Thursday, September 25, 2014

NCT Standouts

The sheer number of things that the players have made me lose my shit at is boggling, to say the least. I wish I had written more down, to keep as memories, because improv is so difficult to keep track of. When you're doing four totally different shows every week, but there's similar elements to each one, and this just keeps repeating, everything tends to blend together and you can barely remember what you did in the last hour, much less the last week. 

That being said, with last night's final practice locked away, I'm gonna try and recall some of the highlights of my short time here with the New York cast and point out some of the awesome people I've gotten to work with and play with.

Best Singer
What a terribly crowded category that I could never hope to find a single winner. 
Music is the team's particular forte, and they do it better than anything else. Thankfully, everyone gives it their all for every singing game, and sometimes we get up hung up on technique or you know, trying to rhyme lyrics, but everyone is confident and there's never a dead spot.
On the girls' side, you have Stephanie who is usually bold and brash, but manages to play both villains and sweet ingenues. Elena is the most "musical theatre-y" I would say of the girls, playing a lot of innocence with innuendo. Emily's lovably unpredictable, Bridgette will lead everyone in strong, Karen won't shy away from a Rap, and I even got to see Stephanie Acevedo belt out some massive tunes before she went off to have some sort of baby or something...

On the guy's side, Scott's always a pro (and you can hear him on Forbidden Broadway!) Dan never misses a step, Trent's never at a loss for spinning an insane solo, I've seen Jeff dominate American Idol Recap, Jay and Jason rap like crazy mofos. 

My stand-out performance that I can always think of though, was a night I don't even think I was playing, I was watching a game of American Idol Recap, and Claire and Jeff had to sing as Swedish twins to a electronic rave beat. I don't even remember what they were singing about, but it was just fantastic.

Best One-Liners
A team full of funny people is sure to be chock-full of crazy one-liners, and we surely never disappointed. 
As a ref, you could count on Dan being the sassiest ever, with one-liners full of sarcasm. 
For really any game, Josh could always catch us all off-guard with a simple one-liner. Of course, his puns are world-renowned (or -reviled, depending) but it's hard to compete with him in 185 or World's Worst. 
Everybody would always have such great one-liners to justify Blind Freeze Tag positions. I said earlier this week that that game showcases us at our most basic. You get a glimpse into exactly how everybody's minds work. Ron goes dark, Jen goes to family, Emily gets abstract, Jason goes cerebral. It's what we first jump to when we have only a second to think of something. The result is always hilarious.

Probably the one-liner that stands out the most in my head though, I was in a scene with Stephanie where she was some sort of servant, and then we replayed the scene, set in the Victorian era, we said she was a future-seer with the plague, and she said:
Wait 'til you see what my sores have formed!

Best Characters
Every player has done such wonderful, colorful, dynamic, and rich characters. 
You get to see us show them off in Good/Bad Advice, where in particular Jeff played awesome Bad/Worse characters, usually self-help gurus and douchey entrepreneurs, that were sometimes gross, often compelling. 
Traci Redmond would do some sort of ridiculous horror movie parody: the girl from The Ring, the mom from The Grudge, whatever twitchy, frightening girl you can think of. 
Josh, Don, Scott, and Stephanie were never afraid to go after accents. Proper British is usually the one you'd hear, but count on Don for a wild Scottish, and Scott for a stereotypical Native American. 
Anthony's characters also had crazy accents and were big and loud, and even better if they were just speaking gibberish.
Jason and Dan both played precocious kids exceptionally well. 
You could count on Jay being really good at the protagonist that everything is happening to. 

I saw multiple reprisals of Ron playing either his old hag character or his Franklin Soup character. The old hag you can kind of get. Franklin Soup is an entity onto itself. It's like one of Lovecraft's Old Ones, it can only be seen to be understood.

Recently, two of the most interesting characters were Jeff's autistic chess player, who spoke his mind and never laughed. 
Elena's peer mediator Claire McGuffin (probably wrong on that) was precocious, eloquent, and endlessly funny. 

But far and away, master of characters, Tracy Mull. You can't discuss characters at NCT New York without mentioning the litany of faces, voices, and physical alterations Tracy has taken on. Every scene she enters, you can always expect something special, something different, something unexpected. I've never laughed so hard at a surprise Russian lady.

And The Rest?
Lauren and I were once in a scene that went so badly, we described the reaction as "even more than silent." I think it was a replay, and the replay went south so fast, the audience just stopped laughing, or clapping, or anything. There was literally even less sound in the world because of the vacuum created by the lack of sound.

Josh could constantly turn a seemingly innocuous song into innuendo. One song escalated from a song about friendship to a gay threesome.

I can't remember who was in this Shakespeare scene, but I think Jeanette and Traci were, and it involved one of the only successful "two players play the same character but one is the character in disguise" and then we played the reveal at the end.

There was a night Josh was reffing and he was giving examples of how to play Dirty Hand Randy, and he says, "Let's say the category is colors. I'll point to the players and they might say, 'Red!' 'Blue!'" as he's pointing to the players, and then he points to Langston (who is black), hesitates and goes, "Uh, black!" and we all immediately lost it. 

There were nights where Tracy or Jason were guessing something impossible in 5 Things and they would get it and it would cause the other team to walk out.
Speaking of which, one time we got Jay to guess the George Washington Bridge, but he said:
"I'm on the bridge that was built by George Washing--- I'M ON THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE!

Trent, Anthony, and Don were all notorious for throwing in English into their gibberish during 5 Things as well. Many a person could be heard mistakenly making up a word while guessing in Schoolyard or Sideline. (Or, more commonly, making up a tense for an existing word, like stung becoming "stunged".)

And this is all just onstage. Offstage, we played ridiculous games in the green room or talked about the weirdest stuff imaginable. We would stay in the theater after the shows were over to drink and laugh. And sometimes it was for "Claireoke". But I just look back and think about how much of a blast it all was. 

I wish there were a way to remember and recount every single absurd thing we've said or done, but maybe most of it doesn't work without having been there. I wish I could explain facial expressions that Jay makes, or the epic, awesome wrong guesses Max makes in 5 Things or Blitzkrieg ("I'm in a king-size mattress!") or how many times a heckler in the darkness (probably Trent) makes me lose it onstage. 
I'm going to miss this little family of mine. We'll never all be in this same spot at this exact time again, and that makes it incredibly unique. Of course people stay in your life, of course we get to perform again sometime down the road. But it's this one unique moment that we mourn for, that we are sad to see go. 
It's the ultimate tragedy of performance, because those performances don't last forever. The reason we are told to always cherish every moment and never forget the good times, is because we don't know when those are going to end. It could all be over in an instant. And it doesn't get to be the same, ever again. 

If you happen to be in New York this weekend, come help us say good-bye. We'll be happy to see you.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

5 of the Most Batshit Insane NCT Remotes I've Done

I had a friend once who was a corporate magician. That's not some sort of business wizard. He was a tradeshow entertainer. That meant that when corporate vendors held a tradeshow convention, he would be rented out by a booth to perform magic tricks as a means of drawing people toward the booths. He was often hired by people at county fairs for a similar function. Occasionally he said, he would cover for a colleague who did basically the same setup at places like Costco.
This guy was also a professional magician. But often, a professional gig, like a regular show at a Vegas showroom or some casino away from the strip, was few and far between. To make ends meet, he did birthdays and school shows and the like, but he said the money was in corporate rent-outs.
He had to tailor shows often to the needs of the client. At an electronics expo, he did a Torn and Restored Mouse Cord, as opposed to the more traditional rope. He had to alter his banter to correlate with how a booth's product improved vendor/client relations. It was excruciating sometimes, but it paid the bills.

