Anybody who’s moved to Los Angeles from somewhere else knows there is a transition. Those of us who did it from the New York Metro area, know it is almost an immigration scenario. It wasn’t easy to get started out here, which I think angers the natives when we call it “out here” but to an interloper it is another planet.
When you work in finance, law, or tech and you move from coast to coast, it’s called re-locating. When you are gifted an ’89 Honda Accord and have no job, it’s called a “what the fuck are you doing with your life,” by the people who care about you. Or a “fingers crossed.”
At a particular time of stress and worry, I reached out to a friend in Philly, Seanie Mac (thank god for the advent of unlimited phone plans). I’ve known him since college when we bonded over Springsteen and a shared penchant to argue. We also liked to bust chops and quote Raging Bull, incessantly, leaving some to think it was a light comedy.
Sean was the first person to give me a daily calendar and explained that he used his to set goals, and keep track of his life. I used mine as a joke book for a week and lost it. He wasn’t in my field of study, so he could be a sounding board, and I often leaned on his sensibility. He took my shit out of the dryer once before it was dry and we almost came to blows, and he used my room over the summer as an art studio, but those were the worst of the times his quirkiness conflicted with my inflexibility.
Seanie Mac has had an uncanny knack for finding employers who would allow him to work a flexible schedule, a skill that would serve an actor well, but for Sean it seemed to be a need for his work to fit his life, and not the other way around. This left him available to talk at odd hours of the night, even with the time zone difference, many times he stayed on the phone while I smoked cigarettes and drank beer, and sometimes we just kicked it and laughed. But, on this certain night I was spiraling into a dark hole.
Things weren’t so bad that I was facing eviction or a health crisis, but I was losing hope. I was not taking care of myself. I was worrying about the rest of my life and felt like it had to be fixed by sun-up.
Seanie listened and asked me if I needed anything. I said I was ok, but he persisted. He said, “would 100 bucks help?” I told him there was no way I was gonna take his money. He said he knew it wasn’t much and he said it wouldn’t fix everything, but if a hundred bucks would ease a little stress he was happy to do it. I managed to get off the phone without accepting his offering. I was grateful for telecommunications and for the friend on the other end.
A few days later, there is an envelop in the mail, from Sean. In it is a check for a hundred dollars, it’s folded into a picture of Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt sharing a microphone. The image carrying so much: the friendship, shared history, tough times survived, time apart, singing together. Sean and I share a love of music and it covers the gamut. We’ve seen Springsteen together many times. When the E Street Band reunited with Bruce, we had first tier, front row seats with some of our mutual best friends. When they started “Badlands” we all freaked out, and I screamed, “I’m gonna fuckin’ throw you off this balcony.” to Seanie, he laughed, and we fist pumped in all our suburban glory. It is a few moments in life when a piece of paper can transport you to another time and place.
Under the photo was a quote from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town”
Tonight I’ll be on that hill, ’cause I can’t stop/
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got/
Lives on the line, where dreams are found and lost/
I’ll be there on time, and I’ll pay the cost/
For wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.
More impactful was the personal note on a post-it, it read,
Hang in there, bro. Things are gonna break your way real soon.
Thank you, Seanie Mac.
When I was in high school, I memorized a speech from Hamlet, on my own time, for my own pleasure, and without a grade being on the line. Why would a teenager do this? I was a theater nerd, and I read that Hamlet was the role that a young actor had to perform to be a true artist. I was mocked by some, but mostly admired for having the initiative to learn the soliloquy, and in an effort to be cool I would sometimes bust out the speech at parties. One time I dislocated my kneecap when a buddy picked me up in a bear hug and put me down before my leg was ready.
There are many famous speeches in Hamlet, but I chose the “O What a rogue and peasant slave am I” speech from Act II Scene II. In it Hamlet reacts to watching some actors crying and wailing over a character named Hecuba, he is galled that “in a fiction, in a dream of passion” these performers could muster such emotion, while he was impotent to do anything about his father’s murder. I now see why I was so inspired. As I write, I am transported to that thing that stirred me to study something for the pleasure of it. It was what I wanted to do with my life.
As I was seeding the soil of my dreams to act, in New Jersey, Prince was blossoming with his artistry across the globe, and I draw no parallel in these two paths. It’s just that as the news broke, my present self feels sad, mourns, and my Hamlet self is fighting to say, “who is he to Hecuba, or Hecuba to he” about my feeling of loss for someone I never knew. Who is Prince to me? That’s a long boring story being told over and over on all media.
