Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

I love this photo on so many levels.  It's a vintage shot of "I Love Lucy" as it was shot with three cameras in front of a live studio audience.  A process that was essentially invented by the man at the center...Desi Arnaz.  Little did he know back in 1951 that this was an invention that would continue to provide audiences with the best television situation comedies all the way to 2017.

Okay, the multi-camera sitcom has fallen a little bit out of favor and I don't understand why.  There is something to be said about hearing genuine laughter being manufactured by real live people.  Heck, our latest project in development is written specifically to be done in front of 300 giddy folks on bleachers.  It is human connection.  It is the community of entertainment.  It is the way it should be.

There is nothing like laughter in general.

Of course, I laugh at strangers all the time.  Idiots who can't find their seats in a movie theater.  Morons who are texting, combing their hair, and eating a burrito all while behind the steering wheel of a car.  And, in Los Angeles, you can count on some goofy person to show up on every street corner.

They all get laughs from me and I am indeed a stranger.  But, frankly, I don't think they're trying to make me giggle.  When the merriment of another human being is the focus of what you are doing, then this is a completely different task altogether. 

I remember the first time I got that jolt of energy.  At the Fordham University Ramskeller.  In the basement of the campus center, it served as a pseudo-cafeteria and restaurant for the students.  Then they would move the tables and chairs aside on a Friday night and, suddenly, this was a disco.  School dances and more really bad memories for yours truly.  On most nights during my years as a Fordham student, the Ramskeller would be my own personal chamber of horrors.

But not on one Spring night of my junior year.  After years and years and years of cracking wise for my friends and hearing their laughter in response, my sense of humor and creativity would be tested in front of a room packed with strangers.  And the exhileration that followed will never be forgotten.

Backtracking, I was suddenly viewed as some comedic impressario at Fordham.  I've previously written extensively here about the radio situation comedy I created for WFUV-FM called "Diploma City."  Trust me, that effort proved that I had a lot to learn.  And while we thought this effort was funny, the production was still crammed full of my friends who were probably not the best critics. 

But, still, "Diploma City" inexplicably turned me into the Neil Simon of the Rose Hill campus.  I suddenly was in demand.  And completely floored when I got the following request from one of the journalism professors.

"How would you like to produce the entertainment for the annual Sigma Delta Chi dinner?"


Sigma who?

Delta what?


"Yeah, you.  We could use about a half-hour of comedy right after dinner."

Knowing the quality of the food from the catering service at the Ramskeller, the meal could be comedy enough for the crowd.  But, nevertheless, I agreed to put this on.   And then I stopped to think.

What the hell am I going to do?

To prove that misery loves both company and comedy, I immediately pulled in some of the better actors from our radio sitcom.  Hams that all of them were, they were anxious to participate in whatever I dreamed up.  And, so as not to make this a lost cause for yours truly, I also engaged the services of a girl I had a crush on.  She could sing up a storm, but I was unclear how well she could be an actress.  But, hey, the producer needs to get something out of the evening, too.  Right?

We decided to put on a sketch show very similar to SNL or the old Carol Burnett Show.  Of course, we would be lampooning Fordham, the communications department, and life on campus.  If you weren't at the school at this very week and at this very moment, you would not get any of the gags.  But, despite the incredibly inside humor, we thought it was quite funny.  On paper.

We began assembling at the Ramskeller during its off hours to rehearse.  This certainly was not the Mark Hellinger Theater.  We assembled a stage from a pile of wood blocks.  There were no dressing rooms, so the cast would wear their own clothes with no changes during the entire show.  We couldn't figure out the stereo system so there was no music we could use.  And, of course, we were incredibly limited with sets.  If we couldn't concoct a set by using the tables and chairs at the Ramskeller, we were shit out of luck.

So, essentially, our show would be all about the acting.  And my words.

Throughout the rehearsals of this "Mickey-and-Judy-put-on-a-show-in-her-father's-barn" concoction, we realized that none of us knew what the fuck we were doing.  It was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go-along mayhem and spontaniety.

More importantly, we were having fun.

Everybody but my little discovery.  My protege and hopefully more. 

There was one sketch where a guy and a girl meet while on line to sign up for classes.  A relationship develops.  It was probably the trickiest sketch of the night.  And, of course, a real star turn for the actors.  The only problem was that my friend couldn't get the dialogue.  Or remember it.

What's a producer to do?

I seized upon this opportunity to do some one-on-one rehearsal time in a secluded corner of the Ramskeller.  Oh, nothing really happened.  But, I was making in-roads as a Svengali.  Maybe this is how John Derek had created his wife Bo.  We sat there for hours.  Running the lines over and over and over.

"I can't do this."

Oh, yeah, you can.  I tried to remember the line from "42nd Street."  This is going to be your moment.  You're going to get on that stage as a nobody.  And you're going to come off that stage a star.

Or something like that.

The night of the performance was a basketful of nerves for me.  After years of "entertaining,"  I was finally being entrusted to "ENTERTAIN."  Amuse a roomful of journalism students and faculty.  People I didn't know.  And folks who were likely expecting a lot after enduring a meal of Fordham-cafeteria-produced roast chicken.


As soon as we began, there was a lag of about twenty seconds before the first joke would hit.  What's that?


The good news is that there was a regular guffaw every twenty seconds thereafter.  They were buying it all.  From my vantage point in the back of the Ramskeller, I saw people laughing.  A lot.

And I had written it. 

I can't describe the feeling of that night.  A cornucopia of emotions that had me soaring over the campus for several hours and even days.  The culmination of two decades spent crafting my sense of humor.  Now an audience was enjoying it.

Oddly enough, this evening was so successful that the same professor asked us to do another revue the very next spring.  With the experience under our belt, the show would be even better.  Right?


I used the best actors I could find.  We had more props available.  I figured I was a better writer so I doubled the number of sketches.

And it wasn't as good.  Another example that the first time is always your best effort.   A snowflake in our lives.  A moment that will never be duplicated.

And, by the way, if you're wondering, we didn't cast my protege the second time around.  Yeah, she was that bad the first time.  

Ah, the energy of that first evening my stuff was exposed to an audience.  There would be others.  Fingers crossed, there will be a lot more.

Dinner last night:  Chinese beef and shrimp from Panda Express.

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