Sunday, January 30, 2011

My First Time

This is the story of my first time.

It's 1994 and I'm 26.

I'd never done it before because I was scared. Scared of rejection, scared of doing it wrong, scared of making a fool of myself.

I know 26-years-old seems late in life to do it for the first time but I'd always been shy. It came to me one day, if I could put myself out there - maybe, just maybe - there was a chance I could break out of the box I kept myself in and grow as a person.

So I sought out a workshop, with people who hadn't done it before either, or who had just started doing it, and the first thing Ed - the guy running the workshop - said was:

"The only way to learn how to do this is by doing it."

I was petrified.

How was this workshop going to help me? I'm a logical person; I need to learn the process. There's no workbook showing the process? No formula? No trial tests to practice on?

So once a week I went to this workshop and got tips like "You have to listen to yourself" and "When you do it, own it" and "Don't do it like other people; have your own style." I tried things out - some worked, some didn't - and I supported other workshop attendees with criticism and encouragement as they did for me.

On week six, Ed came to me before the workshop and said, "You're doing it tonight."

And that was the night I told my first joke on stage.

Unfortunately, it wasn't THAT easy.

At the beginning of the workshop, if you had never been on stage before, you had to do your act for the rest of the wannabe comics. Ed called me up and I couldn't get through the first joke. He said start again and, stumbling and stammering and shaking, I couldn't do it. I had done bits in front of the others before. But this time, with the thought of my impending real stage time before me, it wouldn't flow out.

Ed told me to go outside the club, work on my act and he would call me back in before the end of the workshop to try one more time.

Outside, it was muggy and gray. I took off my coat (I worked at a credit union during the day and would come straight from my job) and wandered around the open parking spots near the door of the club, trying to remember the order of my bits and recite them.

About 10 minutes in, three kids - maybe 12-years-old - wheeled into the parking lot riding bicycles.

Driving in circles, the biggest of the three - a portly punk with bushy hair and freckles - asked, "Hey man, whatcha doing?"

I tried ignoring him.

"Come on, whatcha doing?"

I turned away, pretending to study my set list. He made another circle.

"Hey, are you a comedian? Tell us a joke!"

I was being heckled even before I got on stage. Heckled by 12-year-old brats, no less!

I finally gave in. I told him the truth - that I'd never done this before, that I had no idea what I was doing, that I couldn't get through my set for the workshop. I guess there was squeaky desperation to my voice - actually I know there was - and the kid made another circle as I explained that I just wanted to be left alone so I could try to get my set down.

He stopped in front of me, skidding as if he thought about running me over, and said, "I'm sure you'll do okay. Good luck." Then he pointed to his buddies and said, "Let's go."

For the next 40 minutes, I worked on my bits and thought about what the kid had said. I gained some confidence and started to maintain a sense on stability in my brain where I could actually remember my set list.

Behind me, the door to the club swung open and Paul - a veteran by the group's standards - called me in to do my set for the workshop. And as I walked through the door, a wave of panic washed over me and I forgot everything.

My "trial run" in front of my peers did not go any better this time but Ed looked at me and said, "I don't care. You're going up anyway."

I sat at the back of the room with the other wannabes but I felt alone. No one spoke to me and I tried to memorize my three minute set, which was written in small script on half a 3x5 card. I could retain nothing.

The line-up was set. "Open Mic Thursday" at Comedy Works always ran the same way. Someone experienced would open with six minutes; a mid-level workshop wannabe would follow with four minutes; the two or three first-timers were sandwiched in the middle with three minutes each, followed by two of the stronger comics with eight and ten minutes respectively before the feature.

I was to be fourth of the six that night. I was following Aric - the only person in the workshop that was worse than me. He was Armenian, hardly spoke English and had bits like "How about that President Clinton guy? He's funny, right?" All premise, no punchlines.

So, not only was I going to stand in front of a roomful of strangers with nothing to say because I couldn't remember anything, but the guy before me was going to suck all the life out of the crowd.

The club was almost full, which was strange for a Thursday. I don't remember much after the moment Ed, who was also the emcee, took the stage to start the show. I have a flash memory of watching Aric bomb with his opening joke but I couldn't bear to watch - or listen - so I just tuned him out.

The next thing I remember was my name. Not even Ed saying it was my first time on stage or I was from Tampa or the hack intro I had asked him use. ("He calls himself The Wonder Comic because he wonders things about the world.") The only thing I heard was "Don Smith."

