09 November 2011

Penn Gets Exactly What's Coming to Him, Teller Blows His Brains Out

Some thoughts on Arthur Penn's Penn & Teller Get Killed

"You know what I'd like? You know what would be great? I wish someone were trying to kill me. ...I mean, wouldn't it be great? It'd give focus to your life. All that excitement. All that James Bond secret agent stuff going on -- It'd be great.  I wish someone were trying to kill me." - Penn, in a heavy-handed moment of foreshadowing (note who's doing the killing, above.)
Chicago, late 1980s, in the basement of the Nazarene parsonage, I flipped the family set over to PBS and caught the last half of Penn & Teller Go Public.  It was the sort of serendipity that only happened pre-internet.  I was fascinated by what I saw, and the names (and that ubiquitous ampersand) were seared into my memory.  I tore out to our neighborhood Hollywood Video Store not long after, desperately seeking what I just saw on videocassette.  Hollywood had a huge section devoted to "Special Interest" titles -- mostly documentaries, nature shows, and gay/lesbian fare.  There were some live performance videos, and a whole lot of faded boxes with "PBS" on the front.  Surely I would find Penn & Teller smiling back at me from those shelves.

I was shit out of luck.  I must have searched those shelves five or six times, sinking into a further depression with each look. 

We moved to Wyoming shortly thereafter.  No Hollywood Video in Laramie, but we had a rather bitching high school library.  I began searching out articles on Penn & Teller, printing out whatever I found in the (surprisingly) extensive microfiche archives.  I still have those articles hanging around somewhere.  In one, Teller gets teary eyed recalling his childhood.  In another, Penn talks about how they got their start in Renaissance faires.  One article talked about their current tour:  Penn & Teller Go To Hell, and how it was an appropriate name for a tour that followed their motion picture debut, Penn & Teller Get Killed.

A motion picture.  About Penn & Teller.  Starring Penn & Teller.

After a few months in Wyoming, we moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we lived for a couple of months.  Then it was on to Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was able to finish out my sophomore year in high school.  Along the way I picked up a copy of their book, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends and a used copy of Penn & Teller Get Killed on VHS.

(Today a few minutes with Google turns up all the above and more.  Maybe I'm just becoming a curmudgeonly Gen-X'er, but knowledge about something seemed to mean more when you really had to work to get it.)
"Bang! Bang! Bang!  Does that make your empty, godless lives more worth living?" - Chris Durang as a crazed pastor, quoted from memory.
I watched the hell out of that VHS tape.  I still have it, and it's in really bad shape at this point.  Sound is horrible, picture is ... well, about what you'd expect for a twenty year-old VHS tape that has been watched over and over past the point of memorization.  Some people quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I can recite Penn & Teller Get Killed in my sleep.  Subsequent viewings opened up all sorts of things I missed when I was younger and dumber:  playwright Christopher Durang playing "Jesus Freak".  Jon Cryer in the briefest of cameos.  Tom Sizemore in a bit role.  James Randi in a bit role.

The movie closes with thick dramatic irony: a slow helicopter shot pulling back from Penn & Teller's final resting place and the sound of a continuing parade of suicides as Robin Gibb sings "I Started a Joke."  A perfect cinematic moment just about ruined by Penn's voiceover.
 "Now we've actually killed ourselves and there's no taking that back. And this whole pullback, this is not us going up to heaven. We're just dead. I mean, those are suicides, frowned upon by every major Western religion." - Penn, in the unnecessary closing voiceover
Only, they were not both suicides.  Teller killed Penn.  And he deserved it.

If you don't know, the movie is basically an escalating duel of practical jokes between Penn & Teller, beginning with a scene in the airport:

"Here! Take my underwear! I will go to Philadelphia naked!" - Penn, blowing a gasket.
It's not long before the practical jokes begin touching on Penn's deathwish from the opening scene in the movie.  Teller stages an elaborate long con (which gives the guys an opportunity to debunk psychic surgery in a major motion picture) culminating in a manic monologue of ... well, of Penn Jillettian grandeur:

After this grand and cruel practical joke, we know Penn is going to hit back, right? Teller has unleashed not just a simple gag involving putting things in and taking things out of Penn's pockets, but a vast conspiracy involving Penn's girlfriend and a number of actors who are completely in on it. Logic -- particularly storytelling logic -- demands that Penn completely outstrips his partner's practical joke.

And so he does. Arthur Penn does a pretty good job of hiding the strings here, to a teenage version of me at least. I went along with the ride. I took the storytelling at face value, and figured that a psycho had indeed set his sights on Penn. Now, much older and perhaps a little wiser, it seems obvious what is really going on.

Which makes this bit of dialogue especially troubling, after a gunman fires (and misses) at Penn:
 "Let me tell you something mister. That had better be a blank at that window, and a squib behind that mirror, because if you hired someone to fire off a real gun between us, I don't think that's funny. Actually a even a blank and a squib is only mildly funny. This is not a knee-slapper. This is the end of the joke."

As it so happens, it's not a blank and a squib. Point of fact: Penn HAS hired someone to fire off a real gun between them!

The end of the joke, indeed.

At the end of the movie, when Penn reenters the "psycho's" apartment in a party hat, carrying a cake -- at that moment, Teller is perfectly justified to shoot.  He's in fear for his life.  And you know what?  After orchestrating an over-the-top scenario that results in the psychological torture of his partner, Penn deserves it.

