Brett vs. Brett: Stand-Up Revengefuck

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Lameass Megalomaniac (Photo by Sue Mattson)

 

Brett Emerson claims to be a comedic genius, brilliant writer, and master storyteller. Personally, I don’t buy it. In all the years I’ve known this Frankensteinian scoundrel, I’ve been subjected to all manner of slothful and slovenly behavior, lewd anecdotes, sacrilegious tomfoolery, vulgar musicianship, and indecent exposure. Oh, but now he says he’s a stand-up comedian and he’s slithering back to La Crosse to do a big hometown hoopla for all his degenerate friends. How nice. I’m sure his act is appropriate for our fair community. People, this man is a menace to the frail fabric of society, and he doesn’t deserve to be within a hundred feet of a public forum. Unfortunately, as I am La Crosse’s go-to guy for interviewing the suburban rich and famous, I was tapped to hold a discourse with this loathsome specimen. What follows is, without question, the lowest point of my esteemed journalistic career.

 

Brett Emerson: You’re looking well.

 

Brett Emerson: Well, you’re looking amazing!  What are you doing after this interview?

 

Emerson: Cut the crap.  Just tell me about your stupid stand-up.

 

Emerson: Ask me nicely.

 

Emerson: Are you serious?

 

Emerson: (Makes kissing faces) Lick me.

 

Emerson: Fine, you idiot. Please tell me about your magical adventures in comedy.

 

Emerson: Wellll, since moving out of La Crosse in 2010, I’ve lived in beautiful Bellingham, Washington, located between Seattle and Vancouver and about as far northwest as one can get in the continental United States.  It’s only slightly larger than La Crosse, but there’s a massive arts and music scene out here that is really inspiring.

I’ve always been a huge comedy dork, even since I was a little kid. I grew up listening to Bill Cosby and George Carlin, and I’ve watched Comedy Central since its very beginning. I’ve always had this goal of being a comedian, whether it was in the format of stand-up, sketch comedy, or film. I have notebooks full of ideas that have never made the jump from theory to reality. The problem was that I’ve never been in a place in which I could regularly get all the ideas out of my head and into those of other people.

 

Emerson: Well, that, and you’re astronomically lazy.

 

Emerson: Well, yeah.

 

Emerson: So how was Bellingham any different?

 

Emerson: A lot of what’s happened in Bellingham seems like a series of deliberate accidents. During the four day drive from La Crosse to Bellingham, I listened to nothing but stand-up, pumping myself up to get here and start looking around for stand-up open mics. When I arrived here, Bellingham didn’t seem to have much in the way of open-mics, but when I looked around for venues I discovered the Upfront Theatre, which is a fantastic little improv theater full of brilliant people who make up comedy off the tops of their heads. Just genius, creative chaos. My first impression was that I had found my tribe.

I’ve spent three years studying and performing improv with these people, using stories and characters to figure out myself. They’ve also always held a monthly stand-up show at the Upfront, but I never got on stage enough to draw together any sort of confidence or material. Other forums popped up around town, but they were always on nights I worked, so I couldn’t go.

Yet blind, stupid luck would lead me to a particular bar on a particular night four months ago, when I randomly met a guy who was starting up a new, weekly stand-up night that I could make it to. And so a terrible beauty was born.  I had the good fortune of stumbling into the ground floor of Bellingham’s exploding stand-up scene, and things are getting bigger and better. I put it this way: for the first three years I lived here, I averaged five minutes of stand-up every six months. For the past four months, I’ve been doing up to thirty minutes per week. And I’m far from the only person reaping the benefits.

 

Emerson: I was at that awkward, shambling mess you refer to as your first stand-up show at the Casino.

 

Emerson: So was I, so that figures. When you have a leprechaun in the crowd heckling you, it makes you question your whole existence. Really, I just wanted to vomit every malformed joke I ever thought of out onto the audience that night, because I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get the chance again.  That was forty minutes of sheer stuttering embarrassment, but I’d have also severely regretted not doing it.

One of the best things that improv has taught me is how to fail. How to enjoy failure and keep moving forward. How to adjust to things not working out the way you envisioned them and still turning the situation into something amazing. I’ve failed, a lot, and active failure feels a lot better than passive failure.

I’ve done horrible improv shows and horrible stand-up sets, sometimes so badly that I’ve wanted to run away and never put myself out in front of people ever again. And then I come back the next time, and nobody remembers that I sucked but me. People seem much quicker to remember the times when you were awesome. Except you, of course.

 

Emerson: Of course. For you, what are the differences between doing improv and stand-up?

 

Emerson: It’s the difference between forgetting and remembering, winging it and being very prepared. When an improv show is over, it’s over forever. Never replicated. I’ll maybe think about the show for the rest of the night, but the next day, it’s a past life. In contrast, I record everything I do in stand-up, and I listen to my show over, and over, and over, and over. I’ve largely stopped listening to other comedians since I became one. Not out of narcissism or arrogance, but because I became so obsessed with developing every nuance of my material that I never stop thinking about it. I’ve never been so absorbed in anything, ever.

 

Emerson: How do you go about developing your material?

 

Emerson: I’m learning the benefits of being prepared so well that you can throw the notes away. At first I had a basic idea for things I’d want to do in a set; then I’d get out there and bullshit my way through and listen to the recordings and hear what worked and what needed work. Very oral tradition. The aftermath remains the same, but when I’m working out new stuff now I’m much more apt to plot things out beforehand and bullet point each turn of phrase. I’m getting way better at memorizing my sets, which oddly frees me from the program. I was always a great test taker in school.

 

Emerson: Are you still a creepy little pottymouth?

 

Emerson: Oh, of course, but that’s not all there is. I’ve learned how to sneak in the shock rather than beat people over the head with it. Oddly, I used to be really afraid of telling jokes that were cleverly profane while wholly unafraid of verbally shitting everywhere, and yet the one joke which earned me the worst reaction, a full gasp, was a really mundane one about country music fans. To be fair, I told it like crap that night.

I’m really into terrible puns. I love silly one liners. I love conceptual comedy about ideas and inventions. I love talking about all my insane adventures and insane feelings and philosophies. I’m a filthy nerd, but I’m still a nerd, and I’m not so afraid of showing that off anymore.

 

Emerson: You sound happy.

 

Emerson: I am happy. Probably best ever happy. This level of satisfaction and ambition is completely alien territory.

 

Emerson: Sounds wonderful. Soooo, you wanna get out of here?

 

Emerson: Hell yeah, stud.

 

The grin of a man who just scored with himself.  (Photo Sue Mattson)

The grin of a man who just scored with himself. (Photo Sue Mattson)

 

Oh God, what have I done? Brett Emerson will play the Cavalier Theater & Lounge on Thursday, September 19th at 10pm. I, unfortunately, will be there.

 

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Y Spy: Save the Warehouse

Warehouse Stairs

There was a great era in my life, between living in California and Washington, when my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin was amazing in ways it wasn’t before. I’ve lived in La Crosse for a total of 27 years, and for a majority of that time my hometown has bored me to tears. There’s a carefully crafted sense of belligerent apathy in La Crosse, an omnipresent boredom coupled with a refusal to do anything to erase that boredom. Don’t rock the boat, the apathy has always said. In La Crosse, this leads to a chicken and the egg question where I have to ask: is La Crosse boring because it’s drowning in alcohol, or is La Crosse drowning in alcohol because it’s boring and doesn’t know what else to do?

            Whatever the answer may be, hail to the heroes who fight that apathy. In the four years of my return to La Crosse, I saw my hometown in a completely different light. This change wasn’t just in my head, though. In this era, there was a seething underground punk scene, the development of creative venues like the Root Note that weren’t just watering holes that incidentally played music over the fog, the renovation of River City Hobbies from a good comic book store into an amazing one, and the evolution of the Second Supper from an Onion also-ran into a weekly newspaper with gigantic balls. (Appropriately enough, the first Supper issue I read in the new style had a cover story about this story’s subject.)  I wrote for the Supper for three of my four years back, and as a result I saw and did things I never expected I’d see or do in La Crosse.  It was a time when I truly fell in love with my town like never before.

