Patriotic bench outside the firehouse in Craddock, a community in Portsmouth, Va., the city in which I live. Photo by John Doucette.
PORTSMOUTH, Va. — A few years ago, I became interested enough in a candidate for national office to do something rash: I allowed my email address to be joined with a good many email addresses on this guy’s digital Rolodex. Now this politician sends me emails regularly about matters big and small, and asks for money. As I was for many years a reporter, I’m used to such things. I’ve been on the email and fax chains of Republic and Democrat candidates for and holders of federal offices, and have come to think of the email rhetoric of politicians — particularly those hellbent on working in D.C. — as unusually well phrased notes from a series of teenagers I somehow adopted. That these teenagers have handlers and press secretaries to shape our discourse does not particularly change two core messages:
Hey Dad, they say, I did this and that and this, all for you – ain’t you proud?
Yo, I need some money.
Most recently, the politician emailed repeatedly to say he needed as little as $3, and – if I was lucky, of course – he’d even stop by for a family dinner. Actually, I’d have to go to him, presumably in Washington. Kids these days, they want the world to come to them. He didn’t even write the email himself. A mouthpiece offered:
And, don’t forget – if you’re one of the winners, you’ll get to bring a guest along with you.
With apologies to my plus-one, I’m not interested in becoming a winner. For one thing, I don’t eat family dinners in the District. My First Family is in the southern part of a Virginia region called Hampton Roads – in Portsmouth, the city within which I live; in Norfolk, where I work and attend school; in Virginia Beach, where I have family and occasionally go fishing; in Chesapeake, where my wife grew up and where some of my friends have settled; in Suffolk, an under-sung jewel that is the best place to go to get away from the other four cities for a little while. I’ll always pay attention to issues of national importance, and speak with my vote or, perhaps, support of this issue or that, but these places have needs, too.
So I suspect my $3 is not destined to travel far.
With that in mind, I offer for your consideration some New Year’s Resolutions:
I resolve to love my local community more than I have. I want to spend less time dreaming about the other places other people live and embrace the reality of where I live. I want to show the love more than talk about it.
I resolve to continue supporting local arts as a patron. Some of the best art I’ve seen has been in local galleries or festivals, and on local stages. I want to see more local music, more local plays, put more local artists on my walls and on the pages of this little blog. I’d rather see a failure that reaches than a success that plays it safe. I want to remember that living in a community with a strong arts scene, however uneven some work may be amid the much needed experimentation that leads ultimately to better art, is like love itself a blessing that must be replenished by love in return.
I resolve to keep my charitable giving local. This is at least for the coming year, however tempting it can be to give through large charities based in other states. Additionally, I resolve to give directly to charities and avoid middlemen. If I want to give to a local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, for example, I will give to that charity and not through a fundraising firm that delivers pennies on the dollar. I will not support any charities that have failed to file their paperwork, because if a supposed charity cannot do that basic step they will fail at providing a service or program no matter how well-intentioned they are. I will remember that the local United Way is a good means of giving or finding worthy charities for those who do not know where or how to give directly.
I resolve to consider my community before seeking entertainment elsewhere. One of the most appalling nights in my recent memory was at an unflinchingly secular “holiday” celebration/cash grab at a major amusement park in Virginia, complete with a stage play shamelessly bastardizing the “meaning” of said holiday. Which may be fine for some, but is more proof to me that commerce and faith should keep separate books. For what we spent there, we might have better enjoyed another fine day at the outstanding Children’s Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth and handled our Christmas business at home or in church.
I resolve to pay attention to local government. As a (mostly) former journalist, I have a deep discomfort with political giving. But if for some reason I decide to spread some dough around, I will look first to candidates seeking local offices because they make the decisions that directly affect my life. I will try to attend at least one Portsmouth City Council meeting, not to speak or complain, but simply to let my city officials know I care about the work they do on my family’s behalf and that I value the work of the city employees who provide services, educate our children, and protect us from crime, fire and medical crises. Also, I love Light Rail. I’ll ride the Tide when I can.
Most importantly, I resolve to increase my percentage of spending on local businesses, particularly independent businesses and corporations headquartered in our region and our commonwealth. I will continue to support the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, because the Chamber is working for the betterment of the local market. I will continue to seek out the fruits of local farms before buying at the big grocery stores. I will seek out mom and pops and try to blow less money on national chains. One of the best holiday gifts I’ve ever given to my wife came not from Wal-Mart or a national department store, but the gift shop at the Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum. This may seem a bit silly, but it’s a just peanut-shaped Christmas ornament. We talk about it and our times in Suffolk. We’ve done this every year that I can remember, and I can’t think of anything from a Wal-Mart that has ever generated a conversation. Chain eateries at malls can’t hold a candle to the many fine dining spots throughout the region. (See you soon, No Frill Grill. And Five Points Community Farm Market. And others.) I will remember that local businesses generally keep money in our community through reinvestment and the payrolls that support my friends and neighbors. Likewise, when I travel to other places, I will try to seek out local businesses there and reward the brave independent businesspeople making a go of it in an increasingly cookie-cutter America. I will read more books bought through independent and local booksellers.
My back yard begins in Portsmouth, and expands a bit to a region called Hampton Roads, and then to our beautiful Commonwealth on Virginia, and onward to our nation, and then the world. So, overall:
I will remember that to be a member of a region and a state and a nation starts with being a member of a community. The communities that are represented best by regional bodies and state and national governments are the communities that best represent themselves through strong support for local industry, arts, media, government, etc.
For now, the problem is that I’m all good intentions. So I hope I’ll stick to most, if not all of this, and pray my friends and neighbors will help me do so. If it’s a matter of spending $3 here or $3 there, I vote $3 here.
Because John is en route to South Africa today, he can’t write If You Read the Paper. He left yesterday and lands in Cape Town tonight, where he’ll spend ten days visiting a friend and researching a novel. During his layover in Amsterdam he sent us one of his old short stories instead, as we urged him to consider doing. It’s called “Mr. Gas,” from his 2003 collection Born on a Train. He wrote “Mr. Gas” when he was twenty-two and knew virtually nothing, so he prefers that you not read beyond the end of this editorial note, which he also wrote. He doesn’t usually talk about himself in the third person. He is probably jetlagged and confused.
This is called underselling, you see. There’s a lot in it for writers and readers to discover. Please visit AltDaily and enjoy.
Writer and editor Tom Robotham, hard at work at the Taphouse in Norfolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.
NORFOLK, Va. — This is the second half of a two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham, a columnist in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine. He was the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly.
It comes up, you might say.
Part One of the talk ran last week, and it can be found at this link. It discussed, among other things, Robotham’s recent return to school as a student via the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Robotham also teaches at ODU.
We’re friends, and I used to string for PortFolio, among other things. So, you know, those are my conflicts (this time) for those who believe in objectivity, angels, and compassionate land barons.
Why don’t you ever call me, Columbia Journalism Review? I’m waiting, sweet baby. Damn, girl.
Q: When I got here (in the early 1990s), the sense I always got was that PortFolio wasn’t like the vision you had for it of it being a mini-Village Voice. It was more of a what’s-going-on-at-the-Oceanfront kind of pub.
When I interviewed for the job I pitched them on turning it into a real alternative weekly with hard news, edgy humor, think pieces, and even to the extent that we had resources to manage it, investigative pieces, which I’m proud to say we did a fair number of. I think they regretted hiring me almost from day one. How I stayed for 10 years, I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. But I had the advantage of having a lot of – once I demonstrated that commitment and that vision … I got the attention of a lot of former Pilot people. I used to joke that people graduated from The Pilot to PortFolio because I got virtually ever great writer from that golden era of great writing – (Mike) D’Orso, Lynn Waltz, Bill Ruehlmann –
Q: Joe Jackson.
Joe Jackson did some really long, in depth pieces for me.
Q: He’s a guy that still intimidates me. And I’ve met him. He’s a wonderful guy, but he’s just done so much stuff.
He’s so humble and so soft-spoken and just tenacious as a reporter. …
Q: I think probably most people know you from your editor’s notes.
I had taken my inspiration from Lewis Lapham, who was editor of Harper’s magazine. He wrote a piece called ‘Notebook’ and I just admired that so much. He adamantly refused to dumb down his writing, even though there’s a lot of pressure to do that these days … I did try to write in a very philosophical way. I made reference to a number of writers, especially Emerson, who probably ended up in every third column of mine. I wanted it to be more than ‘Hey readers, welcome: here’s what’s in this issue!’ I wanted it to be an essay that used the contents of the issue as a jumping off point but went beyond that.
Q: And that’s the thing, I think, an opinion writer really should do. I get a little frustrated when I read columns or essays that basically regurgitate the facts of the news report and just give it some one liners. We’ve talked over the years. I didn’t always agree with everything you wrote, but you were writing it. Can you talk about how you started off with your “Editor’s Notebooks” (in PortFolio) and how they evolved?
They ended up growing, for one thing. The space I took up the first year was less than it was, you know, say midway through my tenure and beyond. I started out sharing reflections. I’m hesitant to say it, because it later became a slogan at Landmark [which owned PortFolio and The Pilot], but long before those fliers went around, internal rah-rah fliers, I like to think I was good at connecting the dots. (Laughs.) I would kind of meander in my essays. I probably got that from Emerson and more so from Thoreau, who celebrated wandering both physically and intellectually. I always tried to come back to the point where I began.
Q: I think what you always tried to do in your essays was to return to your original point, but the path you’ve taken gives you another way of looking at the original point.
I guess I would think of it as a helix, where it seems you’re circling around the point, and if you’re looking down on it you’re coming back to the same point but if you look at it from the side you’re hopefully on a new level of understanding. At least, I felt that I was. All my essays were personal essays. I always wrote in first person. I wrote about my own life experiences and how they related to the subject at hand. Really what I was trying to do was say to the reader, ‘I’ve been thinking about this lately; come with me and let’s explore this idea.’ Really, I was writing in a way to myself, trying to work through this idea, hopefully in a way that appealed to other people. A lot of people seemed to like it. … I would get people who would say, occasionally, they didn’t like the first person stuff. They thought it was egotistical. I used to quote Joyce Carol Oates. She said, ‘The individual voice is the communal voice.’ … I always felt we have so much in common … that my experiences would be universal in some sense.
Q: (Recently for Veer) you wrote about NPR and right-wingers, very specifically. The feeling I had was that was a column that would appeal to people such as me who feel public broadcasting is important, but I didn’t think it would appeal, or be persuasive, to people who disagreed. Is there a need for a column or essay to try to persuade? Or is preaching to the choir enough sometimes?
Well, no. I would like to think I’m not just preaching to the choir. I think that’s a waste of time. I always felt like I was being reasonable, and I would admit when I stumbled and fell into the same kinds of things I hate on the right, which, you know, just these easy shots at people or clichés, stereotypes. I tried to ground those kinds of essays in logic and evidence. I think the only reason – I think you’re right about that column, but I honestly don’t think it was a flaw in my column. I think it was a reflection of where we are in our society.
Q: We’re just so polarized.
We’re just so polarized. I remember watching, when I was a kid, William Buckley’s firing line. He had Allen Ginsberg on there. Obviously, they were never going to agree, but they had an exchange, a civil exchange, and I think Buckley did grow and change over time. I think he was open to listening to people with whom he disagreed, and thinking about those things because he was a true intellectual. I think any open-minded, anti-NPR person could conceivably come read some of the points I was making and said, ‘Okay, that’s a good point; I still philosophically disagree with NPR, but maybe I’ll give it another listen; maybe it’s not as liberal as I think.’
