Bye bye bunny

You’ve probably heard of Coney Island, which is a beachfront amusement park located on Long Island, New York, in the borough of Brooklyn. If you’re from Southern California, it’s somewhat analogous to the Santa Monica Pier, and the now defunct Ocean Park, which closed in 1967. But… have you ever wondered how Coney Island got its name?

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that it was named after a member of the Coney family. After all, a lot of places are. The name New York itself refers back to the famous Yorks of England. Perhaps Coney Island was named after the famous Nathan Coney, who founded Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, a world-renowned place. Oh… except that it was founded by Nathan Handwerker in 1916, long after Coney Island had been named. And, to be fair, “Handwerker” is a really great name for somebody who makes their living crafting foodstuffs by hand.

When was Coney Island named, exactly? Well, most likely when the place had been settled by the Dutch and what we now call New York was known as New Amsterdam. They decided to name this stretch of Long Island Konijn Eiland.  You don’t really need to speak Dutch to realize that those words sound a lot like the final name. In fact, Konine Eyelant is pretty much it. So where did the Konijn/Coney come from?

Let’s jump back just a moment to my childhood, when we used to visit my paternal grandmother, who lived in a town called Atascadero, up the end of a street called Conejo Road. And what does Conejo mean? Well, if you grow up in a place with a big Spanish influence, like Southern California, you’ll learn very quickly that “conejo” means “hare.” So grandma lived on Hare Road. And that’s exactly how Coney Island wound up with the name. The Dutch knew it and later settlers just followed…

The place was hare island, originally because it was covered by them, later from linguistic inertia. But, at the same time, it was a misnomer to name the entire place “Hare Island,” because they weren’t everywhere, just in certain places. Like where later New Yorkers built their amusement park.

Note that I’m not using the word rabbit, because there is still no agreement on how this word wound up in English. It may have come from generic Franco-Germanic terms for “little animal,” but who knows? Ultimately, the sounds that led to the name for this creature are most likely Germanic.

As for bunny, again, no one knows. It may have come from a term for a squirrel or a tail, or could have somehow been derived from “cunny,” a diminutive for the aforementioned coney, although with rather unfortunate connotations in the modern era, at least in English.

Then there’s hare, which gives root to “harrier,” either dogs made for running down rabbits, aka hares, or the description of military airplanes that can jump and shoot the shit out of other planes.

None of which would have flown over Coney Island. And the real answer to all of this, may I abandon my linguistic purist roots, is this: In the great long run — as in centuries away from now — folk etymologies are as good as reality. If I say now that Coney Island was named that because the Dutch thought the place was overrun with hares, then so be it… the Dutch win. If, however, my version — or the version in my links wins — and someday the place is renamed Bunny Brooklyn, or whatever… that will be our future history. And that’s just the thing. History is fleeting and, while I like to try to teach what I can learn from what we know now, I also know that in a century or two or three everything we think we know now will be proven wrong.

All I can really say for now is that my grandma lived in a place named for lots of rabbits, and they were definitely there. An amusement park in Long Island was named for the same, although what they called rabbits probably were not. As a kid, I owned and took care of a lot of bunnies, and they were amazing. As an adult, I do improv, a lot of which involves a game called “Bunny, Bunny.” But forget bunnies and rabbits. If you’re really keeping track, it’s coneys and hares.

Same thing as bunnies and rabbits, except not as cute and more durable, and with different words. Really…

Reconsidering Myra

Sometimes, it’s possible for a work of art to be so damn far ahead of its time that no one gets it until years later, and I was reminded of this recently when random events led me to take another look at the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s infamous novel Myra Breckinridge. At the time it came out, the movie was hyped with the tag line, “From the book that couldn’t be written comes the motion picture that couldn’t be made!”

Now, I’ll admit up-front that I’ve always liked the movie and the book because they are both transgressive, and I’m also a huge fan of everything Vidal ever wrote. The novel is epistolary in structure, meaning it appears as a series of letters and memos, alternating between the voices of the titular Myra and her uncle Buck Loner, owner of the acting school she wants to take over. It’s actually not at all an uncommon style. One of the most famous examples is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A more recent example is World War Z, which itself was directly influenced by Stud Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. The epistolary form is a very interesting and compelling story structure. In fact, it’s sort of a lynch-pin of a lot of modern gaming, whether text or action based.

