~ The Checkerboard Guy's Blog
Archive for November, 2009
Where in the world am I today?: At Sea aboard the ISLAND Princess
Back when I was debuting “The Hot Dog Show” at the 2009 PNE a couple people mentioned how much they had enjoyed “Born Standing Up” a book by Steve Martin that discusses his career in Stand-Up Comedy. At the time I was far too busy to track down a copy of the book, let alone find the time to read it. I’m an incredibly slow reader, so the prospect of reading books, even though I know I benefit enormously from making the time, is sometimes a bit daunting. I think my friend Jeremy (who was at the PNE and was one of the people who mentioned the book to me) must really have wanted me to absorb the content of the book in what ever format I could so he gave me a gift certificate for audible.com – It was the push I needed to tap into the wonderful world of audio books and a few weeks back I used the gift certificate to buy a copy of the Steve Martin book in audio format.
So… What did I think of this piece? Fabulous! I LOVED it! I didn’t get the chance to listen to it until I got on the plane just recently to fly down for my latest cruise ship contract aboard the ISLAND Princess, but it was a fantastic way to enjoy the time I spent on the flight between Dallas and San Jose, Costa Rica. The unabridged text is read by Steve Martin which I think made the experience even better than it would have been had I made the time to read the hard copy of the book. Having Steve provide the appropriate nuances and vocal inflections to his own words was fantastic as were the moments of genuine emotion that were clear when he reflected on his life and his career.
I find myself drawing parallels a lot this week between the way he describes his career and the life that most entertainers I know have experienced in one way or another. Yes the scope of his success far exceeds that of most of my contemporaries, but the steps he went through, his love of the craft, the great gigs, the crap gigs, and everything in between… It’s all there.
I think my fondness for the material and delivery are in great part a reflection of the fact that I’ve always been a huge Steve Martin Fan. My awareness of Steve Martin came in the late 1970s when I’d stay up late to watch him on Saturday Night Live or listen to his cult classic “King Tut” on the radio. At the time my parents were going to school at the University of Minnesota and we lived right next to the Minnesota State Fair. I have vivid memories that Steve Martin played a live concert at the Minnesota State Fair one year and I desperately wanted to go and see him live but was too young to get into the show and just enjoyed hearing about it from older friends who had either gone to see the show or had friends that had.
In the world of variety entertainment there are sometimes few great examples of how to take what you do and turn it into a career path that can make you famous (if that’s what you’re after) but Steve Martin’s story is a classic from his beginnings helping out at the Magic Shop at Disneyland to selling out arena shows with a show that really wasn’t ever built to play arenas… I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book in what ever format works best for you and enjoying a great ride.
Where in the world am I today?: At Sea aboard the ISLAND Princess.
When thinking of taking comedy and clowning in to Hospitals you may instantly think of the 1998 Film staring Robin Williams “Patch Adams.” The real Patch Adams started the Gesundheit Institute in 1972 at least partially based on the notion that ‘Laugher is the best Medicine.’
Since the beginning of my career some 28 years ago I’ve had the chance to take my brand of funny into various care facilities. Some specifically set up for the elderly, others for children and various organizations and facilities around the world. Some of this work has been motivated by people who contact me directly from these health care facilities, others have been outreach programs that are associated with various festivals that I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
At the Edmonton Street Performer’s Festival this outreach program is given the title ‘Comedy Cares‘ and the image that accompanies this post was shot at a show I did Cross Cancer Institute this past Summer. I got to work on the fringes of the legendary ‘Clown Care Unit‘ set up by the Big Apple Circus when I attended a Street Performers Festival set up by performer Tim Settimi in Atlanta back in 2007. I’ve worked at various care facilities in Vancouver after people have approached me at the PNE and asked if I could do shows for them…
I think there are times as performers when we get so much from or audiences that there’s a certain social responsibility to give a little something back. Most times when I’ve worked for care facilities the payment takes the form of some sort of honorarium, but these small acknowledgements of payment are less important than the contribution that funny provides to people who are in these care institutions. It’s not easy work and you may have to adapt your material to adhere to various hospital’s policies, but bringing laughter to people in these situations is some of the most rewarding performing I’ve ever done.
