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Writing Craft, Vol. XII: Beatty Barnes, Marlon Hargrave & Rob Wilson, executive producers of Keep the Change


Keep the Change executive producers Rob Wilson and Marlon Hargrave on Colley Avenue. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — Keep the Change, a new sketch comedy group in Hampton Roads, holds its debut show on Sunday, and I caught up with the group’s executive producers to talk about writing funny, writing the truth, and why their group aims to tackle sketch comedy from fresh perspectives.

Barnes and Wilson are both members of Plan B improv and sketch comedy. Wilson, of Chesapeake, recently was featured along with Plan B’s Jason Kypros in a discussion of comedy writing you can find at this link. Barnes, of Norfolk, is a veteran comic who I hope to speak with here again down the road. Hargrave, an actor, director and acting coach, lives in Portsmouth, which earns him extra points. Portsmouth living is what all the cool kids are doing. At least until the tolls kick in.

This conversation deals with the seeds of this group, including approaches to writing, collaboration, and seeking truths.

The Keep the Change show is at 8 p.m., Sunday, July 15 at Lola’s Caribbean Restaurant, 328 W. 20th St., Norfolk. There’s some free surface lot parking, and some limited nearby street parking. The restaurant is at W. 20th at Debree Avenue, within the Palace Shops & Station shopping center. Admission is $5, and the restaurant is running some drink and appetizer specials.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and there’s some adult language below.

Just a housekeeping note for those who are coming to this blog for the first time: I’m a writer, not a comic. I’ve been fixated a bit on comedy writing for the past year because I’ve been playing with joke structures within some new short fiction stories. The questions I ask writers and, in this case, writer/performers, reflect my interests, ignorance, and hang ups, such as they are, but my goal in doing these talks is to (a) talk to people I dig and (b) steal their hard-earned life forces to make my own writing better.

People seem to enjoy the conversations and get something out of it. That’s where this is coming from.

Q: So how many people are in the group?

Wilson: [Whistles.]

Barnes: Ah.

Hargrave: At last count it was about –

Wilson: Fourteen?

Hargrave: No, 15.

Wilson: You know, I think we’re back up to 15.

Hargrave: We might be up to seventeen. We were at 22 before.

Wilson: We shed a couple pounds. [Laughter.]

Q: Did they want more snacks?

Wilson: A lot more snacks, a lot less work. That’s the funny thing to me, when people join a thing and they –

Barnes: They don’t think about the work.

Wilson: They don’t think about the work. They’re like, “Yeah, man. I would love to be famous.” [Laughter.] “Work? Yeah … I’m good.” [Laughter.]

Q: Is this going to be your first performance?

Wilson: This will be our first full show. We did a sketch at my [comedy] show, “The Business” [in May]. Did like a little standup thing, and I think it went over really well. Just trying to get our sea legs.

Hargrave: What makes the group really unique is we have poets, we have comedians, and actors. It’s pretty dynamic.

Wilson: We’ve got some straight-up writers, as well. That’s more their background, but they’re getting up on their feet and performing. It’s really cool that all these people come from all these different backgrounds, and we kind of have all bled into each others’ fields.

Hargrave: We also have musicians, too.

Q: Is it basically an improv-sketch group or more variety?

Wilson: Pure sketch, but we’ve got so many other elements like the poets and musicians. That’s an integral part of the show. So you talk about writing, and you’re moving out of a strictly sketch format, which is great.

Hargrave: With that type of dynamic, we’re able to expand our comedy to real life experiences and having a poet or writer is a beautiful thing because they write all the time. As a matter of fact, our poets come up with skits.

Wilson: It’s about expression, in that not everybody gets reached the same way. Some peope love musicals. Some people love straight plays. Some people love action movies. Some people love whatever. You’re going to get a different sketch, a different idea, a different performance from someone’s who’s writing from a musical background, because they’re concerned about the rhythm. … It’s pretty neat seeing what everyone is coming up with. And our job is, a lot of times, facilitating all this talent we’ve got, and funneling it and packaging it into one really cool show.

Beatty Barnes. Courtesy photo.

Q: So both of you [Wilson and Barnes] , you’re still in Plan B, right?

Barnes: Yes.

Wilson: Yeah.

Q: So why did you want to do something different?

Barnes: I’m going to go with because Rob pulled me into it. [Laughter.]

Wilson: It’s not necessarily a black voice.

Barnes: There you go.

Wilson: But it is.

Barnes: It’s a voice, a different voice that hasn’t been seen around here in a really long time in sketch.

Q: Is everybody in the group black?

Barnes: No.

Wilson: We’re equal opportunity. … We were Pushers. Beatty was the alpha black dude in the Pushers. I was, I think, beta. [Laughter.] … Plan B’s really cool because I look at our roster now, and we’re about 50-50. That’s cool, but you talk about when Beatty was in the Pushers, it was just him, and then when [another actor] came along it was them, and then [the other actor] left. When I came in, Beatty left, and then for the longest time it was just me. It’s nice to be in a place where you’re not the only. “Okay, we need a black guy for this sketch.” In this place, we make sure we’re all pretty diverse and we’re experienced knowing that feeling. We write people. We don’t write black people or white people. Well, sometimes we need a cop. [Laughter.]

Q: Irish accent?

Wilson: Aye. [Laughter.]

Q: We’ve [Wilson and I] talked before about some of the groups and the idea of representation, and you’ve got a sketch where somebody’s black and that’s what the sketch is.

Wilson: Which is tiresome, at best.

Hargrave: And also I guess my problem with it is, and this is even on large-scale with TV, even when they do [feature a black character], it’s not written well enough. It’s not written truthfully enough. There’s always what somebody’s perception is. Usually the people who write it don’t have experience. They’ll grow up in the suburb and write about somebody in the hood, and it’s just from their perspective, and it becomes very … generic homeboy-ish, not really getting into who this person is. Very cliché. Just the human experience is what we’re trying to cover. More of a truthful story through comedy.

Wilson: One of the things we talked about was we wanted to tell the truth. Not just my truth. I kind of grew up in the suburbs. Even in Queens, it was more suburban than the Bronx. You know what I mean? We want to write everybody’s experience. My truth and Beatty’s truth and Marlon’s truth. There’s a lot of different shades. … We’re trying to make it clear that there is no one black experience. That shit used to piss me off because in theater, in a predominantly white school, college I mean, and you’d have people come up and say, “Well, what do black people think of this.” Well, I can tell you what I think. Damn it, me and him think two different things. So in trying to start this group, you understand you’re going to hear black voices, but it’s a choir, not a solo.

Q: Why did you want to do this instead of or in addition to what you were already doing? Was there any sense you weren’t getting what you needed from the groups you’re already in?

Wilson: It’s necessary. Wherever there’s a lack of something, and it’s blatant, it’s glaring, you can see there’s nobody doing it here, at least. It needed to be filled. It’s tough. Some of us have three, four, five other projects. This is a necessary thing that needs to be done. Dave Chappelle and Tyler Perry can’t do it by themselves. …

Barnes: Tyler Perry is the Kenny G of black theater.

Q: He’s a regular reader of the blog, so this is really going to hurt him.

Hargrave: When Tyler Perry comes to town, there’s a group of people who will support him and we understand that. We’re far from that, and we would like to offer a different voice because our stories are so diverse and we don’t think of everything the same way.

Q: How do you avoid doing stereotypes when you do comedy?

Barnes: Don’t do it.

Hargrave: Because we’re real. … We do more of the human experiences, so we shy away from the conversations that have been done again and again through the years.

Q: Rob and I talked before about representation, which is a big thing I ask people about on the blog [because I’ve struggled with it in my writing]. … One of the things I’ve seen in some of the comedy, but people like Larry the Cable Guy, there’s a reinforcement of the subjugation of people who have been marginalized.

Wilson: My thing is the truth, man. That’s our mission statement: the truth. Even if you’re going into a stereotype, if it’s founded in truth, I mean, people get mad when you tell them the truth. … As long as it’s really true, then it will be funny. It’s an undeniable fact if it’s true. If it’s bullshit, people can sniff that out.

Hargrave: There’s this low hanging fruit if you go for the stereotype. We go for the fruit at the top of the tree, or at least we deal with the roots of it. Comedy is truth. Comedy and conflict is truth. We stay on that side of it. … I hate when you watch movies and the black guy is the sidekick. That never happens in real life. You’ve never seen a black guy be a sidekick to a white guy.

Q: I’ve had my personal ad out for a couple of years, and never got any responses.

Wilson: “Needed: black, funny sidekick.” [Laughter.]

Hargrave: We run into that all the time. It a voice that’s not there. For the most part … people don’t even realize that there’s another story until it is told.

Q: Can you give me an example where you were able to do that?

Wilson: There was one particular sketch that was written, it’s one of our favorites, I think, of church folks. It deals with an old-timey, you know … Sheeba McLeod wrote a sketch called “Church Folks,” and there was an appendage thing I wrote a long time ago, just all of those things in one sketch. The main thing is there’s a stereotypical preacher and we’re not poking fun at black church. A lot of people would have stopped there because when you think about black church, that’s a staple. You’ve got the preacher. He’s whooping and hollering. You’ve got folks falling out. You know, everybody knows the scene of black church. Tyler Perry has helped a lot with that. [Laughter.] No, but I mean even going as far back as Flip Wilson, these are your archetypal characters in this community. What she did, first and foremost, was kind of turn that on it’s ear. It became less about the archetype and more about the situation. This minister is lascivious, man. It bleeds through. … This is something that hasn’t really been addressed. Like infidelity. The scene is less about that character, that archetype you understand and you know and less about poking fun at him, and poking fun at the lady with the big hat. It’s more about poking fun at the abuse of power. In that way, you make it a real character piece as opposed to a stereotype piece. … A lot of our sketches – you’d think as a quote-unquote black sketch group. There’s a thing about suicide. There’s a scene about gay marriage and gay relationships with this thing about Obama not to long ago. We just seek out what’s funny, what’s true, and what’s poignant.

Hargrave: We spoke about how diverse the group is, and because of our different backgrounds we can look at the same situation different ways. I grew up in D.C., which is a little more hood – I don’t want to say I’m the hood-iest guy in here. [Laughter.] We end up writing from our truth. We write from ourselves, and I think that’s where the creativity and the story comes. Again, when Sheeba wrote this, we could easily have gone into that screaming preacher. … Instead of that, the undertone is infidelity and it is abuse of power and that’s what we want to address. When we have somebody who writes a skit like that, if it becomes too stereotypical or if it’s not good enough, then we get rid of it. One of my skits didn’t make it. It can’t even be reconsidered. It’s dead. It can’t be an ego about me or anybody else … If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you don’t fit the role, you can’t be in it. We’re challenging our writers to be more creative. Don’t come to us with the bullshit, because we won’t accept it. We started off, and people were trying to get the feel. But now we’re in a groove and people know what expectations are. They’re really writing some good material.

Q: What’s the process for writing? Does it come usually from the comedians or is it a mixture of everybody?

Hargrave: Everybody.

Wilson: The thing about this group, man, is we told them right off that everybody writes. Nobody gets to be a diva and not write. Everybody writes. You’ve got to do one of two things if you want to be in sketches. You’ve got to write yourself into them, right? Or you’ve got to show you’re so hilarious that you want these people to be in your sketch, you know what I mean? … So the sketches come in. We do table reads, and it’s a little bit of the Saturday Night Live format. When things come in to the table read, then you’re seeing who is laughing around the table, what jibes. We do an analysis of every sketch that comes in. We send it around the table. [There are suggestions.] Then it goes back into rewrites, nine times out of ten.

Q: Is it the person who wrote the sketch who does the rewrites?

