Category Archives: Entertainment Review

Tips for Comedians

I wanted to see comedy. The Twin Cities can support the big acts in the grand venues. Brian and I have seen our share. Patton Oswalt, John Mulaney, Demetri Martin and Brian Regan at the State. Bill Burr at the Orpheum. For a cool mid-sized place, I loved seeing Mulaney and Hannibal Buress at The Varsity. That was magical. And we saw Tommy Johnagin at Acme. The place was okay. The support columns that interfered with sightlines didn’t help the vibe, but I’ll take it. I probably liked it better than the place at the Mall of America. I just kept thinking, “This could be better.” Put a candle on the table. Something. Feng shui! People! Feng shui! Space matters. Mood matters. This place didn’t have it.

We saw Maria Bamford at the Women’s Club. They should use some of those dues to replace the seating in the theater and they would truly have a sweet place. I guess it’s serviceable. But honestly, I would be happy to see Bamford anywhere. And unlike the casinos, I wouldn’t avoid the Women’s Club. We had to go to a casino to see Kathleen Madigan. The flat seating on banquet chairs was not for me. Again, no mood. The show was a striking contrast to seeing someone like Kathy Griffin. Her act was great. But even better was being in a room full of nuts who adore the woman. It was electric. Whereas in a casino, I get the impression that there are people like us who took a shower and made a point a to see a particular show, but we might be outnumbered by the people who are wandering in the place because they ran out of quarters.

Below all of this, I didn’t know what the scene was. With no aspirations to take the stage as a comedian, it can be hard to remember to go to an open mic on a Tuesday night. But we finally did it. A few weeks ago (on a Friday night!) we got to a ten o’clock show in the basement of the Corner Bar on the West Bank.

My expectations were zero. But more than wanting entertainment, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. So whatever happened, it was going to be great. When Brian read a review that trashed the place because it was a dive, I thought, yep. That’s exactly what I want. It was actually a nice space. Intimate. And I appreciated that my view was not obstructed by a pillar. The place had a nice buzz and a hint of danger. Although we arrived at the bar an hour early, there was a chance that we wouldn’t get into the show. Some guy opens the door to the basement and people funnel in from various directions until they run out of seats. It was our first time there and this was oddly stressful. I’m a middle-aged white lady. Could you please tell me where I can find the line?

We guessed that we might see ten comedians. There were almost twenty! We figured that most of it would be rough. Plenty of it was. At the same time, I was encouraged by much of it too. If we wanted to cultivate a scene in the Twin Cities where we rely more on the local entertainment, you have to ask yourself if we have the chops. I would say I left this experience feeling more encouraged than discouraged. There is still the question of how we actually cultivate talent and create the kinds of scenes that make the Twin Cities a great place to be. For now I’m just a butt in a seat. And for whatever it’s worth, Brian and I made a few observations based on what we saw.

Mainly, I’m just amazed that anyone has the guts to do stand-up. I’m so happy to be living in a place where I can go out and see stuff for my entertainment. Thank you!

Tips for Comedians

Take the stage. Find your spot. Center. Up front. You know, the spot! A few people were trying to hide in the back corner. It might seem like the safest thing to do, but it just compounds the awkwardness.

Be in your body. This can mean a lot of things. It could mean stand up straight. Take a strong stance with both feet planted on the ground. No slouching. A dance class or tai chi might help.

Do not turn on yourself. Resist the temptation to go to self-deprecation or commenting on how you think it’s going. Instead, commit to what you are doing. Pause. Breathe. Do the thing instead of talking about it.

Do not turn on the audience. I’ve seen teasing the audience work. But some things should be left for the more experienced. One guy who was sort of doing okay complained about how bad the audience was whenever he didn’t get the laugh he expected. I thought the audience was rather supportive, so these comments were just confusing.

You’re not as edgy as you think. Along those same lines, I don’t like to be scolded because I can’t take your edginess. I’m not offended. I just didn’t think that was funny.

Bring your friends! You would have thought one law student was a rock star by the way the crowd went crazy for him. On the other hand, I can imagine wanting to try stand-up without the pressure of failing in front of all of your co-workers.

Learn to use the microphone. Don’t scream. Watch how others are using the mic to some good effect or look up a tutorial on YouTube. I’m not talking about doing anything fancy. There were just a few examples where better mic handling would have helped.

Know when to stop. Maybe it drives the organizers crazy if people don’t fill out their allotted time, but I thought it was cool when people did their thing and let the bit end.

