“I did yoga every day for 30 days and all I got was a pile of sweaty t-shirts”… and much more

What I did: practice yoga, either in a classroom setting or on my own, for 30 days straight. Every day. No excuses.

Why I did it: I wasn’t feeling good at all. I had lost weight for my recent wedding in April, but it wasn’t enough. And, while I was paying more attention to my diet, and definitely seeing results, they weren’t happening fast enough. I was heading toward Burning Man within a month, where my tendency is to wear fewer clothes, and I didn’t actually feel Burner ready. Plus, I had taken up smoking again after having quit for nearly 25 years, and have plans to quit, but not…just…yet. And I knew myself well enough to know that going to a normal gym to do cardio and weights while smoking seemed not only contraindicated, but downright perverse, and that my brain would use this to rationalize not doing the former in order to continue doing the latter. I needed something low-impact, not all that aerobically challenging, and, most of all, convenient. Which leads me to…

How I did it: except for three days when my schedule compelled me to practice on my own, I practiced exclusively at Yoga District, a block away from me in my Bloomingdale neighborhood, with one lunchtime class at their studio on I Street NW. Meaning that most weekday mornings I was up at 6 am and at the studio by 6:30.

What I learned:

1. Yoga is hard. Friggin’ hard. Like, trying-to-comprehend-whatever-the-fuck-Stephen-A.-Smith-is-saying hard. Think not? Here’s a pose I did just about every day: Move your feet out to the edges of your mat and bend your knees, coming into a squat. The toes may turn out if necessary. Now, hold that pose for about 30 seconds. Cool? Now, when you’re done scraping what’s left of your exploded quads off the matt, repeat that pose about five more times in between doing what’s known as a “chatarunga,” a pose obviously invented by some mad scientist of a yogi who essentially said to himself “how about if I combine a push-up, a plank, a deep back-bend, a standing shoulder press and a hamstring and calf-stretch all INTO ONE WACK-ASS MOVEMENT and make these losers do it over and friggin’ over? BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!” Yeah, I thought so.

2. Smoking and Yoga don’t mix. I turned to yoga primarily because of its distinct lack, so I thought, of an aerobic component. I sensed that my smoking wouldn’t be that much a problem, and I was right, somewhat. But, in order to really do yoga well, you have to be able to “find space” in your poses to breathe. Why do you have to “find space?” Because in some poses you’ve contorted your entire thoracic cavity into a slinky and if your lung capacity is already challenged, you’re screwed. If I’m going to continue doing yoga, and get better at it, I gotta kick the habit. I know this. Maintaining a yoga and a smoking habit simultaneously is untenable.

3. Yoga’s metaphorical appeal (at least for me). Yoga definitely appeals to my tendency to look for what Northrop Frye called the “mythos of everyday existence,” and I couldn’t help but notice that the poses and rituals of yoga acted as a microcosm of life: you start out in child’s pose, grow into strength poses, find your way as best you can through balance poses, and then stretch yourself as you move toward the end, corpse pose. Birth, Life, Death, all in one hour, followed by, of course, resurrection: you rise and say an “om” to once again reacquaint yourself with the vibrations of life.

4. Weight loss: Yep, it happened. I noticed it. Others did, too, which is how you know you’ve lost weight, I guess. Keep in mind that I combined my yoga efforts with an eye toward monitoring and managing my caloric intake, so this one-two punch was effective and beneficial in this realm, at least for me. Again, your mileage may vary. 

5. You gotta show up – and you have to be there. Here’s how yoga specifically appeals to me: You must be “present.” And not just show up for classes and lie (or not) on your mat: yoga is the only physical activity I’ve discovered so far that, for me personally, doesn’t allow my thoughts or concentration to be anywhere else. Put me on a treadmill or stationary bike or a running path and my mind wanders back to my problems, fantasizes about things I should have said, conversations or interactions I’m hoping for or avoiding. Your experience may be different, of course. But, like improv comedy, yoga compels me to concentrate and focus on the pose I’m trying to hit: where are my arms? Is my knee over my foot in Warrior pose? Are my hips square to the wall? Yoga makes you concentrate on so many little details simultaneously that you have little time, if not at all, to churn over the uncomfortable interaction you had with your co-worker or what you’re going to do/eat after class. And seriously: where the fuck are my arms?

Conclusions: More yoga. No smoking. Maybe some running. Presence. Be here. Be now.




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A Snarl of Disappointment: Notes on the Death of Robin Williams

Lets’ start with a short poem by Kingsley Amis, entitled “A Chromatic Passing-Note”:

“‘That slimy tune,’ I said, and got a laugh,

In the middle of old Franck’s D minor thing:

That dotted-rhythm clarinet motif.

Not always slimy. I thought, at fifteen

It went to show that real love was found

At the far end of the right country lane.

I thought that, like Keats and the rest of them,

Old Franck was giving me a preview of

The world, action in art, a paradigm.

Yes, I know better now, or different.

Not image: buffer only, syrup, crutch.

‘Slimy’ was a snarl of disappointment.”

