Monday, July 28, 2014

June/July 2014 Loser – A Live Action G(sh)ame Show

Like so many of these blogs, this one starts with a familiar scenario: something I watched or listened to as a kid. Because comedy has been in my life a long time, the points of reference are extensive, and I think it's probably typical of people my age to be nostalgic for the comforts of youth. One of mine was my parents' 8-track player. It sat on a small, dark brown record stand that housed the family vinyl collection. Sliding open those doors was like slipping through a magic portal into cathedral halls and polka tents, maritime museums and, thanks to the 45s of my older siblings, the occasional classic rock concert. While the vinyl ultimately turned me into the woman I am today – and inspired the new blog I'm working on – there came a point where the hassle of unstacking crochet patterns, school yearbooks, extra pillows, the green glass rooster candy dish and all the other stuff we kept piled on top of the stereo console, was too much effort. A Sears solid-state 8-track player became our primary sound system. Despite the range of acts we had to tolerate to listen as a family, there were a few classics that made everyone happy.

Zingers From the Hollywood Squares” was one of those tapes. A collection of the funniest bits from the classic tv panel game show, Zingers was released by Events Records in 1974. The first quip on the tape, after Peter Marshall's intro, is a question to Paul Lynde. “In Alice in Wonderland, who kept crying 'I'm late, I'm late'?” Paul's response? “Alice, and her mother's just sick about it.” Innuendos and double entendres with some of the funniest comedic actors of the time: Rich Little, Rose Marie, Red Foxx, Karen Valentine, Charlie Weaver, Burt Reynolds, Mel Brooks. Heck, there's even a clip from Freddie Prinze. My family loved this tape and played it most weekends, when the actual show wasn't on the air. At some point, though, the tape heads dried out and I had to give up this precious piece of comedy history.

According to Wikipedia, that bastion of genius juice formed from our collective kool aid and the occasional splash of actual research, “a panel game or panel show is a radio or television game show in which a panel of celebrities participates.” Panelists may compete with each other, play with/for guest contestants, such as on Hollywood Squares, Match Game or Password, or do both. “The genre can be traced to 1938, when Information Please debuted on U.S. Radio... The modern trend of comedy panel shows can find early roots with Stop Me If You've Heard This One in 1939 and Can You Top This? in 1940. While panel shows were more popular in the past in the U.S., they are still very common in the United Kingdom.”

And those shows are how I get my Brit wit fix today. Thanks to 8 Out of 10 Cats, Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You and the one I adore most, QI (Quite Interesting), my list of favorite comics includes Jimmy Carr, Bill Bailey, Dara O'Briain, Ross Noble, Jo Brand, Sue Perkins, Phil Jupitus, Sandy Toksvig, Sean Lock and a bunch more to whom I may otherwise never have been exposed. It's my personal belief that these regular appearances on panel shows help comics stay in the public eye and build their fan base. I often wish some producer would revive a few of the classics, so I could spend the 7 pm hour watching a Keith Alberstadt or a Tom Simmons try to match a contestant's fill-in-the-blank answer, or hear a Paul Hooper rant from the top left corner and a Pat Dixon innuendo from the center square. Alas, those shows are still just playing in my brain, but Loser – A Live Action G(sh)ame Show is a great substitute.

Created by Jeremy Essig and Chris Ward, Loser combines a little singing, a little acting, some trivia and video gaming into a comedy event. Part scripted, part improv, the show uses volunteer contestants and, at least in the touring edition, local comics and improv performers to bring to life a twisted episode of some popular tv sitcom that may leave fans of the actual program permanently scarred. Personally, I'm grateful. The episode of Loser that I had the pleasure of seeing at the Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Indiana, removed all traces of “Saved By the Bell” from my memory banks – with the possible exception of season 4, episode 22. Because once you've heard “Snow White” rapped by that cast, nothing short of a traumatic brain injury will take it away.