            But like all things La Crosse, entropy and apathy reasserted themselves. Many of the upstarts were phased out or absorbed into the status quo. The Second Supper got bought out and completely lost its edge. It now has a fourth of the page count it boasted in its heyday, it comes out monthly instead of weekly, and the precious little material left isn’t much more than an events calendar and a syndicated advice column. The guys who all but ran the house show punk scene in La Crosse moved out to Washington, and knowing a sinking ship when I saw one, I moved out here with them. Here, I found improv comedy and stand-up scenes – two scenes which will almost certainly never take root in La Crosse – and now I can’t see myself ever coming home to stay.

            It’s getting worse. Now, even the few old, fun institutions are fading. River City Hobbies recently closed following the death of owner and all-around amazing guy, John Vach, leaving La Crosse, a moderately sized city, completely without a comic book shop (and no, Barnes and Noble doesn’t count). Now, the Warehouse, which has for decades served as the stalwart enemy of La Crosse apathy and the city’s only music venue for people who aren’t into bar blues and jam bands, is days away from closure.  Should this happen, La Crosse loses its only all-ages hangout for people who don’t want to be barraged with Jesus pamphlets, and La Crosse as a whole loses a vital part of its culture that never gets replaced.

            Here’s what you can do to help. Go to Indiegogo’s “Warehouse Rescue Campaign” page.  Donate anything. Share this with your friends. Tell everyone you know. Become the Girl Scout cookie entrepreneur you were always meant to be.

           Because on August 23rd, it’s over.  Done.  And if the Warehouse doesn’t meet its goal, La Crosse, Wisconsin gets even more boring.  To those of us from La Crosse, the Warehouse seems like it has always been around, but if you and I do nothing, it won’t be anymore.

            THIS IS IMPORTANT. I dare you to give a shit.

            Warehouse owner and all-around amazing guy, Steve Harm, recently talked to me about the details of the Warehouse’s financial woes, what he plans to do about it, and why he never regretted standing apart from the typical La Crosse apathy and creating something difficult and beautiful.

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Y Spy: So let’s start with the basic question: what’s the current fundraiser to save the Warehouse all about?

Steve Harm: Well, we have been successfully amassing a pretty serious amount of debt over the past 5 years, which really started when we got conned into buying the building next door by the tenant who quickly filed bankruptcy and took off leaving us with a huge amount of commercial space to rent. The original idea was that the 2nd building, a school of cosmetology, would fund the Warehouse. All ages no alcohol venues don’t survive as independent entities anywhere, but the Warehouse has always had the caveat of a first floor commercial tenant and 4 more band tenants in the building. That’s how we have squeaked by for 22 years.

But the guy who ran the beauty school approached me in late 2007 about buying the building he was in from the owner in Minneapolis. He was afraid that a local developer would buy it and move him out or seriously jack his rent. He offered us a solid 5 year lease, which meant we’d have consistent income for 5 years minimum, allowing us to have extra money each month (unheard of for the Warehouse) AND be able to put in new windows, upgrade the sound system, do a bunch of brickwork, etc. All we needed to do was take ALL of the equity that had been built up in the WH over the past 17 years, borrowing 100K more for roof work and electrical improvements and a new HVAC system for both floors, and we’d have that constant stream. Something we had never been able to count on. What could go wrong?

What went wrong was that the guy cleared out all the student loan deposits and tuitions from the school here and his school in Madison, ran to Florida, bought a house in the Florida Keys, and filed bankruptcy. Untouchable for us, leaving us 6 months into 2008 in the middle of the real estate bust, with a giant commercial building surrounded by a downtown full of empty buildings.

So our first plan was to try to find another school of cosmetology to move in. We spent a couple months cleaning and upgrading. We marketed the space to all of the cosmetology schools in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, but in that economy, no one was biting. Selling that building has been problematic, because developers (the only people who would pay for commercial buildings right now) want to pay pennies on the dollar.

Y Spy: Are developers being cheap because of the downtown location and the cost of renovating old buildings, or is this just the general nature of the beast these days?

Harm: Developers are cheap because developers are efficient. At least until recently there has been a glut of property downtown. The City of La Crosse even added to the problem by building the Transit Center a block away, with 12000sq. ft. of commercial space available. So property owners were basically competing with the City to lease property, on a City-built property that we paid for.

On the fundraiser end, we’re trying to raise enough to pay off the property taxes, catch up on several months of mortgage payments and pay a little on the loan to get the payments down a little, pay off other various debt (contractors, city fees, state inspection fees, insurance, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, water bills, accountant fees), replace some critical parts of the sound system, and do enough renovation work on the leasable space to make it more attractive so that it can again be what keeps the Warehouse running.

Y Spy: Have there been any other problems lately?

Harm: About 8-10 years ago, the payola practice of “buying” on to big tours for smaller bands started working its way down to smaller venues. It became normal for local bands in Minneapolis and Madison to have to buy $500-$750 worth of tickets to a show just to be able to play that show. That made things harder for us with agents, as Minneapolis or Madison could always offer substantially more for a tour, because they had $1500-$2500 to work with right out of the gate — they were taking no chances, they had guaranteed income from local bands. I would not, will not ever do that to local bands. Young bands have to pay for equipment, rehearsal spaces, vehicles, trailers, promotional materials, recordings… they should never have to pay to play.

Y Spy: Is touring for most bands even worth it, when practices like this are becoming the norm even at the ground floor?

Harm: No! It is getting SO hard for young bands. First, there are too many of them, and it is really easy to tour because of the internet. That is a problem. Pre-internet, it took at least a morsel of brains to put a tour together. Actually, it was a tremendous amount of work. Now, bands have it really easy. So that clogs the highways of America with vans and trailers. But because of the tremendous amount of bands, there are also a tremendous amount of shows. When we first started, the only places you could see all-ages shows in Wisconsin were in Green Bay at RockNRoll High School, in Milwaukee at the Rave, and at the Warehouse.

That was actually a GOOD thing, because it made every show an event, unique, special.

Y Spy: Now there’s a surplus of disposable labor.

Harm: Yes there certainly is. And they are all hungry to play, so all those hungry guys are chewing off their own legs by overplaying and not making shows an event.

Y Spy: Didn’t you have another recent fundraiser?

Harm: There was a fundraiser last year to help pay for our cabaret license. Those only cost around $125, but the City ties in a tax called the “Personal Property Tax” with it. The Personal Property tax is a tax on everything besides income. A tax on every chair, table, microphone, light, etc. etc. etc. It is not a very high percentage tax. Ours should be around $200. But you file it by April of the previous year, and if you miss the filing, they decide that you need to pay a “doomage”.

Y Spy: Sounds ominous.

Harm: We missed the filing 2 years in a row (my mistake), but on this year’s filing, we would normally owe around $200. The City billed us… hang on to your britches… $6,900. A penalty of almost THIRTY FIVE times the actual tax.

Y Spy: Wow. Do you feel like the city is trying to shut you down on purpose?

Harm: I tried to get the Assessor to come down on that $6,900, tried to get the City Attorney to intervene, nobody gives a shit. “It will be lower next year” was the best I could get. They did give me the option of “making payments,” but is making payments on something I should not have to pay really doing me a favor? I’ll bet you if any of the big players downtown made that filing mistake, the City would take care of it mighty quick. Me, I’m a nobody. I don’t show up at City Hall screaming, I don’t call the mayor and get something changed, I don’t have secret meetings with the old boys’ club. I work ridiculously hard, and so does everyone else here, to provide an alcohol free venue for kids that no one in this damn town will appreciate until it is gone. Like us here or not, no one ever fell in the river and drowned from too much music at the Warehouse.

Y Spy: This isn’t the first time people have gone after the Warehouse. The guy from Fayze’s, the lady running Jules, a few other locals, I’m sure ‒ you’ve racked up a few complaints over the years. I’ve always felt that La Crosse’s reaction to the Warehouse was never that different from the plot of Footloose. Those damn sinful kids and all that. “Why can’t they be satisfied with Crossfire?”