I knew a guy more recently who did the same thing with stand-up comedy.
College campuses would book him, as did smaller venues as an MC (though he more often was scrounging for gigs like these) and would do corporate shows as well.
He'd usually do more client-based stuff, meaning he'd be hired as entertainment for someone trying to wine-and-dine potential investment. People were smashed and rowdy, and he said he would be handed things to say or announce, or even "jokes" as part of his set. He wasn't and was allowed to do certain things (usually no swearing... And then he'd get verbally accosted in a Rated-R tone). He said it was sometimes tough, but it helped make ends meet and keep busy when the real performing was dry.

Every once in a while NCT gets rented out to do a special show in a similar way, for a specific group of people. It can be long or short (usually 60 to 90 minutes) and since San Diego days, I have been "out on the road" for corporate teambuilding, birthdays, Christmas parties, school field trips, and yes, I have literally opened for a wedding.
Much the same can apply. We occasionally have to do certain things, or mention things, or include certain people. After one remote at a math convention (yes, a math convention), the lecturer who had hired us to perform in the middle of her lecture as we were leaving, asked us to explain how each of the games related back to mathematics. I remember at one point, being completely at a loss, one of us blurting out that the game Blind Line had to do "with variables!"
Our audiences can be insanely drunk, or otherwise inattentive as well. Several times I've played in places with no discernible stage, no lighting on us, in a shared space with something else happening (usually a restaurant) and there are always those among them who think themselves much more entertaining than those of us onstage. The class clown. The office prankster. The fun aunt. They will always try and "help us out."
But there's always something incredibly interesting about them. These odd corporate curiousities. How did we come about getting hired, how informed are the people that they're getting us as a show, how in the world are we going to do only scenes based on pet insurance policies?
Are they difficult? Sure. We're always nervous and unsure of what's gonna happen when we travel to our destination.

Sometimes, they are cool. You get to do one for a sorority and we're guys, they're all girls, they laugh their asses off, and you maybe even get a number afterward. Or it's in Santa Barbara for parents visiting week and we do a huge show in a huge auditorium and it's fantastic. (Four guys and 90 minutes in front of 500 people feels pretty great for a "day at the office.") Sometimes, you get to open for a wedding!

Most of them though, are batshit insane. I couldn't even begin to explain how insane. Sometimes, you're in a giant tent in a parking lot and everyone's eating and it's too wide, so you're playing to very far ends of seating that can't even see you straight on. Sometimes, it's an all-Jewish male audience and the assistant Rabbi gets slightly offended by you taking a mildly racist suggestion (keeping in mind that someone next to him suggested it in the first place). Sometimes, you're in the middle of a restaurant and your sound system blows out so you're screaming at everyone and half the room wasn't there for the show anyhow. And sometimes, you know, you open for a wedding.

While in New York, most of these shows have been pretty straightforward, more difficult in terms of crowd work and winning people over than anything else.
But as part of the theme of the week, here's 5 of the Most Batshit Insane Remotes I've Done since I've been in New York.

First, I recall vividly a morning remote that one of the other three players forgot was actually in the morning.
Normally, the remote-style show is designed for four of us, so we were now about to do a four-person show, which was nastardized from what it supposed to be a seven-person show with only 3 of us.
It was at a middle school at about 10 in the morning. FYI, morning's a terrible time for improv. Also, FYI, kids can be, shall we say, pretty hectic. So the 3 of us weren't sure how this would go at all.
That said, the remote itself was actually pretty good, just kids tend to shout all the time, and volunteer blindly. The three of us doing everything was both stressful and fun.

At number 4, sometime last summer, we took a van out for a full cast show. It was a Church retreat, the audience ranged from 10 to 18 year olds, and so I reffed and Steph, Josh, Scott, Karen, Ron, and Tracy were in it. The show went fantastic, and it was just the ending that makes this truly unforgettable.
I explained 185, and the bell and the duck call, did the example joke (cows) and took the first suggestion. It was secretaries. Josh stepped forward and said, "No, YOU take a note!"
It took us all a moment to realize he was playing World's Worst instead of 185.
I couldn't adequately explain what just happened to the audience, so we kind of just moved on.
But the catchphrase lived on, long past the remote and past the car ride home. On some nights when enough of the cast from that show was gathered in the green room before shows, you might here one of the players scream loudly:
"NO, YOU take a note!"

At 3, and in the opposite season, in the middle of winter, we were sent on a remote for an Orthodox Jewish group.
This meant a few requests:
No female performers.
No contact between men (us) and the women if they volunteered.
This one had the additional requests of no men playing women, and no scenes about relationships between men and women.
The contact person kept requesting things like specific games to play and not play because he'd come to the theater to see the show. They were all games we just couldn't do (like Schoolyard, because there's only 4 of us) or something inappropriate like Moving Bodies (which required someone to move us, and we were just avoiding physical contact games altogether, just to be safe).
And the room wasn't set up for us when we arrived. Yeah, they built the stage just before the crowd arrived, during dinner, which we could see them eating, because it was a glass wall separating our room and that room.
Again, the show went well and they loved it.
When we were leaving though, was the weirdest. Normally, payment is handled prior to the show. Performers just shouldn't have to be responsible for that. But our contact was now going to pay me. But not with a check, which I've taken before. It was in cash. An insane amount of cash. And he took a picture with me and him and the money to prove he'd paid.
I... What.

My number 2 spot goes to one that took place in the theater, a rent-out sort of situation. I did a couple of these here, it's pretty uncommon in San Diego.
This one was a school group, and I don't know from where. They were probably high school or like 8th grade. Just a terrible, annoying age. Definitely a difficult crowd to handle. They were rowdy and talkative the whole time.
During Spelling Bee, our audience volunteer would only say the word, "AIDS."
During Dinner at Joe's, our interview was being difficult and making things up about himself and the people he was talking about.
Finally, during 5 Things, the audience collectively decided that we must've been cheating at the game and stopped paying attention to us playing. No more clapping, no more laughing, just phones out and talking to each other. So the show ended horribly, and we shuffled into the office to hide.

Finally, this one also took place in the theater, another rent-out.
It was for one woman's 50th birthday. Almost the entire party (80 or so people) arrived all at once and were mostly French, like she, and mostly drunk (again, French).
The show actually went really well, which is a nice change. Because in San Diego, usually when a remote is bizarre, it's also horrible: difficult, tough venue, tough crowd, everything against us. But here, at least they were thoroughly entertained. Despite an occasional language gap, this group loved us.

And so did all of the groups that saw us in our time on the road.

Except that one group of kids.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Ranking Every NCT Game

These are all the regular games of National Comedy Theatre New York City, ranked from least favorite to most favorite, with a short explanation as to why, at the end of each section. I'd hate to bog down the post with even more text, so unfortunately no real explanation of the games are provided. So it's a pretty inside-baseball post to start the week off, but maybe you can just let your imagination run wild to envision just how bad/good the game is.

Also, ranking is purely subjective. Your mileage may vary.