Those of you who know me, or who have taken my classes at the DC Improv where I’ve been teaching improvisational comedy for the last 11 years, know how often I’ve snarled at Robin Williams. My cavils have more to do with how frequently he was heralded as the great “improvisational” stand-up comedian, how often he would steamroll others on-stage when doing group-oriented improvisational comedy, and how infrequently the stand-up he did, particularly in the later stages of career, was as “improvised” as others thought it was. On-stage, he had, to my mind, three or four “go-to” characters, and he beat those like he had access to a field full of horse carcasses and an interminable supply of two-by-fours; in his movies, make-up and prosthetics allowed him a few more, as well as one distinct persona we’ll get to below. But for now, there’s no need for further details. Those who know me know that my animadversions regarding Williams and his career were many, and often vociferously voiced.

But, like the narrator of the poem above, my snarl was indeed one of disappointment, because, like so many of my generation, Robin Williams changed my life. Like most of America, I became familiar with him via his brilliant energy on“Mork and Mindy,” I fell in love with the childlike naïf alien persona who explored our strange planet and reported what he found to his own. It was your standard-issue, formulaic fish-out-of-water sitcom, but in Williams’ gifted hands it was transformed. I imagine the writers had, by turns, an easy or difficult job of writing the show; I have no evidence to prove it, but I’m sure the scripts went something along these lines:

MINDY: “But Mork, what are you going to say to my dad once you get to the music store?”

MORK: [Robin improvises something brilliant here, better than anything a roomful of writers would  have come up even if given weeks to do so…]

At age 13 I somehow managed to get hold of “Reality…What A Concept,” his first album of stand-up, and was immediately captivated and mesmerized. Not only by his manic energy of course, but also by his sheer intelligence. I remember one bit involved a “celebrity day care,” where we were introduced to his impressions of famous people as toddlers: Truman Capote, Jr., William F. Buckley, Jr. (Junior) and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Junior): “No one buys his bullshit around here,” said Robin’s childlike narrator after Williams as Sammy Jr. (Junior) goes into the schticky insincere patter Davis was known for toward the end of his life. I memorized and lifted wholesale the bits I loved and began boring my fellow 8th grade classmates with them ad nauseum. They were not, I remember, amused.

And, like any fan, I followed Williams around popular culture, finding out when he would be on certain talk shows, paying close attention as interviewer after interviewer tried to unsuccessfully penetrate the manic veneer, the mask he consistently wore that he never took off, a mask that was, as it turned out, thickening and hardening before our eyes. In what turned out to be the unenviable task of profiling Johnny Carson, the writer and critic Kenneth Tynan met instead an unwilling surly Carson who provided him with curt, cryptic answers, which Tynan found strange from a personality who otherwise seemed open and available when the cameras were on.“Talking to Johnny Carson,” he summarized, “is like talking to an elaborately wired security system.” As interviewer after interviewer discovered, interviewing Robin Williams was like trying to interview an earthquake. His energy was seismic and intractable, his tenacity at dodging personal questions and steering them instead toward verbal and physical play insurmountable. Even the educated, shrewd East Coast Brahmin Dick Cavett, who held a black belt in interviewing Jujitsu, proved no match for Williams, who, as I remember, forced Cavett to dispense completely with the question-and-answer portion of the appearance as Williams instead spent the half-hour on Cavett’s show parading around the studio set, which was made to appear as if we were in an upper-class drawing room library, improvising with the objects he found there. One line that’s still with me: Williams pointing to the top of one of the bookshelves full of books lining the set, unreachable even for an adult, and saying in his high-pitched child-like voice, “Father keeps old pornography up there.” The public Williams was constantly ready for our consumption at a moment’s notice, always willing to be on display; the vulnerable personality behind it was an animal that would rarely, if ever, be seen in captivity.

And this is where my personal frustration began growing: as his career grew, and as he began making more and more appearances on talk shows to publicize his movies, I began noticing that his  veneer of sheer unadulterated manic, child-like persona (an important phrase here) never ceased. He never, at least during that period, dropped the mask of being an overgrown man-child, leaping and bounding with abandon, attention flitting from one verbal exchange or idea to the next, quickly getting a few words in about how we should see his current movie in the theaters, and then returning to his default persona, that of irrepressible adolescent who, rather than suffering from a deficit of attention, instead suffered from having no attention span at all. Was it drugs? They probably didn’t help (people often selectively forget that two of the last people to see John Belushi alive were Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams). Was it bipolar disorder? That’s part of it. Though, if you’re doing the math portion of this bi-polar quiz, we only got to see Robin when he was “up.” God help those who had to deal with him down, and who are still dealing with the awful, awful consequences of his most recent trip down, and his inability to recover.

Hollywood, of course, paid attention, too, realizing that what they had on their hands was a living, breathing cartoon. It’s no accident, then that his first major Hollywood vehicle was “Popeye,” just as it’s also no accident that his best and most memorable work was done in close proximity to material essentially written for children and featuring children (“Jumanji,” “Hook,” “Aladdin”) or in which he played protagonists who were childlike in affect or outlook (“The World According To Garp,” “The Fisher King,” and the obvious usual suspects “Jack” and “Patch Adams”). I’m not trying to be needlessly cruel, since I enjoyed the movie as much as anyone, but I can’t help but think that Williams won an Academy Award for “Good Will Hunting” essentially for stretching himself as an actor farther than he ever had before: by finally and believably playing an actual adult.

