In July of 2005, You Learned:
HOW TO KICK PEOPLE – NEW VENUE, NEW TIME, NEW PRICE, NEW MEXICO, NEW ETC.
This Wednesday, July 27th, How to Kick People – the only comedy reading show in the world – will go down in a brand new venue in the East Village. We're curious to see how it works out, and we're having a hard time containing our excitement about the new space and all the promise it holds for America.
It's definitely a radical shift from our old digs. (Not a lot of people know this, but up until now we performed the show inside a homeless man's chest wound. We're very lucky to have grown as popular as we have, all things considered.) Nice seats, leather banquettes, conveniently located bathrooms, a (soon to be) operational bar, running water, a distinct absence of quiet desperation, and – I promise this time – NO MOLE PEOPLE. Gothamist just wrote something about the space, after checking it out – from the outside, anyway, which is precisely where THE MOLE PEOPLE WILL BE DURING OUR SHOW. This time we promise. Now you can be one of the first to see it from the inside, free of mole people. (No guarantees.)
Bob and I have also been up all night sleeplessly editing a video for Wednesday's show, so come say hello. Lookit – here's all the information about the new showtime and venue:
WEDNESDAY, JULY 27th - HOW TO KICK PEOPLE: TO THE MAX!!
(the show with so much attitude it thinks you should take a picture 'cause it'll last longer, jackoff.)
with Bob Powers & Todd Levin
and featuring Allison Castillo, Rusty Ward, and Maura Madden
NEW SHOWTIME: 7:30 PM
NEW VENUE: MO PITKIN'S
NEW PRICE: $8
SAME WEB SITE: www.howtokickpeople.com
Dang, I'm tired.
HOW TO HANDLE DISAPPOINTMENT.
If you've followed a trail of curiosity from the Sunday Styles section of the NY Times, to Stephanie Klein's web site (congratulations, stephanie), to tremble.com, I suppose right now you feel like you've taken the wrong exit off the highway. Before you start clicking around frantically, looking for a way to connect to tell-all tales of looking for love over the rim of a Cosmopolitan glass, you should know you've come to the wrong place. I rarely, if ever, use this web site as a vehicle to talk about trimming my vagina. (I personally don't think a web site is the proper medium for discussing such things; that's what CB Radio was invented for.)
Additionally, I never eat above 14th Street, unless I was being fed as a hostage. I would sooner drink a gallon of glandular secretions (pick a gland) than spend $12 on a Caramel Fudge-tini Cocktail at a bar where the dress code for guys is Banana Republic stretch slacks, a wedding ring tan line, and diagonally-stripped button-down shirts. ("Hey, I don't work on the weekends, baby, so why should my stripes have to? Let 'em relax, just like me. And, yes, I do know I'm wearing my sunglasses indoors, but thanks.") I did attend fat camp, but only as a pre-emptive strike. And the curl in my hair? Well, it's nothing close to Botticelli's Venus; it's more Old Testament's Deuteronomy.
After all this, if you're still patiently dealing with your disappointment and you're curious about what you might find as you sniff around, here's a quick primer of content I'd consider "typical":
The United States, According to My Racist Aunt
A Halloween Too Far
Does That Make Me Gay? Special 'CATS' Edition
How to Avoid the Exhausting Planning and Preparation That Goes Into Making a Second Date
How to Look Before You Leap
Title Card, Part I
How to Have a William Carlos Williams Moment
How to Wake Your Neighbors
The Onion AV Club: 'Say Something Funny'
How to Determine Whether the Dogs are Barking for You, and Only You
[This entry was the HTML equivalent of that episode of The Jeffersons where George and Weezie spend the entire half-hour tied to a chair while their apartment is being robbed, and use that time together to reminisce over a series of flashbacks i.e. clips from previous episodes of The Jeffersons.]
How to Ruin a Joke
HOW TO HAVE A LATTE AT THE END OF THE WORLD.
I used to write at Starbucks. I was one of those people, with their laptops fired up, an untouched copy of Robert McKee's STORY unnecessarily displayed on the mini-'Bucks table, dressed in a writer's tunic and authentic French beret (ordered from the back pages of New Yorker magazine) with a small pin affixed to it, declaring, "I'M A GROUCHO MARXIST!" The truth was, I liked the solace of Starbucks, the relatively late hours they kept, and their amazing mastery of the art of comfortable, pragmatic blandness. It's not an easy to do – you have a space that's full of baked goods and slick, poster-sized ads for coffee products, furniture busied with whimsical text-based surface design, dozens of people engaged in the quiet desperation of their lives, a P.A. system pumping in loud music, and yet all of these elements, when combined, produce an environment that is equally easy to ignore or enjoy. I got a lot of writing done at Starbucks...or haven't you seen a little movie called BABY GENIUSES 2: SUPERBABIES?