Q: But when it runs with a headline like “Why right-wingers hate NPR,” or whatever the headline was, isn’t that the kind of thing that turns you off when you see it?
The headline may not have been the best choice. Headlines, I think, have always been designed to grab people by the lapels. I guarantee you that got a lot of right-wingers reading it, just like I listen to Rush Limbaugh. I know that I had a huge number of right wing readers over the years at PortFolio.
Q: You’ve written extensively about music. I loved reading about that, about jazz, about what you thought jazz said (in columns). How has jazz influenced your writing? Or has music influenced your writing?
I think jazz has influenced my writing a great deal because I improvise when I’m writing. I don’t know where I’m going, particularly when I start an essay. Most writing, I guess, but particularly when I’m starting an essay. Like a jazz musician, I start with an idea. With a jazz musician that would be the chord changes, right? And the rhythm and so on. And then I play the melody, i.e., I lay out the idea. And then I start to riff on it. I start to improvise. … A good jazz solo can’t just suddenly jump right back to the melody. It has to organically find it’s way back to the melody. That’s what I do with my essays.
Q: Do you write to music?
No. I tend to like music so much that my mind is pulled apart. No, I always write in silence. … Now that may seem like a contradiction, as I often write here at the Taphouse (a restaurant and bar in Norfolk where the talk took place).
Q: Maybe not when a band’s playing.
Right. I do like writing with white noise. I like writing in coffee houses and bars and things like that. That’s background noise. I like the energy of people around me, but I can put myself in a bubble in that environment.
Q: I can’t.
We all have these different sensibilities. Every writer has a different kind of environment. I write a lot at home in silence. Sometimes I put on music to take a break.
We spoke for a while about when Robotham left PortFolio, laying out some details of his departure in his last Notebook. The publication was later shuttered.
Q: Without dwelling too much on PortFolio, I think we have missed having a vital weekly alternative publication. PortFolio had a vision and a voice, and that went away.
They wanted a commodity.
Q: And it died.
And it died. And I think – well, they killed it. It didn’t die. They murdered it. And I think that – put this in a pull quote – I think that was one of the stupidest decisions that I’ve ever seen in my 30 year career in publishing. …
For one thing, they missed it. They tried to keep it alive and started it up again as Pulse (an insert to The Pilot) or whatever. They didn’t realize the importance of PortFolio to the community, but the viability of PortFolio as a business – much more viable than The Pilot. Daily newspaper are dying because that kind of information is best delivered online. More thought – magazines with more thoughtful, in-depth pieces, not breaking news. You know, ‘Navy SEAL memorialized at vigil’ or something, which is fine. That stuff now belongs on the web. There’s an experience people still crave, and I think the success of Veer is a testament to that. That suggests to me that publications like PortFolio when I was editing it are still very viable. That’s demonstrated by the fact that the best ones like Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., which is one of the best in the country –
Q: News is the issue. No one is doing the kind of alternative reporting (here) that makes Willamette Week significant, that makes the Boston Phoenix significant, that makes The Village Voice significant. Even Style (in Richmond, Va.) –
And even the Voice, sad to say, is backing off of that.
Q: But that’s something important that I don’t think AltDaily and Veer have quite figured out how to – not ‘figured out how to do’ – can afford to do yet.
I think [Veer publisher] Jeff [Maisey] would love to do that. I also think he’s trying … to run a business. One of the problems of course is that when you’re doing hard-hitting news, let alone investigative pieces, you have to have enormous resources behind you. You have to have some good lawyers. One lawsuit could shut you down and then some. That’s one reason I lament the abdication of responsibility by a lot of daily newspapers with the exception of The New York Times and to some extent The Washington Post, and even they’re not what they once were. Apart from the fact that they’re probably terminal as papers, not necessarily as news organizations, it seems to me they have a responsibility to do that kind of thing. In part, because they’re able. They have lots of money behind them.
Q: You’ve got to think locally, is the thing.
The other thing aside from lawsuits is reporting. Good reporting takes time and very few seasoned reporters are going to do it for free. You have to pay them.
Oh, I think so. Yeah. I agree with you, as I understand your position, that that’s the way to go. Non profit. … That’s why I’m such a big supporter of NPR. They do good news reporting. They do great opinion reporting. For the record, it’s not all left wing. … NPR makes an incredible effort to be – NPR is the fair and balanced station, not FOX News.
Q: But NPR, with all due respect for our local affiliates, is not out there covering city council.
No. I was looking at The Pilot yesterday and going back to my experiences at The Advance. You know, ‘Man killed on I-64.’ …
Q: But that’s only a partial look at what The Pilot does. Because The Pilot does the fly ash stuff, and they do the great stories that Meghan Hoyer –
They have done – I’m not dismissing what they still do, but they do very little of it.
Q: I guess I’m amazed that they’re still doing as much of it as they are, and that’s a testament to the reporters they have there and the editors. The concern I have is about newsgathering capability. I would love it if Veer or AltDaily got some sort of non-profit grant to establish a reporting team. I just think it’s a risk for a publication to do. News is really hard. People don’t like news, even when it’s important – especially when it’s important.
Maybe another way to go, as if I’m writing an essay right now – I don’t even know where I’m going with this – you could have an advertiser sponsor a reporter. Bear with me. I know that sounds like a –
Like a blatant conflict of interest. But theoretically, it’s no more a conflict of interest than, you know, Scripps Howard sponsoring somebody. It would only be a conflict of interest if, say, Norfolk Southern sponsored that –
Q: And it was about Norfolk Southern.
Just like a judge has to recuse himself in some circumstances.
Q: We got far afield there. Let’s talk about TReehouse. You started TReehouse very shortly after you left Landmark. (I was a TReehouse contributor.)
I had a woman come to me, Shannon Bowman, who owns a local advertising agency, I think it might even have been the night I was fired. She said, ‘I think you need to start something else.’ We talked about starting up just a new alt weekly. It morphed into a website. She had the technical expertise I don’t have. I had the content and the name in the community. So I did that for a few years. She decided she had too many other things going on, so we parted ways. Now that is in hiatus because I can’t manage it myself. I’m not sure I want to be an editor anymore.
Q: So TReehouse is gone?
I don’t know. I recently renewed the domain name. I don’t know. I haven’t made that decision with any certainty. I am in a place in my life right now – I love teaching, second only to writing, and that’s really what I want to focus on, my teaching and my writing. Or my writing and my teaching.
Playing us out is Charlton Heston reading the Bible, which you will not get unless you read part one. Thanks to TR.
NORFOLK, Va. — This two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham covers a lot of ground, including the state of journalism, local alternative media, and the art of writing a coffee table book with Charlton Heston.
Robotham, a columnist locally in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine, may be best known as the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly, where, among other honors, he earned the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Leadership in the Community.
Almost just as impressively, he recently was featured in a Belligerent Q&A here. One of the reasons I wanted to do a longer talk was that Robotham recently went back to school in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. Which is awesome.
As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Additionally, Robotham and I are friends, dating back to the days he edited my sweet, sweet copy for PortFolio, no doubt drawing little stars and happy faces atop the print outs he absolutely and really then placed into a special folder marked “The Awesome File,” kept in his personal safe along with family heirlooms and an autographed publicity still of Kip Winger.
Absolutely and really, I say.
Robotham, while a student, is also an educator at ODU and the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.
Q: This is your first semester going back and you’re enrolled at ODU?
Correct. I’m only taking class at this point, a non-fiction workshop. I’m officially enrolled in the MFA program, but, because I’m teaching four classes, I decided I’d dip my toe in the water with just one since I haven’t been a student in more than two decades, let’s say.
Q: Why did you want to go back?
One, I wanted to get a terminal degree because I really love teaching and I’m hoping in this second half of my life I can – hopefully the second half and not the final eighth – I can get a terminal degree so I can get a full time gig someplace.
Q: Did you come here for PortFolio?
I came here six or seven years before PortFolio. My wife at the time and I were living in Manhattan and we had our first child, my daughter Sarah. That was in 1989. We moved to New Jersey for a year … I knew I didn’t want to do that commute. … I kind of wanted a stronger sense of community for myself and my kids. I was getting my master’s at the time in American studies at the Graduate Center of the City University, and I’d read this book called Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985). The subtitle is ‘Individualism and Commitment in American Life.’ It’s by Robert Bellah, a sociologist, and a whole team of people from other disciplines. It was a study of how our emphasis on individualism in this country has in recent decades fragmented communities, because people are so transient. And even when we’re not transient, we tend to hide behind our stockade fences with our huge garages in the front. So I’d started visiting here because this is where my (ex) grew up. She had this extended family, which appealed to me because I never did have that and it just seemed like the kind of place where you could really settle in and build a family and build a sense of community.
I freelanced for six years, traveled back and forth to New York City regularly. I had been working for Hearst Magazines in a division that produced books and videos related to the magazines. They kept me under contract, flew me up there on a regular basis, but finally that started to get old, getting on a plane once a week, pretty much. So I took a year off from any kind of job because I got a contract with this book publisher I knew who wanted to produce a book called Charlton Heston Presents The Bible. It was a companion to – don’t laugh.
Q: I’m laughing a little.
He did a TV series on A&E, a four-part series, and it was a really good series. It’s unfortunate that Charlton Heston became such a cartoon character because I got to know him and he was a really nice guy and really well read.
Q: And well armed.
(Laughs.) Well armed, too, but I didn’t see that side of him. He talked about Shakespeare and The Bible as literature. This was not a religious initiative on his part. He was interested in The Bible as literature and the historical aspects of The Bible. So each episode, he’d go to some site like Mt. Sinai, and talk about that, and then he would do these dramatic readings. So they wanted a coffee table book to go with this and they hired me to produce this whole thing. … That carried me for a year, and just as that money was running out I saw an ad for the PortFolio job. That was in 1998. I applied and I got it. I did that for 10 years.
Q: And that’s how most people in Hampton Roads know you.
Yeah. While I was doing my own thing, and especially since I was gone a whole lot, I always felt like I had just one foot in the community. Very quickly as I was editing PortFolio, a lot of people got to know me. I had a voice in the community. I became a very active public figure going to different functions and things like that, being a kind of spokesman for the magazine. I enjoyed that aspect of the job. That was kind of a culmination of my vision of wanting to be part of a community.
Back to your original question, of course, after 10 years and two months, I was fired. I’d always been at odds with management over editorial direction, but I managed to stay on my feet, to use a boxing analogy. A friend of mine once told me, ‘Use your jab.’ Which I did successfully for 10 years. But, you know, that was a function of (Landmark, owner of the PortFolio, The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and others) wanting to sell off the properties and everything. As a result, more closely scrutinizing the editorial direction of the paper. So we just came to blows about that and they gave me the boot. I immediately called folks I knew at (ODU) and asked whether they had any adjunct work. Within about five minutes I had another job. Not a full time job, but something.
Q: You mentioned a second reason to go back to school.
The second reason was I had always done, I’d written a lot of essays, a lot of feature stories, quite a bit of hard news, though that was never my strong suit. … I wanted to develop my long form narrative writing, and I felt that would (A) impose discipline on me, because I have to write to get grades and (B) help me polish my craft in a dimension I hadn’t worked at before, i.e., writing literary nonfiction with the techniques of a novelist – scene-setting, dialogue, all of that. So those two reasons – the terminal degree and the desire to be more disciplined with my writing. I’m working on a memoir now.