I got an email this week from an organization that I had never heard of before called ‘Dr. Clown‘ who are looking for acts in the Toronto area to establish the work that they do there. If this sort of work has any appeal what so ever, this might be a good place to start. Even if you’re not specifically in Toronto, this organization, or others like Comedy Cares or The Clown Care Unit may be able to help you figure out how your brand of funny can bring laughter to those who need it the most.
Where in the world am I today?: Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA aboard the ISLAND Princess
When I travel I pull my unicycle apart so it will pack smaller. This is both a good and a bad thing… Good because I make a regular practice of checking the mechanical parts to ensure that everything is in good working order, bad because the process of disassembling my uni so frequently puts added wear and tear on some of the components that I tweak the most often.
The picture that accompanies this post shows an inner-tube the exact size that fits into the unicycle that I most frequently travel with. I keep a spare with me when I travel because I’ve had these tubes spring a leak on me at the most inopportune times… During the winter months I seem to do a fair amount of work on cruise ships and quite often the availability of things like inner-tubes for 12 ½ inch-tired unicycles is rather sparce.
The first time I had a tube go on me I was working in Winnipeg and running to Canadian Tire for a replacement was easy, but it got me to thinking that had I been out at sea when this had happened I would have been screwed! I promptly went out and got a couple of spares as back-ups and always carry one with me.
I’ve actually had a couple of instances when I suffered from equipment failure and have learned from experience to carry back-ups of anything that can fail. I’ve also learned to take mental note of things during shows that aren’t in perfect condition and make every attempt to stay on top of regular maintenance of props so that things don’t go sideways unexpectedly.
Inevitably due to normal wear and tear props need to be replaced from time to time, but by periodically spending time checking things over and replacing things before they’re entirely worn out you can avoid the embarrassing situation of having that critical part that can make or break your finale.
Where in the world am I today?: At Sea aboard the ISLAND Princess.
I got a coupon from Google a while back offering me $100.00 worth of free Google AdWords. At the time, I was busy working I never got around to actually doing anything with it. Then a few weeks back I got another similar coupon and once again found myself with other distractions on my desk that took priority.
On the one hand, the fact that I’m busy enough working to not have researched this marketing opportunity means that perhaps it’s not entirely necessary, but on the other hand my experience has been that any time spent promoting your show is time worth spending… Does being busy enough working mean that you can afford to slack off a bit or should you continue to pursue all options available to you because ya never know when the jobs you’re currently doing might one day dry up and having other venues to play is always a good thing.
I tend to side on the keep pursuing multiple markets angle for a couple of reasons –
- It’s never a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket, or in the case of a comedy juggling show, to market exclusively to one market, just in case that market mysteriously evaporates on you
- Personally I quite like mixing it up. Were I to work exclusively in one market and one market alone I think I’d end up getting very tired of doing the same show in the same sorts of venue to the same sorts of people. Mixing things up keeps me sharp and keeps me working for and listening to my audience.
Back to Google AdWords… Has anyone out there received similar offers from Google and more importantly, has anyone actually followed up on this offer from the internet ad giant? Especially in this day and age when hard copy promo has almost become a thing of the past, tapping into yet another digital opportunity to promote yourself does make a certain amount of sense, but before diving in head first myself, I’m wondering if there’s anyone out there who’s tapped into this on-line opportunity and whether they’ve found it to be a marketing/advertising vehicle that’s worth pursuing… I’d welcome people’s thoughts on this, so please do leave a comment if you’ve got something to say on the topic.
Where in the world am I today?: At Sea aboard the Island Princess
“This is like deja vu all over again.”
–Yogi Berra, US baseball player, coach, & manger (1925 – )
“Sometimes I make the same mistake three different times and I still don’t learn my lesson.”
