You know how they say that some super successful people wear the same thing everyday, like a uniform? They do this because every decision takes up the same mental space. So picking out an outfit taxes the brain as much as deciding which side of the computer should hold the power cord, or when to let the paint dry on a masterpiece. To some that is too much of a tax to pay, so they take the clothes decision out of the equation, “I’ll wear a mock turtleneck and jeans, or a blue suit, or a meat dress, everyday.” This leaves more room for the bigger creative decisions, and leaves some super achievers devoid of fashion.
For me this makes sense because every decision I have to make is met with category 5 panic. Every outcome is either save the city or total devastation. Where to eat, which case for my phone, is it time for a haircut, feel like the joint chiefs of staff are waiting for an answer. This can be paralyzing, it’s why I eat at the same places often, it’s just that shopping in any form is undesirable, and I have to figure out my uniform. I guess this is way I am seeking therapy, and trawling the web for mock turtlenecks. Wish me happy hunting.
It’s funny what we’ll turn our nose up at, the things we choose to be snobby about can cover the gamut. It doesn’t escape anyone, you can be picky about which light beer to drink as much as you can be about drinking a Bordeaux before its time. People have beef jerky preferences, it’s not only a high brow trait.
Sometimes I think Snobbery could be added as the 8th deadly sin, it would have changed the screenplay of Se7en in a funny way, “The killer seems to only commit his murders in apartments with views of Central Park.” At very least it is an unattractive trait. I try to avoid it, but have been called out for the behavior in the same calendar day.
Snobbery, in some cases, is making an assumption. It’s saying, I know what this is without trying or before experiencing the object or event. It is also a cultural and societal dick measuring contest, but I’ll live to tell that story another day.
This example brings me back to Florida, which, apologies to Florida, is not often thought of as the arts and letters State. In this bait and tackle shop of a community lives a small professional theater named American Stage, in St. Petersburg. It is an Equity house that has produced more than 25 years of theater, and once, many years ago, helped me find ballast on my rocky artistic path. My time at American Stage, which I chronicle in my book The Drama King, was an artistic life vest. It’s presence on my line graph has carried me forward to this very day. I should make a pilgrimage to this place once a year, alas, I do not.
A few months ago, I was back in St. Pete, visiting family for a graduation, and my girlfriend had a health crisis, that added an unfortunate B-plot to the festivities. My brother and his wife planned among other events a night at the theater, which was in the middle of its run of the John Logan play, Red. Since leaving New York I must admit that I don’t keep up with the New York theater scene. I was unaware of this play and its London and Broadway success. Sitting here now, I am making a note to turn off sports talk radio and to get the Sunday New York Times once in while, so my snobbery, I mean culture muscle, doesn’t atrophy.
I think snobbery and ingratitude are co-mingled – perhaps I should speak for myself. In the haze of hospital visits and lack of sleep, I was not looking forward to the play. Inconsiderately, I shared these feelings with my ailing girlfriend. “I don’t want to see this slow ass ponderous play about a guy and his paint brush, I hate that bougie shit, I have other things to worry about than this high brow, impractical bullshit.” I said. “Why don’t you go, it might inspire you,” my girlfriend said. I began again and was interrupted, “Why don’t you go, so you can stop ranting at my bedside.” I went to the play, toots sweet.
I was less than enthused on the way to my brother’s house. I was stressing out as the logistics of getting 10 people to the theater on time started to unravel. My theater snob iterating that “It is unacceptable to arrive to the theatre late, curtain is 8PM sharp.” We got there in time to hear the bells chime that it was time to enter the theater. I had a stirring in me, seeing the set and holding the program I started hearing from that bug that bit me all those years ago. I scanned the space, trying to locate where the sound and light booth were, and looking up at the lights. I scanned the room and braced myself against the tension of whether the crowd would settle in and pay attention, which since we’re talking about snobbery was a note to myself.
Looking at the program I saw only two characters, which means the actors would have to handle a ton of dialogue and knowing the likely rehearsal time had me worried. I needn’t have worried. The actors Gregg Weiner and Andrew Perez were up to the task. The play is a fictionalized account of the artist Mark Rothko and an assistant he hires, berates, and maybe teaches along the way. The plot centers on the commission of a mural for a restaurant, but really leaves room to discuss and battle over the nature of art, what is art, what is color, where does the intellect come into the picture. It is a full length one-act play, performed with no intermission. It went by with more ease than I expected it to, and got me thinking in the ways the playwright intended, which is to say it has many levels. The stagecraft was stellar at every turn. I wanted to read the script to see where the words were interpreted and where the author had crafted the scene. I could feel the collaboration, the professionalism, and the Floridians eating it up.
This is where the snobbery and gratitude lines came to cross. I had a chance to opt out, my girl was in the hospital, I wasn’t sleeping, I needed a minute to myself. The last thing I wanted was this appointment to keep. And, yet, this piece of art about art in an artistic desert was doing more for my battered psyche than a nap or some mindless television, or god forbid scanning social media. It was good. It was about something. It was, dare I say invigorating to my spirit. It was doing its job.