I glided to the stage like I'd been smoking pot for a week straight. I don't remember my feet moving at all. Ed shook my hand and exited the stage. I turned, standing before the microphone, cautious of touching it like the apes in "2001: A Space Odyssey." And then my first joke came to me.

It didn't go over as well as I'd have liked, a few chuckles, and I couldn't remember my next bit. I glanced at my palm, where I had the half of index card cupped, and went on to joke number two. Better reaction. I glanced again and did joke three and got an even better response.

Joke four was my next-to-last and my most formed - it had a longer premise and several tags. It was also heady and referential. Applause break and heavy laughter. I had a chance to breath. If I were thinking clearly, I'd have realized I should have stopped right there. Invigorated, I tried to close hard and fell a little flat. Thanking the audience, I left the stage. (My first faux pas of many as a comedian as I left it before Ed got back up there.)

The others in the workshop congratulated me and I nodded my thanks, still completely dazed from the experience. Ed came back after intro'ing the next comic and told me, after thinking I was just going to eat it up there, he was completely surprised by the applause break.

So I sat there, trying to focus and remember what just happened. I ordered a beer and watched the rest of the show. The club let us watch the whole show for free Thursdays and Sundays if we abided by the two drink minimum. It gave us a chance to watch professionals and possibly talk to them after the show to get tips or, for the more advanced wannabes, references to other clubs.

Still a little stunned, I stood as the lights came up at the end of the night and wandered through the crowd to find the waitress, as she hadn't brought me my tab. A middle-aged woman smiled as I passed her and muttered "Funny stuff." As I got deeper in the crowd, a guy - kind of touristy-looking in khaki shorts and a loud red shirt - stopped me. He said he really enjoyed my set and the only thing I should work on was not glancing at my hand repeatedly.

He left me with a handshake. I paid my tab and, in my exuberant state, insanely overtipped the waitress. At the back of the club, the morose-looking headliner (whose name I wish I could remember) sat looking into a glass of ice. I thought to myself, if I'm going to do this, I might as well start meeting professionals who do it regularly.

I walked to his table and he looked up. I introduced myself and this was the rest of our conversation:

"That was your first time on stage?" he asked.

"Yeah, first time."

"You did really well," he said after swigging the last liquid from his glass.

"Thanks. Any tips you can give me?"

He looked at me as he rose to leave. "Yeah... don't get used to it."

And he walked off.

I stood there stunned for a moment then wandered out of the club to my car.

I pondered what he said for two weeks, until the next time I went up again. Then I understood what he meant.

It was another "Open Mic Thursday." The same three minutes. The same set.

But this night there were 15 people in the crowd. I'm not sure you could even call them people. They were more like zombies.

Everyone - experienced or not - died up there that night. My three minute set ended up being only two minutes long as I was speaking quickly from nerves and no laughs. I made up a joke - there on the spot - to fill the time. I might as well have arranged flowers. It would have got more laughs.

I watched the feature struggle and the headliner fight for every laugh. And I also understood why the morose-looking headliner had said what he did.

Each and every time, it's never the same. There are nights when you have them when they walk through the door. There are nights you couldn't catch them with a fishing net. Many variables are out of your control. But as you get better, you learn the techniques and tricks and it gets easier, though never without risk.

But everyone has to do one thing - get through that first night, realize it's only one of many to come and go from there.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mr. Red State: Or How I Learned to Stop Promoting and Love the Process

by Don Smith - Freelance Writer
Kevin Smith, writer/director of Red State

Kevin Smith has decided the old way isn't his anymore.

This doesn't only include his choice to write and direct his first horror movie, "Red State," with an ensemble cast led by veteran actor Michael Parks. The "Clerks" filmmaker, unjustly best known for his foul-mouthed characters and failed attempts to cross into the mainstream, has chucked the idea of doing press for his own film - at least, after the film should be picked up by a distributor.

Instead Smith, 40, is doing all of his promotion before the film premieres in a non-competition category at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 23 through a variety of Internet sources.

After his last outing, "Cop Out," an under-performing buddy-cop movie starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, Smith ranted against movie reviewers, saying that they should have to pay to see a preview like regular theater-goers. In short, he explained, "People are free to talk shit about any of my flicks, so long as they paid to see it."
Lo and behold, criticism of his stance from reviewers ensued so it seems Smith has taken an alternate approach. He has launched a self-run information campaign about his latest project through two Web sites, his Twitter account, podcasts, a slow-rolling stream of posters and a teaser trailer, all disseminated in some clever ways.

