For my first Open Salon post, I'm battling the jitters by ceding the first few lines to other voices:
"You played a tomato for 30 seconds and they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down."
"Yes - it was illogical."
"You're a tomato!! A tomato doesn't have logic! A tomato can't move!!
"That's what I said. So if he can't move, how's he gonna sit down, George?!! I was a stand up tomato, George, a juicy, sexy beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables Off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber - I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass!!"
The above dialogue is recognizable to anyone who was alive in 1982 as the deliciously funny confrontation between out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) and his agent George Fields (Sidney Pollack) in the movie, 'Tootsie'.
I like to revisit that scene periodically for the rare thrill of watching an actor take a stand against the inane. There's a pleasure-by-proxy in this for me, after having, on a number of occasions throughout my performing life, been asked to 'play my tomato while sitting'.
If I forage here for the worst examples in my own experience, I'm inclined to think about the time, during a brief stint in radio, in which I was asked to appear at a live remote broadcast from the retail outlet of a new sponsor...dressed in a pair of Everlast boxing trunks with corresponding gloves, and effecting the persona of Rocky Balboa. Taken alone, it doesn't sound like the worst form of spectacle - until you consider that, standing there bare-chested and swimming in a pair of over sized boxing trunks, I, all 132 pounds of me, looked like a wet noodle, and not of the wide and hearty 'fettuccine' variety, but more of the sinuous 'vermicelli' kind. The incongruity was amplified by my hairline, which, even at this point in my young adulthood, had become mostly theoretical. This was painfully underscored by comments of the young women I would meet in bars, who responded to my overtures with comments like "Oh, my God, are you sure you're only 25?!" Even the most pickled patrons of those bars wouldn't have confused me with Sylvester Stallone. Or even Frank Stallone, for that matter.
I was trying to imitate Rocky Balboa. I ended up looking more like the subject of a Dorthea Lange photo essay. If this sounds like it should be all in a day's work for those in the unprincipled world of broadcasting, then you've met the low bar of expectations the radio industry usually applies to selecting their program managers. Congratulations. And I'll see you in Hell!
But, as capable of malevolence as my program director sometimes was, the inspiration for this bit of 'humility theater' was an idea born not in his head, but in my own. It began when one of the account reps at the radio station landed a sweet advertising contract with a new health and beauty retailer: a one-month flight of ads would be run on our airwaves during the morning and afternoon drivetimes, culminating with a live remote at the local retail location after a one month build-up. The store was called "Jabs" , which conjured an association with upper cuts and TKO's. As to why a health and beauty retailer would market itself with a name that evokes images of black eyes and split lips is still a question that has branding experts shaking their heads.
In the flurry of 'creativity' in the production booth, recording ads for our new sponsor, I let it slip that I did a fair impression of Rocky Balboa. Eyes lit up, microphones were rearranged, and before I knew it, I was reading the ad copy ("Jabs means deep discounts and huge savings") in the slurred, mono-syllabic cadence of the Italian Stallion. The program director liked it, the new sponsor loved it, and like that, I was the hot new property among the 50,000 watt AM radio talent pool. Life was pretty sweet there for a while. I'd pull up to the station at a mid-morning time of my choosing, park my '72 Toyota Corolla with the recent valve job and a new set of re-treads, and stroll into the station under the adoring eyes of the receptionist. To fill out the rest of my day, I'd simply make my way to my cubicle where I'd take calls and field offers.
Of course, most of the above is just me having a Walter Mitty moment. But truth be told, I was sort of enjoying a limited amount of positive attention as 'The Voice of Rocky'. I just wished that I'd said something when the program director conveyed the sponsor's wish to have me be at the live remote not only sounding like Rocky but dressed as him as well. You see, despite all the heady attention, I was clear-headed enough about it to realize something that everyone else was missing: This was radio - 'theater of the mind', where you could create an entire universe of unreality and never be challenged - until you try to manifest it physically. Now, this might've worked on some level if there was a way to wrap it all up with a great visual gag. Y'know, like someone else from the on-air staff playing the role of a no nonsense emcee, saying something like.."Hey, hold on here. You're not Rocky Balboa! Why, you're nothing more than a bald person with a Depression-era waistline. Ladies and Gentlemen, we've been had!" But there was no one quite Letterman-esque enough to play straight man to my Chris Elliott. The expectation was that I would just show up, cast a spell over everyone with my uncanny impression, and induce mass hypnosis. 'Didn't work. This became clear, not through any outward comment, but rather by the way the shoppers circumvented me with alternating glances of pity and that universally recognized look which seems to say, 'Take another step closer and I'm callin' security'. I take no great significance in the fact that the fast decline - and finally, the shuttering - of 'Jabs' seemed to be in direct correlation with my appearance there. But, you decide.