I know my frustration here is palpable. And I can’t help but think (and I’m crying as I write this) this is essentially because, well, I grew up. And Robin Williams, ever vigilant as our public version of Peter Pan, didn’t. And it’s frustrating because this flies in the face of the brilliant, intelligent, sophisticated stand-up I fell in love with when I was young, a stand-up that was, well, adult: the stand-up vulnerable and brave enough to invite us inside his mind, as he did on “Reality…What A Concept” to “find out what it’s like when a comedian eats the big one.”  The one who, no doubt scared shitless after watching his friend John Belushi die so young — particularly when he was in such close proximity to the actual event —  went and got himself clean, and then came clean about it on a comedy special that had him sweating and castigating himself for his drug and alcohol abuse, and the emotional and physical wreckage he left in his wake. Perhaps it was that glimpse of the abyss that made him try to turn away completely from the precipice, back toward the simple, safer childlike joy he publicly seemed to take in being alive, and was all too willing to share with the rest of us, as well as he could.

The poet Philip Larkin was once asked why he wasn’t more of a “public poet,” one who gave readings or publicly lectured as a cultural arbiter of some sort, and why he instead preferred to issue slim volumes of poetic gems every decade or two while working as a humble university librarian in god-awful Hull, England. “Because,” he said, “then I’d have to go around being me.” In the end, Robin Williams had to go around being “Robin Williams,” publicly wearing the mask of a child despite having a 63-year old man’s body, and despite having a 63-year old man’s experience, demons, ailments, challenges and perspectives. Most mortals couldn’t have handled it, or got this far. It would have been too much to ask of them, and yet Robin Williams asked this of himself for most of his adult life. And yesterday, much to the insurmountable sadness of most of us—myself included—he stopped asking.


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Five Things I’ve Learned Owning A Mini Cooper in DC

Earlier this year, the 1997 Honda Accord I inherited from a divorce over a decade ago began acting a little funny, and by “little funny” I mean “really fucking scary.” I’d put it in drive, start moving forward, and then it would inexplicably and without warning (read: “at the intersection of Florida and Connecticut Avenues at rush hour”) stop moving forward. This was despite an engine that was running, and despite my vigorously depressing the accelerator–you know, what you normally have to do to make a car move forward or backward.

I’m not a complete idiot when it comes to cars. I mean, I know from a now frequently MLA-cited report I did in Fourth Grade (Westfall, Shawn. “Cars are Great”: George S. Buck School #94, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1972, 2 pgs.) that they’re powered by the “internal combustion engine,” which works by something “combusting internally,” which turns something, and then turns something else, and then the car starts moving—something like that. And I knew enough to know that what I was facing was a transmission problem, and in previous conversations I’ve had with mechanics regarding transmissions, transmission problems are very expensive, e.g.

MECHANIC: Yeah, man… blah blah blah Nationals blah blah pennant…pull the transmission…blah blah blah blah blah will run you around 78,000 dollars. Blah.

ME: Oh. Great. Thanks.

I didn’t have that kind of loot lying around, and, if I did, couldn’t see the sense of investing it in something that still had a factory-installed cassette deck. So I instead visited a dealer and rather than have what’s left of my car nickel-and-dime me to death, decided instead to go all-in and buy a car, one I’d had my eye on since I first became aware of them around a decade ago:

I bought a Mini Cooper.


Here, apparently, is the part of my post where I’m supposed to apologize for buying a Mini, especially if this one bro-douche I met at Local 16 back when it was the city clearing house for bro-douches is right: that it’s only for either (a) women or (b) gay men, in the same way that Subarus are apparently for lesbians and Lincoln Town Cars are for Nazis who survive by drinking the blood of Jewish infants.

I’m neither female nor gay, despite whatever I’ve posted in Craiglist’s “Casual Encounters” section. And since I no longer go to Local 16, I’m just going to say it: I love my Mini Cooper, and were our U.S. Supreme Court to legalize it, would drive to Rehoboth Beach tonight and marry it, at sunset dressed in a white linen suit with friends and loved ones nearby. But I’ve learned a few things as the owner of a Mini here in DC. To wit:

  • The Mini’s natural habitat is urban; it can only survive in metropolitan climes. Once past the Beltway, it’s defenseless, and becomes vulnerable to the elements: wind, rain, feral cats, Minivan-driving suburban mothers, SUVs, pickup trucks the size of central American countries, all seem to prey on the Mini with a ferociousness that rivals Kobe Bryant’s when he’s talking to the press about his own teammates. Avoid.
  • You have to be an exceptional driver to drive a Mini. When not being used for Living Social spelunking trips, DC’s potholes rival lunar craters, and have been known to swallow up entire neighborhoods, making Minis particularly vulnerable. Plus, there’s a lot of construction in DC, and a lot of accompanying traffic cones. Should you accidentally hit one in a Mini, you’ll die. The manual is explicit about this.
  • It takes an expert logistical frame of mind to transport things in a Mini, since the car has room for (a) two small canvas grocery bags (empty); (b) that one suit jacket you forgot you had taken to the cleaners; and (c) dreams.
  • The Mini has a backseat. But its relationship to the Mini is the same one Tom Cruise has to his much publicized heterosexual relationships: merely there for show, and not really functional or traditional at all.
  • Parking in DC is a contact sport. And here’s where I win: I can literally park a Mini anywhere. I’m not kidding: in handicapped spaces, bike lanes, in spaces reserved for shopping carts at the grocery store. In fact, I can actually lift my car up and park it *ON TOP OF OTHER CARS*, cars who end up getting ticketed even when I don’t. Seriously, owning a Mini gives you special dispensation when it comes to parking, which is the primary reason I bought one. You probably wish you’d known that before moving to DC, didn’t you? Yeah. Sorry about that.

