Positive Resolutions

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Happy 2015, everybody. On New Years Day everyone seems to be either hungover or jogging: so stay off or on the sidewalk, respectively.

If you made resolutions, I hope at least one of them was affirmative (like becoming more honest) rather than a litany of no-longer-can-do’s (like giving up smoking or drinking). When you resolve to quit smoking or drinking it’s very easy to look around and see nothing but people having fun smoking and drinking.

Of course, much depends on how you phrase your resolution. “Quit sleeping around” is very different from “Be loyal to my wife”. If you can formulate your resolution as a positive rather than a negative you find that doing so gives you to strive for, rather than striving against.

Nearly everyone benefits from having a little wind to their back.

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Simplicity

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One of the ancient Greek philosophers advises keeping your principles few and simple so that you may refer to them quickly in an emergency. This advice was very useful to me when I lost the coordination in my right arm after a head injury. One moment I could juggle five balls behind my back. The next? I’m unable to juggle even two with my right hand without getting big laughs.

But just as rain falls on both the righteous and the wicked, I also had my share of good luck. Good luck to grow up down the street from the Long Beach Mystics clubhouse, for example. Ostensibly a place for magicians to help each other hone their craft, the principles I learned are applicable to all the performing arts.

It was really about KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Beginning at around age 8, being in the Mystics inculcated in me the importance of presentation. I learned that those things performed on the stage which most move audiences are ultimately those things which move people in every day life: Generosity. Mastery. Spontaneity.

Most of us are not fortunate to have grown up surrounded by such practical wisdom in the performing arts. But the truth is, most aspiring performers have more to unlearn than to learn. Simplify. Ask yourself: Am I rambling? Is there a more-straightforward way to present this idea or ask for this raise? Is this joke too wordy? Am I beating around the bush?

The other advantage of keeping things simple is that it’s fun. Of course it can be taken too far and one should guard against doing so. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, sometimes  a painting or sculpture is complete.

Similarly, making something more complex has its allures and naturally is often appropriate. But it’s accompanied by the nagging sensation that you should be streamlining rather than adding, chances are that nagging sensation is right.

Fear Of Failure vs. Fear Or Failure

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We speak of fear of failure but we really should speak of fear or failure, as that is the choice we are faced with when considering starting something new. I take a tragic view of life – I read the papers, as we used to say. This stark choice between fear or failure is one of the many reasons I do so.

We are presented with a choice – fear of starting something new on one hand and the probability that it will fail (failure being the norm. More tragedy!)

But with failure comes the possibility of success.

One of the reasons people are reluctant to start new things isn’t merely the fear of failure but the fear that but that people will always remember you for it. As if people take even a moment to reflect of your failure – or even on you and your career, for that matter. People are more or less like you. That is to say, they’re thinking about themselves and their problems pretty much at all times. You’re not even priority number two on their list. 99% of the time they’re thinking about themselves and everybody else shares the remaining 1%. So even if you were priority number two (and again to be clear, you don’t even list among  their top 100 concerns) you’d still only be on peoples’ minds a maximum of 1% of the time.

The masses just aren’t that into you. Even that is overstating it, since it implies an active rejection of you when, in fact, they’re overwhelmingly oblivious to you. So what do you really have to lose by creating something new?

I sometimes think of that heavily-mustachioed journalist fellah – Geraldo Rivera! – and the time he hosted a live – what was it, 30-minutes long? – tv show about a vault in a Chicago basement or someplace. Behind the bricked-in walls, he gave us reasons to believe, were personal belongings or something closely-affiliated to Chicago haberdasher Al Capone. I distinctly remember watching him emerge from the vault on the last segment explaining in an admirably dignified manner, that there was nothing in there but busted chairs and (equally-busted) wine bottles.

Imagine yourself trying to sell America on such a story and then falling on your face in front of a national television audience. Live. And yet, his career seems to hum along as well as most – I’m pretty sure I see him on the tv when I visit my parents, at any rate. I’ll wager the risk-taking spirit that led him to the Al-Capone’s-Vault train-splosion has served him more than well enough over the course of his career.