Hamlet is mad at the actors, for their ability to weep for a fictitious character, but he is mostly mad at himself, for his inaction. I think some artists are so prolific and so in tune with their creator and creative channel that they elevate their status from the group, (meaning humans) that they take on mythical proportions. They become more than men, they move us, and if they nurture their gift they produce volumes of material at a pace that feeds the mere spectator whenever they reach for it. This feeds as simple entertainment, but when it is so good and, when so much of the artist’s soul goes into the work, it becomes more, dare I say it takes on Shakespearian scope. I am an avowed Springsteen fanatic, it comes with a birth certificate in New Jersey. I know Minnesotans feel the same way about Prince, but Prince music is in heavier rotation in my life’s soundtrack. Bruce is great, but his slow jam output leaves much to be desired, if you know what I’m saying?
The easy take is that I am mourning my youth, as are many, but for me losing Prince is like losing Shakespeare, in, that, years from now we will explain that there was a time when we listened to music, and watched videos, and forgave some iffy acting, just to see him on stage where he was untouchable. Where a cross-genre virtuoso had no peer, where a talent and work ethic was singular. He told an interviewer that he shunned categories, but if he had to say, it would be to inspire. And that’s what dawned on me, he inspired me. And I mourn that I have so much to do, but that to inspire is all art’s purpose. His spirituality can’t be left out of the story. I struggle with mine. Not sure what to believe, or what to do. Like Hamlet, I have a “motive and cue for passion”, but I need to act on it more. Prince tells you it is the spirit, it is God (as you define him/her) that you look to serve, to help some people figure this shit out.
It is why I mourn a guy they say wouldn’t allow eye contact, which might have been a running gag on the world, who dressed like a bullfighter, and who knew what he was sent here to do. So, to jump on the bandwagon, but, at least quote the source, I say “Goodnight, sweet, Prince.”
In the ongoing campaign for The Drama King, my collaborator, director and editor Sam Vollen, and I have come up with a companion video to go along with the world of the Drama King. We hope you enjoy it.
A movie cliché that I’ve never been able to corroborate is the idea that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. Is that true? How would you be able to find out? Wouldn’t the entire investigation consist of sitting at the crime scene until the perpetrator returned? It sounds like that script device that no one ever debates, and the writer hopes he can sneak in without much scrutiny. Kind of like all the nebulous legal jargon that permeates legal dramas with the writer hoping the audience gives him a pass.
I was recently in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. My niece was graduating from high school and I was looking forward to the bathtub warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, the soft white sand, and a grouper sandwich.
Life intervened with a health crisis for my girlfriend, and we were lucky to have family, and two doctors on hand, and a great staff at the Bayfront Health Center in St. Petersburg.
Extending the trip presented an opportunity for me check the schedule at the Tampa Improv, to see who was in town and if it was someone I could impose upon for a guest spot. Turned out my buddy Dean Napolitano was in town, and he already extended the offer weeks before, when I asked if he was around the initial week I had planned.
More than 10 years earlier, Dean, was one of the first people I met in comedy when I was starting out. He was a recent arrival, but was a seasoned veteran of comedy. He had big time management and was running a show at a club. I was doing the open mic, on the insistence of my brother, and wondering what I had done with my life after leaving New York. These were not good days; I was living in an apartment with an interior bee’s nest and was missing New York after 9/11 when the city banded together. It felt like I left unfinished business, instead of following a dream westward.
I was embodying another cliché; that of the transplanted New Yorker lost and confused in the wilds of Los Angeles. I knew enough to shut up about pizza, bagels, and museums, but one of my early jokes had the terrible punch line, “now I’m like a soccer mom trying to get pussy,” about the car culture and dating in Los Angeles. Not my proudest moment, but you grasp at anything in the beginning.
Dean had some friends who saw me perform at the tail end of the open mic, and told Dean that I was funny. I hung out with them after watching the main show, and tried not to cling too hard onto what I thought was a good connection.
I was hungry for stage time and not so sure about the pathways to a career. I performed anywhere I could, at a Laundromat in Silver Lake, at spoken word open mics, where I’d pass off Springsteen lyrics as poetry, and once in a while with Dean and his crew.
It became imperative for me to have a tape of a set so I could get some real gigs. Even with better technology, getting tape is difficult, things go wrong: you forget to press record, you have to go off script to deal with a heckler, or somebody bumps into the tripod.
It came to me that if I got to Florida, I could ask a favor of my brother, who at the time was the executive producer of a local show that interviewed the headliners who were in town at the Tampa Improv. He had an “in” at the club — that was part one of the plan. The second part was to use his equipment from the television studio to make a professional quality tape. I was mic’d up, he had the camera they use for the reporters in the field, it was gonna be great.
