(Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at The Actors' Gang in Culver City, California) Mimes have something to say. Don't let them fool you. Or scare you. Behind that paint, trapped in that shrinking, invisible box is a human being. A performer. Maybe even, if they'd let you say so, a comedian. Then, all of a sudden, maybe the most honest thing you can say is nothing at all. At least if you're the mime.
Specifically I'm talking about Billy the Mime. Dude's a trip. Check him out at billythemime.net or on the YouTubes. This past Tuesday, at the The Actors' Gang in Culver City, I saw him re-enact the entire "African American Experience" with the animated physicality of a Looney Toon and the comedic political sharpness of a Doonesbury strip, if said Doonesbury strip made any sense. I'm not the NAACP or anything, but I think it's okay that he did it in white face, right? I mean it's part of the whole mime thing. Okay, good.
Watching the journey from Kunta Kinte to Barack, to all those stops in between--be it MLK or Jazz or Rosa or blaxploitation--was kind of a brilliant thing. And the fact that it was performed by a lanky white clown didn't make it any less sharp in its point. Not coincidentally, the theme of the night at the Actors' Gang was "White Guilt"--a natural way to kick off Black History Month for the ¡Satiristas! group of comedians. It's an interesting thing, by the way--white guilt. I don't think any of my black friends (yeah, that's plural--check my Facebook!) have ever felt the need to apologize to me for Mike Tyson's face tattoo or Kid and Play's haircuts, and I've never cared who sat where on a bus, but I still feel...well, what's the word? Guilt. And I voted for Barack! Which was supposed to be the one-stop cure for the whole thing. But maybe if we vote for him again in 2012 it'll work? Anyway, the whole over-sensitivity, PC thing must be it's own kind of racism. But it's a better sensitivity than the one that causes one to look around in a restaurant before telling an off-color joke. Sorry! I didn't mean color like that either! See? Oversensitivity.
The line, I think, exists at that point where you still rap along to Lil Wayne or Jay-Z at a party but have the decency to drop saying the n-words along the way. Abe Lincoln would have dreamed of these problems. In a way, I'm serious. The race relation issue, between all of them, is ever-present and still existent today. But at least, and thank long-delayed equality, there's only one drinking fountain at my office. And hey, I voted for Barack.
If you didn't notice, I just went on a tangent. It's because I was thinking. And that, beyond the chosen theme of Tuesday night, is the larger point of the whole damn thing. The whole damn thing, in a micro sense, is the ¡Satiristas! gang as lead by provocateur/comedian/genuinely nice guy Paul Provenza, and, in the macro sense, it's comedy on the whole. There's a lot of self-righteous importance in LA about the arts to be sure--the thought, perhaps thousands of times over, that a baristas unproduced screenplay and tight-jeaned indie band means more to mankind than a Pennsylvania miner's honest day's work--the work that keeps all this running and possible, by the way. But hey, I'm out here following my star too...and by the way, have you ever heard of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists?
My point is I don't think it's entirely pretentious or incredibly miscalculated to say there is something important about comedy and what the ¡Satiristas! crew is aiming to do. Paul Provenza is the director of the popular documentary The Aristocrats, and after making that flick in '05 and having one thing lead to another, he published ¡Satiristas!--a comedy philosophy textbook of sorts--logging a whole bunch of laugh-givers and their thoughts on making the bits work and, hopefully without falling off the tightrope and crashing hard to the ground of delusional grandeur, the importance of the the punchline. Paul does the same kind of thing on his Showtime show, The Green Room with Paul Provenza, that puts four or five comics on some comfy furniture and dares them to open up so much that Ron White (for example) suddenly becomes a fuller person and not just the five minutes of tater-tot material you pick up in Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
The white guilt history thing--as in the theme of this show in Culver City, not the pervading phenomenon--is just part of Satiristas Live!--a monthly showcase of comedians and their nitty gritty as part of the Axis Mundi Series by The Actors' Gang. (And it's worth noting that the Gang itself is curated by Tim Robbins.) So I've been elbow-rubbing with the crew for about a month now, although most of the ribbing has come this direction. But they're professionals and I'm like the bat boy, cleaning up sunflower seeds stuck in tobacco and Big League chewing gum in the dugout. Actually, they couldn't be more accommodating. Some of these guys (and gals) are legends, but mostly they're still just guys and gals. And they keep interesting company. In one night, after a taping of The Green Room, I got to ask Ron Jeremy about women and get Sugar Ray Leonard to give a shout-out to my Dad (guess which one looks like a Star Wars Muppet in person). This past Tuesday, I got to prove how racist I'm not (while they were on the subject) when I tried to escort a crazy woman screaming racial epitaphs out of the theater after she tried to choke a stage manager and gave one of the comedians a bloody nose, only to get red wine tossed all over me. It's cool--it was free booze.
But the most interesting thing is getting a chance to connect with these people and pick their brains on what they do. Laughs can be easy. Just fart in a bag. Or fall down a flight of stairs in front of your coworkers. Or turn on Leno. But truth is harder. Illustrating truth in a convincing manner is unfortunately nearly impossible nowadays. The media, the politics--it's all kaputz. So there's something pure about a comedian and what they do, especially if they do it well. Somebody like Richard Lewis is almost a comedian on accident--he's so himself, so true to it that he hopelessly couldn't bend in any other direction, so the man has made a living of his own brain. You see that kind of genuineness in a person, eccentric or not, and you want to give it a hug. (Don't worry, I didn't.)
Politicians and straight news are too muzzled by PC paranoia (I knew I was going somewhere with that oversensitivity thing) to grant insight or, at the very least, say what we all know. The talking heads a little too biased, a little too urgent or antic to be taken seriously. So ironically, comedy is a serious place for truth. And if you ask the Amazon blurb for ¡Satiristas! the book, Paul would say we're in a golden age of satire, where Stewart and Colbert are our Cronkite. But he also couldn't clearly tell you where that line is--where the jester becomes the talking head, where punchline strays into pretension. Although I'm almost sure I've crossed it now.
As a journalism student, I was taught my profession was "the fourth estate"--the unofficial branch of government that keeps it honest. But nowadays, it's my appreciation for the funny people, dating back to Fozzie Bear and Michaelangelo the Turtle, that leads me to believe that that seat is truly held by people like Paul, Billy the Mime, and their heroes past, like George Carlin (whose daughter Kelly also keeps the ¡Satiristas! crew going). It's not that there's not still Bob Woodwards out there, but that an empty stage with a mic and the word "Improv" emblazoned on the wall might be the most unfiltered source for truth. I'm not gonna agree with everything they all say, but I'm going to admire that they say it, and be fascinated that they can make me laugh as they do.
Otherwise, how could I possibly laugh while a white guy in make-up silently acts out slavery while still feeling bad about it?
If you think comedy's cool, if you think laughing's fun, or if you think what many consider to be the easiest job (at least compared to what people like my parents do) in the world (stand-up) is fascinating, then come on down to the Actors' Gang in Culver City, and cut Tim Robbins and his peeps a break to watch some comedy with the ¡Satiristas! Or read a book. When sh*t's getting serious, a yuk or two beats crying and goes pretty good with good faith. And remember, laughing can be learning. This stuff is important. Now if you'd excuse me, I have to watch SpongeBob Squarepants.
See ¡Satiristas! Live on the first Tuesday of every month as part of the Axis Mundi Series at The Actors' Gang in Culver City.