Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The UCBT and Me

New York magazine, which gets my vote for best magazine in the world, has a great oral history of the Upright Citizens Brigade online. http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

I knew the UCB Theater (UCBT) would someday get this royal treatment, because it really has changed comedy, and the larger world of entertainment. And by extension the world. All in just 15 short years.

I have written here about improv before, but I don't know if I ever have blogged about how truly cool it was to be a part of that world for the three years, or so, that I lived it. If I have, forgive me.

From 2000 through 2003 I spent probably at least two nights a week, virtually every week, at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, back when it was at its location on 22nd street, in a black box theater that I loved from the word go.

I took classes, many, performed, a lot, formed teams, two, and saw so many, many funny people and performances. I don't think I have ever laughed that much, that consistently for so many years in a row. For that alone, those are three of the best years of my life.

But it got even better. Because it was not just a theatrical experience, but a totally social one. Being (relatively) young, I was 28 when I started with classes, I had a lot of time to hang out, drinking, eating french fries, going to shows too, with a whole new cast of characters and friends. It was a big, open, friendly scene. There were no real stars in it, yet, and the entire thing had the vibe of a party waiting to happen. All you had to do was put yourself out there, just a bit. Be a little braver maybe than you were used to. Commit to practices, be there, on time, be ready to support the other improvisers, make them look good.

It made total sense to me.

And of course I got to see so many people perform so much, before they became stars. The list could be endless, but I will name a few: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Rob Riggle, Paul Scheer (who was in like every show I saw for two years it seemed), Ed Helms, Jack McBrayer (who was, possibly, my favorite improviser), Rob Corddry, many writers for Conan, SNL and the other great NYC TV shows, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, Horatio Sanz, Jerry Minor.

Of course, it was hard at the time to see who would emerge to become a star, in some cases. But in some cases it was very easy. From the moment I first saw Amy Poehler on stage, pretty much dominating an entire roomfull of very tall Catholic and Jewish comedy nerds, I was waiting for her to get picked up by SNL. Which happened about one year later. Jack McBrayer was another no brainer, as he was that funny, that charismatic on stage. I never saw him have a bad performance, or even a bad scene or line. At least to me, he could do no wrong.

But those are just the names we know now. The entire scene had a vibrant sense to it.

Growing up I had read so many stories about the glory days of NYC rock, CBGB's in the late 70s, the Village in the '60s. This, the UCBT in the early '00s was my scene, my time to be there for history as it was being made.

And the thing was, we all knew history was being made, even if the world at large did not yet. I would come out of shows that were so great, so energizing, so fun, it was impossible for me to not feel that this would simply continue to grow and grow. NYC needed it, and what NYC needs the world soon needs.

So it was special, and it was happening, and we knew it was happening, as it happened. Isn't that the definition of time well spent?

Better still, unlike with rock, improv was so easy to get into. You had classes that would open the door for you to become involved. As far as I remember CBGB didn't have any classes. In these classes you would learn how to do improv, which was its entire own language. Impossible to describe, you could only learn to breathe at that altitude by repeated exposure. It had to become your life a little in order for you to even begin to hang on stage and feel at all confident. At the same time it was just as much fun for a newbie as for someone with more experience, although for different reasons.

So, in a place as wild and huge as NYC, I had my people, all of a sudden. I had a reason to go to the Lower East Side on a Thursday night and party. I had shows to do, and friends to support, and an entire world that was being created right before me.

I met my future wife through improv, as if it didn't give me enough.

Like so many scenes and passions improv was fun, energizing and ultimately something I could not make into a life. By about 2003 or 2004 it started to get a lot more competitive. And, by then, I was starting to realize that I may have not been a great fit for show business, as much as I enjoyed so many aspects of improv itself.

It began to get more of a networking thing, I felt, as it became quite apparent that careers could result from getting on a team at the UCBT. If you got on a team you had, in a sense, been officially recognized as someone with potential. People who mattered in show business could very likely see you. If you didn't get on a team it was a lot like being the baseball player who never gets out of the minors. After a while you either move on, or you keep playing out of the love of the game, not caring about the world. I admire people who can soldier on like that.

