Bob and Ray extend a helping hand to those in need.
Thanks to YouTuber ted daughters
As I mentioned last time, nothing so determines the final shape and content of your interview as the questions you ask and the order in which you ask them. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) Here’s how I have been going about putting together a question outline.
At first, I don’t worry at all about the order of the questions—I am more interested in brainstorming questions. Before I do any research at all, I draw on my initial curiosity about the guest that prompted me to do the interview in the first place. I’ll open a Word document just for questions and enter them. I like to keep the mindset that I probably will never have a chance again to speak to this person—so I remind myself not to hold back on whatever it is that I’ve always genuinely wanted to know about the guest or his or her work. There are some questions that I find that I repeatedly ask of my guests, because they are issues that I am obsessed about, and that I am genuinely curious about when I meet someone well known or unusually productive. I like to understand people’s lives from the inside, from their perspective, so I often ask about the guests’ working process, and what they consider to be their most important understandings about their work. I am also curious how an artist’s working life changes with age, and I am often apt to ask questions about that.
But the bulk of my questions come as a result of research into the guest’s work. As I am reading about a guest, or reading a guest’s book, I have my computer file by me, and I am typing into it both salient points that are made, as well as points I would like to understand further. I will also make note of places where I disagree with the guest, places where there could be fruitful further conversation. If I am seeing a film or a theater piece that my guest is involved with, then I have a pad with me and I am taking notes as I’m watching. At a minimum, I become familiar with the guest’s latest project. But, really, ideally, it is much better when I am able to become familiar with a much wider range of the guest’s work, and can situate what the guest is doing within the context of his or her own work, and within the work of his or her contemporaries.
I double space each question, and through experience, I know that when I have about a page and a half of 14-pt type questions, I have enough for a 30-minute interview. Once I have all the questions down, I start moving them around into the order I want. Here, for example, is the final question outline I used when I was preparing to interview playwright and actor Wallace Shawn (I’ve included the intro [which was cut considerably in the editing process] and the outro):
Intro: Hi, I’m Jack Shalom. Actor, playwright, essayist Wallace Shawn has been provoking thought from audiences for over four decades. His memorable film roles have included co-starring in My Dinner with Andre, and his comic turn as Vizzini in The Princess Bride. His work as a playwright includes the Obie Award winning Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and The Designated Mourner; and his essays include the recently released Night Thoughts.
His 2015 play, Evening At The Talk House has been released as an audio drama, with a fine cast that includes himself, Matthew Broderick, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry, and Claudia Shear. It can be found gratis on the website of The Intercept online magazine. I’m happy to be talking with Wallace Shawn. (WAIT) Hi, Wally.
Tell us about Evening At the Talk House.
The play was originally done in London, then opened in New York. Did you see a difference between the London and NYC reception?
How did this audio version come to be, and how did it land at The Intercept?
How much did you have to change the play for audio production?
Many of your plays deal with a similar theme: The dark apparatus that it takes to maintain a privileged society. How is Evening At the Talk House different from your previous plays in its working out? Does it represent an evolution in your thinking about these matters?
The characters in Evening At the Talk House keep insisting that they are just trying to have a pleasant evening. In a sense, the play is what it costs the rest of the world for those people to have their pleasant evening. Do people give up their own comfort willingly?
It’s often the self-absorbed artists in your plays who are the people who seemingly can only relate to their own needs. You seem to target artists in particular in your works. Can you speak more about that?
Because this play shows the problems the privileged have in trying to square the contradictions of their wish to appear benign, I could imagine that some might complain that this work is in some sense privileging the problems of the privileged. Is that a fair criticism?
As complex and layered as your plays are, I find your essays on the other hand, remarkably transparent and lucid. When I read your essays, I say, well of course, why hasn’t anybody else explained it so plainly? How do you decide whether something is going to become a play or an essay?
I really enjoyed reading Night Thoughts. It’s like your communist manifesto. A short simple book that anyone can understand. Rather than talking about owners and workers, though, you speak of the lucky and the unlucky. Can you talk more about that?