Wilson: Mostly what happens, I give a lot of writing notes and we send it back with the changes we want to make. We talk about different things. We talk about what the general scene is. A lot of the time, people who really haven’t done this kind of writing before don’t understand the format, so it’s a thing of finding what the joke is. What’s the thing that’s funny? A lot of people will just write and write and write and it’s not that it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just that it doesn’t have any focus. We find the central point, the central joke, the central theme, and a lot of times the sketch will get turned on its ear. You know, there was one thing that they touched on that was really cool or really true, so we’ll take it all the way back to the drawing board and say, “All right, this part over here, I know that you’re going for some laughs, but you found some gold in this tiny little piece. Expound on this and leave all the rest of this out because it makes it muddy.”

Q: Beatty, you’ve been writing comedy for how long?

Barnes: Twenty-seven years.

Q: What do you look for in a joke?

Barnes: Having it not be a joke. Having not have a punchline, not have a tag. I like to teach, kind of, you know? Kind of do something that’s not regular, not normal. I don’t like the typical. I don’t look for the, “Oh, that’s funny right there.” You can get somebody else to say that. For me it’s more about the thing that is not normal, that’s not necessarily normal but comic. It’s easy to laugh at seeing someone fall, but [what about] the shoe that the person had on?

Wilson: We had a relationship scene. It was funny enough. It was a Lucille Ball misunderstanding kind of thing, and Beatty was like, “No. What if he was a woman.” And just that one change changed the whole thing. What it did was it didn’t make it a stereotypical scene that a man would have with a woman about a misunderstanding, just by plugging the woman into the place where the man was. … He found just in turning the head a little bit. It was funny.

Hargrave: We were right in the middle of it, too. We pulled him out right there, pulled the guy out and plugged the girl in. And boom.

Wilson: It was gold.

Hargrave: And Beatty has an older joke I love talking about. You remember when you’re talking about when you’rte driving and playing white music?

Barnes: Right.

Hargrave: And then the hood guys come across and say, “Why are you playing that white music?” And you say, “Oh, I just stole this car.” Right? It’s funny. You would never expect that. Me being from the hood, I worked at Bennigan’s, and I was the token black guy in Bennigan’s. One of the funnier moments that I has working there was when I went to the jukebox, I wouldn’t play the black songs. I would play the stuff they would never expect. I’m not lying, but the only other black person there, we’d both be nodding our heads, and he knew that I did it, but nobody else in the restaurant knew that I did it. I mean, nobody would have expected that was my lineup. I had Aerosmith. I had Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. I could have played Jodeci, easily, and they would have known it was my lineup. And the deal was that the other black person, who was a rapper, nodding his head lets me know that our story is deeper than that.

Q: Do you think really – I mean, I wrote on Thursday, and I listened to Funkadelic all day long. Actually, the same three or four songs over and over again. [Laughter.] Do we still live in a society where … is that really still a thing?

Hargrave: You have the artists that get played on the radio. You’ll have Justin Bieber – Bieber, is that his name? – you’ll have him next to Lil Wayne now.

Wilson: On the same track.

Hargrave: Yeah. Now because of multimedia, because of the internet, we’re at a point in society where we see more cultural diversity. Justin was found by Ludacris.

Q: That’s the worst thing Ludacris has ever done. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: It’s a gold mine for him, that’s for sure.

Barnes: Justin’s all right, man. … I listen to what my kids listen to, and, “Okay, I can see why you would like that.”

Q: I listen to what my kids listen to, but I won’t defend the Wiggles. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: Then we have The Disney Channel, and there are a couple of kids who are artists and my daughter looks up to them all.

Wilson: There’s some regular folks who only stay in their lane, who only listen to the thing that they’re supposed to, who only watch the thing that they’re supposed to. They’ve decided to stay there. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. So I think that part of what we do is necessary in showing folks that there’s a different way.

Hargrave: I was born in the 1970s. My father tells me stories about growing up here in Virginia Beach that are unfathomable. He actually got arrested for sitting in a lunch – he got arrested for that. I can’t fathom that. We grew up post Civil Rights movement, so we don’t know anything about that. I don’t know anything about what my dad went through. My journey has been so different, so now my child’s journey, even though she remembers Bush a little bit, she’ll remember Obama on, for sure. It’s weird. My parents tried to explain the movement to us the way I’m trying to explain pre-Obama to her.

Q: Do you think the sketches you’re doing you could do with Plan B or The Pushers or another group? What is it that makes them unique?

Barnes: That’s a very good question.

Hargrave: I think that … you have to have experience in what you’re writing, and because we write from ourselves and our personal experience, the people who are in those groups didn’t experience it the way that we experienced it. The outlook, the joke of it, it just comes from a different area. And to be honest, predominantly white groups may not be able to touch something that we can touch. Just like the church sketch, I don’t know that another group can pull it off the way we do.

Barnes: It wouldn’t have been the same –

Hargrave: Impact. Would they reach the point we’re trying to reach? They might do that archetypal preacher, and it might be funny, but they wouldn’t touch what we’re touching in the same environment.

Q: What do you think of that, Beatty?

Barnes: [The sketches] stand by themselves, but to picture someone else doing them.

Q: Do you feel like you’re taking material you weren’t comfortable pitching to other groups?

Barnes: It probably would never come up. It would never come up. It would be, well, because you’re thinking – I don’t know if it’s commercial thought or you’re just staying away from what you really feel in sketches. Or maybe it’s because of the cast. You know, you just don’t have enough people for it … That might be the biggest thing.

Q: Because you don’t have enough black faces to make it come alive? Or am I misunderstanding?

Barnes: No. I think of our group [Plan B]. … We have five black folks.

Wilson: I don’t know if that was a move on their part …

Barnes: It was on us.

Wilson: I think Plan B can do it now because –

Barnes: That is a really tough question.

Wilson: I know when I was with The Pushers, we did a show up in New York. … I wrote a series of sketches called “Black Man’s Fantasies.” And a couple of them, when we were working them, they went over pretty well. It was easy. It was stereotypical. Like, calling a cab and it coming right to you. That was one of them, and they loved that one.

Barnes: I’ve never had a problem getting a cab in New York.

Hargrave: I would grab white girls off the street and say, “Please hail me a cab.” They would go right by me and pick up somebody else.

Wilson: That went over, but I wrote another one in the series and it was all about gentrification.

Barnes: Wow.

Wilson: Right? And immediately, [a] girl was like, “I don’t get it.” And she lived in New York. I was like, “What do you mean you don’t get it? Where you live right now … that’s gentrified.”

Q: It used to be called Harlem … Har-lem. [Laughter.]

Wilson: Maybe I could have written the sketch better, but there wasn’t [anyone] willing to help.

Beatty: Because of the cast it would be hard to do. Not enough black faces. I’m still thinking about that question.

Wilson: I could never write a black family. … I just wanted to be able to have the personnel to write the things I wanted to write. If there was a family, I could never be in the sketch. I wrote a sketch called “The Other Son.” The family was like, “We want you to know you’re black. You’re not like us.” I was like, “Yeah, we’ve all got mirrors. I figured it out.” [Laughter.]

Playing us out? Enjoy The Wiggles.

Remember, kids – make sure to use a plastic knife, and you may want to have a grownup around.

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UPDATED: Announcing the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest


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April 3

I’m now taking entries for the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest. Deadline is June 15.

Additionally, I’m pleased to say Fair Grounds Coffee on the upstairs of 806 Baldwin Ave., on the corner of Baldwin and Colley avenues in Norfolk, will display winners and runners up in July.

Details on the national tour to come when people start returning my calls anywhere.

• • • • • • • • • • •

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The Imaginary Board of Trustees is pleased to announce that the second annual Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest submission and reading period begins next month.

I’m taking submissions from April 2 until June 15, with winners to be announced here at the blog on Monday, July 2. As with last year’s contest, I’ll pick the finalists and judges-to-be-named-later will vote “blind” for their favorites.

I hope get more visual art entries this year, but getting any entries at all brings its own special joy. The winners and runners up will be displayed at a Norfolk-area business. I’m still working out the details there, but hope to have more information soon.

Should nobody enter, we will pretend this did not happen. Just like my junior prom at Cranston High School East. Go Bolts.

Don’t want to enter? Suit yourself, cupcake. But before you go, do consider this persuasive and entirely solicited testimonial from last year’s winner, the Marylander di tutti Marylander who is called Gary Potterfield by all who are introduced to him as such. Get ready for gravitas:

A warning to anyone contemplating entry into the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing contest. Run. Just put down the chop sticks and run. For if you should win your life will never be the same.

Ever since I won last year’s contest, hardly a day goes by that I’m reminded of my victory. In fact, entire seasons go by and I’m not reminded of it. Immediately after the announcement, I began to receive more than 100 emails per day, none of which had anything to do with fortune cookies or cookies of any kind.

I can count at least 2,372 people who have not asked for my autograph, and that’s a low estimate. 

I think my victory has even affected the time-space continuum. The February immediately following the contest explicably had 29 days. 

Clearly, we need to bring the title back to the Virginia. May God bless the Commonwealth that is not Kentucky, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. Yes, as the kids say, the preceding sentence was a parochialist U.S. state designation burn.

Click here to see the full official rules, such as they are. (Please bookmark this link for updates.)

Click here to see last year’s winners, and the runners up, too.

Here are the basic guidelines, from the official rules:

In this test of skill and conciseness, readers contribute (hopefully) clever or artistic fortune or fortunes of their own creation to me via email to jhdouc@verizon.net – not in the comments, please.

Funny fortunes. Clever fortunes. Poetic fortunes. Artistic fortunes. Silly fortunes. Sad fortunes. Angry fortunes. Your hopes and dreams, your fears and foibles. Whatever way you want to approach it. It just has to fit on or to the form of a fortune slip, so please keep it to about 30 words or less. Cartoons, (original) comic strips, photos, and artwork all are encouraged, not just the written word – it just has to fit into a fortune cookie fortune sized space, such as this:

There will be modest prizes of my choosing, including signed books by authors previously featured on this blog. Last year’s prizes included Ted Danson and Mike D’Orso‘s Oceana and Earl Swift‘s The Big Roads. There also may be prizes from local businesses in the Hampton Roads area. Or maybe not. Details to come when the reading period nears.

Please enter early and often, and maybe tell your friends.

This message is pretend approved for immediate release by the Imaginary Board of Trustees.

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Theater: Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect on the local debut of Any One of Us


Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect. Courtesy photo by Andi Grant Photography.

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk marketing and communications executive Karen Levy Newnam has theater and non-profit roots, and these worlds meet in her involvement in RipplAffect.

Now in its fifth year, RipplAffect has produced a series of benefit performances of Eve Ensler’s plays, primarily The Vagina Monologues, to raise awareness and money for the YWCA of South Hampton Roads, among others, and support survivors of domestic violence and rape. RipplAffect has raised about $20,000 for the YWCA to date.

Three performances this month mark the local premiere of Any One of Us: Words from Prison, a collection of monologues conceived by Ensler and developed from writings by women serving in prison. LaToya Morris directs. Newnam, a founding member and principal of RipplAffect, produces and acts in the play.

We spoke by phone about a week ago for the following Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and length. As happens around here, I’m writing about a friend — and someone I admire for her heart, drive and commitment to the Hampton Roads community. Additional full disclosure: my wife, Cortney Morse Doucette, is a founding member of RipplAffect.

The performances are scheduled for 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m., Sunday; March 16-18; at The Perry Family Theatre, 485 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk. Make reservations and get information by calling (757) 339-0578. Credit card ticket sales also may be made by clicking this link. Tickets are $15.

Donations to the YWCA of South Hampton Roads also are welcome. The performance is part of V-Day 2012, a response to violence against women.

I hope you’ll come away from this Q&A with a sense of how the arts can be used to support local charities, and I hope you’ll check out one of the upcoming performances. Additionally, Newnam speaks about some of the practical aspects of production — and about how conversations and ideas can become something that pays dividends.

There is one word below — hopefully, only one word — that may make you a bit uncomfortable. So you know.

Q: Let’s talk a little about RipplAffect. This is the fifth year, right? How did this start?