Q: We’ve talked before about how when I went into the (MFA) program, how little I knew about writing. As a journalist, you tend to develop a lot of tricks, especially for deadline writing. … I think what I found was a lot of my tricks weren’t really serving me very well. Do you feel that way with any of the work you’ve done? Do you feel you’ve fallen into habits that you want to work around?
I do. I would say those tricks work really well for newspaper articles, but newspaper articles are very different from books. Obviously, in terms of length but also in terms of that narrative that reads like a novel. For instance, this past Literary Festival I worked with Claire Dederer, the author of a best-selling memoir, and I showed her a feature story I’d written on martial arts, which I got into in 2005, and she said, ‘Obviously you are a very strong feature writer, but I want to encourage you to write more in scenes.’ And she went through my piece and said this could be a scene, that could be a scene. So, yeah, absolutely. I feel like I find it very easy to turn out a feature story. Now I’m struggling with a whole new kind of writing which I’ve attempted before but never seriously.
Q: But you’ve written books.
I’ve written books but they’ve all been, by and large, history. It came out of my American studies discipline. … Not academic, because I hope I write in more general-interest prose, but they’re not creative nonfiction, as we use the term. It was more ideas. I wasn’t telling a lot of stories. They were almost more like book-length essays.
Q: You didn’t feel you were telling stories?
No. There were stories sprinkled throughout, but by and large what I was doing was writing, I guess, what they call in the newspaper business ‘think pieces.’
Q: You worked in New York as a reporter.
I started out at The Staten Island Advance.
Q: What were some of the beats you covered?
I started out, like a lot of people do, on the night shift, the police and fire beat. I liken that first year or so to boot camp for journalism. One of the stories that stands out most was at a bout 2 a.m. when I was getting ready to knock off, because I worked the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, a report came over the police scanner that there was a five-alarm fire up in this poor section of Staten Island. So I raced up there, and it was raining … bleak, a lot of puddles on the ground, cold … stood there for like three hours to people from the building, mostly Spanish speaking people … After they finally put the fire out, I went across the street, did two shots of tequila, and went back and wrote my story. … I think like five people died, and there were dozens of people who were homeless, all poor people. …
So then about a year later, I started covering education (as a substitute) and the education reporter left and that became my fulltime beat. They also gave me a music column. That was great. Those are two of my favorite subjects to write about.
Q: When you’re at a relatively smaller paper, you have a lot more opportunities.
Yeah. Just as The Pilot wants to focus mostly on South Hampton Roads, The Advance … wanted to focus primarily on Staten Island. But as a music columnist, I had complete freedom. I interviewed people like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. You know, I could go to New York City jazz clubs for free. The perks of that gig.
Q: Music writing is the best scam in journalism. (Laughter.)
I loved education reporting, too. I used to get into a lot of the philosophical issues, too. The push for the so-called ‘gifted’ was really strong at the time, and I got into that conceptually, as far as interviewing people about whether that was really just a scam for affluent parents to get their kids into the best setting or whether that was legitimate. Stuff like that. I left there after about four and a half years. …
I still had to do general assignment pieces (sometimes) and the editor had subscribed to this widespread complaint that newspapers only report ‘bad news.’ So he started this daily front page column called ‘It’s Good News.’ It would be stories like somebody lost a wallet and somebody returned it with all the money in it. … It was just the goofiest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Q: Was it worse than doing a weather story?
Those I hated, too. I’d gag everytime I heard a reporter use the term ‘the white stuff. We’re going to have more of the white stuff this weekend.’ It was like, ‘Just say snow, for Christ’s sake.’ (Laughs.)
Q: At the time, they were probably referring to cocaine.
(Laughs.) I don’t think so, though it was the height of the cocaine boom. … Sure, there’s bad news, but most news in newspapers is either good or bad depending upon your point of view.
Q: I think that you had an opportunity with PortFolio, and continuing with the writing you’re doing now for Veer, to use writing to talk about thinks you care about. I wonder if it’s at that point you were already thinking, “Maybe I want to try another form of writing … where I can write about social issues.”
I was, and I wanted to get into magazines for that reason. … When I was still working for The Advance, I went back to a five-year college reunion and a friend said, ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ I said, ‘I want to be editing The Village Voice.’ I’ve always remembered that conversation, because I ended up doing that in a way. Not The Voice, but something like it here. Long before that, I got a temp job at Esquire … and then got a fulltime job as an assistant editor with Esquire Press, a book imprint. I really got sidetracked from my goal writing for magazines. I couldn’t break in. … Hearst bought Esquire. … It took me pretty far afield.
Two things got me back into writing. One thing, I had gotten pretty familiar with the magazine archives. Hearst owns all those (Varga) pinups from World War II. … Some book publisher came to us and wanted to license those images for a coffee table book, and asked, ‘Do you have anybody who can write this?’ … So I wrote that book, and I established this relationship with the publisher. I was getting my M.A. at the time, and had the opportunity over the next four or five years to do these other coffee table books. The other thing that got me back into writing is I was sitting there one day thinking how far afield I’d gotten and I’d let people convince me that if I wasn’t doing it by now, i.e., my late 20s, I’d probably never do it.
I remember reading Cosmopolitan one day, one of their magazines, and I’d gotten to know Helen Gurly Brown, one of their legendary editors of Cosmo, and I went, ‘I may not be Faulkner, but I can do this.’ (Laughter.) So I went over to Helen’s office and she referred me to their managing editor and he said, ‘Sure, give it a shot.’ So I wrote this feature article […] about job burnout. Young women, five years on the job, experiencing job burnout. … So that’s how I got back into writing after taking, it must have been, seven years without doing any writing other than promotional copy writing.
Q: Safe to say you didn’t want to write again so you could write about young women having job burnout.
No, though I must say getting $1,800 for an article that took me two days to write wasn’t too shabby. (Laughter.) And, furthermore, there’s a certain amount of ego – at least for me – involved in writing, especially back then, when you’re younger. Having my name for the first time in a national magazine was pretty cool. But, of course, I was far afield from my dream of being editor of The Village Voice or Paris editor for The New York Times. But that continued to eat at me. I didn’t think I was doing anything really important or meaningful. I kept that dream alive in the back of my head. When I got the PortFolio job, I felt the dream had been realized. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I felt it was really important work.
As of Nov. 8, Joe Paterno remained Penn State’s football coach. A Nov. 8 headline accompanying an article about the alleged sexual abuse of eight young boys by Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State defensive coordinator, misstated Paterno’s position.
A previous version of this article stated that Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) was among three Congressional representatives to rescind Joe Paterno’s vote for the Presidential Medal of Freedon [sic] on Thursday. However, according to Thompson’s communications director via e-mail, Thompson did not rescind his nomination. The story has been changed to reflect this. The error is regretted.
However, Thompson came around later, according to his website. In a letter to President Obama, he wrote that “the nomination at this time only serves as a distraction from the most important issue — supporting the victims, their families and our community. At this time.
Some corrections say more about the referents used to provide perspective to a matter than they do about the matter itself. Here’s a Thursday, Nov. 10, correction from The New York Times, regarding Jonathan Mahler’s column, “Grand Experiment Meets an Inglorious End“:
A Sports of The Times column on Wednesday, about the inglorious end of Joe Paterno’s so-called Grand Experiment, his campaign to prove that football excellence and academic integrity could coexist, misspelled the surname of a former communist dictator in referring to efforts to cling to a sense of normalcy. He was Nicolae Ceausescu, not Ceasescu.
In some editions on Wednesday, Maureen Dowd’s column about the sexual abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University used the wrong shorthand in the headline and the final paragraph for the name of the school. It is Penn State, not Penn.
University of Pennsylvania students are upset with The New York Times for confusing their school with scandal-plagued Penn State.
Some print editions of Wednesday’s newspaper include the headline ‘Personal Foul at Penn’ for a Maureen Dowd column that actually blasts Penn State. The column’s last line refers to ‘Penn scoundrels.’
And then there’s TV. Which sometimes bases reports that Sandusky supposedly was recruiting for Penn State (in Greer, S.C., as per this story) as recently as last year on something some high school kid says to them. But, hey: TV doesn’t do “corrections;” TV does “updates,” even when they finally get around to “fact checking” that story they “already ran,” you know, the one that probably “should be corrected,” and, yes, I know I’m not really “quoting anything from a story at this point,” but just “typing the way some TV guys talk in my head”:
Friday Update: WYFF News 4 has called and emailed Penn State to find out if Sandusky was still scouting or recruiting for Penn State recently in the Upstate. No one from the University has commented.
Ah Ching’s coach, Greer High School’s Will Young, says he is not aware anyone representing Penn State attended a spring game.
Ah Ching stands by his story that Sandusky was in the stands.
Trusting high school student, by the way, is something some high school students know better than to do.
The difference between sexual abuse and a sex scandal, Audrey Ference writes at The L Magazine, is that a sex scandal involves consensual sex. ‘Calling rape a sex scandal,’ she writes, ‘reinforces the idea that it’s equally bad to get caught messing around on your wife as it is to rape someone.’
President Obama (correction, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney) told the press on Thursday that his thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this [alleged] systematic and long-unaddressed abuse by Penn State’s former defensive coordinator. He did not address what seems to be the evidence of a cover up by Paterno and the Penn State University brass. He did, however, say that if the allegations made in the grand jury’s indictment [are true], they are “outrageous.”
Hi John: Look, when you take out this placeholder text and put in the real cutline in don’t forget to make it extra funny. For Pete’s sake, Dana Heller is chair of the English Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where you are a student. And she’s the author of a book about the John Waters film Hairspray, and Waters totally is coming to ODU on Thursday. Don’t phone this one in. Bring the funny. Your pal, John. PS: Courtesy photo.
NORFOLK, Va. — Dana Heller is chair of the Old Dominion University English department and a professor whose scholarly work has tackled a wide range of subjects. Her most recent book is Hairspray, which discusses the significance of the 1988 film by John Waters. She considers it his most subversive movie.
Additionally, Waters remains the longest-serving Secretary of the U.S. Department of Not Quirky or Cute Camp But the Awesome Kind that Scares You Way Deep Down Where Your Real Dreams Are, also known as HUD. Okay, that last bit is not true but someone please get on that.
Say, maybe you should run it by him yourself. Waters will give a lecture called “This Filthy World” as part of the ODU Presents series at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, at Webb University Center, 1301 49th Street, Norfolk. Admission is free but there’s limited seating, so RSVP via (757) 683-3116 or visit the University Events page via this link.
I recently finished Heller’s book, which is terrific. Highly recommended. As always, I should disclose that I am a graduate student at ODU. In addition to being a beautiful, beautiful man.
Heller engaged in this Belligerent Q&A via email. There is some brief adult language below. Which probably is why you’re here.
Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.
Me? Well, if you must know, I am ODU’s resident champion of all things considered ‘bad taste.’ I’m not sure how it came to this, but I probably have only myself to blame for writing about cultural phenomena such as:
Russian pop music
John Waters movies
There are worse ways to make a living.