Harm: Yeah, we’ve been a pariah sometimes, but not really for any legit reason. I know Chris from Jules gets pissed when her all-day coffee customers can’t park on Pearl because we’ve got some band vans parked. But those band guys, and concert kids, get a lot of coffee there. Even when there is a tour bus parked out front, it does not deter people from going to Jules. If anything, it attracts some curious people who end up getting coffee. Fayze’s… I think that was a misunderstanding that we probably could have rectified with a more open discussion with the Wakeens. They’ve turned out to be some very nice people. But it turned into Footloose at a City Council meeting; that was actually kind of awesome. Yeah, I always hear about “the Warehouse Kids”, when they really mean “those Crossfire Kids”.

I don’t want to rip on Crossfire too much, I get that they are trying to save troubled kids with Jesus. And you know, if they can save troubled kids, I really don’t care HOW they do it. But that place got over $800,000 in renovation donations, plus most of the contractors worked for free. Have they had more effect on kids in this area than The Warehouse? Less? The same amount? Or the real question: Have they had a million dollars more of an effect?

Y Spy: But they have the Looooord! It is an unfair double standard, regardless of their intentions.

Harm: Yes it is. We get “Jesus” bands all the time, bands that preach at length during their set. As long as the kids aren’t booing, I don’t care. But I have a talk with them after the show. I tell them that instead of preaching to the kids from the stage, they would be better off setting a good example when they are meeting kids at the merch table or anywhere else in the Warehouse.

We are built on the most important part of Christianity ‒ treat people like you want to be treated. I think teaching kids that is more important than teaching them anything else. Everyone knows morals ‒ they are mostly inherent. But I always tell Christian bands that Christians are the ones who give Christianity a bad name, so try not to talk down to kids or force-feed them Bible verses. Instead, be good examples.

Y Spy: Is this desire to teach kids the reason you’ve never sold alcohol?

Harm: Well, not entirely. It is a MAJOR misconception that I hate alcohol. I don’t. I love a well-crafted small brewery beer. I just never have time and am perpetually so overworked that one beer will knock me on my ass. But La Crosse has a rich brewing tradition. Turn of the century, this town had more breweries per capita than Milwaukee. I understand where the drinking culture, and with it, the alcoholic culture, came from.

Kids are going to drink. It is unavoidable in this town.

Y Spy: The problem is that there’s little else to do in town but drink. And it makes La Crosse incredibly boring.

Harm: We just try to delay that for a few years by providing over a 100 sodas that are from all over the world, to show them there IS interesting stuff to drink out there. Australian root beer, for example. It’s delicious.

Y Spy: I had way more adventures before I started going to bars. I felt really boring once I started barhopping. The way they are used in La Crosse, bars really suck the joy and fun out of a place. Drinking in bars has a lot of ritual and habit to it, and I’d call La Crosse a town drowning in ritual and habit. Your place is one of the few places in town which goes against that.

Harm: Well I see that, because “Warehouse kids” invariably “grow up.” I see them hitting 21 (or 20, it seems anyone can get into bars downtown if they put a little effort into it). Some of the kids complain that they don’t see their friends anymore, because “everyone goes downtown”, but the reason everyone goes downtown is because everyone is going downtown. I understand the need to have a few drinks socially once in a while. But La Crosse… damn. Who exactly “has a few drinks” when they go out? They might DESCRIBE it that way.

Y Spy: Alcoholism created out of boredom and a lack of imagination and options.

Harm: And APATHY.

Y Spy: It’s so goddamn hard to get people to care about anything there. It’s why I left.

Harm: La Crosse has a great “arts” scene. Pump House, Community Theater/Weber Center for the Arts, Jason is giving is a go at the Cav, Root Note does some great shows for their clientele, Popcorn is always jamming with jam bands jamming their jams… and we do metal and acoustic and hip hop and rock and pop and punk and wrestling and freakshows and industrial and gothic and ska and such.

I expect that if we go down, some local bars will attempt Sunday or Monday night “teen nights”, maybe with bands. Those are always the worst idea ever, because they are designed to make those teens feel comfortable in that bar atmosphere specifically, so that when they hit 21, they know where they are going. I hate that bullshit. It is so obvious.

It will be interesting/embarrassing to see who the vultures are. That’s for sure. Who has the least class first. Because you know that someone is out there right now planning on capitalizing on our 22 years of ingraining booking agents with the knowledge that La Crosse is a good stopover, even if what they actually mean is that The Warehouse is a good stopover.

Y Spy: So financially, musically, and culturally, what would the Warehouse have been if it wasn’t an all ages venue and instead sold alcohol?

Harm: If we were a venue, but we had sold alcohol the entire time?

Y Spy: Yeah.

Harm: I don’t think we would have lasted. I think the supply of locals would have dried up, because that “drinking age” band would not have wanted to haul their gear up 49 steps. Not when they are already playing that week at the Popcorn, next week at Stein Haus, tomorrow at Del’s, then at JB’s. There would be no point to add one more location to their schedule, especially if it was up 3 flights of stairs. We’d probably have a way-above-average amount of customers going to the hospital from falling down the stairs drunk. That front door wouldn’t be glass anymore; it would be half metal like Top Shots. I just don’t know if it would have worked at all.

I know we would have had a hard time getting many of the bands we did, because many of them insist on an all-ages crowd. Bands aren’t dumb − they know who buys Tshirts and hoodies and shorts and, yes, sometimes music (vinyl these days): teenagers. Bands can tell you what it is like trying to get bar customers to part with $10 for a band shirt when they can get a $2 PBR instead.

Kids don’t come here to hang out. You can see that. They come to see bands. They are attentive. They WANT to see the band do what they do. Bands love it.

Y Spy: True. When I lived in California, shows were little more than a forum for preening, bored douchebags who have nothing else to do that night but be seen. I’ve always argued that kids in the sticks are way more excited about shows than people who can see amazing shows any day of the week in big cities.

Harm: Well, that’s another angle on our financial woes too. Let me explain.

As I lecture bands constantly, booking agents have gotten lazy. It used to be, 2 bands would go on tour; the local promoter could add 1 or 2 or 3 locals. Makes a great show, and local bands would get all their friends to come. They could do these shows in any sized market.

Now, agents put together 6,7,10 band shows that are so big and need so much money that it completely prevents the show from happening in small markets. Agents just run them through the same 30 promoters in major markets, and they no longer have to think about routing or secondary markets. This causes a hardship for us, because those 2 national band/3 local band shows can be house-fillers. And what is even worse for the national bands on those megatour packages is they end up only playing in major markets, where kids are going to see ANOTHER 10 band package next week, and another the week after, and that band who thought it was great to get on this “big” tour finds out they are just a cog in the machine.

Take the same band and run them through smaller markets, their shows are huge, because EVERY kid there loves them and becomes an honest-to-god fan, as opposed to the 10 band shows in major markets where they are just one more band of the 60 that played that month. BAD FOR EVERYONE.

Y Spy: Once again, nothing but disposable labor.

Harm: Yup. I explain that to bands who are on labels and are parts of those big tours; they don’t really get it. Then they play a Warehouse show, and they sell more merch per capita than ANY of the big shows. They sign more autographs. They even sell MUSIC. THEN, they get it.

Sometimes, I feel like we are a music school on so many different levels.

Y Spy: Well, and you’ve hosted actual courses on touring, too, with Martin Atkins.

How sheltered and insulated do touring bands get?

Harm: They definitely get into a routine. Just to back up and relate: If we can get this fundraiser to work, we are going to try to find a way to set up the Warehouse as a non-profit (my accountant already calls me “anti-profit”) and get access to various grants etc. that would let us bring in lots of national speakers like Martin Atkins, host monthly musician’s meetings, bring in musicians for music clinics (why have a guitar clinic at Dave’s when he could set it up here in a performance space), make the building available for local film students to shoot band performance videos, learn location recording, etc. I see a lot of expansion possible with reorganizing.

Y Spy: Nice. So not just treading water. How is the fundraiser going so far?

Harm: Definitely not treading water. With a more secure future, we should be able to do some really creative, beneficial things. The fundraiser is at $20,000 with a loooooooong way to go. But only until Aug 22. After that the bank is going to come down on me with a furious wrath.

Y Spy: So it’s pretty much do or die?