'Nothing about Red State has been done conventionally;
why should I start now?'
First teaser poster for Red State
 The tone and subject of Smith's latest work sits far from his comedic movies. As described on the Sundance Web site:

"Red State begins by following three horny high-school boys who come across an online ad from an older woman looking for a gang bang. Boys being boys, they hit the road to satisfy their libidinal urges. But what begins as a fantasy takes a dark turn as they come face-to-face with a terrifying 'holy' force with a fatal agenda."

It's also a film that Smith financed on his own - something he hasn't done since "Clerks" - after Harvey Weinstein passed on funding it. With the help of former Miramax exec Jon Gordon, the writer/director raised $4 million to complete his horror vision under the production company name of 'The Harvey Boys.' As Smith explains in a Oct. 31, 2010, blog post, it's "a shout-out to an Indie Icon who once said 'Fuck this traditional bullshit, I’ll do it my way…'”

After a 25-day shoot, Smith amazingly previewed a "fine-cut" of the movie for the cast and crew 48 hours after movie wrap. (He was editing after each daily wrap.) The following day, he released the first in a series of teaser posters. What he calls "The Holy Ghost," Smith described the poster as "Moody, weird, and pitch-perfect for the tone of the film." The teaser art was created by Gordon's assistant, Melissa Bloom, with "a Gretzky-like assist by [View Askew Webmaster] Ming [Chen]," which he saw as another way self-reliance had infused itself into the project.

'Skating up near the blue line... where the puck is gonna be.'
A 74-second teaser trailer, podcasts and more teaser posters have been Smith's ramp-up to Sundance. In a deft use of his popular Twitter feed (over 1.7 million followers strong), he has auctioned off first-appearances of each subsequent poster to benefit various charities, like The Kenny Gordon Foundation, Have Faith Haiti Mission, THARCE-Gulu, The Wayne Foundation and South East Queensland flood relief. The writer/director insists that journalist using the artwork mention the charities that benefited from the auction of each.

Smith's feed has also broken into a series of what some followers have called 'Twitter rants' but the filmmaker refers to as 'SMonologues,' a name based on his podcasts with producer Scott Mosier, The SModcast. These blog posts - written 140 characters at a time - have annoyed some followers but Smith has used them to explain his mindset in making this film. He offers sage, sometimes referential, always lengthy advice such as, "Like I said: the game’s rigged. So why play it on their terms? Kobayashi Maru that shit: at the very worst, you get bitched-out by cowards. At best? You BECOME James Tiberius Kirk."

'There's so many to choose from!'
Smith has also implemented into his pre-premiere juggernaut of "Red State" information a staple of the Internet and the iPhone user: podcasts. Recorded at his recently acquired podcast theater named SModcastle, he hosts two specific broadcasts - "Red State of the Union" and "SMoviemakers" - to help promote the movie. Both provide a behind the scenes look at the movie making process through interviews with cast and crew form the film. "Red State of the Union," which was first uploaded Nov. 9, has seen a variety of people - such as cinematographer Dave Klein, casting director Deb Aquila and actress Kerry Bishe' - talk about their crafts, both within and outside Smith's film.

"Red State of the Union" podcast logo
Smith has also stated several times in tweets and podcasts that many of the actors involved have put on "acting clinics," the foremost of these he has promoted is his lead, Michael Parks. "Besides, the only story in Red State that really needs telling is the Michael Parks story - and, as per usual, NOBODY is writing it," said Smith in one of his SMonologues, later posted as a Dec. 30 blog.

This approach could be a wise one, especially with Parks. The 70-year-old actor, who appeared in 'Twin Peaks,' 'From Dusk Til Dawn,' and the 'Kill Bill' movies, has been called by writer/director Quentin Tarantino "the world's greatest living actor." With a cadre of other talents including John Goodman, Melissa Leo, and Kevin Pollak, leaving the speaking to the actors may be the best way to approach post-premiere promotion.

'Make better movies, and make ‘em one right after the other.'
But the most telling point Smith makes about his new approach to promotion is in a SMonologue he posted. In an odd - yet revealing - mix of the Man With No Name, a hockey reference and Prince lyrics, he points out that many filmmakers - like Eastwood, Spielberg and Altman - don't do much press for their own movies.

"I’ve finally gotten my filmmaking to the pace I’ve always wanted to make ‘em: finish one, start the next. The Clint Eastwood way. Y’know how much press Clint Eastwood does? Not much. Y’know why? He figured out what I’m only just know (sic) learning, nearly 20 years into my career: he’d rather make new movies than do press for movies he’s done making.