Plan your exit. Think about how to get off the stage without apologizing. Never apologize. You’re doing fine! Remind me of your name. Wave. Say thank you.

Be vulnerable. This is probably too much to ask of someone who is new at stand-up, but if you don’t eventually get there, you’ll never be my favorite comedian. Devastating. I know. I just say that because there will always be room for people who have been at it for a while who have mediocre success and a shitload of bitterness. Some of the earlier points address this. Instead of being vulnerable, you hide in the back of the stage. Instead of being vulnerable you lash out at the audience. Make sense? The best example of this type of diversion tactic came from one of the stronger acts. There was something there, but then he went into jokes about… Raunchy is fine. Whatever, floats your boat. But it doesn’t work when it’s a substitute for vulnerability, which was our sense here.

Don’t be too vulnerable. On the other hand, it’s always useful to ask if the stage is the best place for your vulnerable state. The formula is Tragedy + Time = Comedy. Some acts seemed like they might have needed a little more time. Whatever you decide, make sure you’re taking care of yourself in other ways too. Cultivate friends. Learn how to fly a kite. Build a tree-house. Join a book club. Take a class. Find a therapist. Whatever feeds your soul.

Avoid insider jokes. It’s cool to see that there appears to be a community of comedians that support each other. But don’t expect the good will you have there to carry you.

Skip the pleasantries. After the fifth comedian in a long lineup, you can skip the “How’s everyone doing tonight?” Look at comedians who just start and do that. I could also do without the “Let’s keep it going for Ralph, everyone! Give it up for Ralph!” In the meantime, Ralph has left. Ralph is throwing up in the bathroom. Leave Ralph out of this.

Write better material.

End strong or as strong as you can. A good example of this was the guy who ended with cell phone impressions.

Connect. It’s scary to connect with the audience, but it’s a requirement of the job. Imagine reading a story to a little kid. That’s what I mean by connect. I’m not talking about the crowd work where you’re giving people the business. That’s fine. But what I mean by connect is not aggressive. It’s just a way to let me know that it matters that I am there. I thought the guy who told the story about his dad who has Alzheimer did a nice job with this. Again, there were others too.

Acknowledge your celebrity double. Steve Buscemi and Maria Bamford, you know who you are.

Never be bitter. Never tell the audience that they don’t know what’s funny. Never tell the audience that they do not matter. Do not verbalize, “I’m doing this joke for me. I don’t care if you think. It’s funny.”

Still unfinished…

My ears perked up when my coffee date mentioned a book called “How to get things done.” My painting projects remain as they were. Unfinished. I did buy some fresh rollers. And I do have somewhat of a system that helps me manage multiple projects. I call it a project journal and I will share more about it later. To really sell the idea, I imagine I should finish a few things first. Proof of concept… though it has already been proved as you will see…

ahem…

Brian and I will be volunteering this week at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. After having produced a podcast about it last year (The Minnesota FringeCast), he wanted to see it from a volunteer angle. So we’re going to play store for a few nights. I’m weirdly nervous about it. When technology fails – the thing you use to swipe a credit card, for example – a cuss word might fly out of my mouth. But the thing is, you’re not supposed to say @#!8(! when you’re wearing the official volunteer shirt. These are my challenges. We went to a show last night where someone at the box office was having this very problem. He didn’t cuss once. He was a real inspiration.

Next year I would like to try hosting artists, but so far Brian is not sold on it. I think he’s afraid that it will be the beginning of my fantasy to run a Zimmer Frei where travelers hear about a cheap bed by word-of-mouth and they do things like weed the garden in exchange for lunch. After a day of sightseeing, our guests will come home and play the piano and pound on the drums. Some will become friends. After a while, postcards documenting their travels will outnumber the bills and random junk in our mailbox.

At first, we seemed to strike out where it came to finding a good Fringe show. At one show, I saw an audience member slip out rather early. She knew. So did I. The signs were there. Then there were the Fringe shows that really pissed us off – one because it was bad and one because it was very good.

As for the bad show, it is tempting to fire off a reply to the five-star reviews that must have been left by sympathetic friends. After all, shouldn’t people be warned? Brian suggested a title: The joke’s on you! But we let it go. It was an insulting waste of time and I would have been horrified had I used this show to introduce a friend to the Fringe. Was it an experiment in which the producers were trying to see what a Minnesota Nice audience would tolerate? Brian said that it was Yes Men (Try “Reburger” on YouTube). It’s the best you can say about this utterly non-theatrical piece. I wondered whether the whole thing was being streamed for the pleasure of the real audience somewhere else. But after thinking about it, I do not regret having stayed when we should have bolted after the first twelve minutes. As “adventurous audience members”, we walked in with an open mind, though I admit that in protest I eventually resorted to staring at the floor and writing the next part of my short story in my head. But still, we stayed with the idea of giving the artist a chance to complete a thought. This took trust. Our trust was betrayed.