Q: Your most recent book is an examination of Hairspray, the Waters film in which “the PG family movie meets the midnight cult film.” You note that Waters “made a PG-rated teenpic that encourages interracial dating and champions a family in which both parents are men.” Why did you omit the awesome part where Debby Harry pops Colleen Fitzpatrick’s zit? Does it blow apart your thesis?
No, in fact the zit-popping scene unequivocally proves my thesis that Hairspray is a teenpic posing as a civil rights comedy. I had an entire chapter on the zit scene but my editor cut it. Wait a minute. Were you making a pun?
Q: You’ve called John Waters a National Treasure. How will Nicholas Cage, reprising his role as Ben Gates, go about trying to rescue Waters from the clutches of the Illuminati while dispensing justice, thrills, and exposition?
By becoming a drag queen (code name: Bertha Venation), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Michaele Salahi, Cage will manage to penetrate into the darkest recesses of the Illuminati’s base station, located inside a Starbucks in a mall in East Baltimore.
Q: You edited the book Makeover Television: Realities Remodeled. It’s always fascinated me that people are willing to expose their insecurities and pain so publicly, however superficial the consumerist, conformist “solutions” offered by makeovers that, like Debby Harry snapping on a rubber glove to pop her daughter’s zit, seem to say, “Lie down. Mother is here.” I thought about that kind of superficial transformative process of such shows while I read Hairspray, because there are transformations represented in Waters’ films but also his films, generally speaking, seem to have transformed over his career from work that has a kind of mission to shock into work that, as in the film Hairspray, shows both communal and individual transformation toward acceptance and power. Indeed, his film creates its subversion by recreating and altering a television program and later adaptations seem to pander to “makeover” culture. What do I mean by the things I just typed?
It means the drugs are kicking in. Relax. Go with it.
Q: You write compellingly about how Hairspray “is the most subversive film that John Waters ever made, and possibly one of the most subversive popular comedy comedies ever made by an American filmmaker,” in part, because of Waters’ “representation of the unruly body.” And you mean subversive in the sense that it “transforms the cultural codes to which it ostensibly adheres.” When we think about the adaptation of the musical to film, does putting a straight actor (and one of a faith whose founder viewed being gay as a perversion) in a role created and recreated by gay men diminish some of force of the subversion Waters achieves in his film? A bit more widely, have the adaptations changed the legacy of the original film?
Every adaptation of an art work changes the meaning of the original in some way. But if I’m reading you right, you are referring here to John Travolta’s casting as Edna Turnblad and his affiliation with the Church of Scientology. That was a controversial decision, no doubt. And the director of the film, Adam Shankman (who is gay himself), got slammed in the LGBTQ press for casting Travolta, who persistently denied that Hairspray was a ‘gay’ film. What Travolta and Shankman failed to recognize is that LGBTQ audiences tend to feel and project a strong sense of ownership over certain cultural properties, and Hairspray is one of them, not simply because Waters is gay but because Edna had (until Travolta) always been played by openly gay performers (Divine and Harvey Fierstein). But I think that Travolta’s casting was a brilliant marketing strategy that helped rebrand Hairspray as a family-friendly film that could appeal to kids (Zack Effron) and their parents, who would have remembered Travolta from an earlier dance film, Saturday Night Fever.
Q: You note that Waters, as he said in a TV interview, makes comedies that “wink” at the audience. When art winks at us, how do you suggest consumers of such art – including those of us who want to make some of our own – return the favor and wink back?
By rewriting the comedies we love in our own creative idioms. We wink back by imitating (or stealing, if you will) from the artists who inspire us to make our own art.
Q: What is camp? If I was camp would I know it, or would I just want other people to know it with me?
Camp is ‘the lie that tells the truth’ (Philip Core). It ‘sees everything in quotation marks’ (Susan Sontag). And if ‘you’ were ‘camp,’ you really would not give a ‘crap’ what ‘other people’ ‘know’ or ‘don’t know.’
Q: Growing up, camp was where I learned exciting truths to hide from my parents. Am I on the right track?
If one of those truths has to do with popping zits so that they make a loud, splooshy sound, yes, you are on the right track.
Q: Does Nicholas Cage know what camp is?
Does the Pope?
Q: In your book Hairspray, you address racial representation as an area in which the film might rightfully be criticized. As in other Hollywood films, this is a Civil Rights movement story told through the eyes of and, in part, resolved through the agency of white characters. Did you ask him about that issue? What are your thoughts?
I did ask Waters about this, and he was quick to say that Hairspray is ‘a white man’s memory of civil rights.’ Waters admitted that he was worried about the racial politics of the film before it was released because he wasn’t sure if audiences were ready for it. But they were, they embraced it. And I think that’s because the film creates a coalition of outsiders who band together to fight for a common freedom — to be part of the great television dance show that is American history.
There is no question that Hairspray romanticizes white people’s fantasies of blackness and racial otherness. But the film simultaneously pokes fun at those fantasies. At one point, Tracy wishes that she and her boyfriend, Link, had dark skin. They long to be part of a culture that they see as sexy and much cooler than white culture, and their wish is genuine yet at the same time satirical. The critic, bell hooks, sums this up nicely when she argues that ‘Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a fictive universe where white working class ‘undesirables’ are in solidarity with black people. When Traci [sic] says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries.’
Q: In one of the most compelling passages in the book, you assert: “(W)e live in a culture of powerlessness.” I want to disagree, but what gives me the right? Discuss.
You have the right, but you refuse to take it. In my book, I explain this through an anecdote: A teacher once asked his students to form a line, beginning with the most powerful student in the class and ending with the least powerful. The teacher was then surprised to see that rather than arguing over who would be first in line, the students all ran to the back of the line. None of them, apparently, either felt they had power or were willing to admit it. A struggle for power occurred over the question of who would get to occupy the position of least powerful.
The anecdote affirms something that is admittedly tough to prove or disprove. But it is something that I have long suspected, although I acknowledge the tentative nature of my suspicion: we live in a culture of powerlessness. We believe in our powerlessness, and we reiterate this belief in the countless ways that we submit ourselves to state agencies, religious institutions, medical experts, advice and lifestyle gurus, intellectual authorities, and consumer appeals. No matter what our personal politics, no matter what our profession, social class, race, religion, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, or gender, we live in a culture that thrives — economically and ideologically — on the sublime fantasy of righteous disenfranchisement.
In this fantasy, those who possess and exercise power are evil and corrupt. Those who stand outside of it are morally and spiritually superior. The conventional narrative form this fantasy takes, or variations of it can be found in all arenas of cultural production, but nowhere is it portioned out more generously and reliably than in the realm we know as popular culture.
Q: When Waters comes to Norfolk, will you take him to Harbor Park and say, “See, it’s like our own little Camden Yards,” and then sigh, look down at the ground, and become lost in a moment of reflection before so recovering: “And over there is the highway to the Beach, see?”
I don’t see this happening, although it’s a sweet scene in someone else’s movie.
Rather, I picture us at lunch, No Frill Grill, perhaps. He orders the Reuben, me the Spotswood Salad.
‘I’d like a Diet Coke,’ he tells the waiter.
There’s a moment as we both silently wonder whether or not the waiter recognizes him. But there’s something weightier on our minds, something we must talk about, although neither of us wants to be the first to bring it up.
‘I don’t know how to ask this,” I begin, tentatively.
‘Go ahead,’ he encourages.
‘Ok, do you think Rikki Lake stands a chance of beating JR on Dancing With the Stars?’
And then we talk, and talk, and talk for hours.
Q: Could you talk briefly about how this project came together? Would you have written this without the opportunity to interview Waters?
A few years back, Diane Negra launched a new series at Wiley-Blackwell on popular films and television series that don’t get taken very seriously by the academy. This was a book series custom-made for someone like me. She cornered me at a conference and asked me to write something. So I decided to test her by proposing a book on a film that most would consider wholly unsuitable for scholarly purposes. And she loved it. So then I had to write it. But the fact is that I would have written it anyway, eventually, even if Mr. Waters had not responded to my interview request. Because as difficult as it is to believe, nobody has ever written a scholarly book on ANY of John Waters’ films. And somebody had to do it. Why not me?
Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
One of my favorite Waters quotes: ‘We need to make books sexy again. If you go home with someone and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.’
Playing us out is Debby Harry. Poor lip-synching is a must for any respectable Blondie video, but this is some unusually poor drum-synching. But that’s okay. We are not here to judge, but to enjoy. Please put on your beret before viewing, and remember to arbitrarily remove it before the second verse.
NORFOLK, Va. — On Monday at Kerouac Cafe, Norfolk author Mike D’Orso will host the reading and conversation “Remembering Jack,” honoring the recent 42nd anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s death and celebrating the life and work of the famed Beat writer.
The event is at 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 24, at Kerouac Cafe, 617 W. 35th St., Norfolk. There’s free street parking and some nearby surface lot parking. Admission is free.
Also Monday, D’Orso and Kerouac owner Phil Odango will be guests on HearSay With Cathy Lewis on WHRV-FM 89.5 to talk about Kerouac and the event. The show starts at noon. This airs in the Hampton Roads market, but you can find podcasts here at this link or listen to a stream.
Kerouac, of course, is known for inspiring generations of young writers to record their confessional travel stories in the first person and adorn them with titles like Disenchanted American Dreams. And there you have it. He did some other stuff, too, but I have a lot of homework this weekend.
Just go on Monday. D’Orso has it covered.
D’Orso, via email, explained that the idea for the event struck this past week when he drove past the cafe and suddenly recalled that the anniversary of Kerouac’s death was only days away. He pulled a U-turn, parked, and entered “one of the truly coolest, funkiest ‘lounges’ I’ve entered in a very long time. Kerouac would be proud to have his name on this place.”
And he pitched an event. They bit. Easy day.
D’Orso, in addition to being a journalist and author of many fine works of non-fiction, wrote his William and Mary graduate school thesis on the influence of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West on Kerouac’s work. He’s spoken on Kerouac and the Beats at a variety of venues, including to VMI cadets who sat in “stone-faced silence.” And according to an email that undoubtedly will be collected in the D’Orso papers:
I’ve written a good number of books, but my proudest coup was getting a 13-page piece on Jack’s high school and college football career published in Sports Illustrated.
Also, I dig Kerouac. However, on Monday evening I will be in an Old Dominion University class called Thesis Colloquium, during which I again shall rigorously colloquium my thesis while keeping up with my devil-may-care classmate, Dean Moriarty. He’s got charisma, but I sometimes suspect our relationship may be evolving in ways we do not yet realize amid our adventures. Maybe it’s these times we’re living in, man.
Point being, have a cup of joe for me, you crazy kids, and talk about how the only people for you are the mad ones or something something something. Anyway, my Modern Rhetoric homework isn’t doing itself.
But look — if you’re young, if you maybe want to write, and if you’ve recently taken a trip with your restless nonconformist buds in which you experienced really intense stuff and figured out some things about how you want to live this life compared to what your old man had lined up for you, why not try it out in third-person limited?
And do cut out that part about getting your wicked liberating lower back tattoo. Someday, you will restructure a mortgage to get that sucker laser-ed off. Even the mad ones get tired of explaining to their grandkids what “PARTY TIME” means.
This conversation was recorded at Kerouac Cafe before Plan B’s recent The Big Show at the Naro Expanded Cinema, and it has been edited for length and clarity. There is some adult language below.
Q: How much standup do you do?
Wilson: I do a little bit. Jason, he got me started. Yeah, he started me down that path years ago.