Then, when a couple of independently-owned coffee shops opened up near my apartment, I saw them as the first excuse I needed to escape the corporate clutches of Starbucks. (It never sat easy with me that I was spending my money – and a lot of it – on that lousy corporation that just happens to have sort of decent coffee. Curse your paradoxes!) I liked the new places just fine, and one in particular (I won't tell you its name because I'm not TimeOut NY; I'm StayOut NY and KeepYourPowerbooksOutOfMyLocalHangouts NY), but that one keeps short hours and I like to write into the earliest morning – usually from zero o'clock to about two-thirty or three. And, unfortunately, the other one, while huge, doesn't have a single comfortable seat in its whole 3000 square feet, and also (inexplicably) plays The Grateful Dead at an ear-splitting volume, with speakers positioned every three feet. It's like the worst party you ever attended in your dorm, presented in IMAX.
Due to these mitigating factors, I've spent less and less time at both of these places and, as a result, my productivity has plummeted and my sublimedirectory.com site visits have increased forty-fold. So, tonight I decided I'd head back to Starbucks after a nearly two-year hiatus.
Certain things had not changed: the manager is the same tattooed dude who is probably very into Rancid, and has grown into a more and more grim portrait of spiritual inertia with each day he passes in the employment of the Starbucks corporation. The baked goods still looked totally inedible and possibly made of fema clay. (They always seem unbaked or, if they were baked, the baking would have been done inside a particle accelerator labeled, "Lemon Poppy Loafulator 4000-ZX.") But once I proceeded into the lounge area (yes, I said lounge.) with my Snickers® Frappagaylord, I noticed a stark change: this place looked like hell on Earth. It was as if someone closed down a drug treatment facility for veterans and, in a gesture of apology, sent all the occupants packing with a scrip' for methadone and a Starbucks Duetto™Card.
There were smelly old guys sprawled out and shoeless on Starbucks' signature Comfy Couches™. Another old-timers in flip-flops, and covered in spooky amateur tattoos (sparkly crosses and cryptic green text running along his forearms), was screaming at a bag-lady, and demanding a standing ovation from the loungers. The Starbucks lounge was a scary intersection of Long-Term Drug Abuse Lane and Smelly Hasidic Way. There were a few white dudes who yell, "I'm Rick James, Bitch!" when the small talk dies down, sprinkled in for good measure.
The only way to truly make sense of it all was to imagine that somehow a social hierarchy had formed once the newer, independent coffee shops settled themselves in our neighborhood and, in the shake-out, Starbucks became sort of like that lunchroom table composed of The Geeks, Creeps, Dorkwads, Deaf Kids with clunky hearing aids, and Gaytards.* I typed as fast as I could, and drank my coffee beverage in great gulps, all the while thinking, "the only way I'm gonna get a date to prom is if I ditch these lame-o's and take some karate lessons."
*This kind of reminds me of a summer I spent in Newport, Rhode Island. On the main drag, which tourists shuffle along each day and night, looking for scrimshaw anklets and crab smoothies, there was a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop. It summer employees were the most handsome, even-complexioned and congenial high school kids you could ever hope to meet. They were outgoing and trustworthy, and rang a giant, goodtimes cowbell every time they received tips from a customer. As a result, the atmosphere there was FUN TO THE POWER OF WHEEE! and the lines of customers were tremendous. One night, I was out with a couple pals and we were ice cream hungry, but felt a little discouraged by the B&J's line and, honestly, because we were never really the clean-cut winners when we were in high school ourselves, we resented the good times at B&J's just a little bit, and didn't fully trust Team Handsome.