You are not just someone who is interested in both politics and theater, but you see the two subjects as intimately entwined. A few years ago you wrote a wonderful essay called “Why I Call Myself a Socialist: Is the World Really a Stage?” Could you talk about some of the ideas in that essay and what in your view is the relationship of acting to the necessity of socialism?
What’s the most important thing you know about playwriting?
Anything else you’d like to add, Wally?
I’ve been talking with Wallace Shawn whose play Evening at the Talk House is now available as a free podcast at Theintercept.com. Thanks, Wally. (WAIT) This has been Jack Shalom with host Prairie Miller.
By looking at the outline above you can see how I structure the order of my questions. I generally want the guest to feel comfortable, and I want to situate the listening audience, so I start off by asking questions about the guest’s most recent projects. Next, I’ll move onto other projects I’m interested in, and then I use those projects as a springboard to ask about overall process and more personal questions. If I feel that the guest is amenable, at this point I’ll bring up disagreements or questions which might be a little more challenging. How far I go with that depends on the kinds of responses I get. Finally, I’ll tend to finish up with asking about future projects and where one can obtain more information about the guest’s work. I’ll also ask at the end if there’s anything else they wish to add—surprisingly, often the guest takes a thoughtful breath, regroups and comes out with some of the most interesting material here.
When the interview actually happens, do I stick to this outline?
But that’s for next week, when I talk about actually conducting the interview.
You can read the next installment here:
If Lenny Bruce were a magician, he would be Steve Spill.
Lenny has long since passed onto that great big comedy stage in the sky, but fortunately our friend Steve Spill is alive and well and has come out with a new book aimed at magicians called How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way. His first book, I Lie For Money, was aimed at a general audience and contained lots of advice on how to live a creative life. It was served along with large dollops of autobiography and spit-take funny stories about the people he met along the path while building an artistic life for himself. In this new book, Steve not only continues his general advice for would-be artists, but also gives up the details of a dozen of his most creative and hilarious tricks. It would be an understatement to say that I think everyone interested in performing magic should read this book.
It’s always a great gift when a wonderful performer tips the secrets of his act, but it’s an even greater gift when the performer himself does the literate and humorous writing chore. Because it’s in that act of writing that Spill divulges his biggest secret: the most powerful thing a performer can do is to find her or his own quirkiness and unique qualities and put them out on display in a performance-oriented way.
When you read one of Spill’s books, you instantly understand what he’s talking about when he says to trust your own personality, because the pages of his books are drenched in the unique persona which he has nurtured. While on the one hand it’s instructive to pick up a Dai Vernon book written by someone like Lewis Ganson, on the other hand, the fact that Ganson, not Vernon, wrote it deprives the reader of real insight into much of Vernon’s personality. With a writer like Steve, though, it’s all hanging out there, and it’s plain as day. You understand immediately that the twelve killer presentations that Spill has detailed are perfect for Spill. Those who are not Steve would most likely fall on their faces if they did his presentations verbatim, but that’s not the point. The point is…who are you?
There are so many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is the courage of one’s convictions. I read the beginning chapters twice, because the first time through I was laughing too much at the jokes to pay attention to the content.
But if you’ve got as warped and crazy a mind as Steve does (that’s a compliment, I think) there are bound to be doubts about whether anyone else will appreciate what you’re doing. However, Steve’s examples of himself being true to form, along with his constant brainstorming, testing, discarding, and revising of effects, serve as a model of what can be done, and act as a spur to one’s own creativity.
For each of the twelve effects Spill describes, he gives the background story on how and why he created it, and these stories are useful adjuncts to understanding how to create your own effects. The methods are tried and true, and for the most part they probably won’t surprise you with their cleverness after the fact. But that’s not what Steve is after—what will surprise and delight you is the way that Steve takes an effect from column A and a presentation from column Z, and juxtaposes them to create something never seen before, something to amuse and mystify an audience, which leaves them with the impression of a strong magical personality and experience.
