Taking and Making: January 13

Today, I took in:

my favorite comedy night in London, Quantum Leopard

 

I made: 

very slow progress on learning Spanish with Duolingo

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Highlights of My Edinburgh Fringe 2017

My first Fringe experience was as a flyerer and sometimes performer in 2014, so it was a different thing to go up as a paying punter this year. Liz and I went up with a friend of hers from college; the three of us each had our own bed in our own room in a flat we rented — such luxury! We bought our meals out and didn’t make any ramen noodles — such decadence! It was definitely a pricier way to do the Fringe, even for only three nights. But it was a lot of fun. I managed to see 14 shows in 3 days, as well as many street performers. Here are my highlights. Check out these acts if you can!

Edinburgh Castle scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The stage for the Two Plus Ones show

Comedy

The three young guys of the Two Plus Ones delivered nonstop, silly sketch comedy in “Huge Night In.” Luke Sumner’s characters in particular were all the more hilarious for being so wholly conceived. They had a sketch about a canon support group that had me in stitches with its utterly stupid brilliance.

We met Roisin and Chiara while queuing for their show “We Are Not Afraid”; they handed out candies and made conversation while in character as red jumpsuited oddballs. Inside, they did what seemed a hybrid sketch/improv show, including lots of audience involvement, a disco soundtrack, surrealist humor, and at one point, a wolf mask.

The 1st Annual Black Comedy Showcase was brilliantly emceed by Che Burnley, who asked white male audience members where they were from, then no matter what they answered (London, Manchester), followed up with, “No but where are you really from? What’s your heritage?” (“Germany, maybe? My girlfriend went there, she said it’s really beautiful and the people are so nice”). I hope the few confused people in the audience eventually got that he was pointing up the offensive and ridiculous nature of the same question when it’s posed to people of color on the regular. Che was a warm and friendly host, but make no mistake, he had clear intentions with this showcase. I loved it.

The standout act from the showcase was Athena Kugblenu, a London-based comedian who had one of the Jokes of the Fringe. She has this droll delivery that just kills me, and it doesn’t hurt that her mix of the personal and the political hits my sweet spot for stand-up.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Some of the lovely old buildings in Edinburgh

Spoken Word/Storytelling

The Banshee Labyrinth is one of the main centers for spoken word at the Free Fringe, and it was kind of a trip to go back there and see a show in the same little room that I’d performed in three years ago. We watched four young poets perform “A Matter of Time,” an interconnected group of poems told from the point of view of one person, at four different points in their timeline. It was a neat concept, and beautifully executed. If you like your poetry heartfelt but not sentimental, reflective but not navel-gazing, check out Ellen RentonShannon MacGregorRoss McFarlane and Bibi June.

Liz has seen Theatre Ad Infinitum shows before and wanted to see whatever they were putting on at the Fringe this year. We went to see Homer’s “Odyssey,” and were thrilled to find it was a spellbinding one-man storytelling hour. Spellbinding is not hyperbole here: I was fully immersed in the story from the first word, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment at the end.

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

The Big Top Circus Hub on the Meadows

Dance/Circus

The circus is the place to go when you want to be reminded of how amazing the human body is, and Bibi and Bichu‘s “Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” provided myriad reminders. I actually gasped in awe several times and applauded wildly every time they held a pose or finished a tumble.

I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience cried during 201 Dance Company‘s “Skin,” a hip hop dance show about a kid growing up and coming out trans*. The dancing was urgent and emotional, especially from the protagonist and their mother. Including a child dancer to mirror the adult protagonist was a great choice, and it’s good to see an FTM transition, which is a story not told as often as an MTF one, I think.

Theater/Cabaret

One of the most perfect play-within-a-plays I’ve ever seen, Willis & Vere‘s “The Starship Osiris” made me laugh for the entire show. A self-obsessed man puts on the most ridiculous sci-fi show glorifying himself, and everything breaks down spectacularly when the cast rebels. The details in the performances were spot-on, from the particular preening of the director to the facial expressions of the babed-up female crew members.

Pollyanna is the queer cabaret we all need in our lives. Polyfilla hosts, and the night we went we saw several excellent acts, including a drag king performing to a clever medley of songs about being a boy/man and Pollyfilla leading the audience in a participatory musical about Theresa May that made you laugh through the horror of the current political climate.

Nearly all of these acts are UK-based, so if you are too, be sure to check out their Twitter/FB pages in the links I’ve provided and see when their upcoming shows are. Even if you aren’t based in the UK, art travels, so why not follow them anyway in case they come to your town. If you get a chance to see any of these, I highly recommend that you do!

