YES, AND...

Remember when you were a kid, and everyone was enjoying a game of Ghost in the Graveyard? And along comes little Sammy Snot-Nose, who doesn’t want to play the game. Who knows why. Maybe his mom made him eat one too many meatloaf. Or maybe he didn’t get his Ritalin that day. So, Sammy starts telling people where the ghost is hiding. He trips people as they run from the ghost, and interrupts everyone’s conversation until he is the main focus. At that point, everyone is forced to stop playing to figure out what to do. Either you decide to play his game to make him happy, or you give up, go home and watch the Love Boat. At The Second City, we learned the magic of “Yes, and…” For the non-improvisers living among us, the phrase is a simple tool to help build a decent scene. When your scene partner makes a choice, it helps everyone on stage if you just play along. After all, who wants to play with a grown-up version of Sammy Snot-Nose? Your response to whatever they say or do should at the very least agree with the premise of their choice (thus the “yes”), and respect it.

For example, if they walk out saying “Thanks for the ride, Dad!” you should move forward as that character’s dad in your mind. If you responded “Don’t speak to me that way. I’m your mother!” you might get a laugh, but you’re also slowing down the dramatic momentum of the scene. Of course, excellent improvisers can turn any choice into magic. In the hands of experts, those two opposite statements could become the most nuanced and poignant satire exploring modern roles in the family or issues of transgender identity.

After a waste of time improv show full of Sammy Snot-Nose clones, the audience will most likely greet the improvisers in the backstage alley for an improvised beating. On the other hand, if everyone on stage builds on each choice instinctively, the team tends to tap into some very powerful subconscious parts of our brain, and all the crazy unique choices connect together to surprise the audience (as well as the improvisers). Thus, the magic.

To me, the ability to let go of control and say “Yes, and…” to life is the secret to happiness. The last episode of the first season (available on 9/26/13) deals with a troubled pregnant lady at a bus stop. It was a small part of the original Baby Time sketch that I wrote back in 1998. But, then I added a reprise of the character that made this week’s episode just a setup for a story payoff later. In this week’s scene, he swats her away like an annoying pest. He doesn’t have the time or patience to deal with her insanity. However, when he sees her again in the later scene, it’s a second chance to try a different approach with her. He then responds with more of a “Yes, and…” mindset, and the end result helps him realize that he’s better off letting go of his control-freak nature.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling, that payoff won’t become a reality. Episode 6 is most likely the last produced episode of the series. I’ve worked on the web series for over 3 years. I’ve learned a great deal about this emerging medium, and the possibilities. I could continue on making the rest of the Baby Time! series, but it would require a fairly large budget. It makes more sense to apply what I’ve learned to a new project that can be completed for a small budget in a shorter amount of time.

So, for now, I figured I would include the remaining story, in case you want to see how the series would end. Below is a rough layout of the remaining seasons, the characters in each episode, and the overall emotional journey of our main character Richard. Enjoy!

Season 2 (Episodes 7 – 12) During the next 6 episodes, Richard heads to Oak Park to track down the missing mid-wife.

Episode 7 - They hop on the METRA train to Oak Park where the mid-wife lives. On the train, a couple only pretending to be therapists force Richard into a very unorthodox therapy session, and still manage to uncover his hidden issues with his mother-in-law Chelsea.

Episode 8 – Exhausted, Richard falls asleep on the train, waking up at the end of the line in Geneva, IL. Cabbie Joe reveals that he has also been banned from taking cabs, so they must “borrow” a school bus from a nearby school, where two kids torment Richard.

Episode 9 - Richard finally arrives in Oak Park, but a snappy musical number reveals that the mid-wife is too busy with her dysfunctional family to fulfill her duties.

Episode 10 - Richard and Chelsea knock on doors to find a ride back to Anna in Lincoln Park, interrupting many strange characters, until a loner lends Richard a girl’s bike.

Episode 11 – While riding the bike to the EL station, Richard has a nervous breakdown about failing to get the midwife, but Anna talks him back to sanity.

Season 3 (Episodes 12 – 16) During the next 5 episodes, Richard rushes back home, but Anna is gone.

Episode 12 - Richard encounters the siren-like citizens of downtown Oak Park as they try to prevent him from leaving their perfect world, and Cabbie Joe shows up just in time to save him from being hit by the Soccer Mom’s car (from Episode 2).

Episode 13 - Richard and Cabbie Joe wait for the EL train, while two old guys complain in a very matter-of-fact way about marital problems caused by a live-in space alien.

Episode 14 – When the EL train stops for maintenance, Richard and Cabbie Joe cut through a cemetery, while a mourner begs Cabbie Joe to help her get revenge on her dead husband’s ghost.

