Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Cancelled-Out Career"

It is not helpful to be of two minds about something.  One mind cancels out the other, and then you’re of no minds about it at all.  This puts a giant crimp on your decision-making process. 

“What do you think I should do?”

“I am of no minds about that.”

“Didn’t you used to be of two minds about it?”

“They cancelled each other out and they’re both gone, which leaves me entirely mindless.  There’s an important decision to make?  You say, ‘Put your mind to it’?  I can’t.  I don’t have one anymore.”
“Two minds” is hard. “None” is sadder.  Neither helps you decide anything.  But I miss the cross-talk. 

I have talked before about the idea of being a comedian, and how, like being an actor, the job I aspired to is different from what it actually is.  Today – as I once secretly did – I can no longer imagine myself being an actor.  The essential element of the job – i.e., acting – seems entirely ludicrous to me. 

I look at actors playing scenes together, pretending to be in a specific location when in reality they’re on a soundstage surrounded by cameras and crewmembers, they’re wearing wardrobe that is not theirs (which may include a pistol and a badge), they’re calling each other by names that are not their actual names, and their mouths rattle off dialogue somebody else wrote for them to say, infusing it with the heartfelt emotions of fictional characters.

“Olivia, this scumbag walks, and he’s free to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting community.”

Cut!  Print!  And lunch!

I don’t know how they do it.  I just know that I couldn’t.  I look Olivia – who I know is Mariska – in the eye, and I’m babbling this overheated foolishness – half way through, I’m laughing and I’m fired. 

Maybe while they’re acting, they’re thinking, “I’m earning a million dollars an episode”, and that keeps them for doing what a normal person would do, which would be rolling on the floor, convulsed by the absurdity of the entire operation.

So that’s acting – a bizarre exercise in collective self-delusion.

Being a comedian?

Well, I’ve talked before about what that takes.  And here’s where the “two minds” arrangement kicks in. 

Join me in “fantasyland” and suppose that it’s possible – as I would like to be – for a comedian to just come out on stage and be spontaneously funny.  No prepared material, just some sketchy notions of areas of interest.  But, fundamentally, their plan is to “wing it”, riffing and ranting to hilarious effect.

Why is this “fantasyland”?  Because it’s impossible.  Nobody is that reliably funny.  Nobody.  To secure your best shot at success, everyone uses prepared material, tested, tightened and reworked, so that they go out there, confidently armed with the “tried and true.”  No “surprises.”  The material, honed over time, is “sure fire.”  

That’s a comedian.  That’s what they do.

One reason (of many) I could not be a comedian is I’d feel very uncomfortable repeating material.  I do not have the professionalism to deliver it sounding “fresh.”  Plus, repeating yourself is boring.  And to some degree, dishonest.

“Hey, I just thought of this.” 

No, you didn’t.

I could never do “The Pie Joke.”  (“The Pie Joke” symbolically representing an extended comedy bit comedian Earl Pomerantz is known for, that, in the patois of the business, is, “pure gold.”  Twenty years – good audience, bad audience – “The Pie Joke” always “kills.” 

“The Pie Joke” is the equivalent of a singer’s “Signature Number”, the one they’re identified with – “Yesterday”, “On The Road Again” – the song the audience came to hear and would be seriously disappointed if they didn’t.  

Never mind that jokes aren’t songs, jokes, to elicit laughter, requiring surprise, which is not there when they are constantly repeated. 

It does not matter.  Sinatra had “My Way.”  The comedian has “The Pie Joke.”

I retain “The Pie Joke” in my arsenal.  But before performing it for the thousand and twenty-fifth time, I would rather pick up a huge mallet and bludgeon myself in the head. 

I know “The Pie Joke” works.  But I am determined not to do it.

So I’m onstage, improvising my act and doing quite nicely, when, out of the darkness of the auditorium, I hear,

“Do ‘The Pie Joke’!” 

I stop, and I sigh.  And I level with the audience.

“I don’t want to do ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“Do ‘The Pie Joke!’”

“I’m sorry.  I hate to disappoint you.  But I am not doing ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“We love ‘The Pie Joke’!”

“I know.  It’s a great joke.  But…”

“Do ‘The Pie Joke’!”

“Look, guys.  I am burnt out on ‘The Pie Joke’.  Instead, I am trying this experiment – every performance, new material.  I mean, tonight, you people are hearing original comedy nobody has ever heard before.  When you think about it, that’s quite an accomplishment.”

“Do ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“I don’t understand.  You already know ’The Pie Joke’.”

“I got it memorized.  I could say it along with you.”

“So why do you want to hear it again?”

“We came for ‘The Pie Joke’.”

“Okay but, you see, I kind of promised myself…


“‘Pie Joke.’ ‘Pie Joke.’  ‘Pie Joke.’  ‘Pie J…”

What are you gonna do?  You’ve got a rebellion on your hands.  So you take a deep breath, you put yourself in the mood, and go,

“This may sound crazy, but I spend my life…searching…for the quintessentially perfect…piece of pie.”

And the audience goes wild.  And that, my friends, is that.  You abandon your “experiment”, and do “The Pie Joke” till you die.  And when you do, they tell “The Pie Joke” in your obituary.

From the “comedian” standpoint, those, as I see it, are your options.  You can free associate on stage, or you can do “The Pie Joke.”  As previously mentioned, the “winging it” option is not realistically doable (and even if it were, a person with my cautious temperament would never attempt it; I might want to, but I wouldn’t.)  “The Pie Joke” option is out of the question.

Why do people not become what they aspire to become?  Because they’re of two minds about it.  And neither of them is possible.

1 comment:

Mac said...

I once met John Lahr - a lovely guy and the son of Bert Lahr - and he told me his dad, as well as having been the lion in the Wizard of Oz, co-starred in the US premiere of 'Waiting for Godot,' won a Tony Award, won the American "Shakespearean Actor Of The Year" award etc etc. but he'd once done an advert for Potato Chips with the line "Betcha can't eat just one!" So every time he walked down the street, got into a cab, entered a bar etc. that was what he heard...