Sunday nibble #36: An epic undertaking

This will be short and sweet because yesterday was quite involved — the reading of Part 2 of my epic play, Strange Fruit. And yes, it turned out to be as long as I had always aimed for, coming in at probably about six-and-a-half hours for the two parts together, not including intermission or any parts that would take longer in full performance, of course.

You can view both parts at the LA Writers Center Facebook page, on their video tab.

The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Momentous Monday: A play about the 20th century

A play of mine called Strange Fruit has been long in development, with on-and-off again attempts at production, and a period of time when it looked like it wasn’t relevant. Oddly enough, thanks to the pandemic, it’s going to get a live streaming reading in two parts in August and September via Howlround Theatre Commons in Boston.

Part One happens 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 29th and you can watch it live and for free on the L.A. Writers Center Facebook page.

One of the co-producers, the Los Angeles Writers Center, asked me to explain how the play came about. Here is that explanation.

Intentionally epic: Creating Strange Fruit

The reason I wound up writing Strange Fruit in the first place is that the epic plays of the 1990s, like Cider House Rules, The Kentucky Cycle, and of course Angels in America, inspired me to think big. I wanted to do my own epic six- or eight-hour long play one day. I just couldn’t find the subject.

After Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, it brought homophobia to national attention, and also linked it to lynching, particularly those of Black people. After all, James Byrd had been dragged to death behind a truck almost exactly four months before Matthew Shepard was killed. Both men gave their names to the hate crimes act that Congress bravely and swiftly passed… eleven years later, and only after Barack Obama had taken office.

At first, my ambition was to just try to tell these two stories in a simple and non-epic way, but as I started to research, I came across the story of Mary Turner, which had occurred at the other end of the century, in the 1910s.

I had also always known that the song Strange Fruit was about lynching and wanted to work it into the story. What I hadn’t known is that Billie Holiday didn’t write it. Discovering the identity of the author and composer of that song naturally led me to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,

So I suddenly had stories about racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that spanned a century and I knew I had the framework for my epic. As a new century dawned, I started writing it.

As I got seriously into the research and writing, I was working at Dreamworks Animation, at their very lovely campus in Glendale. Since they provided free food to us daily, I never had to leave, so I’d spend my lunch hour either reading one of the myriad books I’d bought in order to help understand the characters, or would be furiously revising and editing the manuscript as it progressed.

What made it particularly ironic is that I was writing a story about such dark and hateful things while doing it in a location that was almost whimsical and really felt like being in some hidden European villa with its own lake, regular Friday noon “friends and family” BBQs, and at the center of it all a topiary of the Dreamworks logo known as “Moon Boy.”

At the same time, I brought the play in every week to Che’Rae Adams’ Monday Night LA Writer’s Center Advanced Writing Class, where my fellow playwrights would read small chunks out-loud and then offer feedback. This was instrumental in honing the piece, which wouldn’t exist without the support of LAWC, and especially of Che’Rae.

As I eventually finalized each of the four acts, LAWC had a series of staged readings in collaboration with the company at Syzygy Theatre Group, and they also played a huge role in helping me develop the characters.

One of the nice things for me about working with a fairly consistent group of actors and having the luxury of the same actor doing the same role as it progresses is that their unique talents and voices begin to inform those of my characters, and it becomes a feedback loop. This really helps each of those characters to become fully alive and distinctive. Actors aren’t just for show time, after all! They tweak the colors I put on my brush before I turn it to the canvas.

Since there was so much ground to cover in researching and creating the play, I learned a lot of interesting things along the way, although some of them are in the piece as surprises for the audience, like the background of one of the founders of the NAACP, and what happened to the Rosenberg children after they were executed — although you knew that last part.

One of the big surprise was how connected that composer of Strange Fruit was to multiple other characters. Interestingly, he’s actually the only character in the play that was actually alive across the lifetimes of almost every single character in it — 1903 to 1986. He did miss Oscar Wilde by a month shy of three years, but when he died Matthew Shepard was about a month shy of ten years old.

