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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Give me an activity some consider a sport, but everyone else says it's not."

Obligatory apologies for the sporadic updates, but real life has been somewhat chaotic as of late, personally, professionally, and dare I say it at the risk of pretentiousness: artistically.
I do thank these casual readers who seem to find my Blog entertaining enough to continue clicking it and recommending it. Within the past month, even without much updating from me, the total views managed to hit 10,000 which is something certainly to be celebrated, if only because I've never gotten nearly that many people to witness anything I've ever done, and there's something quite remarkable in that. So, yay me, and thank YOU for all for reading.

In any case, my next few posts are going to be somewhat improv-related, but mostly have to do with that curious intersection between where we perform improv (art commenting on life) and why humans think the way we do (life patterns itself after art).

There's a game we play at NCT called 5 Things. More than an improv game, it's always an interesting insight into human psychology, both for its playing and even in the mundane routine of getting suggestions.
For those who may need the explanation: 5 Things involves a naive player who is sent out of the room while 5 activities are taken from the audience. They can be sports, board games, kids' games, chores, activities of any nature. Several necessary elements are then substituted with random things also garnered from the audience. So for instance, the example I always give is Football, but the ball is a cat, and the field is made of lava.
The naive player then returns to the room and through pantomime (think Charades) and gibberish (think the off-screen adult characters on Charlie Brown) a team of clue-givers gets this player to successfully guess these 5 activities plus their changes. These changes can also range from the mundane to the sublime: bananas, rocks, and bricks, all the way to Napoleon Bonaparte, tandem bicycles, and hippogriffs.

As a referee getting suggestions for said game, I constantly try to find new ways of provoking uncharted suggestions, or challenging us in new, unexpected ways. Sometimes, I also simply want to see the entertaining ways people respond to the questions I ask them. Two questions in particular that I use to get activities always garner the most interesting responses:
- "Give me an activity we used to do in the past but technology made it obsolete and we don't have to do it anymore." (I'll cover this one another time.)
- "Give me an activity that some people consider a sport, but everyone else says it's not."

First of all, the response is always immediate, and it tends to revolve around the same 5 or 6 answers.
Second of all, it's funny how fervent people get about their response, and how fervent people get about defending said activity.

The first thing I feel I must say about these things overall is this, and it stems the entire debate:
I don't fully understand why people are so insistent that specific activities be designated sports. What constitutes a sport, anyway? And why does it matter to people so badly that something be given the designation 'sport'?

My only theory for this subconscious adherence to hierarchy can only be explained by high school, where I learned quite absolutely that sports were to be taken seriously, and everything else was to be taken essentially as a joke.

Now I'll be the first to admit I am just slightly bitter that for whatever reason, I couldn't leave slightly early toward the end of the day for a dress rehearsal but the basketball team got to leave early to warm up for a home game. Sometimes, obscenely early.  Now look, this was a deeply personal experience, and I could be extremely biased, but I continually saw other students whose interests were other things, pushed aside in favor of easing the loads of the athletes.
Is it a huge stereotype that athletes got treated with favoritism, that sports were given leave and excused from certain rules while everyone else was made to suffer? Absolutely. Does it make it any less true? Not from my experience, no.

And for me, that explains a lot of why we don't let anything we do fall short of a sport. If people refuse to give it that distinction, then it is taken less seriously, it is treated with less dignity.
My question is why. Why can't something be a competent, healthy, admirable, respectable form of expression or even athletic prowess without having to belabor the label of what to call it?

I mean, what even constitutes a sport?
Athletic ability, certainly.
Training, practice, absolutely.
A point system needs to be applicable, for sure.

Look, in my mind, hockey, basketball, soccer, and the like, are true sports.
They're active and defense and offense can be active at any time.
That's something that diminishes both football and baseball for me: the defending side cannot equally score while offense has "possession."
Football and baseball require turnover strategies. Obviously, in our country, we don't consider these two sports any less than the others, and in fact they're bigger. Many would say it's because of that turnover strategy that these games fare better. They show off strategical thinking as well as athletic prowess.

So competitions where teams go head-to-head directly (or even solo sports where individuals go head-to-head directly, like tennis and the like) are easy to sort through, but even they have some grey areas.
Most of the Olympic games, winter and summer, are people showing off specific skills. Almost all of them are easy to discern a winner: fastest time wins, most points wins, etc.
But what makes darts more or less an athletic endeavor than golf? Archery seems to involve the strength most people seem to require of their sports, but darts requires the same amount of accuracy, as does golf, but using different equipment, taking different elements into account. Few would argue archery's place as a sport, but golf and darts are more tenuous. And why? Because archery requires just that much more strength?

What differentiates an athletic skill from any other spatial skill? Tennis requires strength but also accuracy. Badminton, table tennis, and the like require less strength, but no less accuracy. So accuracy, despite requiring constant training, and an essential element of something that is a sport, is not an athletic skill?

And what about things like NASCAR, or even equestrian competitions? Aren't those more to do with the performance ability of the car and the horse? (You can argue with me all you want, it's the horse doing all the work.)

Why would you want your activity considered part of a category that is so sprawling, it simultaneously allows something grueling like Greco-Roman wrestling, and something as straightforward as trampoline gymnastics?
Would you want to be part of a club that allowed anyone in?


