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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"NO,BUT"-The tenets of improv on the main compound wall; The moon in the daytime; Purging Magnum Munts


Pic taken from the City Paper article about I-Factor's weekly show at the Funny Bone, HUMP. That's me kneeling. For just the parking fee at Station Square, the price of admission and a 2 drink minimum (for overpriced drinks) you could've been there too. Circa 2005.

One of my omnipresent fears is that when I eventually pass away people be mistaken about whom I was. When I say “who I was” I’m not just talking about the fact that I was a guy who proudly owned two Maksutov Cassegrian telescopes, or that I’d spent hundreds of dollars on Pink Floyd bootlegged concert CDs before music became downloadable over the blasted interweb. I’m talking about who I was, as in the worldviews crocheted into my DNA, but perhaps partially unraveled by such life experiences such as intentionally being beaned three times in the District 12 Little League Championship Game by my own cousin.

When my friend and I snuck downstairs at midnight to watch George Carlin’s Jammin’ in New York when I was about 11 years old, I was floored. I’d watched such sitcoms as Perfect Strangers, and such stand-up routines as the forgettable joke-tellers on An Evening at the Improv, but nothing like this. Carlin was funny, of course, but what really perked me was his perceived authenticity; he was a pointed social critic who happened to be hysterical. Carlin was revealing something about himself whenever he threw a jab. He was not a character. Suddenly, Balki Bartokomous was shit.

Another instance that steered me towards comedy was during an open-mic night at a coffee house during my college days at LHU. I dressed up in a straggly wig and humongous dark sunglasses, and signed my name on the performers' sign-up sheet as Magnum Munts. Then I just sat  cross-legged on the floor and rocked, noticing all the cockeyed and worrisome glances beyond the gaudy rims of my glasses. When the MC introduced me and turned over the mic, I stated that I was going to read a deeply heartfelt poem (like so many of the bleeding hearts that attended those slams) but instead I read my version of 100 bottles of beer. The catch was, the math got screwier and screwier: "67 bottles of beer on the wall, 67 bottles of beer—take 34 down and divide that by 7 and multiple that by the tangent of 245.7 and add that to the distance between Chicago and Albuquerque…19.583  bottles of beer on the wall." It went on and on. The reception was overwhelming. I think it was as much a release of the audience's tension as much as anything, but I relished the reaction. I wanted the experience again and again.   

Two years after I graduated college, when I was 24 in 2003, I moved by myself to Pittsburgh—without much money, without knowing anyone in Western Pa, without any job prospects, without having truly visited the city before, without having been shown the 215 square foot one-room apartment I was about to move into (it was the cheapest I found on Apartments.com so I called and said I’d take it), without knowing anything about the neighborhood, without owning a collared dress shirt, etc. I did however bring a futon, a folding table and those Pink Floyd bootlegs. Hey, I liked Pittsburgh’s skyline from postcards and the city was only four and a half hours from my hometown of Williamsport.

Most of all, I wanted to start at square one. I wanted to see what the comedy scene in Pittsburgh had to offer, or what I had to offer it. My dad also thought I should seek a salaried job with a pension. (I chose wisely. Pittsburgh is a great city. At least, it's been exceedingly good to me.)

I dabbled in stand-up for a few months. Open-mic nights in smoky basements of dingy corner bars are not as glamorous as advertised. I have a tremendous amount of respect for stand-up comedians, if only because of boot camp. Anyway, after dropping more bombs than the Royal Air Force on Berlin in '45, (add another one to the list) I’d eventually developed a decent 10-minute set. The pinnacle of my stand-up career came when Gab Bonesso chose me as one of the performers in the final Club Café stand-up comedy show (Club Café had hosted a weekly Wednesday show). That was nearly ten years ago. Two months earlier I had bumped into improv comics David Fedor and Scott Whitehair (the very talented Near Professionals) by happenstance at Denny’s. They’d been performing two-man improvisation comedy show at a community theater in Natrona Heights. Basically, they needed someone to run lights for their weekly show Show-and-Tell. A few weeks later, I was indeed running lights. A few weeks after that, I was hosting improv games for the duo. That was the start of my improv life, and the end of my stand-up one.

My involvement in the vaunted Natrona Heights improv scene provided many benefits by default. Besides beginning to learn what makes good improv—not that I was performing good improv, but I was learning it—I also forged my first friendships in my new home and found a support structure I hadn't encountered doing stand-up. This was very critical for me at the time. Like Pittsburgh itself, the improv scene has been exceedingly good to me. I've learned much about not only improv, but what makes good comedy in its many manifestations. I've also surrounded myself with talented and outstanding people, many of them now friends too. 