I've known for some time that Jeremy Essig is a comic I'll see live every chance I get because I really dig his material, and he's a great guy, to boot. He and Chris have been performing Loser regularly at the Heavy Anchor in St. Louis, which is a little farther than I travel for a comedy show on a weeknight. When Jeremy mentioned they were planning a one week road tour, I knew I just had to pick a city and go. Having a little history with Bloomington made it the logical choice.

I gotta' say, The Comedy Attic is worthy of all its recent hype. Low-ceilinged, intimate, with tables in front and off stage right, there doesn't seem to be a bad seat or dead spot in the room. A screen is lowered for tonight's accompanying slides over what appears, from my vantage point, to be a real brick wall. Maybe it isn't. I didn't go cop a feel. I'm simply saying, from where I sat, it looked real. And I've been in plenty of clubs where the bricks look like a backdrop from a middle school musical. Most people wouldn't care, but if the comic doesn't grab me, the scenery will, and I tend to notice the details. Open for only fiveish years, The Comedy Attic is a great venue to see a favorite, as well as a yet-to-be-known, and Dayna and Jared should be proud of the job they're doing.

Ok. On to the show. For those of you who read my blog, be aware I'm not going to do my usual set-quoting analysis here. At 7, I wasn't aware of Bruce Vilanch and the writers' room. Part of the joy of Hollywood Squares, for me, was thinking all those celebrities were just that quick and funny. And so it is with Loser: I don't need to know who wrote what, who made what up, everyone seems quick and funny. On this night, Chris tells the audience it's good to be in Bloomington for the first time, and asks “What's your main export?” Someone yells out “Graduate degrees,” and I know the audience is ready for this ride. Jeremy serves as the host and welcomes everyone to this “game show done poorly” where audience participation and enthusiasm are required. On the screen, fake sponsors' ads are like Wacky Packages on meth. Six contestants take the stage, and we get underway.

Part one is all about music. First, a progression of clues are given about a particular performer or band. This is followed by photo identification of the band members. Finally, a team member sings a song from the band, accompanied by Jeremy on guitar and Chris on a tiny drum kit. Audience vote awards points for getting the lyrics correct. As someone who spent most of her late teen years hanging with guy friends and their garage bands, I've been waiting for this. It's one thing to hear someone described as a rocker-turned-comic; it's something else entirely to watch them play. Tonight's contestants got into their performances and the audience dug it. 

Part two is called “Move out of my fucking basement!” After a few questions about video games, one member of each team goes head to head playing some obscure title while trying to down the most Totino's pizza rolls (who, by giving the guys a bunch of coupons for free product, have become a tour sponsor). Tonight, due to some wild miscalculations about the portability of delicious frozen snack foods, The Comedy Attic has graciously provided fried mozzerella sticks for the challenge. The contestants are a couple, who both manage to play admirably and swallow a decent number of cheese sticks without the need for medical attention. We are rightfully impressed.

Part three is a little number they call “Shitty Accent Superhero Charades”, and it is just what it sounds like. Two team members are given superhero identities, regional dialects and a scene to improv, and the third team member has to guess all three elements. Part four brings to the stage the Intergender Sitcom Theater to perform a parody sketch from an '80s or '90s tv show, filtered through the skewed views of Jeremy and Chris, and presented by a collection of local comics and improv actors. During this tour, the sitcom was “Saved By the Bell”. The sketch was hilarious, fun for both the audience and actors alike, and the final questions resulted in the spewing of the not-so-secret green room antics of Dustin Diamond. Prizes for the winning team included second-hand bras, Easter candy and pictures of the Pope (Chris, thanks for the Sinead flashback!).

With Evan Rowe as their technical director and Kelsey McClure in the role of tour manager, Loser hit seven cities in seven days and had some cool adventures along the way. You can go to to read their own account of the journey.

As I said way back at the beginning of this blog, I have a warm spot in my heart for panel game shows and the comics who make them so entertaining. I have every episode of QI in my collection. I watch repeats of Match on the Game Show Network. I even bought the rereleased “Zingers” on cd. And now that I've seen Loser live, now that I know Jeremy and Chris can move a room full of people to unbridled laughter with a few instruments, some random trivia and a suitcase full of meaningless prizes, this show will fall into my “must see” category every chance I get.