Harm: It is definitely do or die. It was “die” when I walked out of the last bank meeting. To tell you the truth, we started this fundraiser to throw a wrench in the machinery because that was the only option other than handing over the keys. The bank has backed off, because they are watching this to see what kind of support we get.

Miracles have happened in the past couple months. [Refers to articles discussing Jack White and The Killers donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to save hometown venues.]

Y Spy: Any ideas for provoking said miracles?

Harm: Last night I wrote to NIN’s manager, a friend who sets up the piano every night for Elton John, and Fall Out Boy’s manager for the third time. The tough thing is actually getting through to these people. There are thousands of people in the entertainment industry for whom the entire amount of our fundraiser would be a throwaway for them, no sweat at all. But regardless of how it seems like people use twitter or facebook, when they are at that level, they have people managing their social networks. The level of insulation between common folk and Robert Downey Jr., for example, is astounding. So just getting one of those people to read a letter or look at a video is damn near impossible. But I see kids who are posting on pages every day that I never would have thought of. And I think that kind of appeal, from kids who come here, is really important.

I am hoping that 22 years of treating bands fairly will generate enough karma. If I was not an eternal optimist, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been here living day to day for 22 years, fighting bill collectors, tax collectors, and the Man. I always have hope.

I will maintain that hope until 11:59pm, August 22nd. Then, we shall all watch the vultures.

 Warehouse Stairs 2

Please Help. Donate anything. Spread the word.  On August 23rd, one way or another, this ends.

Y Spy: Josh Olsen – Quick Walks Outside the Lines

If there’s one word that kept coming up in my interview with newly published author and fellow La Crosse expatriate Josh Olsen, it was nontraditional.  In describing himself, his writing career, his road to becoming a teacher, and his family life, Olsen often defaulted to using this term.  The shoe seems to fit; most of the roads he described in his life were painted as accidental journeys, not so much paved by choice but by unexpected opportunity.  It was through these slips of fortune ‒ finding himself a father at age 19, taking an inconsistent educational path through graduate school, developing a writing style he expected no one to see, and being offered various teaching positions in which he could teach that growingly public craft ‒ from which Olsen was able to gain the chance to enact a more conscious change, recently publishing Six Months, his own book of one page stories, over a decade after he began writing.

Even his choice of writing these one page stories doesn’t come off as conventional.  “Initially, I definitely did consider what I did poetry.  That’s what I called it; that’s what I submitted it as.  It’s probably because I wasn’t really familiar with other possibilities outside the genre.  I knew that what I was writing wasn’t traditional short story or a novel, but at the time I wasn’t familiar with the smaller subgenres like flash fiction.  I always had that short narrative style, but once I started gathering it into a collection, thinking what it would look like on the printed page, I intended to contain each piece in one page or less.”

Despite literature traditionally being a more time-consuming investment, Olsen enjoys this short, easy, and concise style of writing.  “60 minutes, 90 minutes, there are a lot of good things you can do in that amount of time: listen to a fantastic album, watch your favorite movie.  I like that condensed space and time.  I think that a lot of people are moving in that direction of condensed style, saying as much as you can in as few words as possible.”

At first he wrote solely for himself.  “It was definitely used as an emotional release, helping me cope with various things I was going through at the time.  I didn’t begin with any expectations of anybody reading my stuff.”  It wasn’t until he attended creative writing classes at Viterbo College in La Crosse that he decided to grow his writing beyond journal-keeping.  “I was exposed to the idea of other people seeing my stuff.  I’ve gotta workshop it, I’ve gotta tweak it, make it presentable.”

One thing that came up in our conversation was the idea of a journaler’s conflict, of writing solely for one’s self in a medium built for communication.  No matter how secret a piece is kept, writing is designed to be read, either by being found by others or read and remembered by the author in the future.  The question always arises: who is a writer, even a solipsist one, really writing for?

“I think there’s definitely a conflict.  I would be hard pressed to think of a time when I’ve written something and not thought afterwards about whether it was something I could use, revise, build upon, extract to another piece.  It’s still for myself to this day, but there’s still that thought in the back of my head.”

Though he submitted a few pieces to college publications at Viterbo and later at Mankato University in Minnesota where he undertook graduate work, Olsen didn’t submit work for publication until he was out of school.  By then he had decided to not only write but teach about writing.  For seven years he has led the life of a nomadic instructor, working primarily at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and at Wayne State University in Detroit as well as picking up college level writing courses around the area, sometimes hitting multiple schools in one day.

Teaching wasn’t something he planned to do.  “I knew that I wanted to work on my writing and improve it.  I knew that I eventually wanted to publish, but I had no intention to teach.  An opportunity came up to intern in a screenwriting class.  I enjoyed the time I had there with the professor I was working with.  I had the opportunity to teach my own section of Composition.  Definitely a rough start, but it was the one job that I enjoyed, more so than my experiences waiting tables or working at gas stations or factories.  I came to it rather late, at least with my intentions.”

Olsen noted that a lot of writing instructors are past life writers themselves, something which he is determined to avoid becoming.  “It was a goal of my own, seeing so many former writers become teachers and then forget about the writing.  For me, part of being a writing teacher is to teach what I’m actually doing.”

What he ended up doing was releasing Six Months in 2011, finishing off a year and a half long process of creation.  The stories within this book were taken from a five year period in Olsen’s writing, roughly spanning the years 2005 to 2010.  After writing for 10 years and attempting to develop various projects to fruition, he received a book offer from Brian Fugett, publisher of the online-print publication Zygote in My Coffee, a frequent supporter of Olsen’s work.

That support was vital for Six Months.  “At least for that first book, I wanted somebody else to put their name and trust behind it, that traditional model where somebody embraced what I have written.  Since then I’ve definitely put my feet to the pavement as far as promoting it.  It’s definitely another part time job, more time consuming than I’d assumed initially.”

Going the traditional publishing route, however, isn’t something that Olsen sees as necessary to his work.  “I’ve definitely had my hangups about, in certain forms, how the ideas of self-publication and self-promotion are accepted.  You expect a band to put out their own demo; if you sell albums out of the trunk of your car, it lends credibility in the music work.  You expect an independent filmmaker to fund, direct, produce, and put out their own movie. But for some reason there’s a stigma of why a writer can or can’t do that.  It just seems kind of unfortunate to me that there is that idea of ‘vanity publishing’ is lesser than getting somebody else to publish your work.  You need somebody else to lift you up, and I have my own hangups on that which I’m trying to move away from.”

The stories in Six Months tend to be intense recollections of Olsen’s past and analysis of how those moments affect the person he is today.  “The theme wasn’t intentional as the individual pieces were being written, and I don’t think that that idea really came to me until I moved to Michigan, until I was living 10 hours away from La Crosse, which was for the most part my hometown.  It wasn’t until I left when that theme came through in my writing, and I really didn’t notice it until I started putting the book together.”

The story’s main piece, a tale of periodic homecoming featuring La Crosse as its center, is a perfect example of this battle between past and future.  “[It’s about] going back and forth every six months, taking that trip from Michigan to La Crosse every Christmas and summer break and having that distance, that sense of clarity in seeing things I hadn’t seeing before, being more of an outside presence within my family, within my circle of friends, people I worked with.  There’s that conflict of nostalgia and clarity when that homesickness, when that nostalgia wears off.  It’s nice for a couple days, but you can only go downtown so much.”

As well as analyzing his past surroundings Olsen gets quite blunt in his opinions of his family, freely disclosing his parents’ shortcomings with varying levels of amusement and bitterness.  Yet according to him these stories aren’t displays of bridge burning.

“Once I grew accustomed to writing with the intention of publication and getting things out for other people to read, I made a point to not censor myself.  I don’t write with the thought of somebody possibly reading it and being offended or passing judgment on me.  I’d have to say that despite the other people, family members, and friends that come up in these stories, I don’t think that I’m casting any negative light on them.  I think that myself, as the speaker, the narrator of the story, is the punchline.  For my friends and family members who have read the book, that’s what they take away from it as well.”

