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.

Time of the signs

As I’ve mentioned here many times before, I spend a lot of time working and performing in North Hollywood, which has really sort of become the de facto downtown of the San Fernando Valley even though Van Nuys is where all of the L.A. City Government stuff is and Burbank is considered the hub of the entertainment industry, although only one of the Big 5 movie studios is actually there. That’s because most of the smaller production companies and post-production houses are in that city.

But North Hollywood, along with Universal City (guess which studio is there, even if one word in their official name is a lie), are the two Valley communities that are directly connected by the L.A. Metro Red Line to Hollywood and Downtown L.A. (DTLA) themselves. In fact, it was the opening of the North Hollywood Red Line Metro Station on June 24, 2000 that jump-started the process of North Hollywood rapidly changing (some would say gentrifying) from a place that you would not have wanted to be after sunset to a place that has a thriving night-life and a rich artistic culture. There are theaters both live and film, art galleries, several escape rooms, educational spaces, coffee shops, tons of restaurants, and tons of actors and artists who live here.. It’s also home to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, i.e. the Emmy People.

Despite the gentrification, it still has some of the cheaper apartments and housing available in the Valley, all conveniently within walking distance of those theaters and performance spaces and the subway. And while it was long known as North Hollywood, sometime during this whole process it was rebranded as NoHo. To be honest, that’s an expression I first used in an unproduced play of mine years before anyone else said it, and in my take it was a put down — emphasis on “No,” but I’m not bitter, and that’s not the point here.

But that’s just background to this piece, and the TL;DR is that at one point in time, up to about twenty years ago, NoHo was a shithole of a place. Once the arts started to flourish here, so did the neighborhood itself, and it’s still great. But it is starting to show some cracks. For one thing, there has been a sudden, recent influx of homeless people in the area. Here’s a paradox, though. Winding up with a lot of homeless people is actually a sign of success of an area, not failure. That’s because people without the security of a place to live are not going to risk trying to survive on the streets in a place in which it is not even safe to live inside. Homeless people don’t flock to Detroit, or the South Side of Chicago, or South Central L.A.

Fortunately, voters in the city of Los Angeles passed things like Proposition HHH and Measure H, designed to help the homeless, and we’re starting to see the benefits. (Ironically, the big hold up to making this happen isn’t government red tape. It’s the inevitable NIMBYs who want to help… unless they think it will affect them directly.)

So, back to the original point and reason for this article. One of the projects that popped up after NoHo started to recover was a place called NoHo Commons, a mixed-use development that combines living and commercial space, as in apartments and condos on top of commercial businesses and next to office space, all of it on top of or adjacent to public transportation hubs, like the Metro Red Line NoHo Station which connects to a ton of bus lines, as well as the Orange Line that crosses the Valley from east to west.

And, oddly enough, it’s been a big success. Or maybe not oddly at all. Hey — connect a transportation hub to housing, arts, places with jobs, several schools, thriving nightlife, and places with some sort of tourist interest, and you are going to have to make a concerted effort to fail. (Update: As I was working on this article, I found out that the Art Institute of California-Hollywood, across the street from the theater I work at, was abruptly shut down due to alleged fraud on the part of administrators. So I guess that some people did make a concerted effort to fail, which kind of proves my point.)

So the easy success in a community like this is what makes me so curious about the phenomenon documented in the photo up above. That LED sign is officially called “Drive By.” It’s 240 feet (73.2 meters) long and six feet (1.83 meters) tall, and at one point was activated by passing traffic. Apparently, it used to alternate between displaying famous movie quotes and showing abstract patterns based on cars driving below, replacing approaching yellow blocks with red splats when one lane passed another in the opposite direction. It was created by the City of L.A.’s public arts program in 2007. Ironically, it was shut down not long after by an ordinance from the city’s own Department of Building & Safety because it was (wait for it) classified as advertising. To be fair, though, it may have been more the result of ambiguous wording in that law rather than malice, and the sign was brought back in 2011.

But I’ve been hanging out in NoHo for a while now, and the one thing that has struck me all during that time is how obviously “Drive By” is in bad repair. A lot of the quotes are not readable because of missing or burnt-out LEDS, and there are times when the display itself stutters into jiggly blocks of nothing before tossing up another quote with many missing letters or words. And I have to wonder, what’s going on?

