Thoughts on creative biographies

I’m often amused by the biographies for creative folks in playbills, which are generally provided by the actors themselves. Sometimes, it’s because they are intentionally amusing; usually it’s not.

There’s a working rule that if you have to explain to people why you’re famous, you aren’t famous. There’s a biography of Stephen King on at least some of his books that mentions merely who is wife is and where he lives. Really, all the info you need is that Stephen King is Stephen King.

You can see some of that in play in the “What About Dick” playbill. Russell Brand’s bio is three time as long as Eric Idle’s. With all due respect to Brand (who has done many things and whose work as a performer I enjoy), he is not three times as accomplished as Idle. For those who have done little that people have seen, this space is needed to explain that you really are accomplished; for those who are not the most memorable thing in works that people have seen, it helps to remind them just who you were there. Mr. Brand, you don’t need to tell people that the part you played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was named “Aldous Snow”; that name is less likely to trigger a memory than your name, or the photo of you.

Also amusing is what people choose to highlight. Jane Leeves’s bio mentions that she appeared on Desperate Housewives, which she was on for two episodes. It fails to mention Throb, which she was on for two full seasons. Admittedly, DH is more respected than the generally-forgotten first-run-syndication sitcom Throb, but part of me wonders if its absence is more the case of an actress not wanting to point out her age; you can’t erase 1993’s Frasier from her resumé, obviously, but she may not want to admit to playing a twenty-something in 1986. (I liked Throb at the time, and Leeves’s attractiveness was part of the entertainment.)

Eric Idle? If you went by this bio, you’d know about his involvement in Monty Python, and Rutles, and Spamalot, and that he wrote some books and some shows. Most artists would’ve mentioned their Grammy nomination; Idle doesn’t have to.

I once saw a talk show guest whose claim to fame was to have climbed the 13 tallest peaks in the world. That’s impressive. But trying to top that gets ever less impressive… if you go to beat that, what do you have to say? “I did all the peaks he did, plus I did a fourteenth peak, one smaller than any of his thirteen!”? That doesn’t make you sound better. If your goal is to impress, you’ve got five credits at most to do it in; if you fail to impress with those, then you’re working with ever-weaker punches once your big punches didn’t work. I try to keep my own list to three, but generally I give in and add a fourth. But I think maybe I’ll boil it down further, to what I’ve seen work for other people.

–Nat Gertler lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King,  in Bangor, Maine.

Published in: on April 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

What About Dick

I went to see Eric Idle’s new play “What About Dick” at its world premiere last night, at the extremely lovely Orpheum theater on Broadway (L.A.’s Broadway, not The Great White Way). I don’t go to the professional theatre often, perhaps once a year, but I couldn’t resist this. I mean, the cast! The chance to see Russell Brand and Tim Curry on stage together; would any bit of stage remain unchewed? Tracey Ullman? Jane Leeves? Billy Connelly? Eddie Izzard? Eric Idle himself? Not one of them wouldn’t seem a good excuse to go see them on a stage… all of them at once? It’s practically every good funny person with an accent. And being there at the launch of what might be a major new work? That would be cool points.

Was it worth it? Yes. Do I recommend it, well…

First off, it’s not really a play, well, not a stage play. There is some attempt to present it as about the making of a radio drama, but it’s not at all. This isn’t some “Noises Off”, where you’re seeing what goes on behind and around the performance. This is just the (comedic) radio drama itself. So it’s really just a group of actors ith a couple days practice reading from scripts – a great way to put on something with a couple days rehearsal for a short run; think of it as “Love Letters” with a larger cast.

The key problem was that it was hard to understand; I’m not talking at some deep meaningful level, I’m talking simply about the words. Now, less you think that this is an example of my aging ears or the problems with sitting out in seat U 42 (which I only got to move up to because my first seat, W 42,  was covered up by the platform for one of the cameras filming the even for later release) I can tell you that I was hearing the same complaint from everyone, including a friend of mine sitting literally front row center. This problem arose from a number of sources – rapid dialog delivered by people looking down toward their scripts, poor audio devices/acoustics; and those wonderful accents, no two quite the same, and with my brain unable to switch quickly enough from translating one to the next. (It’s not just these actor’s natural voices; some were playing multiple characters with differing accents, done with a wide range of success.) There is one character whose accent is supposed to make him hard to understand, and it’s hard for that to be funny when everyone is hard to understand.