I was at a networking lunch with a group of women I met through Leadership Hampton Roads [now LEAD Hampton Roads]. We kept in touch and got together once a month. I was talking with Dorothy Dembowski, who is a friend of mine, just about plays that we enjoy and theater we hadn’t seen in a while, and just started saying, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be interesting to produce a play, and, if we did produce a play, why would we do it?’ And she had a lot of interest in women’s issues, as well. I did The Vagina Monologues years ago, a really great way to bring light to some of the issues facing women everywhere, but to particularly bring focus to issues in Hampton Roads.

I started talking to some of my friends in the theater. We said, ‘Okay, if we’re going to do this, why are we doing this?” We started talking about the issues that were important to us and the power of theater and the arts to really make those issues accessible. We weren’t interested in starting a non-profit to raise money that other people were raising or to start a non-profit to offer services that other people were doing a great job of. But we could certainly produce theater in an effort to bring more attention to what they were doing and help them raise money for the good work that already was happening.

Q: The first year you decided on The Vagina Monologues. Had you figured out you would be working with the YWCA before you decided on the play, or did the play come first?

The play had come first. I was at a fundraising luncheon for the United Way, and I ran into the executive director of the Y. I had been on their board in my early twenties. I said, ‘Some friends of mine and I would like to produce The Vagina Monologues, and we want to be able to partner with an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence and rape, and we thought of you and I wonder if you’d be interested.’ She said, ‘My goodness, we have an intern – her name is Denise Hughes – and she’s been wanting to produce The Vagina Monologues for the same reason. Why don’t I connect the two of you?’ So that’s really how it started. I connected with Denise. She’s amazing. She was a big part of the organization until she went into the Peace Corps. …  It just really came together.

Q: The first performance was at the YWCA, wasn’t it?

The first four were at the Y, actually.

Q: Some of the readers who aren’t from here won’t know the layout of the YWCA in Norfolk, but they’ve got this – what’s a wonderful meeting room, but not necessarily a wonderful theater space. But you guys kind of transformed it.

Exactly. We talked about getting theaters, and the folks at the Y said, ‘You know, it would mean a lot for us if we could bring new audiences into our building.’ So they have a very, very large multipurpose and meeting room …

We got in touch with fabric companies that support theaters, and we ended up ordering from a company out west. We ordered yards and yards and yards of black fabric and had it cut. I remember people with sewing machines and hemming and ironing, and we masked the entire space in black. Before that it was, ‘How do we turn this into a theater?’ That was one thing – let’s take the definition of the space away by masking the walls from floor to ceiling in black. Then we used some platforms to make some stage space, and actually that first year Natasha [Bunnell] directed, and she really had this vision of making the space even more vaginal. I think in between the black curtains we had flashes of red fabric. It was really something else. So when you bring the chairs in, you put a platform in, and you bring in the lights, and everything is black, it became a cozy theater.

Q: You have folks who are at, maybe, different levels of experience. I always found that the productions that you guys have done, that’s been really meaningful and informed the performances. Can you talk about the different kinds of people who have been involved in your performances over the years?

The first years, we really pulled a bunch of friends together, and said, ‘Hey, come do this with us.’ It was a phenomenal experience. We had some very talented actors. It was probably the second year that we had gotten a new director from outside of the group, and she brought in a bunch of women we didn’t know. So the group started getting bigger. The third year we actually advertised auditions. Little by little, new people entered the group. I think what speaks most to what it means to people was the fact that this year, besides myself and Cortney, the three young women – I say young women and I date myself – who are really instrumental in making this happen joined us along the way. [In addition to Morris, the director, they are Anna Sosa and Eileen Quintin.]

To some people it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really want to do The Vagina Monologues.” Or ‘Oh, I need to do a play; let me audition.’ And then other people come into the fold, and it really touches them. Our director, LaToya Morris, has two jobs, and she’s doing this. She actually chose the play we’re doing, as well. This year we decided we needed a break from The Vagina Monologues.

Some people will do the show and be great at what they do and walk away. That’s fine, too. Other people, it’s the whole idea that through their acting they can elicit this thought process in people. They can open their minds to something that’s going on that they might not have thought about before and then hopefully give back in some way. It really has affected key members who keep coming back here year after year.

Q: You’ve had lawyers, students … Is it a challenge to bring people who don’t have theater experience into the story?

The year we did that the most, we were looking at it from a marketing perspective. How can we increase the audience? A lot of people, when they do productions as part of V-Day, will get members of the community to be involved. I reached out to folks, whether they were philanthropists or lawyers or radio personalities. That year, we pulled in a radio personality and a lawyer, and neither of them had acting experience. It definitely helped increase the audience, but it was an amazing process seeing someone who you consider a lovely person but is fairly reserved take one of the, I think, hardest monologues to do and get up on stage and, in character, talk about her vagina.

It’s pretty amazing. Challenging. You have a group of people and the director says, ‘You need to be off book by the 10th.’ Half the people are saying, ‘What does off book mean?’ When we have someone like that, we usually buddy up with them.

Q: The Vagina Monologues really does speak to people year after year. Could you please talk about why you think this material is something that is worth being performed and worth bringing people together in support of a community organization?

It amazes me, but at this point so many people haven’t heard it. It’s an interesting mix of humor, innocence, and just really, really in your face, dirty, ugly reality. I think for every moment of, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe they just said that’ or just horror at somebody’s plight in one of the monologues, the play also does a good job of bringing you around to the lighter side and just letting you enjoy a laugh, and then it wraps up with ‘I Was There in the Room,’ the monologue about birth, really celebrating women.

That’s one of the nice things with the new play, too. The final monologue in Any One of Us really wraps things up in a nice way. I think that’s why it’s successful.

We did The Vagina Monologues for a new group this summer, and I actually got into some intense conversations with one of the members of the board who was horrified and asked me to do some editing of the monologues and asked me to cut some of the monologues. It just got to the point where I had to say, ‘If you don’t think this is the right play for your organization, then you need to find someone else to do this for you.’ It’s not our mission to do easy theater. It’s our mission to make a difference, and this is how we make that difference. She had wanted me to cut [the monolgue] ‘Cunt’ and there were some other monologues she wasn’t comfortable with. We ended up doing the play, as is. At the end, she was just really touched. I think some of it probably offended her sensibilities, but I think she understood it. The audience, which was a different audience for us, was probably the best audience we’ve ever had.

Q: Any One of Us is kind of similar to The Vagina Monologues and some of the other theater work that Ensler has done. … This developed from workshops. [The project came out of a 10-year-old writing group involving Ensler and 15 women at a prison, according to V-Day.] Why did this play speak to your director and speak to the group as a whole?

We initially started doing this through V-Day, frankly, because it is easy. [If an application to do the play as a fundraising event is accepted by V-Day, there is no cost for rights.] They provide you all the materials for marketing. For people with full-time jobs, it makes it a manageable process. So when we decided to look at something else – that we wanted to do a different show –  the first thing we did was we went and looked at other pieces Eve had done and that were part of V-Day. And, also, we looked at other scripts. …

At the end, it really was the director who called our attention to this piece. I think the main reason was it was really eye opening. Once again, Leadership Hampton Roads – I guess it was a good thing for me – we did a tour of the Norfolk Jail, and we went through all the different floors. What really got to me was the women’s side of the jail. It wasn’t frightening being two inches from the bars where there were men. It wasn’t frightening being in the open areas where there were men. It was all fairly calm. But when you got to the women’s side, there was so much anger and so much aggression – and it wasn’t just bars separating, it was walls and windows, but it was palpable and it was, I thought, a very frightening experience. So when LaToya found this piece, it was the realization that, when you start looking at it, the numbers are staggering  –  women behind bars who are survivors of domestic violence or rape. Not making excuses for anybody’s actions, but we started realizing the correlation between the plight of these women and the causes we had been trying to bring light to.

Q: Is it a similar experience to The Vagina Monologues?

There are funny moments in the monologues, but I think the ride is a lot rougher. But, again, the final monologue is saying this could be any one of us. It’s not an easy ride. Not to say The Vagina Monologues is an easy ride, but this is entirely different.

Q: Why do you think this is a valuable experience for people to come and see? Why do you think this piece will speak to folks around here?

Hopefully, for me, it makes people want to help, want to support organizations like the YWCA that keep women from winding up in these places. I hope it at least makes them think twice instead of judging. When you think about neglect or you think about abuse, I don’t know that people often think about this side of it. I think making that connection is important.

Q: This production is going to benefit the YWCA again, but you’re not doing it at the Y. Why did you have the change of venue this year?

I just couldn’t see us getting on a ladder again and hanging curtains and sheets and begging for lighting again – not begging. The theater community is really warm. But every year we go out an say, ‘Can we please borrow your lights? Can we please borrow your platforms?’ Buying fabric when we don’t have it. And the idea of really being able to get in a space that already was put together and instead focus on the show itself was really attractive, and it’s been a much better experience.

Q: So the space has been pretty open about having you there?

Yes. We’re at the Perry Family Theater, [home of] the Hurrah Players. And I’ve known [Hurrah Players co-founder] Hugh Copeland since my time at Old Dominion University. Basically, I told him, ‘We ultimately will be looking to have a relationship with a theater where year by year we’re producing in their space. You’re probably not the space for that … ’ Not that Hugh doesn’t support it and believe in it, but they do family theater. It’s a very different audience. So they very graciously – I mean, they have let us rent the space for what worked in our budget. We don’t make any money. It all goes back to the Y. They’ve been great.

Q: Do you see a longterm relationship with this space, or are you looking for another space?

I think as long as they don’t get any backlash – which you never know – I think it’s a great space for us. It’s just a perfect space. We could produce there again. We’ll keep looking. There are other theaters we really need to be talking to and working with, and maybe their mission is a little more in line with us. I respect what Hugh is doing, and part of me does worry, ‘Is he going to get backlash for this?’ I hope not.

Q: Where do you see RipplAffect down the road?

I wish I could tell you. No one wants to let it go, but no one has the time to take it as far as we want to. In the perfect world I would have the money and create a non-profit and hire some of these fabulous women to run it for me. I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think this year we’ll be getting our 501(c)3, and we’ll make it official. And then I’d like to see us have a relationship with a theater so that, once again, every year it’s not running out to find a theater, find this, find that. I’d like to see it get a little more stable that way. In a perfect world we’d be running programs on college campuses. I mean, I think the mission is important, and it really speaks to the strength of the arts and to theater and the opportunity to really have an affect on people and the community.

Poster designed by Maya Elena Sosa.

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A resolution to get local in the New Year


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:

  1. Hey Dad, they say, I did this and that and this, all for you – ain’t you proud?
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. I resolve to continue loving local media despite the inherent flaws of any medium. I will keep my subscription to The Virginian-Pilot because this is the best and most responsible media outlet in Hampton Roads. I’ll try to support local public broadcasting in some way, either with a few bucks or continued attention here. I’ll try to support community newspapers of note, such as The Suffolk News-Herald and The New Journal & Guide, if only by picking them up on the newsstands from time to time. I will continue to read and write about Veer and AltDaily, and I will take them seriously on this blog because their efforts to provide alternative voices deserve real consideration and appreciation.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. When I forget to do these things, at the very least, I will wallow in an appropriate pool of shame. I’m good at this. Believe me.

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.

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Writing Craft Q&A, Vol. VI: Sean Devereux of The Pushers (Part Two)


Sean Devereux of the comedy and improv group The Pushers during a rehearsal at his condo in Norfolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second part of my talk with Sean Devereux of comedy and improv group The Pushers.

Devereux serves as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. Additionally, he and fellow founding Pusher Brad McMurran teach classes on improvisation and comedy writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, and also are involved in Improvageddon, a long form improv competition between local teams. Additionally, he recently was featured here in a Belligerent Q&A.

This discussion includes some adult language and frank discussion of jokes you may find offensive. It is toward an end. Additionally, one of the video clips contains adult language and probably is not safe for work. This Q&A had been edited for clarity and length.

