anyone who has ever worked in old school video production (or has nerded out over the firing up the Death Star moments in Episode IV) will know the term “Grass Valley Switcher.”

Basically, it was a mechanical device that could take the input from two or more video sources, as well as provide its own video input in the form of color fields and masks, and then swap them back and forth or transition one to the other.

And this is what they did in their music video for Cry.

Although, to be fair, they did it brilliantly because they were careful in their choices. Some of their transitions are fades from image A to B, while others are wipes, top down or bottom up. It all depended upon how well the images matched.

In 2017, the group Elbow did an intentional homage to this video using the same technique well into the digital age — and with a nod from Benedict Cumberbatch, with their song Gentle Storm.

And now we come to 2020. See, all of those face morphing videos from 1991 through the early 2000s still required humans to sit down and mark out the face parts and those triangles and whatnot, so it was a painstaking process.

And then, this happens…

These face morphs were created by a neural network that basically looked at the mouth parts and listened to the syllables of the song, and then kind of sort of found other faces and phonemes that matched, and then yanked them all together.

The most disturbing part of it, I think, is how damn good it is compared to all of the other versions. Turn off the sound or don’t understand the language, and it takes Jackson’s message from Black or White into the stratosphere.

Note, though, that this song is from a band named for its lead singer, Lil’ Coin (translated from Russian) and the song itself is about crime and corruption in Russia in the 1990s, titled Everytime. So… without cultural context, the reason for the morphing is ambiguous.

But it’s still an interesting note that 35 years after Godley & Crème first did the music video face morph, it’s still a popular technique with artists. And, honestly, if we don’t limit it to faces or moving media, it’s a hell of a lot older than that. As soon as humans figured out that they could exploit a difference in point of view, they began making images change before our eyes.

Sometimes, that’s a good thing artistically. Other times, when the changes are less benevolent, it’s a bad thing. It’s especially disturbing that AI is getting into the game, and Lil’ Coin’s video is not necessarily a good sign.

Oh, sure, a good music video, but I can’t help but think that it was just a test launch in what is going to become a long, nasty, and ultimately unwinnable cyber war.

After all… how can any of you prove that this article wasn’t created by AI? Without asking me the right questions, you can’t. So there you go.

Image: (CC BY-SA 2.0) Edward Webb

Theatre Thursday: How I wound up here

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I was, up until March 2020, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major in screenwriting. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details. 

Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

The one thing I miss most of all during these strange days, other than hanging out with friends, is being able to go on stage and perform. I know that it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t miss because they’d never do it in the first place, but I’m feeling the loss, and so are my many actor and improviser friends.

Studies seem to show that the one thing people fear the most, beyond death and spiders, is public speaking… and I just don’t get it. Then again, I’m a performer. Put me on a stage, give me an audience, and I am on. And it doesn’t matter whether I have pre-planned words to speak, like doing a play or giving a speech, or whether I’m totally winging it by doing improv.

To me, an audience is an invitation to entertain.

On top of that, to me, the more the merrier. I’ll take an audience of hundreds over an audience of dozens or fewer any day. The energy of a large house is infectious, and whenever I’m with a cast that’s in front of a big crowd, we all can feel it in each other’s performances. The intensity level and connections between us all go way up.

And it’s not an ego thing. It’s not about “Oh, look at ussssss!” It’s the people on stage thinking, “Look at them.”

We can see and hear you out there, and speaking for myself, if I’m doing comedy, there’s nothing I appreciate more than hearing a good laugh. If I’m doing drama, then there’s nothing more satisfying than the silent intensity of dozens or hundreds of captive eyes and minds.

Every time I go onstage, I have to wonder why anyone would fear doing it. Because here’s a simple truth that performers just know but which muggles might miss: The people watching you in the audience are a lot more afraid than you are.

Why is this? Two reasons. The first is that the audience gets to sit in the dark and be anonymous, while the performer doesn’t. You’d think that this would put the performer on the spot, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, being in the spotlight gives the performers all of the power — and if you’ve ever been in the house of a large professional theater with a name actor onstage when someone’s cell phone rings audibly, or people are taking pictures, you’re seen this power being used with a vengeance.

This touches on the other reason for the fear: That an audience member is going to wind up being forced to participate somehow — that’s been a hazard of modern theatre ever since Bertolt Brecht broke the fourth wall, if not even earlier. Audiences can get spooked when the actors notice them and interact with them.

I’ve seen it as an audience member most obviously when I went to a production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which is a piece of environmental theatre first created in the 90s that casts the audience as the wedding guests. (A modern example of the form: escape rooms.) The audience starts out just sitting in the chairs under the outdoor tent for the ceremony, which is not without its family drama, although this part plays out a little bit more like a traditional play.

It’s when everyone moves inside to the banquet hall for the reception that things get interesting. Well, at least the cast tries to make them so. The audience is seated at various tables, with one or more actors planted at each. Now, I have to assume that each table had a similar set-up facilitated by a different family member. At ours, the Tina’s mother came over to tell us that Tina’s ex had come to the wedding uninvited, but that was okay. He was fine as long as he didn’t drink, so she was putting him at our table and asked us to make sure that he didn’t.

I wound up sitting next to the actor, and I sure played my part, making sure to vanish his champagne and wine glasses before he could get to them, but not only was no one else playing along, they weren’t even interacting with him. Now, I’m sure the inevitable arc for that actor is to figure out how to get “smashed” no matter what, and the character gets really inappropriate later on, but nobody at my table was trying, and I’m sure it was true at others.

I finally got to the point of abandoning my table and chatting with anyone who seemed to be a player, and damn was that fascinating — not to mention that they seemed grateful as hell that somebody was interacting with the character they’d bothered to create. I learned all kinds of things about what was going on, family dirt, some of the Italian wedding traditions, and so forth.

