Fragile Things

I’m spending bits of this weekend recording scenes for the Democracy Burlesque holiday radio show. DB is a political sketch comedy [more or less] group that I performed with regularly for two years, and they’ve invited me back to join them for this performance.

My association with the group ended for a number of reasons, but it also ended amicably, which I think is relatively rare for a theater group. I’ve left groups before angry and burned bridges (none of which I regret, incidentally), and I’ve been in groups that collapsed because we collectively decided we weren’t getting anywhere (not that we had any clue where “anywhere” was). But there have only been a couple of instances where my departure from a group wasn’t because my frustration with the group made not leaving impossible.

Independent theater troupes in Chicago are fragile things. Very rarely do people get involved without passion—which is a good thing, on the whole, but it also means that tensions get high quickly over things that often don’t deserve it. (As well as some things that do, as with my aforementioned burned bridges.) There’s also a really-not-that-compatible problem in Chicago comedy (improv particularly, but comedy generally): People have too many opportunities, so each one means less. One of the worst things to happen to an improv troupe is when a couple of people reach the conclusion that rehearsal is optional.

These issues operate on different scales. On a micro, whatever-you-happen-to-be-looking-at-at-the-time scale, everything means everything, and any point you may lose is a serious threat to your dignity, future, and well-being. On a macro scale, the next thing is right around the corner, and every corner.

I don’t really mean to rant about the state of Chicago comedy; I don’t have any new to add to that discussion, and I’m more interested in practical implications anyhow. So instead I’ll offer advice. Care, appropriately. Find others to work with who also care, so that you can assume that they care.  Accept losing once in a while, especially if you’re wrong. Focus, and demand a base level of focus from your colleagues. Avoid jerks. Don’t try to burn bridges, but don’t be paralyzed by the prospect of burning bridges.

And if you should travel over one of those unburned bridges, enjoy it.

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Music, Live

My brother once said that professional musicians make it look easy to play music because for them it is—they’ve practiced the songs that they perform enough where they’re unlikely to make any mistakes.

Two days out from my first in-person-before-a-crowd ukulele performance (as musical guest for Democracy Burlesque this Tuesday), I’m not to that point yet. I think I’ll do a perfectly credible job, but flawless? Unlikely.

That’s not self-dissing. In fact, I’m pretty impressed with myself. I’ve only been playing for six months, and had never played another string instrument before that, so I did not expect to be performing live by now. I didn’t actually expect to be performing live at all, but I’m not complaining.

What’s helped me to get a base level of adequateness that makes me feel okay about performing in public?

Factor A would be FAWM, the write-14-songs-in-February challenge that I attempted (and succeeded at). It consumed a lot of time, but a fair amount of that time was spent with the ukulele in hand. I wrote one of the songs on the three-song set-list during FAWM, and I learned a fair bit about the composing part of songwriting (well, I got introduced to the Circle of Fifths, which I hadn’t really comprehended beforehand) which made composing a second song that I’ll be performing way way easier.

Factor B is CHUG, the Chicago Ukulele Group. Now, I’ve only made it to 2 of the monthly jams—I’ve been out of town or in rehearsal for the other three—but the first one I attended was  when I had had the uke for just about three weeks and didn’t have a clue about it. Going there gave me some direction in how to proceed when I really had none. Plus, they made me do a solo, sight-reading, of “I’m a Believer.” Surviving your first one of those is always a big confidence boost.

Factor C… well, you can’t get away from it. Practice. I’ve been reasonably diligent, if I do say so myself. And the past couple weeks, moreso. I’ve probably been annoying the neighbors, though, since I’ve been doing the same three songs over and over again; I’ve actually taken to playing in the closet* in hopes of minimizing that.

So that’s my strategy toward becoming a ukulele hero in three easy steps. Follow them to achieve fame and fortune, or at least a one-off performance for a political sketch comedy troupe.

*This isn’t as bad as it sounds; I live in a small studio apartment, but the closet is relatively huge. You could use it as an office if you didn’t have to hang clothes up.

The Problem with Parody

Last week, I mentioned my less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward parody, in the context of how I’d just written several for a radio show. Incongruent, eh?

In last week’s specific instance, I wrote parodies because that was the assignment, and time was way too short for debating to be a viable option. In the context of the show, I think the choice of parody works; the show is something of a political take on War of the Worlds; now that the liberals have quote-unquote taken over, they are free to impose their quote-unquote true agenda. The songs are parodies of Christmas carols rewritten to support this true agenda. (I haven’t seen the script of the full show, so I can’t judge if it’s a true parody or more of an allusion. It’s a lot less cut-and-dry with a show than it is with music.)