I hope they tour again. I hope the clubs are packed. I hope they start the comic game show revival.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Classroom Assignment

While cleaning out the overstuffed, disorganized drawers in my roll-top writing desk, I found some relics that distracted me from the mission at hand. The story collection from 3rd grade was expected; I've carried it from home to home for nearly 40 years, a reminder that the most constant relationship in my life has been the one I have with words. Behind its faded purple construction paper was an unmarked manilla folder; inside, a dozen English Comp assignments from my senior year of high school. Tucked among compare/contrast, incident and example paragraphs was the following:

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Buster Keaton, thought to be one of the best comedians of the silent film age, spent his childhood being brutally abused in his parents' vaudeville show. He made his fortune by suppressing his pain behind a dead-pan, unreadable face. The Marx Brothers, comedy's first family, had many painful years of altercation, yet created some of the funniest moments in film history together. These men, as well as such greats as Fanny Brice, Lenny Bruce, Freddy Prinze and John Belushi, knew how to transform their hard knocks into knock-knocks, their punches into punch lines and their troubles into cream pies. Someone once said that humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully. The comedians most responsible for keeping America laughing seem to support this statement. Despite personal tragedies such as child abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental breakdowns, marital problems and suicide, the humor keeps coming out from within them. When I see Pierrot's painted face with a tear resting in the corner of its eye, I can truly appreciate his playful antics, knowing it is his pain that keeps my smile in place.

Besides proving that my level of pretension hasn't changed much over the years, it was still a bit surprising for me to read what I had written and turned in for grading on May 29th, 1984. I know I've loved comedy for as long as I've loved anything, but I thought my compulsion to analyze it, to write about it, came later in life. Came maybe from my friendship with Tiny or my first time meeting in person a comic I'd only known from television (Tom Rhodes, who is pure magic and whose weekend in Rochester will always be among my top ten live comedy experiences). I thought One Girl's Giggle was a place to keep notes for something seemingly more relevant than a blog, that these brief pieces were all just put here to pin them down in time, to make sure the thoughts were accessible when I had a higher purpose for them. The early reviews aren't even well written, because I wasn't thinking of them so much as anything that needed to do more than recount a show. When my friend Anna said some of the pieces made her feel like she had been there, I was flattered. And then I felt it was important to do better, to not only share what I'd heard, but also how those jokes moved or maddened me.

Finding this paper was a reminder that comedy has held value and meaning for me for a long time, and trying to communicate that with others isn't a recent development. Sure, it wasn't a very deep analysis. Who was I to call the Marx Brothers “America's First Family of Comedy?” That title went to the Wayans in 1990, and seems to have stuck. Recently, Judd Apatow and his wife, Leslie Mann, have been called comedy's first family in an article or two. But there I was, in 1984, bestowing it with absolute certainty, to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and the other one. Ok, I know it's Gummo, who stopped performing with his brothers before they hit Broadway, but had a lovely career after his release from the Army as a woman's dress/cloth salesman, and followed that up by becoming a talent agent who successfully represented his brothers for many years.

I loved the Marx Brothers. I remember watching Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and Room Service with my father on our console TV, an awkwardly twisted wire clothes hanger standing in for the antennae one of us kids probably broke off and hid somewhere. My father was not the most emotional of men, though not unusual for his generation. Our Saturdays were full of the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Keystone Cops, and Benny Hill. Nearly all the memories I have of his 6' 3” frame shaking from laughter are associated with those movies. And Hee-Haw, but that's a whole nother story.

I have always been able to express my opinion on a topic with certainty, with a resolute belief in whatever I am saying. I just wasn't aware, until this morning, that I had applied that single-mindedness to comedy so early on. Even in such an innocuous piece, written as a weekly assignment for a class I'd long since forgotten.

By the way, my final composite stanine score was 9 out of 9, and the teacher wrote “Very Good!” in what is now faded red ink. You all know how much I love that positive reinforcement!

More blogs coming, I promise.