That’s what you have to do as an audience member when you go to environmental theatre. That’s the contract! So if you’re not into it, don’t go see those kinds of shows.

On the other hand, I’ve seen it from an actor’s POV more than a few times, and in shows that were not necessarily advertised as environmental theatre, or were not even announced as happening beforehand. In those cases, I can understand the audience discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to put them through it, at least in those situations.

Those situations have also been some of my favorite show memories, though. I was in a production of an Elaine May play, Adaptation, that posits life as a game show with a large ensemble cast. I think that only the host and star of the show-within-the-show played one character. The rest of us played a ton and our “offstage” was sitting in the audience, meaning that we had plenty of asides delivered directly to whomever we wound up sitting next to between scenes. Or, sometimes, we’d turn around and deliver the line to the people behind us or lean forward and deliver it to the people in front of us, which startled the hell out of them.

I also performed in a series of Flash Theatre performances done all over Los Angeles over the course of an entire year and staged by Playwrights Arena, and a lot of those involved interacting directly with our audience, which were a combination of people who knew about it beforehand and (mostly) whichever random folk were in the area when it happened. That is perhaps the most immediate and real fourth wall breaking because there was never a fourth wall in the first place. Or, rather, the audience is inside of it with the cast, even if everyone is outside, and a lot of the shows were. It’s the ultimate environmental theatre, staged with no warning and no invitation.

Even when the play wasn’t designed to break the fourth wall, a director’s staging can make it happen, and I had that experience in a production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, where I basically played Mexican Jesus.

It’s one hot mess of a show that only ran sixty performances originally in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his powers, and I can say for certain that while it’s really fun for the actors to do, I felt sorry for every single audience we did it for. And I am really curious to see what Ethan Hawke manages with his planned film version of it. Maybe that medium will save it, maybe not.

But… our big fourth wall break came when the actress playing my mother (aka “Thinly Veiled Virgin M”) held the “dead” hero in her lap, Pietà style (while I was secretly getting a workout using my right arm to hold up his unsupported shoulders under the cover of the American flag he was draped in), and during her monologue, which was a good three or four minutes, every actor onstage except Mom and “dead” hero (there were 26 of us, I think) started by locking eyes with somebody in the audience house left and then, over the course of the speech, very, very slowly turning our heads, making eye contact with a different audience member and then a still different one, until, by the end of the speech, we were all looking house right.

Ideally, the turning of our heads should have been imperceptible, but our eye contact should have become obvious as soon as the target noticed. I should also mention that since I was down center sitting on the edge of the stage, the nearest audience member to me was about four feet away — and I was wearing some pretty intense black and silver makeup around my eyes, which made them really stand out.

Good times!

I’m glad to say that what I’m doing now — improv with ComedySportz L.A.’s Rec League — is designed to never make the audience uncomfortable, so that no one is forced to participate in any way. And that’s just as fun for us on stage, really, because the participation we get via suggestions and audience volunteers is sincere and enthusiastic. And if our outside audience happens to be too quiet or reticent during a show, we always have the Rec League members who aren’t playing that night as convenient plants who will take up the slack after a decent pause to allow for legitimate suggestions.

Yeah, I won’t lie. I definitely enjoyed those times when I got to screw with audiences. But I enjoy it just as much when we go out of our way to bring the audience onto our side by making them feel safe. I never have anything to be afraid of when I step on stage. I’d love to make our audiences realize that they don’t either.

Image by Image by Mohamed Hassan via Pixaby.

Five easy pieces

Welcome to a little music history and education. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but I am a trained musician who plays anything with a keyboard (including piano accordion, thank you), and was lucky enough to be well-grounded in both the theory and history of music. It’s a fascinating subject.

Here, I’ll be dealing with some tunes that probably everybody would recognize after the first few notes, but very few people could actually name. For the most part, they were created for very different purposes, and a number of them are only known as small pieces of larger works. For all but two, they became iconic once they wound up in film or television — although it could be argued that the pop culture of the pre-mass media world did the same for the other two.

I encourage you to at least sample the linked videos so you can hear what I’m talking about, although most of the “Why you know it” sections will probably make the tunes play in your head automatically.

And-a 1, and-a 2, and-a 1, 2, 3, 4…

1.   Marche funèbre d’une marionnette

Funeral March of a Marionette, 1872, by Charles Guonod

Why you know it: Alfred Hitchcock. He mentioned loving the piece on a BBC Radio show called Desert Island Discs, in 1959. The show was basically one of those “If you could only take X things with you” question formats with celebrities, with the subject being eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item. This was one of Hitch’s eight pieces — probably not a surprise at the time, since he had already chosen it as the theme song for his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which debuted in 1955.

How he stumbled across it is anyone’s guess, but it had already been used in a few films very early on, including Sunrise, Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus, and Buster Keaton’s Welcome Danger, all before 1929. Here’s the section from the opening of Hitchcock’s show.

Its original intent: Most likely, Guonod was aiming for a cross between macabre and whimsical. After all, this is a funeral cortege for a “dead” inanimate object, and the score itself plus a change to a D Major near the middle tells us that the “mourners” do stop for what is basically a buffet along the way. In other words, serious, not serious.

How it’s used: To create a general atmosphere of the macabre or sinister, leaving out any bit of whimsy or joy from the original.

Why you don’t know all of it: Hitchcock uses a tiny snippet. The whole piece is about four minutes — way too long for TV credits.

2. Vjezd gladiátorů

Entry of the Gladiators, 1897, by Julius Fučík

Why you know it: Ever been to the circus? You can’t hear this tune without seeing that parade of elephants and lions and clowns, all led by the ringmaster down the street and to the big top.