Bottom 5 
75.) Dinner at Joe's
74.) Jam
73.) Lie Detector
72.) Countdown
71.) Animatronic Jamboree

Dinner at Joe's works on remotes. As a game in the show, I find it repetitive and unimaginative.
Jam just takes a ridiculous amount of balls. It's so open-ended, and it usually just falls flat. Lie Detector is way too much set up for so little pay-off. It's also a bitch for the ref to explain. I hate Countdown. The quality of the scene is thrown aside for an overpowering gimmick. The best Animatronic Jamboree I've ever been a part of was one I reffed, where we did Industrial Revolution, and no one knew jack-shit about the Industrial Revolution, and so therein is the problem with the whole game: The audience doesn't know anything, the players don't know anything, and no one cares.

70.) Dr. Know-It-All / Oracle
69.) Interpreter
68.) Revolving Door
67.) Doc Share-A-Tongue
66.) I Can Do Better
65.) Switch Interview
64.) Scatter Freeze
63.) Blitzkrieg
62.) Back in My Day
61.) Historical Ballet

I count Dr. Know-It-All and Oracle as the same game. It's played exactly the same, except Oracle has better window dressing. It's so straightforward as a game, it should be a warm-up. Interpreter on the other hand is impossible. It places all the pressure on the title character, and if you're fielding shitty questions or your guests are bad, then you're going under. It's a convoluted game. Revolving Door is a deceptive game. Exiting and entering when your trigger word sounds easy, and the audience fully believes it to be easy, but it is impossible for the people playing. So on that count, it ranks as one of the worst games. Doc Share-A-Tongue is a bit hit-or-miss but mostly miss. I Can Do Better tends to go off in weird directions when not played correctly, as does Switch Interview. The static conveyor belt-like movement of the game doesn't help Switch Interview either. Scatter Freeze ranks slightly better than it, only because it moves better. For a long time, the College Team back in San Diego tried to push Blitzkrieg as their own 5 Things. Pop culture dictates the game much more, and the creativity of the clue-givers can be a bit uneven. I've seen Back in My Day work in other contexts, but it just seems to miss in this show. Historical Ballet takes a bit more courage than the Animatronic Jamboree, a lot more commitment from everyone, but it's funnier, though still requiring historical knowledge.

60.) Switch
58.) Playwright
57.) Newscaster
56.) Madrigal / Rap Madrigal
55.) Opera
54.) Lounge Singer
53.) Identity Crisis
52.) Chameleon
51.) Chain Murder

Of the audience participation scene games, I hate Switch the most. It just gives way too much power and responsibility to the audience members who replace us. X-Words is a bitch for the ref, because counting is remarkably different when people are talking constantly. I find Playwright to be rather slow when compared to its more straightforward brethren like Fresh Choice or Hesitation. I've only liked Newscaster with College Team player Chris Wollman as the anchor. Every time else, the game feels outdated and flimsy at best. But that could also be because the majority of NYC audience interviews are terrible. If I were ranking Madrigal and Rap Madrigal separately, the latter would rank higher. It's Jam, with more form and function. Madrigal actually performs consistently well, it just again feels out of place in the show. Opera is unbelievably exhausting and doesn't lend itself to as much creative space as most of the other musical games. Lounge Singer is weird and wacky, and actually works in New York, for some reason. Identity Crisis, of the four really difficult games (Revolving Door, Pavlovian Response, this, and Parallel Universe) I think is the least interesting. Chameleon is pretty straightforward, maybe a bit too gimmicky for my liking. I also prefer it as a party, instead of a scene about whatever. And finally, Chain Murder makes for an entertaining enough game, but I think it runs too similar to 5 Things and the audience member is always useless.

50.) What If
49.) Timeline
48.) Movie Experts
47.) Parallel Universe
46.) Schoolyard Insults / Sideline Debate
45.) Spelling Bee
44.) What Are You Doing?
43.) Emotional Symphony
42.) Instruction Manual
41.) Pavlovian Response

What If and Timeline run along the same lines, but I find Timeline to be the more interesting of the two. Movie Experts is just rather boring in terms of how straightforward it is. It's another game that I think is far more interesting on remotes. Parallel Universe is one of the Terrible Four, and I think I personally like it the most, but the audience usually just doesn't get it. Schoolyard and Sideline are essentially the same game, with different window dressing. They're fun flashes in the pan to open the show, but boy it's awkward when your guessers don't know the words the audience gave. Spelling Bee is the most low-impact of the audience participation games, and it's formulaic, so it's pretty hard to screw up. What Are You Doing, as I've always said, is the foundation of all improv: you're doing one thing while saying another. It's a fun, fast-paced game, but it needs the right audience to get behind. Emotional Symphony is just so stupid but it's fun. We like to call it "Emotional Orgasm." Instruction Manual is very similar to Story, and I probably personally like it better, but ultimately Story offers the better challenge and more creativity. Pavlovian Response is the most entertaining of the Terrible Four, it just takes a bit to set up.

40.) American Idol Recap
39.) Beastie Rap
38.) Day in the Life / Day in the Life Replay
37.) MysteryWhere
36.) Forward/Reverse
35.) Sing It / Kick It
34.) Teleprompter
33.) Town Hall Meeting
32.) Slo-Mo Olympics
31.) Foreign Movie

I love American Idol Recap, for how talented the cast is at singing. It's like our Greatest Hits, and it manages to showcase everyone wonderfully. You get someone good to host, and the audience member is willing to go with it, you guaranteed a hit. Beastie Rap is a crowd-pleaser and is usually way more entertaining when one side is horrible. Day in the Life I rarely see by itself. In fact, I remember several members of both the SD and NY casts being confused that it could be played without the replays. With the Replays, I think it's fine, but the other replay games are stronger. It usually suffers from a bad interview. I love MysteryWhere. It's infinitely challenging, and fun to watch. I think it's the only one that matches the creativity of 5 Things by the other team, and I would have it as the only catch-up game, if it were up to me.

30.) I Object
29.) Columns
28.) Naive Replay
27.) Dimestore Novel
26.) Sit, Stand, Kneel, Lie
25.) Moving Bodies
24.) Blind Date Replay
23.) Dirty Hand Randy
22.) Pick-A-Play / Pick-A-Text
21.) Changing Emotions

I Object is a fantastically simple game, but if it gets too personal too soon, it runs aground. Columns is a lot like better games like Hesitation. Naive Replay can be insanely difficult and I prefer the Missing Person variation, personally, but if it gets nailed down right, it's a sure-fire hit. Dimestore Novel puts a lot of the same pressure on the writer of the story as Interpreter does on its title character, but there's way more give-and-take between the two sides in Dimestore. I think the game is a better-formatted Movie Experts or Interpreter. Sit, Stand, Kneel, Lie is most likely to end in confusion. I think the chaos is better than in Identity Crisis or Countdown. Moving Bodies is almost always a hit, as is Blind Date Replay (because the interview is usually better than for Day in the Life or What If or Timeline or Newscaster), as is Dirty Hand Randy which isn't really improv per se, but it requires some quick thinking. Pick-A-Play and Pick-A-Text are essentially the same game; if I were ranking them separately, I would rank Text lower, because I rarely see anyone volunteer their phones for us to use. I like Play a lot better, it's one of the first improv games I learned, but the plays have to be things people actually know. Changing Emotions is simple, efficient, and almost always hilarious.