Even more important within the overall theme of Six Months, however, are Olsen’s relationships with his own children, now 13 and 7 years old.  Having started his path toward professional writing at around the same time as the birth of his first child, Olsen’s works often draw stark, occasionally fearful comparisons between the bizarre events of his own childhood and the strangeness which surrounds the new members of his family ‒ again, a nontraditional setup ‒ today.

Olsen himself credited fatherhood as the primary fuel which operates his writing.  “As my children grow up, as they experience things that I may have experienced at their age, I may not have thought about the things I experienced as much if it were not for the fact that I have two children.  I’m very conscious about what they experience now, and I draw that comparison or parallel to what I experienced.”

The sum total lesson that Josh Olsen took away from the long process involved in making his quick book which incorporates all these parallels, fears, and misadventures, is that though its results may be gratifying, creativity doesn’t just manifest by itself.

“It takes a lot more time and work than I ever could have imagined.  I know that I had the ideas that many prospective writers have, that all they need to do is put together a manuscript, send it out and get published.  Maybe that does happen for a lucky few.  I’ve never done things the traditional or easy way, in my education, my work, or my family, so I think it’s only natural that I took that roundabout path to publication.”

“Being able to read the book with some distance and time between me and it, it’s interesting for me to look at it as an artifact of my thought process, the things I was observing and doing at that time, and to compare and contrast with what I’m doing and working on today.”

That today includes plans to put together a second book, another collection of stories featuring some which will break from the one page format and run longer.  Describing the forming whole as both more autobiographical and more fictional, Olsen hopes to finish and release the book in a year or so.

Six Months is available for purchase at zygoteinmycoffee.com.

Y Spy: Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero sounds like a lot of things: a full-throated jazz pixie, a guitar folk whisperer, a cool and self-collected slinger of R&B.  One thing she never sounds is boring, and I’d also throw in complacent into that mess of things Hadero is not.  A lifelong traveler, the Ethiopian-born singer has collected a vast swath of styles, mixing them together into “On a Day like This,” an album released last year in which Hadero sings of setting roots in San Francisco.

            But in talking with Meklit Hadero, one gets the strong impression that her musical ambitions – goals which are blatantly larger than sound – don’t begin and end with the recording of songs.  Having formed an artistic group of fellow Ethiopians known as the Arba Minch Collective, Hadero has explored and challenged her roots with an intensity that is hard to match.

 

Y Spy:  Let’s start with the basics.  Who are you, and what is your musical background?

 

Meklit Hadero:  I’m a vocalist and a songwriter originally from Ethiopia.  I was born there and grew up all over the States: in Brooklyn and in Florida and in Seattle.  I’ve been in San Francisco the past seven years.  The music kind of sits at the crossroads of three different traditions: the American songwriters, jazz, as well as bringing in some Ethiopian music and influence.  I primarily play with jazz instruments, plus I bring a lot of improvisation into the live shows.

 

Y Spy:  How has traveling around internationally as well as within the United States affected your musical perspective?

 

Hadero:  When people ask me what my influences are, I tend to think less about who are the artists that I model myself after and more about what the sounds are that I’ve absorbed growing up.  For example, living in Brooklyn for six years, the place I grew up in my childhood years, jazz was everywhere.  It was in the subways and in the streets.  So was early hip-hop.  That sort of soundscape, the streetscape, of New York felt like it was an important sonic ingredient.  Then, of course, growing up and having my parents play old Ethiopian cassettes.

There was a constancy of sound as a presence in one’s life, and how those sounds then get interpreted as songs, and where they come out, is something of a mystery.  But it does happen, and that was a big part of how I developed this particular approach to making music.

In terms of influences, though, I’d say that my biggest influences have been my voice teachers, people who taught me what the voice is and what its expressive power as an instrument is.

 

Y Spy:  How did you put together On a Day like This?

 

Hadero:  I wanted to make it as a tribute to my first five years in San Francisco, because at the time I wasn’t sure I was going to stay.  I had just done a residency at the De Young Museum and was about to go to Oxford for a few weeks to do the TED Global Fellowship, and then I was going to travel for three months.  I called it my cliff; I had no idea what was going to happen after this particular period of time.

It was just about two months before I left when I said: I have to make an album before I leave.  I realized that I wanted to capture the period of time that had happened.  So it was really about who I had been playing with for those five years of developing those songs, bringing together all these jazz musicians who I had played with and who were a big part of my musical community, but also bringing together a lot of musicians from a collective of classical artists called Classical Revolution that are all about changing the way classical is played, making it more accessible.  They have chapters in ten or twelve cities, but they started in San Francisco a few blocks from my creative home at the Red Poppy Art House.  That’s how I brought people together.

 

Y Spy:  As you’ve said, On a Day like This mixes together a lot of styles.  Was it difficult, considering this, to constrain all of these different directions to something as finite as an album?

 

Hadero:  I have real faith in multiplicity.  I feel like people have a lot of capacity for bringing together complexity than is offered in a lot of marketing.  Nobody’s really one genre.  It’s really hard to label anyone’s music.  The best descriptions of music are poetic.

I never thought of it as limiting; I thought of it as a window.

 

Y Spy:  Were there any styles that you do wish you had explored more on this album, or that you would like to explore more on a future release?

 

Hadero:  I have a few releases coming out.  I’m actually in the middle of two albums right now.  Gabriel Teodros is a Seattle-based MC who, with Burntface and I, went to Ethiopia in May as part of this collective that travels there annually to connect with artists, traditional and contemporary.  We just finished recording an album which we call our Ethiopian hip-hop space opera.  So I’m working with two MCs, and it’s all with beats, and in it Gabriel is a half-alien, half-human coming to Earth for the first time.  It’s a really theatrical, big production, and that will be out in January.

Also in January is a simultaneous release with an Oakland-based soul singer called Quinn Deveaux.  We’re doing soul interpretations of indie rock and art rock songs, with a few originals on there too.  Some David Byrne and Patti Smith, but really bringing the soul roots of that music to light through this collaboration.

I’ll continue to make the music that is interesting and inspiring to me, but I really don’t feel limited by style.  Collaboration lets you grow in that way.

 

Y Spy:  It seemed that in the old top-down musical model, musicians would release work every two years or so, but there wasn’t a whole lot of recording or outside activity inbetween.  Do you feel like people are becoming more open to collaboration now, being that the terms aren’t so dictated from the top?

 

Hadero:  That’s exactly what it is: the terms aren’t dictated from the top.  We’re also in a place where nobody knows what works, so there are no rules.  You might get pressures from all sorts of sides to be more defined and hyper-focused in your scope, but now nobody knows.  So try something!

Part of what makes me empowered is my relationship with Porto Franco Records, the label I work with.  They’re based in San Francisco, a father-son team, and they are ridiculously supportive.  They’ve helped me make these records, and they really believe in their artists – and I think they believe in artists in general.  That’s been a relationship that has made a lot of this possible.

 

Y Spy:  What do your recent touring plans look like?

 

Hadero:  As I mentioned, we were in Ethiopia and Kenya in May.  I’ve been doing some summer touring; this particular tour starts in the Bay Area and winds all the way up the West Coast.  I’m doing an East Coast tour in October, hopefully heading to Europe in November.  But right now, aside from these short tours, I’m trying to finish up these albums and gear up for January.  2012 is going to be really tour intensive.

 

Y Spy:  How did you go about gathering fellow Ethiopian musicians to form the Arba Minch Collective?  Were these people you already knew or people you sought out?

 

Hadero:  Kind of both.  There was a website called habesha.com that came out in 2001.  It started as a website to bring together Ethiopian-American and Eritrean-American artists.  It was at the height of the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  What they ended up doing was bringing together and finding Ethiopian-Americans, Ethiopian-Canadians, Eritreans, and artists in diaspora.  They started writing about them, they started compiling lists, and suddenly there was a place where you could find out what all these people were doing all over the world.  It kind of underlined this emerging generation.  On Myspace you started finding out about people, and then there started being conferences where people would get together.