Then one of my friends remembered another ice cream shop just down the road – they sold Hershey® Brand ice cream and the shop was called – oh man, I have no idea what it was called which goes a long way to understanding how unpopular it was for tourists. In fact, it was almost entirely empty, except for the staff of the most awkward theater dorks with the most tremendous unfortunately placed fat deposits and the most irrepressible facial moles and acne explosions. As soon as we crossed their shop's threshold, they began putting on an embarrassing and desperate show of service for us, complete with "funny" voices from Monty Python and Austin Powers. When we told them how long the lines were at B&J's, they immediately seized on it and launched into a diatribe against the B&J's staff that was so long and thorough it might have actually been rehearsed – or at least involuntarily memorized through knee-jerk repetition. The relationship between those kids at NAMELESS ICE CREAM and the kids at B&J's (who probably didn't even know another ice cream shop existed in Newport, because they were too preoccupied with touching each other's tan skin and soft blonde peach fuzz that sticks out just above the top of bikini bottoms) was the exact same one that now exists in my neighborhood between Starbucks and the Tea Lounge/other cute coffee shops.
HOW TO GET F%#!*D.
I've been exchanging a weird series of emails with some nice people at Comedy Central, regarding the content of my stand-up comedy set and its appropriateness for a broadcast cable television audience, and I've been enjoying the process tremendously.
It seems everything is cool so far, with one exception: a two-word combination that, separately, could be totally safe, but together are unacceptable for broadcast. Those two words? DICK SANDWICH.
You see, it's all a matter of context. Standards and Practices has determined that it is OK to call someone else a dick – someone like, say, Tucker Carlson or Dakota Fanning – but it becomes a problem when the word "dick" refers to an actual part of the human anatomy i.e. the dick. And sticking that dick inside a sandwich, no matter how deliciously distracting the sandwich, doesn't conceal the taste of dick well enough. This particular standard is really strange to me, honestly. For instance, it seems to allow that, on national cable television, a comedian like Nick Dipaolo can call the Pope a pussy – a potentially hurtful thing for the Pope and the members of his international fan club – but Sara Silverman can't say, "I think my pussy is anti-Semitic."
So, as a result of S&P’s concerns surrounding the phrase, “dick sandwich,” I’ve been instructed to either cut the word “dick”, change the entire phrase, or say it as is and get bleeped. Believe it or not, I’d already played around with changing the phrase for several shows leading up to the one I taped and sent to Comedy Central for their consideration and guess what? None of them worked. That’s the odd thing about joke-writing: you can take the absolute dumbest parts of your joke and just sort of assume you have a million other equally silly variations at your disposal but then you try them out, watch them all fizzle one after the other, and suddenly you’re left in this confused and slightly delusional place where you’re suddenly thinking, “I guess there’s just nothing as brilliant as DICK SANDWICH.” I graduated college. I’m not sure why I just included that statement but I suppose it’s the most concise way of explaining why I think this is so very ridiculous, despite the fact that I’m thoroughly entrenched in all of it.
[For the curious, here are some of the variations dick sandwich I tried out before giving up: Bag of Boners, Turd Stew, Bowl of New England Crap Chowder, Cup o’ Pee, Crap Sundae, Fart Taco, Bowl of Jerk, Bowl of I-Want-My-Money-Back, Cunt Salad.]
After a bit of thinking, I’ve pretty much decided I’m going to say DICK SANDWICH on-air and just let them bleep it. The live audience will know what I said, and if they happen to laugh, then the audience at home will know something funny was said beneath the electronic bleep and, well, maybe they’ll laugh as well. Or not. Ironically, getting bleeped will probably make it sound like I’m some kind of untamed comic who simply cannot keep the potty language out of his mouth but, in reality, I rarely curse in my act, and even less so in my day-to-day life. It’s just that sometimes I can’t think of anything better to say than DICK SANDWICH.
Before I arrived at my decision, DICK SANDWICH had become the center of all my discussions with Comedy Central people. They’ve all been very cool and supportive of me, with regards to Standards & Practices’ ruling. In fact, they’ve actually expressed a certain level of frustration with S&P on my behalf, which really surprised me since it had never occurred to me to act angry or put up a fight about the ruling. (For obvious reasons. I can certainly be a petty person at times, but I’m just really grateful right now and, honestly, I can’t imagine what kind of small person would look past an opportunity like this in order to argue his or her right to say DICK SANDWICH on TV.)
And, while I don’t have any more questions about how to proceed, I keep writing to Comedy Central because I’m eager to see how many total mentions of DICK SANDWICH we can collectively squeeze into one long email thread. It’s the kind of discussion that makes me think, “I really can’t believe how lucky I am to do this.” And by “this” I don’t mean telling jokes on television; I mean, have my arrested state of emotional development rewarded so generously that, in my legal contracts for Premium Blend, the act of shouting DICK SANDWICH onstage in front of a live audience and production crew is actually called “talent.”