So, yes, I do enjoy owning a Mini. And yes, sometimes when I drive it, I talk like Austin Powers.


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Here Be Spoilers: Notes on “Mr. And Mrs. Smith”

Mr. And Mrs. SmithNote: “Here Be Spoilers” is a new department of my blog, one that contains the more salients notes and ideas surrounding movies, books, and other media — past and present — that interest me. My goal is to contribute at least once a week to this department in particular. Thanks, SW

Overview: “Mr.& Mrs. Smith” should have done much better at the box office, because it’s actually two really good movies in one; those movies definitely appeal to two specific kinds of movie-going demographics; and it’s actually a much more sophisticated movie than we’re giving it credit for.

Here’s the plot, and it’s actually not bad: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (in the movie that made them a couple, and the chemistry here is palpable) play married professional assassins—except that neither of them knows the actual profession, or even real identity, of the other. But they’re both good: facile with guns, bombs, knives, close-in hand-to-hand combat, they both intimately know how to dispassionately dispatch their fellow humans, and the movie takes great pains to show their competence in this area. Meanwhile, both think they are using the other as a “cover” while they pursue their professions, which, also unbeknownst to the other, are for competing organizations that vie for highly lucrative, highly competitive contracts. The stakes are high in the shadow world of global killing agencies, and John and Jane Smith (heh-heh) are the best in the biz, though, again, neither knows this about the other. Thus, the action portion of the movie designed to appeal to the guy-movie bro in your life.

And, like all marriages in which authenticity is out the window, they are having trouble: the movie opens with them sniping at each other in couples therapy. Sure, they’re satisfied professionally, and they have all the trappings of a very beige, non-descript suburban upper-middle class marriage. We see their tense, terse, passive-aggressive commentary when discussing the new curtains or the new sofa, the dissatisfaction with their surroundings mirroring their overall dissatisfaction. These moments are offset by their otherwise silent meals interrupted by obsequies, platitudes and compliments-through-gritted-teeth attempting to masquerade as actual connection, and failing. But this is actually a far cry from where they were at the beginning of their marriage: the movie shows us, in a charming flashback, how they met, how romantic everything once was, how sexy, lovely, and fun it all was. No doubt each character thought he or she was getting a bargain: a great cover for their real jobs, cover-partners that they assumed they would actually enjoy being with. But all that’s gone: miscommunication, not listening, not relating, dissembling and inauthenticity prevail—you know, everything Rom-com, chick-flicks are made of, at least in the beginning.

Long story short: they find out about each other, primarily because both of their competing organizations have discovered their marriage, sent them on the same job, in the hopes that they’d each take the other out. An initially tense reunion back at home results in the requisite Hollywood cliché chase scene throughout the city, bombs and cars and gunfire exploding around them amidst their cell phone conversations as they communicate their credulity at being betrayed and duped by the other, and both their desires to remain professionals and see the job (of killing each other) through. Their chase leads them back home, where they set about immediately destroying it as they hunt each other from room to room with some nice dialogue flourishes (“Your aim is as bad as your cooking, sweetheart,” John chuffs Jane as bullets from her semi-automatic narrowly miss him), and that visual metaphor—the underlying truth of their relationship ripping their house—and their former lives—apart works just as nicely here as it did in the final scene of [spoiler!!!] “The War of The Roses,” which finds Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner clinging for their lives to a chandelier—the “false light” of Romantic love—having chased each other up on to it before it — and they — come crashing down, ending their marriage and their lives.

A Mexican standoff: guns in hand aimed at the hearts of each other (doesn’t miss a beat, this director), neither John nor Jane has the capacity to pull the trigger. Despite everything, the love and respect are still there. The semi-clothed make-up-sex scenes are white-dwarf hot, to be sure (seriously, you understand why these two got together in real life). And in the ensuing pillow-talk, they joke and laugh about how they dissembled one another, as the pretenses come crashing down.

Movie over, right? I mean, this is where most rom-coms cum action movies would end, yes? But “Mr.& Mrs. Smith” is actually a much more sophisticated movie than it would initially appear. The nice plot point that propels the movie along is that neither is dead, and both their respective organizations want them that way. Hence the forces that paid them both lucratively and sought out their services constantly are combining to, er, downsize them both. Boom: they’re on the run.

And here’s where the movie really brings home the theme of honesty, authenticity, and communication in relationships: with so many getaways and car chases to be navigated, so much gunplay, and explosions to avoid, we still see that, despite their newfound authenticity, they still aren’t on the same page. They are constantly negotiating and renegotiating their own respective ways and habits when it comes to “intelligence gathering,” sneaking inside buildings, firearms (“Why do I get the ‘girl’ gun?” Jane asks incredulously as John hands her the lower-caliber weaponry he thinks they’ll need to escape). The special-tactics hand signals, which no doubt work with members of their own respective teams, fall on, er, deaf ears here, as neither can interpret the others gestures. What the movie is suggesting is that, even for couples finally being authentic and shedding their pretenses, this newly discovered and no doubt welcome authenticity simply isn’t enough: you have to relearn those tics, predilections, habits, and strategies for communicating clearly, primarily because, well, now you’re dealing with a different person altogether.