This network of artists who were doing work that I really loved, that I had been paying attention to for quite a while, I started meeting them when I started performing a lot.  There was an awareness, you would say.  What happened was that I found out about something called the 1,000 Stars Festival that brought together 56 ethnic groups from the south of Ethiopia to play their music together.  They’re distinct ethnic groups with different cultures, different music, different food even, and they came together in this festival and danced and sang for three days, for 50,000 people from Ethiopia.  I thought: I had to go, but how much more powerful would it be if it wasn’t just me that goes, but a whole generation that’s in this process of defining itself and could really benefit and learn from going to this?  So the group started for a particular experience.  The festival was cancelled, and we went anyway and had an amazing time traveling throughout the country and connecting with a burgeoning artistic movement.  Our first trip was in December 2009, and our second trip was this past May, and we will continue to make annual trips.

 

Y Spy:  In America, culture seems relatively formless and changing, taking connections for granted.  What is the importance to you of having these connections with artists from your homeland?

 

Hadero:  In a way, it’s about reality.  What I realized is that, growing up in the States, my whole experience of Ethiopian culture was filtered through my family lens.  There were the stories that I would hear, experiences that particular people would have, but that’s such a small part of this grand picture of culture.  What I realized is that things are changing there, fast.  They’re changing extremely fast.  Every time I go to Ethiopia, it looks different.  Infrastructure is growing so fast, and I think it’s also in a process where there are huge pressures happening, too.  If I really wanted to understand what was happening, I couldn’t rely on these filters.  I’d have to go, but I had to go again, and again, and again, in order to have an accurate picture.  If I ask myself why, my tendency is to answer with almost intuition – because I have to know, because I have to learn.

 

Y Spy:  How does that compare with the artistic connections and your perspectives about and with America?

 

Hadero:  I read in the New York Times, ten years ago, that 70 percent of New Yorkers are foreign born.  That blew my mind!  For me growing up there, that was the norm.  Diaspora was the norm.  I know it’s not like that all over, and borders are real, and contested, and challenging.  But we also live in a place of multiplicity, and we can’t deny that.  That’s what the world is like, and if we want to prepare ourselves for interacting with the whole world, we kind of have to be a little bit curious.  And music reflects your times.

 

 

Meklit Hadero will play the EMP Level 3 Stage at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival at 9 pm on Saturday, September 3rd.  Her album, “On a Day like This,” is available now.

Mom Goes to the Protest

 

My mom, Barb Emerson

My mom tends to be a conservative without a party and a Christian without a church.  She has strong opinions on issues that tend to find voice among the right wing, yet she’s also the sort of person who believes that humanity, community, and compassion ought to trump any sort of social dogma.

My mom also voted for Governor Scott Walker.  It’s a decision she now regrets.

As an employee in Wisconsin’s public school system and thus a prospective victim of Governor Walker’s hostile takeover of the state, my mom has been forced to get off the fence and join the protests against the blatant power grab undertaken by state Republicans.  A few weekends ago, she attended a protest at the State Capitol in Madison, and I thought it would be a good idea if she wrote a few words about what she saw that day.

Considering how level-headed she usually is, I honestly didn’t expect the following piece to be this angry.  Then again, she’s had good reason to get angry.

 

 

It’s difficult to have a united front when the very politicians you vote for have as their main agenda, shredding the opposition party’s character, views and supporters in lieu of finding a common ground and then proceed to work together from that base forward.

What they (the politicians) are failing to remember is that they are our representatives, our voices, not our leaders or in some recent events, our dictators. Through all the mudslinging that is taking place they are forgetting their place. No amount of personal assaults will cover up for the brutal, unashamed, dictatorial manner that the budget bill for Wisconsin (and many other states) was handled and presented to the people.

I feel the 14 Democratic Senators who left (not “fled”) in protest to the atrocity of Scott Walker’s (I refuse to address him with the honor of being called Governor) “budget” proposal. In fact, they were indeed representing the needs and voice of the people who elected them to represent and protect the rights of. Scott Walker simply was not listening and as far as I can tell, still isn’t.

 

Taking away our right to protect our work environment such as:

1. Our scheduled work hours (respectively overtime, comp time or flextime)

2. Banked sick days we have already accumulated in case any major catastrophe might befall (Our union gave up pay increases for 6 years for the privilege to finally earn sick days)

3. Rights of seniority (protects current job and offers a chance to bid for posted jobs allowing the only avenue for advancement)

4. Leaves of absence (especially family medical leave)

5. Requirement for certification (protecting students’ right to receive quality assistance by their educators)

 

I ask: what about these things have any impact on lowering the monetary deficit of the “budget”?

The comments I hear most often, not only from a variety of overheard conversations, but from Walker’s crew as well, has been ”Just listening to the tax payers of Wisconsin”…”We’re the taxpayers not them”…”The rights of the taxpayers”… “They are getting everything handed to them”….

Well, guess what… I am a taxpayer too and so are all of my colleagues!!!

I believe if Scott Walker would have investigated a little more into the individual school districts of Wisconsin, he could have seen that, as an example, in my school district we have made approximately 14 million dollars in cuts and concessions over the last two years. But of course, he’d either have had to cover it up or let the general public know his findings. And since it seems he is so against educating the people, he surely wouldn’t want them to be made aware of those sacrifices would he?

We the people are getting ourselves educated Mr. Walker. We are uniting not falling apart. We do see your ulterior motives. We do see the breaks you’re giving industries (5 years worth of tax breaks is it?) while taking aid away from the elderly, help for the underprivileged (such as availability of birth control) and opening the art of educating to people who don’t even have a degree.

I don’t get it. Well actually I do.

If you want to privatize the University of Madison…why are you putting millions into buildings and reconstruction? Why did you put the sale of our power plants in your bill? Why take our collective bargaining away? The more questions I ask the more I come up with….China! Is that it?

Industrialize (privatize, whatever term works) everything (including our government), increase the population by taking away their opportunity for birth control, keep them undereducated so they don’t ask questions (brainwashing),  take away their bargaining rights so you can have them work for your cohorts for $4 an hour (or less) or maybe just food and rent vouchers.

Yep…sounds like China!

 

I went to the rally in Madison on March 13, 2011. I was excited with anticipation of being with the people. Getting to feel the strength and dedication that is still in the hearts of people trying desperately to do the right thing. Agreeing to make dollar concessions but at the same time willing to stand for what we have worked hard to achieve, our bargaining rights, for as long as it takes.

Although I found the strength and dedication, I also found something I was not expecting. I found a profound sadness. When there were cheers of camaraderie, I also heard the moans of distress, of worry for the future generations and mostly of questioning our own belief that we can trust our fellow man. Even though our spirits are dampened and on the surface it looks as though we are defeated, we are not! We will continue to voice our pride of being citizens of Wisconsin and the United States of America, of our humility at being given the amazing gift of teaching and caring for others, of our dedication to not letting go of what is truly humane, honorable and simply, the right thing to do.

If Walker campaigned saying what is happening now was what we could expect, he only divulged half the truth. And half the truth is still equal to a lie!

I was prepared to make sacrifices but I am sure not willing to give you my soul. All we, the people in the unions, are asking for is to let us protect our jobs and conditions so we are able to produce and give the best performance we can. We are not slackers. We love our work. Right now…I don’t love you Scott Walker, but I will continue to keep you in my prayers. God knows you’re going to need them.

I hope you find your heart again and see that the money, power and notoriety are not worth it to you. And you learn the lesson that you could have had so much more given freely from the people if you would have only handled this in an honorable fashion.

If all this is what you aimed for, then…

You are a success Scott Walker.

 

You succeeded in dividing the people of Wisconsin.

You succeeded in being the one who finally broke my spirit and belief that there is good in every person.

In my eyes you personify cold, calculating arrogance beyond measure.

 

Remember, the puppeteer will eventually cut the puppet’s strings when they no longer find you useful and they want a new one.

Y Spy: Michael Showalter: “Mr. Funny Pants” Wears Many Hats

Michael Showalter doesn’t come off as a person who can sit still for long.  Coming up with a comedic army in “The State,” he went on to star in many TV projects with various Statemates as well as starring in the cult classic “Wet Hot American Summer.” In addition to his work before the camera, Showalter has filled many roles behind it, most notably as a screenwriter and director.  He’s also a stand-up comedian with an album to his name (the aptly titled “Sandwiches & Cats”), an artist, and a teacher.  With the release of his new book, “Mr. Funny Pants,” he is now a published author as well.