But the main point is that Vidal’s original put us in the heads of the protagonist and antagonist and made us understand them both, although Buck’s recorded memos are decidedly colder and more self-serving, not to mention that he likes to lie about shit, while Myra lays it all out to explain what she’s up to. And, in retrospect, the movie does a good job at nodding to that while not sticking in it because, honestly, nothing would be more boring than a film in which we just watch two people write letters. But we do open with an actual view of the words Myra writes, and we have several scenes in which we see Buck record his memos, so the hat tip to the original is there.

What’s really interesting about the film is that the decidedly X-rated Myra (when that rating was still a thing), premiered two months after Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It seemed like movie-going audiences were ready for adult fare and, indeed, Midnight Cowboy grossed $44.8 million on a budget of $3.2 million or, adjusted for inflation, the film cost $21 million to make, but brought back just under $293 million.

The real problem was that while the MPAA trademarked all of its other ratings, they did not do so for X, and suddenly producers of exploitation and pornographic films started to slap the X on them in hopes of getting the same legitimacy as Hollywood fare like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I Am Curious (Yellow), If…, and Last Tango in Paris, all of which were originally rated X.

Side note: What was considered “adult” back then would barely raise eyebrows today. Any single episode of any made-for-cable or streaming show now would have given the censors of the ‘60s and ‘70s total aneurysms despite the expanded sexual freedom as the Hays Code got kicked to the curb. It’s arguable that the only reason that Cowboy did get the X-rating is because of two scenes which imply but don’t show oral sex and anal rape, both acts involving only men.

The other weird thing about Myra is that the book was critically acclaimed while the movie was lambasted. The novel was also the first to depict a transgender character, not to mention that she was also the narrator and protagonist. Above all, it is a satire on gender roles and how they are artificially constructed, particularly via mass media.

The film was universally panned and it flopped, making only $4 million on a budget of $5.4 million, or, adjusted for inflation, taking in only $26.2 million on a budget of $37.3. And this was with an all-star cast of its era — Raquel Welch, Mae West, John Huston, Jim Backus, and John Carradine. It was the film that introduced both Farah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, and gave then well-known critic and gossip columnist Rex Reed his film debut (asshole in real life, but actually kind of hot here) — playing the pre-transition version of Raquel’s character to boot. Hell, even Toni Basil, of 80s pop music fame, turns up in a small role.

So I had a re-watch of the film a couple of days ago and, again, while the movie has always been one of my guilty pleasures, I put it in that “so bad it’s good category,” except that now, for some reason on this re-watch, my reaction was, “OMG. This move is really, really good.”

What stuck out, first of all, is that the A-List stars in this thing really, really got it. Nothing was supposed to have been taken seriously because everything was satire and parody. And it’s satire on so many levels. First of all, the film takes a major stab at the illusion that Hollywood is a fantasy factory that will make any rube who wanders in from the sticks instantly famous just because they’re pretty, but in reality makes it a habit to suck them dry of their money while doing nothing to help them improve their talent or make real connections. One character pretty much just says it outright: Students enroll in Buck Loner’s acting school, but none of them ever seem to graduate. And what happens to Rusty and Mary Ann is the literal embodiment of what the industry figuratively does to the naïfs who come here.

Second is how the film explodes the self-importance of those who have made it. John Huston’s character, Buck Loner, is the archetypal Hollywood cowboy star of the 1930s through 1950s. His students adore him, but he is clearly a walking parody from his first entrance. As played by Huston, Loner is clearly too stupid to get this. The only reason his students love him is because he might know people who know people, but the second that façade falls, they would run away.

And then there’s Myra, whose character thinks that the last important American motion picture was made in 1945. In case that date seems arbitrary, keep this in mind: That was the year that the U.S. nuked Japan and yes, we filmed it, so it’s entirely possible that this was the movie she was referring to. (There’s even stock footage of a nuclear bomb test that punctuates a pivotal moment in the film.) She also likes to dress like film starlets of the 1940s, and at one point appears in a uniform that looks very much like U.S. Navy dress white. And when you think about that, it’s a bit of a double gender-bender: a transwoman intentionally becoming a drag king, so basically a woman born in a man’s body who has become a woman through gender confirmation surgery, but then dresses like a man.

On top of all that, the movie is sprinkled with clips from classic American films made before 1945, and the filmmakers were promptly sued over several of them because certain actors didn’t want their work associated with something they saw as pornographic.