I contacted the city’s public arts program to ask who is responsible for the sign’s upkeep now — is it still the city, or is it now a private entity? And is its current state of repair due to a lack of funding? If so, is there any way that concerned citizens can help. Unfortunately, I haven’t received a reply yet but I’d like to get this story up, so I will update that part if I do get some answers.

I suspect that it’s most likely that the public arts program is spread thin at the moment, because there’s just so much public art in Los Angeles, so maybe they just haven’t noticed yet. It may not be a funding issue, because the programs derive their money in two ways: a one percent levy on the cost of construction, improvement, or renovation jobs done by the city, and an assessment on owners of private development with projected values over half a million dollars, based on either a per-square foot fee or one percent of the project’s Building and Safety valuation, whichever is less. Given all the development and construction going on in the city right now, these are probably not trivial amounts.

And it’s not like NoHo Commons is hurting. Their ground floor storefronts along Weddington, Lankershim, and Chandler are full of thriving businesses, most of them some sort of fast casual restaurant, and they have Wells Fargo Bank as a corner anchor, plus 24 Hour Fitness as the upper floor tenant. The two apartment buildings attached, The Gallery and The Lofts, seem to be well-occupied as well. There’s never been a time that I’ve been in the area that it hasn’t been crowded with people.

So the sad state of repair of “Drive By” is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but probably emblematic of the natural dichotomy that is a part of every major urban area: The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the pristine and the decayed, all jam together in the same public space in an endless waltz between two partners who, while mismatched, brought each other to the dance, and so are destined to keep on spinning around together forever, neither one of them sure who’s leading.

Photo credit: Jon Bastian

Pursue what scares you because it will make you stronger

After a month off for the holidays, it’s nice to be back on the improv stage again, and in tonight’s match I was captain of the blue team and we won, 25 to 20.

If that terminology for improv seems strange, let me give a brief explanation. I do improv for ComedySportz — the Rec League, the starter rung, as it were, of their performance groups. They also have the Sunday Team and the Main Company. It’s an international franchise, founded in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1984. The L.A. company opened in 1987 and it’s the longest-running comedy show in town.

If you don’t know what the term “improv” means, then you might recognize it from shows like “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” It’s basically comedy that is made up on the spot by the performers with a lot of possible games, which generally divide into two broad categories: Scene games, in which the players are performing a scene about characters with specific relationships in a particular setting with the goal of finding a conflict and a resolution; and non-scene games, in which the goals revolve around things like wordplay, puns, or rhymes.

There’s also short-form and long-form improv, the latter known as a “Harold,” but what I do is strictly short-form. The ComedySportz twist is that each match, which consists of a number of games, is performed by two competing teams, Blue stage right and Red stage left, moderated by a referee and with an announcer keeping score. Matches usually have two halves, which open and close with a head-to-head or team vs. team game, then alternating single-team games. Sometimes, there will also be another head-to-head game in the middle of a half. This is all in keeping with the sports (or sportz) analogy — and if you’re wondering why it’s “sportz,” that goes back to the mothership in Milwaukee, a city with a strong Polish-American heritage, and a lot of Polish words either end with or have a Z in them.

But that’s not the point of this story. The point is a note that I got about a non-scene game that we played to open the second half of the match. This is a rhyming and singing game in which we line up alternating red and blue team members, then sing a particular song using a suggested name from the audience. The first person gets to just use the name. The second person has to use a rhyming word. The third person has to come up with three rhymes that haven’t been used yet. So, for example, if the name is “Jon,” the first person uses “Jon,” the second might use “gone,” and the third could use “con,” “non,” and “pawn.” The pattern repeats, so that every third person has to come up with three rhymes.

Needless to say, the more times around it goes, the harder it gets for that person in the three-rhyme spot to hang on, and people are eliminated if they hesitate, break the rhythm, or repeat a rhyme. Homophones are okay, though, so if the original name were Jim, for example, the words gym and gem would be acceptable, provided that the differences were clear in context: “He goes to the gym,” and “his ring has a gem,” for example.

And when I first started learning improv, although I loved to watch this game, the idea of doing it scared the holy crap out of me. And, in fact, every single time I tried to play it in class or when I first joined the Rec League, I would be (clap clap) “out of there” during the first or second pass because I’d either repeat or totally freeze up.