In our conversation, Showalter made it abundantly clear that he isn’t a person who feels bound by comedic routine.  It was equally obvious that this sense of diversity isn’t so much in order to stay fresh in the public eye or due to any PR calculation.  Instead, it’s a sign of Showalter engaging in a more pure exploration of his abilities.

Y Spy: What is Mr. Funny Pants about?

Michael Showalter: Oh, boy.  It’s a book about trying to write a book, among other things.

Y Spy: How did you go about the process of trying to write a book?

Showalter: You sit at your computer and you open a file that says Book.  Then you start writing.  It starts with you and writing, and then you go from there.

Y Spy: How did it go for you?

Showalter: Well, it was a lot of trial and error, but it was fun.

Y Spy: Is there a lot of autobiography in the book?

Showalter: Yeah.  I talk about my childhood, and I talk about my career.  There’s a saying: “Write what you know.”  I sort of went with that.  I tried to write about what I know.

Y Spy: And what do you know?

Showalter: I know where I live; I live in Brooklyn.  I know that I like coffee.  I know that I like cats.  I know that I watch a lot of television.  Very banal stuff.

Y Spy: Is the book a mixture of comedy with that sort of “This is my life; I got up, and so on and so forth”?

Showalter: It’s mostly just “This is my life; I got up, and so on and so forth.”  I actually think that would be a great book.  I tried to be funny, but I tried to focus on stories that maybe had something inherently funny to me, or tragic, and in tragedy there’s comedy.

Y Spy: Not forcing jokes to make it a humor book, though.

Showalter: I think it could function as a humor book.  It certainly has plenty of goofy stuff in it.  There are stupid lists.  There are fairly long sections of the book that essentially are just humor writing.  So it’s kind of a combination of a memoir and a humor book, a joke book.

Y Spy: How much of your screenwriting experience came into play in the writing of this book?

Showalter: I talk a lot about screenwriting in the book, but in terms of actual storytelling, this was more in the vein of an early Steve Martin or Woody Allen book where it was basically odds and ends, funny stuff, bits and pieces, twigs and yarn of just humor, loosely tied together with a narrative.  I do talk a lot about screenwriting and the Hollywood system, so I incorporated those experiences into the book in the form of stories.

Y Spy: Are there any stories about pants in the book?

Showalter: No.  The name Mr. Funny Pants happened [because] I was giving them title suggestions, and for one reason or another they were rejecting all my title suggestions.  So out of frustration and completely as a joke, not thinking they would take it seriously, I said: “How about Mr. Funny Pants?” Why don’t we call it the stupidest title I can think of?  And they loved it.

Y Spy: On the Mr. Funny Pants tour, you’re doing both book signings and stand-up shows.  How much will the book tie into your stand-up?

Showalter: It’ll be kind of old stuff and new stuff.  At the signings I’ll be reading from the book, but on the tour I’ll be doing stand-up material.  Some of that material will be inspired by the book.

Y Spy: I’ve always had the impression that you’ve been a person who wants to explore as many different forms of comedy as possible.  Do you feel that you are actively chasing that sort of diversity?

Showalter: Sort of, yeah.  A lot of it has to do with being easily distracted.  I think the comedic careers of people I was influenced by would be Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and the Monty Python guys, who I grew up on.  They worked in every medium.  They would do a movie, a TV show, a book, a play, an album, a tour.  It didn’t really matter, and that’s how I feel.  It’s interesting to explore the point of view in any of these mediums.  I do like doing all of it.

Y Spy: Has coming up with such a large comedic group as The State given you a greater freedom to pursue these different avenues than a solitary comedian might have?

Showalter: I guess.  I don’t know.  There’s a body of work there that gives you a certain credibility.  It’s always nice when the audience is already on your side, where you have fans or people who like what you did and have followed you through these different things.  You’re not needing to convince anybody that you’re funny, even if you aren’t, which I probably am not.  It is nice to have slowly built up people who have been with us.

Y Spy: I have a few questions about the status of some projects that have been mentioned in the past.  First, I heard you were planning on remaking Night of the Living Dorks. What’s the status of that?

Showalter: That’s something that was gonna happen a long time ago, and I don’t know what’s happening with it.  I’m attached to direct that movie, but I think it’s been in turnaround for a long time.

Y Spy: What’s the status of the State movie?

Showalter: It’s another thing that we’ve talked about for all these years that we’d love to do, but it’s just something where it’s hard to get everybody to commit to it.  I think people want to do it, but everyone’s very busy.  We’re also now pretty spread out and getting old, and now everyone has kids.  I just think it’s a logistical thing.

Y Spy: I assume I’ll get the same answer here, but Wet Hot American Summer II?

Showalter: Same thing.  I want to do it, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Y Spy: Are you planning to release another comedy album?

Showalter: I’d like to.  The book is on tape, which feels pretty comedy album-y.  I would like to do another comedy album, but I haven’t gotten around to it.  The people I did the first album with, we’ve talked about doing another one, and it’s definitely something I’d like to do someday.

Y Spy: The greatest and saddest thing I found in Sandwiches & Cats was the moment when you were so dismayed at being misidentified as Screech from Saved by the Bell. Would you care to expand upon those feelings about this mistaken identity?

Showalter: You know what I will say: I’m friends with somebody who did a show with him in New York.  I’m not sure what the show was, but it was some improv show that he was in.  I think he was playing himself, in the show playing Screech.  Apparently he’s not as bad as he’s made out to be.

Also, when he walks down the street people scream at him, everywhere he goes.  Like, “Fuck you, Screech!”  And I thought that was sad.  So I actually have sympathy for him because that must be very hard, being America’s dork.  Basically everywhere he goes, people scream at him and ridicule him.  That’s not right.

So I’m going to say I’m proud to be compared to Screech.

Y Spy: Does your sense of adventurousness and diversity, your leaping into different mediums and roles, come in any part from a desire to not be similarly typecast?

Showalter: If anything, it’s that I’m still trying to find a comfort zone and figure out what I want my career to be.  A lot of it is trial and error to figure out how I want to proceed.

Y Spy: Do you feel as though your direction has become clearer as your career has progressed?

Showalter: Just in the last year, I do think so.  I think there are certain avenues which I feel comfortable about not going down.

Y Spy: Like what?

Showalter: I don’t ever see myself being a big Hollywood person.  I think I’m starting to become more comfortable with the idea that I’m more of a New York niche person.  I like the idea of focusing on smaller projects.  I really liked writing the book.  I’m going to write another one.  I’m also working on an art book of my artwork.  I have another idea for a small film, and after that I’d like to develop something for a one-man show, or a longer stand-up act.  I’m feeling less compelled to conquer L.A., which is something that I have debated back and forth in my mind for a long time.  Do I want that?  I don’t think I do.

Y Spy: Do you think your acceptance and confidence have come with age and experience?

Showalter: Yeah.  You need to have the experiences to back it up.  I live on the East Coast; I like the East Coast.  I teach at NYU, and I get a lot of gratification out of that.  That’s not to say that I would not work in L.A.  I would.  It’s just that, bigger picture, I don’t know if that’s a universe I feel I’m being pulled toward.  I’m more interested in writing another book, making a small film, or doing something theatrical.  That’s more my truer self.

Michael Showalter will be in Seattle on Tuesday, March 8th, at the University Bookstore at 4 pm and The Triple Door at 6 pm.  “Mr. Funny Pants” is available now.


Y Spy: Andy Schoepp, Time Ninja

As has become tradition, when Andy Schoepp releases a new book, I email him a few questions about the work, which he answers at his leisure.  That tradition continues with the completion of Time Ninja, leading to a discussion about time travel and publishing pitfalls.

Y Spy: How did Time Ninja come about?