What’s in the tricks section? Well it’s a compilation of Spill’s greatest hits—The Lemon thing, the Needle thing, The Himber Ring thing, the drug and hemorrhoid jokes, they’re all there, with full scripts and extra handling and performance tips explained with loving care. The most audacious routine is one called “Abra Cadavers” which involves, well, a tale of cadavers wrapped in a personal story of tragedy. You would have to be nuts to perform it. I’m happy to report that Spill has done it many times, and tells you how to do it so that you too can be the object of abject speechless horror. I also thought that the presentation given for the UltraMental Deck was one of the best ideas for it I’ve ever come across.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the British magician David Devant expressed his appreciation of his audience with the tagline, “All Done By Kindness.” Likewise, Devant’s American contemporary, Howard Thurston, would prepare to go onstage by intoning in the wings to an imaginary audience, “Thank you, thank you for coming to my show tonight. God Bless You.” And now in the same spirit, as we navigate the twenty-first century, Steve Spill urges us to make love The Steve Spill Way. His love for magic, his love for his audiences and for his unique self are all part and parcel of How to Make Love The Steve Spill Way.
Mr. Laurie’s splendid Dylan-like folk singer imitation in which he tells us “All We Gotta Do Is.” In such trying times as these, we can only be thankful for his clear vision.
Thanks to Youtuber thereallalablue
I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone under 60, but I found this SCTV send-up of a small-town Lawrence Welk-type polka music television show hilariously true to form. John Candy and Eugene Levy lead the proceedings.
“There’s Rhythm in My Lederhosen.”
More at SCTV
Here’s our radio version of the little sketch, Gun Shy, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI, during the Arts Express radio program. Many thanks to The Mighty Arts Express Players, composed of Pearl Shifer and Mary Murphy, and thanks again to Prairie Miller for all the encouragement.
Click on the triangle to listen.
In 1972, Groucho did a one man show of reminiscences at Carnegie Hall called An Evening With Groucho. In this short clip, he shares what happened when he encountered the magician Harry Houdini.
Click on the grey triangle to play.
Thanks to https://archive.org
Bob and Ray’s “World’s Oldest Lady Caddy” is one of the first Bob and Ray routines I ever heard. My son can still break me up laughing by simply saying “With increased leisure time…” It’s kind of the catchall sociological explanation for everything.
Thanks to YouTuber The Classic Archives
My friend Alan who is a prolific playwright asked me if I’d like to write a very short three-minute curtain raiser for his new play reading. I said yes, having no idea at all what I would write. As it happened, the Parkland school shootings and the government response were still on my mind, so out came this merry little sketch.
Mother in the breakfast room; two children ages seven and eight (should be played by adults) offstage.
Mother: Justin, c’mon you’re going to be late to school.
Justin: (off) I’m coming.
Mother: You, too, Mercy, the school bus is going to be here any moment.
Mercy: (off) I’m coming. Give me a chance. (Justin enters with backpack on hand)
Mother: Look at you. Your hair’s a mess. And what about your sweater?
Justin: Yes, Mom. I have it.
Mother: And did you remember about your homework?
Justin: Really, Mom, you don’t have to remind us about every little thing. (Mercy comes down with her backpack in hand)
Mother: Can’t you get yourself together a little earlier so you don’t have to rush each morning?
Mercy: I’m sorry I was just packing up my backpack. We have a lot of equipment for our new class. And it’s so lame, they make us drag everything back and forth.
Mother: What class is that?
Mercy: Oh, the target class.
Mother: Target class?
Justin: It’s a new required class we have to take in school. We have to be able to kill 65% of potential intruders in order to pass the class, graduate, and go on to middle school.
Mother: How do they know if you’ve done that?
Justin: Well, a wound in one limb counts as a score of 30%, an eye counts for a score of 25%, for a kill you obviously get a 100.
Mercy: Well, unless someone else hits the guy first, in which case you only get 50% for an assist. It’s so unfair. So the thing to do is, if you can’t get a clean kill, try to mix and match so that it adds up to over 65%.
Justin: So two eyes and you pass.
Mercy: No you idiot, that doesn’t add up. That’s only 50—25 and 25.
Justin: I’m not good in math. It’s not my fault. My math teacher only has one eye. She was mistaken for an intruder.