Yeah, they entirely missed the point, too.

If Myra were given a re-release today, I have no doubt that it would find an audience and become an instant classic. I’m pretty sure that Millennials would get it immediately. Why? Because it’s a movie that skewers pretension and the artificiality of gender roles, as well as inverts privilege and power. It repurposes pop culture of its era, further tweaking the self-importance of the mass media power structure, and it’s heroine is a very strong woman who knows what she wants and goes out to get it.

It also brings up a really good question. While remakes generally suck, this just might be one movie that merits one today, but updated. Hm. Forty years after… If it comes out next year and we keep the relative timing, that means that modern Myra would think that the last great American movie came out in 1995. If all of the clips reference films made between that year and 1965, when the Hays Code ended, it would give us a hell of an assortment, covering everything from the Getaway and the original Myra to game-changer blockbusters like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars, among many others.

Casting? Well… Rhys Ernst as Myron, Rain Valdez as Myra. (Double switch, because they’re both transgendered.) Clint Eastwood would be a mega-score as Buck Loner but, short of him… Arnold Schwarzenegger? And for total stunt casting, who do we get for the Mae West Part? Um… Raquel, of course, because she’s now of that age, and I’m sure that she’d love the karmatic revenge, since Mae was so awful to her. Hell, they could be the subject of a future episode of Feud. And if Ms. Welch demurred, then the next logical choice, again for reasons of symmetry, would be Anjelica Huston who, while she’s a decade younger than West was then and Welch is now, she’s also the daughter of the original Buck Loner.

Rusty, who gets pegged by Myra? Zack Efron. As for Rusty’s girlfriend and Mae’s stud? Yeah, let’s toss those roles to two lucky unknowns, just like the original.

For the Carradine and Backus cameos, I’d cast Martin Sheen and Seth MacFarlane, respectively, again because of the echoes of the originals — a famous actor father with famous acting sons, and a perennial and beloved TV and voiceover star.

But there’s one more step. See, Vidal wrote a sequel, Myron, which continued the story but which was also a total satire of the Nixon years with television as the medium instead of film. In a nutshell, Myra is back to being Myron, who is now living a straight, masculine, cis-gender life, married to Mary Ann — Fawcett’s character — but then he literally gets sucked into an imaginary 1948 Maria Montez movie Siren of Babylon while watching it on the late-night movie on TV (Maria did make a film in 1949 called Siren of Atlantis, though, but note the year of both the real and fictional movies. Neither one of them could have been any good according to Myra.)

Once Myron is in the movie, he’s stuck in the narrative while it’s airing but able to wander around the lot during commercials, and then Myra starts to re-emerge and tries to take over, much to Myron’s chagrin.

But… Myra/Myron as a limited run series with each book still set in its original era would get even more meta as we moved from the first book into the second. And the wrap-around meta to that maybe? The whole thing is told from the POV of a modern-day grad student majoring in social media and minoring in gender studies who is watching the movie or reading the books in order to write their thesis, except that maybe they get sucked into them, too, and the grad student is the kind of non-binary, gender-queer, and self-accepting person that people from the age of Myra or Myron couldn’t ever possibly even conceive of existing but which they have always subconsciously hoped to become. Maybe the character could be called Myrum —if you got that, you really know your Latin — or Myrex, which is actually probably better on about five hundred levels, and if you get that one, you really know your Latin@.

Hm. Myra/Myron/Myrex. Hey, FX… are you listening? Nine episodes, great ratings. Easy peasy, pan comido.

Photo: Gore Vidal, 1948, by Carl Van Vechten.

Talky Tuesday: Words you might be using incorrectly

fIf you want to communicate effectively, and especially if you want to have credibility whether you’re speaking or writing, it’s important to use words correctly. Yet I hear certain words misused all the time, even by otherwise well-educated people. Note that I’m not talking about often mangled phrases, like “for all intensive purposes” instead of the proper “for all intents and purposes,” or mixing up words like “affect” and “effect.” These are single words that are frequently used improperly.

Cliché

We probably all know that “cliché” means something that has been used in art or literature so often that it has become bland and predictable, and so should be avoided. Movies are full of them — the horror movie villain who isn’t really dead after they seem to have been killed, the henchmen who are terrible shots, the witty comment as the hero dispatches a goon.