Its original intent: Pretty much the same as now. It’s from a genre of music called “screamer.” These were marches used in order to pump up a crowd, quite often at events like circuses or state fairs, and frequently right before the entrance of the main act or the famous clowns. What makes them notable is that they focus on the heavy brass in the band instead of the lighter woodwinds, and they are at a tempo that is actually too fast to march at comfortably. If you’ve ever been at any kind of performance that’s used pre-show music, then you’ve experienced this concept, although probably with a much different genre of music. Comedy clubs and live TV “tapings” (they really still use that word) use the same trick — fast-paced, upbeat music right before things start in order to get the audience in the mood.

How it’s used: As originally intended. It’s just that this particular piece happened to win out over all of the other screamers from the era. Oh — and don’t let the title fool you. Fučík never intended it to have anything to do with gladiators, either. He just had a jones for the glory that was Rome.

Why you don’t know all of it: Again, it’s short, and you may have heard the whole thing, but you only remember the hook. Bonus points — it was lifted by Three Dog Night. (God, the 70s didn’t age well.)

3.   O Fortuna!

AKA Oh Fortune, Empress of the World, from Carmina Burana, 1936, by Carl Orff

Why you know it: It’s been used as the soundtrack for countless films and movie trailers since forever. Here it is in Excalibur.

Its original intent: Somebody found a bunch of poetry written by 13th century monks, originally assumed to be from Beuren, but later determined to have actually been created in Austria. Oops! The title stuck, though. Carmina Burana means “songs of Beuren.” Written in a mix of Latin, German, and French of the era, they were not religious songs at all, but, in fact, were rather secular and earthy. Probably not surprising, though, considering that the authors were probably young men only just realizing what they had given up when they chose the monastic life. So, yeah… Orff didn’t start out with high art at all. The raunch is just hidden in the age of the language. Kind of like Shakespeare.

A great and probably honest description of the source comes from an NPR story on its history: “Carmina Burana,” Music of Monks and Drunks. Yeah, like I said, college kids. By the time it got around to Orff, though, he intended it as a pretty serious cantata, to be presented with dance and masks and all kinds of stage craft. After all, he titled it a “scenic cantata,” meaning that it would have scenes and scenery and stuff.

How it’s used: This is the “Shit’s about to get real” theme. Or, when used as satire, it means “Much ado about nothing.”

What you don’t know: It’s the opening and closing of the aforementioned song cycle, but none of the rest of it ever reaches this level of brilliant. I mean, the first four bars of O Fortuna are in a 3/1 time signature. Musicians will instantly get how balls to the wall that choice was. And while all that stuff between the beginning and ending isn’t well known, at least it’s good — unlike our next piece.

4.   Also sprach Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896, by Richard Strauss.

Why you know it: Stanley Kubrick.

Come on, really. If this isn’t the first movie you think of when you hear this song, you need to get out more. But even if you haven’t seen it, you do know the tune. Kubrick used it three times in the movie — under the opening credits, right before the most epic time span in a jump-cut in movies ever (hundreds of thousands of years, if not a million or two), and at the end as Bowman is… let’s just say, given a jumpstart in evolution.

Its original intent: Strauss was writing a tone poem based on a treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche of the same title, and probably most well-known for the statement “God is dead,” which appears as a question in the prologue and a statement in part two. It was this work that Strauss was trying to capture musically, although he proved that philosophical works probably don’t make the best source for emotionally moving art.

How it’s used: Whenever someone wants to parody or reference 2001: A Space Odyssey or indicate something profoundly epic is happening.

What you don’t know: Similar to Orff, this piece is the beginning and ending of a long song cycle. The difference is that while O Fortuna serves as the cookies outside of an Oreo, Also is just the bread on a shit sandwich. I’ve listened to the whole thing and, trust me, it’s less exciting than watching paint dry. There’s a reason that Johann “The Waltz King” is the better known Strauss, although he and Richard were not related. But Johann did get a piece in 2001 as well.

5.   Treulich gefürht

The Bridal Chorus, from Lohengrin, 1850, Richard Wagner

Why you know it: Come on. You’ve been to some weddings in your life, whether as guest, part of the wedding party, part of the family, or one of the two co-stars. This tune is now known as Here Comes the Bride, and it’s inspired more happy tears than have ever been cried by all of the fans of all the winning teams of every big sports ball championship final match ever.

Its original intent: Again, pretty much as we know it, except for the sole purpose of providing a dramatic, suspenseful, and emotional entrance for a wedding scene in an opera. It wasn’t written to be used in weddings at all. But you know how people are. It only took one socialite at the opera to announce, “Mother, we are using this song when I get married, and that’s it.” Boom. The rest is history.

How it’s used: Whether literally or ironically, it says “someone is about to get married.” It is most always played as the bride enters the wedding venue.

What you don’t know: Probably most of the rest of that opera, Lohengrin. And you probably don’t also realize the irony of weddings often using this song as an entrance and Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as an exit — which is, sadly, not called There Goes the Bride. Why? Well, Richard had no love for Felix because Mendelssohn was Jewish and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. In fact, whenever the latter had to conduct the music of the former, he would wear gloves so that he didn’t have to come into contact with the score, and then throw the gloves away when he was done. Yes — Wagner was talented, but he was a jerk-ass.

What are your favorite “Songs everyone knows without knowing the source?” Tell us in the comments!

Image by Grzegorz Dymon, used unchanged under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Theatre Thursday: So put another dime in the jukebox, baby

June 18, 1815: “My my, At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

April 6, 1974: ABBA wins the Eurovision Song Contest for their song Waterloo, which has nothing to do with Napoleon, really.

April 6, 1999: the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! premieres in London’s West End. The date, obviously, is not a coincidence.

But now the theme of this piece probably makes sense, since it is Theatre Thursday. So I’m not writing about Napoleon, famous battles, or Swedish pop groups. This is about the concept of a jukebox musical, which I have to say I find somewhat abhorrent with a few exceptions.