Kypros: What I ultimately would like to see for Plan B is, well it is already – a cool creative entity, a thing that is itself. It’s not me. It’s not Rob. It’s not Brendan. It’s not anyone. It’s everyone. … I’d like to see it where somebody could actually come to us and say, “We need a creative concept.” Because that’s what we do.
Wilson: We’ve done stuff for a lot of different people around the area, like “Plan B Cares.” We’ve got the YWCA we’ve done work for. … On top of that, when Jason says we’re a creative team, we can go anywhere and if you need two hours of entertainment, we can give it to you.
Kypros: Like last night I did standup, Rob did standup, Beatty (Barnes) did standup and then we did an improv show afterwards.
Wilson: There’s so much talent in this group and we’re trying to – I’m not going to say exploit – but we’re trying to bring all that to –
Kypros: We want to utilize it all.
Q: Let me go to “Light Rail” now. Obviously, I think it’s a great sketch. I think it is very funny, especially here.
Kypros: It is a little local.
Q: But it’s not like a local gag and then you show the “Plan B” (video credits). It’s a full thing. So this starts with you guys in the car –
Kypros: Wherever we were, we’re talking about the light rail and this was the time we were just starting the group and we knew – I was really pushing the video. … We were brainstorming, we had this idea, and looked at each other and said, “Let’s just write this one.” So we went back to the apartment, and Rob and I pretty much sat there and wrote the script.
Wilson: What was really funny is we needed a platform for these guys to really talk about this (in a) conversation. So we wrote the conversation first, the dialogue.
Kypros: Well, we had the jokes. We were laughing – you know, “It’s $100,000, you could go to the moon this number times.” So we had the jokes so that’s how we structured it. We knew where we wanted our beats to be. We knew where the open was, and we had our character point of view.
Wilson: That’s exactly it. It went jokes, and then we had the jokes essentially and we went to the characters. Okay, this is the point of view and how we can get to it, and then we came back to the jokes and really formed them to the characters. The part when the high math came in, like, we said that almost simultaneously.
Kypros: We had an idea – One of the things you think about for sketch, too, but definitely for video, you’re thinking, “What’s my stage picture? What’s it going to look like?” And we both were kind of brainstorming and we thought it would just be funny for Rob to be totally like in some crazy, like doing some high math. When we talked to Keith Jackson – and that’s when we got the location. My dad let us get into St. Patrick’s (school) and they had this white board. I said, ‘Keith … I need math on the board. I don’t care what it is. I need math.’ So he showed up with like the equation for hydrogen. So that’s what that is. But this is how that stuff happens. So you’re constantly writing the whole time, and you show up on set – We have our script, we have our beats and our characters, and we get on set and now we have Keith getting in it, too. Keith’s like, “We should go all the way around the board.” We start thinking A Beautiful Mind. So we get these crazy dolly shots that go all the way around the board. And then we had an idea it would be funny if Rob wrote something completely ridiculous on the board, so at the top, what is it? Like, “Ham over eggs times two equals omelet.”
Q: I’ve tried it. That hasn’t worked out for me.
Kypros: (Laughs.) It’s an inexact science.
Wilson: I was working it out.
Q: Let me take you back to the writing. So you’ve got your jokes. You work the dialogue. You know who the characters are going to be. So one of the things I like is a lot of the comedy comes from the acting. It’s your (Kypros) earnestness and it’s the way (Wilson) deflates everything that (Kypros) says with – and I love light rail – but with common sense.
Wilson: That’s the thing.
Q: But do you know that structurally, that that’s what you’re going to do?
Wilson: The thing was. Were knew Jason’s character is the voice of the city. He’s the city’s boy.
Kypros: The city personified. I’m the people making just blind decisions.
Wilson: Yeah. Like, “It’s gotta work out.”
Kypros: We were opposite ends of the spectrum. Republican-Democrat. We’re talking about the same thing but we have different points of view.
Wilson: In my mind, I felt like everyone that I knew. You know what I mean? All of the people I had talked to about light rail, these were the things that they were saying but their voice hadn’t been heard. They were saying it but they weren’t saying it at City Council meetings. They were saying it in bars. They were saying it, you know, wherever. So of course nobody was going to hear it because they were talking to other people in bars.
Kypros: That was the idea. And the choice for Rob to play that character and me to play the other character –
Wilson: We went back and forth.
Kypros: We didn’t really know who was going to play who at first.
Wilson: The “house citizen” line.
Q: That’s a badass line.
Kypros: It’s a good line, right? It’s got some layers.
Q: It’s a really loaded line.
Wilson: Once we had kind of figured out who was going to play what, that line came about then, because it would have been weird to go the other way, I think.
Q: How did you think about that line?
Kypros: We had some jokes, but the jokes do develop as you write the script. You don’t want to have too many jokes and you want it to seem dialogue-y and not jokey. … The house citizen line. We had jokes, and other jokes came out. One of the hardest things about writing a good sketch is the end.
Kypros: Getting out of a sketch is so hard sometimes.
Wilson: All the time.
Kypros: Not all the time. Sometimes you get a gift and you know what your out is and you’re like, “This is great.” You know? But finding the out is just really difficult sometimes. That was toward the end and we added it. We knew what the voices of the characters were. We thought it would be cool to be able to say something that had that connotation, but apply it to a different – It’s still a mentality, you know what I’m saying? You can apply the mentality to anything you want.
Q: I worry that people who live outside the area don’t get how good it is. You lay out the logic – how isolated it is, how you stop at 7-Eleven – then you get to the capper, which I think is the Beach, where (Wilson) goes, whatever the line is –
Wilson: “Sure it is, Jason.”
Q: What is it, two minutes long? And you get all the logic against light rail – not that I agree.
Kypros: Well, yeah. I think when we were writing it we knew that we had something that was good. When we were done I felt this is a good sketch.
Q: Have you ever done that one live?
Q: A lot of it’s in the acting and the camera.
Kypros: It is. That was Keith. The whole bit at the end, you know, that’s Keith like, “I’m just going to let it run. You guys do what you do.” That’s him saying … let it happen. No, we haven’t done it live. Some of the timing happens in the post production, too.
Wilson: You find out how much of an editor’s medium it really is.
Kypros: You look at the footage for “Light Rail” and you see different takes on lines, different deliveries and intentions.
Wilson: It changes the whole thing. You could have cut really any of the sketches we’ve done a hundred different ways and it changes the meaning. We try it a number of different ways, really.
Kypros: To a degree. You can’t cut them too divergently. Every part of the sketch matters though. That’s a successful sketch to me because, you talk about timing, every part of it to me works together. Like the feet shot, me walking through. That was a last-minute thing.
Wilson: It built momentum for the scene.
Kypros: They’re not all home runs, but that one definitely had a better chance than others.
Q: How much of the finished video is in the script and how much is improv?
Wilson: Well the whole end is improv.
Kypros: The tag is all an improvisation. … Really the ending and the beginning is all improvised. With him working the problem and me coming in …
Q: Sniffing the marker?
Kypros: That was improvised.
Wilson: (Laughs.) I don’t know where that came from.
Kypros: I think Keith caught on to it.
Wilson: “Keep it.”
Kypros: ‘”You’ve got to sniff that marker, man. Sniff it.”
Q: Tell me about “Forest Fires.”
Kypros: We had the “Racism” PSA because we did it as a live performance for the YWCA. The feedback that we got was everybody really liked it. And again, part of the charge for doing more video work. I wanted to shoot stuff. Shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff. And so I had a golden opportunity to have some hands on deck that particular day that I normally wouldn’t have. Chip Johnson and Keith Jackson and the racism PSA didn’t involve me, so I didn’t really have to worry about performing in it. We could really make more of a production out of it. So Brendan Hoyle, like all the early stuff with the exception of the (restaurant) interview … that’s all Brendan. He’s really good at turning a script out quick. That forest fires one was a PSA he had written, as well. So we decided it would be cool to try to shoot both. Since we shot the ‘Racism’ PSA, part of the production process was we shot it to look like a real PSA. So we thought it would be funny to sell this other PSA idea as if we just broke from a PSA. So that whole intro to that, the ‘Forest Fires,’ that was all improvised. We made that up on the spot.
Q: That racism one would have been very interesting with shirts off.
Kypros: (Laughs.) It would have been great. And the only reason we called it “Forest Fires” was we were trying to think of ways for it to get hits. We were just playing around. Forest fires were happening at the time.
Q: That one, other than the intro, was that scripted?
Kypros: That one was scripted. But like the donut was an afterthought.
Wilson: I wanted that donut.
Kypros: I ate it.
Wilson: We had like, what, four donuts?
Kypros: Just two. But the donut was a thought. We’ll go into a production and one of the things I like to do is think of the ways to make it more funny visually.You know, we do this and cut to this and I have a donut.
Q: There’s a lot of reversal of expectations in that one, too, which makes it funny. So you just work out the beats in the writing or is it in the rehearsal?
Kypros: Well Brendan had written it – He had written that sketch before Plan B. It was sitting around. So I had a chance to look at it, and just as an actor … You talk about the “Light Rail” and the acting and, well, we have done it for a while and we work well together. I knew – again, I had my point of view. I knew what was happening there. Brendan was going to try to derail, hijack the PSA, and I just wanted to keep it on track. “No, no. We’re not here to talk about childhood obesity.” And then some of the direction comes out of that.
Wilson: You figure it out. What’s really cool is attacking it from all these different angles, as an actor, as a writer. I guess Jason more than most and also Brendan, who is a great theater director, your mind starts working on like three or four planes when you first get a script. My thing is really live shows. I can grasp how a live show is going to work. … It almost happens organically. We’ve been doing it together six months now, and we’re starting to really know each other. … Now it’s one of those things to where when you get there you’ve got a feeling of how it’s going to go down. There are happy things that come out of the process –
Kypros: To interject, it goes back to that intent of the group having an improv base, so you know, here’s the script, you’re off book, I’m off book, here’s who is going to work the camera. Everybody’s got their role. But when you get down to doing it, you can allow that improv to happen.
Wilson: A big improv concept is that of one mind.
Kypros: We want to be like a cool-ass, jamming jazz band.
Wilson: You get the sheet music, you know the song, but you know, like, Lauren might riff off and do some cool stuff.
Kypros: And people have some characters that they can do. When you’re writing a sketch you can write to someone’s strengths. ‘I can just see this guy saying it.’
Q: Can we talk about the silent film? There are a lot of different kind of gags in there. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea?
Kypros: My dad’s been playing (piano) for the silent films forever. Before I was around. Thom Vourlas (of the one and only Naro Expanded Cinema) had mentioned to me years ago, “You know what you should do, you should do a silent film.” … As a part of a way to try and get the group out, and I’ve just reached this point in my life where I want to create, so we mentioned the idea to Thom, would it be a cool idea and he said sure. So we were like, “The Naro, we’ll be able to put a video up.” It was a great way to get some exposure.
Wilson: It was really cool being on the big screen.
Kypros: The concept basically was I thought about whether I wanted to make it look like a silent film, you know, do after effects so it would look all jerky. I tried to film it to see if I could make it look like that and I couldn’t find any easy answers. So my decision was to shoot it like a silent film. What I mean was to use all wide shots and then just dive in for coverage. I wasn’t worried about over the shoulders, medium (shots) …
Q: A lot of the coverage is for gags, like the locket.
Q: You see the acting and then you cut to see the joke.