And, I'll be honest, I witnessed some real sucking up. It became a bit more like high school, and I wasn't all that great at high school the first time.

I was not a great fit for the competitive aspect of it. I blew every single audition I had to be on an official UCBT team, all three of them. Six scenes in total, maybe half of two were good. This probably told me, more than many other things, that I may not have had the makeup for a high pressure career in show business. I never even got a call back. And didn't deserve one, really.

And although I loved being at the theater, and performing I think twice a week was my absolute limit. I don't know why, but after that it began to seem more like work, and the returns on my time investment would start to yield inversely less fun. And the entire point was to have fun. Once the fun part of it is gone, it's over, no matter who you are.

I remember dragging myself once to my third practice in a week,and realizing that I didn't want to really go. But those who are in show business now through the UCBT did that and more.

So I drifted off, which was the natural way of things. But I love my memories of the improv I saw, the people I met, and the improv, better still, I got to do. I hope I get to do it again some day. I was pretty good, way back when, when my improv fastball was working. Maybe not a rock star, but then again I didn't have to be. I was there to say "yes and" in order to make my partner look better.

It was a great time, for which I will always be happy and thankful.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Keeping Up With Stella

Watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and boy do I find these biznitches hard to handle. Spoiled, yet incredibly stupid, they are probably going to herald the downfall of our society.

I have been trying to think of some funny things that Stella's done the past few days that I have enjoyed. Sometimes it's not just outright jokes, it's more her attitude.

What has been so cool is that she's starting to become so outgoing and friendly with her classmates in school. A year ago I was scared that maybe she had some kind of developmental delay that couldn't be overcome. Parents, man, we are just crazy. Instead, she's not only come out her shell, she's become quite the gabber among her friends.

She's an interesting combination of things: sweet, independent, a bit sassy, sometimes a little whiny, very quick, and funny. She's not a needy kid, and she's not an aloof kid. She seems pretty content with who she is, and where she is most of the time, and most days.

She can be a bit willful, but I guess that comes with the turf most of the time. And when she gets way too smart alecky, or starts to act up I have the ability to draw the line, and, get this, she actually listens to me. Which is slightly amazing to me.

I won't admit this to her until she's about 40, but this ability to lead her and have her listen to me, simply because I'm the dad and I say things like I really, really mean them, it's kind of a new experience for me. In my life virtually no one does anything just because I say so. The cats? Good luck with that! Anyone who's ever worked under me? At times. My wife? Well, that's not how things work in Casa-de-Serchuk. We try to come to mutually agreeable solutions, so that neither one of us feels bossed around. And when that doesn't work we do rock paper scissors until we reach a satisfying conclusion. (Hint: she always falls for rock!)

So, when Stella and I are getting ready in the morning I will say something to her like "Go into the living room, and wait for me. I am turning off the light in your room." And she will walk herself into the living room, and wait for me.

Again, maybe to other people this is not all that amazing, but I am still not totally used to it. I guess I should enjoy it while it lasts.

On an unrelated note we have been in potty training city for about three months now. It's mostly over, the hard part, but not entirely. We still have to bribe her with an M&M after she uses the potty correctly, and if we don't remember, believe me, she will remind us.

We're also starting to get to the age where the stroller is becoming more and more a thing of the past. We can go for short walks now, even up to a quarter or half a mile if we really want to, and she totally keeps up.

I also love this, she will hold my, or our, hand while we walk, although eventually this will start to piss her off and she will wring her hand out of mine. At that point I will usually use a strong voice and tell her that we do not get go of mommy or daddy's hand when we're out.

Because like most parents I live in mortal fear of her getting either hit by a car, or abducted.

Sometimes she listens to this and sometimes she doesn't. We try.

Mostly, though, I think we're doing a pretty good job. Stella is happy, she's healthy, she plays, she spent the entire summer having fun, she grew, she learned words like "butthole" as elucidated in a prior post. She's right where she should be, and I am extremely proud of her, every day.

