Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Blog

Archive for the ‘On seeing’ Category

Fred Willard 2 Night

Monday, May 20th, 2019
Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

 

Here at the headquarters of leewochner.com, we’re big fans of the comic actor Fred Willard, dating back to adolescence.  As an early and longtime fan, I just about passed out when Mr. Willard himself came to see a comedy of mine 20 years ago. He sat through it like an Easter Island statue, but then went around telling people it was the funniest play in town. (If only he’d told the right people. But anyway….) It’s difficult to express what a great tribute that was.

The first place I saw him was on Fernwood 2 Night, in 1977, a syndicated satire of small-town talk shows that was supremely important to the 15-year-old me because it was so utterly divorced from the overly slick and rampantly unfunny “normal” offerings on regular network television.  Its gimlet-eyed take on false glitz mirrored my own skepticism. Willard played Jerry Hubbard, a none-too-bright sidekick/announcer with a flair for the obvious, paired against the disdain of the host, Barth Gimble, played by the multifaceted Martin Mull. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the work of both men; I’ve got all of Martin Mull’s solo albums, and as for Fred Willard, I loved him in “Best of Show” and so many other things over the years, whether they were little guest appearances or sitcoms, or voiceover work on King of the Hill or wherever.

I used to know his wife, the playwright Mary Willard, in passing, and went to one of her plays in the 1990s at the Company of Angels Theatre, up the street from Moving Arts (which may have been why we were seeing each other’s work; that, plus our mutual membership in the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights). I had heard that she died last year, but hadn’t given it much thought. Then, somehow or other through social-media networks, a couple of weeks ago I came across a howlingly funny appearance by Fred Willard in a clip from The Jimmy Kimmel Show, a show I have generally found not-howlingly funny and have avoided like a traffic accident. Fred Willard was his usual deadpan self, and Jimmy Kimmel’s transparently radiant joy at having Fred Willard to work with lit up the entire bit.

All of this is by way of saying that I was delighted today to discover a piece in the LA Times about Fred Willard, and about his personal renaissance under Jimmy Kimmel. (Here’s a link to it.) Fred and Mary had been together 50 years, the piece says, and when she died last year he was left unmoored and wondering if he felt like doing anything at all. Since pairing with Kimmel, they’ve done about 20 sketches together. I’ll have to hunt those down. It’s nice to know he’s still out there making people, including me, laugh.

The end Zone

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Does it make any sense to keep making “The Twilight Zone”? I asked myself this today after ruminating on the episode I’d watched at half past one this morning when I wasn’t tired enough to go to bed.

Having now watched three episodes of the latest revival, on CBS All Access, I can say that, so far at least, it hasn’t added up to much.

  • The first was about an unfunny comedian who made a classic deal with the devil that ended badly. Two big problems with this:  it wasn’t enough to write the comedian as unfunny; no, he was made out to be pathologically unfunny — less funny than dental surgery. When you go to that length to make your point, you’re already off track. The lesser problem was that the episode led up to a twist ending, and that twist ending was one anyone could have guessed about seven minutes in. When you’re relying on a twist ending, the surprise had better be there. (Paging M. Night Shyamalan.)
  • The second was a remake of the classic episode where William Shatner is an airplane passenger tormented by the sight of a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Unfortunately, the fun part — the gremlin — was reduced to a toy that later washed up on shore and, again, the twist was apparent. So apparent that I just assumed it was a given.
  • The final one concerned five astronauts prepped for the first takeoff to Mars — who, while they’re on the launchpad and ready to go, hear that the world has had a devastating exchange of nuclear warheads. Should they complete the mission — or sit on the launchpad for 30 minutes, awaiting the nuclear strike? This one worked really well — until the very last moment, and an unsatisfying twist ending.

What’s the common problem? The twist ending. Which begs the question, Why all the focus on a twist ending? Is the device intrinsic to “The Twilight Zone”? Is it not “The Twilight Zone” if there’s no twist ending?

There’s been an endless supply of “Twilight Zone” remakes and remodels, including the original series, the 1980s series, the 2002-2003 series, the current series, the radio dramas, the comic books, the movie, the stage productions, the book of short stories, the magazine, and even the theme-park attraction. Clearly, the original version captured the imagination of the American public, and the brand identity has kept some value over the years. But if it all comes down to a twist ending that may or may not work (and generally doesn’t, any more), maybe this property isn’t too relevant any more.

