IT WAS ALL A GENTRIFIER’S DREAM

It’s started. Today, Fulton Avenue and a stretch of my street just beyond Fulton were clogged with mid-nineties model cars and jeeps, production trucks, film equipment, crafts services tables, and P.A.’s with hooded sweatshirts and bored expressions, hopping from one foot to another to stay warm.

They’re filming “Notorious,” the Biggie Smalls biopic, in my neighborhood, a fact that is sure to be announced, flickr’ed, and repeatedly blogged by every 20 and 30-something white person living within 10 blocks of the production. (Myself included, obviously.)

As a self-acknowledged contributor to gentrification, I possess all the dominant traits–first and foremost a deep scorn toward caucasians who have been living in the neighborhood even one hour less than me. Nonetheless, whenever possible I try to remain aloof, or at least somewhat resigned out of concern for appearing “uppity.” For instance, I will publicly defend our Met supermarket to more outspoken (spoiled) gentrifiers who decry its lack of organic produce or safe-for-consumption meats, but I still have private tantrums whenever a common grocery item suddenly disappears from the store for weeks at a time, which happens with mind-boggling frequency. (The most recent offenders: brownie mix, cat litter, Diet Coke)

But even the best-behaved gentrifiers have a hard time keeping quiet about certain things, usually ones that fall into either the category of “Caucasian-Minded Services” (juice bars, thai restaurants, yoga studios, community gardens) or “Street Cred By Proxy.” (murders, drug spots, friendly homeless people, a block party where some women are selling jerk chicken and rice or homemade sangria from a 2-liter bottle of Tropical Paradise soda) And a Biggie Smalls movie being filmed on my block straddles both of these categories nicely for reasons which are probably pretty obvious. It’s kind of like earning a supporting argument in a classic “my surrounding poverty is greater/cooler than yours” debate.

Mostly, I’m just happy a Biggie Smalls movie is being filmed anywhere, although I am a little concerned about the track record of the creative team behind it. Its director is George Tillman, Jr.–responsible for directing “Soul Food” –and its writer is Reggie Rock Bythewood, who is responsible for writing several episodes of “A Different World” and “Biker Boyz,” the first movie to pull of the impossible trick of making both Lawrence Fishburne and Djimon Hounsou appear as gay, if not more gay, than Tyson Beckford. I wonder if the production will have to sweep all the real-life drug dealers off Fulton Street for a couple of days so they can replace them with make-believe movie drug dealers. More importantly, I wonder if they’ll clean up some of the city’s unfinished-construction debris when they leave, or if they’ll keep it around for the production because it makes Fulton Avenue look more “urban.”

PRIOR WORK EXPERIENCE: INSULT COMIC

Last night was TV Book Club. The show was a blast, and I’m very sorry to anyone who couldn’t get in except for those of you who refused to make a reservation in advance, thinking if nothing cooler was happening that night they could just waltz in at the last minute, Ray-Bans casually perched on their heads. You’re living in a dream world!

I think sometimes the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater gets dismissed as having a cult mentality and I suppose if you walk by the theater often enough to see those long lines snaking down the block, filled with young folks reading George Miller graphic novels and waiting to get in to the next show, you could arrive at that conclusion. But I will say this: I heart them. The people who run the theater are incredibly professional, and equally nice, and they seem to have a built-in audience of people who are enthusiastic about seeing new things. Maybe this sounds like a big round of ass-kissing, but it’s honestly not. After performing in lots of different venues of varying degrees of competent management/technical amenities/performer friendliness, UCB is like a breath of fresh, basement air. It’s a magical combination of grungy comfort (to make you feel like you’re still a happy scumbag bohemian) and skilled management. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you should go see “Zombie President” or whatever improv group is performing there these days that doesn’t have a name I just made up.

For me, personally, the show was kind of meaningful. I have been laying low these days, and not performing much. I think I burned out a bit on stand-up and, though I still really do enjoy performing (insecure narcissist!) I think I need to do it on slightly different terms now to be happy.

And as I kind of sort out those terms, I’ve been shying away from booking a lot of shows because I know the process of figuring things out often involves a high frequency of uneven or even miserable sets, and I do worry about going from being (I think) a pretty reliable performer to something like the last couple of years of Lenny Bruce’s life, minus the brief flashes of genius.

