Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's a Character Choice
It seems that everywhere I look these days there's another program about comedians interviewing other comedians.

Paul Provenza, co-director of The Aristocrats, a great film about free speech and the dirtiest joke that comedians tell one another, has a show on Showtime.  Aisha Tyler, stand-up, actress and one-time host of Talk Soup on E! has her own podcast where she interviews comedians and other members of the "Nerdverse."  On there is a posting listing the top 10 podcasts of comedians interviewing comedians.

The program getting the most attention from the mainstream media is Marc Maron's WTF.  What began as a guerilla project while he was still working for the now-defunct Air America has evolved into the New York Times of comedians talking to comedians.

At just over 200 shows, Maron has interviewed top names like Robin Williams and Gary Shandling, to comedy giants like Jonathan Winters and current favorites like the "Queen of Mean" Lisa Lampanelli.

Perhaps it is the setting for the interviews, Maron's make-shift garge/studio at the enigmatically named Cat Ranch, but these interviews are compelling because the subjects are not relentlessly pre-interviewed and the questions are not shaped to set-up the guest's A-material.  They talk about the life behind the jokes and, because both parties are "in the business," there is an honesty that you just don't hear.

I bring all this up because I recently listened to Maron's interview with Andrew "Dice" Clay who was the "bad boy" of comedy a little more than a decade ago.

I was never a fan of his comedy and his "new" nursery rhymes, but in the interview he talks about how he created the "Diceman" character.  He looked at the comedians who were successful at the time he was coming up and he made a conscious choice to go in a different direction.  Where most comedians of the time--well, any time, really--draw their material from their insecurities, Clay built his comedy persona on the premise of being the most confident man in the room.  And once he had made that choice--"committed to it" as we used to say in the theatre--his act grew organically from that initial decision.

Condensed into a paragraph, the choices that led to him being the most successful comedian of the decade seem self-evident and facile, even somewhat clinical.  Like any new business venture, he surveyed the market and identified a niche, or character, that was unique.  The revelation is remarkable because it seems so out of synch with the persona he created.

Earlier in the interview, Clay discloses that he began performing as a John Travolta impersonator.  This was at the time of "Welcome Back Kotter" and Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino was the show's stand-out character.  I just have a hard time imagining Barbarino with an MBA and yet that is, in essence how the world got Andrew "Dice" Clay.

It is in separating the actor from his character, the comedian from his persona, that we see the effect of conscious choice.

You come across interviews with actors all the time who talk about how their characters can do things that they themselves could never do.  The example that comes to mind right away is perhaps not the most persuasive, but I remember at the time Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, a big deal was made out of the character's fear of snakes.  Turns out that Harrison Ford is not afraid of snakes and yet there were a number of interviews where he was asked about this.

The other story that comes to mind is from the Dustin Hoffman movie "Marathon Man".  True, or not, it speaks to conscious choices designed to create a specific effect in the minds of the audience.

Sound familiar?

Elsewhere in this blog I have written about choosing material that is appropriate for the performer.  It is perhaps more accurate to say that the material should be appropriate for the performer's onstage persona.

Where does that persona come from?

Without the advantage of a screenwriter to create the character, the magician has to piece together his own.  

Who are the magicians that inspire?

In the 1950s, one of the biggest names in magic was Channing Pollock.  He created a night club act that has inspired magicians for generations.  His suave presentation of his signature dove routine defined what magicians were.

Johnny Thompson was one of those inspired by the Pollock act.  He recognized that he could not compete with Pollock and so he took his act in a different direction.

Lance Burton's onstage persona was more polished than Thompson and he was able to create an award-winning act that was evocative of Pollock and yet totally his own.

Watching these videos provides another insight into Robert-Houdin's maxim about the magician being an actor playing the part of the magician. Not only does the performer have to be savvy enough to understand what the public is buying, but they must also be sufficiently self-aware to know how to find that character within themselves.

I can only draw on my limited experience doing stand-up and the rankest of amateur levels.  

When I would participate in open-mic nights it was the same crowd of wanna-bees that would swarm from one club to another in order to get as much stage time as possible.  Because the faces were the same from one week to the next, we had an opportunity to watch performers evolve their comedy personae:  there was the dumb-joke guy--I wear condoms on my ears so I won't get the hearing aids; the guy who was inspired by Richard Pryor--this is my impression of James Brown taking a dump;  and several who would jockey for the title of the most outrageous.  They seemed to pride themselves on coming up with material that would not be suitable to share around the workplace watercooler.

I was inspired by the thinking comics and so I tried to come up with material that was topical.  Against a backdrop of fart jokes and drug humor, I tried observational humor and from the headlines type stuff.  Needless to say, by trying to swim upstream, I was not doing myself any favors.  I was not making myself accessible to the audience.

One night, I remember trying a joke about Maxwell House coffee and I knew it wasn't working.  For some reason, I thought I would overdrive the punchline with some profanity and not only did it not help the joke, I was immediately uncomfortable for having done it and I never did it again.  

I was uncomfortable because using that kind of language, while it was common for the environment of the club, was not authentic to who I was.  I did not have it in me to act the part of a profane comedian.  To refine my persona, I needed to keep looking for authentic parts of me that I could amplify for the stage.

The role of the magician is a character like Romeo or Indiana Jones.  To play that part, the performer, the "actor" doesn't have to have had the same experiences as the character, but they do have to be able to find analogs in his own experience that enable them to bring a "truthiness" to the performance.

The choice of character continues to evolve over time right along with the magic.  Continuous refinement is inevitable in the performance arts and as the character becomes "truthier" then it becomes clear when the magic fits and when it doesn't.

As a magician, I never really found my character.  I would be drawn to material that I was convinced I could get away with and never paid much attention to how the right character choices could have made my lack of any discernible skill less apparent.

By way of illustration, I refer you to the work of Rene Levand.  Sen. Levand is from Argentina who specializes in close-up magic.  At the age of 9, he lost his hand in a car accident and was forced to develop his own approach to magic.  In his signature effect, "It Can't Be Done Any Slower" you see a marriage of material and perfomer where the strengths of each support the other.

Perhaps the best example of the synergy between character and material is found in the performances of Lennart Green. In this 2005 performance at the TED conference, Mr. Green disguises world-class technical skill behind the persona of an absent-minded professorial type. As a result, his material is always surprising to himself and to the audience.

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