"Clint Eastwood has the work ethic of a hockey player, man. I admire the shit out of that: he finishes one, starts the next. He doesn’t dine out on one flick for a year or two; he makes flicks with all the frequency with which a teen girl texts. Loves ‘em & leaves ‘em. I’m 40 yrs old; I’ve been a professional filmmaker for nearly two decades. And after years of being told to stop fetishizing my work – 'Enough with the Jay & Bob bullshit already…' – I’ve taken their advice: I’m not dwelling on the flicks I make. Now that I’ve got 20 years of experience on the job under my belt, I’m giving my movies the Little Red Corvette treatment: love ‘em & leave ‘em fast. #TrojansSomeOfEmUsed"

'Yeah, we’re going to screen at Sundance. We’re all really excited.'
So will this different approach of doing all the press upfront, even before a distributor picks up the film, help or hurt the film? It remains to be seen. A guess would be that it depends on who actually picks up the film. A larger distributor may see the pre-promotion as a bit of an albatross that could get in the way of any marketing plan they may have. A smaller distributor may see it as a godsend, as any press is good press, especially when their marketing budget would be much lower than a bigger company's. But again, it will depend on the movie's potential distributor and its view of Smith's approach.

Will it be a condition that Smith does no or minimal press if the film is picked up? Will it be possible that - in the right conditions - the filmmaker will change his mind about doing press?

In short: it doesn't matter.

It's obvious Kevin Smith has turned a corner in his filmmaking - in his approach, subject matter and philosophy. And after the release of a promising-looking movie like "Red State," the public may be asking themselves, "Why didn't he do it soon?" and "When can we get more?'

(For more information about Red State, see for teaser trailer and posters plus go to for a more viral marketing site about the movie.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Five Things We Should Resolve To Stop Doing In 2011

It is that time of years again when, with the turn of the calendar, we decide we should make overly hopeful changes in our lives. Most of these New Year's resolutions are things we feel we should start doing more often - like exercising, reading, or paying child support.

But what about the things we do everyday that we should probably halt immediately?

Here are my suggestions for stuff we should stop doing in 2011 to make a better life for all:

Stop Making People Into Celebrities for Doing the Wrong Thing

One of the most appalling things that has risen from the glut of reality TV is how we place people who have screwed up on a proverbial pedestal. We seem to have a need to watch everyday folks that make big life mistakes, possibly to make us feel better about our existence. ('Well, at least, I'm not THAT big of a screw-up!') Through this attention, these personalities become unnecessarily famous.

Question: When your kid writes on the walls with a marker, do you reprimand them by restricting them to their room or do you invite the neighbors over so he can re-enact the same stupidity for them?

Amber Portwood's mug shot
A great example of "celebrification" is "Teen Mom" notable Amber Portwood, who is currently separated from her child after being arrested for felony domestic battery and child neglect. During last season, she had an on-screen confrontation with her former fiance which led to the charges. Putting the spotlight on a girl, especially one who has had no notoriety before, makes no sense what-so-ever. At a time when she should be completely focused on her life and current situation, she is not. She is more concerned with whether the camera is getting her good side (if there is one.) It also leads me to ask if there are any teens out there who see her as a role model, that think if they do something irresponsible like teen pregnancy they could get their own show too.
Rob Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois who was impeached by the state congress after federal officials brought him up on corruption charges, is another prime example. As governor, not many outside of the state could have told you his name. But by becoming infamous for his removal from office, Blago received book deals, TV spots ("The Celebrity Apprentice" and pistachio commercials) and even appearances at comic book conventions, selling autographs for $50 and pictures for $80. Why? Because promoters knew that it all would sell to the public-at-large.

Stop Giving People Attention for Being Outrageous

Ever seen the person who makes a huge fuss at a restaurant? The parent who complains too loudly to the referee at his kid's ball game? The whack job at the parade with a bullhorn, body paint and sparklers hanging from his earlobe gauges?

Ever been that guy?

We have a fascination with lifting up people who scream, "Look at me! Look at me!" The louder, the crazier, the better.

Cast of Jersey Shore, Season 3
Best case in point: Jersey Shore. They dance, drink and fight. With excessive tanning and extreme work-outs, the cast looks like Oompa Loompas with gym memberships. They get drunk and take a swing at whoever looks at them (or their lay of the week) in the wrong way. And for this, we have given them a TV show.