I had a guest spot, which is usually 7 minutes, after the host. The headliner was Bill Bellamy. I had thrown a party the night before, at a club in LA that was the scene of an early comedy triumph that had bolstered my confidence. I flew to Tampa (hung-over) and changed into a good shirt in the car. I met the guy who extended the favor and who would also be the host. My brother took his equipment into the theater and I tried to settle my nerves with a Heineken.
The crowd started to fill in. I think I might have seen my parents and my sister-in-law before they headed to their seats. I was less than a year into doing stand-up, but was thinking this was finally a way in for me. It was writing and acting, it wasn’t passive, I could find a stage and I could perform.
The Tampa Improv is a beautiful club; it’s in Ybor City and has great architecture. It was a bigger crowd than I had ever seen. They were not there to see me. I was pacing around trying to get my energy going. The host started his set and was warming up the crowd. My brother was in the back of the room looking through the viewfinder.
The host introduced me. I had no credits. No reason to be there. And suddenly realized no material. All the jokes that worked in tiny rooms in Southern California coffee houses, and back rooms in bars were now sailing out of bounds like a rusty tennis player trying to get his game back on track. I was double faulting all over the place. I was looking for the light. It was only 7 minutes and I could not pull out of the nosedive. I was talking, doing the feeble material I had planned to do, but it was not club ready. It was not packed-house-Friday-night-paying-customer-ready. And it certainly wasn’t camera ready.
The light flashed, probably earlier than it would have flashed. I managed a dismount and walked off. The host started making fun of me and I walked to the bar and swallowed another beer in three gulps. The host came over and apologized for being a dick and kicking me while I was down, and he told me it wasn’t my crowd. I thanked him for the accommodation and apologized for eating shit. I had blown it. My brother had pulled a string and I had blown it.
My brother packed up his gear, and joined me at the bar, while I speed drank more beer. He asked me what I needed. I said I needed to get out of the building. I needed to go somewhere else fast. I needed to think about the rest of my life. We wound up at a barbeque joint and I soothed my shattered psyche with more suds.
Years later I returned to Tampa to play the rival club, Sidesplitters. I was the feature for my buddy, Jamie Kaler. My brother had his camera and I was ready. I had great shows, got great tape, and felt vindicated.
Last week, asking Dean for a spot, though, was returning to the place that made me question whether I would continue. This was the actual scene of my crime against comedy. Maybe those movie profilers are right. We do return.
My brother asked if I wanted him to see the show. He didn’t want to be a jinx. My girlfriend was well enough to attend and we were all looking forward to a night out on the town.
I have done over 1000 shows since I bombed in Tampa. I’ve got a couple of TV credits. I didn’t quit. But, I hadn’t set foot in that space since. I was warming up by goofing around with Dean, who I haven’t seen in years. I knew the stakes weren’t that high, it was a 10 minute set, on a Thursday. I just needed to stay sharp since I had to extend my time in Tampa. It didn’t look the same, until I looked to the back of the room, seeing where my brother had once set-up his camera. Then it came back, the anxiety. The crowd was good, more than half-full. The lights dimmed and the host was on stage, I was a few minutes away from being able to bury this demon, to slay this dragon, to succeed in front of family, to manifestly persist in the face of doubt. To travel back in time and say fuck you to that monster of fear and adversity. To feel good about myself. To make myself proud. To tell dick jokes in front of strangers. To do that thing we do.
I grabbed the mic and danced to the boy band music I had requested. I remembered to breathe and I remembered my girlfriend, who was in ICU for three days, texting me to “take my time.” I ripped it, or more accurately, I had a good set, got laughs and did my thing.
Dean had a great set and insisted I stand out in the lobby with him and thank the crowd as they exited. He was the headliner and they were there to tell him he did a great job, but enough people shook my hand and thanked me to let me know I had come full circle, that I had faced down a failure and turned it into a victory, to win the rematch, to get back off the mat, to get back on the horse, to topple the giant, to rattle off more clichés.
Maybe that’s why clichés are easy to use. They remind us of our connectedness. They remind us that life will step in and remind you who is in charge. And they remind you that if you return to the scene of the crime, sometimes you get to admire your handiwork.
Those ten minutes in Tampa didn’t add to my IMDb page, didn’t add money to my bank account, didn’t get me another agent. It was one of the few times where tying up a loose end is enough. It doesn’t come with a certificate. It is between you and whatever lifeforce you claim. It is one of those moments that you allow yourself some grace, some pride, some peace. I guess by sharing it I am looking to keep a record, or maybe encourage someone else to keep going, to try to face down constant discouragement. To remind myself that no one else can encourage you more than that voice inside you that says keep fighting. Thanks for hearing me. Peace.