The show we saw last night, You Are Cordially Invited to the Life and Death of Edward Lear also made Brian mad, but in a different way. You see that show and you wonder where the heck our priorities are. What would be possible if more people saw shows like this? On a regular basis? Where the price of tickets did not exclude anyone and where artists could make a decent living? It would be a kinder, gentler place, for one thing. Funner too. The show was so beautiful. So packed with talent and curiosity and infectious passion for stories and history and just being a person on the planet. You can read more extensive reviews on the website. The show sold out last night and will again, I’m sure. Maybe at some point I can get Brian to write more extensively about his frustration with our priorities. I hear about it whenever we see inspiring art, be it at the Fringe, the State Fair or a museum or whenever we encounter anyone who just has deep knowledge about anything, like the guy who sold us a rug.

We haven’t seen too many shows yet, but there are a couple of others that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Quiet Riot – by Broken Box Mime Theater out of New York
The Zoo Story – By Jackdonkey Productions

What great work!

As for some of the shows that didn’t quite work, I imagine they are much like my painting projects in that they are still unfinished. The script might need work. The actors have yet to master their craft… if they ever do. For it can be easy to rest in mediocrity, kind of like the way I dink around with the piano, which is why I want house guests who can play for real. You can tell the difference. At the same time, I do like the idea of the unpolished being invited to participate in a show. Within certain guided parameters, I’d like to think that anyone can play a part. Of course, I’d rather only see great shows than anything else. But it’s also okay to see a range of things and some would argue that seeing the truly bad is actually part of the Fringe experience. But bad can mean a lot of things. It can mean lazy. That’s a little hard to take. It can mean cynical. No thanks. It can also mean beginner, taking risks, trying something new or being ambitious beyond one’s talents. Not bad things at all.

Keep trying. Get better. Finish something.

Is this a coincidence?

This post contains spoilers for the movie Once upon a time in Hollywood. I strongly recommend that you see the movie first.

A friend of mine makes more of a coincidence than I usually do. And yet lately I’ve been struck by how there have been themes. Self-compassion seems to be one of them. It wasn’t long after noticing that a friend could use a dose of it when I read an article about procrastination. According to the article, self-compassion is one way to break the cycle of unwanted behavior. It’s how I can show up here now. For I had really intended to post something daily. As I like to say, “Try again tomorrow.”

It was hard to find the time to write while I had company. I’m not sure why that is, but routines just don’t work the same for me when I’m thinking from one meal to the next. Everything is different. Lovely. Needed. Appreciated. Fun. But different.

My mother is a DiCaprio fan so a group went to see the Sharon Tate movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A couple days later, after the last shuttle to the airport, Brian and I took a walk around Como Lake and talked about it. He liked it. The fact that he did not doze off is an endorsement. But he ultimately didn’t see the point. However, by the time we got around the lake, we came up with something that was mostly satisfying.

Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler

If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this post. See the movie first.

Brian’s main beef seemed to be the rewriting of history. I liked it. But defending it would take some effort.

When I was a kid, I remember the book Helter Skelter laying around the house. It was thick like a dictionary. Black with red lettering. The pages smelled weird, which I attributed to the contents as opposed to any likely factors such as a bookshelf in a musty basement or the smell of a previous reader’s cologne. I knew who Charles Manson was. I had heard of Squeaky Fromme. I knew that Sharon Tate was pregnant. I knew what happened. I didn’t need to know any of this. I was just a kid. But my older siblings probably told me about it, for I certainly didn’t read the book. And for some reason this horrific story is part of the American psyche.

Let me just call bullshit on myself.

I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it sounds right. And it’s for that reason that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was able to do what it did. We watched this movie, knowing what I knew since I was a kid. And during the entire movie I dreaded the inevitable. My plan was to leave early and to let Brian tell me how it ended.

Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler

If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this post. See the movie first.

Except the inevitable didn’t happen.

