Archive for April 2011
a steaming pot of chai tea,
Bugs Bunny cartoons.
(Originally rejected by editors of many lovely magazines.)
Finally I see.
My hound dog is walking me —
and hefting my shit.
(Originally published by the lovely editors at Paper Darts.)
It might not be cool to confess the obsessions that have influenced my own creative endeavors, but I feel I owe my own microscopic successes as a writer and comedy performer to those true artists whose accomplishments demonstrated what was possible in the first place.
Possibilities have always interested me more than fame and fortune. If I’m ever rich and recognized from TV appearances, maybe then I’ll prance around pretending all my brilliant ideas were mine and mine alone.
If I’m even physically capable of prancing. I’m guessing I’m not.
My first short stories were so overwhelmed by my fanboy enthusiasm for Barry Hannah that I’ve salvaged a storytelling performance and two magazine articles out of the humiliation I felt when I was finally called on it the summer after finishing my MFA. My other literary faves comprise a motley hodgepodge indeed: Donald Barthelme, Flannery O’Connor, Lydia Davis, Terry Southern, Richard Brautigan, Ted Berrigan, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Sam Shepard and J.P. Donleavy.
Long before I became serious about writing and performing comedy, I was a much-too-serious saxophone student (and a self-taught guitar and banjo player), so many musicians keep me listening to and looking at my approach to creative challenges: John Fahey, Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Ornette Coleman, Skip James, Dink Roberts, Michael Hurley, Thelonious Monk and Sonic Youth.
In college I befriended more than my share of art majors, so I know just enough about art to realize what I appreciate: mostly primitive outsider junk, plus the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jasper Johns, the early video work of William Wegman and the performance pieces of Laurie Anderson and Chris Burden.
Comedy was my earliest artistic crush. When I was only six or seven, I started laughing at my grandparents’ Bill Cosby records. And I started watching Richard Pryor and George Carlin on HBO when I was still too young to really “get” their funniest jokes. (Thank you, Uncle Bob.) My tastes in contemporary American comics run toward the predictably and deservedly respected: Louis CK, Zach Galifianakis, Mike Birbiglia and Bobcat Goldthwait lately. The majority of my comedic influences these days are all from over in the UK: Peter Cook, Billy Connolly, Stewart Lee, Johnny Vegas, Dylan Moran and Daniel Kitson.
What I believe these disparate artists all have in common, across generations and genres, is their honesty. Their incredibly personal points of view, too.
And that’s what I like to believe I’m learning from them: To recognize and trust the sound of my own voice when I hear it.
They’re certainly not teaching me to prance.
This time last year I was already putting together “The Big Four Oh: 40 Jokes, Poems and Stories by Brian Beatty.” I didn’t have to perform it until August’s 2010 Minnesota Fringe Festival, but I was nervous about my first solo comedy extravaganza. I wanted to do something bigger and better than everything I’d done before. I wanted to cap off a period of time — and to kick-off whatever was going to happen next. But mostly I wanted to retire my bear suit.
My fortieth birthday was a convenient conceit for my show’s title and opening joke, after the surprise beginning dance number and striptease. That the first thing I uttered in the show equated my birthday with Pearl Harbor and September 11th was my way of raising the stakes. That it was a joke capable of turning the room against me before I’d even got my start was part of the fun, too. Because I knew, even if the audience didn’t, that this bit was neither the most confrontational nor condescending joke in the next 50 minutes.
I don’t have to worry about topping myself this year, or alienating more baffled audiences. My submission for the 2011 MN Fringe, which I was calling “Burleyesque” even though I planned to keep my clothes on this year, didn’t make the lottery cut. Instead, I’ll be “acting” in a show by Mike Fotis and Joe Bozic, beloved by local improv fans and MN Fringe audiences as Ferrari McSpeedy.
I wrote my second story about squirrels, entitled “Peanuts!,” for “Tales from the Poor House,” a radio show broadcast on KMSU in Mankato. A more hilarious version of that story, now called “Nuts,” is available for your next two or three minutes of reading pleasure on new Minnesota comedy site Guffaw. Hope you like it.
In other news, I’m now accepting paid commissions to write the third story in my inevitable squirrel trilogy. Patrons don’t even need to be from Minnesota. You simply have to want something incredibly witty about squirrels written for your magazine, The New Yorker. I’ve heard there are funny squirrels in the big city, too.
Listening to the audio book selections Gordon Lish recorded to coincide with the publication of his Collected Fictions has reminded me of my own distant relationship with the man, which lasted half as long as his semi-legendary literary journal, The Quarterly.
Starting in college, I submitted stories and poems for years, before finally wearing Lish down with a prose poem/flash fiction something about Houdini. Then, a year or two after “my” Q issue hit newsstands, he visited Chicago, where I lived then, for a talk that was mostly about his dying/dead wife.
I’d brought along one of my two prized copies of Q issue 26, hoping for an inspirational inscription from the editor who’d honed the prose of my favorite writers.
Lish took a fat black marker out of one of the many pockets in his tan coveralls, a fat black marker like the kind reprobates snort for fun. Then he destroyed the cover and inside title pages of my Q, swiping a saturating, illegible scrawl that may not even be words.
I still can’t tell.
Last October, I read at Magers & Quinn. Joshua Wenck again handled video documentation. Enjoy.
I was one of five contest winners lucky enough to open for Louie Anderson, only to annoy 5,000 or so New Years Eve revelers because I got distracted by a loud-ish farter in the expensive seats down front. I’ve killed at the Hollywood Improv, as part of an industry showcase where no industry folks showed up. (Fortunately, the video crew did.) And I’ve baffled Minnesota Fringe Festival audiences with a mix of jokes, poems and stories, leaving at least one woman worried that I might be autistic. If her review is to be believed. Maybe she was just looking for an original way to say “deadpan.” Or “ugh.”
I bring up these tidbits of my comedy history because I often have to remind myself I know what I’m doing. Because it doesn’t look like it sometimes, I realize. I have eyes and ears, too.
But honesty in the moment, being present in the experience we’re sharing, outweighs my sense of responsibility to entertain like some kind of wind-up primate outfitted with cymbals, a too-small hat and an obnoxious cackle. I don’t know how or when my priorities changed, but change they did. I wanted more than just laughs. I also wanted a human connection with the people watching in the dark, which resulted in a looser performance style. Almost as if I’m making it up as I go along, except there are still punchlines.
Improvisation, some people call it. But, believe me, it’s not that, whatever it is I do up there.