HOW TO LOSE READERS.
Is it wrong that I think San Francisco is not a funny city? Worse, is it wrong that I think San Francisco is a city that fancies itself quite funny, but absolutely isn't? (Have you ever known a person like that? He or she usually works in retail, or advertising account management.) I really don't know where this prejudice came from, and I fully acknowledge its shakiness, but when I think about San Francisco and humor, the visual that pops into my mind is this:
I know it's not fair, just as it's not fair that I think everyone in Washington D.C. thinks political parody songs performed in the ragtime style are funny. (I sometimes picture this kind of music blasting from people's SUVs in D.C. or pumping so loudly from someone's home stereo that their upstairs neighbor calls them and says, "Please do something about the music. I can scarcely hear my PDQ Bach over your infernal racket!")
Also, and totally unrelated – perhaps just to take the heat off what I just said – holy shit these are good:
HOW TO BE STRATEGIC.
I think I just hired a really bad publicist. So far, she has done nothing to get me any media attention. In fact, the only suggestion she's had for improving my visibility is that I change my name to "AAAAAAAAATODD LEVIN."
HOW TO EAT IN PUBLIC.
I used to have a job at an advertising agency, where the CEO was also the Executive Creative Director. This is what we call in the business, "a potentially lethal dose of self-appointed authority." Putting a creative in charge of an entire ad agency can produce a range of working environments, from compassionate and driven cults of personality, to oppressive, nerve-wracking and soul-deadening servitude beneath an increasingly paranoid despot. If I told you this particular CEO was also an obsessive self-tanner, (a well-known) closeted homosexual, and a Fen Phen addict, do you think you'd be able to guess on which end of the working environment spectrum our agency rested?
If you guessed "the end dripping with Mom's Homestyle Krazy Sauce™," you're absolutely right. One of my boss' unconscionable tics – and there were many, I assure you – was his sudden invocation of new company policies based on totally isolated personal incidents. One of my top 100 favorites was when our boss, J.P. McSourcunt (not his real name) – stormed past a copywriter who was eating lunch in her office and, in his hastened huff (cute!), kicked up a little breeze that drew the aroma of the copywriter's lunch out into the hallway.
The writer had been eating a smelly (i.e. Jewish) lunch, consisting of tuna salad and raw onions on an "everything" bagel, with dill pickles and potato chips. Yes, it sounds delicious, but the boss was so offended by the smell that he blanched – as much a man with skin the color of a Spalding basketball can blanch – and stopped in his tracks. Then he whirled around, circled back, and began screaming at the writer while she was in mid-bite.
"This is fucking disgusting!" he told her. "You are a fucking filthy animal, bringing that horrible smell into this building – into my building! (Technically, his two floors of a 28-story building) What is WRONG WITH YOU?"
Before the writer could react, or even swallow her mouthful of tuna, our boss snatched up her wastebasket and demanded she throw the rest of her lunch away, then dispose of it in the bathroom, far away from the shared public company space where "decent" people worked. (We had no kind of cafeteria in the office so, naturally, everyone at at their desks like scared animals.) Then, still holding the wastebasket in one hand, he turned to the rest of the employees who had gathered to witness the ugly scene, and announced, "New company policy! Melissa is not allowed to eat lunch in the office...EVER. In fact, no one is allowed to eat lunch in the office from now on. It's disgusting! I'm going to be sick!!" And that was that. No more lunch for Melissa, and no more lunch for anyone else.
Sometimes, I'll subconsciously order an especially smelly lunch, and then consciously eat it at my desk, as a kind of long-distance tribute to my old boss, and to Melissa, whose sacrifices were so great. It's my own dietary version of The Ellen James Society.
Today is one of those days. In fact, right now I'm eating an Italian tuna salad sandwich on an onion roll, with two dill pickles, a bag of sour cream and cheddar potato chips, and a shit-smeared banana.
HOW TO CALCULATE YOUR WORDS-TO-LAUGHS RATIO.