–David ‘checkerhead’ Aiken
I picked this quote not because the Yankees won the World Series, but because I just like the irony of it… I was also reminded of finding myself scratching my head a certain times in my life wondering how I had stumbled into a scenario that I seemed to have lived through before… It reminds me of another quote –
“Those who ignore history are bound (or doomed) to repeat it”
This is actual a mis-quotation of the original text written by George Santayana, who, in his Reason in Common Sense, The Live of Reason, Vol. 1 wrote –
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Sometimes I look at my kids making the same mistake over and over again and wonder if somehow it’s genetic… Hmmmmm…
Where in the world am I today?: Limon, Costa Rica joining the Island Princess
Prologue: I first met Rob and the other members of The Flaming Idiots at the Edmonton Street Performer’s Festival in July of 1989. Through the early 1990s we seemed to bump into each other regularly at the Edmonton Fringe Festival during what I like to refer to as the ‘Golden Era’ of that particular event. For what ever reason it just felt like a magical time which seemed to last for about five or six years. It was a regular pilgrimage to Edmonton for the Fringe for many performers and I always loved seeing what new bits and pieces the Idiots had come up with in the year between our meetings. Eventually the Flaming idiots shifted their focus towards doing more stage work and we stopped running into each other as much, so it was a treat to run into them this past Summer at the very same event that we had first met at. Following the work did in Edmonton with his fellow Idiots, he took his solo show to a couple of other events ‘Centrefest‘ in Red Deer being one of them. We met again there and took an idea that he and Rick Kunst had and turned it into a couple of video shorts – Clown v. Mime 01 and Clown v. Mime 02. My role in this collaboration was to shoot and edit the video. I was brought in again for the editing on Clown v. Mime 03, 04 and hopefully 05 though I haven’t gotten around to editing that last one yet… At any rate… Rob’s a great guy. Really creative and it’s always a pleasure working with and around him.
Name: Rob Williams.
Place of Birth: Texas.
Started Peforming/Working in the Industry: 1984
Discipline: Juggling mostly. Some whip cracking. Some tricks with the feet.
Video Link: http://www.youtube.com/user/clopshop
Venues Worked: Way to many to sum up easily. Comedy clubs, colleges, television shows, corporate events, festivals, fairs, and theaters. Big and small. All over.
Hot 10 Questions:
- What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream and why? • Stephen Colbert’s “Ameicone Dream” because it comes with a full days supply of irony.
- Name one movie that would make it to your Top 10 all-time great films. • Groundhog Day
- What was your favorite toy from childhood? • G.I. Joe. The old ones that were pretty big. Loved my Joes.
- Who were your biggest inspirations when you got started? • George Carlin. Richard Pryor. Steve Martin. Saturday Night Live. Python. The Flying Karamozov Brothers. Before that, when I was a kid, my Mom would let me stay up late to watch old comedies with her. I saw all the old vaudeville guys. The Marx Brothers, Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby road movies. They really were the foundation for my life’s work.
- From the world of animation what one character do you most identify with or see yourself in? • My favorite animation might be Wallace and Grommit. I don’t know that I identify with them, but I love them so. My favorite voice to imitate though is Ren Hoek, from Ren and Stimpy. I do it way too often. Still.
- Name something that scares you. • Not getting a laugh. A failed moment on stage seems to stretch time and space. Everything becomes a slow motion, pressing silence, except for the crushing of my eyes and the sound of my heart smacking my ribs. I desperately claw for the next joke like I’m slipping down a cliff face. If it comes loose, I plunge down, but keep doing the show. That’s what makes me a pro.
- Apart from the entertainment industry, name one other job you’ve had. • Oddly enough, I made sandwiches at a bakery. Odd because, if you’ve seen my show, you can see that I still make sandwiches.
- What’s something you haven’t done yet that you’d like to try? • Write a play.
- What’s your least favourite thing about being a performer? • I love most of it. The friends, the little adventures, those moments of flow when you’re really having a great show. Least favorite thing? At times I might say the travel. I like to cook, to read, to be with loved ones. Travel is hard on the simple pleasures.
- If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? • “Wow, hey, I’m God, and uhm, look, I’m really sorry about the crap down there on Earth. I can’t really control things. All that violence, racism, hatred, all the abuse and ugliness, the destruction, the suffering, the poverty, the hunger, the greed, the pious posturing and the willful ignorance, Fox News, I’m really sorry. It’s all perfect here in heaven, Ella is about to sing and we saved you a seat at the table with Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, and your Dad.“
Pick one nugget of wisdom you’ve picked up from your career in Show Business to share with the World.
