Monday, June 27, 2011

Flashback: The State and Teen Idolatry

Yesterday, I finished reading Allison Pearson's fun yet poignant novel I Think I Love You, about a 14-year-old David Cassidy groupie, then and now. And I got to thinking about teen idols. Some burn out eventually, others extend their fame and flourish. Either way, they're a life-changing influence on kids on the verge of discovering who they really are and what they want from the world.

I asked myself: who did I idolize at age 14? And not one, but eleven people came to mind. Recently, I've been rewatching their short-lived MTV sketch show as research for a possible writing project. Not only is 90% of it still extremely funny, but I realize how much this group influenced me: I developed a taste for witty dudes who wore flannel, learned the theatre/film geeks could also be the cool kids, and realized there was a place outside my small farm town where being different and proud of it was a positive trait that could take you far. Because with teen idols, it's not what they become or even who they are in real life, but the influence they have on their groupies.

With that, here's a post I wrote in 2009 when I was still finding my writing voice and I had about 2 readers. Please to enjoy: an ode to the guys and gal I idolized then and now. The State, I may never meet you, but I salute you.

I'm gonna go Sophia Petrillo on your asses for a second: Picture it, small Midwestern town that shall remain nameless, 1994. My cousin and ninth-grade classmate Erin asked me if I'd watched The State on MTV. The answer was a resounding no. I didn't like grunge music, and I was afraid it was one of those weird Alternative Nation-type shows.

One night I was over at Erin's, and since she had her own TV I had no choice. After Beavis and Butt-head, she kept the channel on MTV. "You'll like it," she promised. And I was transfixed.

Suffice it to say I was not a cool kid. (Scrape your jaw off the floor.) At least not in my high school. I was number one in a class where it was so socially unacceptable to be smart that the alpha-jock deliberately got average grades. I loathed sports with a passion, preferring busting my ass at dance class with my best friend. Who was a BOY. I assistant directed children's plays and read library books instead of going to football games and trying to convince liberal parents to buy me beer. (Okay, I still went to football games, but I had no idea what the hell was going on.) The clean-cut dudes in blue oxford shirts who populated my tiny Catholic high school did absolutely nothing for me. Neither, for that matter, did my boy best friend. I was fourteen years old and had lived in the same 30-mile radius my entire life. I had the nagging feeling there was something wrong with me.

Then I saw The State, and I started to change my mind.

Sure, the eleven sketch-comedy rogues were technically adults, but they were in the twentysomething realm that was more accessible than parent-age. They possessed the unselfconsciousness of preadolescents, but were old enough to have creative freedom and control. They were almost all male, except for one girl, Kerri of the ever-changing hair and black leather jackets, who more than held her own with the boys. You could tell they didn't mess with her. I remember watching in the basement of my house, inches away from the TV just in case I had to change it quick lest my mom come down and deem it inappropriate. In at least half the sketches, someone had a cigarette dangling out of their mouth. In one sketch, Kerri was actually sitting there SMOKING like it was no big deal. My eyes widened at the sight--she was baaaaaad. And though I thought smoking was gross, I wanted to be that bad too. I wanted to spend my days with fun, cool guys who considered me an equal and didn't ogle my boobs.

Because The State gang was baaaaad--but not in a petty-crime, teenage-sex type way that terrified me (Catholic school will do that if you buy into the hype). They were bad in a fun way. Their sketches were dirty but quotable, irreverent but really freaking smart. I didn't know you could be both. I didn't know that intelligent could be regarded as hilarious too. I know, I know, Saturday Night Live--but you have to remember that at this point, SNL was pretty awful. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey had left, David Spade's schtick was getting so old, and I didn't yet know that Michael McKean was way more awesome than those hack writers were making him out to be. Plus, duh, SNL was my parents' thing. The State, on the other hand, was mine.