It helps to have read the first part for context. You can find it here at this link.

Q: How did you get into the group?

My wife and I broke up and once that happened there was about a six month period of time where I was moping on the couch, and then I picked up Portfolio and saw auditions for a play over at The Little Theatre of Norfolk, and I said, ‘You know, I might as well.’ I did theater in high school. I was always more on the tech side but I did some acting in high school, but at least going out and auditioning beats sitting on the couch. So I went out and auditioned and got the role. … I think I had two lines …

I was really immersed. Afterwards the cast would go out drinking and meet whatever cast was rehearsing at the Generic. I just really fell into that community theater world. … I was actually kind of surprised I did fall into it. The cast I was in was kind of an all-star cast as community theater goes for the early 2000s in Hampton Roads.

Q: That, by the way, is the most specific Wikipedia page.

(Laughs.) It is. Not even Hampton Roads — early 2000s Norfolk community theater.

Q: It’s just a list with no links.

Exactly. Through that I just met a whole bunch of people. … I was having a good time with that. I started dating a girl who was involved in theater. I started a run of like four shows in a row, which is probably like a year and a half, and had just gotten burnout. The second to last play I was in was where I met Ed and Lauren Rogers, who is now in (another Hampton Roads area improv and sketch comedy  group) Plan B. We struck up a friendship. Through them I met Brad and Jeremiah (Albers) and a couple other people who would actually go on to form The Pushers.

Q: Rob Wilson (now of Plan B)?

He came in pretty close to the beginning. In fact, I wrote ‘Justice Crusaders’ with Rob in mind. For his audition, we knew he was going to be in but made him audition anyway. I’m pretty sure he read the Captain Pirate role at the audition. I’d also written another role with him in mind. …

At some length, we then discussed a sketch from an early show. Devereux wrote a sketch featuring two new characters. The following week he wrote a new sketch featuring the same characters, thinking both the original sketch and the new sketch would make it into the show. When the original sketch was cut, however, there was no context for the recurring characters. The Pushers went ahead with the new sketch, which bombed.

Q: There was no context?

It was eight or nine minutes of crickets.

Q: What did you learn from that?

Number one, we weren’t as big as we thought we were. We didn’t have a loyal crowd who would come to every single show. We learned that when you’re writing a sketch that has a recurring character, which I think is something definitely SNL has learned, you have to write the sketch almost as (if) it’s the first time people are being introduced to these characters. Which is why it’s so easy to take the game of the scene and apply it to a different setting.

Here’s ‘Justice Crusaders,’ a sketch we will discuss in some depth. This is a repeat of the link from the first post, for context. Again, NSFW:

Q: I think the writing is good. How do you build that scene?

I started that with Captain Pirate. Brad and I, we always have a couple of notebooks to jot down ideas. (He pulls one out of a bag.)

Q: Your brand is Mead.

Actually, one brand I have Mead. (Pulls another one out, reads the cover.) Downtown Norfolk Council – I’m not sure how … that was actually a work meeting. Moleskines, I actually have a couple in there. Something I can just kind of stick in my back pocket. It started with Captain Pirate. I just thought that was kind of an absurd name for a superhero. …

From there it just kind of grew. I think we came up – We don’t do it as much today, but back then we would meet and just toss out ideas. I think somebody else actually came up with Low Self Esteem Girl. Another actor was going to play Aquaman. I did notice there are some cheap jokes, like making Aquaman gay. That only happened because Jeremiah was in it. Well, Jeremiah’s playing him so obviously you’re going to have to make gay jokes. You know, never has a gay man played a character where there weren’t gay jokes.

Q: Well, stop there a minute. There are couple things there. There’s kind of a throwaway moment where Jeremiah leaves where he says something to Low Self Esteem Girl, he says “bitch” and walks out the door. How do you feel about those jokes a few years later?

Some  of them are, I would have to go back to cheap. There’s another one in there with Low Self Esteem Girl, and the reason I say we need Captain Pirate is because he’s a minority and we need a minority in the group. And Low Self Esteem Girl, Sandra (Hernandez), who is Hispanic, says well I’m a minority, and I go, ‘What do you want? A medal and a taco?’ And nowadays I don’t think I would write (that). You get a cheap joke. It doesn’t really do anything to progress the story of the sketch.

Q: Did you talk about it at the time, or was the idea just to push push push?

At the time it was just push push push. Rarely did we ever – The only sketch we ever thought maybe this is too far was a sketch I wrote called the Terri Schiavo diet where it was kind of an infomercial. There’s a new diet plan and the way it works is, you know, get into an accident so you’re in a coma and then have your husband remove the feeding tube and watch the pounds just melt away. Yeah. That was the only time we were, ‘Maybe that’s a little too far.’ But we put it up.

Q: Wait so you –

Oh yeah. We did.

Q: See, for me, that would just be too much for me. (Schiavo’s brain damage and the resulting vegetative state may have resulted from an eating disorder; she lost 65 pounds in her late teens, then struggled to keep weight off, subsisting on liquids, apparently.)

Exactly. We debated that almost until the night of the show. That sketch came from my uncle’s kind of dark sense of humor.

Q: I guess I wonder when you’re writing a sketch are you thinking this is satire? What are you satirizing?

Back then I wasn’t. I was just kind of writing whatever popped into my head. Nowadays it’s definitely more of satirizing I wouldn’t even say social conventions. Now it’s finding everyday situations that kind of bug people and just kind of take it to the absurd. Like I’m a big offender of always being on my phone. It drives Brad up the wall. So right now I’m working on a sketch where it’s two couples out on a date and three out of the four people are carrying on conversations with each other that are strictly on the phone. …

Q: Sometimes when I’m writing and trying to write toward something, if I’m commenting on a social thing or something about a (racial or ethnic) identity, it just kind of reinforces the notions some people have about those groups.

I think it is a fine line. I think back in the day, I don’t think we cared. I don’t think we ever really thought about it. We did a lot of racial humor, which we would always run it by Rob or Saeed (Wilkins), who was the other black guy. That would be our litmus test. You know, if we turned in a sketch and they didn’t punch us in the face then you know we were good to go.

Q: But that’s not much of a bar.

It’s not. Again, I think we – We had no bar. It definitely got us a reputation that we’re trying to shake now — of doing things for almost like shock value. The ‘God is dead line,’ that character, I like the idea of a priest losing his cool in the middle of a sermon. We haven’t done that sketch in two, two and half years. If we were to do it again I don’t think we would go to the ‘God is dead’ line. There’s no point to it. There might be one atheist out there who thinks it’s funny, but the rest …

Q: I mean, what do you want to do? Do you want to make people laugh or – What do you want to do with your writing?

I would say, first and foremost, laugh. I would like to say that we’ve done some satire as of late. Our Ghent hipster characters. I did one video for AltDaily where I play a politician. I do like that. Every time I write something like that I have a fear of, you know, becoming pretentious.

Q: I’m not saying it has to have a message. … One of the things I think writing of all kinds doesn’t do well is address differences, and I’m very conscious about writing in a way that reinforces differences that have been inflicted on people, not developed within that community. So I guess what I wonder is when you’re writing, not just in that context, is there something you want to accomplish with what you’re writing? Do you want to just make people laugh or do you want to keep turning back expectation? One of the things about the ‘Justice Crusaders’ is I think it does take the expectation the audience has and turns it back and it builds. There’s another sketch I was going to ask you about where you play the dad and Brad’s your son and he’s got to be gay (because his dad wants him to be). I think that sketch is about expectations turned around and it kind of builds.

It is. That sketch started out as an improv scene I did with a girl when I was taking classes in New York at Upright Citizens Brigade, and I do like looking at political correctness. I think that is a scene of like taking I wouldn’t even say political correctness, but taking it too far. Now the hip thing is to have somebody gay in your family.  You know, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and all that. … When Queer Eye For The Straight Guy came out there was like, you know, people I knew who would watch it who would be fag this, fag that, but thought it was a great show. It was that way, and by saying they watched that it was like ‘Oh, no. I’m cool with gay people because I watch Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.’ Again, it’s taking political correctness to the – I wrote another one for Rob where a woman takes home her boyfriend to meet him for the first time and they’re shocked not because he’s black, but not black enough. They start quizzing him on Malcolm X and you know the black power movement and black authors. …

Rob a lot of times would get upset that he would always have to play the black roles. Like he couldn’t just ever play a doctor or a lawyer. It was the black lawyer or the black doctor. I was guilty of it in ‘Justice Crusaders.’ He couldn’t be just a pirate; he had to be a black pirate. And this was a sketch where he’s just supposed to be a boyfriend bracing for the fact that because he’s black a white family might be upset that their daughter is not going to be dating a white man. But they’re like no, if he’s black we want super black. …

It’s weird for a white person, you know, giving my perception of something black people have to deal with, but it almost seems that if you’re black you have to know the history of rap and hiphop because that’s your culture.

Q: In the mind of white people.

Exactly. In the mind of white people. It was kind of an exaggeration of what white people expect black people to be.

Q: Let me ask about Upright Citizens Brigade.

I think the most training I got that has helped my writing has been at Upright Citizens Brigade. They’re whole main focus — and this is applied to improv though it could be applied to all comedy — is finding the game of the scene. Stripping away everything, all the characters and things like that, what is this scene really about. That’s not that you can’t have a really funny scene that’s nothing but a bunch of crazy characters, but it seems the ones that are most successful are the ones you can break down into a simple sentence – what is this really about?

I think that’s something that has helped me the most with my writing, you know, stripping away all of the fluff. Which is hard. Nowadays when we write a scene there will be a lot of great lines and jokes and whatnot but sometimes they end up getting cut because they really have nothing to do with the game of the scene.

What does this character want? … Do they get it? Even if they don’t get it, what are they doing to get it. This other character, is he there to help him out? Is he there to be the voice of opposition? …

My process is so I’m wearing so many hats now, I have very little free time to do actual writing. I have my notebooks. I would say normally 99 percent of my sketch is written in my head. … I write almost like the nuts and bolts. I do find that because I’ve been thinking about it so long a lot of the funny bits of dialogue come out while I’m writing. I try to get out at least the nuts and bolts of the scene and go back and write in jokes later. …

Usually my premises are more relationship based ideas and usually autobiographical. One of the last scenes I wrote was right around Valentine’s Day, the day before my girlfriend apropos of nothing said, ‘You know what I really want? I want you to write me a love letter.’ I had written her a love letter, but now I’m screwed. Now when I give you the love letter on Valentine’s Day, yeah you’re going to be happy that yu got it but you’re going to think the only reason I gave you this love letter is because you told me you wanted a love letter. So I wrote a scene were a guy takes his girlfriend to a really fancy dinner and right as he’s getting ready to get down on one knee to propose she says, ‘You know the only way this could get any better is if you proposed to me.’ And then it just becomes absurd. … That actually got a pretty good response.

Q: So how did Valentine’s Day go?

It actually went well. She’s very understanding. Luckily I had other stuff to go with the love letter. …

Q: What are you plans long term?

We would love to open our own performance space, possibly a 60-seat theater. During the day we could have classes, then at night sell PBRs for $2 a bottle and put up shows. We’d like to own a theater and teach classes. And this is the pretentious part – maybe legacy. We haven’t given up the whole some day we could have our own show, but it’s not something we’re actively pursuing. We’re pretty good being a big fish in a small pond. But teaching comedy and improv, it’s kind of like making my name go on. Even if the theater is something that doesn’t make it, it’s something people will remember. …

We’re teaching. … I got pretty lucky. Hopefully we’re going to be helping people who have a similar type of dream and point them in the right direction. And it’s just fun.

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Writing Craft Q&A, Vol. VI: Sean Devereux of The Pushers (Part One)


Sean Devereux of The Pushers during a recent rehearsal at his Norfolk, Va., condo. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – I caught up again with Sean Devereux of comedy and improv group The Pushers at Colley Cantina for a beer and a talk about writing comedy, improvising and how far a joke can push.