Kypros: Right. That was one of the jokes – Brendan and I opened it up to everybody. We always do. … But that was one of the jokes Brendan and I had from the beginning. We were laughing hard that is would be so funny to reveal this locket and we were both in it. … Because of that, because we couldn’t use dialogue, we knew it was really character-dependant. It was really dependent upon sight gags.
Wilson: The Phineus T. Snellsworth character (the heavy played by Wilson) actually came out – we didn’t know what to do with him.
Kypros: Rob came up with this idea. It was after we put the ‘Light Rail’ video up, and it was getting a lot of play. So we were talking about it and Rob came up with this character.
Wilson: It was going to be this guy and it was the same character but he went into City Council and went, “Yes, I’ve got this fantastic idea. I’m just going to need a hundred thousand million more dollars.” (Evil laugh.) And then the City Council’s just going for it. (Laughs.)
Kypros: And we used that character for a cold open we did at a Belmont show. That was his debut. Then we did this project, we decided to use that character as the lead, pretty much. The villain.
Wilson: We’re always finding new stuff.
Kypros: We had that long title card and there’s no way to read it. We knew we wanted that gag in there. … And we shot that in a day. We started at the Naro, and we thought we were going to this other location and there was going to be a whole chase scene around the house, and we were like, “No, can’t do it.” So we shot it at the Naro. … I wanted it to be like a silent film, but a 2011 silent film. Like it didn’t have to be something that Buster Keaton would (be in). It had to be like that. … We knew we wanted to be clever with (the form of the video) and break convention.
Q: And mess with light rail again.
Q: Well, let’s talk about the ending. There are a lot of little gags, like the ropes just being piled on her.
Kypros: That happened there. We didn’t have time to get that shot. And in the editing room that happened. We’re just sitting there watching it like, “Aw, shit. We just pulled the roped off her.” And then we said, “Let’s let it roll.”
Q: And then you go into 7-Eleven.
Kypros: We had established that. (Laughs.)
Q: That was in the plan.
Kypros: That was in the plan. That was part of one of the shots. We knew we needed to get to a railroad track. We knew we needed a rope.
Q: So was that a light rail track?
Kypros: That was a piece of track that wasn’t even part of the track. We just lucked into this not-on-the-track track.
Wilson: Location scouting, man. That’s so important.
Q: I wasn’t at the show, but the whole part where you’re waiting for light rail, did that get a big laugh?
Kypros: Oh, yeah. “Where is that light rail” got a big, big laugh.
Wilson: It was just crazy.
Q: For that one, it’s almost like you don’t need the card. Because the joke is in the acting and then you get the card.
Kypros: Yeah, you get the acting and then you get the card and the card just punches it. That was in the timing too. We knew we had to time the joke but also we had an opportunity to get a laugh from the placement of the card. … Really, the title cards came after. Like “Where is that light rail” might have been one of them we knew was going to be in there.
Wilson: I think the whole thing we do that is exciting to me is the layering. It starts with the original person to the group, and you get some additional layering there. And then you get on set, and … there’s the improv that happens there, and then you get into the editing room.
Kypros: In post we can add sounds and play with the timing even more.
Wilson: They say too many chefs spoil the stew, but if you have just the right amount of chefs, you know what I mean? It’s just one of those things.
Kypros: We’re a creative collective. That’s what we’re trying to be. We’re trying to be an improv jam band.
And that’s that. Thanks, guys.
Speaking of jamming …
If you’ve stuck around this long, you deserve a treat. Here’s the amazing Dennis Chambers, playing us out. This song near and dear to my heart because my older daughter, now five, used to dance around to it when she was a toddler. Aptly named, too — “Plan B.”
Kypros, 33, is a Norfolk native and Wilson, 29, was raised in Chesapeake and Norfolk after his family moved here from Queens, N.Y. Both are writers and actors with Plan B, and both also perform standup comedy.
This conversation was recorded at Kerouac Cafe before Plan B’s recent The Big Show at the Naro Expanded Cinema. It has been edited for length and clarity. There is some adult language below.
Q: Had you wanted to perform when you were kids? How did that develop?
Kypros: I can remember being really little and I just liked to dance all the time. Whenever anything came on, I would just dance. Which is funny because when I was older, you’re an adolescent and you know, I would never dance, but inside I was like, ‘Fuck, I want to dance.’ (Laughs.) But I did a play in first grade, because my dad was teaching where I went to school. Ever since I did that play, I always was kind of doing that stuff.
Q: And at some point, comedy hit you.
Kypros: Yeah. I always loved comedy. … I went to Thoroughgood Inn (Comedy Club in Virginia Beach) before it shut down. I remember going to see a show and being like, ‘I can totally do that.’ But I just didn’t have the nerve to do it. So I moved to L.A. because I got a role in a film. … After a year and a half in L.A., I finally did stand up. I was probably around 23.
Q: What was the film?
Kypros:Mickey. … It was a John Grisham film. I was eligible for my SAG card after the film, and I met a producer and I started working for him. I moved to L.A. and found out intern meant work for free. … I started doing comedy and then started taking courses at The Groundlings.
Q: How about you, Rob?
Wilson: My first play, I can’t remember the name of the play, but I was probably in the first grade. I remember that I played an exclamation point. (Laughter.)
Kypros: I bet you were so good at that.
Wilson: I was. (Laughter.) Like, the play’s almost over and I come busting in. And I say, I’m like, ‘Bam!’ And then after I say my line the (Bel Biv Devoe) song ‘Poison’ comes on. And we all did the dance. (Singing.) ‘It’s driving me out of my mind.’ We all did that dance and I remember I was always do plays in church, and if there was time to speak, I would be doing it. It probably wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 years old, there was this girl, —– ——, and she was like, ‘I love poetry and plays.’ And I was like, ‘Shit, I do too.’ (Laughs.)
Kypros: —– ——, if you’re out there …
Wilson: Thank you. … I eventually started hating her guts. (Laughter.) But like the acting and the poems, that kept up. I decided in high school, that’s what I was going to do. I thought that was all that I was good at, and I’d been doing it since I was 14.
Q: You applied to Old Dominion University?
Wilson: Yeah. I went to (Tidewater Community College) for a minute, and I did some plays over there. I got into ODU. It was like being new all over again. I realized how much I sucked. (Laughs.) When you’re in high school you think you’re great. Then you get to college and you think you suck, and then you get kind of better at it. And then you think you’re great again, and you get back out into the real world, and you think you suck again. It’s kind of this perpetual thing of thinking you suck. I didn’t start doing comedy until I auditioned for The Pushers. And that was six, seven years ago. … (Following a pilot show for The Pushers) I did the very first real show. I was doing a play at the time, Hole In the Sky.
Q: The 9/11 play.
Wilson: Yeah. And – too soon, first. It was like 2003, maybe 2003, 2004. It felt too soon. … I was doing that, so I couldn’t do (The Pushers). So Brad (McMurran of The Pushers) and another dude came to the play and I was giving a heart-wrenching speech to the audience, and they found a way to sit right directly in my eye line, and Brad’s making faces. People were like crying in the audience, and I’ve got to try not to break character. That’s when I decided comedy might be fun to do.
Q: Did you go to school locally?
Kypros: I went to Norfolk Academy for 12 years. My dad taught there at the time, and then I went to college at Virginia Tech. It was pretty much right after college that I got that movie. That’s when I went out to Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles for about six years.
Q: What did you study at Tech?
Kypros: I was an interdisciplinary studies major.
Q: What does that mean?
Kypros: It’s almost like a choose your own adventure major. You take your minors and you turn them into an interdisciplinary studies major. My minors were theater, communications and the humanities. I didn’t get accepted for the engineering curriculum but I took engineering for the first year and half … and I was like I don’t want to do this anymore. … The theater minor happened because I was doing so much production. I was in a lot of plays, and you kept getting like a credit every time you did a play. I was like, ‘Shoot, I might as well take a couple classes and get the minor, you know?’
Q: What kind of plays? Was it comedy?
Kypros: No. Actually, I love musical theater. We did some cool stuff, man. We did some experimental stuff based upon a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Comedy always ended up coming up. You’ve got to know when to hit those beats. When you’re performing live, it becomes something you can feel. It’s not always the same thing. You know it from seeing things that make you laugh. It’s like, if that would have been a second sooner, I wouldn’t have laughed that hard. Timing is –
Wilson: Is everything.
Kypros: Is everything. Timing and life are both a bitch. (Laughter.) Timing is a bitch.
Q: So how did you do with standup?
Kypros: The first time I got up, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do the edgiest stuff I have.’ I got up there, and it was some pretty decent stuff. I have joke about my mom being adopted. Some of the jokes I still tell today.
Q: What’s the joke about your mom being adopted?
Kypros: It’s just like people , when they get on stage, they want to say, ‘Well, I can say this because my mom was this or I can say that because my mom was that.’ You know, but my mom was adopted so I don’t know what she brings to the table. You know, the only way I’m going to find out is if I run for office or something. So I’ve had to look at my life and see if there’s any clues to show me what it is that she brings to the table. I realized that ever since I was 13 I’ve always had a job, so maybe I’m white. But at every job I’ve ever had they’ve always complimented me on my fantastic work ethic so I could be Mexican. I get my check and I don’t want to spend it so I might be Jewish. And I love white women so I must be black. And that was the joke. … The first time I got up and told these jokes, people laughed and this guy asked me if I wanted to do this show at this place that was down on West Pico Boulevard, the Comedy Union next to the Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n Waffles in L.A. It was like a bringer show. (The comic has to bring friends to fill the audience, and there’s often a drink minimum.) But it was cool. It was one of those moments where you got up, you did it, it was great, and then the guys says, ‘Hey, I run the show. You want to do this thing?’ You know, so that was neat. That worked out pretty good.
Q: How hard is it to fill the bringer shows? Did you have willing victims?
Kypros: Yeah. You have some friends. It’s always something like bring five friends or eight friends. But the thing was always, it’s a $10 cover and a two drink minimum. So it was hard to constantly hit your friends up, and they hear you telling the same jokes a lot. … After a while, you realize I can’t keep doing bringer shows. As a hungry comic, you want to do all the work you can do, but then you get to be a little wiser in your craft and you start to see what it is. You start to see the benefit of the open mics and then you say, ‘Well, maybe I only need to do one bringer show every three months and really bring ‘em out.’ … You almost inadvertently get a schooling in self promotion.
Q: You’re writing your own stuff.
Kypros: Yeah. Absolutely. My brothers and I have a great relationship and so every now and then they’ll call me up and have a funny idea, you know what I mean? There’s some jokes that I have that are certainly thanks to my brothers and there are jokes in there that are thanks to my friends too. You know, as comics you’ll sit around and go, ‘Oh, here’s a tag. In that joke what if you said this?’
Wilson: We were just having a conversation last night on the way to the show and somebody said pee-pee.
Kypros: I said pee-pee.
Wilson: And I said please don’t – there’s nothing sexy about referring to my penis as pee-pee, and we just spit-balled for like, what, twenty minutes on the way to this show. When we got to show, it killed.
Kypros: Yeah, I got up and started doing this bit and it worked. That’s how you write, I think. That’s how I write. The way I write the best. Riding in my car, thinking about something. You know, riding in my car by myself, it’s almost like I’m working. My head’s running, I’m thinking about stuff, and I’m putting stuff together. There’s nothing better than having a buddy there you can bounce stuff off of.