“Don’t give up.“
Where in the world am I today?: Flying from Vancouver to Costa Rica to join up with the Island Princess.
Right… Three things I wanted to point people towards on YouTube that I’ve either been a part of or else found very amusing…
The first – the Clown v. Mime videos available on my friend Rob William’s corner of the YouTube Universe –
Back in July Rick Kunst and Rob Williams came up with this idea for a dark comedy duo, one being a somewhat disgruntled clown and the other being an over exuberant Mime. We were all in Red Deer performing at Centrefest and I had my video camera with me so I offered to shoot one of the ideas that they had bouncing around. We shot it, edited it and threw it up on Youtube in less than a day and response was so good to it that we did another before the end of the Festival. Rick and Rob got together again at the beginning of October to brainstorm more ideas for this unlikely duo and shot some more footage which was sent to me for editing… I’ve gotten four different pieces put together three of which are up on Rob’s section of youtube and had a fifth in the works that will hopefully be done soon. This is just a fun example of having an idea and making it happen. It’s also pretty funny, so I’d encourage you to go have a look and perhaps send a few friends by to see these shorts.
Next up in the youtube viewing department is a music video by Boothby Graffoe entitled ‘A to Zzzz.’ I met Boothby on one of the Ships and Dip Cruises that were put on by the Barenaked Ladies and have great memories of him performing this particular song at a songwriters workshop that happened during the cruise. It’s now been turned into a video and Boothby first sent me to this link –
– and challenged me to come up with an A to Z comment for the comment stream this was my effort –
Cannabis derived enjoyment for Global happiness?
Kaleidoscopic laments musically nailed?
Or possibly quizzical ramblings suitably timed under varying wavelengths?
Xanadu-inspired yarns zigzagging!
He then sent me to a second version of the video that was of better quality at this link –
– and I did the exercise again coming up with this comment –
A big creative dilemma erupts from gravitating here.
I just know learned-masters never oppose possibly questioning reality.
The undercurrent’s violent when x-ing your zoology.
It was a fun challenge to come up with a semi-coherant string of words that started with a, then b, then c etc. all the way up to z, so if you’ve got some time and are feeling creative I’d suggest trying it as an exercise in stretching your brain in a different direction.
Finally, I wanted to point you in the direction of this video that my kids showed me… It’s just one of those videos that you watch and shake your head after… Crazy!
I found this other link claiming that the video above is a hoax, but still… It’s the sort of stunt that I’d love to believe was possible! Goes back to my days of loving Evil Knievel!
Happy viewing! Got some other videos on youtube that you’ve loved recently? Put links in the comment section so we can all enjoy them!
Where in the world am I today?: North Vancouver, BC, Canada
When I first moved out to Vancouver from the Ottawa area back in the Fall of 1990 one of the motivating factors for the move was because I wanted to peruse work in the Film and Television Industry. Based on my years of performing and videos that I had together even back in that day I managed to get representation from a local Agent who sent me out to casting calls for commercials and other bits and pieces that they felt I was appropriate for. I also tapped into the world of working as an extra on film sets, and in particular as a ‘special skills extra.’
Now be forewarned that working as an extra on a film set usually involved hours and hours of sitting around until you’re actually needed in a shot, but people who do this sort of work on a regular basis typically bring along a book and/or some work that they need to get done or spend time texting people or networking. You don’t actually get paid all that much per hour as an extra, but then again you don’t actually do all that much either, so it’s pretty decent money for just sitting around reading a book. I’ve had days were I’d go into set, wait in the extra’s holding area and then not be needed for the shots that were being done that day. It’s usually a six hour minimum call meaning that you’ll get paid for at least six hours even if you’re only needed for two or three hours, and if you’re on a shoot where they hold you past a certain number of hours, your pay scale goes into an overtime scenario and you get even more money per hour…
Now… If you’ve got a specific skill that they want to have in a particular shot, you know how to juggle or walk on stilts or can ride a unicycle or can do a back flip or some such well then the pay scale jumps again because you’re given the designation ‘Special Skills Extra.’ I’ve had friends who are acrobats who’ve done special skills work and then progressed on to doing stunt work which pays even more… Again, the hours are long, the amount of money per hour isn’t spectacular, but it adds up quickly especially if you’re in one of these ‘specialized’ skill groups, so it’s well worth putting your name into the ring and letting casting directors know that you have these skills.