Devereux serves as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. Additionally, he and fellow founding Pusher Brad McMurran teach classes on improvisation and comedy writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, and also are involved in Improvageddon, a long form improv competition between teams.

And Devereux recently was featured here in a Belligerent Q&A.

This is a long talk, broken into two parts, but those interested in comedy writing and other forms of writing — particularly finding the core structure of a work — should stick around.

This discussion includes some adult language and frank discussion of jokes you may find offensive. That mostly in the next part of the talk, which I’ll post in a couple days, but there is some adult language below.

For those who may be coming to this blog for the first time, I write it to learn from other writers and artists. I appreciate their time and honesty, and I have respect for the direct discussions they agree to be a part of. So thanks to Devereux. And thank you for reading.

Without further ado, part one of the conversation …

Q: How did you start writing?

I’ve always been a comic book nerd and my mom has comics that I wrote when I was five or six years old. I’m not a very good drawer but I could trace my hand. I would then turn (it) into a character. She has just pamphlets and pamphlets of these pages that I would draw one drawing per page and then write a caption and staple them together.

I always was very interested in comedy. … (W)hen I was in junior high and even high school, I would write scripts for The Monkees TV show. … Say what you will about their music and whether or not they played their own instruments, but their TV show still holds up as pretty funny. It’s a lot of absurd humor. It’s breaking the fourth wall type of stuff. I’ve always been fascinated with how they were kind of playing exaggerated versions of themselves, and then there were times they would break that character and go back to their real selves. I was always a big fan of that. I was a fan of Saturday Night Live.

Q: Do you remember the first time you saw SNL?

No. I do remember always liking the Coneheads. I always liked Bill Murray, but I’m not sure if that was from Ghostbusters and Caddyshack first and then Saturday Night Live after. I guess by the time I really was kind of aware of him, he must have already been off Saturday Night Live … so I must have seen repeats.

They did a big interview with (the SNL cast) in Rolling Stone and I got that issue and I must have read it a million times. It was kind of around then I decided I really would like to write for SNL, which I had forgotten about until my high school reunion a year or two ago. A lot of people were bringing it up. ‘That’s so cool – you were always talking about writing for SNL and now you’ve got your own comedy group.’

Q: What was it about the show that you liked?

I have a very short attention span so I like the sketch format better than sometimes even a half hour sitcom. Again, I always gravitated more toward comedies than dramas or even action movies. There’s just something about laughing I really enjoy.

Q: Did your folks have a good sense of humor?

My mom has a very weird sense of humor and my dad was kind of a life-of-the-party, lampshade-on-the-head type of guy.

Q: What’s a weird sense of humor for a mom?

She was a very strict mom growing up, but then there would be other times when we would be eating dinner and she’d be like, ‘Wow, these mashed potatoes smell kind of weird.’ And when we’d go in to sniff them she would push our head into them, which if my sister or I ever did it to one another we’d get in big trouble. That was our biggest joke. She always liked doing that.

She’s not like a joke teller or anything like that, but she’s really good at telling stories. She’s from New York and worked for ABC Radio in the early to mid 1960s, and her office was two doors down from Howard Cosell’s office. So she has a bunch of great stories about going out with Howard Cosell. Not dating, but just everybody from the office going out. She saw, when the Beatles came to New York, she got to go to the concert at Shea Stadium. When they gave their first press conference, she was actually in the room. She was the assistant program director at one point in time. She has a horrible taste in music. I always wonder how many really good bands never really got their shot because my mom would just toss their stuff before it ever got to the program director. She just has a way of telling a story and making it funny.

Q: You got that from her?

I think I kind of did. I’m not a joke person. When people find out I’m in The Pushers they go, ‘Oh, tell me a joke.’ I don’t know any jokes. I know maybe one knock knock joke.

Q: The one with the interrupting cow?

Well, there’s the cow one and there’s the other one where you start it. Start the joke.

Q: Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Q: (Uncomfortable silence, then laughter.)

For some reason, that’s my favorite knock knock joke. … It’s more to get back at people asking me to tell them a joke.

Q: You don’t see yourself as a joke teller, but you have to write comedy.

My comedy is very situational, or it’s more about taking something in everyday life and just exaggerating it. With the exception of the super hero sketches I do, most everything I do is more relationship based. A lot of it’s usually based on something that happened to me, and then just retelling that in sketch form and exaggerating the hell out of it.

Q: So how do you get from wanting to write for SNL to forgetting all about that dream and then (to The Pushers)?

A failed marriage.

Q: A failed marriage?

Yeah. That’ll do it. One of the reasons is I had the desire but had no idea how to act upon it. I went to George Mason University and my first semester I was actually a theater major. I did theater in high school. I had no desire to be on stage, but it was about being around the kind of people I had a kinship with. Mason at the time had a pretty competitive theater program and I couldn’t get into any of the theater courses, not even intro to theater. The only one I could take was actually taught by the Religion Department. It was themes and motifs in contemporary theater. So after my first semester I switched to English composition with an emphasis on fiction writing.

Q: What did you want to do with that?

I had no idea. At one point I thought about teaching. I still harbored thoughts of eventually writing for TV in some form.

Q: You didn’t want to write short stories or the Great American Novel?

No. I love reading those things but for some reason the actual mechanical act of writing I’m not a big fan of. Which is why I think I love sketch writing. It’s only four or five pages. … I did do a lot of short stories. I would still kind of dabble in script writing. I also ended up getting a minor in film and media studies, but it was in their Communication Department.

During my junior year, myself and some friends decided we were going to do our own TV show, kind of interview program, like a very localized The Larry Sanders Show, mocking the late night TV format. I wrote five scripts for that. We actually started filming pieces for it. The problem was, instead of going with other communication majors to help me do this, I had my friends who had no idea what they were doing and as soon as exams rolled around they abandoned the project to go study.

Q: So what was an early sketch?

Early sketches were a lot of mocking Mason campus life. They had just unveiled a new bus system that students could use, but it had weird stops. It wouldn’t stop at the Metro station, so if you needed to get to D.C., you’d stop like a half mile away and you’d walk. … Essentially they spent all this money for this new bus line that nobody ever bothered using. So we’d do live reports – it had some kind of name, like the Tide – so we’d always have a roving reporter trying to interview people on this bus. There would never be anybody on it. …

The summer between my junior and senior year, I got an internship at Channel 13. I started in the news department, because I gave a brief thought at trying to be in journalism. Two weeks in the news department, I realized that journalism really wasn’t the thing for me. You had to stick with facts. I do like exaggerating. My version of the story was always much better, or I thought was much better than what actually happened.

Q: And they frown on that.

Yeah, they do frown on embellishing. So after two weeks I moved to the production department. … So a lot of it was going out to Harborfest or Bay Days and handing out t-shirts. I went back to school and graduated and had planned to move to New York with two really good friends. My girlfriend at the time who was a year behind me had visions of the three of us going roughshod all over New York City, so if I moved up to New York she would break up with me. So I picked her over New York and moved back home to Virginia Beach.

Q: Do you know how many women they have there?

I know.

Q: Just putting that out there.

Yeah, it was not one of the smarter moves I’ve ever made.

Q: Well, I’m sure at the time it was very noble.

I don’t think so. It was sheer stupidity on my part, and then I had to go and marry her. So once I moved back here, I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to Regent for about two semesters. They actually really have a good program.

Q: Masters of communications?

Yeah. It was going to be with an emphasis in screenwriting, but I quickly found I had to start editing some of the work I turned in. Nothing against their form of Christianity, but it is very strict. I thought I could fake it for the sake of getting a degree and using their equipment and stuff like that. I only lasted probably a semester and a half before I decided to drop out. …

For me, I didn’t mind it so much at first. I come from a pretty strong Catholic family. I had an uncle who was a priest. So the fact that you had to pray before every class, I was okay with that. Not really my thing, but I was okay with that. I had a script analysis class, which was actually pretty good and then one day the professor never showed, and then the next day, the next class, she was very apologetic, but (a family member had been injured; and this incident became a distraction for the class). … We had to spend the rest of the class praying for her (relative) and by that point in time I was pretty tight on money so I started calculating how much money I was wasting by praying …

Then I was taking a television scriptwriting class, and I loved the class. The guy actually had credits to his name. … He was really cool. There was probably 40 people in the class, and the first week or two we had to pitch him ideas. We had to take an existing TV show and then pitch him ideas for possible scripts, kind of like you would do pitching –

Q: In a writers room.

Exactly. On the first day he shot down every single idea that anybody came up with. He was very harsh and mean about it. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really weird for Regent.’ So the next class, like half the people dropped and we had to go through the same process, pitching him ideas. This time a couple people would be close to him saying, ‘Okay, that’s a good idea.’ Then something would happen and he’d say, ‘No, that sucks. Give me your next idea. No. Horrible. Move on.’ Finally, at the end of the class he said, ‘A lot of you had really great ideas, you know – things a producer might actually pick up, but when you go into a meeting  with a producer it could be right before lunchtime. He could have just been chewed out by his boss. You know, you could have the best idea in the world, but if this guy’s having a rotten day, there’s a good chance your idea is going to fall on deaf ears. … I’m going to get you ready for the real world.’

Devereux later dropped out. He had written for class, among other things, a script for Mad About You, but lost much of his Regent writing when a computer virus software apparently ate the disk.

Q: Are you sure it was the virus software?

It could have been God.

Q: He’s gotten pretty tech-savvy in the past few years.

He has. I have an uncle who was a priest who died a while back, so I’m assuming that he’s up there looking out for me. Although he had a pretty weird sense of humor, too. … I remember a Christmas, and, again all my family was in New York, and his parish was in Brooklyn. We’re all at my grandmother’s house, and my mom is one of six kids who all had pretty large families. Every Christmas was just a mass of people at my grandmother’s house. We’re all starving but we’re all sitting around the dinner table waiting because we can’t start eating until Uncle Marty came. He ended up showing three hours late. My grandmother made no bones about it that Marty was her favorite because he was a priest, so we were all kind of annoyed when he finally showed up. My mom was like, ‘Where the hell were you?’ And it’s like, ‘I’m really sorry, but a family in my parish, you know, the husband died this morning so I had to be with the family.’ And my mom was like, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible, what do you say to a family who has a loved one die on Christmas Eve?’ And without blinking his eyes, straight-laced, he’s like, ‘I hope you saved the receipts.’

So my uncle the priest had a very morbid dark sense of humor, which I’m a big fan of as well.

Q: Were you an altar boy and the whole bit?

Yeah, I was an altar boy, in Sunday School, I taught the youth group.

Q: I still have my cassock. I put it on every now and then.

Really.

Q: No.

When we first started, Jeremiah (Albers) would play all the priest roles. Back then we were always going for the cheap (jokes), so the fact that he was gay, you know, naturally he would be the one to play the priest. Now that he’s out of the group, I’m regulated to all the priest roles.

Q: Have those jokes died down?

They have. The priest character I have is an angry priest … We have a recurring series of sketches where Brad plays a kid with Tourette’s. With sketches that have recurring characters, the game of the sketch is always the same. It’s just the situation that would be different, kind of like John Belushi with the samurai character. … So Brad does this character, this kid who has Tourette’s, and either it’s at a wedding or at a funeral or just a church service where I’m giving my homily and he keeps on interrupting with more and more profane outbursts, and my character is trying to keep his cool until he finally loses it and berates the kid in front of the whole church.

Q: So what happens?

It always ends with Brad having one last outburst … so I repeat it, and my out line is always ‘God is dead.’ … and then I toss the Bible at him, and it always hits the actress behind him.

Q: Wow. A little hardcore.

Yeah.

Q: How did it play?

It’s, ah, there’s always a shock when I say it, but then when I toss the Bible it always hits the girl smack in the face and she’s a pretty good physical comedian and falls over the back of her chair, that cuts whatever – because people like watching other people fall down. … Whatever moral indignation they had at me saying God is dead is quickly forgotten by a girl getting hit in the face and falling over the back of a chair.