If you’re not familiar with the term, here’s what it is. A jukebox musical is a show that takes existing musical works, either a collection of popular tunes or sometimes the collected works of a particular band or artist, and then uses them to create a story, although one that’s generally not about that band or artist — with exceptions, more on which later.

Note that concept albums that became musicals, like Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita are not jukebox musicals since they were created like traditional musicals, just released as soundtracks first.

No — a jukebox musical is a collage made out of pre-existing material. And the problem with this sort of backwards creation is that it forces the story into the music, rather than letting the music flow from the story. And, of course, if you’re working with a group like ABBA, with a lot of hits, there’s the need to jam every one of them in there, even if it includes Waterloo, whether it fits the story or not.

Another big danger is that it just turns into a concert loosely wrapped around a story — q.v. 2005’s Jersey Boys, documenting Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and infamous for the number of fistfights that would start in the audience every single night at intermission.

The concept of jukebox musicals really started in America with film rather than stage, and some of them are quite famous and actually good — Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, and An American in Paris being just three examples.

But the granddaddy of jukebox musicals is arguably John Gay’s 1728 opus The Beggar’s Opera, which took popular ballads of the day as the soundtrack of its story, which was stylized as a parody of Italian opera of the time.

Ultimately, it gave us the decidedly non-jukebox musical The Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weill, which gave us the song Mack the Knife, which you probably still know from the linked version despite Bobby Darin having made it a hit in the late 50s and having last performed it just before his death in 1973.

Ironically, Darin’s music was used in the 2016 stage musical Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical as well as the ambitious but incredibly miscast 2004 biopic Beyond the Sea, in which Kevin Spacey, already in his 40s, tried to play Darin at all stages in his life, keeping in mind that the singer started his career very young, basically getting into songwriting at 19 before dying at only 37.

Though they not always successful — hits like Mamma Mia! are the exception, not the rule — the number of jukebox musicals has exploded in each decade since the 1980s, with nearly 50 produced in the 2010s and three already planned for 2021, although there’s no telling whether they’ll happen now.

So what’s the appeal of the genre? Sadly, a vast majority of audiences prefer the familiar over the novel. Also, from the producer’s side of it, if they’re a large company that already owns a bunch of intellectual property (IP), like a huge star’s song catalog, then they don’t have to pay extra to use it, so they save a lot on material.

Not that they might not still spend the money, but Mega Studio Pictures paying hundreds of thousands to license music owned by Mega Studio Music Group is just an accounting trick that allows the former to deduct the cost and the latter to use the income to appear profitable. It’s no different than you or I transferring money from checking to savings.

With major companies like Disney and other studios getting more involved in Broadway productions, because the shows have just gotten so expensive, it was an inevitable move, really.

But, again, this leads right back to the big ho-hum drawback of large venue jukebox musicals focusing on a single artist or group. They can easily come across (and do) as nothing but overblown concerts with fancy sets, an attempt at a story, but with none of the original stars.

Yes, Sting did sppear in productions of his musical The Last Ship — but that wasn’t a jukebox musical. It was all original material he wrote.

I’m trying to think of a single stage jukebox musical that I’ve liked, and I can’t. Okay, I can think of one series of such shows but it’s a specific sub-genre, in that they use the jukebox format to create mash-ups between particular artists and authors.

Officially known as the Troubadour Theater Company but usually referred to as the Troubies, they do shows that take text from authors like Dickens or Shakespeare, combine this with the music of a specific artist or group, and give us musicals like A Christmas Carole King or Julius Weezer.

They work because they were never supposed to be serious in the first place while still presenting a distillation of the original stage story that is accessible to all audiences.

Oddly enough, though, the format seems to work a lot better on film than it does on stage — maybe because the need for film to make things literal works against everything just looking like a concert.

One very notable example is Moulin Rouge!, which used modern pop and rock songs in a story set in 1901 Paris, but part of the reason this worked so well is that the script was written first with the songs very carefully chosen, and nothing proceeded until Baz Luhrmann had acquired the rights to every last one of them. There’s only one original song in the film, the haunting Come What May, but this is common for every Hollywood jukebox musical. You can’t get an Oscar nod if the song wasn’t written for the movie, after all.

Another great example of one that works is the Elton John biopic Rocketman, but that’s because it brilliantly relates the songs to the life of the composer rather than putting them in the context of performance. There are only one or two moments where we actually see the Elton character performing one of his songs for an audience, but those bits are frequently parts of a bigger fantasy sequence.

And, of course, there’s the classic 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain, which happened because producer Arthur Freed wanted a vehicle to pimp out songs he and Nacio Herb Brown had written during the early talkie period (1929-39). It was all about owning that IP again. Fortunately, the result was a film that is still funny and timeless to this day.

In case you haven’t seen it, it takes place in the late 1920s, right as movies went from being silent to “talking pictures,” something which caused huge turmoil in the real-life industry. A key plot point is that one of the biggest starlets of the era looks beautiful, but has an accent and a voice that would make a chainsaw sound like James Earl Jones.

It’s an early 50s parody of the world of about 25 years previously — which seems to actually be the standard human parody cycle. Think about it. If you were going to make a film today about people struggling with a huge change in how things are done when it comes to media, wouldn’t the rise of the internet and mid-90s be the ideal target?

And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, that’s even more of a surprise, because it happens to be what I like to call one of the Warner Bros. ATMs.

I worked for Warner Home Video just after the turn of the century, and loved it, but the marketing people behind it sometimes did… questionable things in search of a buck. Hence, the Five ATMs: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain.

Why ATMs? Simple. Warner Bros. owned the rights to all of them and, whenever it looked like the company was going to have a bad quarter because some property had crashed and burned — which happened a lot back then (The Adventures of Pluto Nash? Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever?) — they would quickly whip out yet another special edition boxed set of any or all of those films, either adding more bonus material, special booklets, or collectibles (especially with Oz), or just going all whiz-bang on the packaging, calling it a limited edition #th anniversary set, and charging a premium.

