Thursday, September 25, 2014
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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.
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
Also, ranking is purely subjective. Your mileage may vary.
75.) Dinner at Joe's
73.) Lie Detector
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
68.) Revolving Door
67.) Doc Share-A-Tongue
66.) I Can Do Better
65.) Switch Interview
64.) Scatter Freeze
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.
56.) Madrigal / Rap Madrigal
54.) Lounge Singer
53.) Identity Crisis
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
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
35.) Sing It / Kick It
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
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
18.) Laugh Out
16.) Blind Freeze Tag
14.) Object Freeze
13.) Fresh Choice
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.)
10.) 5 Things
7.) Pan Left/Pan Right
6.) Musical Comedy
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
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)
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)
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)
"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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
"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 "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)
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.