We discussed how Devereux came to work at a local news station after working in retail and doing freelance production assistance, which led to a full-time job. The interview picks back up with how he returned to writing.

I was writing for work. Occasionally I would come up with an idea of like, ‘Oh, this would be a good movie or a good sitcom.’ And I would jot it down, but I was really not writing other than for work for a long, long time.

Q: What would you do when you had an idea?

I would put it in a notebook. A lot of times I would start working on something. At the time I had a work ethic when it came to writing. I would write and if I would get to a sticking place instead of plowing through and keep on writing I would stop and then go back to the beginning and reread what I wrote … and I immediately would start editing myself. I can’t write directly onto a computer. I have to write longhand first. I would just start rewriting. So I have an amazing first 15 minutes of a movie because, you know, I’ve edited the hell out of them, but nothing past that. Nowadays, even if I getting to a sticking point and it’s crap I just keep on writing and then go back and start rewriting.

Q: Did you ever want to try to write a comic book?

Yes, I thought about it. I actually met an editor back in the late 1990s. … We went to the San Diego Comic-Con, and this was right before it blew up to what it is now. … There was one point in time where I had a drunken conversation with an editor from DC Comics and I don’t know how we got into it, but I actually pitched him a couple of ideas, which he was receptive to. He was actually pumping me for information. But it was almost like – not work, but it made me look at comic books with a more critical eye, which I really don’t want to do. It’s a guilty pleasure, and I kind of want to keep it a guilty pleasure.

Q: One of my short stories is about a guy who gets out of the Navy and opens up a comics shop in Norfolk.

During the period when I was kind of directionless in my writing, the one idea I kept going back to was, and I probably had close to 90 pages written, was a screenplay that is kind of a cross between High Fidelity and Clerks set in a comic book shop. A lot of it is kind of autobiographical, which is I guess is the same as the idea you had, which is the guy has a lot of great ideas for comics but he’s afraid of failing. So it’s one of those things, if you don’t try, you know. …

Today, because of the interview, I pulled up the ‘Justice Crusaders’ sketch. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a couple years. … I don’t know if it would ever make it in The Pushers these days.

Q: Why not?

It’s long. It’s like eight minutes long. Right now we’re down to if you had something five minutes long, maybe that would make it in.

Here’s ‘Justice Crusaders,’ a NSFW sketch we will discuss in some depth in the Part Two of this talk, especially some of the jokes about race and sexuality:

Q: Well, let’s talk about that sketch. I think you were here when I was talking to (McMurran and Albers) about it.

Well, let me ask you what is it about the sketch that you like?

Q: It’s got all kinds of little crises, which I like in comedy. It’s interesting and it’s absurd. Number one that all these people would answer an ad and show up. It’s got these layers of absurdity, and then I don’t want to say that it’s obvious but it’s, the setup is … Aquaman shows up, there’s a reveal that it’s Aquaman, and they don’t want him to be in the group. Which is funny.

It is. It’s Aquaman and no one wants Aquaman in the group. All he does is talk to fish. That’s not a new joke.

Q: But it’s also funny that he’s the only person who is an actual superhero.

Right. Exactly. I’ve always had a love-hate with that sketch. I think I told you this before, but when I joined a group it was strictly as a writer and then I got thrown into the performing aspect as a necessity. The entire first summer of the group I was always playing little bit parts. That scene, I wrote it, but it was the first time I essentially had the lead and was the one driving the sketch. I was scared shitless walking out on that stage. …

I think I noticed in the video today that I started out with a really kind of geeky voice and halfway through the sketch I ended up losing the voice I created for the character. Going back to what I said about comic books, where I said I never wanted to look at comic books with a critical eye, I’ve gotten to the point now where I do look at the sketch and sketch comedy. I can still enjoy it, but when I watch Saturday Night Live now, it’s never I can kick back and relax. It’s always, ‘Oh, I see what they did there. Oh yeah, that didn’t hit as much as it should have.’

Q: I always remember liking the late sketches.

Me too.

Q: They take a risk. It’s like when you go to a jazz show and the polite people stay for the first hour and leave, and the musicians open up.

I always loved the last sketch. The first sketch is always some recurring character they know is going to hit. I was really disappointed with the Betty White episode. Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and all the girls came back and it turned out to be – the Dana Carvey episode turned out to be the same thing. It was nothing but recurring character after recurring character. There was nothing new. You know, I have a stable of characters that I play, but I’m more about writing something new or trying to take a character out of a standard format. …

I’m trying to find out where can we put this character and make it work.

Part two is on the way …

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XIII: Plan B sketch comedy and improv


NORFOLK, Va. — Over the past couple of months, I’ve spent a good bit of time speaking about writing and creating comedy with people who are a lot funnier than me. I have found this process to be both invigorating and humbling — like sex, but with a greater percentage of intentional laughs.

Today a few members of Plan B, a Hampton Roads sketch comedy and improv group, will be represented here in a Belligerent Q&A. I’m not going to lie to you — there is some adult language below, so be warned. Also, whatever they say, I still dig light rail.

Plan B this weekend presents The Big Show, an improv, sketch and multimedia comedy performance. The event is scheduled for 9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 1, at Naro Expanded Cinema, 1507 Colley Ave., Norfolk.

You can find information at this Facebook link or call (757) 625-6276. Tickets are $10, or $15 for tickets and a shirt. There is surface lot parking behind the Naro between Spotswood and Shirley avenues and some nearby street parking.

Two Plan B members, Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson, also sat down with me recently for a long craft talk, which will run at a later date I totally will figure out like really soon and stuff. It’s quite the well oiled machine around here, let me tell you.

In addition to an upcoming show, the members of Plan B have names, such as Beatty Barnes, Brendan Hoyle, Nikki Hudgins, Garney Johnson, Kypros, Lauren Rodgers, Keven Schreiber, Jim Seward and Wilson.

I hope you’ll check them out.

And remember to take care of your feet. Also, the lower legs and ankles. What do I mean with the random foot care references? I’m setting up what the funny folk call a “call back.” Do you have to ruin everything, Imaginary Mom?

The following answers, unless otherwise noted, came from Kypros.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. The White Buffalo
  2. The fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse
  3. Big Debbie (Little Debbie’s sister – the one that taught her all the recipes)

Q: What was Plan A? (Please don’t all of you say podiatry.)

Sorry to disappoint … Podiatry.

Q: Presumably, you let Hampton Roads Transit take a pass on the scripts for your light rail videos. What were some of their notes?

Rob here.

Of course we talked to HRT and they had some very insightful and funny notes on that script. In fact they actually wrote all of Jason’s dialogue. That’s why in that sketch my character sounds like a sensible human being and Jason’s sounds like a behind-schedule, over-budget murder machine that will never be allowed in Virginia Beach as long as white people with money have anything to say about it.

Q: For the future comedy writers in the readership, will you please enumerate a few of the catch phrases and setups to avoid?

Jim Seward here.

What are you kidding? Never avoid catchphrases and common setups! Look, the average audience member doesn’t understand intelligent humor. And they don’t know George Carlin from Carrot Top. Be as uncreative as possible so you can relate to as many people as possible. Never try to have an original thought; it’s doomed to fail. People love dick jokes. You can never go wrong with dick jokes. If you’re writing for a black comedian, make sure you talk about how uptight white people are; that always works. If you’re writing for a white comedian, mention how they have good credit, and then make a Hispanic slur and say ‘It doesn’t matter, they can’t hear me, they’re in the kitchen.’ If you’re writing for any other nationality/ethnicity, just have a story about how it was tough for their family to adjust to the United States and then have them talk in a funny accent as they mimic their parents. Gold, I tell you – sure fire gold!  Oh, and puppets. Always have them use puppets. Preferably puppets who can play a musical instrument. Then you can go for minutes and minutes without writing any comedy!

Q: Plan B – there can only be one. How and when will you fight the so-called Plan B Improv of Des Moines, Iowa?

This is Keven.

When? End of the corn harvest season. (Just to be courteous.) How? To the pain. I have a sweet black bandanna I can wear. And a broadsword. And I can speak with either a Scottish or English accent.

Q: Can we do a double bill? I will gladly fight character actor John Doucette, once considered the fastest draw in Hollywood. We’ll see if his reputation holds up, given his 1994 death.

No, we cannot. Although you are a wonderful journalist, I fear that even the cold dead hand of the late great John Doucette may prove to be too swift. (Actually we would love to do the double bill but Legal prevents us from it … we have a non compete clause with the NRA.)

Q: Why aren’t more comedies set at NASA?

Jim Seward here again.

Great question. There should be more comedies set at NASA. You could have the nerdy engineer, the sexy tour guide, the ne’er do well ex-astronaut who hits on all the ladies, the server in the cafeteria who’sa smartass to all the customers. Yep. And then there could be special guests who rotate in and out like the Love Boat – you know, each episode is a different shuttle crew or something. Then when ratings start getting lower, there could be a ‘very special episode’ where the shuttle crew is beloved by everyone and then at the end of the episode they launch and it blows up, and we pan across the faces of all our regular stars as we see the look of shock and horror on each of their faces. Except the smartass waitress. She just exclaims, ‘Eh, they weren’t very good tippers anyway.’ Remember, no tragedy is so bad that you can’t milk it for commercial purposes.

Q: So there’s Plan B and The Pushers and apparently some groups coming out of the classes over at The Muse Writers Center and then other day a guy at the bus station asked me for a topic and gave me two minutes on “directions to the can.” At what point does Hampton Roads reach its improv and sketch comedy saturation point? Should we make a rule – such as saturation is when we have a greater number of improv troupes than we do miles of light rail track?

I know that guy. He kills at The Funny Bone.

Q: When you say this show at the Naro is The Big Show, what are you getting at? How do you think it makes all the other shows feel?

  1. The size of the show.
  2. Skinny and cute.

Q: You comedy style is marked by a give and take between characters in conflict, sometimes portraying a battle between the earnest and the savvy, interlocking sides suddenly joined by circumstance in the congress of verbal and physical structures, mated in a deliriously dirty dance until reversals pile against reversals, recasting perspectives, erupting in a moment of truth, a single comedic beacon illuminating the dim bay of human understanding. What does that mean, what I just typed?

This is Keven.

It means we regularly rock faces off. It also means we should probably take a shower after doing dirty mating dances. Especially me. For obvious reasons.

Q: You are known, in part, for the marketing campaign behind Kypros Ouzo. I often enjoy ouzo in the privacy of a darkened bathroom, drinking it neat until the voices leave me alone with my shame. Do you have any other serving suggestions?

Yes.  Once, on the summit of Everest, after an arduous yet liberating climb.  I enjoyed a refreshing glass of Kypros Ouzo with Vladimir Putin, his mistress, and three of my favorite Sherpas. As we toasted to the success of the Internet, I thought back to my childhood in Cyprus. The look on my face made Vladimir weep.

Q: A bit more seriously – why do this? Why create something when there are so many other ways to spend one’s time? Where do you see the group going down the line?

Be passionate about something.  Always strive to create.  Give and expect nothing in return.

We are going to 7-Eleven to get a Big Bite and a Slurpee. Wanna join us?

Q: I hope you enjoyed that softball because here we go. Hoyle, you’re a maverick astronaut with daddy issues, a secret past as a Spaniard, and a love of the slow bolero. Wilson, you’re Hoyle’s much older copilot, but you haven’t cut a rug since that tragic night your old running buddy, Skinny Pete, bought it in a Wichita dance hall. Rodgers is the NASA administrator whose job is on the line unless this mission goes off. Kypros is the engineer who realizes that there’s only one way to get the Lazy Arabesque Rocket Program off the ground – and it doesn’t involve the traditional kind of exothermic chemical reactions he learned about in aerospace engineering school, but ballet d’action. Beatty Barnes Jr. is the skeptical congressman and Kypros’ former Harvard roommate who invented the Internet, thus inspiring Love Story. Everybody else is a space pirate. Let’s do this:

Rob Wilson will take this one. Yes, I am speaking in the third person. Yes, that IS a little pretentious. Okay here we go…

We open on a shot of Brendan doing the Macarena by himself in a dance studio with moody black and white, film noir style lighting a la  Robert Alton (look him up). He begins to do a Patrick Swayze (God rest his soul), slowly winding his hips as we do an extreme close up of his crotch.

