June 14, 2012
Pinata the Personal Essay Show @ Bang Comedy Theatre - Hipster Chatter in the New Borsht Belt
That smidgen of the city, “Fairfax” is nicknamed after the main drag Fairfax Avenue, which forms the western boundary of Hancock Park and served as the New Shtetl for post World War II Jews seeking sun and fun, as well as a little Gefilte fish now and again; and why shouldn’t they? The Mecca of Fairfax is Canters Deli, the former Esquire Theater, a movie-house no less, where the tilted glass display counters now stock lox, pastrami and chopped liver instead of candy and popcorn. What was once a cavernous dark room projecting black & white images of Bogart or Muni is now as perennially brightly lit as the film sets themselves. The living characters in this unintentional gastric comedy collective are the worker-BEE-hemions, with their hipster haircuts, expensive ripped jeans and never-dying stupid and pointless dreams in their medicated eyes. With a stiff Scorsese-like pan to the right, you’ll find yourself transported and trapped into a claustrophobic wet bar from your parents’ underground bunker generation. The Kibitz Room doesn’t kibitz around, belching out continuous great up and coming rock n roll from all sorts; and indeed Guns n Roses played there in the early daze, as did the son of Sixties Jewish laureate Robert Zimmerman, Jakob Dylan, whom first gained notoriety with The Wallflowers playing late night gigs at the deli. It’s the perfect mix of affordable food, well-drink and dusty dreamers. No wonder its survived the New Reconstructionist Vision of America as just one big interconnected shopping mall. Open 24/7, Canters is not just
late night hang, but clearly the place “we’ll all meet” when the real aliens come. After all, if we’re all gonna be anally probed, you might as well “Eat something!”
Just up the road from Canters (on the Hawaii side of the street) is Bang Comedy Theatre. Founded 15 years ago by yet another transplanted Second City Chicago alumnus, Bang offers a little something different for the comedy connoisseur. Successful Hollywood TV & screenwriter Peter Murrieta (The Wizards of Waverly Place) and his wife Aliza run Bang as both a school and a showcase. With emphasis on improv and scene-study; not just “how to be funny,” which as we all know is completely unteachable (see George Bush’s first term), Bang offers entertaining bang for your buck, and then some. With this kind of simple, restrained and honest approach, there’s little wonder their co-production with writer/director/performer Christine Schoenwald serves up some of the most interesting and compelling stories since Moishe lied to you down the street that the knish was, “Fresh this morning!...VAT do you vant from me?”
When I first entered the space last Thursday to review Pinata, the Personal Essay Show, I was mistakenly a little disappointed with the tiny stage, slightly awkwardly hiding behind the ticket desk, but I got into the mood like everyone else waiting for the show. I was ready for anything, including the last minute information to this writer/moron that there was in fact a full-fledged theatre rise in the back where the show that I came to review took place. Taking a seat in the front row, I couldn’t help but notice eight empty folding chairs on stage facing the audience. This was initially troubling for this writer who had his expectations on a story-telling show, not a panel discussion. Of course, my bad. Just a shade past 8pm, the cast of the evening took the stage then their seats and Christine came forward with the announcement that there will be candy tossed at us the audience at the end of the show and to not be alarmed. Putting aside my fantasy Candy was some porn star, I finally relaxed and saw a very interesting evening unfold live and right before my cynical little set of off-blue eyeballs.
One by one, each cast member would ceremoniously rise from their chair, cautiously approach center stage, paper in hand, and start reading, reminding me of the almost pagan-like ritual I last saw first-hand at the very bizarre 2009 Academy Awards when legendary actors would appear under a Star Trek beam of light and then begin to fawn to their descendants why they deserve just to be nominated, in a tone that can only be characterized as eulogistic. Now, I have to point out, that although I’ve even done a story-telling (reading from a paper) night or two myself, I felt this time being an audient, that I was witnessing the very secret confessions of convicted and reformed societal felons, whose only crime was to lead interesting lives, to tell of adventure so emotionally scarring, so informative of who they really are and – even more daring:
who they really wanted to be
. It made me feel what I think all artists crave to feel in inexplicably cold shouldering Los Angeles.
I felt welcome.
Whether I liked the fact or not, this evening was going to inventory and downsize my own self-mythologizing continuous running internal voice-over by sheer proxy of comparison. After hearing these guys, I had nothing to complain about in my life. Only theirs.
Starting the evening was Christine Schoenwald (the main producer of tonight’s show) who told a tale of sexual neurosis involving an artist named Nathan, and the subsequent shocking disappointment when she discovered his pervy ways. Christine, seemingly much shyer on stage than when I met her off, displayed incredible grace and courage as she opened up to us, as if she was auditioning for an orgy, but really didn’t want the job anyway. When she was done, she stepped down from the stage and sat in the audience, making me worry the entire process might be reversed, for which I was not prepared. Following her was stand-up veteran comic’s comic turned successful playwright Steve Bluestein, who took us on a shaggy-dog story involving his friend/”wife” Michelle traipsing up to Mulholland Drive to find a special type of decorative grass for their cinder-block apartment, which involved both a 2 million dollar mansion and a rusty Toyota with a coat-hanger aerial. The way Bluestein tells his story is almost as if he’s examining it himself for the first time, which my guess would be attributable to incredible reconstruction skills rather than the reality. Next was Tom Nevermann (an entrepreneur turned writer) who stopped the clock as he dragged us through an horrific true tale of his discovering he had rectal cancer. Doesn’t sound like traditional comedy material, but in Nevermann’s hands it truly was. James Judd was next, as well as the most perplexing. This critically acclaimed, award-winning playwright told tale of he and his lover seeking a certain type of polar bear on the North Pole; a story which was filled with gory and dishy stuff, coming from a man who clearly would be cast as the hostage who never shuts the fuck up, and ultimately that’s what happened. While I was still searching for his main point, James was called off stage for going over his time. I don’t know what happened to the polar bear. But then things got really interesting.