The group was tight, you could tell. Later, I found out that most of them had met at NYU's Tisch School for the Arts. (I would also find out that Tom Lennon hails from the suburbs of Chicago--one of my coworkers did community theatre with him.) During the bits where they talked to the camera, they'd be draped all over each other, totally comfortable. During the opening credit sequence, they clustered together in one quirky, very expressive united front. They bantered, collaborated and had fun together. At this point in my life, I had a few very close friends--even now, I'm a girl who takes quality over quantity when it comes to buddies. But at fourteen, I was lonely and craved a group dynamic (even in dance classes, it was often me and my BFF against a gaggle of public school cheerleaders). I longed for the familiarity and shared passion that these eleven had.

And oh, the guys.

Granted, I didn't understand this well enough at hormone-addled fourteen to articulate it. But looking back, there was something about the male cast members. None were conventionally "handsome" (in the way that I'd been brought up to believe was the only way), but several . . . intrigued me. Not just the obviously adorable Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black. But (Robert) Ben Garant's and Joe Lo Truglio's intense eyes. (By the way, Garant has not aged a DAY. Seriously. Watch Reno 911.) Thomas Lennon's sweet, round face and Michael Showalter's cool floppy hair. I thought Michael Patrick Jann's Jesus Christ Superstar Goes Homeless look was dirty, but I blushed whenever his shirt was off. (Which was a lot, if you recall.) What increased the cute factor was this: these guys made me laugh. I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but I wanted to hang out with them--then make out with them.

And they liked musicals! The "Porcupine Racetrack" sketch was a thing of beauty: before it aired, Thomas Lennon explained onscreen that MTV had expressly asked them not to do the sketch. But they were going to do it anyway because it was just too funny. (They even rebelled against their own network. I was in AWE.) Then the sketch--homages to Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, and Les Miserables, with decent choreography and singable lyrics. Clearly no one (except MTV) was giving these clearly straight (well, except for Kevin Allison) guys crap for singing and dancing. Sure, "Porcupine Racetrack" was a parody, but you can't effectively make fun of a medium you don't know really, really well. These guys were theatre GEEKS. And they were proud of it. (I was totally turned on.)

Fourth quarter of ninth grade, Erin and I had a study hall. It was second period, and we were good girls who did our homework the night before, so we really had nothing to do. So while our compadres struggled through Business Math worksheets, Erin and I traded long scribbled notes quoting The State. "Um, I don't like you so much, ah, for one, you stinky and for two, you don't smell so nice!", "I'm gonna dip my BALLS in it!", and "I'm outta heeeeeere!" all made the rounds. We also speculated whether Kevin Allison was really gay--after all, in "The Jew, the Italian, and the Red Head Gay," David Wain was actually Jewish and Ken Marino was actually Italian. Yes, it seems weird to me now that there was a time when I wasn't surrounded by menfolk who prefer other menfolk. And yeah, I'd been doing theatre since I was nine, but at this time I still wasn't sure if I knew any gay men. I didn't think so. It would be totally obvious, right?

This note-passing was our nerdy rebellion. Our way of asserting ourselves in an environment where conformity was praised (and I'm not dissing my high school here; high school in general is this way). Later when we graduated, Erin's mom (my aunt) said that we'd had senioritis as freshmen. We weren't hugely precocious or mature, but we had the presence of mind to know that there was a world beyond our 150-person high school. A world where the smart kids not only ruled, but got their very own TV show where they joked about being on speed but still used big words knowing you would understand them. A world where handsome wasn't paint by number looks and came with a sense of humor and wit. A world where a guy could croon a ballad dressed in a gigantic porcupine costume--and misanthropic teens everywhere considered him a hero.

That same year, I started to branch out. I took part in my high school's very first musical. I made friends with very charismatic twin boys in the sophomore class, who not only had rockin' singing voices, but adored The State. (I still remember one of them going, "Michael Ian Black" and shaking his head in reverence.) A year later, I was cast in a show at a large outdoor theatre in the city twenty miles away, and met a darling boy with floppy hair like Michael Showalter. At a cast party, he and I were sitting on one side of the room, eating Doritos and talking about TV.

"You know what was the best?" I enthused, my mouth full of Doritos. "Did you ever watch The State on MTV?"

He looked at me, mouth dropping open. "Oh, my God." I waited--would he think I was weird? "That was my favorite!"