Learning more about Matthew was another revelation, because he wasn’t the pure little angel history turned him into when he died. Not that he was perverse monster, either. He was just a normal young adult with the same strengths and flaws as any other. There was also a lot of ambiguity about whether he actually knew his killers, which becomes one of the issues Matthew’s character has to deal with in the play.

Another fun fact: Another main character, who functions as a sort of Virgil to Matthew’s Dante, happened to die on Matthew’s 11th birthday. I picked him as a character for reasons that had nothing to do with that, though.

The play was set to be produced in the mid-‘00s, but then the project fell through, at least temporarily, or so we all hoped. And then, in November 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, we started to see things like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and it suddenly felt to me like, “Okay. This play isn’t relevant anymore.”

Although it was sad to see that it wouldn’t be produced, I still felt proud of the accomplishment. But when I thought that it would never need to be produced, I didn’t realize I could not have been more wrong, and so now here are, with Strange Fruit more relevant than ever.

That’s probably the biggest message I hope that people will take away from it: It’s very easy for a society to turn on a dime from tolerance to hatred, especially when the powers that be make it their mission to divide. It’s especially easy to let it happen when we try to pretend that it’s not.

Most importantly, the power is in our hands — each of us individually and all of us together — to stem the tide that ebbs towards bigotry and evil and instead raise that tide and, with it, the dignity, value, and acceptance of all other human beings, regardless of their differences.

Those differences, as the process of developing Strange Fruit reminds me constantly, are purely aesthetic. But our commonalities go as deep as our hearts and souls. We all want friends and family, love and acceptance, fulfillment and happiness.

Fortunately, there is plenty of all of those things to go around for everyone. We just have to see it and then accept it.

5-3 FB Event Cover Part Two CheRae

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Screamin’ Muskrat Love!

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t live / in fear

One of the most important things you can do for youself is to let go of your fear — it will open doors you never imagined even existed. Today, it put me in a music video.

A subject that I’ll discuss a lot in my book is how fear holds us back — whether it’s keeping us from going to the doctor, from having new experiences, or overcoming addictions.

In my post about my fear of roller coasters, I mentioned that I finally conquered this fear after a group of friends shamed me into taking a ride only for me to find out that I actually love roller coasters, but I think that peer pressure might be an early theme for me.

Fortunately, I had peers who mostly pressured me into good things.

One other thing they talked me into back in the day was auditioning for a play in college. Now, beyond third grade plays that don’t really count, I hadn’t really acted on stage before. I had taken one disastrous drama class in middle school and had played in the combos for a few small musicals, but part of the point of being in the backing band is that you aren’t on stage.

I figured, “Well, I haven’t done this before, there’s no way I’m going to get cast, and it’ll stop my friends from bugging me to get involved in theatre,” so I auditioned.

I got cast. In a featured speaking role. With lines and everything. I went from afraid to terrified, but I had already committed, so there was only one way to go…

And that, dear readers is how the acting bug bit me. Not that I ever wanted to pursue it as a profession — I prefer playing odd supporting roles and leaving the real work to the real pros, and I’ve certainly done some odd ones. If I had to pick favorites, they’d be the depressed unicycle riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story, The Pension Grillparzer, The Dreamer in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, a leather-clad Jesus figure leading his blind mother along and whose dialogue is entirely in Spanish, and basically every spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors rolled into one in the form of a slightly greedy, slightly drunk, river-dancing Irish cop, but which doesn’t seem to have any reviews online..

At least the L.A. times did say something nice about me: “Jon Bastian’s bear and Matt Ryan’s hand-walking man own the house…”

Along the way, I’ve also done extra work in film and T.V., and a series of flash theater performances put on by L.A.’s own Playwrights’ Arena over the course of a year in celebration of their 20th anniversary. I think I managed to do thirteen of those, which were all live in various locations around the city, and very much right up close and personal with the audiences.

None of this would have happened if I had let fear stop me from auditioning for that first play way back in college. And it hasn’t just been about the experience acting on stage. I’ve made a lot of close friends through all these various shows and performances, and every so often I get to help an artist make a statement.