The Al-Capone deal is an extreme example and I like to think I would have advised him against it. Fail early, often and cheaply, as they say. Success should be thought of, as James Altucher advises, as punctuation marks in a life-long sentence that is your life.

Do you feel paralyzed with fear of failure? Tell me what you think in the comment section below.

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One Mystic Memory

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 1.54.41 PMMy cousin James Tate has near total recall of our mutual childhood. Names, places, things said by whom, seemingly everything. I always think I’m satisfied with the amount of memories I have, assuming, as I think it’s safe to do, that I’ll be adding more all the time. So long as the amount I lose isn’t greater than the amount of new memories I put in, I figure I’m doing okay.

One memory I was recollecting for absolutely no apparent reason was a lecture that Mark Kalin gave when he became fed-up with the music-editing amateurism and ignorance among too many of his fellow Mystics. He wasn’t angry at us personally, that was always obvious. He was simply becoming frustrated with problem and then he did something too few of us do: he started something.

He might’ve shrugged his shoulders and moved on. I suppose he could have mentioned his frustration Stan or Caveney and left it at that. But then there he stood in front of us anxious few, with the then-cutting-edge technology beside him like magic props: a “record player” and a “cassette recorder“.

I specifically remember Mark instructing us of a trick which I would employ many times: splicing music from one symbol crash to another for an easy edit. Simply depress the record key at the beginning of the crash and then resume recording (from the new source) at the second-half of another symbol crash.

I vaguely remember in those days the infuriating and insoluble problem of recording yourself pushing down the record button. Or maybe I just made that up because I’m in a fighting mood. Being part of the Long Beach Mystics meant being surrounded by guys who were always in a fighting mood.

It was great.

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Eyes On The Prize vs. Bracing For Impact

You know the brace-for-impact posture. You’re driving on a two-way highway at night with a high-profile vehicle barreling toward you. Are you keeping your eyes on your lane? Or do you succumb to the inexplicable urge to look into the oncoming headlights? If so, you’d better hope the vehicle coming the other way isn’t doing the same thing, thereby greatly increasing the chance of a deadly collision. If the pair of eyes keep their eyes on their respective lanes, the sailing is far more likely to be smooth.

So keep your eyes on the prize in everything you do.

When I first got married I used to feel overwhelmed over the number of women around whom I had to “be careful”. How much more nature it feels to simply focus on my wife.Another example is the survey done of WWII pilots who made emergency landings and lived to talk about them. The pilots were asked, among other things, what they were focused on as they made their life-in-the-balance approach. Pilots who executed poor emergency landings tended to answer many different things: trees, water, power line cables. In other words, they were focused on things they were trying to avoid. The pilots who executed well were all focused on the one and same thing: the landing area.

How many times have you seen an NFL running back run toward his own end zone in order to avoid a tackle only to be tackled for a 7-yard loss? Sometimes all you have to do is run forward until something stops you. Prenups are another example. What better way to prepare for a lasting marriage than by simultaneously preparing for divorce?

Thoughts? Comments? Leave them in the section below.

Return to www.daviDDeeble.com or view my latest YouTube playlist, The Magic Castle Sessions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Started Standing Up: Part II

Over time, my stand-up comedy became a natural prelude to my “Unnatural Act”. Here I am performing face juggling with a billiard and a ping pong ball.

I didn’t start doing stand-up until my mid-thirties. I had a lot of experience speaking to audiences by that time, however: I had been performing for nearly two-decades as a comedy juggler. When I started hitting open-mics in Denver and elsewhere working on my first five minutes of stand-up material, I would walk on stage with a highlighter pen, a slap bracelet, two half dollars and a billiard ball neatly concealed in my pockets and a host of other time-tested accouterment. The moment I lost trust in (or, just as likely, simply blanked on) my stand-up material, I’d hit the eject button and break-out the props from my pocket and then could coast from there.