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

St Giles Cathedral

Edinburgh Scotland Fringe

Street performance on the Royal Mile

 

Film Club: While You Were Sleeping

There are many reasons why I shouldn’t like While You Were Sleeping. The entire plot is based on the thinnest of misunderstandings, even by rom com standards. Peter is the victim of a creepy, prolonged mind game by Saul and Lucy. No way anyone would believe that someone engaged to fancypants Peter wouldn’t have a giant rock on her ring finger, which should have stopped the plot dead in its tracks right there. Anyone who has lived in Chicago for even a month would know northside Peter supports the Cubs and not the White Sox. And yet, it’s one of my favorite movies.

the delightful family from "While You Were Sleeping"

Is this sight scary or heartwarming? Depends on your tolerance for meandering discussions of Guy Lombardo and Argentinian beef.

The chemistry between Lucy and Jack sparks right away, and any scene with the whole family is gold. Obviously, the movie pushes the idea that half the reason Lucy’s in love with Jack is because she finally has a family she can join. When I was younger, I never believed that Lucy would be as friendless and alone as she’s shown to be, but the more time I’ve spent trying to fit in to new cities, the more I appreciate just how difficult it is to get set up with new friends. And I have the Internet, with its Couchsurfing and Meetup and things, which is more than Lucy had, back in 1995. Lucy makes friends at work, but when your job is sharing a small booth with one other person collecting subway tokens, you don’t meet a lot of people. Besides which, she’s grieving her father, who died just the year before. It’s actually not surprising that she’s so isolated.

Meeting the Callaghans, who are marvelously open and friendly (perhaps a bit too much so, to a strange woman who claims to be engaged to their comatose son), would feel like coming home. And then you get to sit through dinners talked at such cross-purposes that in my family, when things are getting similarly ridiculous and rowdy, someone just yells out, “I never said he was tall!”

Of course it’s a Cinderella tale, and we can’t forget that Lucy would never afford that trip to Florence on her own, while the upper-middle-class Callaghans can shell out for it no problem. But I’m willing to go along with the idea that the real treasure Lucy gains is the love of a family, and their wealth is a nice bonus.

Other great things:

  • Despite her timidity in other areas of her life, Lucy has no problem cracking wise with her boss or putting the love of her life gently but firmly in place whenever he starts going off about whose type she is.
  • Jack tries to do the right thing by not sharing his feelings with Lucy and messes it up royally, which is endearing.
  • Peter is such a self-centered jag that you don’t really mind he’s the victim of a terrible mind game. Peter Gallagher does a great job of playing a guy so into himself he’s not even worried about being that into himself; he’s equally concerned about whether he sucks as a person or whether his outfit sucks (maybe more concerned about the outfit).
  • Joe Jr., a strange amalgam of Queens and southside Chicago, is a glorious punchline in every scene, and I hope his future involves strutting around in his own pair of high heels.
  • Lucy’s apartment is in my old neighborhood of Logan Square–I tracked it down on Logan Boulevard a few winters ago. Those buildings really are that gorgeous.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Lucy never once brushes her hair in this film and she is the heroine–god bless the mid-’90s.

And Elsie has the best answer to “would you like some more wine?” ever. She says, “Oh I don’t drink anymore.” Beat. “I don’t drink any less, either.” For a grandmother like that, you might fake an engagement to a man in a coma, too.

Community, Where My Ladies At?

Community is coming back! After a hiatus that had comedy nerds across the country weeping along to Arrested Development reruns in an attempt to fill the void, the show is back on March 15. I love this show for so many reasons: the jokes, the musical numbers, the complex callbacks, Donald Glover. It’s also a show with an uncanny eye for detail. Community subverts the conventions of any genre it tackles, while simultaneously celebrating those conventions. Characters wear ridiculous outfits, stories hang on the thinnest of premises, and yet the intricate plotting and consistent character development means that we wind up caring a great deal about what’s going on at Greendale Community College.

we all wish this was our college crowd

So it struck me as odd when I realized that with all the care that’s gone into creating and embellishing this fictional world, one aspect is severely underdeveloped. I’m not talking about the fact that we haven’t seen Shirley’s children outside of that one episode in Season 1, or that it’s Season 3 and Jeff isn’t even pretending to try to get back into his law firm anymore. It’s a sitcom; some facts just aren’t as important as the overall story and the jokes. No, I’m talking about the lack of ladies on the Greendale campus.

We’ve got the seven main characters (4 men, 3 women), two secondary characters (2 men–the Dean and Chang), and several tertiary characters (all men). I wouldn’t for the world suggest we lessen Dean Pelton’s presence, because Jim Rash’s portrayal is one of the funniest things on TV in the last decade. And it looks like they’re finding a balance with Chang, which is good, because a little goes a long way with that one [insert Chang’s self-referential joke about “the Chang” here].