This past March, I staged a solo performance here in San Francisco (The piece was the first installment of a larger work in progress called 'Striking a Deal With Labor'. But more on that in a later post). After writing and workshoping the piece throughout the winter, I was, for the most part, satisfied with the end result, notwithstanding my hope for some fine tuning in subsequent performances. But the workshop process was wrought with tension and more than a little conflict with my workshop director: he dismissed my best ideas, he wanted me to improvise more (a great tool for development, unless you've already employed another time honored creative device called...writing!) and he encouraged me to fabricate details, even though it was a memoir piece (i.e., taken from actual experience). I felt that he was, in effect, asking me to 'play my tomato while sitting'. With some lingering PTSD from my radio days and other similar moments, I spoke my mind on this occasion. I'd hoped that our differences would be processed through a frothy and witty banter, like the stubbornly principled actor and his pragmatic agent in 'Tootsie'. It could've been that my Michael Dorsey impression wasn't quite up to the standard of my Rocky. Or it couldv'e been that the workshop director never saw 'Tootsie' and didn't pick up on the cues. Whatever the reason, our creative tension never rose to the cute and clever tone of movie dialogue. Instead, our dynamic was more like that between a petulant teenager and exasperated parent.
Thirty years ago, before my radio days and long before my experience of this past March, I was green and 18 - newly arrived in New York and just getting my feet wet in stand-up comedy. Knocking around Times Square on an early spring afternoon, I was drawn to an industrial building just south of 42nd St. Affixed to the masonry-and-mortar facade was a banner proclaiming the building to be the home of Manhattan Punchline, a theater company that staged plays, sketch comedy and improv. Though MPL was still in its nascent days, I'd read - or heard - that it was at the vanguard of the burgeoning New York comedy scene. Stumbling upon it on a carefree afternoon, just when I happened to have a little time on my hands and still young enough to be fortified with an unchastened self-assurance, I rode the elevator to the 7th floor loft space. I was fantasizing about finding a quiet black box theater in a rarely glimpsed state of pre-show clutter and afternoon un-selfconciousness, the air thick with theater dust made translucent by the 4'o'clock sun flooding through the windows. I was further fantasizing that I'd find someone there, preferably a lone individual, toiling with scene sets and willing to share his mid-day ruminations on theater, audience sensibilities and the modern pilgrimage of comedy. I chose these particulars for my fantasy because these kinds of encounters were lacking at the comedy clubs where I'd started to spend my evenings. Drawing high numbers on open mic nights, I'd cower in the back of the house consumed by a stage fright so immobilizing that I could barely breath, much less speak to anyone (This btw, is where my unchastened self-assurance began to waver). Further panic was induced at these clubs when established comics from the regular roster arrived. On slow nights, it might just be Larry David, Richard Belzer and Paul Rieser hanging around. On a supercharged weekend nite, Rodney Dangerfield might show up for a set. Somewhere on the vast island of Manhattan, there was surely a thoughtful and approachable soul who would complete the conversation I'd started with myself as a child, about 'comedy as high art'. Devined by a karma that I can't explain, I pushed open a door and did in fact find a man toiling with stage sets. After I awkwardly apologized for the intrusion, we fell into one of the most thoughtful and provocative conversations of my young life. I was clumsy, unpolished and not terribly articulate. But I was full of ideas about humor and comedy, of both the timeless and topical variety. He humored me with validating smiles and occasionally offered challenges to one of my points. I didn't know it then but I was probably sharpening my talking points on the germ of a theory that would evolve later in life as my contrast study between the absurdism of Beckett and the satire of Molière. Between the moments when we were seeing eye to eye, there was dissension of opinion, but only of the gentlest kind, indicated by nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a warm smile.
It was the gentle divergence of opinions, communicated with such reverence - that, along with an invitation to 'come back sometime' - which had me walking on a cushion of air as I left. I've had meaningful dialogue since then with people in the performing arts, but apparently not when it matters most. At the really crucial junctures, I dummy up, don an over sized pair of boxing trunks and risk arrest for public harrassment. Or I sit in a sullen state during a workshop and watch my best ideas get spiked. Yes, I'd like to be Michael Dorsey and stick it to the man when he deserves it. But more than that, I'd like to be carefree and 18 again, wandering the canyons of Manhattan, looking for a forum in which to oxygenate my headful of ideas. Then I'd like to find that forum, just as I did 30 years ago, in the company of a wisened stage veteran who knows how to register intrigue in his eyebrow, while the late day sun furnishes him with a translucent halo of theater dust.
Fade to black. This tomato is now standing for his curtain call.
A special shout-out to founding member of Manhattan Punchline, Mitchell McGuire. He not only jogged my memory for some physical details for this post, but he also deduced that my seredipitous conversation on that afternoon 30 years ago was with MPL's artistic director, Steve Kaplan.
Pete Smith's Blog
- San Francisco, California, United States
- August 23
- I'm a writer, performer and public health worker (the last of these is necessary to subsidize the first two). I currently live in San Francisco with my wife and son.
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