My acting professor in college told me once that I tend to "live in a bubble", both on stage and off. I took this as a compliment. I still feel this is the case to a large degree. As much fun as I have had performing improv, the main "rules" of improv are at odds with my intuition and instinctive sensibilities. For example, improv teachers will preach "Yes, And," and "Group Mind," and "Don't Ask Questions." These sound like highlighted tenets on the cult leader's wall at the main compound, or slogans fraternity brothers shout at pledges. (Matt fun fact: I was in the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity in college. I am proud to say I have been barred from fraternity property ever since my junior year when I realized I hated Greek life and severed myself from the frat completely. I liked a few of the guys as individuals—as a senior I even shared an apartment with the KDR president—but couldn't stand the "group mind." Rush KDR!)  

Recently, I've been quite reflective about my involvement in improv and comedy in general. Perhaps this is because I've recently become a father, or recently turned 35 or recently had to learn how attic ventilation works when moisture issues on roof joints strike. (I've never taken attic ventilation seriously until now.) My favorite comics and creative minds share something in common: Besides reflecting many of my own worldviews, they reveal a little bit about themselves upon every performance or product. I admire that component greatly.  

I've had so much fun performing improv over the years. Although I've always (mostly always) gave my best effort on-stage, I've never taken the craft too seriously. I couldn't if I wanted to. I look forward to performing in improv shows like most dudes look forward to poker night. I desire the camaraderie and boisterous shenanigans off-stage at least as much as the scheduled comedy show itself. That's not necessarily fair to the craft.

I don't really have any comedic endeavors anymore. I have creative endeavors, but the comedy comes by default. Whatever I do creatively, I want to reveal myself bit by bit. Besides my Crooked Lullabies blog that I've maintained for the last few years, my novel has been my most hearty stride in that direction. I aimed to expose my viewpoints through the characters and the story. The character Marcy is essentially a mouthpiece for my own beliefs, and the novel's overall themes—the futility of alter egos and fantasies, and faith in "superheroes", for instance—are hopefully evident. Basically, the novel is my soul in disguise; the characters and story are window dressing.

I think I just described every novel ever written.  

The more I feel I learn about the world and about myself the more I want to share. Marcy (from the novel) is an atheist. Until about age 19 I was a Christian. Until about age 27 I believed that God was up there, watching the world like a devious child who watches an ant farm and occasionally shakes it for laughs, or like an amateur videographer who films a hobo fight.  But this viewpoint was extremely defeatist so I sat on a log and thought, hoping to justify God's perceived malevolence, or simple indifference. I thought "Why does God allow the tornado to obliterate a pious family's house, but swerve around the asshole's apartment? Why does God hide from humankind for 130,000 years, show up in person to a mostly illiterate nomadic population in the desert for a handful of years, and then completely disappear to this point in history? (And he's all vengeance, comedic blunders and blood lust while he was around. He murders the entire world just a few pages into the Bible, for Pete's sake) Why is the universe so chaotic and destructive? Why does the God of the Bible advocate killing those who don't hold the Sabbath holy, or slavery? Why does the moon—the 'one light to guide the night'—come out in the day?" Then one day, while still sitting on that log, the solution occurred to me: God doesn't exist, duh. That answers all the paradoxical questions and assorted conumdrums absolutely perfectly. Occam's Razor, my friend. Since that day my atheistic views have had a major influence on many of my literary creative undertakings, let alone my worldviews. The creative personalities I emulate most are atheists too: Roger Waters, George Carlin, Ricky Gervais, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, David Cross and David Gilmour. I'm not sure about Hunter S. Thompson.  

Many of my comedic undertakings have been somewhat disappointing on a creative level. The vast majority have fallen far short of what I experienced the night I moonlighted as Magnum Munts. Constantly striving for fulfillment drives creativity, does it not? However, that’s not to say I haven't had a hell of a lot of fun on-stage. 

Recently, a fellow walked up to me on the streets of downtown and said "Hey, you're the guy from the Moth. Great story!" I acted cool, but my ego was nailing a two-handed windmill jam. I'd never been recognized and lauded during the course of daily life before. (Well, besides the time a few Blackhawk high school kids recognized me from F'N Improv while I was Christmas shopping at Robison Centre Mall years ago.) Weeks before, I told a true story about myself at the Moth StorySlam (I won). While I performed the audience response was tremendous. I had to stop and lean back from the mic a handful of times during unexpected laughter spats. I even got applause mid-story when I employed a callback joke (thanks improv training). Telling my story felt natural and authentic. I felt like Magnum Munts without the wig and sunglasses, when all those beers were off the wall.