(How over-the top?  The "psycho" details in throw-away dialogue how he booked his role as an acting gig like no other, one that required him to literally become the "psycho," keeping Penn's hair style and the one red fingernail even when off the clock.  How much do you suppose that sort of job pays?  Penn pulled out all the stops.)

It slowly dawns on Teller.  He pulls a bag over his head and, laughing gleefully, says "No hard feelings" before blowing his brains out.  A suicide, I would argue, that was essentially engineered by Penn.

The joke voiceover at the end is completely unnecessary.  Penn has created the James Bond secret agent stuff that he wanted, and he gets killed by his closest friend.  In a way, it's a happy ending for Penn.  And Teller's suicide is the punchline to the darkest joke imaginable.

"I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.  Oh, but I didn't see that the joke was on me." - the BeeGees, poignantly.

08 November 2011

25 Insights and NaNoWriMo

Boy howdy, is this blog ever dusty! When was the last time I wrote something here ... July?

Well in my defense, I've been blogging my ass off at Mad Theatrics.  For all the good that does me.  No, seriously, it does me good.  It's been very therapeutic to take "The Things We Think and Do Not Say" and say them, in public.  What had been the fodder for personal arguments between friends (and occasionally "frenemies" -- but hey, "with friends like these," right? >:-) has become blogging material.  And I think I may have finally said all I need to say on the subject of producing equity waiver theatre in Los Angeles.  (Only took a year to get all that out of my system.)

It's November and that means it's time for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month!  I have no time for this, which is why I decided to do it.  My novel is an idea that I've been picking away at since around 1998.  I've never really committed anything to paper regarding this particular idea, instead letting it percolate.  After sitting on it for thirteen years, it feels good to finally air it out.  And the writing is going remarkably easy so far.

A friend on Facebook, Giles Timms (who's incredible animated short Manifestations was part of the "Something Awesome Animated Film Festival" that Phillip Kelly and I produced at the old theatre company) may not be participating in NaNoWriMo, but a link he posted this morning has fortuitous timing.  25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer is the name of the article, and it's jam-packed with awesome insights, such as:
2. Steven Pressfield: On starting before you're ready…[The] Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around "getting ready," the more time and opportunity we'll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare. The answer: plunge in.

16. Neil Gaiman: On feedback...When people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

24. Joyce Carol Oates: On persevering...I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes... and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.
Fantastic stuff!

14 July 2011

Jury Duty

[NOTE: Back in March of 2010 I had jury duty.  Here are some observations from that time.]

You know what's depressing? The two long lines of people with court dates wrapping around outside. Before the day is through, I may find myself sitting in judgment on one of the people standing on line. That's heavy.

How do you get to Superior Court? What sort of crime?

*     *     *

Overheard a judge:

"It's like a Punch and Judy show around here. People beating on each other."

So that's the sort of crime that makes it to Superior Court. That and traffic cases.

It's a light day today. According the the Jury Room lady, they usually have 20-30 cases going. Today it's 5 cases in 3 courtrooms. Usually there are around 100 jurors, but only about 65 jurors showed up today. Odds are pretty good I'll get selected, but that's fine. The court is closed for Cesar Chavez Day tomorrow, which means I can go to work and get some stuff done. The average case runs 5 days, so I'll be fully done (hopefully) by next Thursday.

There are posters around the room with pictures of celebrities ranging from Camryn Manheim to "Weird" Al Yankovic under the words "Jury Service." These noted celebrities served, and we should feel proud to be among their number! Well, whatever, but it is kind of cool to know that "Weird" Al served. (Can you imagine being up on an assault charge and seeing his curly mane in the jury box?)

*     *     *

I checked in with my boss at lunchtime. The office is not burning down, contrary to her fears when I told her I wouldn't be there today.

I ran across to McDonalds for lunch. I'm fairly certain they haven't changed the grease in their fryer since the OJ Simpson trial. Fried food typically tastes ... well, fried. But it's a BAD sign when fried food all tastes the same. I mean the McNuggets taste like the french fries taste like whatever else they fry. There's an H. Salt Fish and Chips in the valley that has that problem. The hush puppies taste like fish and the fish taste like fries, etc. More accurately, everything tastes like a pastiche of everything. So I have a bit of the ol' "McBrick" going on right now. (Gah ... even the coke was flat. How does that happen with a fountain drink?)

Outside the courthouse is a plaque commemorating the start of Billy Graham's career as a street preacher on the corner of Hill and Washington. I tried to take a picture of the plaque for dad, but the writing doesn't register on my camera phone.

So I'm waiting again. It looks like the first batch of jurors they called were about half of us, so I suppose if they call for more (and don't settle the cases before trial -- a definite possibility) I will most likely get called up in the next batch.

*     *     *

I'll be back on Thursday morning for more jury selection. A few observations:

1. Court reporters are saints. I hope they are well compensated for the non-stop, straining to hear mumblers, catching every word WORK.

2. People are freaking cagey when answering questions in court. We've been well trained by TV and film.

JUDGE "So you work in real estate?"

JUROR "Yes."


JUDGE "Tell me a little about that."


JUROR "I work in real estate."

That's an exaggeration, and not a real conversation that I heard today, but you get the idea.