20.) Crime Story / Naive Expert
19.) Hesitation
18.) Laugh Out
17.) Da-Doo-Run-Run
16.) Blind Freeze Tag
15.) Game-O-Matic
14.) Object Freeze
13.) Fresh Choice
12.) 185
11.) World's Worst

At the top of the 20, Crime Story and Naive Expert. Again, essentially the same game, I'd rank Naive Expert lower if they were separate. I think Crime Story moves better and wordplay is always fun. Hesitation is the more straightforward Playwright and I think works better because it forces everyone to think faster. Laugh Out is my favorite head-to-head game. I'm always a fan of simplicity in improv games, and Laugh Out's premise is so simple. Da-Doo-Run-Run is a surprisingly catchy singing game, and is fun for a change of head-to-head. People tend to favor Beastie Rap over it, and I do too in other contexts, but at NCT I think it's the better of the two. Blind Freeze Tag is the standard catch-up game and it's simple and effective. The creativity at work in the game often sees people at their very essence. Nowhere else do you see exactly how people's brains work. There's nothing quite like it. Game-O-Matic can be a clusterfuck most of the time, but it's always great as a Hail Mary sort of play. Object Freeze again, I admire for its simplicity. It's Props, it's children's playtime; use an object as something other than what it is. Fresh Choice can be a wickedly funny game, and I think it more often than not gets overlooked for flashier games. But it's bare bones improv at its finest. Between 185 and World's Worst, I think is the harder of the two is the former, while the latter seems to be the more fun for most people. World's Worst can sometimes be somewhat alienating for an audience, and requires not tact per se, but some finesse to play the game properly. It's very difficult to teach, whereas 185 is teachable, and is gettable. (I prefer World's Worst, though.)

Top 10 
10.) 5 Things
9.) Shakespeare
8.) Story
7.) Pan Left/Pan Right
6.) Musical Comedy
5.) Heckler
4.) Audience Sound Effects
3.) Good/Bad Advice
2.) Potpourri Replay
1.) Blind Line

Opening the Top 10 is the mainstay of NCT shows, 5 Things. I love the game, though it requires not too much improv, just a lot of creativity. People often miscredit the game to the guesser, but the hard work is really all in the hands of the clue-givers, the guesser simply needs to keep an open mind (it doesn't hurt to know a lot of things, though).
Shakespeare is straightforward and with a willing crowd (read: not dumb) the game kills.
Story is superior to Instruction Manual for its challenge of keeping a coherent story. By the final rounds it's also pretty tense.
Pan Left/Pan Right is the only real game that juggles multiple scenes well. There isn't anything else quite like it, except for Parallel Universe, and I think it's the cleaner of the two games.
Musical Comedy, like Shakespeare, is straightforward in its execution and explanation, and is often more successful simply because it's immediately more accessible too.
Heckler doesn't always work, and requires a certain crowd to get behind, but I can't get over how much I love it. At its best, you get to see a group of performers who know each other well kinda tear each other apart in front of an audience, and it feels a little behind-the-scenes, like they're watching us hang out.
Audience Sound Effects I think is the best audience participation game, because they can be bad or good at the game, it doesn't really matter. Everything can be gold in this game.
Good/Bad Advice should be a consistently more popular game, but it can fall flat quickly due to one weak character. Overall though, if the questions are good, and the characters balance out well, it's going to be hard to beat.
Potpourri Replay allows us to showcase genres, emotions, musical talent, scenework, etc., all in one game. Rarely a dud, always fun to play.
Blind Line in its basic form I have never seen fail. It's accessible, simple, requires cleverness, and is a great intro to improv for any crowd. It also requires very little set up, as compared to more complicated games with less pay-off.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ranking the 12 Studio Albums of The Beatles

Though my favorite rock band of all time is Queen, and Journey may still rank somewhat higher in my musical tastes than The Beatles, it's hard to deny the influence they've had on me, or on anyone for that matter. There w ill always be bands that did it better, and there may be elements that existed prior to The Beatles, but the fact is no one brought it together quite like they did.

Think about this for a moment: a group so popular, that they gave up touring. Can you imagine that thought crossing any of your favorite music act's mind? And not even that they were bored of it. They had to give it up, because it had become entirely too exhausting and dangerous. There has never been, nor will there be, anything like Beatlemania.

There aren't too many other music acts I can name all the albums (MJ, Green Day, and blink182 come to mind, though) but there's something so endearing about them. The evolution of the sound, the formation of identities both collectively and individually, the maturity of the songwriting and musicianship... It's a fascinating progression.

Here's my ranking of the 12 Studio Albums of The Beatles:

12.) Yellow Submarine (1969)
Much of the 10th album is dedicated to George Martin's fantastic score for the movie accompanying this album.
As much as people like to honor Martin as the "Fifth Beatle" and as fun and lovely as the score is, there's not the same amount of contribution you'd want from a Beatles studio album. (But "Pepperland" is a fantastic track.)
That said, "It's All Too Much" is a fine but forgettable Harrison contribution, "Hey Bulldog" is an obvious Lennon track, and the session is home to two iconic tracks that are both endearing and irritating in their repetitiveness; I am of course speaking of the title track (which almost ruins another album later on), and "All You Need Is Love", which, while the message is one of good cheer, is boringly repetitious.

11.) With The Beatles (1963)
Despite probably being the most iconic album cover of the studio albums, With the Beatles, the 2nd of the group, is mostly forgettable.
Except for "All My Loving", I don't find myself gravitating toward any of the other tracks on this session. All the cover songs (present on the first two albums) aren't as strong as the first album, which brings it down a lot for me. I mean, Chuck Berry? Smokey Robinson? Sorry, Beatles. You lose this round.

10.) Beatles for Sale (1964)
There are better covers on this album, but it's kind of The Beatles' "emo" album. And unfortunately, there are bands better at being emo.
"I'm A Loser" and "Baby's in Black" set the tone, and "What You're Doing" brings it home in the same theme.
The bitter overall tone of the album aside, I actually rather like "I'll Follow the Sun".
The Carl Perkins covers are pretty synonymous to me with the Beatle that sang them, so much so I thought they wrote them for years: Starr sings "Honey Don't", Harrison sings "Everybody's Trying to be My Baby." These also fit the cohesion of the album really well.

9.) Please Please Me (1963)
The debut album of the band features some truly great covers: "Chains", "Anna", "Baby It's You", and of course "Twist and Shout".
It kicks off with "I Saw Her Standing There" and the second side kicks off with "Love Me Do."
It's pure 60s rock fun, with the wild and whimsy of a still-young group, unfettered by the burdens of touring.
Simple, straightforward, and fun. What more is there to say?

8.) A Hard Day's Night (1964)
The Beatles' third album is definitively their own, and you've got Lennon-McCartney at its strongest, with strong Lennon tracks like "You Can't Do That", and strong McCartney tracks like "And I Love Her."
It's still a younger quartet attempting to find their sound, but "Can't Buy Me Love" and the title track are a good set of songs too.

7.) Help! (1965)
Help is a bit like the second draft to Hard Day's, with a lot of the similar structure, but "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" being a stronger Lennon song, and "I've Just Seen a Face" being a much stronger McCartney song. There's also contributions from the other two Beatles, with Harrison writing and singing "You Like Me Too Much", and Starr singing a cover of "Act Naturally."
I frankly think it moves a lot better than Hard Day's, but I feel like most people prefer Hard Day's. I think they forget how good Help is.