The final sequence: teams of special tactics hit squads from their respective companies (dozens of them, with helicopters and other “black ops” technology) chase the harried couple into a large Home and Garden Center (think Home Depot, but with more “model” kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms – again, these symbols of domesticity and suburban bliss are no accidents). They dodge bullets and near-misses, and even more miscommunications from each other, finally getting shelter and a momentary reprieve from the attack in a wooden utility shed. Outside we can hear (and see) the forces gathering around them, laying in wait for the final attack, while inside we’re treated to what’s become the obligatory cinematic “Butch and Sundance” moment: some gallows humor, followed by what may be John and Jane’s final words to each other. In short, they’ve shed their last pretenses toward inauthenticity, as well as any illusions about what the future might bring.

But they’ve come too far with each other not to down without a fight: they burst from the shed firing in a slow-motion sequence that captures just how far they’ve come, just how clearly the couple is now, finally, in sync: it’s a perfectly choreographed ballet of gun-blasts and bullets that shows John and Jane working seamlessly together to defeat their enemies, the things that would kill them if they weren’t finally and wordlessly “communicating.” They shoot their enemies over each other’s shoulders; they reload each other’s weapons and they anticipate the other’s moves and targets, and duck or assist each other accordingly; they stand back to back (“husband and wife are one flesh”) to lay waste to whoever tries to come between them. The violence is palpable: but, in the end, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” isn’t about violence; it’s about the fight to save a marriage.


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Comedy Criticism: Is It Possible?

This morning, on his Facebook page, Chris White asked the following question: “There is really a stunning lack of thoughtful comedy criticism in America. Anyone have a theory as to why?” Being both a theory geek and a comedy geek, I tried to provide a few reasons why. Here’s my reply:

“First, it’s intimidating to attempt criticism of this sort when the very artifacts of the medium itself have such a short shelf life. Jokes are contextual and temporal, and even premises of some movies and sketches are sometimes based in something that’s here one minute, gone the next.

Second, criticism sometimes seems useless in the face of what comedians would say is the only criticism that matters: the laughter of the audience. Orwell once said something to the effect of “there is no argument by which one can defend a poem. A poem defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.” Perhaps the same thing applies to comedy: there is no argument by which one can defend (or criticize) a joke/premise/sketch/movie, etc. A joke defends itself by getting laughs, period. And perhaps here’s the best place to cart out that old saw about how analyzing a joke is like dissecting a frog.

Third, “criticism” implies a theoretical and historical understanding of the genre, and that’s damned hard to come by. I’ve got plenty of books on the history and theory of comedy on my bookshelf, and you don’t bring these with you to the beach. Let’s also add here how most audiences (and even comedians, God love ‘em) are woefully ignorant of the history of the genre they are confronting or working in. Bill Maher should send a royalty check to Mort Sahl every time he opens his mouth, since Mort invented what he’s doing, but I’m not sure Maher’s audiences, or even Maher, knows that. A lot of us grew up on (and still annoy each other to this day with quotes from) Monty Python, but how many of us know that, before the Pythons came along, post-War British satire sprang fully formed from the minds of people like Spike Milligan and Peter Cook the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus? Criticism implies placing the work of today within this context, and because of the temporal aspect of this medium, sometimes just doesn’t seem worth it or all that useful. This is not to say that I, personally, being the geek that I am, wouldn’t mind reading (or even crafting myself) a historical perspective on comedy, one that tries to answer a question most of us have asked: why are certain things/perspectives/genres funny in one historical place and time, and nowhere else? Why do Mark Twain/Laurel and Hardy/Preston Sturges last, while vaudeville doesn’t? This is also the kind of thing that comedy criticism could answer, but sadly, probably won’t get around to.”

Any additional comments, thoughts? Any reasons I’m forgetting? I welcome your comments.


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My Review of The Chris Farley Show

Note: this review was first published over at DCComedy4Now.com.

One of the more poignant and telling anecdotes from The Chris Farley Show, the new biography of the late Chris Farley, comes from Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk, a writer for “Saturday Night Live” during Farley’s tenure as a cast member, and who would later partner with David Cross as part of HBO’s Mr. Show, tells of an evening in which Farley was in Odenkirk’s apartment, drunk. Many of Farley’s friends testified that he would often drink himself into a kind of energized hysteria and then proceed to destroy the furniture. Apparently any one of Farley’s friends could be a potential victim: the evening would start as an innocent get together, and end with a sweaty, wild-eyed Farley violently dismantling a futon. Later, these binges would find themselves as the staple of any SNL sketch Farley was in, but this evening it was Odenkirk’s turn to look on helplessly as Farley turned his dinette set into firewood. On this particular evening, Farley paused from his ritual, looked desperately at Odenkirk, and asked with an earnest, child-like innocence, “Odie, do you think Belushi’s in heaven?”

