Monday, January 31, 2011

50 Plays - Alabama

Last night marked my first meeting with a director and a cast to discuss the play I'm going to write for them for "50 Plays." John Pierson assembled Eric Roth, Clifton Frei, Erin Orr, Paige Saliba and Matt Hope.

"50 Plays" will be this year's "365 Sketches." 50 ten-minute plays I write or have written will be performed at Strawdog Theater this June produced by Don Hall. The majority of them will be customized for a cast assembled by the director. Instead of 26 directors and 26 shows performed over 11 consecutive nights, we'll be doing two Thursday-Sunday weekends, each show featuring 5-6 ten-minute plays. More directors and more actors, more community building, which was the most fun aspect of last year's project.

I was nervous. Before leaving for the meeting, I carefully put my materials in my backpack, including the hoodie John Pierson accidentally left behind at Sketchfest. Made it all the way to the door of Konak's before realizing I forgot to bring it. Great. The writer shows up without anything to write on. At 8:25pm on a Sunday in Andersonville, I went scrambling to find a notebook. I found one at a liquor store that also attempted to be a modest convenience store. A two-dollar spiral notebook, later, I was back at Konak's.

I won't get into to too much detail about what we discussed. Mainly, I wanted to find out what roles the actors tended to play, what they'd like to play, their interests and special skills. The biggest surprise was when I asked the actors what they geeked out on - expecting to hear things like "Doctor Who" or "Star Trek" - Eric said feminist and queer theory. How cool is that? This is an amazing group John has put together. I also ask the director what they would like to do. What would they like to experiment with or what genre would they like to try? Keep in mind this is John Pierson. Expect an existential farce coming from this group.

I also forgot to get a picture of the whole group, so Paige and Matt are unfortunately lacking from the above picture. Oh, and the Alabama in the subject heading refers to my reference for the which one of the 50 plays this is. I thought it might be more memorable than numbers. Hard to get numbers to stick in my head, as I learned from 365.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I Believe...

... that's there's nothing more disconcerting than waking up to helicopters flying over your neighborhood.

...that when JFK said we would put a man on the moon, he only gave us a ten-year deadline and we did it ahead of time. When presidents make huge goals, today, they tend to put it way out in the future and make it business-friendly. As Obama said...

"I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas (my note: I guess that's the 20% dirty energy). To meet this goal, we will need them all."

80% clean energy in 24 years? That's really setting the bar high, Barack. The future is LATER! In 24 years, who's going to be tending to that goal and keeping it alive? In 24 years, I'll be in a nursing home tooling around in my coal-powered wheel chair. 100% clean energy in ten years or less would put a fire under people's asses. A clean-burning wind-powered fire.

...that you are never too old to learn and grow. I love taking classes and teaching new classes. Beats the alternative - sticking to only what I know. That's a weak arsenal.

...that we spend too much on defense and we should be looking at cutting all the ways we kill other people versus outright killing our own people with cuts in social security and medicare/aid. And more money needs to be spent on education. Our kids are getting the shaft which means we are, too.

...that Michele Bachman is so clearly a nutbag it is astounding that people actually listen to what she says and continue to elect her to office. I am flabbergasted and have no real insightful or witty thing to say about it. It makes me angry and sad that people like this get elevated to positions of power in this country.

(The image above is a painting of Michele Bachman with a pancake on her head by the brilliant artist Dan Lacy, painter of pancakes.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Caricature vs. Character

In artistic terms, the Mona Lisa, as it hangs in the Louvre, is a portrait. A character rich with detail, visible emotion behind her eyes and a mystery in her smile. A presentation of someone we could know and want to know. A real character. A caricature version of her* would have the Mona Lisa in profile with an enlarged head and tiny body fishing off the end of a pier. The cartoonishness of it might elicit in us a smile, but we’re quick to move on.

I taught a Second City class last night and had something unusual happen. We were doing Fish Out of Water scenes and most everyone brought in a scene that had a celebrity appearing as themselves in it. A big pet peeve of mine. Some had entire scenes made up of celebrities and politicians. This surprised me because this is Second City, not SNL or MADtv. You will rarely see a Second City actor portraying a celebrity on stage. It happens, but not often, and usually in a blackout or a minor character. In The Second City Writing Program, we strive to create scenes populated with characters that could conceivably have full emotional lives before the scene that we see them in and after the lights go down. You might be thinking, if the character is a well-known celebrity or politician, isn’t that a real character with an emotional life that exists outside the scene? Aren’t real people real characters? No. They are not. They are caricatures. They are often written and performed as imitations of how we’ve seen other people present them. Impressions of impressions.