3. Jury duty is like taking out the garbage. No one wants to do it, but avoiding it isn't really an option.

I don't think I'll get away with live blogging on Thursday, so I'll share my thoughts after I get home. Assuming I'm not chosen for the jury, that is. If I'm chosen I have to swear some sort of blood oath to not talk about anything until after the verdict is answered.

[Sure enough, I was chosen for a jury.  It was a case involving indecent exposure.  In the end, we the jury found that it was likely to have occurred, but the evidence presented did not prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  So, innocent was the verdict and the guy walked.]

13 July 2011

And What Have I Learned?

[NOTE: Originally published on Facebook on 1/18/2011.]

On the eve of my thirty-sixth birthday, I am reminded of the immortal words of Marsellus Wallace:

"Night of the fight, you might feel a slight sting. That's pride fuckin' with you. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. You fight through that shit."
The past year has been interesting. Wonderful, fulfilling, devastating, frustrating and ultimately triumphant. Life is a learning process. Here are a few things I've learned:

1) Jump feet first into the horrible. Dirt washes off and scars add character. Living with anxiety and indecision in the face of the great unknown is not a life worth living. It's better to rip the band-aid off; to roll-up your sleeves and dive into the stinky. It's the only way to get to the root of what's ailing you. Deferring judgment only works so long -- and ultimately doesn't work at all!

2) Tried and true "got your back" friends are priceless. Taking the time to work at creating those relationships is incredibly important. Having a cohort. "Cohort" derives from Latin and means "from the same garden." The people you grow up with define you, challenge you, make you a better person. I could not be happier with the garden I'm in (and I look forward to growing old with you people.)

3) Again I am reminded of what should be the obvious: Communicate. Compare notes. Don't let someone convince you of another's guilt without verifying it for yourself. Don't jump to conclusions without extending the same benefit of a doubt you'd hope people would extend to you. Count to ten. Breathe. Communicate.

4) It is TOO DAMN EASY to hide from what you KNOW you're supposed to be doing. It's easy to find yourself in a cul de sac, driving in circles, kidding yourself that you're getting somewhere while the scenery never changes. "Cul de sac" is French. It means "bottom of the bag," and refers to a literal dead end. You (and by "you" I mean "I") have to to assess where you are, where you've been, and (perhaps most importantly) where the hell you're planning on going. You know that old Lennon quote, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans?" Well, there's "making" plans, and there's following through on the execution of those plans.

When I first got my license, I thought it was a funny joke to occasionally "freak out" behind the wheel and scream, "WHAT AM I DOING?!?" As if I had suddenly forgotten how to drive. Every now and then, I think it's important to freak out a little and scream to yourself, "WHAT AM I DOING?!?" If you wake yourself up to discover you're doing donuts in a dead end, it's time to change direction.

5) I miss my dog. A lot. Life is precious, memories are important, and it's okay to be hurt. Being hurt means you felt something to begin with.

6) FUCK PRIDE. Like Mr. Wallace says, it only hurts, never helps. I'm not saying don't be proud of your accomplishments, I'm saying don't be obstinate. Or to quote someone who doesn't drop the f-bomb:

Arjuna is to do the best he knows
In order to pass beyond that best to better.
How can we prescribe our neighbors to be perfect
When it is so hard to know our own heart?
The pacifist must respect Arjuna
Arjuna must respect the pacifist.
Both are going toward the same goal
If they are really sincere.
There's an underlying solidarity between them
Which can be expressed:
Each one follows without compromise the path upon which he finds himself.
For we can only help others to do their duty
By doing what we ourselves believe to be right.
It is the one supremely social act.
[-- "Sojourn of Arjuna," by Future Man of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.]

Concentrate on your work, do your best, and bend like the reed, grasshopper.

7) My greatest strength is my relationship with Pamela. She's the "got your back friend" to end all. She's a strong, determined woman who inspires me to get off my ass and do what I do. I'm a lucky guy.

So there you go. Thirty-five years in the bag! I can't wait to see what thirty-six has in store ...

12 July 2011

Frenchmen, Minstrels and Hot Tubs -- Oh my!

[Note: Originally posted on Facebook, August 9th, 2010]
The wife and I watched Le Mépris, The Jazz Singer and Hot Tub Time Machine over the weekend. A few observations:

The language of film is distinct and rich, and the great filmmakers speak it fluently. Goddard gets away with a long, extended scene of two people having the same conversation over and over and over in the middle of Le Mépris because he is an elegant storyteller in this unique visual language. Throughout the film, in glorious widescreen tracking shots that belie Lang's (scripted) assertion that Cinemascope is only good for "snakes and funerals," Goddard repeatedly loses actors and regains them. It's a slyly jarring, subtle way of depicting the disconnection between the characters. Likewise is the frequent change of languages. English, French, German and Italian are all spoken, and frequently on top of each other. (Interestingly, Lang is the only character in the movie to speak all four languages fluently.)

The Jazz Singer is an embarrassing milestone -- embarrassing because the climax of the flick has Al Jolson in blackface, emoting through the song "Mother of Mine, I Still Have You". As for the milestone, this being the first full-length movie with sync dialogue: The shift from title cards to sync sound still holds considerable impact. I can understand why people flocked to this movie back in the day. It's overly sentimental, overtly racist, and not a little creepy at times (Jakie Rabinowitz and his mother at one point elicited a shout of "Get a room!") Yet the intertitles have a poetic simplicity, and the story of an artist who finds his place of worship before a Broadway audience certainly appealed to this heathen.