Actually, I don't hear too much gripe from this corner.
But every once in a while you will hear someone argue for the validity of chess as a sport.
Your mind is engaged, and your body just isn't. No amount of scientific research into adrenaline changes the reality that you are just sitting there, moving pieces.
I mean, if it was that weird chess game from Star Wars**, at least I would argue that it's athletic competition for the pieces, because they're really fighting each other.
Look, there's no denying chess is an incredibly complex mind game, one of anticipation and planning.
It's just a little too far on the strategy side of the strategy/athleticism scale and is a little like when a high school hands out academic letters (in addition to athletic letters) to be inclusive: it's pathetic.

** It's called Holochess. I know this. I knew this before I wrote the sentence. Nerd alert.

This one's probably the worst in terms of putting up a fight.
And look, having been a dancer myself since I was a tiny child person, I get the argument.
But I also don't get it.
Does that make sense?
Look, one of the main distinctions of an athletic competition, a sport, for me, is the fact that there is an objective winner. An objective set of rules is agreed upon by all involved teams who work toward an objective scoring goal, after which a winner is declared because of most points accrued.
Having danced competitively I can tell you that the scoring system and awarding of "top dances" is either almost completely arbitrary, or is complete bullshit. It's based more on emotional reaction, on completely subjective elements. Yes, there is technique that can be observed, but if a choreographer is worth their weight in gold, then they know how to emphasize superior technique while hiding inferior technique.
Of course, if a dance is a complete mess then it's not going to win, but that's that.
If the top soccer team from Brazil meets the top soccer team from Germany, we can objectively see what's going to happen. (Though I'm sure no one expected the slaughter that occurred.) But if Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire meet each other and dance.... who wins? Half the people will tell you Kelly danced circles around the restrained Astaire, the other half will tell you Astaire proved why he's in a completely different league than Kelly.
They are both technically proficient. They are both fantastic at evoking specific emotions. They are dancers. Kelly I'd say is the more athletic but only in terms of how a lot of his dancing involved more acrobatics, more endurance exhibitions. Astaire was all grace and class.
But the point is: mastered technique doesn't mean anything if all the judges just liked a different dance better. Maybe they had more personality, maybe they had more intricate choreography, maybe they got a better reaction. Whatever it was, it wasn't objective.
We're grading what is essentially artistic expression, in the truest sense, and I hate that.
I can't stand that idea. So it actually makes me really mad when people insist dancing is a sport.
It's not something to be judged against others.
It's not something to be standardized and made to conform to templates that judges can easily grade upon.
That is what happened to ice skating and gymnastics in almost every form of competition and guess what? It got boring. Don't let that happen to dance.

I actually have a similar complaint for golf as I do baseball, and to some extent hockey, and for that matter any competition where external equipment is required.
It's that competitors are not all using the same equipment.
In football, pads are just uniform. That's whatever. Same goes for soccer.
And the ball itself is not an issue, everyone is fighting over the same ball.
But in hockey and baseball, and especially golf, you have equipment that is designed to be as effective as possible. Yes, professionals of course know how to use them better, but I feel like if the playing field were to be truly equaled in these sports, we'd have just one set of equipment everyone would have to use.
Yup. One set of clubs.
And every year there's a big ceremony for the retirement of the official PGA set of clubs.
Also, you save money on caddies.

Again, there's a lot being determined by non-human elements and independent equipment.
Plus, it's cruel to fish. Why is this allowed, yet we can't do dog fights? Or bear baiting?
And no, I'm not exaggerating. If we're going to allow fishing and hunting as legal activities, however controlled, then I see no reason to outlaw dog fights, cock fights, or just... any of those SyFy movies should be real things. Yeah, put a giant octopus and a giant shark in a SeaWorld killer whale tank and then poke them until they attack each other. Because again, why is that any more inhumane than what we do to fish?
You're literally wounding an animal for sport, whether or not they're thrown back. Except as an actual source of food, I hate that fishing exists as an activity.

I actually don't mind bowling as a sport. It's an athletic skill combined with accuracy. It's more along the lines of archery, or pool or that kind of thing. There's this nervewracking aspect of everyone having to do their thing individually, and you just don't know what the outcome is going to be until the very last second (you know, unless someone really blew it out loud). And I like that.
The excitement of watching bowling however, well, your mileage may vary. I can't begrudge you that.

Haha, I'm just kidding. No one considers this shit a sport.
It's fun as hell to watch, though.
Makes much better TV than most sports they waste TV time with, that's for sure.
Plus, Bill Nye, guys.

Professional Wrestling
Now, people who have come to this Blog recently know I have loved and will always love the world of professional wrestling. I think if I'd wanted to pursue it one percent more than I actually did, I might have.
But anyway, the sole argument for this not being a sport is its predetermined outcomes of matches. Again, I do think that argument is totally valid.
There's also some truth to the claim that it's faked. But some of that "faking" is akin to a batter kind of jogging to first base after a good hit. They still have to lift another 200 pound man, they still have to convincingly make you believe what they did was painful, and they still have to take a shot to the back with a chair (because you can't fake that).
Much like dance, it's a performance art. There's brutal physicality involved along with vigilant technicality. Sure, it's not true gladiators beating each other to a pulp, but now we have MMA to show us that.
But MMA didn't have Stone Cold Steve Austin.

And that's the bottom line.