Episode 15 - Cabbie Joe runs into his estranged father at the park, and he and Richard embark on an elaborate psychological game to borrow his vehicle.

Episode 16 - Richard and Cabbie Joe finally make it home on the dad’s golf cart, only to find that Anna has been rushed to the hospital with complications. When Richard gets stuck in Cubs traffic, all hope seems lost, until he gets in an accident and the ambulance gets him to the hospital.

Season 4 (Episodes 17 – 20) In the last season, Richard beats himself up as a failure, but some characters from earlier in the series return to help him rethink his approach to life, just in time for the birth of his child.

Episode 17 - Richard dreams about an infomercial parody selling Loopholes for Catholics – and wakes up ready to reconsider his view on control. The doctor asks Richard to convince his wife to have a C-Section, but Richard insists the doctor respect the choices of his wife and her Doula.

Episode 18 - Richard crawls through the Emergency Room of the hospital in pain past all the characters from the series, until the Father Wilczek (from Episode 2) almost murders him because he “knows too much.”

Episode 19 - Richard runs into Preggo from the bus stop again as she’s about to give birth, but instead of avoiding her, he helps her deliver her baby.

Episode 20 - Finale – Richard makes it to Anna just as she’s giving birth. The entire episode is a rock anthem with choreography detailing the birth of his baby, resolving all his conflicts, and annoying the masochistic doctor. Richard finally learns to enjoy life as it occurs, instead of living with the false notion that he can control everything.

Mercury in 80's Retro

Freddie Mercury can sing a mean tune. I listened to “Don’t Stop Me Now” in my car last week as I transitioned from the 101 to the 405. Boy, he sure sounds energized in that song. Before too long, my imagination transported me to an early 80’s video – not any actual Queen video – but a mini-musical of my own making, with me as the star, naturally, followed by thousands of people running out of their houses to join me - everyone with crazy-eye smiles and dressed in obnoxious 80’s workout clothes - as I skyrocket through the town headed who-knows-where. Then, as I laughed at myself, I suddenly found myself on the other side of Sepulveda pass, seconds away from my exit.

I don’t want to be stopped. Yet, people do stop me. Sometimes, people tell me I should be stopped, but I don’t listen. And other times, I realize I probably should have been stopped, but it’s too late. And finally, there are those times when I stop on my own, usually because of a lack of confidence. I avoid a risk, but where’s the fun in that?

Back in the 80’s, I was still developing my confidence and personality in a soup of my budding teen hormones. One night, driving down Lake Avenue in Morton Grove, I sat in the back seat rambling to my parents about my ridiculous teachers, and how I refuse to bow down to their unauthorized authority. My mother, being very wise to the ways of the world, set me straight – it was clear I developed an overblown ego. Naturally, she wanted to protect me from mouthing off to my teachers, or making some embarrassing scene. Besides it’s always better to cause a “scene” when you’re alone with your family than out in public. So, I cried like a little baby, while I protested and refused to admit I had become… obnoxious. By the end of the evening, I somehow heard my own tantrum, and I was convinced. I had become too big for my britches.

So, I called all my friends individually, and apologized to them for my attitude. Surprisingly, many of them agreed that I had an ego problem, so – way to have your finger on the pulse, mom - good catch! Unfortunately, I went the complete opposite direction for the next couple of years. I worried constantly about what everyone else thought was important before considering my own thoughts. While the adjustment helped me keep my friends, I lost my ability to grasp the subtle differences between challenging your teacher to a fistfight, and speaking up to let your grilling friend know you prefer cheese on your burger.

Looking back, the same series of events repeated often throughout my life. A moment of skyrocketing confidence and pride would lead to a shocking lesson in how unhelpful the ego can be. It happened when I insisted on playing the lead during our jazz band trip to Arizona, only to flub the ending to our closer “In the Mood.” It happened when Andersen Consulting sent me to Europe, and then reprimanded me on my return for my out of control expense report. And it happened when I complained about helping Kevin James’ fiancé move on a Saturday, which encouraged his manager to encourage me to quit.

Looking back, I see that I probably would’ve benefited from a little humility in those cases. On the other hand, a little ego can drive healthy risks that lead to a happier future. By letting go of my need to be lead trumpet all the time, I settled into the more creative and fun position of 2nd trumpet, the part that gets all the improvised solos. And leaving The King of Queens lead to a whole bunch of more rewarding jobs, including my current fabulous job at Landmark Theatres. Although, I’m not sure anything positive resulted from taking a couple of unapproved cabs in Madrid and Milan.

So, I know I can turn setbacks into comebacks, but is the ego necessary to the process, or does it make more trouble than it’s worth? And, do I need to fall into a tailspin at every disaster? Well, luckily for me, I had plenty of opportunities to explore this question in the past few weeks, when I faced several major challenges in a row, throwing my confidence into zero-gravity drops.