It was settled: he was the one I had been waiting for.

The State was canceled in 1995, mainly because MTV was stupid. (A trend that continues to this day.) But its members have continued to kick ass and take names in Hollywood. In fact, they work the studio system to their full advantage. Tom Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Michael Patrick Jann have been responsible for writing and/or directing such high-concept big-budget fare as Herbie, Fully Loaded (the unfortunate Lohan remake) and the Night at the Museum franchise. They rake in the bucks and fund their own projects, such as the hilarious cop farce Reno 911! (most of The State gang is visible in the 2007 film), which also features Kerri Kenney-Silver and Joe Lo Truglio. Michael Ian Black's ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from VH1 to Sierra Mist ads to another brilliant-but-canceled show, Ed, and collaborating with David Wain and Michael Showalter on such brilliant fare as Stella (long-form acting exercises on crack). The 2001 camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer was a class reunion of sorts, if your class reunion was chock-full of awesome one-liners and montages set to eighties music. (I'd have totally gone to my class reunion if that had been the case.

Have The State taken over the free world? No. But they're still a huge presence, seen and unseen, in the entertainment industry. Proving that smart really does sell, that one can be successful on his or her own terms, and that every dork, if patient, will have her day. Inspiring a generation of outcasts who sat inches away from their basement television to laugh loud, talk back, and never be ashamed of their idiosyncracies. Because being different was what got The State their own TV show, successful careers, and each other. There was no telling where being different could take you.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Musical Life: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

I work in a very small office. Despite this--or maybe because of it, as we all wear multiple hats--it was several years before I got to know people I'd been in close proximity to for most of my waking hours. Turns out I work with a lot of talented artists, writers and musicians. Who knew?

A couple of weeks ago I was having a discussion with one of these coworkers--also a writer, also a former high school theatre geek--about what life would be like as a musical. As in, anyone could burst into song about his/her feelings at any given moment. I had one word for this: "awesome." His counterargument was a bit more articulate: "But loud. Really loud. There would be one person singing over here, another one singing over there." He had a point. Still, I'd love to sing and dance out my emotions for just one day a year. It's what I miss most about performing: not being the center of attention, but taking whatever shit you had going on that week, pulling a Stanislavski and "using it."

A few days ago, in the midst of a particularly stressful morning, this same coworker appeared at my cubicle and presented me with a DVD. "You will love this," he said. And he was right.

I give you Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

Remember how Once was technically a "musical," but didn't seem like it? There were no giant production numbers, no overdubbed vocals, no obvious lip-synching. The story was simple, the characters naturalistic, the songs organic. Granted, the protagonists were musicians, but their lyrics reflected their situations and relationships better than spoken words ever could. They weren't always happy with their lives, but they were surrounded by music, and that made day-to-day struggles a bit more bearable.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is a lot like Once, only there's also tap dancing. And it takes some talented filmmaking to make tap dancing seem off-the-cuff.

At first glance, the film's plot isn't a complicated one: Guy plays jazz trumpet and Madeline is a grad student. They're together, until they're not. Guy gets another girlfriend, Madeline looks to change her environment entirely. But is it really over between them?

Pretty straightforward, right? Except not really. Because as anyone who's ever dated anyone else knows, there are often lingering feelings. Regret. Memories good and bad. Wondering if you did the right thing by leaving or being left without a fight. And what better way to work all this out than trumpeting and tapping?

Oh, and the entire movie is shot in black and white with a handheld camera. Before you roll your eyes at the pretension, let me reassure you: it works. The black and white brings to mind MGM musicals of old, and the handheld adds an earthy quality. The musical numbers aren't slick and polished. They project happiness, but also nostalgia, gloom, desperation. And lastly, optimism.

My coworker is right: the world would be a louder place if we lived in a musical. However, I wouldn't mind living inside Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Everyone looks better in black and white, sounds better warbling about the time they kissed a boy in the park. Even from the depths of heartbreak sound lovelier in song.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is now available on DVD. Probably not at your local Redbox, but it's worth the hunt.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Girl Walks Into a Bar: My Experience with The Moth

In my past life (meaning, up until my early twenties), I was a performer. I lived and breathed theatre, music and dance and dreamed of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) way before Tracy Jordan made it a thing, Liz Lemon. Even when I put aside my artsy-fartsy dreams for the more realistic path of law school, I took dance classes to keep myself sane and even directed a production of The Vagina Monologues, one performance of which was in a parking lot, which is another story for another day.