That’s what I was doing today, for a music video for a song by Deidra Edwards called “We Already Know,” which involved a large and very diverse group of people singing in a park in an act of political resistance, and then some studio follow-up shooting. I’m very excited about this one because of the message, and because it’s also both a real and symbolic return to performing for me, which is something I’ve been working my way back into over the course of this year.

One of the lines we sang in the song says, “Can’t live in fear,” and that is certainly the case. It’s something that I think we already know, but we also like to resist the thought and let our fears win out.

But when we don’t let them win, magic happens.

Language is a virus

Languages are living, breathing things that can affect the way you perceive the world — but the language you’re reading right now is probably one of the most resilient in existence.

The title of this post comes from a famous quote by William S. Burroughs, although he was more focused on the malignant and destructive aspect of words. I’d update it to “Language is viral,” although saying “update” is deceptive. Although the term really only seems to have entered mass consciousness within the last couple of years, it’s actually old enough to vote, having entered the lexicon in 1999 in its modern sense.

The reason that a language will affect the way you perceive the world is because we, as humans, don’t have any other way to think. So what we are able to express is limited by the way our language can express it.

Paul Anthony Jones has a fascinating article at Mental Floss detailing some languages that lack certain features we take for granted, although two of them stand out as examples of how linguistic features can actually be unlimiting

One is in an aboriginal language that, except for describing handedness, does not use words for relative position. That is, instead of saying “the book is on your left,” or “the door is behind you,” they will say things in terms of cardinal direction: “The book is to the west,” and “The door is to the south.”

Not surprisingly, the end result of this is that speakers of the language have a built-in compass. They always know which direction is where because they have to in order to communicate.

Even more fascinating is the language of the Matsés people of South America, which has what you could call evidentiary grammar. That is, the verb tenses indicate exactly how you know what you’re saying — as an eyewitness, something you heard secondhand, something you’re just guessing at, and so on. And the result of that one is that speakers of this language are always absolutely honest about their motives.

That almost makes English seem quaint, doesn’t it? But here’s the special feature of English that a lot of other languages lack: It’s pretty close to unbreakable. That’s kind of ironic, considering that we have the term “broken English” in our language, but you really have to work at it if you want to say something in English that is completely unintelligible. One of the most famous recent examples of English that did break is “Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?”

This is probably untranslatable, but if you think you know what it means, leave me a comment below. Ironically, this statement has actually taken on its own meaning since it first appeared eight years ago, and is now generally understood to mean, “What you said just made no sense.”

And so the language evolves.

I tend to be a purist when it comes to grammar. However, I also love neologisms, and just how adaptable English is. I have no problems with the verbing of nouns — which I just did in that sentence. This isn’t unique to English, either. In Spanish, it’s quite common for one word with slight variations of ending to be a verb, noun, adjective, or adverb.

Don’t forget, too, that the most infamous word in English, which starts with “F,” can actually be any part of speech with the sole exception of a conjunction, but it works very well in tmesis. You can thank me later for that new word!

Side note, here’s another new word I just learned: gallimaufry. I’m not sure whether it was the inspiration for the name Gallifrey from Doctor Who,” but it means a hodgepodge or confused medley.

But back to the point. Here is a good collection of beautifully broken English. And as mangled as these are, chances are good that if you’re a native speaker of English, you can figure out exactly what the writers intended in most of them.

Of course, English is a playground for neologisms, or newly-coined words. It’s how Shakespeare created the modern language in the first place, and it would behoove you to google a list of words he created — oh, look! Google, a modern neologism! And it’s still happening. Check out this list of fourteen words that didn’t exist nearly twenty-five years ago.

Don’t forget Lewis Carroll, who invented the concept of portmanteau words, which, like a real portmanteau, which is a suitcase that opens into two equal parts, are two words stuck together, and which still exist to this day. Ever heard of “Bennifer?” Welp that’s a portmanteau.

You’re welcome. And if you want to really go down the rabbit-hole (another Carrollian expression!) here’s a whole list of portmanteau words.

If you want to write, get creative. You can stretch English a lot without breaking it, and some of the best and most inventive expressions are made up on the spot. Try your hand at it, and share your best below!