6.) Let It Be (1970)
I really wish I could rank the final studio album much, much higher, but there's just so much sadness to the album that I can't. I can't listen to the album without getting really disappointed that the band ended flickering out rather than with a bang. The album as originally presented lacks cohesion with its sound and production offset by its lyrical maturity.
The cover shows they're not the four "mop-top kids from Liverpool" anymore. They're four different personalities, and they hadn't been The Beatles for years. Even the title track implies a group leaving the past behind.
That said, it's hard to find a weak track here, although "For You Blue" is a weak Harrison track, and I've never been much of a fan of "One After 909". To offset that, Lennon's "Across the Universe" is probably his most hauntingly beautiful track,

5.) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
It's the equivalent of a concept album, like Yoshimi Battles the Pink the Robots was for The Flaming Lips, or American Idiot was for Green Day, it started here.
I read once that the original theme behind Sgt. Pepper was to be growing up, childhood, that sort of thing. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" would be the biggest standout of this album if not for "A Day in the Life," a mash-up of two disparate elements that somehow work together. But you've also got "With a Little Help from My Friends", "When I'm Sixty-Four", "Getting Better"...
I mean, there's really not a bad track on here. It moves well, it's youthful, fun, "Within You Without You" is a fantastic George Harrison contribution, it's just a solid album. I sometimes like to say that a young Beatles fan will gravitate toward Sgt. Pepper. When they get older, they'll go to The White Album, or Revolver, but there's a soft spot in every fan for the Magnum Opus that is Sgt. Pepper's.

4.) The Beatles (aka, The White Album) (1968)
I think The White Album is The Beatles at their most transitory. There's a lot of unfinished ideas, a lot of emerging directions. No song is ever offensively too long, but no feeling ever lingers for long either. With Sgt. Pepper's, the feeling may be frivolous, but at least it's consistent.
I think after showing so much maturity, this album doesn't quite deliver the next step, it flounders the group a bit, but the parts to love are pretty great.
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is my favorite Beatles composition ever. I used to have an iPod playlist of just covers of it.
Lennon and McCartney both throwback to their rock roots: Lennon on "Revolution 1", McCartney on "Helter Skelter." You've also got "Blackbird", you've got Bungalow Bill or Rocky Raccoon for more storied songs, you've got "Martha My Dear" for lighter fare, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and the aforementioned Revolution, if you want to see where Lennon's political leanings were headed, the slightly more psychedelic "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"... There's something for everyone here. But like I said, it's only a little something.

3.) Abbey Road (1969)
For years, Road probably would've topped my list.
"Come Together", "Here Comes the Sun", and "Something" are three excellent Beatles tracks, and then of course you have the whole B-Side Suite, ending with the McCartney couple that brings it all home.
I'm still not a fan of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and most likely never will be, but the rest of the album is just absolutely solid. It's The Beatles at their most centered, their most mature, their most realized.

2.) Rubber Soul (1965)
I love folk music, and Soul consists almost exclusively of folk-inspired songs.
I love "Norwegian Wood" and "Nowhere Man".
"I'm Looking Through You" is haunting, as is "If I Needed Someone", and of course the album contains "In My Life", which was penned by Lennon, decades before he would've even grasped the gravity of his poetry.
Despite the increasing mellowness and withdrawn personality starting to come through, this album is a little more youthful, a little more raw, and only really works in conjunction with...

1.) Revolver (1966) number 1 pick. Revolver is fantastic on its own, but really starts to make sense in the context of being sandwiched between Soul and Sgt. Pepper.
With Revolver, I feel like The Beatles understood what they wanted to be. And if they'd remained together, I think the album also represents the music center of where they would've stayed. Road would've been somewhat of their return to roots, and every band experiments, and The Beatles certainly did. But if we had The Beatles still, like we do the Stones, I think Revolver is most indicative of what they would've sounded like for a while, especially if they'd gone back on tour.

"Eleanor Rigby", "Tomorrow Never Knows", "Love You To", and "I'm Only Sleeping." Every Beatle gets on this album, and even "Yellow Submarine" I think fits in better here.
What else can I say about this album? It's the thesis statement of the Beatles sound.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"That's where I'll always love you..." - Robin Williams: 1951 - 2014

Celebrity death is rather complicated.
First of all, there's the one-sided relationship that celebrities of all kinds create with us. There's a quote about how Johnny Carson was essentially invited into the living rooms of millions of peoples' houses four nights a week. We see someone like that so often, that we feel a connection to them, and it's sometimes hard to remember that they don't share that same connection with us. Some are very nice, and gracious to fans, and we feel-good stories of them trying to connect to fans, people who have enjoyed them over the years. But again, it's not the same on their side of the street as it is for us.

There is also the fact that we, in our obsession with celebrity, have created an extra step in the process that we believe we are entitled to.
You see, I believe that when someone does something, and someone becomes a fan of it, that is where the relationship more or less ends between the two. You as a fan can go on liking it, but it is unnecessary for the outputting artist to thank anyone. The work itself is enough, the continued work is sufficient. If they do thank the fans, I take that as a bonus.
People should be kind to fans out of regular human decency, there should never be this sense that fans are "owed" this type of treatment. You chose to consume the product they produced, that doesn't entitle you to anything more from that person.
Earlier this year, Phil Brooks, a wrestler better known by the ring name CM Punk, walked out on the WWE before his contract expiration. As far as the viewers were concerned, this was done with no warning and no reason. And I saw people get lit up and incensed that he would do this to the fans. But really, when you boil it down, it was just a man, leaving a job he was aggravated by. He didn't owe it to the fans to stay and I was disappointed that people acted in such a way. The work is enough. The work is sufficient.

It's what makes celebrity death so complicated.
Of course we should be sad for every death, because death is sad. Losing people in their physical form is tragic. Humans are actually really awful at dealing with grief, and language constantly falls short of expressing truly what impact death has over us.
To be honest, the way some people feel about celebrity death is the way I feel about animal death sometimes. I used to get really insensitive about it. Then I had a fish given to me as a Christmas present one year, and a year and a half later, he died. And I got unbelievably sad over it. I can't imagine that the fish was even vaguely aware of who I was. But you form a connection with those pets, without ever fully grasping the kind of impact you have on them. And celebrities die without ever fully realizing the impact they had on so many. 
Some people react pretty harshly to it. "Get over it," they say.
And maybe, in the previous paragraphs, interpretations of it might lead you to believe I feel the same way.
But I don't.
There are ones that will impact me more, and there are ones that affect my friends more. People had different influences growing up. There were different people that spoke to them than I had. 
For me, I recognize the power of these artists, performers, entertainers, celebrities, whatever you want to call them. There have been a few who have had an influence on me, on who I became as a person, they influenced what I wanted to do as a career, they kept me company on lonely nights when all I could do was watch movies, or later, YouTube videos.
And that's the incredibly difficult part for me. These performers, these heroes of mine, will never know fully the impact they had on one awkward kid from San Diego who was crazy enough to believe he could be an actor one day.
And far and away, the most influential of these figures is Robin Williams.

I can only think of one other celebrity who was anywhere near as influential, and that was Michael Jackson. But the fact that when I grew up, MJ was elusive and kind of out of the public eye made him this already-mythical figure.
Robin Williams was different. Robin was family.