But… shouldn’t it be more relevant now? Given that the news every day seems drawn from “The Twilight Zone?” Given that every announcement seems drawn from a space “between science and superstition”?

Usually, the original “Zone” did more than rely on a twist ending:  frequently, it gave us a morality tale. Why kill your fellow man to enrich yourself with gold, one episode asked, when gold intrinsically has no value? Does your insistence on a personal definition of beauty hold any meaning in a land of monsters? Are the monsters on Maple Street real — or, by imagining the worst, have you created them and become one yourself?

I was intrigued when this latest reboot, with Jordan Peele as executive producer, was announced. With “Get Out,” Peele revealed himself as someone capably equipped to represent the heritage of the series, “Get Out” being an ironic morality tale with more than one twist. The Mars-mission episode hooked me and truly worried me — I have to admit, until recently I’d grown passe about the threat of nuclear war — until, mid-episode, I became very aware that I was being manipulated with false frights and then, of course, the de rigueur twist ending.

If you’re looking for true, nail-biting, hair-on-end thrills, HBO’s docudrama “Chernobyl” is the show to watch. The twist ending? Somehow we managed to survive.

The final episode

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Tonight’s the last episode, and I’m eager to see what happens. Some other people have complained about the writing — that it wasn’t faithful; that it wasn’t what they expected; more likely that it wasn’t what they wanted — but I’ve found it harrowing throughout. The mad determination for seemingly righteous justice, and the actual injustice that results from that, is cruelly ironic, and an everlasting human theme — especially when it plays out against the backdrop of doomed love affairs. These six episodes have completely captured me, and I’m grateful for the reminder that while large events play out it’s always the people in the streets who suffer most.

So, thank you, for entertaining me, enlightening me, and utterly captivating me with the depth of your humanity…

… “Les Miserables.”

p.s. I hear some other drama comes to an end tonight as well.

The best show on TV

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

What’s the best show on TV?

I don’t know, and neither do you, for two simple reasons:  We haven’t watched all the shows, and even if we somehow could (an impossibility, given the 500 shows in regular production), you have your tastes and I have mine.

But:  What might be the most moving show, the one that most seems to fit the concerns of right now? It might be “Les Miserables,” currently wrapping up a run on PBS.

It’s an outstanding production, one that doesn’t skimp on the horrors of early 19th century France, the Revolution now faded and forgotten, and the commoners filled with despair while that era’s 1% japes at their misery. While I watch “Game of Thrones” for entertainment, I don’t really care who sits on that iron throne — if anyone — but somehow I’m deeply invested in the equally fictional Jean Valjean and his determination to stay a good man in the face of cruel injustice masquerading as what’s good and right.

I haven’t read the novel, and I never may, but the first four episodes of this television adaptation have been absolutely riveting; the final two play out over the next two weeks. If you need to catch up, all the episodes are available here.

 

A period of transition

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

I was just searching for something in my Evernote file and found this:

We’re in a period of permanent transition. Nothing will settle.
It’s not an age of reading — it’s an age of looking. Looking at print or looking at screens — some of the print is interactive with sound and motion.

The old forms needn’t die. People are still buying tickets to the theatre, which has been dying for thousands of years.

I wrote that on July 25, 2014 (at Comic-Con in San Diego), no doubt as a jumping-off point for something I didn’t wind up writing. Since then, the permanent transition has continued, and nothing has settled.

By happenstance, I went to WonderCon today. I spent half of my time in the exhibit hall searching for just where comic books might be, then discovered that I was in Hall C of the Exhibit Hall — an area mostly devoted to independent artists and people lumbering around in gigantic bulky clumsy costumes representing things I didn’t recognize — and that comic books were in a small quadrant in a corner of Hall A. I’m now calling that one of the sections where “old forms needn’t die.”