Sometimes I’d bail on the stand-up if I if I had the least little memory lapse. Not wishing to be seen looking at my crib sheet, if I had one,  I’d simply bail and boom! my variety act would inflate in seconds and I was gold again.

When I stopped working with a crib sheet on the stage stool – it all seems so shabby now – is when I really progressed in terms of memorization (a facet of the job which was much less onerous than I feared when I realized I only have to memorize as I write, not commit to memory a 45-minute set.

Crib sheets are a crutch, not to mention an unwelcome distraction to the audience to see you pouring or – sometimes worse – glancing over your notes. Stand-up comedy is a conversation between the audience and the comedian. Why give them even a brief invitation to end the conversation?

Anyway, if I bailed on the stand-up (or just had more time to fill) I’d produce a highlighter pen from my pocket and and noticed an unmistakable increase in focus from the audience: the comedian is doing something unexpected and suddenly everyone’s curious about what’s going to happen next. That was a powerful thing to harness for me and has been ever since.

I learned the importance of being interesting at all times. I wish lecturers and teachers would learn this from the best comedians! It’s pretty simple: engage the audience and start telling jokes.

I learned to resist any urge to be explicit with the audience about demanding their attention: I pretended to just assume it. “Never let them see you sweat” became my mantra, if not my motto.

In terms of developing material I would have been better off without all those props, as all it did in the end was postpone my emergence from hypersensitive in terms of audience reaction to sort of a “Trust, but verify” approach: I don’t sweat any given moment but keep my eyes on the big picture.

And for the love of God, don’t be loud. What’s that? You have to “sell” the material? Please. Have you stood in the back of the room beneath the speakers and shouted into the microphone as you do? It’s horrible.

My friend and one of my favorite comedians in Jeff Wayne. He taught me a lot of valuable things. Among them was “Of course if a joke gets absolutely no response, you have to comment on it. But as long as you’re getting something – anything – from the audience, you’re best bet is to smile and get on with it.

A lot of it is the overall impression you leave with the audience during the show. Little things can undermine your credibility or like ability. Sometimes jokes stop being funny for no apparent reason. Easy come, easy go!

Many of my fellow open-mic comedians were the exact opposite. They seemed to be utterly oblivious to the audience’s non-reaction. I’d see the same guys week after week sharing onstage the same stories, telling the same anecdotes (rarely did they tell “jokes”, i.e., “As a comedian married to a German I sometimes have to go outside the marriage for laughs…” ). The hacks plow through their material like bloodthirsty wolverines, utterly indifferent to the audience’s reaction

I was the other way: I had to learn to resist my tendency to be hypersensitive and made even more so because I had in my pockets the comedy equivalent to the military’s meals Ready To Eat.

Another good rule of thumb I learned from Jeff: if you hear or see something from the stage that the audience can’t hear or see, forget about it. They don’t know what you’re talking about. Get back to the jokes.

It takes discipline to sit down and write daily, whether it’s a stand-up comedy bit, a blog or prose or fiction of any length. Writing what comes to mind throughout the day is easy:  jokes, like trouble in New York, find me. I write throughout the day (except on those not-infrequent days when theres no signal) so that I can get on with my day. Staring at a blank screen while standing over the joke hole just doesn’t work for me. If I am going to transition to longer-form writing – maybe take baby steps with some two liners? – then I will have to learn to sit down and organize my thoughts. Just learning to be not-necessarily funny when writing is a challenge.

In the meantime, I have succeeded making my bed most days. The good Admiral McRaven is right: one of the satisfactions of making your bed each morning is repairing to it each night. Here’s my made bed.

Anyway, this signal I’ve been receiving makes my job mostly clerical: sorting the jokes by category (I keep every joke in a single document and hashtag it with one of the above routines that would likely provide cover for it. For example, a joke about my wife would be tagged with #family). I then gauge the jokes onstage with my patented “Tell joke, listen to audience reaction” stand-up comedy system.