As such, as host of last night’s show, it was the first time in a while I’ve felt that exposed onstage and it was a strange evening for me. At first, I honestly struggled. The stage felt kind of foreign to me. I wasn’t sure how to open the conversation between myself and the audience. I returned to my old habit of constantly fiddling with the mic stand like a crazy person, and the piece I read–well, I’ve done better.

But, as the night progressed, I felt more and more comfortable with my place on the stage. It was like some kind of performance-memory was returning. More importantly, the line between being a performer and being myself gradually blurred, which is the absolute best thing that can happen onstage. When that happens, you always know what to say next, because it’s no longer a script in your head. I allowed things to happen more spontaneously, and did things onstage I had no intention of doing when I was preparing for the show. (I also didn’t bother telling a joke I’d written earlier that day because it honestly just felt too calculated. I’ll share it with you, though: “My fiancée, Lisa, and I discussed whether or not she would take my name in marriage but she felt ‘Lisa Levin’ just sounded horrible. So she’s decided she’ll still remain ‘Lisa Hitler.’ I understand. It’s a family name.”)

There’s an old Alan Arkin film called SIMON. I find most people haven’t seen it, though it’s by the co-writer of Woody Allen’s SLEEPER, and has a similar sci-fi goofiness to it. Also, like SLEEPER, the last 30 minutes are not worth watching. Anyway, at a crucial point in the film a bunch of think tank scientists put Alan Arkin’s character, Simon (a self-important but incompetent professor at Brandeis or Vassar or somewhere), in a sensory deprivation tank for so long that his entire sense of self is erased. When he emerges, in a full wetsuit, he slowly pantomimes the entire evolution of mankind–as a way of sort of restoring himself to the present. It is an awesome bit of physical acting, where Arkin acts out the discovery of language and dance, while the scientists observe and remark–”the jazz age! oh! now he’s discovered shame!!” Last night, that’s kind of how I felt onstage, though on a much smaller scale. And really, I probably only made it to Early Man. Still evolving.

This is a piece I wrote for last night’s show, but only read the first part. You can read it all. I don’t care.

PRIOR WORK EXPERIENCE: INSULT COMIC

Chapter One: At the Bank
Pleased to meet you, Mr. Diaz. I understand you’re interested in applying for a business loan.

Now, before I process this application, Mr. Diaz, I wonder if there are any other loans I can help you with today. For instance, maybe I could loan you a paper sack, to place over your head! Seriously, your face is killing me. Who’s your co-signer on this loan? Dr. Jeckyll? What happened to you? When you were created, did God take a sick day? Thank you!

Mr. Diaz, you look like a six-month-old jack-o-lantern carved by a retarded child with juvenile arthritis. No offense, but you look like someone stuffed 10 pounds of Swedish Meatballs into ribbed condom.

And would it kill you to smile? Hey, Mr. Congeniality–you’re here for a bank loan, not dialysis. In all seriousness, why the sour puss? No offense, but the situation in Darfur looks more hopeful than your expression right now. Would it cheer you up if you just signed the loan application now? Here, let me put the pen in your claw. Thank you! What’s that? My manager? Sure thing, Mr. Diaz–I’ll get him. Just don’t steal my hubcaps while I’m gone. What? I get nothing on that? Not even a chuckle? Mr. Diaz, really, there’s no need to get up. I’ll get the manager. Do you want me to bring you back anything? Cup of coffee, or a bucket of chum, perhaps? I’m kidding, you beautiful hideous man, you!

*****

Chapter Two: At the drive-thru
Welcome to Wendy’s, how’s everyone doing tonight? Anyone from out of town? No? OK…may I take your order? Great…beautiful…Biggie fries–whoa, slow down. That’s quite an order. Who’s in that car with you? The Cleveland Browns? Thank you, come again!

What’s that, ma’am? You’re alone? Are you kidding me? What are you, part mountain lion? Do you want me to throw a fork in the bag, or did you bring your own shovel? All kidding aside, is all this food for you, or are you eating for two…the Army AND the Marines!…Oh Ma’am, I’m very sorry to hear about your miscarriage. I haven’t had a microphone in front of me for a while, and I’m a little rusty. Sometimes I put my foot in my mouth. I’m sure you’ve done that before–the only difference is I don’t sprinkle salt on mine first. Bingo. You gotta admit, you leaned into that one, Shamu.

Ma’am, is it really necessary to speak with my manager right now? Listen, I really need this gig. Can’t we just work this out between us? Hey, how about I throw in a free quarter pounder? At Wendy’s we call it a Dave’s Deluxe. You probably call it “a light snack.” I couldn’t resist! My manager will be right with you. You’ve been a lovely audience.