A caricature is an imitation. A two-dimensional presentation with some kind of exaggeration. And they are lazy for a sketch comedy writer to use. It takes some effort to create characters that are recognizable (That guy’s just like my dad!) and original creations. We deal in the recognizable and the unexpected, which is not easy.

It’s fine to base characters on real people. As a writer, that gives you freedom to expand on the character and it keeps your scene from having a shelf-life dependent on the real life person’s popularity or term in office or relevance of the topic.

Another practical reason not to write scenes filled with celebrities is that it saddles your actors with having to do convincing impressions. If they’re off, it blows and ruins the scenes. And if you do happen to find someone who does a brilliant Obama, you better hope they have enough range to do the other characters a sketch revue demands. A one trick pony will also sink your show.

Is there a place for caricatures in sketch comedy? Sure, they can be useful. Especially in short scenes where the comic premise is more important than exploring characters and relationships. At SNL, they are their bread and butter. Political figures and Hollywood star impressions are invaluable to a show that goes live every week and can and should capitalize on current events. And original caricatures can be fun, too. But also notice how often SNL caricatures overstay their welcome or implode when they try to move them to a feature length movie (Night at the Roxbury, MacGruber, It’s Pat, Lady’s Man, etc). Hard to develop a “character” without heart or depth. There have been successes, like Wayne’s World or The Blues Brothers. The Blue Brothers were fleshed out characters that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had created a history for, even before there was a film deal. We even know their full names, which is rare for an SNL “character.”

Caricatures are a cheap and easy way to try to get a laugh. Often, the caricature itself overrides whatever the scene is attempting to be about. So, if you are serious about writing sketch comedy, craft original characters with strong emotional investments in what they want. Characters and relationships. That’s where the gold is.

* The caricature of Mona Lisa used here is from a site called Team of Monkeys and it's a maze. Feel free to print it up and use it as a placemat.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I Believe...

...that if you're going to die, having friends from Second City conduct your memorial service is really the best way to go. I've known Mary Scruggs for over a dozen years. She has always been, for me and students, nothing short of encouraging and supportive. If you had the pleasure of knowing Mary, she had your back.

...that a standing ovation for a Sketchfest show is quite possibly better than the stated agenda in the title of the show. Plus, I got two really fantastic kisses.

...that I love teaching, but having two part-time teaching gigs with no guarantee of classes makes me feel like the administrators want me to consider it more of a hobby that brings in extra income than a way to make a living. Too bad.

...that the GOP has no street cred with their bid to end "government-run" healthcare until they give up their own "government-run" healthcare.

...that whenever I think I'm done with relationships or writing or acting, something comes along like doing a few shows at Sketchfest that make me realize there might still be some magic left in these old bones. And that I definitely have some great funny, creative friends that I am lucky to collaborate with.

...that if you missed any of the shows I worked with at Sketchfest, you missed a massive amount of fun. You missed...

- Babe the Blue Ox doing a solo on the harmonica
- a Scientologist getting punched in the face
- a man in a tutu singing to children about how all their dreams could possibly come true, but it's not probable
- Nazis overtaking the Robot vs. Dinosaur show. Their leader being Skyped in from his lair in Miami. RvD doing hand-to-hand combat with 24 minions, escaping in a hot air balloon and then being shot down by a zeppelin. Heil, Greg!
- Don Hall and I stripping down to our boxer briefs
- Us also doing a dance choreographed by Erica Reid to The Detroit Cobra's "Cha Cha Twist" dressed as Kirk and Spock
- Me singing a solo and destroying a keytar
- Me living my dreams as a "Sketch" Man and having beautiful women like Erin Orr and Dana Black throwing themselves at me
- Vinnie Lacey, Don Hall and me being ridden like horses
- Me having a romantic date with an audience member

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ask Ken Levine

Ken Levine has been out in Hollywood writing and directing sitcoms for quite a long time. He started as a young pup on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. he had regular writing gigs on MASH, Cheers and Frazier. He's also directed episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. Writing students ask me about sitcoms and writing for them all the time. All I can tell them is what I have heard. I have had no practical experience. This guy has and he generously doles out what's in his brain. He's doing a teleseminar this coming Thursday and it's FREE. Who the hell does that in this day and age? This guy does.

Ask Ken Levine
About Writing TV

On Thursday,
January 20, I will
answer as many questions as
possible about TV
Sitcom Writing.
Please join me.