This is how I first met Robin Williams.
I saw Beauty and the Beast a year earlier in theaters with my parents, but Aladdin in 1992 is the one I really remember. It's the only movie I can remember vividly seeing it when I did. I don't remember anything else of that era.
Aladdin was and still is my favorite Disney protagonist, but it was the Genie who captured my heart and my imagination.
"I can't wait to grow up so I can know what he's talking about!" I remember thinking to myself.
In a lot of ways, this is what helped make Robin Williams so accessible to my generation, because this was many of my peers' first encounter with him. He was loud, energetic, witty, and while we didn't understand all the references, we understood his cadence, we understood that, "oh, he's doing a funny voice now," and we had a bright blue magical being to look at while it was all happening.

I get associated with Aladdin quite often.
I've sung "Proud of Your Boy" in musical theatre auditions, I've sung "One Jump Ahead" and its reprise at karaoke.
But the best part about that association in my head, especially when I was younger, was that I got Genie as my best friend. When I got older, because that had already formed in my brain, I couldn't let go of it, and I believed that maybe one day Robin Williams would be my friend.

Around this time too, Nick-at-Nite was airing all the episodes of several shows. Mondays was Bewitched, Tuesdays was I Love Lucy (which me and my cousins loved), etc. Thursdays was Happy Days, and our parents kinda had to watch it with us, because you know, teens were making out on it.
But there was this one random episode where an alien inexplicably showed up on the show. But I recognized the voice of this "Mork, from Ork." It was the Genie.
My head exploded at the time. Wait, the Genie was a real person? Not an alien, right? Oh, an actor? Cool, I want to be like that when I grow up.
Mork was mesmerizing. And going back and watching those Happy Days episodes now, he's one of the most endearing moments on that show.
Robin Williams had this amazing ability to up everyone's game. For that one episode, in that run of adequate season 5 episodes, Mork energizes everyone. The characters are all weirded out, and I think all the actors realize they're in the presence of something special.
Outside of the Happy Days episode though, I admittedly don't have much more exposure to Mork. I know the references in passing, I saw maybe three or four episodes altogether. Years later though, I would just watch YouTube compilations of him on the show. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

Later on, Robin Williams was at the forefront of movies I loved and still love. He played an iconic character of fiction in a new way, he inspired my creativity as only a teacher could, and he was in my first rated-R movie.

There's a reason I wanted Hook to kick off Unseen Footage. It is so indelibly linked to my childhood, that I feel it shouldn't be missed. Years later, it's certainly not perfect, but that's some of its charm. And Robin Williams as Peter Pan is pretty perfect. The childish whimsy and energy, the youth and joy he brings to it when he finally awakens as the Pan, is awesome.
I don't know who else could have done that role without looking like an old man trying to act young. Williams just is young and enjoyable in the role, and drew me back to the Peter Pan myth several times over the years.
Similarly, this movie shouldn't have worked. For some it doesn't, but I find it to be quite entertaining, and surprisingly tragic when you think about it for too long. Robin Williams is perfectly acceptable as an overgrown child, because there's no threat to him. I can't think of another person you can say that about. The movie was made for him.

And this movie should definitely not have worked. When you boil down the plot, you have a father who, in trying to prove he is mentally stable enough to care for three kids, dresses up as an old woman to babysit them right under the nose of their mother and his ex-wife, and against the orders of a court. But it's billed as a cross-dressing comedy, and Robin Williams is damn funny.
Mrs. Doubtfire is a movie I will still watch to this day, and laugh just as hard as I did when I was a kid. Maybe it doesn't hold up storywise, but Williams is what keeps this fresh. He's got so much to work with, and the only thing I can say has been said countless times over: he's just too damn funny not to be appreciated.

As I grew up, so did some of the films I saw Williams in. (I saw both Good Morning Vietnam and Fisher King much later, not 'til college, and I could fully appreciate the depth Williams had.)
John Keating's answer to the Walt Whitman quote still lives on in my head:
"Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"
Delivered so succinctly and so beautifully. And you have to remember that this is now the same voice delivering this call that was once the Genie to me, that was Mrs. Doubtfire, that was Mork.
How could someone be so deeply funny, and yet so deeply passionate?
And Robin Williams stood at that crossroads with me, where I realized that just like anything else in the world, if you want to be really funny, you're going to have to be really passionate about it.

What Dreams May Come is a movie that haunts me and stands as another testament to Williams' abilities to evoke pathos. Such a carefree character plagued with tragedy.
Your mileage may vary, but Dreams was both revelatory (like Dead Poets Society) and disturbing. This was the upstanding hero I wanted to be: imperfect, but willing to go to lengths unimaginable for people he loved. Again, Williams stood at another crossroads with me, where larger-than-life heroes of immortality and untold powers give way to real, imperfect, reluctant heroes, who remain optimistic despite the odds.

Keating was a bit of an enigma, but Good Will Hunting's Shaun Maguire is an infinitely more interesting, nuanced character. And as I found myself growing older, the times I would watch this movie over, I found myself relating to Maguire more and more. And I grew more appreciative of the fact that this was Robin Williams, a figure who had occupied a completely different state of mind and tone in my brain. I also appreciated that it was an Oscar-worthy (and -winning) performance.

Years later, these two though, are how I mostly remember Robin Williams.
At its peak, Whose Line is it Anyway? managed Whoopi Goldberg and Williams as guest stars.
The Williams episode, many people think would have been a show-stealing Williams and nothing else. And those people are incredibly wrong.

Whose Line Is It Anyway feat. Robin Williams from PocketAppZ on Vimeo.

You need only watch the episode to understand Williams in an ensemble: incredibly committed, generous, and funny as hell. Everything you want in a scene partner.
The Song Styles is not one of the best from that show. But it's one of the most energetic, lively performances ever. Wayne ups his game to match Williams, as do the rest of the cast throughout the night. Ryan is particularly on his game, and Colin does seem to be a little intimidated, but gets his usual shots in as well. As an improviser, I struggle to find that balance every performance, how can I be as committed and confident as Williams, while still keeping the spotlight on all of us, as he so deftly could?

And this interview with Marc Maron, is funny, nostalgic, tragic, heartbreaking. As only Maron could make it. As I got older, I knew there might be some darkness there with Robin Williams, but only Maron could create a space safe enough for him to talk about it earnestly.
Marc Maron's interview with Robin Williams
I don't think he expected to get such a vast interview in only an hour's worth of time. There's not much else to say. Except that it's wonderful. And what Maron says perfectly: "There's nobody else like him, ever."

Looking back now, I guess I can see how Dr. Maguire might have been closest to Williams in real life. Funny, affable, a bit closed off, a bit shy, could be a bit manic, and extremely caring.

I didn't know Robin Williams. My opinion of him exists solely on the roles he chose to portray (which fills me with nothing but overwhelming positivity) and anecdotes I've heard or read from comedians and actors who encountered him throughout the years. And there is nothing but good.
I know nothing of the demons that plagued him, of the addictions he battled, and the illnesses he weathered. I only know my own, and can only imagine that they had to be so much worse.
A comedian is not only his tragedy, but it may just be more pronounced. Because so many of us never lose that childlike disconnect between great laughter and great passion. Williams seemed like he cared, so much.