We also get these in live theater, though. The so-called “11 o’clock number” comes from the world of Broadway musicals, when the shows used to start at 8:30. This was the “knock ‘em dead before the finale” show-stopper of a song that usually highlighted the vocal talents of the lead, manipulated emotions, and was catchy as hell. Think Memory from Cats, the titular Cabaret, or Rose’s Turn from Gypsy. Also note that nowadays, it’s more likely to be the 10 o’clock number.

Of course, in the latter case, the cliché isn’t so much a specific thing as it is a stylistic conceit.

In literature, clichés can refer to either hackneyed turns of phrase — “I need that like a hole in the head” — or plot elements that have been pounded to death. Young adult literature in particular, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games via Twilight and Maze Runner abound with them, although, to be fair, they’re more forgivable in YA only because their audience may not have met them yet.

All that said, then, how does the word “cliché” itself get misused? Simple. It’s a noun, and never an adjective. So you’re safe if you say “that’s a cliché.” Not so much if you try to describe something as “that’s so cliché.” In that case, you want the word “clichéd.”

Comprise

This is a word that tends to get used backwards. Hint: If you follow it with a preposition and a list, then you’re using it wrong. Nothing is ever “comprised of” anything else. In that case, you’d be looking for “composed of.”

The “mp” combination in English is interesting because it is one of the ways in which the language has a lot in common with Spanish, and it comes from compound words that would otherwise create the consonant combination “np.” Hell, it even shows up in “compound!” A good Spanish example of this is the word “compartir,” which is very common in social media, because it means “to share.” The constituent words are “con” and “partir.” The former is a preposition that means “with.” The latter is a verb that means “to split.” So, when you share, you split something with someone else: con + partir, but that “np” isn’t liked, to we get “compartir.”

Now to get to the meaning of “comprise,” we have to go back to Middle English via Middle French, where the word “prise” meant to hold or grasp, so the combo basically means “to hold with.” Your preposition is in the phrase, so all you need to add are the nouns.

So… The U.S. comprises fifty states or the U.S. is composed of fifty states.

Further

This word is often confused and misused with “farther.” The two are very similar, but I’ll give you a simple mnemonic to remember the difference, making this a very short entry. “Further” is metaphorical, while “farther” is literal. The latter refers only to physical distance, while the former refers to abstract difference.

“Dallas is farther from Boston than Chicago.”

“He managed to walk farther than his brothers that day.”

“She ran farther in the competition than any other runner.”

Those are the literal versions. As for the abstract or figurative:

“He could extend the metaphor no further.”

“They wouldn’t accept any further questions.”

“Their research proved they had no further to go.”

The way to remember it is this: To create physical distance, you have to go away, and farther has an “a” in it. Yeah, simple and cheesy, but it works.

Ironic

Sorry, but Alanis Morissette is just plain wrong no matter how popular her song is. Irony is not some weird coincidence that happens. For example, slamming the keyboard lid on your hand and breaking it right before your big piano recital is not ironic. Neither is someone saying something during that whole “speak now or forever hold your piece” moment at the wedding.

There are three forms of Irony. First is when what you say is the opposite of what you mean. For example, someone gives you rollerblades for your birthday but you have no legs. That part isn’t ironic, but if you open the gift and announce, “Oh boy, just what I wanted,” then you’re being ironic.

Situational irony is when the intended results of something turn out to be the opposite of what was expected. For example, a husband surprises his wife with an anniversary trip to Paris because she’s always talking about the city, but the real reason she’s seemed so obsessed is because she’s always hated the place, so he’s given her the worst gift ever.

The third form is dramatic irony, and if you’ve ever heard of O. Henry, particularly his short story The Gift of The Magi, then you know this one. A man sells his expensive watch to buy some combs for his wife’s hair. Meanwhile, she cuts off her hair and sells it to by a fob for his watch. Bang! Double irony. This can also happen when the viewers or readers know something that the characters do not.

Less

If you’re a grammar nerd like me, then every time you see that “15 items or less” sign in the store, your butt probably clenches and you have to resist the urge to tell the blameless clerk why it’s wrong. The difference between “less” and “fewer” is really simple.

“Fewer” refers only to countable nouns, while “less” refers to uncountable nouns. And if that seems all super-grammar unintelligible, it’s not, because the words mean what they say. Countable nouns are objects that can actually be counted: one apple, two oranges, three ducks, etc. Uncountable nouns are those that can’t be counted: sugar, coffee, tea, etc.