With his work now scorched into our collective consciousness (was there a frat boy in the ‘90s who couldn’t do a version of Matt Foley, Farley’s “motivational speaker”?) it’s not difficult for us to imagine Chris Farley in our living rooms seismically dismantling the second-hand sofa-bed. But the other Chris, the earnest, child-like one, is a bit more difficult to imagine. And yet so many of Farley’s friends testify that it was not only there, but it was actually the key to Chris Farley’s character. And it was this aspect of his personality that people loved, the aspect of him that helped them look past those times – at first infrequent, and then not – when his drug and alcohol addictions made him violent and unbalanced. The poet, critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson once wrote that “inconsistencies cannot both be right, but, imputed to man, they may both be true.” If The Chris Farley Show is anything, it’s an attempt to catalogue and resolve those inconsistencies, inconsistencies that are in all of us, to be sure, but which were especially pronounced in Chris Farley.

We know about his work. And we’re all too familiar with Farley’s final few months and days: the all-too-frequent relapses, the booze and drug binges that cost him friendships and eventually his life; his final few hours, which made tabloid headlines. But brother Tom Farley and writer Tanner Colby seem to have written (though “culled together from interviews” would be more accurate) this book to rescue from those tabloid headlines the memory of a man whose heart was apparently as big as his appetites, whose generosity was informed by a deeply ingrained Catholic faith that never left him, and who felt that his gift – to make people laugh – was tantamount to being a moral obligation.

There was a side to Chris that few saw, a side that surprised even those who thought they knew him well. For instance, Chris’ Catholicism. Even at the height of his SNL popularity, Farley was usually at Mass every Sunday seeking expiation for his sins from the evening before. Fellow cast member Siobhan Fallon recalls frequently seeing him at Mass (they went to the same church) where Farley would sheepishly look up from prayers to tell her “God’s gonnna be mad at me this time.” This faith informed his volunteer work at a local NYC Catholic charity, something he also did without any fanfare. Indeed, at his funeral as well as at numerous memorial services, people came forward to testify to Chris’ generosity: at old folks homes, where he helped load wheelchair-ridden people up and down ramps and into passenger vans; at children’s hospitals, where he frequently entertained entire wards; the Chicago Bears hat that Chris wore in the “Super Fans” sketch, which should rightly belong in the Smithsonian, instead became the property of a homeless man that Chris befriended during his stay in New York City, whom he would also frequently take out to dinner and to the theater, and who tearfully testified at Chris’ memorial service a year after his death that it was the last thing Chris gave him. Lifelong friends and relatives, fellow cast members were floored when this side of Farley came to light: he told practically no one about it. It was something he just did.

This generosity extended to his fellow actors and writers. Nearly everyone testified at Chris’ generosity onstage as both a performer and someone who wanted to make a writer’s material work. Much has already been written about the competitive culture that Lorne Michaels foments at SNL, where both performers and writers are pitted against each other in a cuthroat effort to see who rises to the challenge week after week; combine this with the already competitive nature of comedians in general, and its easy to understand how SNL continues to produce, alongside some very funny people, some people whose behavior in public is sometimes downright awful: Chevy Chase, Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy. By all accounts, Chris was different. “At read-through,” Siobhan Fallon says, “people would purposefully not laugh at something even though it was funny, because they wanted something else to make it on the show. But Chris would laugh no matter what….He didn’t discriminate. He was honest.” Norm McDonald: “I don’t think Chris knew how to hate. ….I’d be complaining and I’d go ‘You know who sucks?’ And I’d go off about so-and-so, some guy on the show. And Chris would immediately go ‘I think he’s funny, Norm. Why don’t you like him?'” Writer David Mandel: “He always went out of his way to make sure people knew what material was yours, that they were your jokes, and he was just the guy who said the lines.” Chris’ talent?

Fred Wolf: Comics are a pretty strange breed. Put all of us in a room and we can fight among ourselves and disagree with all our bitterness and neuroses. But when it came to Farley, it was unanimous: he was the best.

Norm McDonald: What astonished me about Chris was that he could make everyone laugh. He could make a child laugh. He could make an old person laugh. A dumb person, a smart person. A guy who loved him, a guy who hated him.

Very few hated Chris, and many loved him. But in the end, the desire to be — and the ability to be — the funniest person in the room, any room, wasn’t enough. The gifts he felt compelled to use, either out of some sense of religious duty or some deep-seeded need to be loved, eventually proved to be his undoing. And as close as they were to him, the authors don’t spare Farley here. We see the alcohol and drugs eventually taking their toll on his friends, his work, and finally his life. He died on December 18,1997. He was 33.

His death is often compared with John Belushi’s: Two large men, both from the Midwest, both SNL stand-outs, the funniest men of their generation, both victims of drug overdoses. And Farley apparently idolized Belushi and romanticized Belushi’s life — and death. But while Belushi’s death seemed emblematic of the excessive times he lived in — hell, who wasn’t on drugs in the early ’80s? — Farley’s seems much more tragic, frustratingly so: with so much talent, energy, and generosity, Chris Farley was surrounded by people who loved and adored him unreservedly, people who had experienced at first hand what had happened to Belushi, people who deeply understood what was happening to him, and were still powerless to do anything about it. “The Chris Farley Show” is both a hilarious and heartbreaking object lesson in what it takes to be the funniest person in the room — and what it sometimes costs.