But the entire reason I’d started taking improv classes in the first place was because I loved the art form but it scared the hell out of me to actually do it. And the more classes I took the more I realized that I liked it, so a big note I gave myself when I actually started performing for people was this: Play the games that scare you silly.

This was one of them, and by forcing myself to keep playing it, I’ve managed to go from “person who gets thrown out on the first or second pass” to “guy who keeps winning it.” That’s not an attempt to brag, by the way. It’s just the lesson I’ve learned. You can absolutely get good at something that terrifies you if you put the fear aside and do it. And what is that fear about, really? It’s the fear of failure. And yeah… every time I used to play this game, I would fail badly and get called out early. But as soon as I put aside that fear, a funny thing happened. If I got called out early, so what? And if I didn’t, I was just having fun, and the more fun I had the easier it became to keep on going to the end.

A really nice personal culmination to all of this came tonight when we got notes after our first match of 2019. The note I got basically boiled down to, “You’re really great at this game, but please don’t be so great when your team is ahead at the start of the half.” In other words, intentionally fail at what you’re good at so we can keep this as more of a horse race. Which, in a strange way, is really kind of the next level thing I need to latch onto in my improv progress: Failing spectacularly in this genre is just as good as winning it all.

So, note to self: Keep playing games that terrify you while not being afraid to fall on your sword when it will make the other team look good.

I would have learned none of this, by the way, had I not gotten over my initial fear of actually doing improv and starting classes in the first place. If you’re interested in doing improv and have a ComedySportz franchise in your city, look them up. Especially if you’re interested in doing it but also scared to death of trying because, trust me, three or four classes in, your fear will be a thing of the past.

Yo Ho NoHo…

I spend a lot of time in a part of Los Angeles known as NoHo in general, although the specific area I’m at is called the NoHo Arts District. I spend a lot of time there because I do improv at and work box office for ComedySportz L.A. and, if you’re so inclined, you can come on down and see me perform with the Rec League on a lot of Mondays except the 1st and 5th ones of the month, or catch shows on Friday through Sunday nights. It’s improv (think “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” except we’ve been around longer) done as a competitive sport with two teams and a referee. Unlike “Whose Line,” our points matter.

But end plug. The real point is that designation of NoHo, which I feel some personal attachment to. See, a long time ago in the dark ages of the 90s, and before the Metro opened the Red Line subway station right in the middle of the arts district, leading to its gentrification, nobody called it that. It was also one of those neighborhoods that you really didn’t want to be in after dark. It was rundown, dangerous, and scary.

It was also a place with cheap rent, so where a lot of student and starving artist types had reasonable apartments in sketchy surroundings. So when I wrote a play called “Straight to Heart,” about a gay man in an ill-advised attempt to seduce a straight co-worker, I used the word NoHo. Yes, it was a play on SoHo in New York (which is short for South of Houston), which was probably in imitation of Soho in London’s West End, which is short for… nothing. That’s its name.

It also made sense for the character to use since he (like I at the time) lived in West Hollywood, and that’s been referred to as WeHo at least back to it becoming a city in the 80s if not before. So it was a quick jump from WeHo to NoHo.

Now, when I used the term, it was meant as a dismissal of the place. The lead character replied to the question of what he knows about the object of his affection with, “He lives in some dump in NoHo, with a roommate.” I thought it was funny, but nobody at the time got it.

“Who calls it NoHo?” a director of one reading asked.

But, again, once the Metro Station opened, everything changed, and the Arts District in particular turned into a mini Broadway. I’ve performed in at least four theaters in the area between the Metro Station and the clusterfuck of an intersection where Lankershim and Vineland meet and Riverside turns into Camarillo,  and still perform in one of them regularly. My doctor’s office is across the street from the El Portal, where I do improv, and when you’re not seeing theater in the area, you can see a movie at the Laemmle theatre, walk through the sculpture garden at the Television Academy (home of the Emmys), visit the art galleries hiding everywhere, or dine at one of the many amazing restaurants, including The Federal (yummy garlic fries and great burgers) or Vicious Dogs. By the way, I don’t even like hotdogs, but I love the ones at Vicious, and they are ridiculously cheap. And good. If you come to L.A., forget about the highly overrated Pinks. This is the place to go.