I’ve been going to comics conventions for 54 years, and can remember when the exhibit hall was a smorgasbord. You’d have a comic-book dealer next to a science fiction dealer next to somebody selling Tribbles and around the corner from somebody hawking his own new board game. That’s how you’d come across new things you never knew about or thought about. Now we’ve got redlining:  comics way over there; whatever Funko Pops are and similar novelties in a separate hall, gaming stuff way back there, and so forth. At a time when the people of the U.S. seem more divided than ever (almost; we haven’t hauled out any cannons yet), someone has now split fandom down into its constituent elements too.

I remember being warned about this in the 2000s:  that, increasingly, we’d get served only the news we wanted, and blithely ignore the things that didn’t pertain to us, that we didn’t select. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook and tell me that that isn’t exactly what’s happening. And who is the perfect avatar of this dynamic? The guy who lobs one distracting new “emergency” after another into the chattersphere. It’s aggravating how much oxygen and attention he consumes.

Still, the old forms needn’t die. We’ve carved everything and everyone into smaller and smaller niches, just as the Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted in “The Third Wave.” It’s all still here, just smaller and discrete. Which is fine in many ways. A lot of the mass market didn’t serve a lot of people, including me. Television was very bad when I was a kid; ironically, there’s so much great television now that no one could possibly watch all of it and most of it looks bland. Turn on your TV (or device) and there are so many high-quality choices that none of them seems compelling. A lone diamond sparkles against velvet, but looks lost inside a gem mine.

Now we search, in a time when everything is findable. Nothing need go out of print (or “print”) any more, and no market is too small for some attention. At the convention, I picked up a newly published book called “Comic Book Implosion:  An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978.” The book relates the story of DC Comics announcing a big “DC Explosion!” of new titles in 1978 — and then canceling the entire effort two months later. Not exactly “The Story of Civilization,” right? Pretty arcane — but, still, there’s some interest in the topic somewhere (like, here — with me), so it exists. I also would assume that the topic exists on Wikipedia, and it does. In 2001, I attended a speech by Thomas Friedman wherein he talked about what he called the “Evernet” — being ever-available, ever-on, because of the cellphone and the internet.

That was six years before the iPhone, which solidified the Evernet, increased immediate access to information, and also increased the immediate sharability of information — as well as disinformation. Since then, the permanent transition has continued abated. And now, thanks to speed and availability, fluctuations will increase (economic; sociopolitical; cultural) and nothing will settle.

Speaks for itself

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 3.25.43 PM

What Everybody’s Listening To At My House

Monday, May 7th, 2018

We can’t get enough of David Byrne’s new album, “American Utopia.” It’s on constant replay on the home stereo (such as it is), in my car, and in my head. (Fitting, for a former Talking Head.) It’s a terrific album, filled with fun weirdness.

It’s also provided a backdrop against which to note the evolution of what I’ll call David Byrne’s positioning. The David Byrne of the 1970s and 1980s, who evoked the jittery discontent of modern life through abstruse words and a highly neurotic sound, is long gone. The more recent David Byrne, heard here and on his collaboration with Brian Eno of 10 years ago, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is very direct in his concerns and somewhat homiletic. “Is this meant ironically? Is it a joke?” he asks in the liner notes re the title of the new album. “… These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now. Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world — the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and ask ourselves — well, does it have to be like this? Is there another way?” Byrne was similarly earnest on that surprisingly upbeat disc with Eno, and has gone so far as to launch the blog “Reasons to be Cheerful,” which promulgates the good news from around the world about Economics, Education, Health, Culture and more. If you fear that, say, Climate Change is hopeless, you’ll want to turn here. I don’t think it’s just because he figures we can’t handle any more bad news. Somehow, David Byrne, who always seemed emotionally remote, has become a warm-hearted social activist.

Three weeks ago, I took my wife to Las Vegas to see Byrne’s show, at the gorgeous Smith Center, where the acoustics proved to be remarkable and the performance even moreso. In addition to reinventing his music, Byrne has set out to reinvent the stage show that accompanies it. Note, below, the absence of an onstage set or, even, the normal components of a live concert: no drum kit, no cables, no amps, no keyboard stand, no guitar rack, no foot pedals, indeed, no nuthin’ except the musicians and whatever they can carry. This is very much a marching band.