Note, though, that uncountables can become countable when they are quantized: a cup of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, a glass of tea, and so on.

But here’s the rule. If you can count them, then you want to say “fewer.” If you can’t, then it’s “less.” “I want fewer apples.” “I want less sugar.”

I don’t have a great mnemonic for this one, although maybe remembering that the “F” in fewer is in “First,” a counting number, might do the trick. And the great compounder to this one is that the term “more” refers to both countable and uncountable nouns: More apples, more tea.

Yeah, I never said that English made any sense.

Whom

This one is not as hard as it might seem, and in order to get it right all you have to do is rephrase the sentence in your head. For example: “To ??? should I send the gift?” Make it not a question, and it becomes “I send the gift to him/her/them.” And the clue comes in the masculine and plural pronouns. They end in “m” and so does “whom,” so if the rephrase would use him or them, then the other way around would use “whom.”

Most of the time, you’ll use “whom” after a preposition, although not always. For example, a question involving verbs without prepositions get tricky. If someone asked you which person you believed, would it be “who” or “whom?”

Turn it around and you get, “I believe them,” ergo, “Whom do you believe?”

Of course, this also puts the lie to the lyrics of several songs. But no one ever said that lyricists have to be grammarians. Poets

do get to slide a bit, after all, no matter the language they write in.

 

Sunday nibble #27: Finding inspiration

A lot of the time, people ask me where I find inspiration for my stories and characters, particularly when I’m writing total fiction. It can come from various places.

For example, for the first novel I serialized here, I document in that post exactly what it was that led me to come up with the idea for the first short story. It was basically some stranger I saw in a slow, late-night line at the drug store near where I live, buying nothing but two 24-packs of TP (long before COVID-19), and it took off from there. I do think I’m going to name the whole thing Taking Hope, though, after the novella that ties all of the short stories together.

Now, I had finished that entire thing before I posted any of it here. Not so with the current serialization, The Rêves (working title), which I’m a bit ahead on, but it’s not finished yet. So that’s more of an experiment, and as I mention in the intro, it really started as three separate threads that I then wove together before following the various branches of the story.

The original germ of the idea came from working in a nearly century-old theater that had originally been a vaudeville house, and then a cinema, before going back to a live theater with two (well, technically three) stages.

Now, when they were kids, both Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe used to come to see movies there and while Monroe died long before the place made its reconversion in the late 1990s, Reynolds not only performed there, but attended many events, and donated a lot to the place.

Hence, it has the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage and the much smaller Marilyn Monroe forum.

And the staff for the mainstage always insisted the place was haunted — but not by either of them. No, these ghosts were apparently the original theater accountant, Robert, who appeared dressed just like an Arrow Shirt man from the 1920s, and an unidentified woman.

Keep in mind that I don’t believe in ghosts, although several of the staff swore they had seen them, and that patrons had also reported seeing them, describing them independently but in exactly the same way.

I think they may have exaggerated a bit. But there was something about that cavernous main theater late at night with only the aptly named ghost light on stage that could easily cause chills. And believe me, I tried to get the ghosts to show themselves, but they never did.

But the combination of this classic Art Deco building, Reynolds and Monroe being attached to it, and the creepy elegance of the dark cavern at night made me think, “What if Hollywood and environs are just full of the spirits of all those dead stars who can’t get any rest because people are still making a fuss about them above ground?”

Monroe. Bogart. Bacall. Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers — all of them are kept alive in a way, as can be seen at any tourist trap in Hollywood, as well as the many murals around the city.

This was also right about the time the film Coco came out, and of course it was all about dead ancestors being able to return to Earth for one night during the Día de muertos celebrations, but with one catch: It only worked if at least one of the living descendants remembered them.

Now, that idea isn’t unique to the movie. It’s a part of various cultures, and the contrast struck me: We have these dead famous people who are and will be remembered by tens of thousands of people forever, but what about the ones who weren’t famous?

Take those parts, mix them together with my love of the L.A. subway system, and boom, the major premise was born. I mean, wouldn’t an underground train tunnel be the ideal way for these spirits to travel around unseen, considering that many of them are underground or close to it in the first place?

So I started out by writing that lore having no idea what I was going to do with it. The Metro bailed me out on that one, too.