This is perhaps a fairly regionally specific sort of market. There’s a ton of Film an TV work that gets done in Vancouver, but films are being shot all over the place, so if you hear of a film being shot in your area, there may be a way to find out who the talent wrangler is and make sure they know who you are.
In Vancouver there are even agents like ‘Reel Athletes‘ who specialize in the placement of actors, athletes and special skills performers for this industry. As with any gig, if you land the job once and you show up on time, are well liked, and do a good job other opportunities will spring up which will lead to others and still more beyond that. Like Ethel Merman sang in ‘Annie Get your Gun‘ – There’s no Business like Show Business like no Business I know.
Where in the world am I today?: North Vancouver, BC, Canada
OK… Admittedly I’m not an authority on the best classes and the best teachers as I’ve only taken a few workshops in my day and though I did major in Theatre in University, I only completed one year of the four year program before touring and working became so abundant that I never made it back to school, but there’s a lot to be said for studying your craft in a more formal setting. Working on your technique in the reasonably safe environment of a class or workshop setting can let you push yourself and experiment in ways that you might not consider in a paid performance situation. Having an instructor suggest exercises that get you out of your comfort zone and push you will allow you to broaden your vocabulary of both physical skills as well as your intellectual architecture.
What follows is a bit of a list of schools and teachers that I’ve heard great things about and thus am including them here as a resource for those who want to push their technique to a higher level…
- The Celebration Barn (South Paris, ME, USA)
- Centre of Gravity (Toronto, ON, Canada)
- The Clown Conservatory (San Francisco, CA, USA)
- Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (Blue Lake, CA, USA)
- l’Espace Catastrophe (Brussels, Belgium)
- National Circus School (Montreal, QC, Canada)
This list barely scratches the surface of some of the great schools and teachers that are out there, but as I have yet to get myself back into the classroom, this list is meant to get others started (perhaps even myself) not to be definitive. If you know of others that you think should be included, I encourage you to list them in the comments section.
Where in the world am I today?: North Vancouver, BC, Canada
OK, this is a bit of an odd one, but I do think that it could be considered a piece of marketing material in a weird sort of way… Years ago, when I was first getting started in the world of touring street performers I wanted to give something to the performers that I met along the way who had an influence on me, who’s work I respected and who helped contribute to my growth and success as a budding performer.
Now a bit of back story is probably in order… Back when I was in High School and even before I got to High School I had learned how to use a sewing machine and became quite proficient at using it. One of the things I did early on and have done ever since was to make bags for the different props I keep in my prop case. I find it helps keep various props organized with in the cake and also keeps them looking good longer than if I just threw all of the stuff into the case randomly.
After making numerous bags in various sizes and shapes I created a pattern that was durable, robust and did a remarkable job of holding up to the constant abuse of carrying around tons of coins and bills, something Street Performers do quite a bit of. As I started to travel and tour to performance festivals a bit more frequently I’d make a few extra bags to carry around and when ever I encountered a performer who’s work really clicked with me for some reason I’d give them a bag. What started as a simple gift from someone who not only wanted to become a better street performer, but also had a genuine love of the art form, grew into this weird sort of exclusive club. Other performers started to recognize that all these really great Street Performers seemed to be carrying around this same sort of bag for collecting their money in and some started to ask where they had come from.
This was/is a pretty great example of seeing a need and successfully filling it. These bags were something that I wanted for myself but discovered that they were something that many others wanted too. In a weird sort of way I initially became knows as that young juggler who made those great money bags and at the time I was absolutely OK with that because I reasoned if people knew me at all I was ahead of the game. These bags allowed me to become friends with some of the greatest Street Performers of the day and being able to hang out with them allowed me to grow as a performer that much more quickly than I would have otherwise.
I still make these bags for myself as I still use them to organize my props and keep them clean, but it’s been years since I gave one away to anyone. Still, it’s amazing to me that certain friends continue to use the bags I gave them so many moons ago. #1 – It’s cool that it’s a gift that keeps on giving and #2 – I’m simply amazed that they’ve held up this long!