Roy Cruz, a middle-aged Pilipino Crate and Barrel employee during the day, was closest to my heart, as he wonderfully told how he had to learn to ride a bicycle late in life, while avoiding an overbearing mother who felt that, “Happiness should be sacrificed for good skin.” Creator of the hit show “Streep Tease,” Cruz knows how to reel you in, in part because he casts a deep emotional line. I personally related to Cruz’s plight, because, out of my own circumstances; I’ve been forced to ride a bicycle as my main form of transportation in Los Angeles for the last three years. He’s a very brave man –
! Next was another great surprise. Sarah Burrows, an unashamed, scratch that, a proud professional waitress…who entered the world of story-telling and stand-up comedy late in life (slow service), served up something very special off the menu. So refreshing for once, hearing that mathematical equation of wait-staff and customer put on its head. For a man who has spent way too much time and money in fancy and not so fancy restaurants, I was flabbergasted to witness through Sarah, how she viewed her (to some people) menial job. How she took great pride in creating an illusion, an experience, for her customers, was like watching a potter teaching ducks. Her to-the-cliff’s-edge patience with difficult patronage was outstanding and showed us that even this super-waitress has her limits, Bub! Quiffs like, “Hooters outfits distracts from bad food” was just an appetizer. Pure hysterical stuff through and through. It made me most ashamed when I remembered how I complained about a waiter who came to my table, apologizing literally on his knees. I was a dick. The most unpleasant story to have to listen to was no doubt from actor/activist Bill Brochtrup, who told of his temporary digs as an assistant casting director and how he and his co-conspirator created daily punking humiliation for the anonymous struggling actor. How he sorted unsolicited 8x10’s into “freak piles” later to put into his evil joke file coloring book and how fate unfavored a one Berle Duxman, as the sorrow-est struggling freak actor of all. When enlightenment finally came to him and how bad he now feels about it all, I still wanted him hung. A regular on NYPD Blue (and featured in Life As We Know It and Heʼs Just Not That Into You) Brochtrup courageously reminded all of us that what we secretly fear goes on behind the curtain – actually sometimes does.
Finally, Carrie Snow. From her book, “My Mom is Meaner than Your Mom,” Miss Snow opened up about growing up in Nothern California small town Merced, and an unsatiated sex life, having mostly to do with her previously large body mass. The former host of Comedy Tonight on PBS and Roseanne writer literally paints an emotional picture of each scenario she is in. “More people have seen me get dressed than undressed” is pure ironic Carrie Snow, who I have to say, not only looks great, but sounds better than ever. I knew Carrie (like most of us) when she was partially a “fat act,” and to her credit (as well as proof she was always funny – fat or thin) she’s funnier than ever. She’s Dorothy Parker meets Rhoda. Why on God’s formerly green Earth are there SIX (count ‘em- 6!) “different” white male talk show hosts on late night American network television? WTFFFFF? Listen up, you bored television executive reading this here article:
Scoop up Carrie Snow and give her a talk show
! If there ever was a feminine feminist comedy voice that neither pandered or drew blood, it is Carrie Snow. She is indeed
. I hate her. (NOT!)
I give Pinata the Personal Essay Show 6.5 out of 8 Menorahs. Lose the dead weight, tighten up the night a bit and they’re bound to offer one of the more interesting nights on the town, just up the street from a man in a beret, eating a corned beef sandwich.
Enjoy the veal!
SAG: Which is more important in story-telling: life experience, credibility of the witness, the way the story is written or performance ability?
Christine: As far as storytellers go I say that life experience ( good stories) is the number one quality to a good story, then performance because obviously you have to bring the story to life for the audience, then writing and lastly credibility. I don’t enjoy it when people read their supposed “personal essays” and it is obviously fiction. I want the truth and I want it to be personal. As Rick Reynolds says ” Only the truth is funny.”
SAG: Are there any differences (in your mind) between men and women story-tellers?
Christine: I don’t think there’s much of a difference between men and women storytellers. There is a greater number of women over men who write personal essays. This may be due to the fact that women are a bit more comfortable expressing their emotions-maybe I don’t know. I will say that women have a tendency to be a bit more bold and brutally honest.
SAG: Are there any favorites you have – whether they were on tonight’s show or not?
Christine: After over five years we’ve had some amazing stories and storytellers. I absolutely have a few favorites. But if I have to choose, anything Taylor Negron has read, has to be my favorite. Although he is also a very successful actor, writer and stand-up, he is the epitome of the storyteller. Every piece he reads is hilarious, heartfelt, fascinating and brilliant and then to top it off, his actual reading of any of his essays is beyond compare brilliant. He does shows both here and in New York.
PERSONAL ODDS & ENDS:
Sending my best wishes for speedy recovery to my friend Jerry Lewis.
Get well soon, Jerry!
In spite of it all, I still love and admire you and your incredible body of work. Sag/x
MY TWEETS OF THE WEEK:
“I try and give people an even break. But, when that doesn’t work, a good hairline fracture can go a long way.”