Mother: Well all right, put on your backpacks. Wait a second. What’s that you got in there?
Mercy: Just a gun.
Mother: Oh. Okay. And what’s that?
Mercy: That’s another gun. Hi-powered, semi-automatic.
Mother: All right. (to Justin) You’re looking very guilty young man. And what’s that ?
Justin (ashamed looking down at the floor) Gum.
Mother: Gum? Gun or Gum?
Justin: Uh, Gum.
Mother: Oh my gosh. What is wrong with you? Hand that over young man. You should know by now you’re not allowed to chew gum in school. It’s not allowed. It’s really disrespectful to the teachers and staff. Didn’t I bring you up right?
Justin: I’m sorry. I just couldn’t…
Mercy: Ooh I’m telling.
Justin: Be quiet, you.
Mother: I am really, really so disappointed in you, Justin. Wrigley’s Spearmint. The most deadly flavor. In my day, you know what we did with students who brought gum to school? (pause) We shot them. Of course we were only allowed to graze them in my days. Old-fashioned I suppose, but the world has moved on. I guess you can’t stop progress. I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, Justin.
Mercy: (reluctantly) Ohhh…I guess you can have one of mine. But not the AR-15. Just one of the handguns.
Mother: That’s really kind and unselfish of you, Mercy. Maybe I did bring you kids up right after all. (Sound of bus horn honking) Okay here’s the bus. (kids run off) Don’t forget your lunches. Love ya. And children—No chewing in class! Knock ‘em dead!
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students sing “Seasons of Love” from the play Rent.
It gave me the chills watching it.
Thanks to YouTuber CBS
Last week I had the pleasure of being one half of the performers of the classic Abbott and Costello sketch, “Who’s On First?”
I think it is the most perfect piece of comedy ever written—if your native language is English.
My colleague Adam Pisco and I performed it before an auditorium of our public international high school English Language Learner students, none who have English as their native language, and many who have come here with no English at all. They represent dozens of countries and languages.
So we were afraid we were taking a big risk, and we were afraid that the students might not be able to understand the sketch, and not be quite able to get the wordplay involved.
But I’m very happy to report, as you can see and hear by clicking on the video, that we were absolutely wrong.
Author Philip Roth died yesterday. I can’t think of a novelist who has had more of an effect on me than Roth. Indeed, I don’t think I fully understood what a novel could be, and what a writer did, before I read Roth. When I am writing and I can’t figure out what to do, I ask myself WWRD–what would Roth do. The work ethic, the imagination, the dead-on ear for human speech and obfuscation, the love of language, all made him my favorite American author.
Above is an interview Roth did in 2004, where he talks about the obligations of writing. He also makes a startling prediction about the fate of novels in the near future. I hope he is wrong.
Thanks to Youtuber PBS NewsHour
Masercot of the very funny humor blog Potatoes and The Promise of More Potatoes has tagged me to play the blog game “Quote Tag.” The way it works is this: a blogger nominates from three to six other bloggers; then each blogger has to name a 19th-century author and provide three to nine quotes from that author. In order to keep the game going, each blogger subsequently nominates three to six other bloggers.
I’m going to cheat a little by picking George Bernard Shaw as my choice of author. His 94-year-old vegetarian life spanned across the 19th and 20th centuries—see that’s what happens when your diet is based on kale smoothies. The great thing about Shaw is that practically everything he ever wrote or said is quotable, so for lazy me, it’s an easy post.
So here we go:
1. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
2. “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
3. “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
4. “We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience.”
5. “My main reason for adopting literature as a profession was that, as the author is never seen by his clients, he need not dress respectably.”
6. “Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature!”
7. “In literature the ambition of the novice is to acquire the literary language; the struggle of the adept is to get rid of it.”
8. “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
And here are the names of some bloggers for whom I’d like to pass the game onto (and whose blogs you may very well enjoy visiting):
Learn Fun Facts: Edmark Law’s daily blog of historical, mathematical, and lexical facts
Every Day Another Story: Homespun folk music and stories
McPhillamyActorBlog: Actor Colin Mcphillamy’s blog about his life in the theater