You know, it's amazing to think that we were all like this, and not too long ago. Fresh, un-jaded, friendly, un-inhibited. Willing to give people a chance. Sensitive. Without a malicious bone in our collective bodies. All that bad stuff, you have to learn it I suppose. I hope I can help keep her this happy for as long as possible. I guess that's every parents' wish.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Most of my best laughs these days come from Stella

I kind of stopped writing about the Brooklyn Baby Baby because, I don't know, I thought I started to feel like one of those bloggers writing about their kids, well past when anyone else still wants to know.

But, screw it, I don't care. At least not tonight. This kid is hilarious, and responsible, for most of the good laughs I get in a day. So I am going to try and drum up some memories from today and the day before that made me laugh, or at least brought a hearty smile to my face.

Well, here's one. Yesterday we went to "Disney On Ice", which alone should make you laugh. It was at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. It started with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Pluto all in safari outfits (despite the fact that, you know, they were on ICE). Apparently there were on the savannah at the start of a world tour of various Disney-owned entertainment properties. Truth be told Mickey and the gang were little more than Ed Sullivan-esque hosts for the show. Most of the heavy lifting was done, show-wise, by the ice dancers for the various entertainment set pieces we watched.

It started with an all-ice Cliffs Notes rundown of the "Lion King," which ended before Simba fights his uncle Scar to the death. In fact it just kind of ended. And then it went into "The Little Mermaid," which presumed that Mickey and the Gang could vacation underwater? The Little Mermaid segment included our first human-looking skaters, which lead Randi to say "Now here's something for Dad!" as six bikini topped skating mermaids whipped around the ice. Ariel was the seventh, and eventually there was a big fight with an inflatable Sea Witch, and all was right with the world.

After that they went to Hawaii to tie in with "Lilo & Stitch," which I have never seen, and I was kind of surprised it was included. Let's face it, it's B-list Disney. Nonetheless, and I am a bit ashamed to admit this, I cried a bit when they explained the Hawaiian word for family, which means "no one gets left behind." Yes, this is sad, I almost got misty again typing this.

Stella was enthralled pretty much the entire time, although she got very pissed off when Mickey left the ice, at least the first time.

Then it was intermission, during which I bought a hot dog. A totally unnecessary detail, but there you go. Also, Randi had a conversation with a drunk mom who had one of her boobs hanging out.

The second half, and this was kind of strange, saw Mickey & Co., fly clear from Hawaii to Foggy London Town, where ice skate clad bobbies and yeoman and yeo-women welcomed us to their city, where "every day is paradise" or something like that. I doubt the looters would agree with that, but then again, they aren't on ice skates.

The second half was pretty much dedicated, almost in its entirety, to a skating recreation of "Peter Pan." This really threw me for a loop. Hello, this movie came out in 1953! And it's a great story, and I love it, but I was stunned they gave this much show time to a movie that was so totally not something the Princess loving little girls in the audience could possibly give a crap about.

I enjoyed it, as much as I could, given that it was on skates and for four year olds.

At one point some of the effeminate "pirates" in Hook's dastardly crew were singing something about how great it is to be a pirate, and Stella had gotten out of her seat and was totally getting down in the aisles, dancing a totally kick-ass jig. Honestly, this was my first big laugh of the day.

Then, after Hook finally fell into Tick-Tock the Crock, the show ended with some small time fireworks. Quickly after that we learned that The Disney Princesses were slated to make an appearance a little down the road in their own ice skating revue. At that moment I realized were had just watched what amounted to, more or less, the leftovers of the Disney repertoire. If we wanted to see the real big deal stars we would have to pony up once more.

Show now officially over, we all walked out into a bright, lovely day. "Wasn't that fun?" was asked Stella. "We saw Mickey, and Minnie, and Goofy, and Daisy, and Donald, and Peter Pan, and Tinkerbell, and ..."

Stella cut us off: "But no Pluto."

Dammit, this kid doesn't miss anything. And she was right! No Pluto! They had everyone else, but not the faithful dog.

Randi and I both laughed and laughed. Stella rules, she catches everything.