By the way, I think I still have original, rolled theatrical posters for Pluto and Ballistic, in case anyone is interested in buying one or both.

As for all of those special releases, people bought them hand over fist. Oz was particularly egregious. Sell the exact same special edition box set as last time three months later, only now it comes with a special Tin Man ornament instead of Scarecrow. Whoosh — product out, money in.

It’s that lure of the familiar once again. But that was exactly how a jukebox worked: If you wanted to hear that song you liked one more time, you had to pay for it. Again, and again, and again.

Hm. Maybe that remake of Singin’ in the Rain, called Torrentin’ on the Net, should be all about how piracy came about, as people got tired of having to pay over and over for slightly shinier but not always better versions of the same old shit.

Image (CC BY-SA 2.0), used unmodified, Vintage Jukebox by Mark Sebastian.

Friday Free-for-All #16

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What piece of technology brings you the most joy?

This one is actually very simple. It is the lowly but very important integrated circuit, or IC. They combine a host of functions previously performed by much larger and more complicated devices — mostly transistors, resistors, and capacitors — which can create all sorts of tiny components, like logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on.

In the old pre-ICs days, transistors, resistors, and capacitors all existed on a pretty large scale, as in big enough to pick up with your fingers and physically solder into place.

Before that, old school “integrated circuits” were big enough to hold in your hand and resembled very complicated lightbulbs. These were vacuum tubes, and essentially performed the same functions as a transistor — as either an amplifier or a switch. And yes, they were considered analog technology.

The way vacuum tubes worked was actually via heat. A piece of metal would be warmed up to release electrons, which was also the reason for the vacuum. This meant that there were no air molecules to get in the way as the electrons flowed from one end (the cathode) to the other (the anode), causing the current to flow in the other direction. (Not a typo. It’s a relic from an early misconception about how electricity works that was never corrected.)

The transition away from vacuum tubes to transistorized TV sets began in 1960, although the one big vacuum tube in the set — the TV screen itself — stuck around until the early 2000s.

But back to the vacuum tube function. Did it seem off that I described transistors as either amplifiers or switches? That’s probably because you might think of the former in terms of sound and the latter in terms of lights, but what we’re really talking about here is voltage.

Here’s the big secret of computers and other modern electronic devices. The way they really determine whether a bit value is 0 or 1 is not via “on” or “off” of a switch. That’s a simplification. Instead, what they really use is high or low voltage.

Now, granted, those voltages are never that “high,” being measured in milliamps, but the point is that it’s the transistor that decides either to up a voltage before passing it along, or which of an A/B input to pass along which circuit.

Meanwhile, resistors are sort of responsible for the math because they either slow down currents, so to speak, or let them pass as-is. Finally, capacitors are analogous to memory, because they store a received current for later use.

Put these all together, and that’s how you get all of those logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on. And when you put all of these together, ta-da: electronics.

These can be as simple as those dollar store calculators that run on solar power and can only do four functions, or as complicated as the fastest supercomputers in the world. (Note: Quantum computers don’t count here because they are Next Gen, work in an entirely different way, and probably won’t hit consumer tech for at least another thirty years.)

So why do ICs give me joy? Come on. Look around you. Modern TVs; LCD, LED, and OLED screens; eReaders; computers; cell phones; GPS; synthesizers; MIDI; CDs, DVDs, BluRay; WiFi and BlueTooth; USB drives and peripherals; laser and inkjet printers; microwave ovens; anything with a digital display in it; home appliances that do not require giant, clunky plugs to go into the wall; devices that change to or from DST on their own; most of the sensors in your car if it was built in this century; the internet.

Now, out of that list, a trio stands out: computers, synthesizers, and MIDI, which all sort of crept into the consumer market at the same time, starting in the late 70s and on into the 80s. The funny thing, though, is that MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is still around and mostly unchanged. Why? Because it was so incredibly simple and robust.

In a way, MIDI was the original HTML — a common language that many different devices could speak in order to reproduce information in mostly similar ways across platforms and instruments. Started with sixteen channels, it’s proven to be a ridiculously robust and backwards-compatible system.

Over time, the number of channels and bit-depth has increased, but a MIDI keyboard from way back in the early 80s will still communicate with a device using MIDI 2.0. You can’t say the same for, say, storage media and readers from different time periods. Good luck getting that early 80s 5-inch floppy disc to work with any modern device.

What’s really remarkable about MIDI is how incredibly robust it is, and how much data it can transfer in real time. Even more amazing is that MIDI has been adapted to more than just musical instruments. It can also be used for things like show control, meaning that a single MIDI system runs the lights, sound systems and, in some cases, even the practical effects in a concert or stage production.

And, again, while MIDI 1.0 was slowly tweaked over time between 1982 and 1996, it still went almost 25 years before it officially went from version 1.0 to 2.0, in January 2020. Windows 1.0 was released on November 20, 1985, although it was really just an overlay of MS-DOS. It lasted until December 9, 1987, when Windows 2.0 came out. This was also when Word and Excel first happened.

Apple has had a similar history with its OS, and in about the same period of time that MID has been around, both of them have gone through ten versions with lots of incremental changes along the way.

Now, granted, you’re not going to be doing complex calculations or spreadsheets or anything like that with MIDI, and it still doesn’t really have a GUI beyond the independent capabilities of the instruments you’re using.

However, with it, you can create art — anywhere from a simple song to a complex symphony and, if you’re so inclined, the entire stage lighting and sound plot to go along with it.

And the best part of that is that you can take your musical MIDI data, put it on whatever kind of storage device is currently the norm, then load that data back onto any other MIDI device.