The show does a good job of having characters recur in the background, to make the Greendale world feel more complete. But women outside that crowd show up as one- or two-episode love interests for the guys in the group, and then disappear. Tertiary characters: Duncan, Star-Burns, Leonard, Magnitude, Garrett, Neil… see a pattern here? Sometimes Vicki shows up, but she never gets much to say, whereas Magnitude has a catch phrase, Garrett plays pivotal production roles in Greendale promo videos, and Leonard is a well-known old crank.

C’mon, Dan Harmon et. al., let’s liven things up with some wacky women as regulars on the Greendale campus! Lord knows there’s plenty to be found at that wild and wonderful place.

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I’m Covered in Bees!

Hello, dearest fellow travelers! Did you miss me? I did you.

I shall now summarize for you my vacation last week: More, please.

As I’m sure you all know, coming back from vacation should be done as gently as possible. No matter how relaxing the vacation (and a week on a beach with old friends was quite relaxing), coming back is a shock to the system. I cleverly dealt with the problem this time by having a whole weekend to myself before heading back into the workforce. Saturday was movies, Sunday was laundry and a new book, and by Monday morning I was almost able to bear the thought of sitting in a cubicle instead of swimming in a lake. Self-brainwashing, sure, but necessary in order to earn more money to take more vacations.

And of course, last night I supplemented unpacking and books with a healthy dose of Eddie Izzard. Nothing says “you can handle the office” like giraffe impressions and “I’m covered in beeeees!”

The X-Ray Robots

During my lunch hour today, I took the bus up to Northwestern Memorial to get an x-ray. My knee is all kinds of messed up because apparently I turned 70 without noticing. Lately I’ll be walking along when I find myself crunching through gravel–except no, that is just the sound of my joints trying to grind out another step or two before giving up entirely. So physical therapy, x-ray, etc. Anyway, I gravelled my way over to the fancy Streeterville building and immediately stepped into another world.

The whole experience was just like all the science-fiction movie ships/office buildings I’ve seen coming together in one place–unnaturally quiet, antiseptically clean, strangely devoid of other people. Possibly filled with robots. Two receptionists sat at a long counter; one took my x-ray order while the other did something on her computer that caused an alarm to go off several times, the kind you hear when someone has broken into the vault–an insistent, metallic sound. No one seemed concerned. There was a juice bar in the corner, unattended except for a cleaning woman wiping down its counter over and over. I started to worry these robots would sense my suspicions, raise their heads slowly, their laser beam eyes zeroed in on me, and advance in a menacing matter. I was relieved when a man popped out from behind a wall and said, “Lisa?”

But was he an x-ray technician? No, he was a client services robot, his settings on “rakish smile” and “European accent,” clearly intended to lower the defenses of patients passing through the muted gray doors of this place. I maintained a healthy sense of wariness, however, especially when he led me down a corridor of slatted brown doors and opened one near the end. “Please remove your jeans and put on a gown, and leave all your belongings in this locker,” he said, giving me a key and gesturing into the airless room. “Then you will wait over here,” he pointed to an antechamber next door. I did as I was instructed and shuffled out to the antechamber, which had a huge bank of windows looking onto a busy street just one floor below, and another woman in a hospital gown watching the soap opera blaring from the TV. Sure, that’s not a super exposed situation to find oneself in.

As I sat and waited, I went through possible procedures in my head. DNA testing like in Gattaca? Damn, I’d already touched a million things for them to swab and see how inadequately prepared I was for space travel. Immediate cloning like in that Doctor Who episode? No, that didn’t require the removal of clothes. Maybe I was going to be tested for precog abilities like in Minority Report? Doubtful, those precogs were noticeably weirder than me on even my most sleep-deprived day.

Eventually a woman came in and called my name, and after having me sign off on paying for the procedure, she led me down another hall to a large room containing the x-ray machine. She had me lie down on my back and she positioned my leg just the way she wanted it for the picture. She pressed some buttons and the table I was lying on moved smoothly back, forth, side to side. She went behind the glass to take the picture, and I looked up at the various ducts and wires of the machine, all gleaming white and doing nothing to lessen my sense that I’d accidentally stepped into a Philip K. Dick story or a Star Trek episode.

A few minutes later, the technician informed me I was all done. I changed back into my clothes in the airless room and walked through the gray doors into the lobby. It was transformed. A line of people formed behind the long reception desk, no alarms were sounding, a couple kids were playing tag. There was even a ray of sunshine breaking through the fluorescent gloom. Maybe all the robots were on break. Maybe they knew I was on to them and took their operation elsewhere. Maybe I was lightheaded and it was time for lunch.