There are still slots available. If you have a scheduling conflict, you can request a recording of it. There is a small charge for that. To sign up, click HERE.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I Believe...

...that we live in an amazing age where information is available to us, as well as constantly thrown at us. But if we just take it at face value and don't apply our brain folds to it and question it, then we're effing up the opportunity.

...that people who call for others to take up arms and exercise the second amendment lose the right to be appalled when someone does it.

...that there is no one person to blame. It's our world. We live in it. We're responsible. Effective change begins with the person who is sitting in your underwear. Assuming it is you. And you didn't go commando today.

Canary in a Coal mine... wear a mask!

...that birds falling from the sky and fish washing up on shore en masse are canaries in a coal mine.

...that Chicago has a staggering amount of creative talent. We live in a performing arts paradise. If you're not getting out and seeing theater, sketch comedy, improv, stand-up or music at least once a week, you're missing the party. And your brain is probably shrinking.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sketchfest Sneak Peek...Shhhhhhh!

Robot vs. Dinosaur - Friday, January 14th at 7pm. For more info, click HERE. By the way, don't tell anyone, but the description of our show has absolutely nothing to do with our show.

Don Hall and Joe Janes Are Using This Show To try To get Laid
- Friday, January 14th at 11pm. For more info, click HERE.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Two Shows To See At Sketchfest!

The 10th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival

Two shows for you to check out this Friday at 2011 Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival: Robot vs Dinosaur - Chicago at 7pm in the South Theater and "Don Hall and Joe Janes Are Using This Show To Try To Get Laid." The first one is a "best of" with elements of DANGER and promises a climax that will knock your socks off. The other show promises that, too.

Robot vs. Dinosaur: Unclogged
Friday, January 14th
7pm - South Theater

Don Hall and Joe Janes Are Using This Show To Try To Get Laid
Friday, January 14th
11pm - South Theater

Tickets on sale NOW! Call 773.327.5252 or go to

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Closing the Books on 2010

I am hesitant to declare a year as being “good” or “bad”. I think any given year will have good things or bad things happen. To blanket-ly declare a year one thing or another risks glossing over some important events because they don’t fit the major category that the year is supposed to fit into. 2010 was a year of artistic triumphs for me, of sorts. Some significant shifts in my personal life, as well. Satisfaction in my life countered by increasing frustration and disappointment in our country.

“365 Sketches” – In January 2010, I finished my project of writing a comedy sketch a day for a year and later saw them ALL produced at Strawdog by Don Hall. 11 consecutive nights, 26 shows, 26 directors, over 175 actors. Solid houses, often SRO. This project was important to me on many levels. As a writing instructor, I wanted to do damage to a few notions, among them: “Those who can’t, teach” and “Writer’s block.” As a teacher of sketch comedy at Second City, I spent a few years earlier this decade NOT writing. Afraid that if I produced crap, it would undermine my credibility. I actually took pottery classes for a year to compensate for the lack of creativity in my life. My pottery was so bad, it drove me back to writing. When I formed Robot vs. Dinosaur as a writer-based company and started this blog, I began to write regularly, again. It truly is like working out and I needed to build my muscles. One thing that always bugged me – in classes and in RvD – is when someone would say they couldn’t think of anything to write about. They had writer’s block. An excuse I had also employed, by the way. But I always smelled bullshit. This mainly comes from my experience as an improviser. I could be reliably counted on to improvise a scene, how is writing different? It lacks a group mind, of course, but I’ve also done solo-improv playing multiple characters. It certainly is more like that. Much of the time, writing is transcribing the improv going on in my imagination. I grew as a writer. I have more confidence. I am also faster at cranking out a quality piece of work. The live event was simply a blast. I was blown away at how much hard work and enthusiasm people put into the shows. The event was an absolute success when measured by quality and ticket sales. It was so successful, Strawdog wanted us to continue the shows in their latenight slots or do a remount. We declined. We were beat. If there’s any sore spot over the event, it’s that more people didn’t hear about it. The press didn’t know what the hell to do with us, so they did nothing at all, save for two articles leading up to the event in PerformInk and TimeOut-Chicago.

“365 Sketches” – The Book. I self-published all the scenes. It was grueling to get it all formatted in time for the shows. I spent many a late hour and still didn’t ferret out all the typos! It was fun to have them at the event and to give them to the directors. It was a thrill to find out people were interested in buying them. I did a book event at Quimby’s and at Second City. I get a kick out of seeing the book on the merchandise shelf at The Second City Training Center.