I was coming home from downtown. I don’t remember exactly when, but I was waiting at the Grand Park Station for the train back to North Hollywood when these two guys came down to the platform. They were both probably in their mid-30s, and they were in full-on steampunk regalia, complete with top hats, long coats, goggles, gloves, the works.

I figured that they must have been coming back from some event, which wouldn’t be unusual in downtown L.A., but they fascinated me, both because their outfits were so amazing and clearly created with great attention to detail, but also because they were obviously a couple, although very subtle about it.

I tried to remember whether I’d ever met any gay steampunks, and I couldn’t think of any off of the top of my head. But these two anonymous cosplayers gave me an a-ha moment. Ghosts need hunters, and if this pair didn’t look like they should be hunting ghosts in the subways, who did, right?

They also reminded me a lot of Miguel and Tulio from the animated film The Road to El Dorado, both in looks and personality.

So Joshua and Simon were born, and in the opening of The Rêves I pretty much describe those two exactly as I saw them. It’s a thing that actors and improvisers do, too — spot random people on the street with interesting traits, and borrow them for character work.

I’ll also let you in on a little secret: If you know any writers, they’re using you for material, too. Now, I don’t know how other writers do it, but I usually mix and match. That is, I might pick one friend as a visual reference mainly because it’s a way to anchor a character in my head, and it may be as simple as they match the demographics of the character I’m writing — age, gender, race, etc.

But the personality will come from a completely different place. Sometimes, I’ll borrow it from somebody else. Other times, I’ll make it all up. The nice part about this “Cuisinart composition,” though, is it keeps people from figuring out that I did base a character on them.

They might think, “Hey, that character looks like me,” but then the personality is totally different. Or vice versa. And I can always combine traits of two different people and personality quirks of two or more.

So in this one, for example, Preston is completely made up out of whole cloth. In my mind, he doesn’t look like anyone I know, and he doesn’t act like anyone I know personally. Anabel, on the other hand, is definitely based visually on someone I know but, again, with an utterly created personality. The same is true with Brenda.

The celebs who pop in are, of course, based on real people, but with a catch, which the story will explain and I won’t reveal here, and a passing character known as Holden is most definitely a version of someone I know in real life who is actually still very much alive.

And in case any of my friends are wondering, no. My villains are never based on real people that I know and like. I cast them from imagination, or from real-life villains everyone knows, like particularly toxic politicians and businesspeople.

So, that’s the answer to the question. And, of course, these choices of person and personality are just the starting point. Basically, they’re two little pins that I stick in the page before I tell my characters, “Okay, talk to me.”

I like to think that I’m not really writing the story myself, other than the fun bits in narration, but rather that I’m transcribing what my characters are thinking and feeling moment-to-moment. That keeps the journey very interesting for me because I never know what these little fuckers are going to decide to do, and I have to keep up.

I hope, dear readers, that this approach keeps your interest, too!

You have the right to remain silent

I’ve often told people that I’m glad I grew up in an English-speaking country, although not out of any kind of chauvinism. Rather, it’s just that if I hadn’t learned English as my first language, I doubt that I ever would have been able to learn it as my second, and a huge part of that is because the spelling and pronunciation of things just seem to make no damn sense. There’s an example right there: we spell it “pronunciation” as a noun, but as a verb it’s “pronounce.” Ta… what? Where’d that extra “o” come from?

The only other language I can think of off the top of my head where the spelling seems to make no sense is Irish Gaelic. Let’s just look at a few names. The example a lot of people probably know is Sinéad, as in Sinéad O’Connor. Now, if you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was “Sineed” or “SinEE-ad,” but it’s not. It’s “shi-NAYD.” A couple of Oscar shows back, we all learned that Saoirse wasn’t “sao-irse” or “sa-oyers,” but “SEER-sha.”

So what would you make of the names Niamh or Caoimhe? Neeam and Cammy, right? Nope. Neev (or NEE-av) and KEE-va.

Now, I’m assured that the rules of pronouncing words in Gaelic are completely consistent and easy to remember, but I’ve tried to learn the language, since it is part of my genetic background, and failed miserably. Then again, looking at the last three names together, it does start to make sense, although it’s still a brain breaker.

No such luck in English. It’s tough enough to plough through without silent letters messing things up. Even if you had read it in your head before you read it out loud, you could still make big mistakes if you’re not completely fluent.