Not to make excuses for it, but there is a thematic necessity for Jakie to put on a mask when he becomes Jack Robin, jazz singer, especially the mask of another race. He is turning his back on his own race and culture, pursuing a musical form that was originated by African Americans in the South. He is literally covering up the authentic with a mockery of what he idolizes. Although handled clumsily and with too much melodrama, Jakie's return to his own culture and racial identity as cantor for Yom Kippur is the logical progression of his story. Performing in blackface should be the low point for the character, where he demeans himself and the people whose music he loves by literally coating on a horrible falsehood. Jolson's blackface performances are not presented as "buffoonery." There's an emotional accessibility in the singer, a "cry in his voice," an honesty on display that undercuts the overt racism. His redemption is found immediately after this scene, at his father's deathbed and in the synagogue, his clean-shaven face conspicuous among the bearded Rabbis. He finally actualizes himself through the marriage of his racial and cultural roots to the man he aspires to be. That's powerful storytelling.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't end at Yom Kippur, and the filmmakers leave us with the image of Al Jolson in blackface, on bended knee, extolling his "Mammy." Ugh. Yes, at the end of the day, it's still a minstrel show; an abhorrent artifact of a thankfully bygone era. However it is such a rich and complicated time in history -- particularly for the arts and pop culture -- rife with dramatic potential, don't be surprised if a certain dramatist wades into those controversial waters in the not-so-distant future.

Hot Tub Time Machine is itself a time machine. This movie is a throwback to a simpler cinematic time, when onscreen heroes could do stupid amounts of drugs with no ill effect, break the laws of physics with wild abandon and get the girl in the end despite all odds and logic. It's incredibly stupid and lots of fun. Ample nods to Back to the Future and assorted 80s fare ("A bet's a bet, man. I want my two dollars!") simmer throughout without ever turning the movie into a cheap string of pop culture references. The cast is perfect, and John Cusack hasn't been this plugged-in since ... Fuck. When was the last time I cared about John Cusack in a film role?

Craig Robinson is one of the best things to happen to screen comedy in a long time. The man has timing like a Swiss watch and a delivery that sidles up to you like a hot prom date (I should know -- I married my hot prom date). He is beyond ready to pop, and a smart producer would line him up in his own star vehicle, like now.

So there you have it, a weekend of movies on DVD. The good, the bad and the funny.

11 July 2011

A Theory About Superman and Batman

[Note:  It seems I hardly ever blog here, opting instead to post notes on Facebook.  With Google+ and the possibility of linking this blog to a social network on the horizon, I thought I might dig deep into my Facebook notes and share some of my pithy, witty observations with the world at large.  You're welcome.]

An off-handed joke/observation yesterday ("Do you suppose Superman ever asks Batman to carry his ID for him? Because ... you know ... no pockets.") got me to thinking.

Why does Batman tolerate Superman?

Young Bruce Wayne watched as his parents were killed by a common street thug and was raised by his eccentric, English butler in a cold, empty mansion. Kal-El was a baby when a natural disaster took out his home planet, and was raised by loving adoptive parents on an idyllic Midwestern farm. Batman dedicated his life to avenging his parents' death, traveling the globe to train with the best -- to become the best. Superman is endowed with super powers by our yellow sun. Batman has to continually condition his body to stay in tip-top shape. If Superman is ever feeling rundown or flabby, he can sprawl out in the sun for a few hours.

(Seriously -- if Superman's strength is such that he can lift a 747 over his head, where does he go to work out? There aren't enough free weights in the world.)

To preserve his secret identity, Batman has to pose as a bobble-headed, billionare playboy. 180 degrees from the man he truly is. And Superman? The overgrown boyscout poses as a naive Kansas farmboy. What a stretch.

And for all his hard work, the people of Gotham call Batman "vigilante," and occasionally press their police to bring him to justice. The people of Metropolis call Superman "champion," and erect statues in his honor.

How can Batman stand to be in the same room with Superman?

Because when Batman sees Superman, he sees a massive tool. (Pun intended.)

Think about it: Batman can't fly, so he has a bat plane. He can't stare at a set of fingerprints and divine the identity of the person to whom they belong, so he has a bat computer. He carries a variety of bat-tools wherever he goes in his utility belt. There are a lot of things Superman can do that Batman can't: He's a walking x-ray machine, for starters. He's a handy body shield. Super speed and flight makes him the best "go fer" in the world.

There is something Batman has that Superman lacks: Intellect. Consider: Batman can't deflect bullets with his bare skin. He can't afford to walk blindly into a room and take on all comers. He has to strategize, often on the fly. If Superman were locked in a sealed container with a ticking time bomb, he'd have a couple of options: 1) Use his super strength to bust out or 2) wait for the bomb to go off, brush the dust off his costume, and fly away. Batman, on the other hand, would have to use his keen mind to defuse the bomb or break himself out.

The radiation of our sun gives Superman god-like strength, but not necessarily god-like intelligence. Even if the potential for god-like intelligence is there, what would motivate him to develop it? Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive -- and he didn't have to work a day to become that way. Being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound does not automatically imply an ability to complete a crossword puzzle.