My mother passed away. And, as only a mother could do, the timing was awful (I'm kidding, of course. My mother would appreciate this humor.) She passed away the Tuesday before 365’s opening night. I was able to be Skyped in for opening night, which was cool. The funeral was on Friday and I declined to repeat the video conferencing for the second night. I regret missing those three shows, but I wouldn’t have done it differently. I needed to spend time with my family. My mother’s death, by the way, came a bit as a relief. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and diabetes for a long time. I was missing her for years before she passed.

Houdini got very ill. This is something only pet owners are going to relate to. Houdini’s been in my life for 15 years. He’s a cat who really enjoys being a cat. He’s really into it. He’s very affectionate and playful. He’s also very charming. If you come over, he will make you his friend. He was having problems chewing so I took him in to the vet’s. I thought it was just a tooth that needed pulling. It was much worse. He had many bad teeth, they suspected some cancerous lesions, and kidney disease. For a little dude his age, he’s made a remarkable recovery. Turns out there was no cancer. The kidney disease has slowed down and there’s a noticeable increase in his energy and appetite. He yells at me when he wants to play. He makes a meow like he’s channeling Edward G. Robinson, “Me-yow! Me-yow, see.” A downside of the surgery and bump in health is that he seems to have lost his taste for licking the shower curtain. I kind of miss that.

On-line dating. I jumped in to on-line dating earlier this year. First with and now with OKCupid. Match is like the AT&T of on-line dating. It’s huge, but they’re really just about harvesting the money. I like OKCupid better. It’s free and very user friendly. The downside on both is that I have met very few people. Not exactly sure why. Might be the age bracket. Maybe I come across as too much of an artist for some ladies. Maybe because my profile makes it abundantly clear that being a teacher, I ain’t rolling in dough. Can’t say for sure. I do think I am better meeting someone in person.

I got to do a lot of things I had never done before. I was the best man at a wedding. I wrote and performed a piece for one of my favorite shows, The Paper Machete. I told some stories about birthdays for This Much Is True. I roasted Kimberly Senior along with Wendi Weber and Bill O'Connor at the Strawdog and made some friends from the event. While not completely a first, I co-wrote and acted in WNEP's The (edward) Hopper Project. It was my first time performing in the DCA's wonderful Storefront Theater and it was the first time I've been in a WNEP production with a two-story set to play on!

The Neo-Futurists invited me to submit a proposal for their B-Movie "film" festival, It Came from the Futurarium. I found a truly awful Roger Corman flick called The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. It's a short movie, made for drive-in double-features. It's filled with delightful, over-the-top characters and some truly awful scenes, but there's a lot of non-verbal filler. If we did the script as it was, the show would be over in half an hour. And the sea serpent, who is revered as a god, is only gets about thirty seconds of screen time. So, I pitched mashing it with another film (based on a play) that also has a ridiculously long title. The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The full new title being The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Great Sea Serpent. We had so much fun, Robot vs. Dinosaur took the concept, expanded it into a musical and we ran it in the fall at Stage773. Great cast, great material, great fun. It's one of the few things I have directed outside of my usual Second City Training Center duties.

I have many things to look forward to this year, already. I have two shows at Chicago Sketchfest, Robot vs. Dinosaur and Don Hall and Joe Janes. The RvD show features some of our favorite scenes and songs from the last few years and, in what's becoming a usual RvD feature, an ending that will blow your mind. Don and I weren't going to do a show, but then we hit upon a title while talking about dating, Don Hall and Joe Janes Are Using This Show To Try To Get Laid. We liked the sheer honesty of it. Unlike our previous shows, we've brought in some actors to help us out; Dana Black, Erin Orr and Vinnie Lacey. John Pierson, one of my favorite writer-performers from the Neo-Futurists signed on to direct and the delightful Erica Reid did our choreography. This is unlike any Don Hall/Joe Janes show you have ever seen. In spite of the title, it's cleaner and smarter and, I think, funnier. And, like the title, it's also very truthful. And, yes, you will see us dance.

I also turn 50 in May. 50! I was really lamenting this near the end of 2010, now, I'm looking forward to it. I plan on continuing to have a lot of fun in my life and continue to be engaged in great artistic endeavors (look for 50 Plays in June!) as well as continuing to pursue my journey of being human and being the best human being I can become. I do believe that if you aren't busy living, then get busy dying.

Happy 2011. I hope it is full of happiness and prosperity for you. And that you laugh your ass off a lot. But because you found something funny, not because you are a maniac.