Last week, conservative TV commentator Tucker Carlson said that Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback convicted of financing a dog-fighting ring, should be "executed" for his crime. My question: did Carlson think he hadn't been in the news enough recently? Is he gunning for a regular Fox News show by making ridiculous statements? Probably. It's not like it hasn't worked before.

Stop Caring About Celebrities Personal Lives

Okay, I know your life isn't the greatest. Mine isn't either. Most people aren't leading the life of Riley, Ace of Spies.

But wouldn't your time be better spent trying to improve your own life instead of obsessing over more famous people's trials and tribulations?

Admittedly, I do "celebrity gawk." I click on the trending topics of Twitter or Yahoo News to see why a celebrity is listed. I feel a wave of self-loathing when I glance at the tabloid headlines in the grocery store check-out line. Our obsession with private lives - proven by the popularity of shows like Entertainment Tonight and TMZ - has become so pronounced it has become a cash cow for photographers, "journalists" (yes, I put that in quotes) and news publishers and producers.

Dr. Drew Pinsky
One of the most egregious examples of this long-standing trend is the VH1 show "Celebrity Rehab." Former stars in entertainment appear with Dr. Drew Pinsky to work out problems of substance abuse. It used to be that Pinsky was the voice of reason on his show "Loveline," chiming in with solid advice for anonymous radio listeners after the jokes about the question subsided from Adam Corolla and his guest.

But these are real people trying to work out deeprooted problems in the limelight of a television show and I can't see how Pinsky sees this as a good idea. While some celebrities use the show (now in its fourth season) as a possible stepping stone to a return to popularity or a straight-up grab for attention, other obviously need deeply personal help - the kind of help that doesn't need to be broadcast to the masses as entertainment that helps sell soda and chewing gum and toilet paper.

Stop Being Distracted By Everyday Tragedies

Aerial news coverage
of a house fire
I was a journalist for several years. Eventually I left because I saw the growing trend of sensationalism in the news. Switching sides of the fence, I started a business as a public relations specialist, helping charities get the word out on their programs and needs. It was these important stories that were being drowned out in the din of sensationalism.
 Let's be clear here. While a house fire is certainly a tragedy, it is not news. In a large city there can be half a dozen or more house fires in the day, but your local six o'clock news isn't going to report all of them. You only are going to see:

1) the one that the station got on film
2) the one with the most dramatic-looking flames

It's all about ratings and TV stations don't get them with anchors who just read copy. Fire, smoke and twisted metal are all just tools of the business to distract the masses with everyday death and destruction. It doesn't matter that it's the twelfth time this winter someone has left a space heater too close to the curtains. It still means ratings if everyone watches.

An arsonist starting house fires in a neighborhood is news; one house fire isn't.

Stop Supporting People Who Screw Us Over

It's difficult to keep up with everything in a world with so much information. But why is it people insist on taking "facts" at face value or giving people the "benefit of the doubt" when overwhelmingly given evidence that they aren't working in our best interest?

Case in point from last year: A study at the University of Maryland found that a large portion of voters were misinformed on key voting issues during last year's elections.

People voting Democrat had believed that President Obama had not increased troop numbers in Afghanistan and Democratic legislators had not mostly voted for TARP (the banking and car manufacture bail-out enacted during President Bush's last year.)

Even more appallingly, regular viewers of Fox News (both Democrat and Republican, though moreso the latter) showed a disproportionately greater gap in their understanding of the facts as they applied to health care reform and the deficit, improvement in the economy, and tax cuts during Obama's first two years.

So explain to me why is Fox News the most watched news source on cable?

Another case in point was this study showing the inequity of wealth distribution in America.

In almost every case, Republican-backed policies benefit the top one percent of people in the U.S. However, more than 30 percent of Americans identify as Republican. Republican voters still choose to believe that wealth trickles down even as the gap between the top 10 percent and everyone else grows. They also choose to believe it though studies show corporations are currently saving more than one trillion dollars in reserves, money that could be used to provide needed jobs.

And just so you don't think I'm just focused on conservative blindness, here are more examples. There are people who unexplainedly still follow and support Democrats like ex-Governor of Illinios Blagojevich (whose tale has been told above) and U.S. Representative from New York Charles Rangel, recently censured by his collegues for 11 ethics violations.

Remember: Education is the key here. And no one is going to do it for you. And if they do, they probably have an agenda.

Monday, January 3, 2011