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Written by Rob Schultz (human).

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Group Mind

Now, as the man says, I told you that story to tell you this one...

Election night is a time to spend with your people. Last time we elected President Obama, I was at a comedy show. It was an improv show called Tuesday Night Thunder and it was so hot that night that we all stood outside the theater looking in at a projector feeding us the results. Tomorrow, when we do it again, I'm going to be at a stand-up show on the UCLA campus.

I think I can get away with saying I'm a stand-up comic. Or, that I do stand-up comedy. I could say that. I may only be at the volunteer, or perhaps hobbyist level, but I go out there and say unusual things to strangers through public address systems.

To talk about improv comedy, I have to put things in the past tense. I spent a year or two living in and around the UCB Theatre. I took classes, worked for the theater to pay for them, went to shows, and the satellite shows, and played with practice teams.

Eventually, through connections I made there, I got a job working second shift. Which is when all the comedy shows are. I thought I'd be taking a short break; the gig was scheduled to be 2-3 months. I joined facebook so I wouldn't completely disappear from the scene. Nine months later the job was coming to a close, and the community at the theater had pretty much turned over, as it so often does. I'd washed out more or less by default.

When I started working on stand-up, I found it really striking how different the communities are. As an improviser I don't know if I ever scratched the surface, which is, even now, kind of baffling. Improv is built on tenets of being honest and open with each other. The platonic ideal of an improv team is a group that knows each other so well they appear to possess a 'group mind.' They're always on the same page. And what's more, in every improv group, you literally need each other to put on a show. In the world of stand-up, each and every other performer is better off when any one of us quits. And somehow stand-up feels so much more inclusive.

As far as I know, my performance as an improviser was fine for a beginner, but it does take substantially longer to reach a point where you have something to show for yourself. A stand-up just has to say something good. Could be the first time you see him. Also, it's a lot easier for the would-be stand-up to go out and get practice. Especially in Los Angeles. You could get up at a few open mics a night out here from the get-go, but as an improviser you're looking at an investment of months before it even makes sense to practice outside of class.

Both groups lay claim to making an art of something scary. Both are speaking in front of a crowd (if you're lucky). Improvisers don't have a script, stand-ups don't have any backup.

In stand-up, there's the sense that sheer bloodyminded perseverance may one day lead to marginal success, and it's very portable - you can get up with a mic and talk to people just about anywhere. In improv, all you seem to get from hanging on for a long time is a job at one of the specialized theaters where improv is permitted and accepted. Not performing, mind you. Taking tickets, mopping floors, that sort of thing.

On the other hand, the good improvisers seem to have better job prospects. I think it's because while it is still uncommon, it's possible to, and people do, make a living in stand-up. There's an attainable level of success where you can make money performing. This is almost not true of improv. The highest level most UCB students can hope to attain is performing weekly on a official 'house' team of the theater, and once you do, you're paying to play. So improvisers need to look for alternatives. And when you get right down to it, they usually have to do so alone. You don't see an improv team getting hired for, well, anything.

Once, I joined an improv team by accident. It was a two week process. The first week was marked by the exciting debut of a group I was really happy to be a part of. We booked a show at Tuesday Night Thunder, with its months-long waiting list. As the time grew near, I had been visiting family, talking about how great improv was and how things are really shaping up, and I told my dad about our first show. I couldn't wait to get back in town and go do it. Practice is one thing, but, like in stand-up, performing in front of an audience is something else. There's a lot to learn from it. What I learned that night was that this awesome group I was so proud of was going to disband very soon, and the way I learned it was by being the only one of eight team members to attend our first show.

Now as a standup, I would know what to do when the scheduled act is a no-show and there's 20 minutes to fill. Let me at that mic! As an improviser, that was not a task I could complete on my own. So I rounded up some regulars from the audience to perform with me. And the next week, when one of them was on the lineup at TNT and a couple people from his team didn't show up, he asked me to sit in with them. And afterward, they told me when and where to be for their weekly rehearsal.

I think I kept playing with that group for 6 months, at least. And I think it made me a worse improviser. In the beginning, I was further in the curriculum than some of the group, and felt like it was beneath me to be there, which is both ridiculous and stupid of me. But it helped me to build up some awful habits. I got to know my teammates, and to think that some of them could not be trusted to play make-believe properly. I'd still say that if there's anyone on your team that you don't want to perform with, there's a problem on that team, but I was part of the problem too. And I stewed and felt unhappy, until one day I hatched the perfect plan: I would quit.

That week at practice, I showed up prepared to announce that I was done. And so did two other people on the team. And so did our coach. It was the most group-mind we ever experienced.

Some weeks I'm busy.

Jobs and opportunities in LA are fleeting. Here one minute, gone the next. Sometimes they move on without you, sometimes they simply cease to exist. It's a lesson you (meaning me) can learn over and over, as much as you want.

So when I tell my dad about a project, it means one of three things:

  1. I've been working there for two days.
  2. I'm trying sound less like a failure.
  3. I have gone and made a classic error of optimism.

You work on a pilot that gets picked up, and the series doesn't hire any of the staff from the pilot? So it goes.

Offered a cool job on a studio movie, and it actually goes to the star's nephew, who has no experience in your job? That's just the nature of the business, it seems. Or the town. It's okay. In some ways, it's better, because at least you didn't lose on merit.

The contract for $20,000 worth of work dries up after $200? That sucks, but it'd be worse if you told everyone you had a big windfall coming your way.