Under this premise, I think the choice to have music based on parody fills its purpose. In many cases, though, the choice is made for a far weaker purpose. Musical parodies in sketch comedy, in particular, often seem to have no connection between the original song and the parody, and the reason for writing a parody rather than an original song seems to be just that it’s easier or that it gives a shortcut to a laugh. (Even a hardened soul like me will usually give a familiarity chuckle at the start of a parody, even if it’s no good!)

It’s a shame that artists (and yes, sketch comedy should aspire to arthood just like any other theatrical endeavor) take that shortcut. It’s also a little strange that it’s taken by people who genuinely care deeply about their work and it shows in other aspects of their production. Admittedly, writing the music to a song is a different skill set. But if you don’t have it, and you can’t acquire it, well, there are musicians out there who can. Use their services.

The Parody King

I feel like there’s an elephant in the room here: “Weird Al” Yankovic. Let me declare first off that I am a fan. So how do I reconcile that with what I said above?

First off, the dude is skilled and he works hard. That gets you a long way.

Second, he really doesn’t have a lot of output, at least not that makes an album. He’s only released about an album every three years since the early ’90s. They’ve had about 12 songs each, about half of which are parodies. So that’s two releasable parodies a year.

And third, about half of those parodies suck. (Sacrilege!)

His best parodies seem to be the ones where the true subject is the absurdity (and yet, the goodness) of popular music. “White & Nerdy,” “I Think I’m a Clone Now,” “Fat,” and “Like a Surgeon” all spring to mind as examples where the original song is—if you were to read the lyrics as a poem—pretty silly, but the alchemy of words and music and performance makes it work. The parodies work on the same level. Meanwhile, the parodies that have a more specific and tangible purpose (“Achy Breaky Song” for example, with its unsubtle message that “Achy Breaky Heart” was everywhere and it sucked, or the list-of-bad-TV-shows songs “I Can’t Watch This” and “Couch Potato”) are a lot more likely to fail.

Parody with Style

Weird Al does a lot of what he calls style parodies—songs that don’t directly parody a specific song but which sound a lot like some artist or genre. I think this is a much better way to go; he’s certainly had some inspired songs that fall into this category. (“Pancreas”, anyone?)

To draw the discussion back to theater, and not just musical theater or sketch comedy: I’ve been involved in a fair number of “improvised parodies of.” Probably will be again, frankly. But they often occupy a really low-rent section of the improv world.

The counter-example: I stage managed for several months Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, which was an improvised Tennessee Williams parody. But this was very much a style parody; it didn’t parody any particular play, but it got a number of audience suggestions that were common elements in his plays but also provided meaty fodder for improvisation. (Specifically, one character had a dream, that would inevitably be dashed, while another had a deep dark secret that ultimately would be revealed.) The show worked because there was genuine affection for the work it was inspired by; it used elements from Williams’ plays without being constrained by them, and the purpose was to put on an engaging show rather than to get cheap laughs by parodying something. (It also had tremendously good performers.)

Probably the worst parody show I’ve been involved in was an improvised Oscars show. While it had plenty of structural problems (most notably, a rigid structure that constrained any improvisation without even having the benefit of providing a useful framework for the story or characters to be built off of) that made it much worse, this show was rotten to the concept. What is the purpose in parodying the Oscars? To tell the world that they’re vapid? That fruit hangs lower than Joan Rivers’s un-surgeried breasts.

In theory, the show was easy. It’s certainly easy to explain. But in practice, it wasn’t any less work to develop that show than it was any of the other shows that that group did. It was, however, by far the worst. And even if everything had gone right with that show—if the structure had worked perfectly—the quality would have never risen above disposably amusing.

So that’s my real problem with parody. If the technique is chosen out of fear or laziness, it becomes a limitation rather than a tool.

*****

And after that diatribe… catch the Democracy Burlesque show, The War on XMas, this Sunday December 20 at 7 AM on WCPT 820-AM.

Hello, Radio!

A break from fiction to discuss the weekend. It was an artistically heavy two days. I spent Sunday filming “The Pissed-Off, Pissed-On Santa,” notable particularly for the good humor with which my Three Legged Race cohorts Doug and Derick accepted wearing a pair of soaking-wet Santa pants while having a glass of water thrown on said pants, and having the same pants tossed in his face, respectively.