An Open Letter to My 1996 Saturn, Which Has Taken on the Role of Life Coach, Despite Never Having Been Hired in This Capacity

I’ve been reading some of the open letters over at McSweeney’s lately, and decided to try my hand at writing one. You can write to anyone or anything (generally not someone or something you are expecting a response from), but it must be nonfiction; that is, it has to be prompted by an actual event in your life.

An Open Letter to My 1996 Saturn, Which Has Taken on the Role of Life Coach, Despite Never Having Been Hired in This Capacity

Dear Madame Sunroof,

We’ve known each other for a good many years. You’d already completed one career track as my dad’s car for his sales trips by the time my sisters and I got to use you in high school, and you were a healthy 8 years old when I purchased you from my parents after college. You moved with me to a new state and settled in pretty well, becoming casual acquaintances with the Naperville Saturn dealership and its garage, and moving me around the suburbs of Chicago with ease.

But something changed when I moved us to Chicago proper. You were no longer the carefree car of my youth, eager for whatever adventure lay ahead. No, now you were a delicate old machine, approaching each trip farther than the grocery store with trepidation and squeaky brakes. I thought you were just aging, and I tried to ease the transition as best I could, with sporadic trips to the mechanic and a constant stream of verbal encouragement when we were riding around town together. I thought this would help and you’d cheer up.

Instead, I find that you’ve chosen a new career path in your twilight years. You’ve taken it upon yourself to be my life coach, though I never asked you to take on that role and certainly don’t consider myself in need of one. Once I figured out that each new ailment was trying to teach me a life lesson, I saw your plan coming together.

Going from 0 to 35 is a bit shaky, but it’s the crucial going from 35 to 55 when entering the highway that really makes you shudder and nearly shut down completely? Easy does it, tortoise and hare, etc.!

When it rains, the water comes in through a mysterious hole that no mechanic has been able to find and soaks the foot space of both the driver and front passenger seats? Bad things happen unexpectedly, and the best you can do is be prepared with some towels to sop up the mess!

The horn starts blowing in the middle of the night for no reason and I have to drive you around for 30 minutes til it shuts itself off? Get ready, because babies are way worse!

The rear suspension rod has lost all lubricant and makes a horrible creaking noise heard two blocks away every time I turn a corner? Loud music still solves most woes!

The rear windows won’t go back up once lowered (sometimes you can only go forward!), closing the door too hard turns the overhead light on or off (you never know when a ray of sunshine will burst through!), the floor of the backseat is literally rusting out (there’s nothing quite like a breath of fresh air!), and so on.

I guess I appreciate all these lessons you’re sharing with me, ol’ Saturn. But in a couple weeks I plan to drive us up to visit some friends in northern Michigan, and I’m counting on you to make that six-hour journey there and back. We’ve been a lot of places and covered a lot of miles, and I’m awfully fond of you. I’m sure that you can go the distance. Whaddya say, how about we make this lesson “if you’re well-loved, you can still go far,” and not “at the end of it all, go out in a blaze of glory”?

Truly yours,
Lisa

The Genius of Falling Down

Ladies and gentleman, I have uncovered one of the great secrets of that dark and twisted world we know as comedy. Lengthy treatises have been written on just what makes people laugh, and entire tomes are devoted to the debate over whether high-brow or low-brow humor is funnier. The answer to the latter is both, obviously, but for my money, nothing makes me laugh so instinctively and delightedly as a well-executed pratfall.

What makes a pratfall well-executed, you may ask. (As I hope you might, since this is the great secret I promised to share with you. If you did not ask, then you probably already know the secret but shh, don’t ruin it for the rest of the class.) I’m glad you asked! A pratfall can take many forms, but its basic definition is someone taking a fall in a way that makes people laugh. Someone falling down the stairs in a Lifetime movie = not funny. Someone falling down the stairs in a Three Stooges movie = funny. You hear “pratfall,” you think “banana peel.”

And that’s funny, of course it is. People falling down is inherently funny. I don’t know if it appeals to me so much because my natural grace and style manifests in tripping over invisible objects and walking into doorframes, but I love it when a casual conversation or stroll down the street on stage or in film is interrupted by a sudden slip-n-slide. Much of the humor comes from the unexpectedness of the fall (at least unexpected to the person falling), but even when we in the audience know it’s coming, we love watching the norm literally upended.

pratfall!