Transcribing jokes nearly always produces awkward results. I've cringed at people's attempts to capture the humor second-hand. Inflection gets lost, exact language is often neglected or abused, and many times the reader is at a disadvantage because he/she can't see essential touches of visual humor that accompany a joke – for example, the fact that the comic is performing the joke with women's thong underwear stretched over his head, and a microphone pointed at his ass. Awesome stuff like that almost never makes it to the page.
I reacted with a mixture of curiosity and dread – leaning more heavily toward dread – when I received an email from Comedy Central (brag) containing a full transcription of my stand-up set, culled from a DVD I'd sent them. The transcript was prepared for review by the network's Standards & Practices department, who will then tell me what I can and can't say during the Premium Blend taping next month. (Other comics have already asked me if I'm going to be allowed to say "cock smoothie" and "abortion schmabortion!" onstage, which is weird because I've never said either of those things in my act. And no, you cannot steal those jokes, political humorist Mark Russell. Shame on you!)
When I opened their attached document I saw they'd not only transcribed my entire set, including any "um"s or "likes" littering my otherwise pristine comedic flow – I was actually surprised how few of these were in my set – but they also made notations wherever laughter followed something I'd said. The result was almost like a scientific chart analyzing my words-to-laughter ratio. I could see where laughter was separated by 15 words in one place, then 50 words in the next. Seeing my set laid out like that was really fascinating. And by fascinating, I mean paralyzing.
I have never really been the kind of comedian who obsesses over the mechanics of jokes. I think a certain amount of instinct goes into what is funny, or at least what feels right, and then you hear how audiences react and promise yourself you'll adjust accordingly. And then, if that adjustment doesn't work, I stop telling the joke forever. And sometimes, even if it does work, I stop telling the joke forever anyway, because I have a tendency to forget what new jokes were in my set on any given night.
But seeing it all transcribed right there, and knowing exactly where the laughs sit, well, that was pretty crazy. And crazier still, the person who performed the transcription took it into his/her hands to qualify the laughter. So, instead of just "[LAUGHTER]" there would be separate notations for things like "[LOUD LAUGHTER]" or "[SUSTAINED LAUGHTER]" or even "[SOMEONE IN AUDIENCE FARTS, FOLLOWED BY UNCONTROLLABLE LAUGHTER AND BARELY AUDIBLE COMEDIAN SAYING STUPID STUFF NO ONE CARES ABOUT BECAUSE, HOLY SHIT, THAT FART WAS TOP-NOTCH.]." It's strange to discover the laughter you've received has been ranked, and it made me freak out a bit, wondering why certain areas contained "[REGULAR LAUGHTER]," while others contained "HONEST, SINCERE-SOUNDING LAUGHTER]."
The transcript even included reactions from the audience that weren't exactly laughter, like "[COLLECTIVE SIGH]", "[RUSTLING OF DOCUMENTS]", "[COYOTE HOWL]", "[MOTHER WARNING SON TO STAY IN SCHOOL AND GET HIS DEGREE, OR ELSE 'THIS' IS WHAT HE'LL HAVE TO LOOK FORWARD TO.]", and "[SARCASTIC APPLAUSE]."
But the worst part was when the stenographer included his own notes commenting on my set and delivery, like, "[GRINS SMUGLY]," and "[LETS HIS HANDS HANG AWKWARDLY AT HIS SIDES]," and "[FIDGETS WITH MIC STAND...AGAIN!]," as well as, "[THINKS HE'S HOT SHIT EVEN THOUGH HE'S JUST COLD DIARRHEA]."
HOW TO BENEFIT FROM LIVING IN A BLEEDING-HEART LIBERAL NEIGHBORHOOD.
I called my catsitter today, to spend time with the ladies. When I asked if I needed to pay her extra cash for the holidays – she accepts cash but, like most middle-aged lady catsitters, will also accept payment in the form of romance novels or tea balls – she hung on the line for a moment, then said, "nah...I'm not going to charge you for this holiday, because I'm not feeling very Republican today." (Today, not coincidentally being the day Sandra Day O'Connor retired and, with her, the last shreds of possibility that our current Supreme Court won't overturn Roe Vs. Wade and the Scopes Monkey case.)
It's nice knowing that my catsitter's hatred of America trickles down to me saving a few dollars off poop-scooping duties. Dog bless Park Slope! (See what I did?!)
HAVE A LOVELY FOURTH OF JULY HOLIDAY, EVERYONE. (CATSITTER EXCEPTED) I'VE GONE FISHIN'.