I’m not even going to get into all the multiple ways various vowels and diphthongs can be pronounced — and note that diphthong can either be pronounced as “dipthong” (more common) or “difthong” (rarer.) I’m more interested in one particular culprit for this post, though: The Silent E.

In English, the pronunciation of vowels is not consistent as it is in a lot of other Indo-European languages, particularly the Romance languages. In the latter, whatever their vowels are — typically A, E, I, O, U — each have the same pronunciation. In Spanish, for example, they are ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. To jump to Germanic, they are very similar in Deutsche, too: ah, ay, ih, oh, oo.

Any changes come through putting two vowels together, and they’re also consistent. For example, in German, put “ie” together and you get “ee.” In Spanish, put “ui” together and get “uee” On the other hand, other combos in Spanish just give you two syllables. “AE” in a word like “caer,” for example, gives you “ky-air,” the infinitive form of the verb “to fall.”

There’s another concept Spanish has that English doesn’t: Strong and weak vowels. A, O, and U are strong. E and I are weak. And it plays out like this — by affecting certain consonants that come before the vowels, as well as how the vowels combine. In Spanish, the affected consonants tend to be C and G. When the C comes before a strong vowel, then it has the hard K sound (casa — kah-sa); when it comes before a weak vowel, then it’s an S (ciudad — see-ooh dahd). Likewise, when G comes before a strong vowel, it’s more of a hard G (dame gasolina… that second word is pronounced just like in English) and before a weak vowel, more of an H; general, “HEN-eh-ral.”

Final note: notice that the “CIU” combo in “ciudad” is pronounced “see-ooh. That happens when you put a weak vowel before a strong one. It’s the opposite of the “UI” combo. When the strong vowel comes first, the weak one gets absorbed, more or less.

None of which has anything at all to do with how fucked up English vowels are, except as an example of a language with easy and consistent rules. Know how the vowels and diphthongs in Spanish or German or Italian work? Then you’re good to go, and can read and pronounce any word you run across. Period.

Meanwhile, in English, we have little word pairs like these: cat, Cate; fat, fate; gat, gate; hat, hate; mat, mate; Nat, Nate; pat, pate; rat, rate; sat, sate; bit, bite; kit, kite; sit, site; bon, bone; con, cone; don, done; non, none; ton, tone; dun, dune; run, rune.

There are probably a lot more, but I stuck to single-consonant starts. The interesting thing to notice, though, is that we have examples for every first vowel except for E. The only example I can kind of stretch out of it are “Ben” and “Bene” (bin and baynay), but that only works because the latter word is Latin, and both of its E’s are pronounced.

Another thing to note: In other Germanic and Romance languages, the final E is always pronounced. For example, in Italian, the words “molto bene” and “calzone” are pronounced “mole-toe bay-nay” and “kal-zo-nay.” (At least they are by modern Italians. Italian-Americans, who came here before the language was codified after WW II get it “wrong.” At least according to modern Italians.) And, in German, a good example is the word “heute,” which means “today.” It’s pronounced “oy-tuh,” with a great diphthong to start and a pronounced E that doesn’t affect the vowels to end it.

Oh, by the way, the Spanish word for “today” is “hoy,” which is pronounced almost the same as the German word without that little extra syllable at the end.

And, honestly, “syllables at the end” is kind of the trick to it because, once upon a time, before the Great Vowel Shift and back in Chaucer’s day, the E on the end of English words was pronounced as its own syllable. In Shakespeare’s day, the E in the last syllable was also pronounced, especially in participles, so that pronounced would have been pronounced pronounce-ed. This is why modern Shakespearean texts will be marked in one of two ways, depending on the meter… you may see the word as markéd writ, or otherwise unstressed, it is just mark’d.

And while grammarians have tried to come up with logical reasons for silent E’s on the end of words, it’s really a stretch because, again, it’s all based on the vagaries of how English is pronounced in the first place. And there’s a particularly heinous example with a word like “lead.”

If it’s a verb, it’s pronounced the same as “lede,” which is a journalistic concept referring to the most important part of the story which usually starts it off — hence, it leads the piece. However, the reason it’s spelled that way is to distinguish it from the noun, lead, which is pronounced the same as “led,” which is the past tense of the verb to lead.

Confused yet? The reason that journalism needed the easy distinction is because lead or leading (short E) refers to the space between lines of type. When type was set by hand, lines were literally separated by one or more thin strips of lead one point or 1/72nd of an inch thick. The term did carry over into the computer world for a long time, though, only eventually giving away to “line spacing” in modern digital publishing. But lede, lead, led, and lead’s friend read all bring up a good point: Vowels in English make no damn sense.