Monday, September 5, 2011

If You Are Against The Affordable Care Act You Are Either Brainwashed or ... A Republican Presidential Candidate

The more I hear about the Affordable Care Act and the good it will do for countless millions of Americans, the more convinced I am that it was a great thing that it passed. The more proud I become to live in a nation where we actually, get this, try to do the right thing for one another. The added bonus? It will also save money! In fact the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the current drive to repeal it would add $210 billion to our deficits from 2012 to 2021, were it to succeed. (Link)

So, expanded care, and it saves money? What a boondoggle! (Note: for the irony impaired, I am being sarcastic.) http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act not because they think it will fail, and raise expenses, it won't, and they know it, but because they fear it will work. And their blind allegiance to the religion of non-intervention in the workings of the market will be shown to be not only intellectually dishonest, but bankrupt.

It will never cease to amaze me that we tolerate a patch-ass system of half measures for our health care that cost more than anywhere else in the first world, and deliver less. That we die younger here than in, say, Canada, have higher infant mortality rates and pay twice as much for it. I would think that those who are so vocal when it comes to the "right to life" that they advocate bombing clinics would take a moment to think about the young lives being wasted in the name of more and more corporate profits. But why start now?

Here's one for instance. Although the provision that keeps insurance companies from treating "pre-existing" conditions has yet to be enacted there are measures in place to help pregnant women get care. Did you know that insurance companies will turn pregnant women down because pregnancy can be considered a pre-existing condition? Well, it is.

Our local muckrakers at the LEO magazine wrote a nice article about this. There is something called the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan. PCIP is part of the Affordable Care Act, and it keeps, as the name implies, people covered if they have the dreaded pre-existing conditions. There is a pool of $5 billion set aside to cover people through PCIP, but no one knows about it yet.

In my state, Kentucky, which virtually always ranks near the bottom in everything coming to good health, and hear the top in poverty, only 140 Bluegrass Staters have enrolled in this program, despite thousands and thousands not having insurance. They just don't know about it. And if the Republicans have their way they will never get the chance to learn about it before the plan is defunded once and for all. Kill it before it can save more lives. Now there's some right to life right there.

Even better PCIP is cheap. In my state I would only pay $177 to get it, a fraction of what COBRA costs. And far, far cheaper than the cost of a funeral.

In November 2010 I covered Sen. Rand Paul's victory celebration in Bowling Green, Ky. for New York magazine. There I spoke with a field operative for Paul who railed against the health care bill being rammed down everyone's throats in the dead of night. (These Tea Partiers never say a discouraging word about the black bag job that was the vote for Medicare Part D however.) Then I asked her a simple question: what about the provision in the act that covered you if you have a pre-existing condition. "You know," I said, "we pay into these insurance plans for years, and then when you need it they say you aren't covered!"

She thought about it for a moment. "Well, I've never heard about that."

Yet she hated the Affordable Care Act, even if she didn't understand it, hadn't read it, and didn't know that it would benefit her. Why? Because she was brainwashed, and told to. And that's all she needed. Say the word's "small government" and alot of these self-styled "Libertarians" reflexively salivate and then come in their pants.

But I have met few of these people who are true libertarians. They're just conservatives who realize their brand has been besmirched beyond repair by Bush Jr., Cheney, Wolfowitz and all the other chicken-hawks who send other people's sons and daughters to hot, rocky places to kill and be killed. For weapons of mass destruction that never arrive, or oil that we never get.

Most of these "libertarians" would be all too happy to get urgent care in a hospital if they needed it, but had no insurance. Or would crap their pants if their water ran out, or the power grid went down, or the roads fell apart, or a loved one became injured and needed immediate critical care. And even if they didn't believe in "the system" we would still give them coverage, save their lives, give them water, and the rest. Because we believe a strong nation is a just nation is a fair nation. Or at least I do.

I roll like that. A lot of us do. It's time for those of us who want healthcare to be both more universal and more affordable to start talking back.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sept. 11, 2001

I first went to the Twin Towers, first had any real idea about them at all, when I was probably no more than five years old. The entire family went: Dad, Mom, Sharon & Stuart, and me.

