On another note — is it wrong to start on another note when no other notes have been played? I’m sure you’ve had quite a few notes today — on another note entirely (I’m partial to B-flat, myself) I am in the last week of a show. I have been in/rehearsing for shows nonstop for over a year. I will be choreographing another show starting in August (with choreography work starting mid-July). I’m going to enjoy my break. I spent a lot of time brainstorming The (Script) Project this week. Somehow, telling myself I cannot and should not work on it until after this weekend has made it delicious. I cannot wait to start.
We had friends over for dinner the other night; I’m in baking mode. I’ve made this lime yogurt cake and blackberry sauce and this Best Damned Chocolate Cream Pie. Yes, only four of us for dinner. Why do you ask? At least I have enough self-awareness to know that’s why I’ve gained back the weight I took off for reunion (but not an ounce more. Maybe this is my body’s happy weight?) I’ve started cardio in addition to the weight training. Life has a good rhythm these days; I’m looking forward to drafting The (Script) Project starting Monday. I’ve been jotting down notes and lyrics and scene ideas since I took the plunge and decided to make this a go. Huzzy and I are going to do this. I’m excited. I want to make this work and give it breath and wings, so that it can live away from me, in the cradle of other theater companies. That’s a long process. I’m happy I am disciplined enough to break it down into steps, manageable tasty bites.
On the first note (probably an F. F goes nicely with B-flat), here’s the first part of the improv story purge:
I fell in love with Saturday Night Live when I was thirteen. Not with the cast at that time, a floundering group that couldn’t seem to find its heart or its funny, but loved to death the original cast. WOR Channel 9 in New York broadcast hour-long versions of the first few seasons at 2 and then 3 in the morning every Sunday. We were not given an allowance as kids and had to ask our parents for anything and everything. I asked for a tape. I was told to tape over one of my other tapes, which I did. The results were grainy at times; however, for every viewing that stripped away at the tape, rendering it a little weaker, my resolve and intrigue and soulful understanding strengthened.
For some reason, my parents weren’t thrilled with me taping anything. TV was the enemy in the house and we were not permitted to watch it during the week. It is important to note that we watched it when my parents were at work. It is also important to note that we all ratted each other out. It was forbidden fruit, sweet and juicy. Getting each other in trouble was like a heaping dollop of Schadenfreude whipped cream. The real stuff, not the Redi-Whip Schadenfreude. That stuff’ll kill you.
Finding the opportunity to watch the tapes took some patience and strategizing. I rarely had the house to myself – I needed to be alone, totally focused, to inhale the craft of it all. My sister knew this and usually came around and started bossing me around. My brother would just come around and breathe, to my dismay. If my parents were around the house on the weekends, they weren’t pleased if we watched TV. Homework came first, housework came second (or, vice versa). We had religious obligations. We were Busy. TV makes you Not Busy. We were raised to ABD – Always Be Doing. TV was something to stare at for a few moments at the end of a busy day until the couch swallowed us in its smooshy comfort and cradled us to sleep.
Often I would wait until everyone went to bed the next Saturday and watched the tapes. I was hooked. I memorized the sketches, the actor choices, the beats, the facial expressions. I loved the corny labels the audience members sometimes got. I adored Danny Ackroyd – to me, he was the most talented, the most able to morph into a variety of characters. I felt Jane Curtain was under-utilized. I wanted to comb Larraine Newman’s hair. I appreciated Belushi’s energy and power. I didn’t love Chevy Chase’s work. I didn’t get it. He mugged a lot. Garret Morris seemed “off” at the time…
My devotion, while distracted by other pursuits, didn’t disappear when I entered high school. I purchased albums of recordings of that first year. I read books about the cast and their interactions. I learned Buck Henry was a beloved host. I learned Candace Bergan was also beloved. I learned John was an unpredictable, brilliant firestorm and that Gilda had a background in musical theater. Morris’s off-ness that I picked up on was generally his stoned condition. I learned there was a lot of drug use behind the scenes. I learned Robert Kline played harmonica and Steve Martin could play banjo. I learned music could be funny. I loved any and all musical parodies on the show.
What turned my love into near-worship was learning that they all also contributed to the writing on the show (some more than others, some credited, some not).
They did it all. They were smart, talented, brilliant performers who also wrote.
They came mostly from Second City.
Behold, Second City – political, savvy, smart, topical, silly, wonderful humor. Beloved. Incubator of brilliance. They wrote things. They made other things up on the spot. Never having seen a show at Second City, knowing very little about improv, I felt it was my hub, my womb. I needed to go back there, despite the psychological mother-attachment theories.
I felt a peculiar and similar love for Monty Python, but knew that I would never be able to transport myself to 1969 London. Or be male. The transitions were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was smart. So very smart. The Pythons quickly felt like my first teenage boyfriend, a hard fast love that would never go anywhere but it left an indelible, heart-pounding mark on my humor. A particular word or phrase or raised eyebrow will transport me to days and nights of watching those VHS tapes, often as a double feature with SNL.
Meanwhile, I wrote and performed a lot in high school. My scripts were for classes and projects and for funsies. Too bad we never had a playwriting class, or a political satire class. I would have loved that. Instead, I participated in school debates about the next governor (I was on the Florio side, embarrassingly – and was at the time blissfully unaware that my leftie leanings were in quite the minority at my school.) I sang a cappella (I am convinced that a cappella is the improv of the music world). I was in plays in school and out. I performed with the New Jersey opera company.
I knew I’d never be a lead in traditional theater. I’m quirky. I’m odd. I have a weird sense of humor. No one would mistake me for the leading gal-next-door type. I can play the vamp, I can play the sidekick, I can play the villain. I am all humor with a thin, sneering layer of snark underneath. Under that, I think, is nougat. Besides, I was cursed with an alto voice. All leading-gal-types in musicals are sopranos. Rarely are strong, barrel-bodied altos dramatic leads, either. I would break Williams’ Hot Tin Roof, I would.
Also, as a side note, I’m playing a pumpkin for one more show this week. I was born to be a round gourd.
I adored, but didn’t relate to, Gilda. Wispy, sweet, wide-eyed soprano. Through her, I found Gene Wilder and, monumentally, Mel Brooks. Mel is my Mental Script Mentor. I loved (and still do) Madeline Kahn who, although a soprano, was wild-looking and silly and substantive and sly, more like me than I am like Teri Garr. Or Teri Hatcher. She is not funny. I don’t care how many commercials she does with Howie Long.
I rejoiced when Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn joined SNL (’86 and ’85 respectively) and blew me out of the water. Altos. Striking looking but not beautiful. Willing to play ugly. Willing to not be adored. Strong enough to play with the boys, but always feminine.
I decided I wanted to be Phil Hartman, who earned my life-long respect and admiration back in that cast. I loved Myers and Miller and Carvey, but Phil always struck me as the most talented and the one having the most fun. He seemed content to do his work on the show and never seemed to telegraph that this was a vehicle for destined-for-the-bargain-bin movies that so many SNL cast members seemed primed for.
I wanted to be part of the writing, the madness, the constant stream of creativity and pressure and performing.
My weirdness had a place. In Chicago. At Second City…