DavidByrneTour20181

 

DavidByrneTour20184

 

DavidByrneTour20185

Rock concert? This didn’t seem like one. My wife said it was more like a combination of performance piece with music. Above, they set a mood for “Burning Down the House.” Below, note how the band, including the 65-year-old lead singer, plays dead while just the keyboardist carries on.

DavidByrneTour20182

And, here, how he opens the show, simply sitting alone onstage and singing about the workings of the human brain.

DavidByrneTour20183

That photo alone shows that Byrne is an interdisciplinary artist, not a rock musician. (As did this sensational and odd installation he put in the Pace Gallery in Menlo Park, which I went to see last year.) He’s a musician, yes, but also a visual artist, a film director, and a writer of non-fiction books, including “How Music Works.” His show is also tightly choreographed, and filled with joy — the joy of the music, and also the joy radiating from the performers who are delighted to present it.  In that same week, my wife and I saw another interdisciplinary artist, Laurie Anderson. (Byrne on Wednesday night; Anderson on Friday night at the Wallis in Los Angeles.) Byrne has said he won’t be reuniting with Talking Heads because that would be an exercise in nostalgia and he’s not interested in that. Laurie Anderson, meanwhile, is on what’s clearly a nostalgia tour:  a clip show of her greatest hits, of sorts — video bits; some spoken word; talk about past events; very occasional electric violin. It was disappointing to see such a provocative artist reduced to just showing up and pulling bits out of a hat, and even more dispiriting to learn that, when unscripted, she can’t tell a good story.

Byrne’s show featured eight songs from the (highly recommended) new album, eight Talking Heads songs, and six songs from his many collaborations over the years. If there are tickets left somewhere near you, you might want to get them. Maybe watching this recent appearance on “Colbert” will help convince you.

Sound medical decisions

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Here are the top two stories on Newsweak right now. I agree with the treatment plan.

BarbaraBush

Oscars Grouch

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

Oscars

I don’t care about the Oscars.

And I can’t understand why anyone would — unless you were working on it, or had worked on a movie that got nominated.

I feel the same about watching pro sports, by the way: Why people would sit around and watch it is a real head-scratcher.

I’m not opposed to these things; I just really can’t understand. I guess I have a better understanding of watching pro sports — hey, somebody might do something spectacular while you’re watching! and I did watch some of the Olympics for that reason, but that was at the gym while I was doing my own spectacular feat, namely not dying on the elliptical machine — but, after the inevitable opening comedy monologue, aren’t celebrity awards shows just two or three tedious hours of watching famous rich people get up to receive even more fame and riches? Why is that entertaining? To me, it seems too close to the English class system, where haughty imperials “do their part for the local economy” by swilling down champagne while commoners get rations. The other day I came across a clip online from Jimmy Fallon’s show where he got some black people to talk to what they thought was a video chat with Chadwick Boseman, the actor who plays Black Panther; one after another, these people profusely thanked Boseman for making the movie and representing them on film. Y’know, I get it. I do. Really. As much as I can, as a white man. But my immediate thought was: He’s playing a wealthy monarch superhero, which doesn’t represent them, and he didn’t do it for them, he did it for millions of dollars. (Listen, I will gladly represent arty middle-aged German-American suburbanites onscreen for just hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Then — surprise! — it turned out that it wasn’t a video chat, that Chadwick Boseman was actually there behind the curtain! When he came out, the fan-worshipers were thrilled and at least one said “My king!” and crossed his or her arms in what I take to be a subject’s salute and genuflection re-enacted from the movie. This was even worse than mere celebrity worship — this was worshiping celebrity plus monarchy. I thought grumpily, “Our forefathers did fight a war against this sort of thing!”

Last week I noticed that a band I really like was playing locally tonight. I floated the idea of going, even though I wasn’t sure I truly wanted to go, given my dislike of the venue, only to have my friend recoil in horror. “Oh, no!” he said. “That’s the Oscars! There’s a party I always go to!” The last Oscars party I went to was about 20 years ago, and I can’t remember anything about it, except everyone else’s ginned-up excitement when some movie or other won or lost. Generally, when people tell me the Oscars are coming up, I’ll say, honestly, “When?” Not because I’m putting on airs, but because I don’t follow it and don’t know. The fact that I can live and work in the city that houses both Disney and Warner Bros., as well as a quintillion independent production companies, and that I’m in Hollywood two or three days a week, and I never know when the Oscars are, tells you about how difficult it can be for facts to break through. (Which may partly explain many evangelicals’ support of Trump.) If I cared about the Oscars, I’d know when they are. Supporting evidence:  I know when Comic-Con is. If you like the Oscars, that’s fine, I just can’t understand. But if you don’t care about Comic-Con, well, that’s inexplicable.