Then, other than the specific capabilities of its onboard sound-generators, you’re going to hear what you wrote, as you wrote it, with the same dynamics.

For example, the following was originally composed on a fairly high-end synthesizer with really good, realistic tone generators. I had to run the MIDI file through an online MIDI to audio site that pretty much uses the default PC cheese-o-phone sounds, but the intent of what I wrote is there.

Not bad for a standard that has survived, even easily dumping its proprietary 5-pin plug and going full USB without missing a beat. Literally. Even while others haven’t been able to keep up so well.

So kudos to the creation of ICs, and eternal thanks for the computers and devices that allow me to use them to be able to research, create, and propagate much more easily than I ever could via ancient analog techniques.

I mean, come on. If I had to do this blog by typing everything out on paper, using Wite-Out or other correction fluid constantly to fix typos, then decide whether it was worth having it typeset and laid out (probably not) and debating whether to have it photocopied and mimeographed.

Then I’d have to charge all y’all to get it via the mail, maybe once a month — and sorry, my overseas fans, but you’d have to pay a lot more and would probably get it after the fact, or not at all if your postal censors said, “Oh, hell noes.”

Or, thanks to ICs, I can sit in the comfort of my own isolation on the southwest coast of the middle country in North America, access resources for research all over the planet, cobble together these ramblings, and then stick them up to be blasted into the ether to be shared with my fellow humans across the globe, and all it costs me is the internet subscription fee that I would pay anyway, whether I did this or not.

I think we call that one a win-win. And if I went back and told my first-grade self, who was just having his first music lessons on a decidedly analog instrument, in a couple of years, science is going to make this a lot more easy and interesting, he probably would have shit his pants.

Okay. He probably would have shit his pants anyway. Mainly by realizing, “Wait, what. You’re me? Dude… you’re fucking old!”

Oh well.

Image (CC BY 3.0) by user Mataresephotos.

 

Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

As this time of lockdown and uncertainty goes on, what does become clear is that large, live events are probably not coming back soon. Live theatre, movies, concerts, and sports may take the rest of this year off, if not longer. Likewise, the fate of amusement parks of all kinds seems uncertain, or at least will be drastically changed.

Right now, we do have certain areas that have insisted on becoming field experiments, and by the time you read this, it may become clear whether the people who ran out to bars without masks last week did the right thing or made a stupid sacrifice.

Concerts may survive on live-streaming pay-per-view events for a while, and movie theaters may rediscover the drive-in, although those take a lot of real estate. Then again, indoor malls may now be officially dead, so look for their parking lots and large, blank walls to be easily converted.

Live sports are another matter because, by their very nature, they often involve full-body contact, and nobody is going to be going all-out on the field while wearing any kind of mask. Without quarantining every player, official, and support staff member, and testing each of them constantly, it’s just not feasible.

Even then, what about the live fans? It might be possible to limit attendance and assign seats so that social distancing is maintained, but that relies on trusting people to stay in the seats they’re put in, and as we all know, if someone is stuck in the outfield nosebleeds but sees plenty of empty space on the other side behind home plate, they’re going to try to get there.

One unexpected outcome is that eSports, like Overwatch League, may become the new sports simply because they absolutely can keep the players and fans apart while they all participate together.

See? The prophecy is true. After the apocalypse wipes out the jocks, the nerds will take over the world!

As for live theatre, it’s hanging on through a combination of streams of previously recorded, pre-shutdown performances, along with live Zoom shows. And, again, this is where the magic of theatre itself is a huge advantage because, throughout its history, it hasn’t relied on realistic special effects, or realism at all, to tell its stories.

Okay, so there have been times when theatre has gone in for the big-budget spectacle, but that goes back a lot further than modern Broadway. In ancient Rome, they were staging Naumachia, mock naval battles, but they were doing them as theatrical shows in flooded amphitheaters, including the Colosseum, and on a large scale.

And they’ve gone on throughout history, including Wild West Shows in the U.S. in the 19th century right up to the modern day, with things like amusement park spectacles, including Universals Waterworld and Terminator attractions, and Disney’s newly minted Star Wars Rise of the Resistance attraction,

But these big-budget spectacles are not necessary for theatre to work. All you need for theatre is one or more performers and the words.

Theatre is one of the earliest art-forms that each of us experiences, probably second only to music. And we experience it the first time, and every time, that someone reads to or tells us a story, no matter how simple or complicated.

Once upon a time…

That is theatre, and that’s why I know that it will survive eventually — but not right now, at least not in a familiar form.

And yes, this is a big blow to me on two fronts. First, I know that I won’t be doing improv or performing for a live audience for a long time. Second, I know that I won’t be seeing any of my plays performed onstage for a live audience for a long time.

This current plague quashed both of those options, shutting down my improv troupe and cancelling a play production that had been scheduled to open in April, then postponed to May, then postponed until… who knows?

But I’m not marching in the streets without a mask and armed to the teeth demanding that theatre reopen because I’m not selfish like that.

First, it’s because I still have a venue in which to tell stories and write and share, and you’re reading it right now, wherever in the world you are — and I see that I do have visitors from all over — in fact, from every continent except Antarctica, but including Australia, most of the Americas and Europe, some of Africa, and just about all of Asia. Greetings, everyone!

Second, I realized quite recently that this whole situation has inadvertently handed me the opportunity to get back into the first art-form that I officially trained in but never pursued as a profession for one reason: I loved it too much to turn it into the drudgery of a career, and always wanted to keep it for my own enjoyment.

Okay, sure, I did use it a few times from middle school through just after college in order to entertain others but, again, I was doing it for my own enjoyment.

That art-form is music, and I consider it my second language, because I started taking piano lessons at seven — and I was the one who cajoled my parents into letting me do so. The end result was that I was never really into playing other people’s stuff because, once all that music theory landed in my head and made sense, I started making my own.