A critic made the comment that the movie was forty-five minutes too long. As a movie goer and not as an editor who has to justify every frame, I can’t say that I was bothered by the length. Furthermore, given the necessity of the slow build to the last scene that made every previous second worthwhile, I thought the pace was about right. And again, Brian did not doze. That says a lot.

Plodding toward the inevitable is a political theme too. We are living it. How many times have I heard that our democracy is in peril? Power is being concentrated? There are human rights violations all over the place. Crimes go unpunished. Then there is also the decimation of the environment. Another shooting. Weak leadership. Saber rattling. On Facebook I saw an article where – if I am to believe it – South Dakota, my home state, is requiring schools to prominently post “In God we trust” in the schools. This makes me feel a little sick, because I suspect that it isn’t one’s religious convictions that would compel such a rule, but a sort of bullying. Is that what we really need? Anyway, the list goes on and it feels like there is a certain inevitable fate that will play out. If I were to believe the conspiracy theorist who was my supervisor at Spuds ‘N Stuff at the mall when I was in high school, we are all headed for the concentration camps. That’s pretty bleak.

There is another narrative.

We just have to write it.

There were things about the movie that will take another viewing for me. For example, what was the purpose of making Brad Pitt’s character a Vietnam Veteran and wife killer, assuming he really did kill his wife? Does it matter what I choose to believe? Would it change the story? Was it about help from unlikely places? Redemption? Healing? After all, in his last scene he is shuttled away in an ambulance. He’s going to be okay. Incidentally, Pitt is in a couple of scenes that also play on our expectations, such as the time the camera scans the car when he pulls into Manson’s hippie camp. This scene would not work without a suspicious past. Something tells me that scenes like that were all over the place and I just missed them. I would also have to look at the scenes where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is on a movie set. Something tells me that I didn’t fully appreciate how they fit. I’m also mildly interested in the woman he marries. It seems like she’s just a plot device, but maybe there’s more to her.

Typically my movie ratings go something like this. I either like a movie right away or I don’t. If I walk out without a feeling one way or the other, I might wake up mad the next day, which means the movie tricked me into sticking with it, but it wasn’t worth it. Or I will like it more and more. I liked this movie. Have to see it again. That’s a new rating for me.

I love you, Winona!

WilliamS

I love you, Winona! What a pleasure it was to be whisked away by Fran and Margot to the home of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in the middle of the week. The Merry Wives of Winsor was a thoroughly enjoyable production and ensured that we will be back for more. You packed the house and now I know why.

It’s a beautiful drive from the Twin Cities to Winona State University that has been hosting the festival for the past eleven years. What? I could have seen Yo-Yo Mah for twenty-five dollars at your Beethoven Festival? Now you’re just bragging. No wonder the inn keeper was bustling on air when she put on that fresh pot of coffee. I thought she might actually do a pirouette.

On the way down, we cut over to the Wisconsin to snake our way down the river to Stockholm. We saw eagles swooping just off the bluffs and that never gets old. After wandering through an art gallery where I was sorry that my parents had not been with us as I saw a million beautiful things they would have loved, we cheated and enjoyed our dessert before dinner at the Stockholm Pie Company. Then it was to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. What a treasure. Again, the woodcut prints by Nick Wroblewski made me wish that my parents could have made the trip. My dad would have been impressed.

We didn’t do anything especially noteworthy for dinner, although my spinach cranberry salad at the Green Mill hit the spot. Then it was to the show (delightful, as I said) and back to the motel. Before leaving the next day, at breakfast we learned from a Harley rider who was waiting for her man to get out of bed that there was a lot more to see. A bank with stained glass windows? I won’t miss it.

Thanks for a lovely day off, Winona.

Taking in Some Theater

The Year I was BornWe’ve been enjoying The Walker’s Out There series, which comes around every year in the heart of winter, a good time to hunker down in their cave of a theater that makes the audience feel like a part of the set with its wavy gray walls that bring spray-painted Styrofoam to mind. With one exception, we loved the series, each show for different reasons. We recommend that you catch the last of it tonight or tomorrow. Lola Arias’s The Year I Was Born is definitely worth seeing.

Generally worried about the road conditions and realizing that the time I was going to use to make myself presentable might be needed to help shovel our way out instead, we considered bagging it. I’m really glad we didn’t.

The Year I Was Born was great theater and solid story-telling and it will stick with me for a long time. Following eleven Chileans with disparate political and economic backgrounds and who were born during Pinochet’s reign (1973-1990), the piece widened my vision and deepened my capacity to absorb parallel histories such that I could somehow understand everything at once. What was I doing when Alexandra’s mother, Pitty, was gunned down by government thugs? I can only hope that I wasn’t cursing Verizon or consumed with some similar inanity.