They used to, and that brings us back to Chaucer and English before the great vowel shift — and before Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster independently sat down to decide how words “should” be spelled. (Hint: Johnson was a pedantic putz, and a big part of the reason that English spelling makes no sense. Webster tried to simplify a bit, but not enough.) See, if you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales out loud and pronounce every word exactly how it’s spelled, remembering that every vowel is pronounced, even the last E’s in words like “bathed” and “veyne”, and that every vowel has only one pronunciation, you can recite it and sound exactly like a speaker of Chaucer’s English without even knowing the language.

Good luck for any non-English speaker trying to read a modern English work and getting it right. It would come out about as clear as me trying to read Gaelic. I’d imagine that this is probably a good approximation of what this mutt language called English looks like to a non-speaker. Here are the first lines of Chaucer in Gaelic: “Nuair a chuir cithfholcadáin i mí Aibreáin an triomach i leataobh, is féidir go dtéann sé go dtí an fhréamh …”

Yeah. I have no idea, either. I do know that Ben Franklin tried to reform English by creating a slightly new alphabet — or alfabet — in which each letter had only one pronunciation, but it never caught on. Too bad, because most of the rest of English is actually a lot easier. After all, possible it is to greatly do much manglement to the words and syntax yet thus ensues a sentence over all intelligible still in English speech, it is. There aren’t a lot of languages you can do that to.

So I’m glad I learned this difficult chimera first. It makes it easier to deal with a lot of the others.

Photo credit: Carole Raddato, The Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence

The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments! And Happy Bastille Day!

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As 2020 has become “The Year without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

I’m still doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into he most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

The Saturday Morning Post: Prologue

Here’s a little teaser from “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” and you get to read it here first. This is the prologue.

Since the work I’d been serializing here ended its last installment last week, I have to switch gears. I have other works to serialize. I just have to figure out which one to do next. Meanwhile, here’s the second piece I published on the site nearly three years ago. It’s the prologue to the book that was the original reason for starting this site, but even as I finished writing the first draft, life brought more complications — and those were the years before 2020! From here, you can follow the links through to the other chapters, if you’d like.

It’s Saturday morning of Labor Day Weekend, 2017, at around seven in the morning. I’m 6,500 feet up in the mountains just below Big Bear, a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, and I am lost in the woods.

That isn’t a metaphor. Distracted by some deer running through the trees and my own thoughts, I have wandered off of the path and have no idea at the moment how to get back to camp.

Oddly enough, I’m not that concerned. The weather and the landscape here are beautiful, and the only sounds I can hear are nature, as the many birds and chipmunks living in the area are waking up and starting their daily struggles for survival.

I’m up here because I’ve come to an adult “summer camp,” which runs for the whole long weekend. We’re staying at an actual YMCA camp which is available because schools are back in session, so there are no more kids for the camp to rent to. We’re staying in cabins with bunks, although the braver ones have brought their own tents and are roughing it outside. Meanwhile, those with less bravery but more money are staying in their own RVs back up in the parking lot.

I’m not concerned about getting lost because I’ve just had a gigantic epiphany, but I have to rewind to the previous afternoon for a moment. When we had all arrived at the camp on Friday — a diverse assortment of men with ages ranging from late 30s to early 90s — the leader and organizer of the group greeted us and gave each of us a tiny gold safety pin.

They do this camp three times a year, although this was my first visit, and every camp begins with the same ritual but a different object — last time, it was a key, for example. The object comes with simple instructions. Paraphrasing wildly here, they are:

“This pin symbolizes this session of the camp, but its meaning will be unique to each one of you. Some of you may come up with what it means right away. Some of you may not. But the important part is that the meaning of this safety pin is yours alone, and it’s most likely that no two will be the same.

“And you never have to share the secret of that meaning with anyone else…”

Up with the sun, and before my sole bunkmate, I had wandered into the woods, seen the sheer beauty of nature and the pure power of running deer, got lost — and found my meaning of that safety pin.

I’ll share it with you eventually, but finding that meaning was the culmination of a journey that had begun exactly one year and one week earlier. But before I can tell you what I discovered in those woods, I have to tell you the other story first…

Read Chapter One.

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.

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