Friday, April 30, 2010

Heroes , Idols & Role Models (Part One)

There's a video of me when I was 4 years old flying into my mother's couch over and over again, pretending to be Superman. It's pretty adorable. I specifically remember practicing my technique - during each leap I was adjusting my arms in different ways to determine which of the established flying positions was best for me. Did I prefer the classic 'both arms out' form? One arm tucked in? Or the dangerous but sexy "both arms back" position? Obviously I hadn't gained the power of flight just yet, but I wanted to be ready for that time once I inevitably could.

That was just the first of many other times in my life in which I've looked up to others - mostly fictional characters early on - to figure out how I wanted to live my life. And while Superman was a fine role model for a 4 year old, since that time my heroes have been people a little more grounded. A lot of them are artists of one form or another, which makes it clear the kinds of traits I'm attracted to. But more than anything else really it's their PASSION that really draws me to them.

But what else can I draw from these people that I adore so much? Let's find out shall we?



It's actually a little tough to name only one improviser I really look up to, because there are dozens of people that have truly inspired me and convinced me many times over to invest myself so fully in the world of improv. But Jason Mantzoukas has blown my mind on so many occasions that I think I have to give him the top prize. No matter what the characters he's playing, no matter what scene he's in, he is 110% committed to it. And usually that extra 10% is total logical, percentage-defying bullshit to me, but it actually perfectly describes him - the biggest laughs he gets comes from him playing a scene as real as possible.

I once watched him and Ed Herbstman (another fantastic improviser - I could watch them both on stage forever) in a scene together where Jason started off holding himself back from vomiting for a minute after drinking too much while Ed silently watched from the side. Eventually it was revealed that they had met through a craigslist casual encounter, and while slowly discovering some suspicious objects in the room, Ed suddenly came from behind and starting choking him to death. And Jason's slow, painful death - flailing about, struggling to breathe - could easily rival the chocking scene from Inglorious Basterds. 99% of similar scenes like that would end with the actor playing that moment for a laugh, but he didn't. While that isn't an example of comedic brilliance per se, the scene was amazing to watch, and it's an example of how committed to Jason is to his scenework. And it's become the gold standard I try to hold myself up to in my scenes. Also, in case I haven't made it entirely clear, the guy is brilliant, and consistently hilarious.

Improv in general is a great example of how sometimes you have to go about getting what you want in an indirect way. I've said this before, but if you're specifically going for laughs in a scene before you've done the groundwork established believable characters and relationships, inevitably you're going to fall flat. I recently played Gwenyth Paltrow in a scene giving a handjob to a stranger in a movie theater while watching herself on sceen in Sliding Doors. Now that description, I'm fairly certain that won't make you laugh hysterically now (though the image of her doing that should probably bring a smile to your face), and had we started the show doing that right off the bat, it definitely would not have worked. But we got there naturally, through discovery, and when we did do it, we had earned it, and we were rewarded for it.

So, lessons learned from Jason Mantzoukis?


It might seem a little strange at first to single out a lesser known* improviser and clump together two fairly well artists, but bear with me here. I won't waste any time here going on and on about how great a writer Sedaris is, or how great a musician Folds is. At this point you've probably heard of both of them, and you've probably formed your opinions on their work one way or another. But what draws me to both them, and the reason I've listed them both here at the same time is that they both inspire me in very similar ways.

David Sedaris' books immediately drew me in me because his stories, on top of being incredibly well written,  were also all very honest and personal. And his stories, written by a lesser author, or seen through say, something as dry as a wikipedia article, could be seen as ordinary, mundane. But his writing makes all of his experiences larger than life. A frustrating flight from Raleigh in his hands becomes more than a story of how annoying the woman sitting next to you was, and winds up being a honest, reflective look at one's own subconscious, and how strong an effect the person sitting next to you on a 90 minute flight can have. If there's any writing style that's ever inspired me directly, it's his.

What's kind of funny to me is he once shared a story about so desperately wanting to be seen as a greater writer than he would leave copies of his idol's works in his typewriter when he left his house, so that any would-be snoop or thief would apparently be convinced he was brilliant. I've never quite gone that far (and somewhat impractical to do via blog), but here I am basically doing my best to imitate him here on a regular basis. The cycle of emulation continues...

Ben Folds writes incredibly personal songs that, while not necessarily all autobiographical, are all honest and are less likely to be about lost love, or romance then they are about taking on a mistress your own daughter's age, a secret nightlife of an investment banker as a drug dealer, or being forced into retirement from your job. Aside from all of this, Folds is an amazing performer who really brings a ton of energy to his concerts. He'll gets the audience to play the saxophone and trumpet parts in his songs (via harmony), he allowed improv everywhere to pull off an impersonation stunt once mid-concert, and recently he's started improvising songs live on stage through chat roulette. He obviously loves what he does, and he's always finding ways to keep it fresh, both through his music and through his performance.

So, lessons learned from Sedaris and Folds?  

Many more to share, but it's gorgeous outside and I need to get out there and enjoy it. Back soon...


PS: 8 Blog Entries In April! That's a new record! Looks like I'm off to a good start with my goal for the year.

*For now - it's only a matter of time before Mr. Mantzoukas gets his due.

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