By comparison, Wunderbaum’s (with LAPD) Hospital was a didactic dud that would make me think twice about seeing a show put on by political activists the same way I might be highly skeptical of a movie starring Keanu Reeves. Unlike The Year I Was Born, which is also a historical piece that relies on personal stories, this show has few theatrical elements that work. Instead it lays out the history of health care in the United States in such a way that it wouldn’t have been surprising if they had fired up PowerPoint. Overall, Hospital lacked a sense of humor, a refuge that even a play about a brutal dictatorship provided.

Kuro Tanino’s Niwa Gekidan Penino (The Room Nobody Knows) was visually stunning the minute the curtains opened to a diorama-esque scene that made you long to step into its sparkling amethyst cubby. It was a scene so intimate that the audience was actually seated on the main stage, creating a stage within a stage that I liked to imagine infinitely repeated itself. The music was equally breathtaking. There is no version of Pachelbel’s Canon that will ever come close to what four actors accomplished with recorders. More than once for a conventionally unacceptable number of minutes, the director leaves us in the pitch dark with nothing but this music. Everything else melts away. Every worry. Every plan. Every thought. If I could conjure up this moment on demand, I’m not sure I would do anything else.

Equally addictive was a moment from Clément Layes’ Public in Private. A potted plant. A spotlight. A performer, head tucked and pointing to the plant in the light. Music! Cut mid-note! That was it for me. More than wondering how this guy did the entire show with a glass of water balanced on the side of his head, or recalling other stand-alone physical feats that amazed and made for wonderfully playful moments, I’ll think about that plant and wonder how such an image could make me feel sad about the state of the world and hopeful at the same time. I love a show that leaves you speechless, and this is one of them.

The Wolf of Wall Street – Movie Review

BJH: I didn’t fall asleep. See It.

RJS: I didn’t wake up mad. Skip it.

RJS: While there are reasons to recommend this movie, I suspect I’m just hoping that the words of the coke-snorting Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) might penetrate our collective psyche. Hanna deflowers Wall Street neophyte, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), with the truth about legalized gambling, as he describes an unsustainable game of musical chairs where there are a few winners and a lot of losers, and where no goods are produced and trillions of dollars of wealth is “all on paper.” It sounded pretty accurate to me and it’s better entertainment than The Crash Course.

Another scene that should have been required viewing for Mr. Randall’s high school Family Economics class where I learned how to balance an imaginary checkbook is where Belfort sells four thousand dollars of penny stocks to some schmuck over the telephone. As he reels in fish bait, Belfort and his sleazy crew of rehabilitated losers pantomime their valued customer – a family man who’s finally asserting some independence from his more cautious ball and chain – literally taking it up the ass.

From the beginning, we know that we’re in for a stomach-turning, eye-averting ride when for $10,000 an employee at a brokerage firm entertains her co-workers by shaving her head. Apparently abusing midgets and lining up to gangbang skanky whores at the office in the middle of a workday didn’t cut it for these assholes. While she quickly loses her idolatrous audience to more seductive pleasures before the deed is done – imagine a toddler casually setting aside a shiny new toy as he wanders off for a television fix – the mangy woman is not humiliated in vain. Ten grand will pay for a boob job.

The degradation of every single woman in this movie was very, very upsetting and leaves nothing about the lifestyle of the superrich – as it is depicted here – to be envied. And where I might suspect some movies of hiding behind “telling it like it is” as an excuse to flirt with gratuitous violence and misogynistic fantasies where a man can whack off to a bombshell at a party in front of his wife without the threat of consequences. I can’t make that case here no more than it’s justified to be upset with a war journalist for taking pictures of dead children.

With frame-by-frame disturbing images, I wondered if the movie could have been an effective art exhibit to be absorbed on the viewer’s own terms. As it is, I felt assaulted and maybe that’s the point. We would have missed out on some physically comical scenes, like when a paralyzed luded-up Belfort has to get himself behind the wheel of his car to stop the Feds from ruining his ill-gotten life. But there are other scenes that would have translated to paint quite well. For example, there’s the brief moment when we see The Wolf carrying a monkey through a sea of cubicles full of bottom feeders who will say anything to close a deal because they’ve bought into a system where they matter and you don’t.

On second thoughts, maybe The Wolf of Wall Street is worth seeing.