The occasion was the closing of a very important business deal for my dad.

What I remember best about that power lunch in Window On The World was simply that I could look down on the cars below and they looked even smaller than my toy cars that I loved to play with so much. It seemed hard to believe they were real. Eventually when we got back to the street level it again did not seem possible that the cars could have grown that much larger in that time.

It was a very good, and memorable day. A happy family memory of us all together. Sadly, there just aren't that many of those memories in existence, so I prize the ones I do have.

Then the Towers were there in the critically-reviled remake of "King Kong" from 1976, which very much broke my young heart. Every version of that film breaks my heart, dammit, critically-reviled or not. He was a giant gorilla, and deserved better.

After that the Towers became a landmark that I thought of with some fondness. I saw them in "Trading Places" in the famous orange juice trading climax of the film, and they felt kind of like an old, warm, acquaintance.

I ventured downtown in the mid-90s to visit a friend who worked in the Financial District, and walked around the World Trade Center. The Towers were in a giant plaza, back a bit from the street. That time, for some reason, I looked up and it scared me a bit, they were just so big, so awesome in size.

After that they became more or less a compass point for me. No matter how lost I would get in The City I could look downtown, and there they were! Impossible to miss and right at the southernmost tip of the island.

I didn't have much reason to venture that far downtown usually. But I liked that they were there. I remember moving to The City in 2000, and learning that Robert Fripp was to play a free show at The Towers. I didn't go, but thought, hey, that's pretty cool. I wonder if they're trying to make the Towers, you know, hip?

I had a source that worked in the Towers too. Dennis, he was an attorney for a white shoe law firm, and was a good guy. I met him for lunch in 2000, only the second time I had actually been in The Towers since that long-ago lunch as a child. I went up to around the 50th floor, which took two elevators, and we ate in one of the many great restaurants that were in the street level atrium. It was a pleasant autumn day, and a good expensed meal. I remember now how awesomely huge the lobby of The Towers were, and how it was a bit confusing to know if I was at the right building. (Dennis, by the way, lived. Another source of mine, whom I spoke to only a few times, was the head of compliance at Cantor Fitzgerald. He did not live. I thought about him every time I opened my source list, and still think about him today.)

And that was my experience with The Towers. I had some affection for them. I loved that for at least a little while they were the tallest buildings in the world. As a Tri-state area native I have always felt that it is a in a sense a joke that other cities work so hard to build their big buildings, bigger than the ones in NYC. Okay, Dubai, you win. Like, get over yourselves. Having billions in oil money and, I don't know, indoor ski slopes in the middle of the desert does not a great city make. You know it, I know it, quit fooling yourselves.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 I hopped on the bus at Port Authority at 8:40 a.m. or so, and made it to the other side of the Lincoln tunnel after at least one of The Towers had already been hit. If I had looked downtown from my bus window, I didn't, I would have seen it smoking for about a second or two. I probably would have thought that whatever it was they would get it under control. Because they always did.

I had not taken the 1993 truck bombing plot all that seriously. I mean, I knew it was bad, but I thought it was ludicrous that these guys thought they could take down something as massive at a Twin Tower with some fertilizer. Put 'em in the clink, forever if need be, I thought. But give me a break!

As I got of the bus in Carlstadt, N.J. I heard the bus driver's radio say "all the tunnels are closed," right as he closed the bus door in my face. The driver looked a little confused. It sounded strange, but I didn't make too much of it.

It was only once I got to my job at Beta Industries, my dad's company, that I heard the whole story. A tower had been hit, possibly both, by airplanes? Everyone was, rightly, hyper-alert to the news. Claus, a longtime hand there, told me he had seen the Towers smoking from the roof of the building. I couldn't see it from the street level and thought about going up there. I may have even asked, but there wasn't much time.