Chevy Chase takes a fall for the president

Which brings me to Chevy Chase, whose weekly (and therefore very expected) cold open pratfalls on SNL elevated the act to a whole new level. His genius? He never stopped falling down. He didn’t just trip and land on his butt. He tripped, windmilled his arms, fell on his knees, reached wildly for support from whatever was handy, took down an entire bookshelf in the process, and landed on his butt. He could fall from any height and still find something to destroy on his way down, all with the most dignified look on his face, like, “I am not falling, I am momentarily off-balance.” The dignified look is part of it; he was playing straight man to the funny man of the fall, almost making the few moments of falling into a double act starring himself and gravity.

This insight struck me as I was watching Season 1 of “Community,” in which Chevy gets to perform a couple of his patented Neverending Pratfalls(TM). He trips over an instrument in a band room, and sure enough, the entire jazz combo setup comes crashing down in a glorious rain of cymbals and drums. He trips in a dorm room with a giant bowl of popcorn in his hands, and next thing you know, he’s grasping at the door handle, the desk, anything, while popcorn rains down on him and his friends laugh hysterically. He’s still got it!

SNL and NBC in general keep a tight grip on their video content, so I was unable to find either of those “Community” clips online or some of Chevy’s more classic how-are-you-still-falling moments from the ’70s. But this clip below is still excellent, with a festive fall as performed by Gerald Ford. (For the young kids in the audience, President Ford was portrayed in the media as clumsy and kinda dim, and Chase regularly played Ford as a bumbling buffoon on SNL. This clip is no exception; we don’t get the fall til the end of the 2:30 minute video, but all the record playing and tree trimming before it is wonderful to see as set-up.)

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/christmas-eve-at-the-white-house/29163/

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Heckling the Hecklers

When someone’s an asshole to you, what kind of asshole do you get to be back at them? Can you find enough in the situation to destroy their position without destroying their personhood? Such are the weighty questions I pondered after watching some videos on a comedy site. Like ya do.

The premise of Splitsider’s “Eight Types of Hecklers and the Comedians Who Shut Them Up” by Megh Wright is great–what are the different types of people who interrupt stand-up comedy routines and how do comedians respond? But too many of the comedians Wright chose as examples of great heckler shut-downs were unmitigated assholes. I don’t mean they were mean; most comedians have a scale of “a little to a lot” when it comes to being mean in their acts, and frankly that’s usually why we find them so funny. And especially if some jerk in the audience is going to interrupt your carefully crafted routine and your limited stage time with some inane comment or drunken insult, I say rip ’em to shreds. And then call security.

But there’s being mean and funny, and there’s being a bigoted asshole. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that so many comedians choose the latter, since I don’t watch a lot of stand-up precisely because they include terrible jokes in their acts, but it still got to me. With few exceptions, if the heckler was male, the comedian joked about his supposed homosexuality and also about fucking his mother, and if the heckler was female, the comedian called her a bitch/slut/whore and usually crazy too. Ugh. I went from being on the comedian’s side to wishing the video would end sooner so I wouldn’t have to hear the audience laugh at the awful attacks.

Here’s a sample [TW, definitely]: Joe Rogan called his female heckler a “fucking crazy bitch.” George Carlin said his male heckler was “a cocksucker in disguise” and that he only had his mouth open “because he wants someone to come in it.”  Bill Hicks, whose profanity is a normal part of his routine, went way too far when he screamed at his female heckler, “you fucking cunt, get the fuck out of here right now, you’re everything that America should be flushed down the toilet, get out you fucking drunk bitch.” But definitely the worst was Ari Shaffir, whose response to his female heckler was, “I wish upon you the greatest success in 2008 and hopefully you will get raped many times before you leave here tonight. But I don’t wanna give the rapist any VD that you have… what did they do? all they wanted to do was get laid, they didn’t know.”

Whew. That was a whole lotta ugly.

And there’s no need! Other comedians in the list had great comeback lines without once employing homophobia or misogyny.

Jacqueline Novak rolls right with her male heckler’s comment and explains just how wrong he is, while remaining in the same joke she had been setting up before she was so rudely interrupted. Steve Hofstetter similarly riffs on his male heckler’s stupid interruption without once making reference to the heckler’s sexuality or his mother’s sexual proclivities. Amy Schumer shut her female heckler down quickly, and then told her to be like the losing chess player in “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “take the draw” if she felt like talking again. My favorite was Patton Oswalt, who went on a lovely long rant about what a douchebag his male heckler was and how his future was filled with douchebaggery.

Being a stand-up is hard work, I know that, but once you have an audience on your side, it’s real easy to get laughs out of them by dealing low blows to a heckler. Why be satisfied with that? Presumably you actually want to be funny, so skip the bigotry and go straight for the withering put-down.