Our story begins on March 12, when I run into multiple issues at work for several days in a row that require groveling with my bosses and clients – including an indie comedy screening I booked that turns out to be a XXX premiere, and last minute technical issues that almost turn Warner Bros’ digital restoration of THE COLOR PURPLE into to a special screening of Steven Spielberg’s THE COLOR GREEN*.

In each case, I solve the issue, and restore my ego to its full glory, until the next embarrassment shoves that ego back in its hole. After four days of several ego beatings, I scream “Lego my ego!” and I head home for the weekend, frazzled and shell-shocked. I reflect on the week and give my confidence some air. After all, I’ll need some of it to interview Will Ferrell for CASA DE MI PADRE.

Then on March 18, I meet Will Ferrell, and he thinks he recognizes me. Hello, ego. Welcome back. Then I moderate a discussion with him to a sold-out house. The interview shows all the signs of success. I prompt him to talk about his role as producer, and speaking Spanish for the whole movie. He’s charming and entertaining. I’m feeling so confident, that I even make fun of myself for a slip of the tongue. Apparently, my joke is too risky, because the audience gasps. Then, Will makes an even bigger joke at my expense, and the crowd loves it. Later, the studio rep tells me I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about my mistake, because it was a great moment. I go home and brag to my wife how I helped Will Ferrell get one of the biggest laughs of the night, and how I knocked it out of the park.**

I strut into work on Monday for a victory lap, and I discover my company has received a nasty complaint letter about the horrible, racist moderator.

What? Yes, it’s true. This customer didn’t catch my sarcasm, and interpreted my joke as a straight-forward statement of hatred.

This happens all the time with my wife. If she misses the connotation, the situation can get ugly fast. I’ve even developed an automatic reaction to say I was kidding, even when I wasn’t. It’s become such a knee-jerk instinct, that sometimes I don’t even realize myself that I was serious. I need a few minutes to reflect and figure out what I was really thinking.

In this case, though, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, and I know I was joking. Here’s more of a breakdown of the offending incident. I mistakenly referred to the Mexican actors as “Spanish.” I knew they were Mexican. It was even written in my notes. I know that not knowing the difference is ignorant. But, we were just talking for five minutes about Will speaking Spanish, so I slipped with the word “Spanish.” And, I was hyper aware that some Mexican people do get offended when they are referred to as Spanish, so I felt particularly bad about my slip of the tongue. But, regrettably, I didn’t stop there.

Instead, like a “rocket ship about to whoa-oh-oh-explode,” I made a joke to make fun of myself. I wanted everyone to know that I was wrong to make the mistake. My intention was to show the abhorrent nature of ignorant people. And by using sarcasm (which was supposed to show the audience that I really didn’t believe what I was saying), I was emphasizing how ridiculous and horrible those ignorant people are. But, it didn’t work. After Will Ferrell made fun of my gaffe, I promised not to try to be funny any more. So, upon further review, I didn’t help Will that night – he helped me.

Luckily, my bosses and colleagues reassured me all week not to worry – they don’t think I’m racist. Well, that’s a relief (please read in a sarcastic tone). But, I’m too mortified to let it all go. I could reason that some people are just too sensitive, and particularly with the climate in this country right now, everyone is closer to the edge. I suppose for that reason alone, I simply need to be more careful when speaking as a representative of my company. Besides, any good intentions are irrelevant if the joke doesn’t work. If it’s not funny, it’s not funny.

Most of my friends who saw the incident agree that by knowing me, they understood my intentions. But, many also agreed that if they didn’t know me, they might draw a different conclusion. In fact, by looking at my white skin, they might make the same assumption that I could be racist instead of a satirist – judging me for the way I looked instead of getting to know me and judging me as an individual.

Most importantly, I don’t like my words hurting other people. I do feel regret. But, there’s nothing I can really do to personally address that person. If the customer comes to the theatre to find me, I would be more than happy to apologize and grovel about my insensitivity. Short of that, all I can do is plan to be more careful and thoughtful next time.

Multiple people have told me that my full week of troubles should be blamed on Mercury in retrograde. I don’t believe in astrology. But, I did a little Google search, and I discovered that Mercury Retrograde started March 12. Wait, my troubles started on March 12! The first website I found gave this advice about Mercury Retrograde: “Do not venture into unknown areas taking risks. Be sure to back up your resources, double check all details, and prepare for delays or misunderstandings in life.” Yep. So, that happened.