The radio was on inside, as was the TV. 1010 WINS' main correspondent on the scene was a woman who wasn't even a full time reporter, she just happened to live down there and was just reporting it almost like a normal, shocked, horrified person would. I wish I could remember what it was she said, but when one of the Towers collapsed her horror came through so loud and painfully clear on the airwaves. A normal woman called upon to describe, for an audience of hundreds of thousands, a true vision of hell.

I remember the normal radio anchors kept their professional faces on better. I also remember a comment that went something like this: "And the stock market is closed, which may not be such a bad thing." Hard to believe.

After the first tower fell I didn't think the second would, but of course it did. More horror, more terror. Later that afternoon fighter jets scrambled above our heads at the warehouse. "Looks like they're going to kick someone's ass," somebody in a parking lot said. But of course there were no asses to kick. The anger, though, was already quite real. Soon the need for vengeance would find voice, but not that day.

During lunch I drove out to a high viewpoint, and simply saw a low hanging gray cloud downtown, quite big at first, only to level off and grow a bit less dramatic as the day wore on. The real drama, though, was in realizing the Towers were knocked out, like a face missing its two front teeth.

It was an odd work day, of course. My dad and brother were in Chicago, and wanted very much to get home. (Eventually they drove.)

Perhaps the strangest part of my day was when business as usual tried to assert itself. My dad had a longtime business associate named Bill, who was the very definition of the hale-well-met fellow. He was a kind, friendly, gregarious man, who seemed like a transplant from Jimmy Stewart's America at all times. Army vet, I think WW2, always ready to recount his wisdom and advice. And, a salesman.

Bill ("Call me Bill!"), would frequently either call or drop by, and if my dad was there they would kibitz for some time.

Well, things had been winding down for Bill for a while. His health, I had the sense, was starting to go south. His snow white hair, it looked like, had started to fall out. I believe his wife had died not long before. I got the feeling he was probably not doing all that well, his skin seemed a bit flakier than in the past. But to go to lunch with him, or simply talk with him for a minute or two, you could just tell he woke up every day determined to be the same old Bill, to look as good as ever, to care as much as ever about his job, to be as good a guy as ever.

Well, sometime after lunch on September 11 who should stroll into Beta's offices but good old Bill? Friendly as ever, with that warm smile on his face, ready with a good handshake. "Hi! Nice to see ya. Is your father around?"

I looked at him as if he was some kind of hallucination. Funereal might be one way to describe the office that day, and, probably, any other place you could go in the Greater New York area.

I looked at Bill some more. I didn't want to be rude to him, but this was just too strange. Breugal, I don't know, maybe he could have imagined something even more bizarre than this. Or David Lynch.

"No Bill," I answered, "he is in Chicago today."

"What about your brother? Is he with the old man?"

"Yes, Bill, they are both in Chicago. They are trying to come back, but it might be hard because, well, all the airports are closed."

"Would it be okay if I left a note?"

"Sure Bill." Beat. "Let me grab a pad."

Mind you, everything I said was almost in slow motion, I was so in shock, and stunned from the unthinkable events, still transpiring, about a mile away as the crow flies. Buildings were still burning, and the Pentagon had also been hit, and that other plane (Flight 93, I later learned) had gone down somewhere. Was it shot down? Did we get any of this right today, as a nation? I didn't know.

I tried to be as courteous as reality would allow as Bill wrote out his note (on our pink "While You Were Out" stationary). I dutifully put it on my dad's desk, where he could find it, and then I stood there, in a sense waiting Bill out. I didn't want to bring up the obvious calamity taking place if he wasn't going to. Maybe there was a good reason he didn't want to talk about all this death and destruction, as he was a vet? I didn't know. But he never brought it up with me, and we never discussed it.

Bill then made, as best as he could, his usual rounds in the office staff, and I don't believe his upbeat Dale Carnegie-esque demeanor changed even one iota during his entire short stay. Then he firm-handshaked his way out of our lobby, back to his car, and drove on to his next appointment.

Later that day I talked to my dad on the phone. He wanted to know how things there were, and if we were okay. I told him I was fine, but I probably would have to stay with Mom for the next few days as all the bridges and tunnels were closed for the foreseeable future. And I made sure to tell him Bill had come by for a visit.