FLASH and we are in a pool hall. Rob ‘mother[appreciating]’ Wilson (that’s me) rides through the double doors on a badass motorcycle and skids to a stop inches away from three hot ladies. They faint. He (I mean me) revives them and they are ‘appreciative’( they want to do it) ( sex I mean) ( at the same time) (somehow involving the motorcycle). They ask him (me) to dance. He breaks down crying (it’s really cool crying though).

FLASH Lauren is in a kitchen making eggs we pull out to reveal the starship Enterprise through her window. It blows up.

FLASH She wakes up. Rob Wilson is in bed beside her (still crying, but it’s sexy crying this time).

FLASH Jason is doing some smart shit (I only really understood like three words in his description).

FLASH Beatty is … Man I’m tired of this shit. I’m gonna go get a drink.

FLASH We all do a Bollywood dance number … even Rob Wilson but he (me) is crying (this time it’s heartfelt and humble ). Oh and the Space Pirates all have to walk the Space Plank. Rob Wilson doesn’t cry (well, okay, there is one tear like the Indian (feather) in that one recycling commercial).

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Flip-Flop!!!!!!!

Seward now holds this blog’s record for exclamation point deployment, with Kypros a close second on the strength of his last answer alone. Wilson was voted Miss Parenthetical. Schreiber, for using The Princess Bride as a referent, wins one free resuscitation from Billy Crystal and Carol Kane.

They already are working out their wordplay about how he spells his first name.

Thanks to all.

Again, Plan B is at the Naro Expanded Cinema this weekend.

A video for the road. The music will win you over:

Bonus fun fact: More than 4.1 million people “like” Slurpee’s Facebook page; in comparison, roughly 8,800 people “like” the National Endowment for the Arts. Sleep tight, my babies.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XII: Comedy writer and actor Sean Devereux of The Pushers


At left is Sean Devereux, producer and co-head writer of the Hampton Roads improv and sketch comedy group The Pushers. In the foreground at right is a custom Ed Carden-shaped Chia pencil holder. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – During a recent rehearsal for The Pushers’ upcoming show at The NorVa, members of the improv and sketch comedy group ran lines and worked out blocking in Sean Devereux’s Colonial Place condo.

A duo worked on a musical number on the patio. Several other cast members practiced a sketch in the living room. One ducked into the kitchen to seek out a prop magic wand for her role as (spoiler omitted) in a sketch about (spoiler omitted) in which a (subject noun) thoroughly (verbs) an (object).

I can’t reveal the details of these sketches in progress before the show, because (a) that would involve translating the strange marks on a notepad into real words and (b) The Pushers might retaliate by coming to my kids’ school and working blue. My family gets enough of that at home.

Through the rehearsal, Devereux worked on sketches, handled scripts and coordinated with colleagues. Numerous sketches were in play for the show of all new material. The group is meeting throughout the week to get ready. Several guests and some surprises are promised.

The Pushers has a rep for pushing the envelope, as the name suggests, but in a recent talk here at the blog founding member Brad McMurran discussed the work the group has done to hone its craft as an improv group and a collective of comedic actors.

Devereux, also a founding member, wears a number of hats, including as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. He happens to have written one of my favorite sketches, which I’ll discuss in another post soon, if my planned schedule of posts holds up for once. And he’s even bylined an interview with himself.

More on that in a moment.

The show is at 9 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10, at The NorVa, 317 Monticello Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 ($21 via Ticketmaster).

FYI, this Belligerent Q&A includes brief adult language.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Not to sound pretentious or anything, but I see myself as true, modern-day renaissance man. Aside from being one of the stars of The Pushers, I am a multi-Emmy Award winning writer-producer. I have inadvertently amassed the largest collection of Wonder Woman memorabilia in Colonial Place … if not all of Norfolk. And I can also name all eight of the Bradford kids on Eight is Enough.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

I felt The Pushers had started to rely too much on old sketches instead of generating new material. In the summer of 2009, I instituted the ‘no repeat rule.’ It is still in effect with a few notable exceptions. When former Pushers return for a show, we will resurrect an old sketch or character. We also try to perform one or two ‘Best Of’ shows a year.

Q: In addition to being the producer and co-head writer for The Pushers, you teach young people how to express themselves through improvisation and sketch comedy. Why not teach them to turn that music down, cut that long hair, and get a job already?

Children respond to kindness. One of my goals in life is to become a modern day Fagin. I have found that by training kids in improv and sketch writing they are much more likely to join my roving band of pick-pocketing street urchins.

Q: You effectively are the manager of The Pushers. How much of your time is spent getting McMurran out of scrapes and/or solving mysteries?

Ah. You are obviously referring to our latest adventure, ‘Brad and Sean and The Case of Bluebeard’s Treasure.’  That one was a little scary, until we realized the real culprit was Old Man McGillicutty. Brad and I are very much like the Hardy Boys … only older, fatter and drunker.

Q: One of the things I’ve admired about some of the sketches you have written is the clear patterns of reversals – both of the expectations of characters within the scene and also of those that seem to be held by audience members who then find themselves experiencing the unfolding of not just a mere joke but a fuller story of such a specific design that it energetically unfolds from the stage into the audience and back upon itself, compounding all that has come before into all that will come, until the laughs emerge from character and dramatic action and a purer place, a special place, and it’s a place we can only get to if we work together. What does that mean, this thing I just typed up here?

It was my understanding there would be no math … during these debates.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

By eliminating our ability to repeat sketches, we eliminate our safety net. Now, no matter what, we are forced to write 90 minutes of pure comedy gold every show.

Q: The Pushers seem to revel in Star Wars and superhero references. If Star Wars and superheroes were to be referenced within the same sketch, would something cataclysmic happen — like when the guys in Ghostbusters cross their proton streams?

Two forces of awesomeness coming together like that could only lead to one thing … me ascending to nerd nirvana where I would be heralded as a geek god. The only reason it hasn’t happened is because I’m not quite ready to leave this mortal realm.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

The Pushers had fallen prey to what I like to call ‘Fat Cat Syndrome.’ By going back to the well too many times we had gotten stale and lazy. We were one repeat away from being found dead on a toilet. I feel the ‘no repeat rule’ has invigorated us comedically and sexually.

Q: Roughly a year ago, Splash Magazine contacted you about an interview, and then asked you to interview yourself. Is journalism more effective now that Splash has removed reporters from the equation?

At times I can be a very self-centered, vain egomaniac. I applaud Splash Magazine for realizing the only person truly qualified, truly worthy enough to interview me and The Pushers was … me.

(Present interview excluded of course.)

Q: I mean, did they even send any questions? Not even a few questions? Even one question asked over and over again, so it at least looked a little bit, if only initially, like they were sincere in their efforts to interview you?

See, that’s where the interview went off the rails. While Splash Magazine clearly had the vision and insight to realize I was the only one who could interview myself … they failed to realize I am a lazy schlub with a tendency to drink too much. My brief stab at journalism was not a pleasurable one.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

No comment.

Q: In one interview you described The Pushers as like Saturday Night Live, but funnier. Why the faint self praise?

I grew up with Saturday Night Live, I know Saturday Night Live, I’m friends with Saturday Night Live … and Saturday Night Live, you’re no Saturday Night Live.

If Lorne Michaels is reading this interview … just kidding. 🙂

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

Since instituting the ‘no repeat rule’ we have written close to 600 sketches. We have at least five seasons worth of material and are just waiting for some eager TV executive to sign us. I have come to realize that I have a face and body for television. I mean let’s face it — nothing says ratings bonanza like me, Brad and Ed in high-def.

Q: When is repetition funny?

Only when it is done in threes.

Q: A bit more seriously, there are so many other things to do in this world besides create something. Why do you bother? What do you want to get out of this?

I honestly don’t know. There’s just something in my gut that compels me to do this.

When The Pushers formed I was just a writer. I love writing. It’s like therapy. If something bothers me at work or at home I can turn it into a funny sketch. Somewhere along the way I became, for lack of a better word, the group’s manager.

Dealing with the individual personalities of The Pushers is pure hell.  Dealing with all the nuts and bolts of putting a show together sucks.  Having to be the somewhat responsible one in a group full of dipshits blows. But for some reason, the 90 minutes we’re on stage — making people laugh — it doesn’t seem so bad.

Q: Does it have something to do with the Wonder Woman poster at your condo?

Okay — let me set the record straight. I’m a comic book nerd. I think Wonder Woman is pretty cool. Lynda Carter was the first woman I had a crush on. Years ago I bought some crazy, psychedelic 1960s Wonder Woman comics at a flea market. I happened to mention my purchase to a couple of friends … and — BAM! — suddenly I’m the Wonder Woman guy. Now when ever a friend or family members comes across something Wonder Woman, they buy it for me. I have an insane amount of Wonder Woman stuff. I like Superman better.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Come see our show at The NorVa. When The Pushers started we were a bunch of potty-mouthed morons who had no idea what we were doing. Now, six years later, we are a bunch of potty-mouthed morons who know how to put on one spectacle of a show. I think our writing has matured. We really have some clever sketches for this show. That said we also have some really dumb sketches. If you haven’t seen us in a couple of years or if you have some preconceived notion (either good or bad) of what we’re about … check us out at The NorVa. I think you’ll be surprised at what you’ll see.

In closing, here’s are two videos.

The first, a Pushers spot from last year, features Devereux. I hope to have a longer talk with him about comedy writing in the near future.

This next one’s going out to Devereux, a real sport.

Look out, Wonder Woman — dude in the bushes is packing heat — and wicked bad bronchitis:

For more information on the show at the NorVa, click this link.

If you go, there is paid garage parking at Monticello and East Freemason and on the Nordstrom side of MacArthur Center; valet parking on the Monticello side of MacArthur Center; and some metered street parking nearby. The Tide has nearby stations at Monticello or MacArthur Square, though it stops running at midnight.

And please check out the Belligerent Q&A archive.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XI: Writer and editor Tom Robotham


Writer and editor Tom Robotham did not realize he would be part of a blog post that would unsuccessfully link 1870s British light opera and 1980s American light rap when he agree to be photographed at the Taphouse yesterday in Norfolk, Va. As it turns out, parents just don't understand that I am the captain of the Pinafore. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – That gentleman, the one always over in the corner writing away at The Taphouse Grill on West 21st Street, well it’s his turn for a Belligerent Q&A.

Tom Robotham began his journalism career as an education reporter and music writer for The Staten Island Advance in New York City and has freelanced for a variety of publications, most recently as a columnist for Veer Magazine and Hampton Roads Magazine.

Most people in Hampton Roads know him as the longtime editor of PortFolio Weekly, the alternative weekly that folded a few years back. He’s also written books and taught at Old Dominion University and The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.

Furthermore, he is never known to quail at the fury a gale, and he’s never, never sick at sea.

What never? you ask.

No never.

What never?

Hardly ever.

My point is that may come in handy this weekend.

Because, as the cutline above suggests, I bring the Gilbert & Sullivan deep cuts harder than DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the Librettist, I’m the Composer.

Regular readers (love you, Pretend Mom Who Knows How To Use A Computer) realize I often have conflicts with folks featured here, and Robotham is no exception. He’s been my editor more times than he cares to remember, and yet we’re still friends.

This Belligerent Q&A is some partial get back for all that red pen.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Well, clearly, I’m a beer drinker. The Taphouse almost went out of business when I left town for two weeks this summer. Seriously, though, that pub is one of the best places I’ve ever been to – anywhere – for music and conversation, not to mention beer.