I’m not ready to buy crystals, but I do have to wonder the coincidence of this stress cluster. Is my ego to blame? Or did my ego just hide the approaching storm? I go from huge success with one of my comedy heroes to wearing the label of racist. Maybe it’s Mercury in retrograde. But, for me, it just feels like Mercury has gone retro – back to the early 80s – sending me into a regressive teen tantrum - kicking and screaming – I’m not a racist! I’m not a racist!

After some time, I’ve been able to forgive myself, and move on. But, what about the bigger question that I addressed back in the 80’s? Would I benefit from stuffing my ego down again for years to come? My ego can be deceiving and unhelpful. However, I recognize that I need my confidence. I need a strong enough sense of self to take some risks and pursue the important goals in life.

So, looking a little further on the trusty internet, I found, “The first Mercury retrograde, which takes place in April/March, 2012 will bring major events of challenge, transition and transformation.” Sounds good. I’m ready to take responsibility for my actions. I surrender my ego – but not my confidence. And I await my transformation in April.

——

* Thanks to my coworker Shelly Bridges for that wonderful joke!

** For obvious reason, I can’t post the footage of the offending moment, but if you’re curious about the interview, here’s the official online version, as shot and edited by our theatre staff.

Awards Seasoned

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Independent Spirit Awards (the Oscars of low-budget films). Although I didn’t win anything, nor could I be honored just to be nominated, I was happy to sit at table 514 with my coworkers and an odd mix of contest winners and architect boyfriends.

And, of course, today is the Oscars - a good time to review the films of the past year. I had to look up all the releases from 2011 on the Internet, because I could barely remember any movies prior to what’s currently playing. It was clear why: so many of the movies from last year were indeed forgettable and unremarkable. And then there were the movies I can’t believe that I still need to see like HUGO, THE ARTIST, THE HELP and MONEYBALL. Ultimately, I’m not prepared to make a top 10.

So, I thought I would share just a few that I enjoyed:

THE TREE OF LIFE

Some find this movie really annoying, and at times enraging. I mean, the gall of this filmmaker to spend so much pointless time filming kids running through a sprinkler?! But, those scenes worked for me in a big way, because it was the best visual representation of what memories feel like. Especially what I remember of dinosaurs.

BEGINNERS

Romance. A dying gay father. A talking dog. I highly recommend it.

EXTREMELY LOUD, INCREDIBLY CLOSE

A kid travels throughout New York City looking for clues to keep him connected with his father who died in 9-11. Yikes! If you think this is a 9-11 story, you won’t like the film. I considered it more of a kid adventure movie, which is why I happily went along for the ride.

WARRIOR

I’m not a sports fan. But, I am a fan of family dysfunction and redemption.

I don’t think that any of these films could be considered a perfect movie. In fact, I prefer someone make a new movie with the best parts of these movies. Like an adventure about a guy fighting his brother over his talking dog while they travel the five boroughs looking for their gay dead father in strangers’ sprinklers. THE LOUD TREE OF WARRIORS BEGINS. Not a great title, but I argue it sure beats Extremely Loud…

None of these films will win best picture, and yet, they accomplished something that seems rare these days. They gave me an emotional experience. They were stories about family connection – dealing with the complications of knowing people so well, and yet not knowing them at all. And it deals with how we choose to remember our parents and our childhood. And that’s why they worked so well for me. They didn’t cover any of the specifics from my life. It would be quite comical if you put my brother and I in a Mixed Martial Arts ring. Although I’m pretty sure he would win based on his “playful” punch on Christmas. But ultimately – each one of these films reminded me on a visceral level of the deepest parts of my relationship with my family.

One aspect of my relationship with my parents centers around their consistent support. They came to every concert and awards ceremony, and even awards ceremonies during concerts. I remember receiving an Honors award for History from some Marine dude. I don’t really remember why I received the award. I wasn’t a particular prodigy in History. Math was more of my subject, but where was some Navy guy with that award? Anyway, I received that award during a concert at our sister school Resurrection (again, what exactly was that Marine dude doing there? It wasn’t even my high school. Very suspicious.) And then, we left mid-concert to drive across town to our other sister high school Marillac, so I could perform a monologue as a dog. I can see why they were so proud of me. History. Music. Acting. I was a renaissance dog.

That’s why one of my inspirations for the Baby Time web series and the films I’m writing is the idea that my parents will see something I made, and get some satisfaction – some sense that quitting my lucrative engineering career wasn’t the waste it seemed to be.

Maybe I’ll eventually receive a major award. You can bet I’ll be sure to thank those who helped me get there – my agent and Harvey Weinstein.

By the way, here’s some other decent to very good movies I saw: BRIDESMAIDS, THE MUPPETS, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, WIN WIN, RANGO, SOURCE CODE, SUPER 8, LIMITLESS, DRIVE, THE MUPPETS, CARNAGE, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4, SHERLOCK HOLMES 2.