Despite that, Sunday was the relatively mundane day—we’ve done a number of videos and we’re getting the hang of it. The new-to-me experience was Saturday, when I taped… wait for it… a radio show.

Yes, you can hear me live on Sunday, December 20, at 7 am on WCPT radio (820 AM) in Chicago, or streaming on their website. I believe it will be archived on their site as well, although I’m not certain.

To be honest, I don’t know too many details about the show. It was done by Democracy Burlesque, a show that I was a part of for a couple years, up to a couple years ago. But I left on good terms, so when they needed people, I got a call. The general concept is that it’s a parody of War of the Worlds, from the perspective of a right-wing talk show host being invaded by liberals who are really simultaneously socialists and fascists.

The whole thing, as I understand it, came together quite quickly, as is typical for DB. I was asked to write some song parodies on Thursday for recording on Saturday, and a guy was there writing the third act while we were recording.

What about the actual recording? Well, it’s a radio station, so they have impressive microphones, and the engineer used Adobe Audition to do some preliminary editing. I wish I could edit video as quickly as he put sound clips together—I tend to agonize over the videos, cutting to precise frames and often overlapping sound to correct little glitches. It helps, so I’m gonna keep doing it; it just feels like there should be a better way.

I was there for about five hours, and something like 8 sketches in total were recorded (I was in about 4 of them). The highlight, definitely, was the dying elves. Seriously, I don’t know why they don’t sell voice modulators that will make your voice sound like a chipmunk when you’re just walking around talking. Nobody in the world can be sad when you are talking like a chipmunk.

Did I learn any great radio technique? Probably not. I learned that there are some microphones that you talk directly into, and others that you talk sort of sideways to and at an angle, but I’m not sure I could tell them apart in the future. The engineer had to have me re-record a few things because I was closer to or further from the microphone than my scene partner, but I think that’s something that an engineer can see much better than the performer.

The big adjustment for me was really taking off the producer hat and just performing. That’s surprising; I really don’t think I’m a natural as a producer or a leader. But with Three Legged Race, I am one of three full partners in the group, so I am actively involved in all of the decisions and periodically being, quite literally, the guy who’s telling people where to be, what to do, and when to do it.

While I look back on DB fondly, one thing that I think is fair to say is that (to be stunningly diplomatic) it’s got an overabundance of leadership. A lot of artists think that all artistic endeavors should be collaborative, and I can see the appeal… but at a certain point, you just gotta do your job and let other people do theirs, even if their job is telling you what to do and your job is doing it.

I was kind of annoyed early on in the process because I didn’t realize that. It took probably an hour and a half for me to remember that I wasn’t directing or producing, and therefore the decisions ultimately weren’t mine, so I didn’t need to worry about them, and it didn’t matter if I knew a way of doing things that was a million times easier, because the time it would take to fight over it would take longer than just doing it the director’s way.

Directing and producing is really hard work. I would love to have some side projects where I’m just a performer and don’t have to stress out about every aspect of a show. And yet such an opportunity comes along and the transition really wasn’t easy. So, while I never thought this would be the case, I guess I enjoy the power of producing as much as anyone else.

The Light

It has been a lousy week. It’s strange what can set it off; there were a lot of reasons, but the trigger was a comedy show that could best be described as “extensive.” As a word of advice and kindness: If you ever are running a comedy show, it should last significantly less than four hours, even if you have booked God and Bill Cosby. Comedy doesn’t survive four hours without enough alcohol to black out.

I may, at some point, go into some of the details of the week. I also may not; there’s some juicy stuff there, but wisdom probably preculdes me from sharing those details until I’m famous enough to not care. And really, as bad weeks go, though, it hasn’t really been that bad. I did, for example, cross the 25,000 word mark in my book, which has even acquired the tentative title “Eyes from Above.” (I’m not thrilled with it, but it’s infinitely better than the original working title, “Very Bad Magazine,” and a lot more relevant than the second one, “Curls”.)

But the dominant feature of the week is tomorrow. Tomorrow is the opening of Front for Evil, the new sketch comedy show from Three Legged Race. It’s the culmination of four months of writing and rehearsal. Moreover, I’m really quite proud of it.

So consider this an official invitation to the show. I’ll be the mean Hollywood agent, and one of the guys in a mustache, and the nerdy guy who bowls well, among other things. Full details are available at the links above, but in short, it runs Fridays at 10:30 through September 25 at Chicago’s Apollo Studio Theater at 2540 N. Lincoln, and tickets are $12.