So… why the love letter to NoHo, you may ask. Well, tonight as I was on the way to my box office shift, I noticed a banner on the elementary school that’s a block west of the theater. I’ve seen it a bunch of times — my photo is up top — but tonight that date really hit me. “Lankershim School, est. 1889.” Now, the El Portal Theater was built in 1926. It started out as a vaudeville house, then changed to a movie theater and, finally, wound up as a live theater with three performance spaces. I had thought it was one of the oldest buildings in the area. Yet here we were, with a school established 37 years earlier, and I couldn’t even begin to think of what was there at the time, so I had to look it up.

The answer was fascinating. Basically, it was a farming town created when somebody decided to divvy up part of their family’s land, so the school was meant for the children of those farmers. Two other buildings built at the time, and which are still standing, are the post office and train station. The school is a block away from the former which is across the street from the latter, although the train station is no longer a train station. The original building was refurbished to house a coffee shop next to the end of the Metro Orange Line, which is a busway that connects to the Metro Red Line subway, which began the whole process of recreating NoHo in the first place.

And, speaking of the name North Hollywood, here’s a fun fact for people who don’t know the area. Although it’s called North Hollywood, it’s actually not directly north of Hollywood at all. It’s north of West Hollywood, which actually is directly west of Hollywood. NoHo also doesn’t abut Hollywood, either. The towns of Valley Village, Toluca Lake, Studio City, and Universal City, plus a bit designated as Los Angeles but not Hollywood, are all in between.

It’s just over five miles from the heart of the NoHo Arts District to the hub of Hollywood, at Hollywood and Highland, as the crow flies, although driving it is longer, at up to eight miles, thanks to having to go through a canyon on a bit of a winding route. By subway, it’s only ten minutes, though, since the train blasts its way straight down Lankershim, and then under the mountains that divide the L.A. basin from the Valley.

Now as a native of L.A., I can tell you that it’s very unusual for really old stuff to survive despite the city itself having been founded in the 18th century. That’s because, if an earthquake doesn’t knock it over at some point, then we tear it down with reckless abandon. Yes, we do have some old landmarks, like the aforementioned school, post office, and train station, and Olvera Street and the old church next to it enshrine the place where the city was born. Our City Hall dates back to 1928, and the two missions here — San Gabriel and San Fernando — date back to the 1770s and 1790s respectively. In fact, the trail that missionaries followed to establish California missions, El Camino Real, is marked with mission bells on shepherds’ staves, and quite a lot of it is now the route of the 101. Yes, we do refer to our freeways like that — although we do not talk like the people in the clip. Sorry, New Yorkers can’t talk California at all.

But here’s the funny trade-off. While this city seems determined to keep on tearing down its physical history, at the same time we have given the world our cultural history through film and television. Look at most old movies, particularly the silent movies, and they have L.A. all over them. Buster Keaton once staged a cattle stampede through DTLA (that’s Downtown L.A.), although, at the time, that wouldn’t have been all that unusual, since the cattle trains coming west stopped at the future location of Union Station in the old stockyards, which is right across the street from the birthplace of the city, and the station itself opened in 1939. Laurel and Hardy or the Our Gang Comedies reek of L.A. locations, from Pasadena to Silver Lake. Sunset Boulevard is iconically L.A. in both location and story.

And yet… while the world outside of here thinks of all of that stuff coming from Hollywood, they’d be very wrong, because “Hollywood” as the center of entertainment is an illusion. Number of movie studios actually in Hollywood? Zero. L.A.’s entertainment industry is actually located mostly in Burbank, which you could call Northeast Hollywood, with offshoots in Culver City, Century City, Playa del Rey, and Universal City. For TV, it’s definitely mostly done in Burbank and the Valley, with outposts in Santa Clarita, which is another valley north of the Valley, and occasionally Marina del Rey, which is way down south near LAX on the west side. Porn? Mostly the San Fernando Valley.

Hollywood was always a scam and an illusion, mainly meant to keep tourists away from where the magic really happens. On the other hand, NoHo has evolved into a hotbed of creativity and sort of a Broadway West. If you want to see some real art happen, come on over. All of the talent of DTLA, none of the traffic or parking woes. You’ll be glad you did.

This message was not paid for by the NoHo Tourism Council, just penned from personal experience with the place, which has really grown on me over the years.