As a criminologist (perhaps the greatest living criminologist) Batman has studied psychology. He would know how to manipulate Superman to get what he wants. Superman is guileless and bald-faced. Batman is nothing but guile, hidden behind his lead-lined mask.

And Superman is his bitch.

14 April 2011


(C) 2011 by Markus Alias
We made a mess of the stage at Burlesqueland this past year.  When did Mssrs. Snapper & Buddy become prop comics?

Well, we're not really prop comics. We're not a couple of Carrot Tops up on that stage. No sir, what we do is refined ...

(C) 2011 by Markus Alias
Maybe not so much "refined" as dignified and high-brow ...

(C) 2011 by Markus Alias

Tell you what, let's skip over definitions for the moment and get to the heart of the matter: Props.  It makes sense that we would use quite a few props in our bits.  I love making them!  They happen to be good for a laugh or two on their own, so what the hey?  Anything that contributes to the quality of entertainment is in.

I take great care in making props.  That especially goes for the things I build for Red Snapper!  Few things pain me as deeply as a crappy prop onstage at a burlesque show.  It is easily avoidable, but you have to take the time to get it right in advance of the performance.

I've blogged about this before, but here's some more insight to my process.  Not because I'm the ultimate bad-ass when it comes to prop building, but because I do know a couple of things that may help prevent prop disasters from happening.

Mr. Buddy and I do a routine to "Whale of a Tale" from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Each verse is about a different woman, and the ill-fated romance experienced with her.  For the first two verses, Mr. Buddy puts on a different colored wig and ... well, he does what Mr. Buddy does.  (If you haven't seen us live, take my word for it:  He's pretty spectacular.)

(c) 2011 by Markus Alias
As you know, comedy happens in threes.  The third verse changes things up, as we go from mermaid to beautiful captain's wife to ... Harpoon Hannah.  The idea was for Mr. Buddy to emerge with a mask of some sort that would embody this (un)lovable hag.  We debuted this song as part of a set dedicated to the conceit that we were stranded on a desert island, hallucinating the audience and club around us.  So the mask had to embody that tropical island feel, and look as if it could have been made by the sorts of things you find in such an environ.

Harpoon Hannah would be a tiki mask.  Pretty obvious, huh?  I did my research, basically Google image searching "tiki mask."  I sketched down some ideas, basic face shapes and what not.  I paid attention to color.

It begins with a sketch. Ninety-nine-point-nine-eight times out of a hundred, it starts with a sketch.

What do we know about Harpoon Hannah? Let's look at the lyrics:

Then there was Harpoon Hannah
Had a face that made you shudder
Lips like fish-hooks, and a nose just like a rudder
Since I kissed and held her tenderly
There's no sea monster big enough
To ever frighten me!
A pretty clear-cut description! So long as I make her hideous and give her that nose and those lips, everything I need to communicate to the audience is covered.  Filter all that through the visual research, and sketch:

Lips with fish-hooks poking through them, and a nose just like a rudder.
At this point I should reveal a huge secret of the prop-building game:  Resourcefulness.  The week I built this prop, I was broke.  I literally had to build this thing with whatever I happened to have lying around Casa de Snapper.  Granted, Casa de Snapper tends to have more crafty odds and ends lying around than your typical home.  The point is, I knew what materials I had at my disposal, and I kept those limitations in mind as I sketched the mask.  I even surveyed what paints we had and used that info to inform my color choices.

I knew I had a small grass skirt somewhere (I thought it was black).  Voila -- hair.  The brow and lips needed a certain sculpted look.  I had three-quarter inch sheet foam with my puppet building materials.  Voila -- brow and lips.  I figured I could make the fish-hooks out of bits of a brass-colored clothes hanger, bending the bits into the right shape and gluing short strands of fish line to the ends.

I didn't have any bamboo for the stick, but I had a pretty thick cardboard tube that I could convincingly paint.  So what to use on the mask itself?

Here comes another confession:  I used cardboard.  I hate cardboard, I really do.  Yes, it's lightweight and sturdy, but it's difficult to disguise the distinctive lines that the corrugation produces, and it soaks up color.  It so happened that for this particular piece, those drawbacks were advantageous.  First, the mask was going to be slightly curved, and the corrugation would help it look carved.  Second, a duller appearance after painting would help sell the wooden look -- not to mention the ugliness of Hannah!

Happy with the sketch, I set to work.  Here's the final product:

A couple of noticeable differences:  She has eyes and she has no teeth. 
As it turned out, I had far less white paint than I thought I did!  So, goodbye teeth.  I also decided to give the girl some peepers, to not just let Buddy's eyes show through.  With that heavy brow line, the eyes would be mostly in shadows anyhow.  I covered the eyes (from the inside of the mask) with buckram, and painted the pupils with some red glitter paint I had lying around.
Here's the same mask in performance:
(c) 2011 by Markus Alias
You can see the faux-bamboo stick a little better.  The entire mask was assembled with hot glue, by the way.

Something else I did with the finished piece that's not in the sketch is I went to town with a black marker to punch out certain details.  You gotta figure the audience will be at least six feet away from your prop, and it needs to read to the back of the house.  So many props in burlesque shows miss this one basic thing:  Can the audience clearly see it and understand what the hell it's supposed to be?  And they have to be able to tell at a glance.

So that's the process from idea to execution.  Harpoon Hannah has held up remarkably well.  She's three years old and is used as much as any of our props (if not more.)  Not bad for something I cobbled together from a bunch of stuff lying around the house!

05 April 2011

Pay What You Can

Let's make a deal:

You pay what you can for the show.

The actors will do what they can to entertain you.


Pay a premium because our actors are worth it, dammit.

I wonder which is the better proposition?
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.6

07 February 2011


A phenomenal article from Lawrence Wright was published this morning in The New Yorker Magazine.  There is a whole lot of awesome in this article, not the least of which is this:
At the meeting, Davis and I also discussed Hubbard’s war record. His voice filling with emotion, he said that, if it was true that Hubbard had not been injured, then “the injuries that he handled by the use of Dianetics procedures were never handled, because they were injuries that never existed; therefore, Dianetics is based on a lie; therefore, Scientology is based on a lie.” He concluded, “The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hubbard was a war hero.”
Hubbard was not injured in the way he claimed (lame and blind), the medical condition he had at the end of the war remained at least into the 1950s (duodenal ulcer) and Dianetics is based on a lie (it is NOT science.) 
Davis acknowledged that some of Hubbard’s medical records did not appear to corroborate Hubbard’s version of events.
Thanks for agreeing, Mr. Davis.  When you find your way out of the cult, I'd like to buy you a beer.

Read the entire article at The New Yorker online.

04 February 2011

This Week's Maltin Prompt 

Okay, people. Here is this week's prompt, chosen at random from Leonard Maltin's 2011 Movie Guide:
Tyrone is officer suddenly in command of lifeboat holding survivors from sunken luxury liner. Tense, exciting study of people fighting to stay alive while exposed to savage seas and each other. 
Remember, there is only one rule: Write. For screenplays, play scripts, or short stories, let's keep it somewhere between two to five pages. Poets, songwriters, etc., do your thing. It doesn't have to have a beginning or an end. The important thing is to take this prompt and put words together.

When you're done, post the result as a comment below or post it anywhere and drop me a link!

This is a critical-free zone! We're just loosening up and stretching our writer muscles. So let's hop to it! The (entirely arbitrary) deadline is a little over 24 hours from now: midnight tomorrow night.

Get writing!

29 January 2011

Group Maltin Cleanse

Here we go!  Chosen at random from Leonard Maltin’s 2011 Movie Guide
Twelve-year-old boy spending the summer in Maine with his too-busy father and stepmother forms a bond with an odd-seeming older lady who helps him unlock traumatic events in his life, and vice-versa.

This is only a prompt.  There is no wrong way to respond to it.  You may take it literally, or it may spark off some other idea.  The point is to take the first idea and pursue it over a couple of pages.

“First thought, best thought.” – Allen Ginsberg.

Be fearless, unrehearsed, and willing for whatever you write to be bad.  (It won’t be.)

For screenplays, play scripts and short stories, let’s shoot for two to five pages.

If your bag is poetry, songwriting or sermons, do what you do, but don’t feel like you have to start at the beginning or make it to the end.  This is only an exercise!  Stay loose.

Don't forget to post it somewhere and provide link below.


Here's mine, three pages long! (Alfred becomes Alfie somewhere in the middle.)


               FRED MARKS sits behind the wheel of his pristine BMW, the
               engine idling. Fred is almost as well-detailed as the car,
               in suit and tie. His son, ALFRED, 12 years-old, is opening
               and closing an ash tray.

                              Please stop that.

                              I want to go swimming.

                              Alfie, I have to go to court.

                              This is stupid! I should've just
                              stayed with mom. You won't let me
                              do anything.

               Fred impatiently checks his ridiculously expensive watch.

                              I'm sorry about this, okay? It
                              will only take me a couple of
                              hours, in and out, and I'll be
                              right back here. Do you have your
                              stepmom's number?

                              In my phone.

                              So call if you have an emergency.
                              Come on, Alfie, we'll go watch a
                              movie tonight.

               Alfie lifts the handle and kicks the door open. Fred winces.


               Alfie turns, staring daggers. Fred swallows his anger.


                              Check out Robert Heinlein. I think
                              you'll like him.

               Alfie turns and walks away. Fred reaches over and closes the
               door, and drives off. Alfie turns back to watch him go.

                              At least you're trying.

               Alfie rolls his eyes and walks into the library.

               INT. LIBRARY - DAY (CONTINUOUS)

               The library is old, high arched ceilings like a temple.
               Alfie looks up at a mural that must date from the Works
               Progress Administration: Epic, depicting boys and girls
               reading books and looking towards a bright, shining future
               full of rocket ships and skyscrapers.

               ELOISE, 60s, approaches as he's distracted.

                              My father painted that.

               Alfie turns, startled.


                              You're Fred Marks' son.

                              I'm supposed to look for Robert
                              Heinlein. How do you know my dad?

               Sadness nibbles at the edges of Eloise. She sucks it up and

                              Science Fiction. Follow me.

               Alfie follows. There's something not quite right about this
               lady, but she's pleasant enough.


               Eloise is browsing through the bookstacks, looking for

                              It's okay if I hang out? I'd
                              rather be swimming. But Dad was
                              called to court.

                              Your father is very good at what
                              he does.

                              I guess. How do you know him?

               Eloise pulls a book.

                              Eureka! "Have Spacesuit, Will

               She hands it to Alfie.


                              My son's favorite.

                              Dumb title. The picture isn't too
                              much better.

               The cover of the book is classic, pulp sci-fi. A man in a
               gleaming spacesuit is walking across a lunar landscape with
               a lemur-like alien draped over his shoulders.

                              There's a comfy couch on the other
                              side of these bookshelves. You can
                              make yourself at home. My name is
                              Eloise if you need any more help.

               Eloise turns to go.

                              Eloise? I asked you twice how you
                              knew my dad, and you ignored me
                              both times.

               She steels herself.

                              He put my son in prison.

               Maintaining her composure, Eloise leaves. Alfie looks after

                              I should have stayed with mom.

                                                                  FADE OUT.

                                                                    THE END

25 January 2011

Maltin Cleanse Update

Here's what I'm going to do for the big, group Maltin Cleanse: I'm going to post a random plot summary just before midnight, Friday night. That way we'll all have Saturday to write some pages.

Remember: It doesn't have to be "good," it just has to be done.

24 January 2011

The Maltin Cleanse 

I write a lot, but not nearly enough for what I hope to accomplish over the next five years.

I am out of shape.  Most of my writing over the past three years has been "as necessary" or "as mandated by circumstances beyond my control."  That's a bit like saying "I run only when chased."  I need to do something that will: 1) Flush out some bad writing in the short term and 2) put me back into the groove of writing everyday.

And so, I have started the Maltin Cleanse.

I've heard this sort of thing recommended before, but I couldn't point to where I've heard it.  Here's how it works:

I have a copy of Leonard Maltin's 2011 Movie Guide.  There are over 17,000 capsule reviews in this hefty paperback.  These capsule reviews include plot summaries for everything from Casablanca to Troll 2*.  It's pretty exhaustive.

Armed with this cinematic tome and a Scripped Pro account, I chose a title each day and write a two-to-five page script -- screenplay or stage play -- inspired by the plot summary.  I'm going alphabetical through the book.  At a rate of one per day, I would be done with this project in forty-seven years.  So the point is not to write a script for each entry, but rather to loosen up the chops and have a little fun.

How about this:  Next week, I will post one of those plot summaries here, and ask that YOU play along.  Write your own script based on the plot summary, post it somewhere, and either link to it in the comments or shoot me an email with the link.  I'll post my version as well.  Let's do the Maltin cleanse together!  What say you?

*(Upon further review, Troll 2 is not in the book!  Battlefield Earth is, though.)

A couple of additional points: This isn't about crafting a beginning, middle and end, it's about writing the first thing that comes to mind. It doesn't even have to be a script. It could just as easily be a short story or poem.

Also, although I'm going alphabetically, I may be skipping the endless "Abbott and Costello meet ..." movies.

03 January 2011

My Top Ten Entertainment Experiences of 2010

For the past few years, I've published a list of my top entertainment experiences of the year.  Rather than indulge in a pseudo-objective list of top songs or movies or whatever, I decided to go completely subjective.


It's not enough for a source of entertainment to be "best."  This list is about the whole enchilada.  It's about the atmosphere, the company, the je ne se quoi that propels the reading of a book, the watching of a movie or play, etc. into the heights of something more.

In no particular (other than roughly chronological) order:

Burlesque Day at Disneyland

Burlesqueland is becoming the de facto Los Angeles burlesque festival, just as surely as the Los Angeles burlesque community has become my showbiz family.  Spending the day in the park after two days of kick ass burlesque shows -- easily the biggest, most attended burlesque event in Los Angeles -- and spending that day with such a talented and diverse group of people is like Christmas in March.

What does it look like when a bunch of burlesquers take over Disneyland?  Something like this.

John Mayer in Concert at Staples Center

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Pamela's eighth concert, my sixth and one of the three John Mayer concerts we went to in 2010.  We've gone to so many of these damn things, what set this one apart?  A couple of things.

First, Michael Franti and Spearhead opened.  Michael Franti blew me away.  He owned Staples Center, leaping from the stage and dancing through the crowd, bringing people onstage, leading mass sing-alongs.  You don't see rock stars doing that sort of thing.  Franti held the audience in the palm of his hand the entire time, and was incredibly gracious.

Second, I made a fellow concert-goer very happy.  This guy was walking down to his seats, beer in hand.  Some jerkwad managed to trip him.  They exchanged a few words, and the jerkwad refused to buy the guy a new beer.  Look, if you cause someone to spill their drink, you offer to buy them a new one.  That's just good manners.  I sat in my perch, this guy talking to his date, obviously distressed.  It distressed me and Pamela to see him distressed.  Unwilling to see a fellow human being (and beer lover) in distress, I bought the guy a new beer.  Bonus:  When I told the vendor what I was doing, he shook my hand and gave me a free beer.

The relief on that guys face when I handed him the beer; the instant dissolution of the bad vibes he was drowning in made the concert something more.