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What John Wooden can teach us about improvisation

To get to my high school, Martinsville High School in Martinsville, Indiana, I had to travel down John R. Wooden Drive—named, of course, after legendary basketball coach and hometown hero John Wooden, who coached the UCLA men’s basketball teams to 10 NCAA championships, a feat that will probably never be repeated.

Coach John Wooden died last night. He was 99. Wooden was more than a living legend in Martinsville. All of us felt as if we had a direct connection to him: many of my classmates had gone to West Middle School, which was what the old high school had been turned into, and took gym classes on the same gym floor where Wooden first learned the game and later achieved basketball greatness, leading the high school team to three state championships, winning once. And, as others have reported, whenever he was in Indiana, he frequently made the trek 30 miles south to visit the town, see old friends, and watch his grandchildren and great grandchildren dribble on the same floor he had only decades before, back when players were still being called “cagers” because its meaning—basketball used to be played in an area completely enclosed by netting—hadn’t yet been lost.

Almost everyone who knew Wooden would probably say that “improvisation” was the last thing he valued. Indeed, preparation, practice, details—these were the things, as he understood them, that led to success. Wooden systemized his experience and beliefs into what he called a “success pyramid,” the components of which were performed daily by those he coached and mentored, the prescripts from which he was constantly peppering his practice sessions with: “be quick, but don’t hurry”; “failing to plan is planning to fail.” John WoodenNo detail was too small for Wooden, and no element of the game, or the players under his tutelage, escaped his attention:  the first thing every UCLA Bruins player learned to do when they played for Coach Wooden? To put on his socks and shoes. Wooden believed that there was a correct way to do these things to prevent foot injuries, and this was the first lesson he imparted to new players. In essence, he literally refashioned his players from the ground up. Such systemized attention to detail no doubt led to his success at every level of the game—he was the first person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach—but it doesn’t really lend itself to the ad hoc nature of improvisational comedy.

True. But there is a lesson we can learn from John Wooden: the fact that he cared less about the result, specifically winning. Player after player testified before and after his death how the word “winning” never came up during the season, during practices, during half time speeches. It’s how all understand success in athletics is measured, and yet it was something he never talked about or focused on. Instead, he focused on the principles that guided his system. A half-time speech, one player offered in remembrance, wouldn’t be about what the team could do to win, but instead how the team wasn’t being “enthusiastic” (“Enthusiasm” being one of the components in his success pyramid).

What if improvisors acted like John Wooden, and decided to not be concerned with the outcome of their endeavors? What if we stopped caring about the end result of a scene: where it’s going, the plotty path we’re going to take to get there, the so-called “loose ends” we think we need to tie up, the up-in-our-head hoops we think we need–or the scene needs, or our partners need—to jump through to arrive at some vague destination in our heads? Or, better still, what if improvisors stopped worrying about what the audience thought (or would think) of the scene long enough to concentrate on simply being in it?

As any novelist can you tell you, you never end up writing the story or novel you plan to write: the process is constantly one of discovery, of the story, of the characters, of the theme, even as you’re crafting it, and then getting the hell of out of the way to let it be told. Improvisors shouldn’t be any different from writers, or even John Wooden, in this respect: they should worry less about the outcome, and take sheer playful pleasure in the journey that will get them there. That’s what Wooden did, and the results are now the stuff of legend.

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James Joyce: A Master Improviser?

Quick: tell me the plot of Ulysses.

Haven’t read it? I have, twice. I’m not trying to brag. I was actually forced to read it, twice, in grad school. It’s dense, thick, referential, and most professors of English would snort in derision at the adjectives I just chose to describe it. Trust me on this: I am not a fan of this novel, and I don’t feel intellectually enriched at all for having read it, twice. In fact, having read Ulysses is a lot like *not* having read Ulysses. Er, twice.

But others feel differently: it’s widely considered one of the greatest works in English literature (or any literature, for that matter), the pinnacle of artistic vision and accomplishment in the novel genre. Entire cottage industries in scholarship and publishing exist in academia because of this one work. Influence? Don’t get me started. When one of those lists (you know, one of those lists) of the greatest novels ever written was published a few years ago, there was Ulysses, poised dependably as ever at the top, the one novel that everyone knows about, few people have actually read, and even fewer understand.

Having read Ulysses is a lot like not having read it

Having read "Ulysses" is a lot like not having read it

So: what’s the plot of this novel, perhaps the greatest novel ever written?

Since so few of us have actually read it, I’ll tell you:

A guy comes home from work.

That’s it.

Yep, you read that right. Leopold Bloom ventures (muddles?) through his daily activities on his way back home to his wife, Molly. Granted, there’s other stuff going on–plenty of it–but at its elementary level, that’s the plot.

So…what does this have to do with improv?So many times beginning improvisers (and even those who should know better) fetishize plot in improv. They think their job involves tying up the loose ends of all the concentrated chaos that came before. They want to make sense of it, resulting in scenes like this:

Actor One: So….[why must all improv scenes begin with this annoying word?]...we need to get Sam back to his hometown.

Actor Two: How do we do that?