Wilson: Yeah. That’s a good thing. That’s actually the best stuff ever.
Kypros: Road tripping is good times.
Q: When did you start writing?
Wilson: I started in poetry and spoken word. … I started writing probably my senior year of high school for real. My buddy and I thought we were filmmakers and (laughs) we would do just horrible stop-motion effects and stuff like that … I was 22 before I wrote anything good. Everything was terrible up until that point – writing this hugely emotional, what we thought was avant-garde crap for years. But when I started writing comedy, started writing sketches all the time, that gets you to train that muscle to start thinking in that way.
Q: And for comedy to work, it’s got to have a shape.
Q: You got to have the assumption, you’ve got to deflate the assumption and build toward the final turn. I know I’m not using the terminology.
Kypros: I don’t know what the terminology is.
Wilson: My favorite thing is incongruity. I learned this back in high school. One of these things doesn’t belong here. One of these things doesn’t work. You know what I mean? And then under that same kind of notion, what if something is completely out of place and no one acknowledges it?
Kypros: You put normal people in a strange situation or –
Wilson: Or you put strange people in a normal situation.
Kypros: You play with levels and all sorts of stuff.
Wilson: Truth’s the best thing, though – stuff that really tells the truth. That’s what I liked about the “Light Rail.” I didn’t even thing it was so funny. It was funny because it was so true.
Kypros: To me, that’s the whole reason I wanted to do comedy anyway. I grew up listening to Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and George Carlin, but George Carlin was the one I really liked the most, I think, because I thought he was hilarious and he dealt with issues. He dealt with the way people thought about things. Everybody’s dealing with the way people think about things because it’s comedy, it’s the juxtaposition, but I just thought it was so cool. It was like, ‘Many a truth is told in jest.’ How many times has someone been, ‘Hey, you’re an asshole. Ha ha. Just kidding, man.’ Man, you mean it. (Laughter.) I like to say that standup comedy is the last bastion of free speech, or it should be. Which is why I tell that joke about my mom, because to me it’s ridiculous. We’re sitting here laughing and it’s like so what, I get to say this thing or that thing or this word or that word or I can say this scenario just because I have this card to say it? You know, if you’re going to say it, say it. The thing about it too is it’s what makes you laugh. You’ve got to hit that thing. Again, with the light rail, they’re thinking that. They’re already thinking it. And you’re saying it.
Wilson: We gave them a voice.
Q: How did this group start?
Kypros: I had done The Groundlings and I was back in Norfolk and I had always wanted to do – I felt like when I came back I wanted to do some sketch comedy. … I got to meet Rob and Brad (McMurran) and all those guys (through The Pushers), and Sean (Devereux) and everybody … Well, we kind of were buddies before I saw (Wilson) perform. I thought it was really awesome what they were doing everything and we all became friends and were hanging out and all that kind of stuff. … I had always kind of wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what it was. I ended up going back to L.A. after I came back (to Norfolk) to finish the class at The Groundlings, finish this last whatever. Now I’m a level four Groundling. It’s like a role-playing game or something. That was the one where they really taught me how to write. That was the one where the whole idea was look at all this improv training you’ve done – use it to write the sketch. Use it to fill in the blanks in the sketch. Which is really like we were doing already, where we’re riding in the car, BS-ing in the car, and suddenly I’m up on stage telling a joke, only it’s written, you know?
Q: But if you want to go long form, and I think it’s the same as a story, there’s a shape. It’s got to go somewhere. We’ll (discuss) that with “Light Rail,” but how do you get to that place? The inspiration seems to be the improv, but at some point if you want it to be –
Wilson: With that sketch specifically, there was an idea. We were thinking, ‘Well, what’s on people’s minds?’ I think that’s where it started. And then we were –
Kypros: We were bullshitting about the light rail, is what it was. We were just talking about how stupid it was, and we started laughing, and … we just kind of looked at each other.
Wilson: Aha. That’s it.
Kypros: We had just started the group. I had come back and I’d done a couple plays at Little Theatre of Norfolk and Brendan Hoyle was the director there. He and I together were like, ‘Let’s start this thing. What do you want to call it?’ (Hoyle and Kypros then started Plan B.) Rob and I had talked about doing stuff together and it was the sort of thing where we were all talking about stuff but there was never the opportunity for us all to work together.
Q: So why did you leave The Pushers?
Wilson: I wanted to be a part of this group because Jason and I work together and we have a really great time. We have great chemistry. It’s fun. It’s like a little bromance. (Laughs.) And he’s like well we’re doing this thing, and we’re going to be shooting a lot of stuff, and it was always something I was really interested in. I thought a lot of subject matter was going to be different from what I was doing then. So I was like I want to do this thing, and (The Pushers) thought it would be a conflict of interest. (Though Wilson wanted to do both, he realized there was no way he could have split his time.)
Kypros: When we started Plan B, we had like eleven or twelve people. We had an audition. Thirty people came out. We didn’t expect that many and we had to choose 12 of them, and now … we’re down to nine. That’s how it goes. Cause it’s hard, man. No one’s making money.
Wilson: We’re doing it for the love.
Kypros: We knew that everybody had different levels of experience as far as what they’d done with improv. One of the things we talked about from the very beginning … we wanted improv to be the foundation of the whole group. The sketches would come out of that. It’s fun. You’re constantly creating. We’ve done a good job with it and we’ve tried to help each other along. Our rehearsals are like a class.
Wilson: Almost, yeah. Definitely.
Kypros: We have an agenda. Rob’s been making sure we stay on task with that.
Wilson: We all are on different levels. Jason’s gone all the way through The Groundlings. Lauren’s completely Second City trained. I’ve been doing it a while. I haven’t –
Kypros: You’ve had influences from all these different things.
Wilson: I’m like a ronin. I’ve learned a little bit from here, a little bit from there. All of us will tell you, every single rehearsal we go to, we learn something new.
Q: (Wilson and I) have talked personally about content. In my own writing this is something I’ve struggled with (in short fiction stories). One of the things we’ve had conversations about, is when you’re creating art or a sketch – and I think what you guys do is art – how do you deal with that issue of how you’re representing people in sketches?
Wilson: We did a racism sketch. Sometimes I think it’s what’s not said but how the characters themselves are portrayed. So in the racism sketch, I’m a black dude who has his own hang-ups and ideas and Brendan’s a white dude who has his own hang-ups and ideas. Both of the characters are coming from an intelligent place with an intelligent argument, even if their foundations are completely off base. What I’m saying is we’re not playing any one character in a way that –
Kypros: We characterize a specific point of view and the point of view points out the ridiculousness of the situation.
Wilson: Right, but I’m saying in the portrayal of the characters. Not just in the content. I think a lot of it has to do with the portrayal of the character.
Q: Both characters – and they say completely off-base things – but they both have power.
Kypros: They believe what they’re saying.
Q: It’s a dialogue, it’s not –
Wilson: Right. It’s not, ‘You’re telling me how it is.’ And I’m just sitting here taking it or vice versa. It was honorable.
Kypros: It was an honorable dialogue.
Q: Until you got to Asians, but we’ll come back to that.
Kypros: Right, but come on.
Wilson: (Kidding.) We don’t have any in the group, so they couldn’t speak up.
Kypros: Nah – Again, the point was to add to the ridiculousness of stereotypes and that sort of stuff.
Kypros: That was the idea. Like for all those things, you’re talking about content and what we want to get across, I know for me – I have a production company. That’s how we started doing all these video things. I have a small production company, JLK Productions — there it is. That’s all the plug I’ll do. … But so basically, here I am, I know how to do this sketch stuff. The cool thing to me about the sketch stuff was, you know, this is what I was writing. I was coming out of The Groundlings writing all these sketches for stage and thinking, ‘Some of these would be good video sketches.’ To me, SNL and the stage and that whole concept – I really got a taste of that when I was doing that class. I mean, three months of that. So this was what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do Plan B and I knew we were going to have video influence from the beginning. … Keith Jackson started helping us out. He helped direct “Light Rail.” He and I directed it together, and he directed the racism PSA. … With the racism PSA, as far as content is concerned, we knew that – I knew that I wanted to keep it at a certain level. As a standup, I hate it when you go to work a room and they say, ‘You’ve got to keep it PG.’ I don’t know why. I feel we all live rated-R lives, and it’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise. You might stub your toe and say ‘shit.’ That’s the world we live in. So I’d rather be honest, but I don’t want to push it. But with the racism PSA, there definitely were some moments where we all as a group were like, ‘Well, how should we play that line?’
Wilson: I feel that when you’re talking about, especially, racial stuff or anything that’s kind of touchy, I go back to truth, man. Like, if it’s true, let’s play it from an honest place. That’s coming from an actor and a writer’s place, but, I guess, more as an actor because you want to play the honesty. We were cautious of certain things because you don’t want people to get the wrong idea. Because when you do something that’s touchy, when you do something that can go either way, there becomes a concern. (Comedian Dave) Chapelle was talking about it. He was talking about when he was doing his show … he did (a sketch about a family whose last name was a racial epithet) … He did the sketch and it was hilarious to him, but he would go to some backwater place and people would come up to him and be like, ‘Ha ha ha, (repeating the epithet) yeah!’ And it was like, ‘Why are you laughing?’
Q: That’s kind of what I’m getting at. Could someone watch that sketch (“The Folly of Racism”) and enjoy the fetishization of Asian women at the end of it?
Wilson: I think the point that it’s placed, it’s tongue-in-cheek enough – If they did, it’s a far reach.
Q: Right, but you think the sketch reads that, obviously, it’s satirizing both stereotypes and sometimes the ways we talk about stereotypes.
Kypros: Right. What Rob’s saying about truth and what we said about putting ridiculous people in real situations or vice versa is what you have there is you have two people who are characterized, and they themselves are playing stereotypes and they believe it’s their truth and it looks like a PSA. That’s how you get the funny in that sketch. It’s like (singing the NBC public service announcement theme) ‘The more you know … ’ So we have this real situation and we’re putting ridiculous people in it. So that’s why I don’t have a problem with the Asian joke because we’ve established that these two people are ridiculous. You know what I mean? So they say that joke and it’s like some place for them to – so the subtle way is it’s like bringing them together. You know what I mean?
Wilson: It’s like this common ground. And the thing I’ve realized is somebody dumb is gonna take whatever you say and feel whatever way they want to about it. But you know what you’re intention is. As long as you’re clear on your intention as an artist or as a group of artists –
Kypros: There you go.
Wilson: – then, I mean, you give it to them and it’s all subjective.
Kypros: You can’t make everyone happy, right? … Not everybody’s going to laugh at a comedy show the same way.
Wilson: The thing that gets weird is when you’re dealing with a group of artists and you don’t know the group’s intentions. You know what yours is. If you don’t know the group’s intentions, that’s where you get into a muddy place.
Kypros: We make sure, I make sure, Brendan makes sure that once we had everybody after the auditions we told everybody what our intention was.
Q: What is your intention?
Kypros: Our intention is just to be a really good sketch comedy group. Plain and simple.
Wilson: From top to bottom.
Kypros: We want to have solid stuff and we want to be able to appeal to a wide range of people. We’re not trying to go for one particular group. With my standup, it’s different. I go to do my standup and I want to say whatever I’m going to say and I want to do it however I want to do it. But with this stuff, I am more inclined to go, ‘Well, will the kids laugh at it?’ Like the silent film. (‘Follow That Fiend!’)