I grew up in a family that appreciated the arts. Museums and books are a shared passion for all my siblings, and my parents. It dawned on me as I sat with my family and the next generation of it, that this art thing is passed down. It was being absorbed. If it is done well it feels like it relates to you in a specific way — for me, because I’m an actor and performed with this company many iterations ago, for my sister, who was an art history major and didn’t need the notes in the program to know about Mark Rothko. I wonder what it was for the kids, my nieces and nephew? Maybe it doesn’t matter, there will be a time when they remember, which is another thing that art does.
So as I circle back, I was being snobbish, because I didn’t want to watch a play in Florida, when I wouldn’t in LA, and I was reminded that those actors on stage were just like me when I take the stage as a comic. Unknown to most, but talented, and all they really need is for someone to give them a chance, which I don’t mean in the industry sense, but a chance to be seen as they proceed to do art, the industry caring or not caring to varying degrees. There are artists out there, grinding, cranking out good work, in places some snobs would call godforsaken outposts. And all they need is a place to show their wares, and I am one of them. The note to take for me, is sometimes being in the audience is part of the process. And sometimes in the last place you expected you are inspired.
A track record like the one at American Stage is something to be proud of, I thank them for a great night at the theater, on Earth.
My Mom is a patriot. I am too. To say that to some connotes a certain partisanship that is not intended. I’m mostly a radical anti-racist with a lingering idealism that I can’t seem to shake. No side of any coin should dangle patriotism as a banner unshared. It belittles the word and the intent.
I only know this country, with its original sin of slavery still smoldering, and I am not naive to the things we have done on our path to the present. Holidays and the things they represent are the best hopes and ideals we can muster. Our flag as an image remains true to its symbolism, it is we human-Americans who fall short.
I recently got an email from my mother (my siblings too) that I, initially, took as a scolding. She mentioned that she’d appreciate hearing from us on the American holidays, and it is with this post, that I wish her a happy Fourth of July, and join her in her wish for the day to be acknowledged for more than a hot dog and a mattress sale. For the promise that this celebration makes, the promise that has a ways to go for some of our citizens, as I have a ways to go on many fronts myself. Independence is freedom, and when we continue in that promise we raise that flag.
Our flag, the united flag, The American flag. One people. One Mom, hopefully keeping cool in New Jersey, had to remind me. I’m glad she did.
A movie cliché that I’ve never been able to corroborate is the idea that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. Is that true? How would you be able to find out? Wouldn’t the entire investigation consist of sitting at the crime scene until the perpetrator returned? It sounds like that script device that no one ever debates, and the writer hopes he can sneak in without much scrutiny. Kind of like all the nebulous legal jargon that permeates legal dramas with the writer hoping the audience gives him a pass.
I was recently in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. My niece was graduating from high school and I was looking forward to the bathtub warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, the soft white sand, and a grouper sandwich.
Life intervened with a health crisis for my girlfriend, and we were lucky to have family, and two doctors on hand, and a great staff at the Bayfront Health Center in St. Petersburg.
Extending the trip presented an opportunity for me check the schedule at the Tampa Improv, to see who was in town and if it was someone I could impose upon for a guest spot. Turned out my buddy Dean Napolitano was in town, and he already extended the offer weeks before, when I asked if he was around the initial week I had planned.
More than 10 years earlier, Dean, was one of the first people I met in comedy when I was starting out. He was a recent arrival, but was a seasoned veteran of comedy. He had big time management and was running a show at a club. I was doing the open mic, on the insistence of my brother, and wondering what I had done with my life after leaving New York. These were not good days; I was living in an apartment with an interior bee’s nest and was missing New York after 9/11 when the city banded together. It felt like I left unfinished business, instead of following a dream westward.
I was embodying another cliché; that of the transplanted New Yorker lost and confused in the wilds of Los Angeles. I knew enough to shut up about pizza, bagels, and museums, but one of my early jokes had the terrible punch line, “now I’m like a soccer mom trying to get pussy,” about the car culture and dating in Los Angeles. Not my proudest moment, but you grasp at anything in the beginning.
Dean had some friends who saw me perform at the tail end of the open mic, and told Dean that I was funny. I hung out with them after watching the main show, and tried not to cling too hard onto what I thought was a good connection.
I was hungry for stage time and not so sure about the pathways to a career. I performed anywhere I could, at a Laundromat in Silver Lake, at spoken word open mics, where I’d pass off Springsteen lyrics as poetry, and once in a while with Dean and his crew.
It became imperative for me to have a tape of a set so I could get some real gigs. Even with better technology, getting tape is difficult, things go wrong: you forget to press record, you have to go off script to deal with a heckler, or somebody bumps into the tripod.
It came to me that if I got to Florida, I could ask a favor of my brother, who at the time was the executive producer of a local show that interviewed the headliners who were in town at the Tampa Improv. He had an “in” at the club — that was part one of the plan. The second part was to use his equipment from the television studio to make a professional quality tape. I was mic’d up, he had the camera they use for the reporters in the field, it was gonna be great.