Luckily for me, my wife feels the same way about the Oscars. I say luckily because that means that I have never had to gamely play along while we host an Oscars party. Tonight, she’ll be at work saving people’s lives at our local hospital. Our 15-year-old will be playing Fortnite or reading Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon (which he’d better finish in time for that book report!). I’ll either be at the gym or back here writing, and I admit to being interested in seeing how Rick does on “The Walking Dead” without his son “Coral.” During all of that, some people will win a little gold statuette saying they’re the best at acting like they are someone else, and others won’t win it, and some person will win a little gold statuette saying that he or she is the best at directing those people exactly how to act like someone else in the best possible way, and where to stand, and the day after that everyone will go back to doing everything else.

(un)professionalism

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

IMG_0608

It was the best of (theatre) times, it was the worst of (theatre) times.

I was going to write a long post about professionalism, and actually had most of it written in my head, but I can boil it down to this:  Professionalism is like what Justice Potter said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Just over a week ago, we had our tech rehearsal for The Car Plays, which is running now at Segerstrom Center in Orange County. (It’s sold out. Don’t even try.) I directed a play called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”; here are a few words about my cast. We rehearsed over the holidays; for this 10-minute play, one of the actors would spend five hours on LA’s notoriously convenient buses (two-and-a-half getting to rehearsal; two-and-a-half getting back home), and another one of the actors would drive about an hour each way; the third actor changed her work schedule whenever needed; one of the guys rehearsed a few days after painful, extensive abdominal surgery (!); and our artistic producer drove two hours out of his way to check on our show when we decided we needed to rehearse all the way across town and down south in order to accommodate the guy who had surgery. Meanwhile, three people coordinated and scoured the area for the necessary costume bits and props. Oh, and the tech? The tech involved about four dozen people and 15 plays, and top-to-bottom was probably the most well-produced, well-run, efficient tech rehearsal I’ve ever seen in the 40 years I’ve been doing theatre.

Meanwhile, in the past two weeks I saw an improv show billed as featuring “the top improv teams in LA” where people had no idea how to do improv — low energy; no projection; no familiarity with the announced-in-advance script prompts, and I assure you, these were very well-known script prompts; and where the second team, given its prompt (“It’s a play”) rejected it (“Actually, we’re doing a documentary”), which is a complete no-no in  improv. Rarely have 40 minutes seemed so long. Dying painfully of a gut shot would’ve seemed quicker. During the third of these internal skits, I leaned in to my wife and whispered harshly, “We’re leaving” and grabbed her and ran for the exit, past the audience, who consisted almost entirely of the other people waiting to do “improv” and a scattering of friends-of-the-performers who kept shilling for the performers in a recognizably false way.

The photo above is from a show I saw this weekend. You’re seeing the stage action from my seat. Some members of the audience dragged their chairs left and right in an effort to see something; I just gave up and decided I was attending a radio play. Before the play, the playwright introduced me to “the greatest director in the world”; judging just from that photo, I’m still waiting to meet him. I couldn’t quite figure out why this playing space had the absolute worst sightlines I’ve ever seen, until I turned around and saw that 20 feet behind us was an elevated stage! For some reason, the greatest director in the world decided to stage the play in a slightly elevated room across from the stage. This meant that, as you can see, we couldn’t see; it also meant that the actors’ words were lost to the depth of the room, and, given that there’s no light plot above a room (as opposed to, say, a stage), the actors were frequently in dim. It’s a real shame, too, because the play is better than that. But, the director and his cast found ways to bury the laugh lines too.

My best advice:  Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Whether it’s doing live performance or changing the oil in your car.

By the way, the young woman in front of me, in the center above, had beautiful ash-blonde hair, as well as an attractively smooth back, both of which I got to admire closely for an hour and a half.