Wilson: We did the silent film at the Naro, and children were enjoying that. You know, it’s nice. Oh God, it’s so nice to be able to have something you can have your mother and children enjoy. You know I don’t have any kids yet – that I know of – but when I do I want them to be able to enjoy the things that I do. With my standup, my standup my kids are not going to enjoy. Until they’re 20. (Laughs.)
Kypros: You might not want them to hear it.
The next part of this talk is on the way.
Playing us out … a terrible song about an L.A. institution to which Kypros gave a shout out above. Enjoy the insincere dancing.
Sometimes a cutline is just a cutline. Sometimes it sets up a really obscure callback. Put the glasses on, Brian Kirwin! Put 'em on! Courtesy photo.
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Beach-based opinion writer Brian Kirwin contributes to Bearing Drift and The Daily Press newspaper. He’s worked extensively as a political consultant. He often comments on public affairs matters through various forms of media. He works in public relations. He serves on the Beach’s Arts and Humanities Commission, too. And the man acts.
So he’s a sextuple threat — at least, he is if you only count things listed in the preceding sentences. There may be more, but that’s okay. As you will see, sometimes in America we make our own math.
By the way, Kirwin is a conservative. Who knows? Maybe that will come up.
Any more of an introduction to this Belligerent Q&A will only delay the pleasure.
Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.
I used to be that kid in the classroom who never got in trouble, but instigated everything. I’d talk to my ‘neighbor’ in class, then as soon as the teacher looked my way, I’d have this studious look on my face and another kid was talking back to me or laughing. Being that the teacher was usually a nun, the kid got his lights knocked out.
Today, I try my very best to be the same instigator I was when I was six. I’ll be on a conference call with several vaunted Republican leaders, and say the one thing that they usually don’t want to admit. I’ll meet with my Democrat friends, who invariably tell me how every time they say they know me, their friends get either sickened or angry.
I also do a fair amount of acting, and my agent usually books roles for me where I, with a fair amount of snark, tick off the whole audience. Life imitates art, ya know.
Q: You suggested that former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine run for the U.S. Senate on the slogan “A Do-nothing Governor for the Do-nothing Senate.” This recommendation seems insincere. Discuss.
Anytime I say something nice about a Democrat, it’s insincere. Democrats have ruined the country. They can’t have a decent talk radio show. Their newspapers are so ineffectual I think birds will start boycotting them soon, which could get messy. Democrats are the party of failure. They assume nothing good can happen in America unless dictated by government. Kaine failed at all his attempts to do stupid things as Governor, and the Senate has accomplished a big fat zero, so they do seem to have a lot in common. I do think the EPA may issue a mandate to Kaine to trim his eyebrows, though. The courts might just uphold that.
Q: Of the various kinds of opinion you write, I most enjoy the “round up” style “Kirwin’s Commentaries,” which give you a chance to riff on everything from the lack of conservative voices on public affairs programming (back when we had such things) to the flawed restaurant math of a half-pound containing 15 shrimp and a pound containing 25. Could you talk about that form and how it’s a different writing process that with longer opinion columns, if so?
Admit it – you love everything I write. It’s OK. My stuff is legendary and fun. Longer opinion columns are a like writing a symphony. You have to have several movements which build along the way to the finale. I write columns that way, usually in sections. Then tie some thematic threads through it and punch it up with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Commentaries are like writing a song. All I need is a catchy hook, like a healthy dose of sarcasm. I look at something – a story, an experience, another column – and zing. The commentaries are a collection of ironic zings – a hat tip to Andy Rooney, if you will.
Q: When you’ve had 15 shrimp, are you really sitting there going, “You know what would hit the spot — maybe, 15 more shrimp?” Wouldn’t 10 cover it?
I think it’s pretty ironic to have a large number of something called a ‘shrimp.’ Besides, I’m a Republican. A Democrat would sit there and decide what a ‘fair share’ of shrimp I should have. How dare I have 15 shrimp when they think 10 should be all I’d really need. There are some homeless people in Chicago who don’t have any shrimp at all, probably because that deep dish pizza is all the rage. Anyway, I don’t need Obama’s socialist dictates about how many shrimp I should eat, or anyone else’s for that matter. This is America. If I want to eat 100 shrimp and go to bed smelling like Old Bay, I dare someone to tell me I shouldn’t. They’d probably accuse me of clinging to my shrimp.
Q: Do you have any thoughts about the apparent deep political polarity in America? Are we turning into the last two sections of The Stand?
Figures you’d look to liberal Stephen King for political theory and analysis. I think there are much better Stephen King books to look to for politics. Like The Shining – The ‘Overlook’ Hotel as a metaphor for the federal government, whose boiler explodes because we hired an incompetent caretaker – Hi, Barack! Or Carrie – the liberal’s fantasy about what religious people are really like and that they’re one bad prom from taking out an entire town. The Stand is pretty much junk, although it’s somewhat amusing seeing liberal fantasies play out. Liberals like stories of massive self-imposed destruction. Like Obamacare.
Q: If it comes down to it, where should we head? Boulder, Colo., or Las Vegas? I mean, that Randall Flagg fellow is awfully charismatic.
You lefties fall for charisma too easily. Instead of being a follower, try being a leader for once. You’ll be surprised how much fun it is forging your own future than trying to find the right idiot to tell you what to do.
Q: You are a contributor to Bearing Drift, which recently announced its merger with Virginia Line Media. When I spoke with Jim Hoeft, he suggested some exciting possibilities for expansion and new ventures. What are some things you would like to see Bearing Drift do that it isn’t already doing? And when you guys inevitably do a sitcom, starring you of course, what’s the premise you’ll pitch?
There already are some good political sitcoms now that they stream the Democratic Virginia Senate online. I actually think sitcoms are pretty lackluster lately. It’s a half hour of dramatic standup. If we could do some throwback sitcoms that actually had some storytelling, in the tradition of All in the Family or Good Times, then we’d have something.
Actually, I think Bearing Drift needs a conservative version of Saturday Night Live. Skit comedy is the way to go. Maybe the liberals will pass the fairness doctrine and NBC would have to program us.
Q: Can I play the weird relative who drops in a lot but isn’t allowed to handle sharp things, use the stove, or control the TV remote?
I always pegged you as the guy who needed to include his middle name to make up for some deep-seeded insecurity. You can have the tv remote anyway, since all these networks are showing pretty useless stuff that don’t have much creativity anyway. I’ll pop in a DVD and watch you hopelessly try to change the channel for a few hours. Remember, relatives aren’t weird. Just in-laws.
Q: What do you think it says that we live in a country in which many people who have just eaten 15 shrimp can pretty much go ahead and eat 15 more shrimp? Or at least 10, depending upon the accuracy of the scales/mathematical acumen employed within a given shrimp-dispensing restaurant?
I fear for a world when the person calculating the bill can’t do simple math. I wish we lived in a country that didn’t bother to count your shrimp in the first place. We regulate way too much. We tell fishermen how much to catch. We tell Detroit what a car should weigh, and now we have cars that get totaled if you lean on them with the wrong kind of boots on. We tell toilet makers how much water a flush should be. We have so many regulations that it takes 18 years to build a four-mile road. One-hundred fifty years ago, it only took six years to build a nationwide railroad. Liberals hyper-regulate everything, and I’m pretty sick of it being so much of a pain in the neck to accomplish anything. My dream is to have a country that couldn’t care less how many shrimp I have.
Q: A concern I have from both my brief time as newspaper columnist and in reading some of the opinion voiced via local media is that compromise and the art of finding common ground do not seem to be valued. When you write for Bearing Drift or The Daily Press, do you feel you are preaching to the choir, meaning appealing primarily to conservatives, or do you hope to reach a wider range of people and influence them? Is that why you agreed to do The Daily Press gig?
Now that you mention it, your newspaper column career was pretty brief. I accepted The Daily Press gig because they asked. I love writing. I love entertaining. I couldn’t care less if I influence anyone, although if people are influenced by me, kudos to them. They’ve shown remarkable intellect. As far as preaching to the choir, every choir has its fair share of sinners. I’d write for The Washington Post if it meant I’d have legions of lefties ticked off at my spotlight on their silliness. If The Daily Press was really smart, they’d syndicate me. But some of their own scribes have dreams of being like me, so I doubt they’ll make the good business decision to do that and instead stay up late at night trying to be like me. And they’ll fail again.
All The Pilot’s editorials are low-key, low-intellect and have low-readership. Criticizing them is like hunting in a private reserve. Easy! To your point, the first step to regulation is whining about moderation. First liberals tell you what they think you should do. Then when you don’t do it, they move to force you to do it anyway. Newspaper folk never criticize people who use tons of paper resulting in the loss of so many trees, do they? But they whine about electricity that powers their media competition. There are so many inconsistencies in the liberal’s management of everyone else’s lives that I think the clearest response is ‘mind your own freakin’ business.’ If I want to eat a cheeseburger while watching three TVs and surfing my laptop, go curl up in a corner with your tofu, bottled water and a book. I won’t bother you. Don’t bother me.
Actually, I graded them on a curve. They were more ‘not wrong’ than they were ‘right,’ but it was so much better than their usual level of ‘so wrong that it’s silly to even address’ that I felt they needed some positive feedback. I am a uniter, ya know.
Q: A bit more seriously, could you talk a little about your day job and your passion for acting? People don’t usually just take up these activities/vocations or enter the political arena accidentally. There’s meaning to it for them. What is it you like about these forms of communication and self-expression? How do they inform your writing?
I love provoking emotional responses. Watch some old promos from Rowdy Roddy Piper and you’ll learn a great deal about me. I was a wrestling geek as a kid, and it amazed me to no end how a person could infuriate thousands of people so well that they’d buy tickets to see them get the tar beat out of them. Acting provides that in a big way, and so does political talk and writing. The real secret is not to act. Just be an amplified version of your reality. People who fake it won’t succeed. This is the real me at a high volume. That’s why it works.
Just cite your source. But please publish it before my daughter has grandchildren.
Q: A number of interest groups have taken to asking candidates to sign pledges vowing that they will or won’t do this or that should they be elected to office. Is there any value to this? Though you are not running for anything, will you sign my pledge that affirms good government is a practice that is situational and may involve compromise?
Why don’t you say ‘all campaign promises are lies, and once I’m in office, I’ll do whatever the hell I want, and you’ll like it.’ Same thing as calling everything situational and compromising. Your way, we wouldn’t have any need for campaigns at all. Why bother if whatever they say is subject to change based on the situation? Your path would result in the downfall of the nation. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if politicians just told the truth and voters could actually believe them?
Q: How about the pledge to make the laws of math apply to shrimp per pound?
Just don’t tip idiots. Problem solved.
Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. Is there anything else you would like to say?
Just a few Piper quotes:
‘Don’t throw rocks at a guy whose got a machine gun.’
‘When you were young did your mommy and daddy place the swing too close to the wall?’
‘Just when they think they got all the answers, I change the questions.’
Playing us out is Rowdy Roddy Piper, in two parts.
First: A heart to heart with Andre the Giant:
And now, from John Carpenter’s awesome They Live, the greatest cinematic fight ever (with Keith David!). Was Ralph Waldo Emerson predicting this fight scene when he wrote “there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning” in 1841?
Also, most assuredly, this is not safe for work due to rough language and just a wee bit of pummeling: