Thursday, August 22, 2013

on being a functional academic

(written Tuesday, 8/20)

The semester started today.  Way back when I thought I had enough of a future to think in terms such as "career," I would always describe this time of the year in the language of addicts.

Let's not kid ourselves.  There is definitely a sense in which academics and teaching are very similar to drug use. When a class goes really, really well, there is a definite rush during the "student eyes pop open in greater understanding" period--and the rush does last quite a while after class is over.  The word "intoxicating," while being definitely cliche, is still very much appropriate.  Of course, this is not a constantly attainable high.  Teaching is quite often merely pedestrian, often sad, disheartening.  This to fits the metaphor.  We teachers are all chasing the perfect buzz.

As a graduate assistant, I chased the buzz quite regularly for three and a half years.  Of course, my hit to miss ratio was not that astounding...I was way too inexperienced to nail the teaching thing with any regularity.  Yet the highs were all totally new, totally fresh.  As a result, they were that much more powerful, that much more evocative...amplified by their relative scarcity.

This is probably why the summers were always a bit of a mixed blessing for me.  Actually getting free time?  Awesome.  Not getting paid?  Much less so.  Most of your friends moving away just compounded any disappointment. The biggest issue, though, was the summer started with burnout recovery from the end of the semester, exams, students begging for grades they did not earn, and the accompanying rush of trying to get my own coursework done.  By the end of the summer, though, I was legitimately looking forward to getting back in the classroom for enlightenment, for the performance, for all of this and more, yes...but mostly for the buzz.

Then there was the year and a half where I found myself in a series of research assistantships.  Then I realized this was I didn't just miss teaching but seriously craved it.  When this period ended and I found myself back in the classroom, I slowly was able to work my hit percentage upward.  I found out, after slaking off the rust & learning how to teach these brand new to me disciplines, that I was actually getting pretty good at it.  Slowly, I started moving from being an addict to being...a professional.

As I said earlier, the semester started today.  I was not jonesing for it.  In many ways, I was quite willing to never go in again...if only my wife wasn't strangely resistant to becoming a university president and thus becoming my sugar momma.  Don't get me wrong.  I still get excited about teaching. I still get the rush when things really hit.  Yet I no longer long for it.

How did this happen?  Well, a lot of things came to pass.  Adjuncting beat a lot out of me.  The sheer crushing weight of a full load of composition grading did its work as well...particularly when leaving long grading bouts in my office, heading to the car via the tenure-track faculty offices, and realizing they had left hours before my own personal grading frenzy ended.  The biggest influence, I guess, was finally accepting the perspective I could gain from my wife...and then having my world exploded and reinvented by my daughter.

So, no, I don't "need" teaching in the same way as I did in the past.  This is because I'm much more comfortable in myself as a person.  I don't really need anything else to complete me...definitely not teaching.  And let me tell you, that's a very good place to be.

That doesn't mean, however, that I can't still have some seriously weird and fun experiences, such as getting to share with one of my classes website

Thursday, August 08, 2013

writing humor: on repetition

If I've said it before, I've said it 1,238,647 times--repetition is a vital element in humor.

I will even go one further and say it is in fact essential.  Repetition--mixed with a tasteful amount of variation--is key to creating narrative. Repetition brings both familiarity and jumping-on points for listeners/readers/whatever.  And it adds to the general comedic effect. Regardless of what some people may claim, if you repeat something often enough, anything can become funny...or funnier.

General repetition provides possibilities for improvisation, for exploration.  One classic examples is Bugs Bunny's catch phrase "what's up, doc?" On its own, it was maybe slightly funny for its incongruity (coming from a rabbit and all) least during its first few utterances. With repetition, though, it becomes a trademark. Its value is not, after countless repetition, due to any essential humor contained therein. But "what's up, doc?" sets up the viewer for Bugs Bunny's patented style of hijinks. As such, it gains a certain amount of funniness via association with Bugs Bunny, with the context of forthcoming laughs.

Yet it also provides an opportunity for riffing. In the classic 1946 "Hair-Raising Hare," Bugs is being chased by a giant, scary monster.  He's scared, he's breathless, and generally out of control.  But then:

This chance to use the oft-repeated phrase "what's up, doc?" allows Bugs to calm down, to munch on a carrot, and generally regain his confidence.  For Bugs, it's an incantation as much as anything else.  For us, though, it is humor from repetition. The cartoon introduces the familiar (and not for the first time) yet modifies it enough to subvert our expectations...which produces humor. This entire bit, in other words, is set up by the regular repetition of "what's up, doc?"

Repetition sets up expectations in the audience which can then be subverted by the text . Whenever one uses repetition, it establishes in the audience an image, a trademark, an expectation. These are all perfect fodder, perfect prompts for comedy...or, for that matter, drama, insight, whatever.

I remember once (decades ago) seeing Jay Leno on David Letterman's show. Leno (who was a much better stand up than tv host) was on a rant which led into the old (ancient, prehistoric) joke about how nowadays in college dorms, you could have sex, you could have drugs, but you still can't have a hot plate.  It was awesome...not because the joke is funny in and of itself (let's face it:  the joke stunk when new) but because the joke had been repeated so often (run through the wood chipper, actually) that it became funny again as an anachronism.

Then there is Bugs Bunny's repeated use of "what's up, doc?"  While this was incongruous enough to be funny the first time, as he continued to repeat it, it transformed into a crutch to set up other humor. Sometimes, it became a great line to be recontextualized and played with, such as in 1946's "Hair Raising Hare."

One of the more classic Monty Python sketches was "The Spanish Inquisition"...which was repetition and variation throughout the night, repeated and repeated, expanded, played with, and eventually ending the program in an aborted version.

Yeah, a lot of the humor here is from the general incongruity, but each repetition keeps you on the edge of your seats, thinking "where will they go with it this time?"

Another example of repetition setting up improvisation is in the 1946 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Hair-Raising Hare."  Here, every single past repetition of Bugs's famous catch phrase "what's up, doc?" becomes the backdrop allowing this particular story to use the line as a jumping-off point for new comedy.

One example of repetition which doesn't get nearly enough recognition is Saturday Night Live's amazing coverage of the assassination of Buckwheat (and then of the assassination of Buckwheat's assassin).

The repetition allows SNL to perfectly rail against news coverage's own reliance on repetition in the absence of new facts and ideas all the way back in 1983...long before The Daily Show existed.

And then...hey, have I told you about how Bugs Bunny uses repetition?

The most important--and undoubtedly the most essential--feature of repetition in humor (and in writing in general) is narrative. Quite often, I am lucky enough to get pieces come in to my mind with a pretty good structure.  More often, however, I look back on my rough drafts and see a bunch of random observations nailed together with beer and ink. You've seen this phenomenon a lot in many venues, but it shows up quite frequently in stand up comedy.  Lots of comedians have jokes.  Sometimes, though, they seem to follow a Zapp Brannigan-esque approach: "say as many of them as possible, as quickly as possible."  The problem, however, is that jokes are not the same thing as an act...any more than a series of observations, gags, and one-off lines (such as Bugs Bunny's "what's up, doc?) is a coherent story.

Repetition, though, can add cohesiveness.  Hit on a neat idea somewhere in your piece?  During rewrites, it can become an element in the title.  It gets mentioned a couple times in passing.  And then, when you're specifically looking for a narrative conclusion, you work your way back to the original point.  This became really clear to me after reading WWDN, but you can probably think of a million other examples at this point.

Oh, and have I mentioned Bugs Bunny yet? Just checking, because sometimes, repeating something over and over and over and over can work as a complete and utter substitute for narration. Don't believe me?  Then would you believe you're already at the end of this piece?

Friday, August 02, 2013

anatomy of a solo performance

It's half an hour before I have to leave, about an hour before I start to play. I'm putting together my binder of lyrics, and I notice my hands are shaking. For this moment, it doesn't matter that I am firmly used to being in front of crowds. Nor does it matter I've been playing guitar for twenty eight-plus years. I have to admit to myself, if no one else:  I am downright scared.

I know my material. For that matter, I know I have more than enough songs:  ten originals, at least eighty five covers.  I have played music for ages, and there are songs I will play tonight which I have been playing for a quarter of a century.  I should be certain, sure, solid, confident. Instead, I am afraid, and none of my knowledge helps the fear.

I eat some chocolate, hoping it will give my blood sugar wave a boost to drown my nerves, but it only leaves a bitter cocoa taste in my dry mouth. So I concentrate on my task...then I concentrate on packing...then I concentrate on trying to be sociable to my wife and father, who drive me to and will watch the show.

When we get to the Irish pub where I will perform for a full three hours, I grab my stuff, enter the bar, notice no one bothered to hang one of my flyers, head to the bar side of the pub, and make a beeline for the stage (which is in reality only a small triangle in the corner opposite the skee ball game, about five feet at its widest part) The soundman is unwrapping tangled cables (a task which occupies 87% of anyone in the music "businesses"'s time). I've known this gentleman for several years. He ran sound at my first gig ever. He's a nice guy, so even if I didn't have to rely on him for gigs, I would be nice and sociable.  Luckily, he seems to like me.

We exchange pleasantries for a few minutes while I unpack.  I head to the bar to get some drinks and introduce myself to the bartender.  While it's a general rule to be nice to bartenders if you want to get your drinks in a timely fashion, it's especially smart to be extra friendly if you're performing. If the bartender thinks you're a jerk, there's going to be very little chance of you getting invited for a return show.  I grab my beers and head back to the stage for the sound check.  I try to always be very easy going in these.  I'm always amazed at how many musicians become Stalin-esque in their demands to the soundman. In addition to making you look rude and pretentious to the crowd in general, it also tends to tick off the soundman.  People running sound hold way too much of a musician's fortunes in their hands. Yet some people seem to want to simply annoy and piss off those in charge of getting the PA to work and making them sound good. Me, I want them to like me.

I've timed it tonight just right, so I have no time to wander or get even more nervous before I start. As soon as the soundman gets my levels right, he heads to the bar to turn off the house sound. I look around at the crowd.  There's a lot of people in the bar, but the only people I know at this point are my wife and my dad.  The crowd seems older.  I have no idea by looking at them if they're even going to care that someone's playing music.

It's time to start, and my nerves have done nothing to settle, so I start off with the easy, the I-could-play-this-in-my-sleep songs.  This means that for the first twenty seven minutes or so, I sound more than a little like a minimalist classic rock radio station, particularly after opening with an Eagles song.  As the crowd is on the older side, "Lying Eyes" should be a great fit, but save my wife and father, no one really seems to care or is even listening to the music...and for the first few songs, the only applause I get is from the people I brought with me.

This, of course, doesn't help settle the nerves.  To top off matters, I tend to sweat when I play. I mean sweat a lot. So by the start of song two, my shirt is already soaked with sweat.  I jump into a Uriah Heep number, and I see one member of the bar staff who I sort of know smile a bit. I'm over-thinking everything at this point, but it does really help when I earn perceived coolness points in someone's I start to relax a little.

In between verses, I steal glances at my song list, trying to figure out what to play next...and of course, sweat drips directly into my eyes.  Through the stinging, though, I see a few more friends filter in. I remind myself to talk to them during my first break and thank them for showing up...but of course, there are a few people to whom I don't get to say more than three words. It's a failure on my part, but it's an unavoidable one.

About eight or nine songs into the set, most of my nerves have dropped out.  I run out of beer and make a plea for another, but everyone thinks I'm joking. I notice a couple I know at the bar:  a former professor and a former boss. I've already started my next song, so I give them a knowing nod. I'm finally relaxed enough to pull in an original song (albeit a very easy one called "A Song About Drinking").  I stay on safe ground for the rest of the set, even though I've finally started to loosen up and have fun.

About an hour in, I take my first ten minute break. I have to say quick "hello"s to a few people on my mad run to the bathroom. On my way back, I prioritize and  talk to my former professor and former boss for five minutes, as they're the ones I haven't seen for the longest amount of time.  I get a couple of drinks, quickly say hi to a few others, and get back to the stage. As I jump into the second set, I realize I forgot to changed out of my sweat-through Piggly Wiggly shirt.

I start set two pretty loose, able to funnel any residual nervous energy into the songs. Whereas my vocals were tight and nervous in the beginning, I now feel free to let it rip (that is, at least as much as my limited range will allow).  I get more adventuresome in my song choices and am much more willing to be silly;  my somber cover of Huey Lewis & the News's "Walking on a Thin Line" is case one.  I think it's a hilarious re-framing of a pretty cool pop song. What strikes me as more funny, though, is seeing my friends's faces as they realize they know the song but cannot for the life of them figure out who did it orignally...which tells me I scored.

Quickly into set two, I break out my kazoo.  One thing I have figured out from watching and doing solo sets is that, regardless of how good one might be, sooner or later the sound of an acoustic and single vocal gets to be sonically dull. So it's a good idea to add textures to the aural palate. I'll frequently throw a tambourine on my leg and kick in rhythm. Of course, the standard solo artist's accompaniment is the harmonica, but I never learned how to play I got a kazoo instead. It's a nice one, hand-made out of wood. I do ape harmonica parts, but I also try to get more adventuresome with it such as when I copy the guitar solo in Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home." It changes up the tonal landscape of the performance...and, at the very least, is a little funny." Eventually, I plan to add both hi-hat and mandolin to the repertoire.

Some of my friends I didn't really get a chance to talk to during break one unfortunately leave during set two.  The bar crowd also starts to thin, but several other friends show up.  I'm now feeling pretty good.  One of the remaining bar crowd asks for the standard live music cliche "Freebird." I warn him I actually know it, will actually play it, and will even do the solo to the live version...on my kazoo, no less.  I do the verses in a pseudo-reggae style and play the solo straight as one can do on a kazoo.  Unfortunately , my lungs give out before anyone begs for mercy or bribes me to stop.  I also attempt the falsetto background vocals on Thompson Twin's "Hold Me Now" to intentional bad effect, eliciting a certain amount of laughter...which pleases me greatly.

I chat with friends during break two.  The bartender assures me she will be on alert for my tortured "I need beer" wail, so I don't need to stock up on adult beverages.  I take to the stage and rip into set three, getting stranger and stranger in my cover song selection while incorporating more originals into the mix. One of my friends (a big fan of my band) is seeing me play solo for the first time, so I do my only repeat song of the night. I play "Little Sister" for the second time, and because she's a monster Elvis fan, I put special emphasis on the "haw"s.

Eventually, I check my phone and discover that, where time was crawling during set one, it is flying during set three, and I only have four minutes left.  I decide to end the night with a brand new,never played in public original I wrote about my daughter.  I apologize in advance for it, because it starts with finger-picking...and I am horrible at finger-picking.  Somehow, though, I get through that part with utterly no issues. I mess up some of the chord changes, but as no one has ever heard the song before, my mistakes aren't I'm okay with them.

The soundman/booker is long gone, so I can't thank him...which is generally my first post-gig move.  I talk to my former prof and boss, and they are both very effluvient in their praise...and I get the impression they are actually impressed beyond the "hey, you did good for a friend" level. My wife and father are similarly honestly-sounding complementary.

This will all probably make me feel really good eventually, but after I play, I'm really not in the mental position to process praise....particularly from people I know. I am pretty happy I only made one or two noticeable errors. I am admittedly not thrilled with my nerve-wracked first thirty voice was weak and unassured.  It was, though, only the second time I did the three hour show, and it is undoubtedly demanding.  But I feel the pre-show nerves will decrease once I get more of these under my belt.  Right now, though, my voice is close to burnt-out and my fingertips hurt. The main casualty, though, is my brain...I am utterly mentally fried.

Yet it was indescribably nice to see my friends who came out to see me.  It was especially lovely to see my wife and father enjoying themselves. I utterly love seeing my friends puzzle over the Huey Lewis number,giggle of the Thompson Twins background vocals, smirk whenever I played kazoo, crack up over the "Freebird" solo, and generally have fun on a night where I was the entertainment. My wife liked hearing me.  My father got my Townes Van Zandt number. My former professor and boss loved my kazooing. My Elvis fan friend liked my "Little Sister" cover.

After packing up my equipment, I went to thank and tip the bartender.  I got two more beers and a nice Scotch to finish out my "performer" bar tab.  The bar manager thanked me before I could thank him and then, more importantly, paid me. I went to my friends's table and was thrilled to find out dad liked my drummer. We chatted, drank, and enjoyed ourselves.Eventually, we sound out we were done, and I hauled my stuff out to the car, but on the way out, I hunted down the manager to shake his hand one more time.

From that point onward, it was just a desperate hunt for the elusive french fry on the way home, and a brief pre-goodnight chat with my mom before crawling into the bed next to my lovely wife and sleeping the sleep of the just.