I had a guest spot, which is usually 7 minutes, after the host. The headliner was Bill Bellamy. I had thrown a party the night before, at a club in LA that was the scene of an early comedy triumph that had bolstered my confidence. I flew to Tampa (hung-over) and changed into a good shirt in the car. I met the guy who extended the favor and who would also be the host. My brother took his equipment into the theater and I tried to settle my nerves with a Heineken.
The crowd started to fill in. I think I might have seen my parents and my sister-in-law before they headed to their seats. I was less than a year into doing stand-up, but was thinking this was finally a way in for me. It was writing and acting, it wasn’t passive, I could find a stage and I could perform.
The Tampa Improv is a beautiful club; it’s in Ybor City and has great architecture. It was a bigger crowd than I had ever seen. They were not there to see me. I was pacing around trying to get my energy going. The host started his set and was warming up the crowd. My brother was in the back of the room looking through the viewfinder.
The host introduced me. I had no credits. No reason to be there. And suddenly realized no material. All the jokes that worked in tiny rooms in Southern California coffee houses, and back rooms in bars were now sailing out of bounds like a rusty tennis player trying to get his game back on track. I was double faulting all over the place. I was looking for the light. It was only 7 minutes and I could not pull out of the nosedive. I was talking, doing the feeble material I had planned to do, but it was not club ready. It was not packed-house-Friday-night-paying-customer-ready. And it certainly wasn’t camera ready.
The light flashed, probably earlier than it would have flashed. I managed a dismount and walked off. The host started making fun of me and I walked to the bar and swallowed another beer in three gulps. The host came over and apologized for being a dick and kicking me while I was down, and he told me it wasn’t my crowd. I thanked him for the accommodation and apologized for eating shit. I had blown it. My brother had pulled a string and I had blown it.
My brother packed up his gear, and joined me at the bar, while I speed drank more beer. He asked me what I needed. I said I needed to get out of the building. I needed to go somewhere else fast. I needed to think about the rest of my life. We wound up at a barbeque joint and I soothed my shattered psyche with more suds.
Years later I returned to Tampa to play the rival club, Sidesplitters. I was the feature for my buddy, Jamie Kaler. My brother had his camera and I was ready. I had great shows, got great tape, and felt vindicated.
Last week, asking Dean for a spot, though, was returning to the place that made me question whether I would continue. This was the actual scene of my crime against comedy. Maybe those movie profilers are right. We do return.
My brother asked if I wanted him to see the show. He didn’t want to be a jinx. My girlfriend was well enough to attend and we were all looking forward to a night out on the town.
I have done over 1000 shows since I bombed in Tampa. I’ve got a couple of TV credits. I didn’t quit. But, I hadn’t set foot in that space since. I was warming up by goofing around with Dean, who I haven’t seen in years. I knew the stakes weren’t that high, it was a 10 minute set, on a Thursday. I just needed to stay sharp since I had to extend my time in Tampa. It didn’t look the same, until I looked to the back of the room, seeing where my brother had once set-up his camera. Then it came back, the anxiety. The crowd was good, more than half-full. The lights dimmed and the host was on stage, I was a few minutes away from being able to bury this demon, to slay this dragon, to succeed in front of family, to manifestly persist in the face of doubt. To travel back in time and say fuck you to that monster of fear and adversity. To feel good about myself. To make myself proud. To tell dick jokes in front of strangers. To do that thing we do.
I grabbed the mic and danced to the boy band music I had requested. I remembered to breathe and I remembered my girlfriend, who was in ICU for three days, texting me to “take my time.” I ripped it, or more accurately, I had a good set, got laughs and did my thing.
Dean had a great set and insisted I stand out in the lobby with him and thank the crowd as they exited. He was the headliner and they were there to tell him he did a great job, but enough people shook my hand and thanked me to let me know I had come full circle, that I had faced down a failure and turned it into a victory, to win the rematch, to get back off the mat, to get back on the horse, to topple the giant, to rattle off more clichés.
Maybe that’s why clichés are easy to use. They remind us of our connectedness. They remind us that life will step in and remind you who is in charge. And they remind you that if you return to the scene of the crime, sometimes you get to admire your handiwork.
Those ten minutes in Tampa didn’t add to my IMDb page, didn’t add money to my bank account, didn’t get me another agent. It was one of the few times where tying up a loose end is enough. It doesn’t come with a certificate. It is between you and whatever lifeforce you claim. It is one of those moments that you allow yourself some grace, some pride, some peace. I guess by sharing it I am looking to keep a record, or maybe encourage someone else to keep going, to try to face down constant discouragement. To remind myself that no one else can encourage you more than that voice inside you that says keep fighting. Thanks for hearing me. Peace.
Chopping it up with friend and fellow Carnegie Mellon alumnus on his podcast. He let me plug my book, The Drama King- (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00O6038OA/ref=rdr_kindle_ext_tmb) and talk about some of its contents. We also talked about how dissimilar our college experiences were, CMU is a bi-polar campus – with artists and tech nerds milling and seething on the quad.
Have a listen.
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