That seems to be a common thing with my brain. Learn the way the modules work, start to stick them together to make them break the rules while still working. This is probably also the reason why I took to programming and coding early, and why I abuse Excel the way that I do.

Dirty little secret: Music is just math that sounds good. However, the great thing about it is that music also takes all of the pain out of math because it turns it into feelings. When I’m playing, improvising, and composing, my brain is absolutely not thinking in terms of what specific chord I’m playing, how it relates to the others, how it’s going to get from Point X to Y to make Z make sense, etc.

The thing about music and me is that its rules are buried so deeply into my subconscious that, well, like I said… I consider it to be my second language. And, when you’re fluent in any language, you don’t need to think. You just speak, whether it’s via your mouth and tongue, or via your heart and fingers.

So… live performance has been taken away from me by this virus for a while but that’s okay — because online research and ordering still exist, and stuff is on the way. So… I’m diving back into the most direct, emotional and, most importantly, non-word-dependent form of communication humans have ever invented.

Watch this space. Or… well, listen.

Friday Free-for-All #10

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What skill or ability have you always wanted to learn?

This one is easy. I have always wanted to learn how to create visual art by hand. Oh, sure, I learned how do it with a camera as a kid because that’s one of the things my dad did and shared with me; and I’m pretty skilled at graphic design with a computer, but drawing, painting, sketching, and all that kind of visual art has always eluded me.

I have friends who do it, and do it quite well.

Now, oddly enough, I once attempted sculpting and was actually good at it, creating a pretty detailed and accurate human bust as part of a larger art project that I never quite finished. See, I have always been into puppets, and at one point had quite a collected of animal hand puppets acquired over the years.

Nowadays, it’s limited to one, and the largest I ever owned. It’s a sheepdog puppet named Barkley, who was a gift from an ex’s sister and her girlfriend as a thanks for us hosting them on a visit to L.A. and after I’d mentioned in a toy store that I was into puppets.

He was livid that they’d spent so much. Then again, he was toxic, and I dumped him long ago.

But I kept Barkley, and for a long time I worked on that marionette. The reason for the clay sculpture was to create the basis for the mold that would be covered with wood paste and sanded down to become the head and shoulders of the thing.

I was following instructions from a book, and got so far as creating the basic body — arms, legs and all — as well as the clothes to cover it. What I never got to were the hands, feet, and stringing it up, mainly because those last limbs were hard to find at scale, I wasn’t going to sculpt hands, and I never nerved up enough to go out and buy baby shoes in the right size.

So my handless and footless marionette was abandoned over a decade ago when I basically had to evacuate with only the essentials, and that was my one brush with any kind of practical art.

Oh, sure, I’ve attempted to draw and sketch and cartoon and paint, but always with… laughable results. It’s kind of like if you put my writing skills and my arting skills on a scale, the writing side will slam down so hard that it’ll launch my non-existent arting skills to beyond the Moon.

And that’s what I wish weren’t true. I’d love nothing more for the both of them to be equal.

Number two on the list is to learn a stringed instrument — guitar first, banjo or fiddle second, except that that’s kind of a weak get, because I learned how to play bass long ago, and it’s got strings, just fewer, and easier fingering for people like me with really big hands.

Then again, the instrument thing is a cheat, because music does translate over. If I know on a keyboard that a fifth is this many keys apart, for example, it’s easy to learn the idea that a fifth is one string over and this many frets down, an octave might be two strings over and so many frets, and all the other intervals are at easily relative places.

Hell, I grew up playing an accordion, and the bass system on one of those is much closer to the method that stringed instruments use. So the only problem I ever had with learning to play a stringed instrument was the contorted position I had to twist my left hand into.

There was never any such twisting on the accordion. Or, maybe there was, but I just didn’t notice because I was only seven years old. Still — the Circle of Fifths is the universal key to being a musician. As far as I know, there is no such similar thing that covers being a visual artist.

While visual art does have a similar Circle of Color, it teaches you nothing about how to do that art. But — epiphany — I’ve just realized that the Circle of Fifths does nothing on its own to teach you how to do that music.

A-ha moment.

And so… my artistic modes are mostly audio and technical, with an accidentally successful foray into tactile that I have yet to repeat. I would love nothing more than to get into the visual, and learn how to sketch, draw, or paint stuff.

I guess it could happen, but I just need to find time to do it…

Oh, wait. We’re on quarantine now. Sweet…

Lifting the bus

One of our improv mottos is “Get yourself in trouble.” In other words, if a problem comes up in a scene game, don’t try to find a solution. Try to find ways to make it worse. If someone tries to solve it, make the solution become a bigger problem.

An example. Say that a loving couple, Pat and Kelly, are out hiking in the woods, when one of them, Pat, cuts a finger on a bush. Kelly puts a bandage on it, but Pat is terribly allergic to latex. Meanwhile, another friend of theirs, Sam, a botanist, comes along, and points out that the plant was something awful, like poison sumac. Kelly happens to have some spray that instantly neutralizes sumac and spritzes it on Pat, but then Pat grabs the bottle and looks at it, seeing that it expired two years ago. “Oh no!” declares Sam. “When anti-sumacization spray expires, using it actually makes the problem worse.” Kelly meekly says “Sorry,” Pat screams in pain, the ref blows the whistle, end scene.

Notice what was happening in the story above. We know who the people are to each other, and where they are, and then the complication of the cut finger happens. The performer playing Kelly keeps coming up with solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, the performer playing Pat comes up with reasons that the solutions are worse. The performer playing Sam gets this and comes on to help with the mayhem. Ultimately, we get the tragic but funny story of one partner trying to do everything to help the other out of a jam, but only causing more pain and agony.

What’s the alternative? Pat: “Ow, cut my finger.” Kelly: “Let me put this bandage on.” Pat: “Oh. All better. Thanks!”