I get repeat business from some producers, which is terrific. But when they haven't got anything for me, it's time to go out and sell. A day like today, I've emailed 3 feature films that are looking for an editor. On many of them I'll never hear anything at all, but in a given week I'll probably talk over between 1 and 5 possible new gigs with possible new clients or collaborators.

I'm not going to tell my dad about most of them. It's like sending out 'Save The Date' cards featuring a woman you saw, but didn't actually meet, on the bus. It's going to raise a lot of uncomfortable questions about her health and whereabouts.

I'm not sure that any project that has put me 'on hold' has ever come through. I don't think it's because I told my dad about them. NDAs were not involved. But when I call him up and tell him about an upcoming movie that says I've got the job and I'll be staying in a hotel in another state for two months, and then later it turns out the company that was going to pay for all that went bankrupt and didn't make any movies at all, well, those are the more memorable examples.

Put another way, I have no objection to trying and failing, but usually, I prefer to do so in private. I tried an experiment sometime last year where I applied for every job on every want-ad type site that I could possibly do (related to media production, that is), regardless of budget. By the end of the week I had met in person with producers and agreed to edit a complete feature film for free, color correct an 8 episode web series, also for free, and co-host a daily podcast about video games from an office in Santa Monica, whilst living in Burbank. Hands were shook, tentative dates were booked, and nothing was produced. And nobody had to hear anything about it.

It happens all the time. Like actors auditioning or surgeons blending horses and monkeys. It just got me again. A decisive factor in moving to my current apartment was convenience and proximity to a job that probably doesn't exist. But, y'know, I'm an optimist. Sure, the rent on such a place would be a lot more affordable with the job than without, but that's just motivation to keep looking for new gigs.

This isn't a "woe is me" kind of story. I mean, I manage to keep kinda busy. Some weeks, I'm so busy I only spend a couple of days thinking about which of a thousand tiny mistakes spelled my doom as the potential second full-time employee at Sandwich Video. Not this week, of course, but sometimes.

Machine of Death Flashfiction

The lovely people at Machine of Death put out a call a few weeks ago for 55-word Machine of Death-related short stories. I wrote one immediately, and then forgot all about it.  It goes like this:

"We meet again, old friend," announced the Duke, as he stripped off his gloves.

A few minutes later, the slip shot out of the machine.  An aide retrieved it.

"Just like all the others," said the Duke. "Where's the next one?"

The aide scratched off an item on his clipboard and got in the limousine.

I just coincidentally happened to submit it before the deadline, but because I already wrote a blog entry that day, you won't see this for another couple of days, by when it will be TOO LATE to submit your own!

HOWEVER, since MoD was on my mind whilst grocery shopping, this following true tale of terror on the high seas came to mind:

"Since when do you drink your father's Diet Coke?" Brad's mother demanded.

"I don't," said Brad.

"Then why was this can in your trash?" his mother asked.

"He was just upstairs when he threw it away, I guess."

"Don't you lie to me!"

Brad looked at the frame on the wall. OLD AGE. He sighed.

UPDATE:  You can read the MoD staff's favorites on their website.  If you're like me, and bad at reading the initial prompt, you'll notice how they're all to do with existing pop culturey things.  You'll say 'well that's kind of boring.  What gives?'  And finally you'll realize that was the assignment, and feel just slightly sillier about your own non-fanfic flashfic.  But at least you didn't write fanfic.


Youngstown, Ohio is a standing set of a city.  Built for 200,000 and home to 60,000, it would remind you of the cliche facade towns of the old westerns, if it weren't so desolate as to be distracting. I've spent a couple of weeks there shooting movies - specifically My Soul To Take (a religious horror) and My Soul To Take 2 (a buffy-esque martial arts actioner).  Neither is the Wes Craven version, and neither has seen the light of day, as far as I know.

The films shot nights, meaning the crew woke up around 5pm and went to work as the sun was setting, and by the time the sun was rising again, those of us who weren't headed over to a third-shifters' bar for a few hours were headed back to the hotel for the free hot breakfast.  Ordinarily, you've got a handful of guests and patrons wandering downstairs over the course of a couple hours, stumbling towards coffee and perhaps sustaining some powdered eggs as a kind of collateral damage, but for a few weeks five years ago, one Holiday Inn (or something) was beset by two dozen filmmakers cleaning out the breakfast buffet as fast as the staff could refill it.

Today, I'm on set in a real Hollywood soundstage, and there's no make-your-own-waffle station.  What gives?

Two memories, no charge

In second grade, in reading groups, at St. Pascal Baylon, the teacher for our group made fun of me for not grasping the concept of blindness.  She described it as being 'just like having your eyes closed all the time.'  But, if my eyes are closed, I can still distinguish when a light is turned on in a dark room, for instance.  We went around on this point a couple of times.

A couple years ago, I worked for someone who would, perhaps once a week or so, tell me "You look just like Mike Myers." and if one of his friends or family members was near by, he'd bring them over to weigh in on my similarities to Mike.  He needed confirmation so much that I would get asked my opinion on the matter too.  "That depends," I'd say, "serial killer Mike Myers [from Halloween], or comedian Mike Myers [from SNL]?"  Neither, it turns out.  Just a guy they knew.

I'm not sure why the above never got posted back in May, but I hope you all had yet another SpoooOooOOOOOoky ThaaaAAaaankgiiiIIiving!