Performing took a backseat in my mid- to late twenties, as I was doing the whole figuring-out-my-life deal. I came back slowly: in 2008, I started taking dance again. In 2010, I was in two flash mobs. Also last year, I branched out into burlesque and took part in a group performance, which was one of the most terrifying and electrifying experiences of my life thus far.

This past Tuesday, in the very same bar where I'd bared my bod, I bared my soul.

I did it. I told a story for The Moth.

I was first introduced to The Moth by my coworker Megan, who attended a StorySlam event with one of her friends. "It's so cool and you'd love it," she gushed to me the next day. "You put your name into a hat and if you get chosen, you have to tell a five-minute story in front of everyone, with no notes. In front of a sold-out room of people."

"My God, that's scary," I said, and promptly forgot about it.

Late last year, however, I was fighting a bout of depression and for some reason, listening to podcasts helped, so I asked my friends for recommendations. That's when I learned more about The Moth: like Megan said, it consists of true stories, told live, without notes. The mainstage events are in New York City and often feature published authors, musicians and other celebrities. However, there are StorySlams in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit, where regular folks like me can take part. Each event has a theme and your story has to fit into that. If you put your name in and are chosen to go up, you have a 45-second warning, so you better be ready.

The podcasts mainly consist of the famous people, though StorySlams sneak in every now and then. And the stories, famous or not, are phenomenal. Joyce Maynard, one of my favorite authors, did one about being a mother that brought tears to my eyes as I walked along Clark Street. A recent favorite explored her relationship to two religions: evangelical Christianity and Mary Kay cosmetics. And one of the best, in my opinion, involves a middle-school drama teacher with an attitude problem.

When I found out about the latest StorySlam here in Chicago (theme of the night: Confusion), I invited Megan. Unfortunately, she had to bail at the last minute, but I decided to go anyway. The morning of the slam, I was walking to work listening to the latest podcast.

And I had an idea.

Up until then, I'd thought I had no stories in me. Nothing true, anyway. My life hasn't been all that interesting. And five minutes with no notes, my own experience in my own words? No way. I can make up stories or follow a script with the best of 'em, but I'd never be ready for The Moth.

But something happened several months ago. Nothing horribly traumatic. Nothing terribly unique. However, maybe that was the point. And if I told it, to a room full of strangers, maybe someone could relate. And maybe I'd feel better.

On my lunch break, I wrote out the story. I got to the bar early and couldn't find a seat, so I propped my notebook up against the wall and muttered the important stuff. Oh, and I put my name in the hat.

I may not have known anyone, but the audience members around me were incredibly supportive when they found out I might be going up. One had me tell him the story, which assuaged my nerves considerably. Another said, "I walked over here when you were telling it and I thought, 'I want to hear more.' So if you're up there and you get nervous, just look over here, because I want to hear more.'"

Ten people would be called up that night.

I was number five.

It was nerve-wracking. Again, these were my own words, my own experiences. There are real people involved--even though no names are revealed, and none of them were there that night, that's still a big deal. I'm not exactly the anti-heroine in the story, but I come off very, um, human. Very imperfect.

According to the emcee for the evening, I "hit it out of the park."

I had a beer bought for me. People came from across the bar to tell me I was good. One set of judges (that's the other thing, people volunteer to be judges and score you) gave me a low score and THE WHOLE BAR BOOED THEM.

More importantly, I understood why people, well-known and not, choose to reveal their histories, their flaws, and their heartbreaks to a waiting crowd.

Forgive me for sounding corny, but it's damn therapeutic.

And that's how I found myself standing in front of a sold-out bar, taking a deep breath, and saying my opening line into the microphone:

"I spent my whole life trying to avoid cliches, only to end up in the supermarket parking lot three days after the blizzard."