*****

Chapter Three: At Home
I know it’s been a few weeks but everything is “must know PowerPoint” this and “three years experience” that. I just need another break. Speaking of breaks, maybe our baby might like to take a break from crapping her diaper every once in a while. You know I love you, sweetie–you mean the world to me–but how about mixing it up a bit? Pampers aren’t free, you know? With you, I don’t know whether to hire a nanny or a zoo keeper. How about pacing yourself a bit? I think you’ve hit your quota for the month. Oh, now she’s crying. Where are you taking her? And why are your bags packed? If you’re le
aving me, I hope you’re not planning on taking the car. I don’t mean to say you’re a lousy driver, but I’m afraid you’ll die of starvation trying to back out of the driveway. YOU SLAMMED THE DOOR ON MY PUNCHLINE!! Way to pull focus. This crowd stinks.

*****

Chapter Four: in the Bathroom Mirror
You make me sick, you miserable failure. You weak, pathetic little man. I ought to punch in your awful smirking face right now…yeah…I still got it.

HERE COME THE WEDDING JOKES

Getting engaged was so easy; all I had to do was ask. Now, things are much more difficult. Did you know, unless you are bananas-rich, you are kind of expected to plan an entire wedding by yourselves? Venue, invitations, colors, flowers, caterers. (For example, Papa John’s requires a two-month lead time for weddings! And they don’t do cakes.) You even have to be sure of things like “will the wedding venue have a sadsack on hand in case one of your wedding guests besmirches the restroom?” It really is that detailed.

I spoke with a caterer today (not that I’m better than any of you) about one particular venue I’d found attractive, and she warned me their rental fee doesn’t include basic services like trash removal. This is not a question I would ever think to ask, although perhaps I’m not the gold standard for inquisitive first-time wedding planners. Here is my standard checklist of questions for all venues:

  1. Is this space large enough to accommodate 150 seated guests, and a dunking booth?
  2. Are you insured for freakdancing mishaps?
  3. Where do I plug in my fog machine, boss?
  4. Can I black out these windows?
  5. Does your fee include a private suite where the bride and groom can go between the ceremony and reception, to “do it?”
  6. Is it OK if we have our wedding at 4:20, if you know what I mean? (they never know what I mean, until I pinch my index finger and thumb together, put them to my lips, pretend I’m inhaling very deeply, start coughing, explain “I’m ok, I’m cool…I just need some water or something,” and then throw my arms around them and croon, “I’m soooo weeded, buddy!”

So far, it’s been an interesting learning experience, even when it comes with the inevitably crushing disappointment of realizing certain ideas I had for the wedding are probably unreasonable/not feasible. I suppose this is a good dress rehearsal for the kinds of compromises my therapist says are inherent in a life shared between partners. (She did not use those exact words because she is not the weird and horny caftan-clad therapist from HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me,” but she did say something similarly grounding and useful, minus the cringe-inducing stuff. However, my previous therapist might have expressed herself using the sage-scented language of Self-Help. That was more her style. She liked to use words like “partner” and “visualization”, “navajo” and “sacrum,” and I would often respond in kind, with words like “sigh”, “blecchh” and “can i climb out of this adult-sized papoose now?”) I think Lisa and I will still have a lovely wedding, because we care about these things and are lucky enough to have many creative friends upon whose contributions we can hopefully rely. I just might have to resign myself to the fact that, given our budget, timeline and space constraints, I will probably have to abandon my plans for a Cop Land-themed wedding. At least I can stop scouring the Internet for vendors that sell working police siren centerpieces.

DISHONORED

We hardly knew ye…

And, of course, congratulations to the new Governor of New York–the esteemed David Patterson:

I look forward to seeing you knock the 2008 NYS budget the fuck out.