Andy Schoepp: If you read the introduction to Time Ninja you will see I actually began work on it BEFORE I started working on The Martial Arts Murders.  I had the first three chapters of Time Ninja done when I began working on The Martial Arts Murders instead.  What prompted that decision was the fact that I had an outline of Time Ninja done and I knew the task was going to be daunting and as a new writer it scared me a little to undertake such a huge novel.  Besides, I didn’t like how I had written the first three chapters of Time Ninja so I thought maybe if I worked on The Martial Arts Murders books first (I had planned for them to be a trilogy from the start) that I would be a more accomplished and a better writer when I was done so I could do a better job with Time Ninja.  I worked on Time Ninja in bits and pieces while I wrote Life and Money Heist and Moral Executioners and when I was done I just had to go back and revise the portions of Time Ninja that were already done with my improved writing style and just complete the project from there.

Y Spy: How does one become a Time Ninja?

Schoepp: Actually, it would be impossible right now.  First, it takes 20 years of training to become a ninja and second, nobody has invented time travel yet.  That is why this novel is in the Science Fiction genre.

Y Spy: How do you work time travel into an action story?

Schoepp: I used it as a vehicle to try to put two things together that normally wouldn’t be able to coexist together.  In the case of Time Ninja I had to use Science Fiction and time travel in order to pit Ryu against high-tech weaponry.  And in order to pit him against the KIND of high-tech weaponry I wanted to use, it would have to be done in the future.  I would NOT recommend using time travel in a novel however.  It creates story and logistical challenges that will give a writer headaches and drive a person to drink (luckily I’m not much of a drinker).  This is also why I’m glad I put Time Ninja on the shelf and went ahead with The Martial Arts Murders trilogy first because there is NO WAY an inexperienced writer could have handled the logistical problems in Time Ninja, it would have been a huge mess and a disaster so I’m glad I waited with Time Ninja.

Y Spy: What research and ideas on time travel did you bring into this?

Schoepp: I didn’t really do any research into time travel.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that I went to great lengths to make the method of time travel in the novel as unique as possible.  In most stories involving time travel there was always some type of vehicle characters rode in to travel through time.  In Time Ninja, I had a time module that sends people and things through time without a vehicle or without the character riding in something.  The time module sends people and things through time but it stays behind.

Y Spy: What influenced you in the writing of Time Ninja?

Schoepp: I wanted to write a novel that was heavily weighted with Ninjutsu as opposed to just the martial arts in general.  Yes, I had Sho Katarugi in The Martial Arts Murders but I wanted to write a novel that was a mix of Ninjutsu and Science Fiction.  A Science Fiction novel allows the writer to incorporate futuristic weaponry and pit it against the ancient arts and techniques of Ninjutsu and this is where the idea for Chapter 18 entitled Armageddon came from.

Y Spy: Describe the transition from writing a trilogy of shorter stories to writing a larger yet independent novel.  Did you take a different approach?

Schoepp: Not really.  I have outlines and notes in my desk from each of The Martial Arts Murders trilogy novels and my outlines and notes for Time Ninja are just longer and there are more of them.  They’re also complicated too so nobody else could understand them, I even have outlines and notes that refer to other outlines and other notes to try to keep the time travel and the plot straight.  I also have a half a sheet of paper in my desk with calculations involving years and characters’ ages.  I stress again, I gave myself a headache more than once working on this novel and I do NOT recommend a new wirter trying to work on a novel like this.

Y Spy: How is Time Ninja different from The Martial Arts Murders?

Schoepp: Obviously Time Ninja is more in the Science Fiction genre where as The Martial Arts Murders trilogy novels are more in the action/adventure and police drama genres.  Time Ninja is a little bit darker and doesn’t have as many fun or comic relief moments like The Martial Arts Murders trilogy does (don’t get me wrong, The Martial Arts Murders trilogy are serious novels, but I added a few moments of comic relief and had some fun for the characters and there is less of that in Time Ninja, it’s less forgiving.)  Otherwise it is longer in length and scope so it is more epic.  I also left Time Ninja open for a sequel but it can also stand on its own so no fear of a cliffhanger or nagging feelings or anything like that.

Y Spy: You’ve mentioned that the process of getting Time Ninja out was longer and more difficult than those of the Martial Arts Murders books.  What happened?

Schoepp: Oh brother, let me see if I can list everything that went wrong with this book.  First I had an argument with Outskirts Press about combining a 40% trade discount with a retail returns contract, then my author representative from The Martial Arts Murders trilogy got a promotion so I had to work with a new author representative, then I ran into technical problems with Outskirts Press’ website in the pre-production phase, the cover had to be hand-drawn and proofs were coming in two week intervals from black and white to what you see now, then Outskirts Press refused to format the interior of the book until the cover was done, once the interior was formatted it was formatted wrong twice, then I had so submit 338 edits (that was my own damn fault though) and all of these 338 edits had to be done during Thanksgiving with my day job being in sales.  Not to mention all of the other small things that needed to be addressed when in the publishing process.  Yeah, getting this novel out was not easy but I think it was worth the wait; I’ll just have to wait to hear from my fans to find out if it was worth the wait.

Y Spy: Time Ninja’s physical release sells for a much greater price than your previous books.  Why is that?

Schoepp: First and foremost it is obviously a much longer novel (550 pages versus an average of 275 pages for the three books in The Martial Arts Murders trilogy).  And the trim size for Time Ninja is 1/2″ wider and a full inch taller so it is a mammoth novel (you almost have to hold a physical copy in your hands to understand how long this book is).  To put it into perspective, the Microsoft Word draft of this book was 726 pages that’s 8 1/2 X 11, double spaced with no headers or footers.  Also, in an effort to get the book into more bookstores, the book has a 40% trade discount (which means retailers get 40% off of the cover price when they order it for store stock).  Time Ninja also has a retail returns contract on it (which means retailers can return the book to Ingram if they have too many copies that are not selling).  These three factors, size/length, 40% trade discount and returnability all contribute to a higher retail price.  The cover art and the interior formatting alone though are worth the price of the book.  If you look at the interior formatting, you will probably be hard pressed to find a book that is as nicely done and as unique as Time Ninja.   It is indeed a handsome novel to have on your living room table or bedroom nightstand.

Y Spy: Do you still believe in working through an independent publisher?

Schoepp: Yes.  The problem with commercial publishers is if you are not already famous or a criminal (i.e. Balloon Boy’s parents) it’s almost impossible to even get an editor from a commercial publisher to even read your manuscript.  It seems like commercial publishers are only interested in making the rich and famous more rich and famous and giving people who commit crimes the notoriety and publicity they want.  Almost every time you turn on the news you hear about some criminal who just signed a multi-million-dollar book deal through a commercial publisher.  It seems like commercial publishers are more interested in celebritizing criminals and rewarding illegal behavior than helping unknown, law-abiding citizens.  Independently published books still have a chance of being picked up by a commercial publisher and that is what I’m working towards.  You have a better chance of getting published commercially if you have an independently published book than you do if you just let a manuscript sit in a desk collecting dust.

Y Spy: With the field of literature becoming more electronic, what is your opinion on electronic books?

Schoepp: I have no problem with electronic books.  In fact, there is a Kindle edition of Time Ninja available on Amazon.com.  There is also an e-book edition of Time Ninja on my author’s website at www.outskirtspress.com/timeninja.  There are however benefits of holding a physical book in your hands instead of an electronic device with the pages appearing on a screen.  A physical book requires a book mark and when you put it into the book you get a sense of accomplishment when you place it in the book, you can tell how much ground you covered since the last time you put it in the book.  There is also no substitute for the feeling you get after reading that last page and closing the back cover of the book.  I have no problem with electronic books though, I actually embrace the technology.

Y Spy: So the big writing projects you’ve been planning since the beginning of your writing career have been completed.  Are you going to continue writing?

Schoepp: I am still writing.  I am working on a collection of short stories in the Horror genre, another martial arts related novel that will be shorter (more like The Martial Arts Murders novels) and a sequel to Time Ninja.  I think I am going to put those other two novels on hold and work more on the sequel to Time Ninja, I did leave some questions unanswered so I want to get that sequel out there sometime in the future to tie up the loose ends I left in Time Ninja. If you have not read Time Ninja yet do NOT be afraid, I wrote Time Ninja so it CAN stand on its own so don’t worry about having a Matrix or Pirates of the Carribean let-down at the end.

Time Ninja is available now at Barnes & Noble and amazon.com.