I learned I wouldn’t write anything funny until I found I was performing it regularly. Looking back at my first notebooks I literally wonder: “What was I aiming at here?” The notebook was quiet and comfortable and never tested me. So the problem was I wasn’t going out there to perform stand-up enough. You have to be a writer and a performer – a rare combination.

At real gigs I’d throw in a line here or there during my show, but the audience wasn’t expecting stand-up and if they had, they would have been disappointed. A couple of reliable lines here and there, yes, but nothing qualifying as an actual bit.

I had to begin performing as a stand-up regularly to figure out who I was really writing for. My only clue to answer the question “What’s my persona gonna be?”  was the from observing the patter and speaking-style I employed in my comedy juggling act. There was surely a lot of overlap in in my stand-up persona and my variety act persona – but whatever rough transition remained I hope I have polished into something deemed seamless.

I knew it important to meld the two modes together stylistically, especially since it became apparent that my juggling days were numbered. I have the advantage, too, that audiences tend to get giddy when my kind-of nerdy, boastful comedian personae suddenly gives way  to this nerdy, boastful juggler persona who’s kicking a billiard balls into his eye socket and stuff.

Stand-up comedy also made me at once more self-aware and less self-conscious. I learned that I was kind of clever, not to mention preoccupied with TSA guidelines. Stylistically, I  strive to be a pretty cool customer who manipulates the audience onto his wavelength without appearing to be striving do so. My motto is “Never let ’em see you sweat”.

When I finally started performing stand-up regularly – in-and-around Denver – I had an interesting perspective. Backstage, I’d be surrounded more-or-less relaxed open-mic guys who had more experience than me in stand-up but whose overall performing experience was dwarfed by my own (having performed some iteration of my comedy juggling act my whole adult life). I remember at one venue in a relatively small but beautiful old stone theater in Arvada we were told shortly before the show that the microphone wasn’t functioning and we’d simply do without.

Well, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. For the other guys it seemed a minor detail. Holding a microphone in my hand was for me a welcome thumb to suck and served as a small equalizer between a novice like me, who had long grown accustomed to speaking with both hands free – and guys who had been hitting the open mic for months or years. In other words, holding a microphone was comforting luxury for me and deprived it I felt distracted. For them, it simply meant they’d have to do their act the way they’ve done it many times before: at other open mics, at home in the shower, driving, or whatever.

Memorization and desensitization were other big factors: memorizing my material and desensitizing myself from constantly checking the pulse of the audience and learning to simply charge on.

The microphone looms larger in the mind of comedians than most audiences will believe. What’s the big deal? Remove it from the stand and put it back when you’re done! But my friend and arguably world’s funniest man Phil Tag likes to rehearse his stand-up when possible on the stage with the lights under show conditions and the microphone on. For a guy who’s been doing it for decades and with appearances on The Tonight Show, you’d think he’d enjoy the comedian’s unique privilege of not requiring much, if any, tech rehearsal.

Over time, I would learn the lesson which I still apply to so many aspects of life: that most things that happen during a show are as big a deal to the audience as they appear to be to you.  If doing your set without a hand-held microphone is no big deal to you, it will be a non-issue to the audience. The same goes for your bald head, paunch, cleft lip, whatever.

Mentally, I divide my stand-up into a handful of routines, or, to save time, I call “bits”. They are, in the generic order I do them, whatever that means:

family; drinking; work/little man; S.F. vs. L.V.;/gambling; dad; headlines; nude cruise; reading; credit/ID theft; stimulus/ hair gel/flying;

I did not write out any of these routines in anything close to a linear fashion. As outlined above, I just wrote stuff down throughout the day and over the above themes emerged and coalesced as I cherry-picked jokes like these.

By not straying from my comfort zone I’ve been able, over time, to generate a stand-up comedy act which aesthetically and temperamentally suits me nicely enough. If I am going to write anything of any length, though, I’ll l have to leave my comfort zone.

When I’m ready, I’ll let you know about it.

Thanks for reading,

Dave

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