Where does that leave them? They now need to come up with a new complication, or else the scene is over. And yes, they could create a scene in which another problem comes up after they solve the first, they solve that, and then another comes up, and so on. This… could work kinda sorta maybe, but it wouldn’t be as engaging because it would suddenly be about the location instead of the people. The only way it could work would be if one of the characters had endowed the other with the ability to solve every problem at the top — “Oh, Kelly. You know how to fix everything!” — but then everyone started to throw more and more ridiculous problems at Kelly to solve.

Now this latter choice can work as well, and it’s a type of improv that we call (off-stage ‘cause our shows are suitable for everyone) “Screw your buddy.” That is, one player will suddenly toss something ridiculous at the other player. A recent example our team coach gave was from an actual match, where one player said something like, “Don’t say it. Sing it!” and so the other player did.

The key to making this work comes from another one of our mottos, and something we say to each other right before we go on in every show: “Got your back.” That is, it only looks like “screw your buddy” from the audience’s point of view, but that’s not what’s really happening.

If you’re playing with someone you know can’t do accents to save their life, for example, then a comment like, “Oh. It says that whoever drinks this will suddenly start speaking in random accents” would not be a good choice. They’d either wind up ignoring it and disappointing the audience or, more likely, try to do it, get into a place totally into their head, and roll the scene right off of the rails.

But… if you know that your scene partner can do any accent perfectly, then you definitely toss something like this at them because then it will engage the audience. They’ll immediately feel sorry for the other player. “OMG. How are they going to do that?” But then they will be thrilled to death as the other player suddenly pulls out half a dozen or more flawless accents for the rest of the scene and end up wondering, “What magic is this?”

It can be daunting as a performer until you’re aware of what’s going on. In fact, the first time it happened to me, I wasn’t, and I was getting a little annoyed at the player doing it to me. We were playing a singing and rhyming elimination game called Da Doo Ron Ron that I’ve mentioned here before. Funny story: Before I started doing improv, I loved to watch this one as an audience member. Once I started doing improv, playing this game scared the hell out of me and I would usually be out no later than third elimination.

That’s when I learned a very counter-intuitive trick for it, which is this: In a game where you have to come up with lots of rhymes, stop thinking and start listening. And it’s true. When I’d go into the game and start reeling off all the possible rhymes in my head for the suggestion (Bob… cob, dob, fob, gob, hob, job, knob, lob, mob, rob, sob, blob, etc.) I’d stop listening, so that I’d totally miss that someone before me said “Ty Cobb,” I’d use “corn on the cob,” and (clap clap) “outta there.”

But when I started listening instead, it all changed because I was mentally ticking off the letters used, so it made it much easier to latch onto the ones that hadn’t been, as well as looking for diphthongs, diglyphs, and other oddities but, again without thinking ahead. End result? The less I planned ahead, the better I got, and this went from one of my most feared games to one of my favorites.

This probably makes no sense without an explanation of the game, so here it is. It’s based on an old song with a repeated refrain of “da doo ron ron,” and the audience suggests a name. The pattern repeats in threes. The very first player always says the name, and then the second player rhymes the name. The third player has to come up with three rhymes. It repeats from there with single rhyme, single rhyme, triple, until somebody repeats a rhyme, can’t come up with one, falls off rhythm, uses a slant rhyme (e.g., flan and Spam), or the ref just gets tired of them.

So the first trio would be:

Player 1: “I met him/her on a Tuesday and his/her name was [suggestion]”

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron

Player 2: Match up the rhythm and make a [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron. Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s a little [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s another [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s the final [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.

Repeat.

Ideally, if we start with eight people, the person who gets number three will keep shifting as we get through the line, although it’s rare to make it through the starting line more than two full times. After that, the third player rotates equally for 7, 5, and 4 players remaining, although a ref can still determine who gets the first three via whom they pick to start and, if they’re really good, they can target the second three, although it does involve a lot of memorization.

This leaves three and six, and these are the special positions, because however the ref starts it, the same two or one players will always get the third rhyme. All the ref has to do is start two players to the left of their target, and boom. Buddy screwed. Or thrown under the bus. Or whatever you want to call it.

Long set-up, but here’s how it paid off. We were doing Da Doo Ron Ron for a fairly big audience, starting with eight players, and the first couple of rounds it seemed random. But as soon as we hit six, that’s when it became obvious that the ref was starting every round so that I would get the three spot and, since I was on the red team, which starts from stage left, it also made it easier for him to put me in the second three spot in each round.

At six and three, same damn thing. But a funny thing happened when we got down to three players and me being the only three rhymer. We made it three times around and I survived, and every time the audience went crazier and crazier when I’d pulled off my third. It was only on my fourth time around that I made two and then whiffed it on the last.

But I was pretty annoyed with our ref when I went back to the bench until our coach explained it to us post-show, and this brings us back to the title of this piece, because that’s the metaphor he used.

A good improviser, he explained, “Will throw their teammate under the bus under one condition. They know full well that their teammate is capable of lifting the bus, so the audience will be amazed when they do it. He got more specific and said that the only reason our Ref kept putting me in the three spot was because he knew I could do it, so it would give the audience their money’s worth and make me look good.

And… damn. Looking at it after the fact, that’s exactly what it did. He kept putting me in trouble but with the unspoken endowment of “You can solve anything,” and so it made me look like a goddamn wizard or words. Of course, it also gave me permission to play the hell out of feeling picked on and nervous, which, again, made me look good by making it look like I was overcoming insurmountable odds.

I wasn’t. I was playing a game that I enjoyed and was really good at. And in retrospect I realized that our ref knew that too. And he only threw me under the bus because he knew damn well that I could lift it.

Image credit: Author’s photo © 2019, Metro G Line at the NoHo Station, March 24, 2019.

 

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.