But I grew up with Robin Williams. He was absolutely family in my mind. If he'd inexplicably come over for dinner unannounced, my family would have welcomed him, simply for the influence he had over me.
So many of my friends texted me or called me or messaged me and one of the first things they said to me was that I was the first person they thought of when they heard Robin Williams died. To think that in other people's minds, I'm associated with someone whom I hold so dear, is incredibly humbling for me.
My roommate immediately made us watch Jumanji and then The Birdcage, and I couldn't believe that someone who was giving such a haunted, funny performance in one, and a subdued, subtly funny performance in the other, who with movies like this had inspired me to become an actor, a comedian, an improviser, was now gone.
Williams was at various times a friend, a hero, a mentor, an inspiration, and a therapist for me. When I read that he had died, I had never felt so struck by news before. I was blown away. I was speechless. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
I can't even begin to tell you exactly what I loved about him so much, but I would watch anything with him. I wish I had a "cooler" story about him. No, I never got to perform with him, or even see him live. No, I didn't know him. But I miss him. I miss him.

Thank you, Robin Williams. Rest in Peace.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Toughest 5 Things

As an extra step, continuing the 5 Things discussion, I put together some more of the most difficult suggestions I've guessed, given, or gotten over the years into a single game of 5 Things.

So yes, I've either guessed these clues, had to give these clues, seen someone give these clues, or gotten these as suggestions while reffing. Only two of them I modified from other suggestions (those are in italics), and only one of them is one that's been talked about but never actually performed (that's underlined).

Following our rules of ordering the 5 Things, they're also presented in the order we'd perform them in the game. 

Again, like I said to the team in rehearsal, none of these are impossible. They are very, very intricate, and will require a lot of process, but they are not ungettable. I personally don't find anything entertaining in a completely impossible 5 Things. You want to see the struggle, and then you want to see the ultimate payoff. A 5 Things that is ungettable, and we never get to see any sort of triumph is just disheartening for everyone.

How would you get someone to guess these clues?

1.) Syncing an iPod to a Computer
          iPod = Megalodon
          Computer = H.G. Wells' Time Machine

2.) Voting a Bill into Law
          Congress = (House of Representatives) Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders
                             (Senate)  The Argonauts
          When = Height of the Ottoman Empire

3.) Going on the Oregon Trail 
           Wagon = Leonardo da Vinci's Flying Machine
           Hunting What = All the Star Signs of the Zodiac

4.) Hoarding
            Hoarding What = Regret
            The guesser = Speaks in tongues 

5.) Crashing a Party
            Whose Party Was It – John Phillips Sousa
            Where Is the Party Held – On a Peninsula

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Power Ranking 5 Things

As I stated yesterday, 5 Things is an incredibly fascinating game to me. One that requires very logical reasoning combined with a relaxed and open mind, a couple of the contradictory elements of improvisation itself.

Again, 5 Things involves one player guessing 5 activities suggested by the audience as well as several tweaks to each activity suggested by the audience, all in gibberish and pantomime under a certain amount of time.
My example is always this: He's playing Football, but the ball is a cat, and the field is lava.

Last night, I had the team practice two ends of the spectrum.
There are the "easy" suggestions, or common suggestions, which we get almost weekly. I had us compile one of the easiest 5 Things we could procure, and I had a group of clue-givers attempt to give all the clues in new and refreshing ways.
In addition to helping all of us get on the same page in terms of how we communicate to each other in gibberish and pantomime (as well as what kinds of references we make to distinguish things. For example, I often show Chinese take-out to get chopsticks, but a teammate of mine always shows sushi) it also helps keep the game from getting routine.

The thing I constantly say about 5 Things as a game, as a performance, is that it's likened to a magic trick. And that works on many, many levels.
First and foremost, people accuse us of cheating, in a way not unlike people telling magicians that they know how their trick works. They think gibberish is a code (it's not), they think we got the guesser the answers while they were outside (we didn't), or I've heard even more absurd things, like a teleprompter behind the audience tells the guesser what to say when they're guessing (we can't afford it).
Second, there is a level of us setting up the expectations of the audience, and delivering though not quite in the way you'd expect. I won't go into minor technical things because they really are minute and ultimately don't affect the outcome of the game, but one of them threads back into the first point. We tell everyone what we're going to do, and then we do just that. And it's easier for people to believe in insane theories, like that we practiced a code, instead of believing what is ultimately the easier answer: we just got damn good at the game itself.

Improvisation at its very heart is about communication. It's communicating intention, motivation, reaction, emotion.
All 5 Things attempts to do is test the limits of communication. What happens when you don't have words to communicate? (An absolutely frightening prospect for most improv teams. How many non-verbal shows do you see?) How does one describe that unique panic of knowing absolutely nothing, and seeing everything form in front of you, giving yourself over completely to people you have to trust to get you to the right answer?

Finally, 5 Things is an important set of skills. It's also a rewarding exercise that just so happens to be show-worthy. It leaves quite an impression on an audience.

So to round back to last night's practice, I don't like when things become routine in the game. Things need to be refreshed, renewed.
How many cool, interesting ways can we show a knife? Or act out baseball? Or do Jello?
If we fall into routine, then it looks like we practice, and practicing like that means we're cheating.
My approach to practicing it is how do we shake off routine, how do we keep a sense of danger to the act of 5 Things?
Again, to finish on the magic trick analogy, a magician trusts his trick. He is rarely, if ever, in danger of failing or in a life-threatening situation, but he will often act like he is. So should we. And if there's that level of showmanship throughout the performance, it becomes worthwhile for everyone.

The other end of the spectrum I had the team practice was the hardest 5 Things we could think up.
By the end of suggestion-getting, I said that none of the suggestions were truly impossible, they were just going to take a lot of time.
Over the years, various friends and I have mused over what would make the most difficult suggestions in the game. I've gotten really complicated ideas, very obscure references, and some impossibly meta- suggestions.
In addition to those, I have had some legitimately difficult things pop up in actual playings of the game. I've seen other players and teams get extremely daunting suggestions and have to perform them. 

Today, I thought I'd try and list out all the impossibly difficult suggestions and give you some examples of things I've witnessed over the years, as well as some of the easier side of things.

Of the possible activity categories, sports are across-the-board the easiest to get.
Equipment is discernible (usually a ball), environment is distinguishable (ice, a net), and even if you don't follow sports (me), you can recognize them without words.
Tennis and Baseball for me tie the bottom spot. Unmistakable, ubiquitous, etc.
All the major sports follow: Football, Basketball, Soccer, Golf, Volleyball, Hockey.
Curling comes up surprisingly often. I like that people seem to think they're incredibly original when suggesting it, but if they don't say Hockey for a winter sport, for some reason they'll say curling.
The smaller sports can occasionally be a challenge: Badminton, Lacrosse, Field Hockey, Water Polo, regular Polo, Cricket, Rugby. If you just didn't grow up watching them or with a high school that had teams for some of these, then as a guesser you simply might not get the set ups.
Topping the "true" athletic competitions, Racquetball and Squash are often nearly impossible to distinguish. 
After that, the Olympiad can get a little hard to distinguish too: Some people don't recognize the difference between Bobsledding and straightforward sledding or tobogganing; the Skeleton and Luge are sometimes interchanged; cross-country skiing is sometimes complicated to show; Handball is played completely differently in the Olympics than most people play it; Australian Rules Football is completely different from soccer, rugby, and of course, American Football.
One of the toughest things to distinguish is the various gymnastics events, the Vault isn't very dynamic and therefore hard to show, and the Pommel Horse gets confused for the Parallel Bars (for some reason).

Best pantomime of a sport? Capture the Flag or Dodgeball is always hilarious to see.
My top spot for most difficult, though? The Decathlon. No rhyme or reason, too long, and no pay-off.