[Pause. Pause. Pause. Silence. Again, not the silence that’s contemplative: the silence on an improv stage that immediately makes you worry for the actors, rather than the characters…]

Actor One: I’ve got. Let’s go steal a car [forgetting that he had already endowed himself, his fellow actor and Sam as being in the remote jungles of India, which they had to get to on foot. BTW, whenever you hear or say the phrases “We should…” or “Let’s go…” you’re watching/playing plot]

Actor Two: Yeah, let’s go steal a car. [Remembering the early endowment] But how are we going to find one here in the jungle?

Actor One: Easy. We’ll just time-slip to the nearest car [forgetting that this so very clever, non-sequiterish, in-the-moment choice would rather easily solve Sam’s problem]

And so forth. Welcome to Wackytown, population you. And your scene partner. And whoever has to follow you to help clean up that godawful mess.

BTW, even though I don’t actually believe in “denials” (more on this later) if it were up to me choices like these would be considered macro-level denials, punishable by permanent improv exile until you can cut it right the fuck out. Why? Because this is why a lot of people *hate* improv. Hate it with a passion normally reserved for cheating ex-lovers or totalitarian dictators. Choices like the above detract from the overall narrative being created, leading to digressions that have to be explained away by some swiftly tap-dancing actors. But, more importantly, they lead to confusion among audience members, confusion that leads to their resolving never to shell out hard earned bucks for it again.  It’s why improv as a theatrical endeavor will never be in the big rooms. Just the little black box theaters that attempt to supply this magical experience but only end up providing something that all too often appears to be exported out of clown college.

The cardinal sin in the above scene is that two actors decided to play plot. They decided to try to solve Sam’s problem (needs to get back to his hometown) and only ended us digressing even further  from the primary storyline and into a realm in which fantastical choices can be made (“time slips”), fantastical choices that could have solved Sam’s “problem” in the first place. Hence, the audience stopped caring about the characters (because they stopped finding out about them), and stopped believing in the world that everyone had worked so hard to create. They think they’re getting ripped off:

And they are.
So what to do instead? Easy. The solution is in the first line.

Actor One: We need to help Sam get back to his hometown.

That’s the most interesting line in the scene. Why does Actor One’s character feel so strongly about Sam? Why is he so determined to help him? Does he or she love him secretly? Are nefarious things waiting for him once he returns? Does he want the rest of the town to know that he’s been traveling with Sam? There’s plenty of non-plottish territory to be mined here, territory that would allow us to discover so much about both Actors 1 and 2, their relationship to Sam, and their relationship to each other. But the more often the choice that gets made is the plottish one.

I recently saw (and cannot rave enough about) a movie called “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

Given that title, it’s easy to guess what the movie is about. No need to type “spoiler alert”: Robert Ford shoots Jesse James. That’s the schematic of the movie. But, of course, those of you have seen this movie know that the movie isn’t about that at all. It’s about what it means to try to kill someone who was already become mythic within his own lifetime, and what helping forge that myth meant. It’s about the complex relationship between a young tormented man who admires from afar, then meets, comes to know and then eventually betray a man he loves more than any other. (It is, of course, a retelling of the biblical tale of Judas and Christ…) Again, the “plot” of the movie is no more what the movie is about anymore than your official “biography” (“Born in Medford, NJ; educated at Princeton, etc.) is “who you are.”
Ulysses too highbrow? “The Assasination….” too middlebrow? Okay. “Rocky.”
Whats this movie about? It aint about boxing...

What's this movie about? It ain't about boxing...

What’s the plot of Rocky?” Mr. Nobody from Nowhere, who had potential years ago and is past his prime, gets picked out of a hat to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, where he might or might not win.

But, of course, it’s not about the fight. The fight scenes in the film are montaged. They take about 15 minutes of the movie. Notice also that some of them happen in real time, some are sped up. But those that happen in real time, are consistently hammering away at the emotional terrain that Rocky is experiencing. Not the fight.

In both Ulysses and in “Assasination,” the narrative arc of any story you tell is an emotional one. What “happens” matters little. Why it happens, the effect on everyone involved, is what the movie is about. The same holds true for any improv scene you’re in.

There are plenty of things going on in an improv scene. Plot shouldn’t be one of them. The narrative arc of any improv scene is an emotional one led by a character or characters facing a dilemma. Remember this: Character is plot. Always will be. All novels, all movies, all TV shows, all plays, most newsmagazine profiles are actually character studies. Wanna write an unforgettable novel? Write an unforgettable character (cf. Leopold Bloom, Ulysses, above). Want to do compelling unforgettable improv? Create unforgettable (read: bigger, broader, complex, larger than life, dilemma ridden, fault- ridden, desire-ridden) characters.  Have them want things. Badly. Don’t solve their plotty little problems. Instead, let us discover things about them other than their logistical difficulties. Show us how they feel about others in the scene. Show us that. We’ll be too fascinated and compelled by your creation to notice the plot, which is, again, superfluous to what we’re doing up there.

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Brideshead Revisited Revisited

Brideshead Revisited Revisited

I don’t understand the necessity of remaking what is clearly Waugh’s worst novel (“Waugh’s snobbery is allowed to rage unchecked,” was Kingsley Amis’ summation of the book) into a movie/miniseries yet again. Slate agreed with me.

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I’ve Been Saying This For Years about Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress)

I’ve been saying this for years…

Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) was one of the best novelists of the 20th Century. Finally, the Atlantic’s taste has caught up with mine.

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