Theatre of One

I read about it in Stage Happenings: 
In the center of the New York City Theater District, acclaimed Broadway set designer Christine Jones will debut "Theatre for One," a four foot by nine foot portable theatre with one performer playing to one audience member. The uniquely intimate theatrical experience will be available to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis between May 14–23, 2010 in Times Square.
The dates coincided with a business trip, so I went!  I wrote about the experience on Mad Theatrics:

I got to the queue just in time to be shut out, but managed to talk my way into the final performance of the day. A poetry reading, I must confess I missed the first half of the performer's words. I was so struck by the intimacy and immediacy of the experience, I think I forgot how to breathe.

I may not remember the details of the poem, but I cannot forget the performer's eyes.
Fuxedos and Fish Circus at Hollywood Fringe

I reviewed it for LA Theatre Review (read the review here.)

Danny Shorago is an unbridled maniac onstage; an intense portrait of an artist making shit happen for himself offstage.  I admire Shorago in a way that borders on "man crush" but I really hate that idiom.  He's backed up by an incredible raft of musicians -- "Robot Vampire Wombat" is one of my favorite afternoon heading home from the day job jams.  Any opportunity to take in their non-sequitor musical nuttiness is reason enough to take in their show, but at Hollywood Fringe they sweetened the deal with Fish Circus.

Check out the bands and their music.  Catch them live, buy a cd, support what they're doing, etc.

What elevated this awesome concert to this list?  An exchange I had with one of the band members from Fish Circus when I bought their CD.  I don't remember how much it was, but it was an odd amount.  Let's just say it was $5, and all I had was a $10 bill.  I handed it to the band member, who looked down at the bill and back to me saying,  "I'll have to mail you the change." 

I kind of laughed.  "Don't worry about the change.  It's worth it."

"Thanks, dude!"  It made my night.   

Forbidden Zone: Live! From the Sixth Dimension

Marz Richards as Satan.
The review is here.  Not included in the review:  This was my Solsbury Hill. 

I resigned from Theatre Unleashed, the company I helped found, three months after watching this show.  In truth, I composed my letter of resignation that night.  It remained as an unsent draft until one argument too many finally pushed me off the fence.  At Sacred Fools I saw onstage everything I hoped to accomplish in theatre, and was sobered by the fact that the trajectory my company was on placed us far afield of ever hitting those goals.

It was a reality adjustment that I needed.  I didn't respond to it right away; I made a pitch to move my company back on track, but to no avail.  The life lesson to take away from my experience:  When you go into something with collaborators, make sure you want the same final product.  In the end, I discovered that I had honest-to-God "creative differences" with my fellow administrators, and so we diverged.  No harm, no foul, as they say.

If I ordered these lists from most important experience to least, this would be number one.  Forbidden Zone: Live! In the Sixth Dimension changed my life.

Little Big Planet and the PS3

I just wanted to play a neat looking video game.  I had no idea how thoroughly it would change my viewing habits.

How many DVDs have we watched since picking this baby up?  Any guesses?  Somewhere in the neighborhood of eight or nine.  How many movies and tv shows have we watched via NetFlix Instant?  I couldn't possibly say for sure.  It's an embarrassingly high number, whatever it is.

Sure, we watched stuff on Instant via our desktop computer before we got the PS3, but now it's like having cable on-demand.  Plus there is the actual on-demand service Sony offers through the Playstation Store.  That's how we watched Walking Dead, and how we're going to watch Dexter and Treme.

As for that neat little video game, Pamela and I have had countless hours of fun with our little sackpeople, playing through imaginative scenarios in both the standard game and levels created by other users.  It's like a carnival; endless possibilities and unknown adventures abound.

Police Halloween Carnival

Speaking of carnivals. 

Blinking incandescents, cheesy haunted houses and creaky rides, fried food and midway games galore -- all of it just a few blocks from our front door.  We went to this carnival twice; two cold, rainy October nights.  There is something visceral and immediate about a street carnival, something appetizing and satisfying about the sights and sounds, something warm to be found in the dark.  And walking hand-in-hand with your girl through such atmosphere?  Heaven.

Burlesque (the movie)

(Up front, let me say:  Yes, it is burlesque.)

Pamela and I joined a healthy contingent of the Los Angeles burlesque scene at LA Live to take in Steve Antin's ode to nightclubs, Burlesque.  This was after spending the early part of the day with many of the same people at Hobo Thanksgiving, a lunchtime potluck we through at Griffith Park, and was a perfect capper to the day.

Peepshow Menagerie: A Burlesque Christmas Carol

This is kind of a cheat, seeing as how I was in it.  But curiosity drove me to take a seat in the audience after my part at the beginning of the first act was through.  And by God, Chris Beyond and Patrick the Bank Robber really did it.  They wrote a burlesque play.  The striptease acts weaved into the storytelling, becoming an integral part of the story.  Usually an audience gets testy when there's too much talky-talky and not enough stripping, but the audience went along for the ride.

Chris and Scarlett Letter have been pushing the show in this direction from the beginning.  Most of the shows are scripted.  The potential for this sort of evening has been there all along.  I'm not ashamed to say it:  I got a bit misty seeing the potential play out onstage at Bordello. 

Have Tassels, Will Travel

Satan's Angel is a treasure.  Her one-woman show outlines her history as a burlesque performer, and is as frank and honest as she is in person.  She holds no punches, even against herself!  What made this even sweeter was being part of an audience composed of largely burlesque performers.

Okay, that's it.  Another year, another bunch of awesome experiences!  And as usual, I can't wait to see what the new year has in store.