I’m also a professional arsonist. Before anyone calls the cops on me, let me explain. I figure it’s my job as a teacher (at ODU) and a writer of essays and articles, to try to set minds on fire – to get people thinking, imagining and questioning everything they’ve ever read or been told – including everything I say.

I try to convince my students in particular to question the whole mainstream American fantasy (as opposed to dream), which to my mind is based on a combination of material affluence and flatulence. I’m sure I pissed off at least one set of parents who wanted their daughter to major in something she hated; after she studied Thoreau with me, she decided to march to the beat of her own drummer and become an actress.

Third, I’m a musician – not a very good one, I must say, but my heart and soul are in it. I played a gig earlier this summer, and people didn’t throw empty PBR bottles at me, which was encouraging.

Q: You are know for thoughtful explorations of music, writing, culture, and society in your editorial and essay writing, both in your former role as editor of PortFolio Weekly and presently in work for Veer Magazine and Hampton Roads Magazine. I’d suggest that two themes I’ve seen in your writing are (1) deflation of hypocritical assertions and naysaying by certain political forces and (2) the exposure of shortcomings in our individual and (by extrapolation, perhaps) communal support for arts and culture, as well as civic involvement, namely the core aspects of public life such as government. What does that stuff I just typed mean?

I have no idea what it means. It sounds like a passage from a PhD dissertation. That said, I agree with what I think it means. I’ve written a lot about hypocrisy – including my own – as well as the marginalization of arts and culture, which to me are as important as food. And as you point out, I’ve written about civic apathy. It’s all of a piece, really. Seems to me that our country was founded on a sublime Jeffersonian dream of simplicity, beauty, education, hard work and civic engagement. Therein lies the hypocrisy. We hear a lot of blather about the ‘founding fathers.’ But for decades at least, our schools have virtually ignored arts and culture in favor of curricula that train children to be cogs in a machine. As a result, there’s little public support for the arts and a massive deficit in our capacity for critical thinking. Seems to me that most people have bought into the suburban dream of having a house on a cul de sac with a huge garage, a Ford Gargantuan, and a large backyard with an 8-foot stockade fence where they can hide from their neighbors – that is, when they’re not inside taking perverse pleasure in watching people make fools of themselves on American Idol. Meanwhile there’s a whole world of cultural beauty out there – live music and art, theater and dance – and architecture. If more people cared about beauty and artistic excellence, we wouldn’t live in these hideously ugly suburbanscapes of stripmalls and clogged boulevards. Finally, there’s the disconnect from nature. I heard recently that the average American teenager can identify 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants. I suspect it’s not much better with adults. That’s why we have so many environmental problems.

Wow – I covered a lot of ground there and probably sound like a rambling elitist. I’ve been accused of that. So be it.

Q: You’ve written forcefully against those who oppose subsidization of public broadcasting. When did you stop loving God?

There is no doubt in my mind that God listens to NPR – especially On Point and The Jefferson Hour – and that he’s a member of the WHRO Leadership Circle.

Q: You have said that readers don’t need to be pandered to. I want to agree with you, but that sentiment neither exploits my weaknesses nor appeals to my base instincts. Discuss.

You don’t have any weaknesses that I know of. As for your base instincts, I thought we weren’t going to discuss that night of debauchery at the Thirsty Camel. I do think that our community and country would be a lot better off if we got over our anti-elitist tendencies and let experts do their thing – that includes journalists who are professional observers; they need to tell us what they think is important, and we need to listen. The great ones – from Murrow to Nat Hentoff to Bill Moyers – have always done that, and we’re better off for it.

Q: Why did they name our new light rail line after a laundry detergent instead of calling it Hampton Roads: America’s First Region’s First Light Rail System That Goes to Newtown Road In Norfolk For Now?

Because that wouldn’t have fit on the train. But it does have a nice ring to it.

Q: Do you pledge to support my campaign to reunite Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies in Norfolk to play their 1994 modern rock hit “Ride the Tide” aboard a light rail train repeatedly for a half hour or 7.4 miles (whichever comes last)?

I do, indeed. Although I also like the idea of getting Ozzy Osbourne on board to sing ‘Crazy Train’ for 24 hours straight.

Q: Sometimes I think back to the New York days. Like the night in 1979 when Cyrus from the Gramercy Riffs called all us city gangs together at Van Cortland Park and Luther whacked Cyrus and put the whole dirty deed on us and all that heat came down from the airwaves while we headed back to our turf and I never thought we’d make it back to Coney Island in one piece especially after me and my boys ran into the Lizzies and what with what happened to Fox in the subway but at least Luther got what was coming when the Riffs learned it wasn’t us that took out Cyrus at the summit. I take it you and your crew had a better time getting back to Staten Island, yes? What was the name of your gang and what route did you take?

We came up with a name one night but promptly forgot it after smoking a lot of marijuana and eating 17 boxes of Twinkies. Come to think of it, though, there was another night I recall when some friends and I went to a party in the North Bronx, sang Beatles songs all night with two fugitive IRA members (true story), then rode a Manhattan-bound subway through the South Bronx at 3 a.m. (Not something I’d recommend.) We eventually got to the Staten Island Ferry, then caught Staten Island’s lightrail, which actually goes somewhere.

Q: Funnily enough, when we had our local scrape with those local punks in the Downtown Norfolk Crusher OGs the other day, we were only able to flee on The Tide to Newtown Road before we had to rent a car at that Avis on Virginia Beach Boulevard. Maybe light rail could be a little longer, if only to enable the Technicolor flight of nonexistant gangs. What’s the likelihood we go all the way on light rail in Hampton Roads? By “all the way” I mean to Portsmouth.

Ah, fun times.

Right now the only way it can serve local gangs is to take them all to a sit-down at that great sushi restaurant on Newtown Road. Kind of like those old meetings of the heads of the five mafia families in New York, but with California rolls.

That said, I think it’s unlikely that I will see a truly serviceable mass-transit system here in my lifetime. Right now, I figure I’m better off hopping a Norfolk Southern coal car out of West Ghent if I want to commute somewhere without a car.

Q: If the Beach continues to go slow on light rail, will HRT forces take the needed permissions, funding, and land by sword skirmish?

No. I think we’ll continue to talk about it, just as we talk about ‘regionalism’ and attracting the ‘creative class.’ Reminds me of the characters in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Just a bunch of people sitting around with their pipe dreams. Or Waiting for Godot. But I do kind of like the idea of taking Mount Trashmore, swords in hand, as we recite ‘Charge of the Lightrail Brigade,’ with apologies to Tennyson.

Q: In recent years you’ve taken up martial arts and songwriting. Where exactly are you going with this?

I’m not a very good musician, as I’ve already noted, but I kind of like my own stuff. I figure I’d better be able to defend myself at gigs because some people do tend to get pissed off when I refuse to play Jimmy Buffet songs.

Q: I understand that you’re heading back to school this fall. Will Sally Kellerman play your love interest? Who will play Lou, your chauffeur?

Lou will be played by my old friend Louie Pisigoni from Staten Island. As for my love interest, I’m holding out for Rachel McAdams. I’ve had a crush on her ever since Wedding Crashers.

As for going back to school, I’m going to give ODU a try while I continue teaching there, but I may transfer to my son’s college, room with him in a customized dorm suite complete with hot tub and hire Kurt Vonnegut to write our papers. Oh wait – he’s dead. Maybe Dave Eggers, then.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’d like to say hi to my friends at the Taphouse. It will be at least three hours between the time they read this and the time they see me.

You can learn more about Robotham (and see a photo of him on a horse) at this link to his site.

And thanks to the magic of YouTube, former Screamin Cheetah Wheelies frontman Mike Farris will play us out:

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Defining alternative media in Hampton Roads


NORFOLK, Va. – HearSay with Cathy Lewis earlier this month had a panel on alternative media in Hampton Roads region, which effectively was a discussion about the monthly print pub Veer Magazine and the online outlet AltDaily.

Though it aired Aug. 10, I finally had a chance to hear the whole thing this past week, and mention it here in large part because I’ve written about alternative media here and elsewhere, and I have a loosely scheduled interview for this blog that surely will touch upon the topic.

Lewis’ guests were:

  • AltDaily publisher Hannah Serrano and editor-in-chief Jesse Scaccia. AltDaily is an online outlet, though Serrano said they’ll role out a print product of some kind later this year. Looking forward to it. AltDaily‘s strongest content, including its sharp take on news reported elsewhere, could do well on the page.
  • Veer Magazine publisher and editor Jeff Maisey. Veer is a monthly publication similar in some respects to the defunct PortFolio Weekly, which Maisey once edited. Veer‘s website, which is fairly straight forward, is due for a facelift soon, he noted.

Overall, a good talk. I had one minor issue, and I’ll come back to it, but I want to stress:

  1. I love HearSay and public radio, and am glad Lewis covered this on her show.
  2. I consume both AltDaily and Veer Magazine, in addition to The Virginian-Pilot and a variety of other local media, such as Vivian Paige’s All Politics Is Local blog.
  3. The conversation absolutely is worth a listen at this link.

Lewis opened with a definition:

Broadly speaking, we might think about alternative media as those publications or shows or websites or institutions that share news that often because of commercial media business models aren’t necessarily part of the mainstream media.

So you will find stories in the alternative press that you may not find in your standard media outlets. And if you’ve been a media consumer in Hampton Roads for a long time you will probably recall (the now defunct) PortFolio Weekly.

Over the course of the show, she asked each guest to offer their definition.

Maisey said:

One of the positives of having alternative media is when the major media companies choose to pull back, whether it’s difficult economic times like we have now or whatever, alternative media, whether it’s AltDaily online or Veer in print and online, we’re able to fill that void to make sure that many important things in the community get covered that might not get covered at all.

Later he added:

I think being in alternative media, it’s also giving a second opinion. … It’s also about not being censored.

Serrano’s answer was cut short, unfortunately, but she tried to discuss independence – an often suggested flaw of The Pilot-owned PortFolio – while also apparently trying to note that some corporate owned pubs can do well:

Well alternative media, it’s interesting to describe because I think it’s mostly based on content but definitely ownership is a major part of it. Independent ownership of media is a clear definer, but I do want to make a specific point of the difference between PortFolio Weekly and a sister publication Style Weekly in Richmond which is also owned by Targeted Publications and (Virginian-Pilot Media Companies).

This comment was cut short, but Style is an effective alternative publication whereas PortFolio (for which I wrote from time time) was in some ways less successful, though they share/shared the same ownership. I think it probably has a lot to do with the fact that, with PortFolioThe Pilot effectively owned both the dominant paper and the “alternative” weekly in the same Hampton Roads market. Whereas The Pilot/Landmark owns Style in Richmond but the dominant outlet is The Richmond Times-Dispatch. The T-D is owned not by The V-P’s parent company but by Media General. Competition is good for outlets and consumers alike.

Lewis put the “what is alternative” question to Scaccia, prompting this exchange:

Scaccia: I think the word alternative in and of itself is kind of establishment-centric. So that’s not a word I would necessarily —

Lewis: What would you call it? Alternative as in alternative to the establishment with air quotes around that word.

Scaccia: Yeah and all the values that comes with sort of an establishment mindset. So I think we’re just something different, working in the same city as The Pilot and any other establishment mainstream media. … I think the benefit that we have is we kind of decided early on to object to the idea of objectivity. You never stop being a person. It’s not like you become a reporter and God lifts you up onto the mountain and you can see everything clearly now. So all of our writing is first person. … We have viewpoints and our writers certainly have viewpoints.

I think Scaccia did a good job summing up what makes some of AltDaily‘s content a worthwhile read to me, and also why the site is a different beast than Veer.

My very minor beef: I wish there had been more discussion of original public interest reporting, which is an area that makes good alternative media outlets even better.

HearSay airs from noon to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, on WHRV 89.5 FM. You can find out more about the program and its host at this link.

A link to AltDaily is here.

A link to Veer is here.

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