TV BOOK CLUB, EPISODE THREE

With the writers’ strike over and done, on Wednesday, March 19th, I will be re-convening TV BOOK CLUB — a live show where television comedy writers read their own original comedy writing and you, as an audience, laugh. The rules are that simple

I will be hosting a lineup that will DESTROY YOU:

MICHAEL KOMAN (“Late Night with Conan O’Brien”)
SIMON RICH (“SNL” & author of the excellent humor collection, Ant Farm)
LAURA KRAFFT (“The Colbert Report”)
ANDRES DU BOUCHET (“Talk Show with Spike Feresten” and also this)

details and information on making reservations here:

CBS/NY Presents TODD LEVIN’S TV BOOK CLUB
Wednesday, March 19th at 8pm
Upright Citizens Brigade Theater
307 W. 26th Street
Tickets: $5 (make reservations online)

SHEEEEEEEEEITTTTTT

My DVR is officially clear of programs to record, until 30 Rock starts up again. I have to say, the finale of The Wire was bittersweet. It had everything: drama! action! gunshots! a new baby??!!?? a great answer to that big will-they-or-won’t-they question! a city in peril! huggings! a cryptic and much talked-about blackout. and of course, the return of Mr. Big!

It’s strange, though. As much as I cared for the veteran characters who were there from the first episode all the way until the last chopper flew out of Korea, it was the kids from seasons four and five who made the greatest impression. Michael, Dukie, Bug, Juju, Bing-Bong, Cryin’ Shame, Partyhat, Ring ‘n’ Run, and Pizza Pie. There’s something about the fate of a child that gets under my skin and lives there, like a heroin needle I was too high to remove. Just a floppin’ in the breeze on angel wings.

Like, remember the time that one kid sold all that candy? Or the time Ratfink and Cobra Commander tried to sneak a tape recorder into the Doobie Brothers concert, but got caught when the tape recorder fell out Ratfink’s pants during his signature dance, “The Corduroy Jump?” Or the time they made their own home movie about the first Thanksgiving? Or when Dukie shot all those drugs into his arms and lived in a garbage can?

I will miss The Wire like I’d miss an old friend I had killed because I was suspicious of his loyalty. And since the show was always very quotable–each episode began with a simple title card featuring a line of dialogue from that chapter, just like how Stephen King books will begin his novels with profound quotes, like this one from the Ramones: “Gabba Gabba Hey”–I think I’ll end this eulogy, fittingly, with one of my favorite lines from The Wire’s short, yet epic run:

“Ooo-whee, do it one more time for me!” –Mayor Clarence F. Royce

WE DID IT

Today I was thinking, “what is the worst thing you could ever do on the Internet?” Even I was surprised by how quickly the answer came to me. (See? It’s so awful I had to hide it behind a link, like some deformed child chained to the wall of a fruit cellar.)

OUR NEWEST FAMILY MEMBER

Lately, I’ve been really keen on adopting a dog. I mean, these stupid cats are good for nothing. Coleman shrieks until she’s fed, then sleeps it off for the rest of the day. Ble had lousy teeth, has grown so obsessive-compulsive that she’s licked so much fur off her belly that she appears to be wearing a midriff top, yet she applies none of that tongue bathing industriousness to the area of ass hygiene and maintenance. I decided the only way to remedy this is to adopt a dog and throw the cats in the garbage.

While Lisa has been obsessing over the details of our wedding, I’ve been putting my attention into more long-term investments: the field of puppy research. I think we have a winner:

french bulldog puppy

Sturdy, healthy-looking, googly eyes. All the makings of a fine companion.

I will name him “Soul Reaver.”

Now, to most people that might seem like an awfully long way to make a joke about naming my adorable imaginary puppy “Soul Reaver,” but if you knew how much that name has been making me laugh, I think you’d understand.

Is it too late to change my cats’ names to “Rygar” and “Power Fist”?

RADAR 100: HELP WANTED

I forgot to post this when it went online, but the latest RADAR Magazine 100 list is available for your perusal. Seriously, peruse it. It’s called “Help Wanted,” and is a list of 100 things you should never say during a job interview. EXPECT SOMETHING KRAZY.

As always, here are a couple of mine that didn’t make the cut but, in my opinion, also were not horrible:

  • “I’ll bet that desk of yours could tell some stories…stories about fucking!”
  • “As for me being a team player, I think this video of me at the World’s Biggest Gang Bang speaks for itself.”
  • “I will require a 15-minute break every day at 4:20, if you know what I mean.”
  • “I look forward to someday forcing you out of your job.”
  • “Hire me and you have my word—casual Fridays are about to get a whole lot more casual.”
  • “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” / “SHOW ME THE HONEY!” (if interviewing for a job at an apiary) / “SHOW ME THE MUMMIES!” (if interviewing for a job at the museum of natural history)

Also, I’ll write other things later. I just don’t feel like it right now, OK?

Homepage photo: Lindsey Byrnes
Site design & code: Erik Frick