Some of the problem was the script itself. It’s not about something. It’s more about a bunch of little characters and then things have to happen so they do… and really, that’s no inherently much of a complaint, the same can be said about most of the Python films. The humor is often cheap and vulgar, which is fine, because Eric Idle can structure cheap and vulgar. A lot was made of “Dick” being the name of a character and also a term with other uses. But I really wanted there to be something more for this to hang on, for getting whatever percentage of the cheap laughs I could actually hear. Things that are set up aren’t actually used; the play is supposed to be narrated by a piano, which is set up as if it’s something hilarious, but very little narration is actually done and the point of view has little impact.

And there certainly was fun to be had. The actors mostly went about it with strong energy; even if I couldn’t understand quite what was Tracey Ullman was doing in a scene, for example, it was still fun to watch her do it. And because this was underrehearsed, there were a lot of errors made, cues missed, lines bungled, and those can be funny even in a high school production… when you have as funny and confident a group as this was trying to address these problems, it can bring out the grins quite strongly.

So overall, it was a disappointment, but worthwhile. I cannot recommend it (and there are at best few tickets left for the remaining three nights of the run, so you’d be hard-pressed to go anyway), but if’n’when it comes out on video, I’ll probably watch it again… with the close captioning on. (And I’ll be diving for the outtakes, the blooper reel which is bound to be in the DVD extras.)

I was wondering if I’d see any celebrities in the audience (yes, I’m not beyond being celebstruck), and (besides my friends, who are contextual celebrities – writers Mark Evanier and Len Wein, the sort of people where many might know their work or creations without knowing their names) the only one I saw was Kevin Nealon.

Published in: on April 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Secretly famous

In the past 24 hours, I’ve had one of my projects written up in the Jewish Journal , had one of my Twitter tweets retweeted by TV star Tracey Ullman, and have had Ken Jennings recognize my name (as “that Peanuts guy”). So I have a temporary air of fame about me, but it shall pass.

Published in: on April 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

The newest shows from A-Bitch-C

I’m playing catch-up again. With GCB, I have a slight excuse. I did catch it right away, but I wanted to take the time to give it a more than a quickie review. (That fell by the side.) This is a lighthearted girlfest show, like Desperate Housewives without mixing in the occasional darker overtone (yet). Set in upperclass Texas, it focuses on someone who appears to have been the one person Destructive Cool Kids clique, who now returns to her hometown after a shameful life collapse, an improved woman brought low. There, she is dealing closely with the highly-successful former victims of her high school activities. This is all broadly played, quite silly…. but done with a sense of fun. The balance is interesting; as much as we have a likable (and purty) protagonist, there is the sense that all the cheap mean things that she is now being faced with from her social circle, she actually deserves. And as much as the various characters use their church in inapprropriate ways, there is a sense for some that their Christianity is quite genuine and is used often for good intent, if often with laughable imprecision. There seems a genuine effort not to demean belief in the midst of demeaning the characters.

This is one of the shows where the casting people like me. Kristen Chenowith as the self-obsessed holier-than-thou little powerhouse? The still quite lovely Annie Potts as our protagonist’s mom (she’s had my attention since 1978’s Corvette Summer)? Throw in a little Bruce Boxleitner and Tom Everett Scott? Oh, yes! And the people who I didn’t know before this? They’re quite good too.

But it’s sloppy at times. There’s running storylines, and then there are asides for an episode that work against that (our lead is desperate, taking what most would consider a low job to make some money…. but then, for one episode they want her doing something different for a storyline, so suddenly she has a second job, a much better one. And even if it doesn’t last… doesn’t that mess with where they’re going?) So there’s a real question of whether they have anything planned… not that they need to, for this silliness, but it seems like they want to. Anyway, this seems designed to fill the Desperate Housewives hole that is opening up with the coming end to that series, and it should do well in that role.

And the other member of the B-Team, The B in Apartment 23? Expected to hate it, and failed to. This show was played as something all about how bad the bad girl is, and yes, that’s an element, but she’s the situation, not the central character, and even she’s more than what was suggested. The central character is her new roommate, who is learning that the world is rough but stepping up quickly to play her part in it. The descriptor for this show may seem quite similar to Two Broke Girls, but the texture is different, and a good bit superior. Points go to James Van Der Beek, for filling the role that Jennifer Grey pioneered in It’s Like You Know, the celebrity playing themselves as evil, slutty, and self-obsessed (and he looks good doing it.) Worth checking out, even if you wrote it off from the ads.

Published in: on April 16, 2012 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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