Saturday, April 4, 2009

In which we apply the Tex Avery Principle

The Hard-Boiled Dick show was Breakthrough 2 of 4, showing us that the show stood up better by breaking away from the movie we were hosting. We still weren't ready to cut the umbilical to the movie entirely; we had to assume that people were tuning in for the movie first, and that our efforts were wholly directed to keep their little dials glued to 18 at least through the first hour (so it would count as an Official View) so as to be motivated to run out and buy some snazzy Duck Head Jeans at the earliest opportunity, October being the all-important ratings sweeps month and all. In two weeks it would be Halloween, and also Fall Back Night. Halloween had not yet become the anti-Christmas bacchanalia and shopping holiday we are now so fortunate to enjoy, but it was starting down that road at the time with some pretty notorious underground costume parties. It seemed to us that we could go off script, or at least full script, if we could take advantage of some of the planned masked revelry that was already in the works: we would convince one or more of the annual acting community Halloween parties to relocate after midnight to the WLEX studios, and get some trained improvisers to riff along with Barb. Then, at 2AM, we'd -- run the first hour all over again, through the close. In a perfect world, we'd even restart the movie.

My key style influences were Villy Elder, Ernie Kovacs, Buster Keaton and Tex Avery; and while all of these used the same approach, Tex refined it into two key concepts:
  • Start with a logical but ridiculous premise.
  • Pursue it way past its logical conclusion.
  • Pursue it with absolute conviction and complete sincerity.
The perfect expression of this, to me at the time, was Tex's Northwest Hounded Police, a staple on the Turner cable stations of the time. Look it up sometime. There's no directorial winking: in order for the premise to work, Droopy must be omnipresent and the last shot shows that this is indeed so. Doubtful that Aristotle had this in mind when he proposed his theory of the unities, but I'd argue that these seven minutes of handmade determinism serve as a perfectly valid proof test (although I would not get an A on my paper from my former colleague the Professor of Philosophy at Transylvania University, but instead a V for Vulgarity).

Given that, it seemed that the best way to show on a live teevee show what Falling Back really meant would be to do a complete rewind-n-replay of the first hour of the show. Keith was up for it; by this point Bill had retreated to whatever his next triumph of programming or WLEX turf war was, and was allegedly only reviewing show tapes; advance script approval had been abandoned. After a day or so of thinking about it, Keith called to say he didn't think it advisable legally to restart the movie; he thought that there might be some FCC issues if somebody complained, but as long as we ran the sold commercials in their proper slots and did nothing illegal immoral or fattening during the host segments, we should be fine.

So I started calling our friends The Actors, inviting them to come over to WLEX for the next show in costume for our On-Air Costume Party. We'd supply the party fud, and the centerpiece would be a Costume Fashion Show with hushed commentary by good ol' Missy (I hadn't sprung this on good ol' Missy yet, but I figured she'd be all over it). We'd want them to adlib humorously for probly four bits, and it would all be over by 2:15 AM or so. Since we had known all these folks for years, we pitched ideas that we were sure they'd glom onto, resulting in a killer show that would go down in th' annals of teevee history ferever.

Well, we were wrong. Nobody wanted anything at all to do with this.

It seems that the world of Lexington theatre at the time was aligning itself along two lines -- the followers of Director W and the followers of Director S. Of the two, Director S was considered far the more Artiste, living the total Boho Artiste life along with the dedicated troupe of followers. Entry into this secret society implied a full commitment to the total gestalt, which mean shunning the likes of all other influences, including Director W. And Barb was considered to be wholly in the camp of Director W. So if you wanted to be doing Real Thee-Aytre Art with Fellow Traveler Artistes in that place at that time, you got yourself hence to Director S, and you had naught to do with the irrelevancies of Director W and his boozhwa minions. And you especially wouldn't be caught dead intimating that you a) might own a teevee b) might watch some programs on this teevee and c) might watch that wretched Monsterpiece Theatre, just about a perfect example of All That Thee-Aytre Art Wasn't or Would Never Be.

Barb took all this a little personally: she felt, with some justification, that she was being personally redlined. I thought it was silly at best -- but I had also invested time normally spent in writing to try to recruit a largish group of good comic improvisers, and I had no Plan B.

Plus Missy returned my call: she didn't want to be on the air either, although this had nothing to do with the extracurricular foolishness -- she and John had plans. Our friend Maggie the Costumer had already committed to coming in costume, so I called her and asked if she was interested in doing the color commentary. Maggie has a very dry wit, and when I described what was left of Plan A, she almost audibly licked her chops at the thought of giving back to actors some of the grief that actors had given her over the years.

We tried a few other options. Seems that our friend Jack the soon-to-be-Famous Author was quite willing to come down as an Inebriated Genteel Sot, and passed the word to his various circles, which somehow included Bob. Bob recruited several of his more eccentric friends, who actually showed up. Good Old Reliable Nathan and his girlfriend also signed on. I made sure that Elmer knew the night before that we had these people coming over, and after giving us the Do Your Parents Know You're Having These Kids Over for a Wild Party look, he agreed so long as I escorted them in and out.

A small but quite motley crew showed up for the Halloween Party show, and I had some serious second thoughts: we didn't know most of these people, so we didn't know how this was going to play at all. This was not Pushing the Creative Envelope; this was Public Stupidity. Well, the first rule of leadership is Don't Show Second Thoughts, so I huddled with Barb and Keith. We would go with the cold open as planned, following the Pizza Guy into the studio and giving the setup; we'd do viewer mail third, at about 1:25 AM; we'd do the Fashion Show fourth, about 1:40 AM and stretch for six minutes or so; we'd do the rewind at 1:58 AM. We needed a scripted bits for the second and fifth slots, fake our way through the close, and hope for the best. And we'd confiscate the beer that somebody snuck in.

I ran the show down for our guests, and did the 86 the Beer speech to the predictable hoots. I turned the set lights off and said I'd be willing to go with dead air for the open if we didn't lose the beer now, crossing my fingers as well as the Rubicon; the beer was surrendered, once again proving the Power of Teevee to Change Minds and Influence Behavior. The Pizza Guy showed up with the delivery -- a new pizza guy, who looked quite puzzled at the request to "just hang around a minute, walk through that door when we tell you and ask who gets the Blubber Pizza. If you do this, we'll tip you $20." The $20 tip carried the day; when we played the show back we could hear Keith hollering "Cue the pizza guy" just as the show started. We got through the open more or less intact, and decided that Position 2 would be talking smack about the movie to date (that could be controllable). We got through Mail, the Fashion Show and the Fall Back. Barb felt comfortable with more trash talk for our last open segment, and we ran through the close as fast as we could. Thanked everyone for coming, thanked our guardian angels for getting us through a call too close for comfort, and concluded:
  • High Concept alone wasn't enough to carry the day.
  • We aren't putting anybody on camera who we don't know or aren't sure about.
  • We aren't going into the studio without knowing what we're going to do that night.
Well, at least we were leaving the studio more or less intact, and our merry prankster studio crew thought the whole affair quite funny. So, let's get next week's reviewing tape and we'll call it a night.

Keith hems a bit. Then he explains that, well, next week's movie hasn't come in yet.