Board Games
After sports, I'd say Board Games are as easily recognized, though slightly less commonality. If you didn't grow up playing a specific board game (I didn't play Monopoly until I was an adult) then there are references and perhaps even subtleties you just won't be privy to.
On the easy side, I think Chess is actually marginally easier to pantomime than Checkers is. At least in terms of how 5 Things is played, getting someone to do a "correct" move in Chess is easier than getting them to understand Checkers.
After that, any children's game is straightforward enough: Battleship, Connect 4, Guess Who?, Trouble, etc.
Clue and Monopoly, though very complicated games are easy to pantomime. Games like Twister, Operation, and even Candyland are iconic too. Games like Chutes and Ladders (or the inexplicable Snakes and Ladders) and Hungry Hungry Hippos can be gotten through external qualities (the ladders, the hippos). Cranium has become quite easy too. And Scrabble is a fast get.
Going up from there, Sorry takes some time. Trivial Pursuit is hard to distinguish unless the person knows the wedges system. Life and Risk are close to the top, certainly. Stratego is one of the more difficult ones I've seen.

Top spot goes to 1313 Dead End Drive. Impossible for 3 reasons:
It's Clue, but without the deductive reasoning.
Everyone played Clue.
Only poor kids had 1313 Dead End Drive because they couldn't afford Clue.

Chores tend to be relatively easy because all of them have a built-in necessity.
None of these things are done unless there's something that needs to be done about them.
Laundry, dusting, taking out the trash, vacuuming, cooking, sweeping, mopping, Swiffering, doing the dishes...all of them have inherent need.
Really, chores are probably the easiest of all categories.

Top spot? Cleaning the rain gutters proved quite difficult for a team of Southern Californians unfamiliar with rain.

This can be a hit-or-miss category. Most of the time, we end up with Flying, so that gets bottom spot here.
After that, it's all a matter really, of how nerdy the crowd is.
On the easier side: Magic, Healing, Fire, Weather Control, Invisibility.
Medium: Teleporting, Telepathy, Reincarnation, Time Travel.
Difficult: Self-Transformation, Achieving Enlightenment, Hacking (I know, it's a real thing, but I mean, like, good hacking).

Top spot: Master of All Languages. Go on, try and do every language in gibberish. I dare you.

The Rest
Everything else can run the gamut:
Easy stuff you got Cheerleading, Writing Letters, Churning Butter, Watching Movies, Sleeping, Jousting, Skydiving, Paintballing, Laser Tagging, Bungee Jumping, etc.
Middle of the road stuff is mostly more specific: Taking A Nap instead of Sleeping, playing a specific video game system as opposed to just Playing Video Games, Base Jumping instead of Skydiving or Bungee Jumping,
Slightly harder is anything involving "going" somewhere: to the beach, to a party, to a concert, to the movies, to a theme park, on a date, etc. The active part of the activity is rather vague so it's a unique challenge at first.
Childhood games are incredibly fun and may only be difficult if your guesser simply didn't have a childhood: Heads Up 7-Up, Building Forts, the Hot Lava game, Marco Polo, Freeze Tag, etc.

So the hardest of all the remaining activities? I could go with Jumping on the Bandwagon, I could go with Hunger Games. But...
One we got right: Buying a boat.
One we got wrong, and I still to this day cannot figure out how to do: Building a website.

The Suggestions
I know, inanimate objects are such a wide range of things. But I mean, just things you find in the house every day are usually what I think of here.
Knives and other utensils are some of the easiest. Then other kitchen appliances followed by other household appliances. (Again, kitchen is easiest because like chores, there is an inherent, immediate need to do anything in the kitchen.)
School supplies are a little more difficult, followed by any historical objects.
The most difficult things tend to be obscure, like a pennyfarthing, or confusing, like having sports equipment used in different sports.
The Rosetta Stone tends to be very easy, the Magna Carta tends to be impossible.

Hardest suggestion I've ever heard, though? A pantomimed bicycle. Considering you are pantomiming everything already, having to pantomime that something is a pantomime object, will quite literally destroy everyone's brains.

Animals are among the easiest changes to grasp. You'll be hard-pressed to find an animal you can't immediately do, which is why I tend to use them as examples and when I'm first teaching the game.
Domesticates are the easiest by far, followed by anything you find in a zoo. After that, true wildlife is tougher, then insects can be rather difficult depending, and finally sea life can be hard to distinguish.
We sometimes run into problems between a squid and an octopus, an alligator and a crocodile, and various types of sharks.
Like I said, insects and arachnids tend to be a little tougher, bees and mosquitos make up the easy end, it's a little bit tougher to get things like yellowjackets or specific types of spiders, then on the tougher end you got things like stick bugs and the like.
Dinosaurs, which I technically group with animals, if it's not a T-Rex, raptor, or a pterodactyl (no one will say a different flying dinosaur) then those might be tough to distinguish. I only know one girl who knows all the dinosaurs, and she unfortunately doesn't even play.

Toughest animal? I've seen this successfully guessed too though, so not impossible: Liopleurodon.

Food tends to be really hit-or-miss.
Jello of course is the most recognizable, with pudding being slightly more difficult.
We don't get too many other foods, but anything you have to kill an animal for pretty much comes next (bacon, steak, chicken nuggets, hot dogs) and after that, it's a wash.
Hardest foods though? Fruits, which are only slightly easier than...
Fruits are easier, they're just dumb.
Vegetables, except for like carrots, are impossible to distinguish from one another.

The most difficult? Rutabagas. Because fuck rutabagas.
Oh, TurDucKen is the funniest thing I've ever seen.

Fictional objects tend to be pretty easy as long as the guesser knows the reference.
Lightsabers and Golden Snitches are the easier side of things here.
I've seen Pandora's Box and the Ark of the Covenant come up pretty often.
The Holy Grail also tends to be pretty easy.

Hardest one I've seen? The Green Lantern's power lantern proved pretty difficult.

Anything with historical impact tends to be pretty easy, again, it's mostly reliant on the guesser.
Mount Rushmore has proved surprisingly difficult as of late, I'm not sure why.
Cities tend to be international: London, Paris, Sydney, Venice, Dublin, Hong Kong, etc.
Landmarks tend to be from the US: Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, Liberty Bell, etc.

The most difficult place tends to be obscure.
My personal favorite in this category was and still is The Winchester House.

Celebrities are easy, as long as you stay up with pop culture.
It's actually a curious marking of the passage of time, as pop culture references slip irrevocably by as the years roll on.
Historical people tend to stay the same, and The Beatles is the most often referenced, and I guess to many people they are more a part of history than pop culture.
On the harder side of things tends to be more obscure stuff. Confucius is tough.
Fictional people tend to be easier, because they're designed to be memorable (or at least ideally, they should be memorable to the people who watch the shows, whether because of iconic appearance or catchphrases).
Presidents tend to be easy, because people only know a handful (Washington, Jefferson, Obama, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, the Roosevelts) while most other positions of power tend to be more difficult (King Henry VIII is most common, and tends to escape everyone's minds). Explorers come up occasionally, but it's usually Christopher Columbus, and occasionally Magellan.
I would say that authors tend to be the most difficult, except for Shakespeare (the only playwright anyone ever says). I've gotten George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

Most difficult:
Author: Kafka
Fictional People: Any god that's not Greek and not Thor.
Celebrities: Non-current celebrities. Gary Busey or Nick Nolte tend to be the hardest of the group.
Historical figures: Any scientist that's not Newton or Einstein. Like Louis Pasteur.