Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Don’t Touch Me!

You Can Take the Girl Out of New York....

© 2010 Leighann Lord

When I was a junior in high school, I got an opportunity to do a Summer program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was an amazing experience getting to meet kids from all over the United States with different styles, habits and accents. It was easy to tell the Southern kids because of their drawl. The Midwestern kids said pop instead of soda. And I learned that we New Yorkers have our tells too. We talk fast, we’re in a hurry and we’re constantly looking at our watches. Apparently we live at light speed.

Since then I’ve traveled extensively and I’d like to think I’ve toned down my overt New Yorkiness. I don’t view unsolicited cordial greetings from strangers with suspicion. I understand that the rest of the planet doesn’t power through its to do list like it’s an Olympic sport. But we New Yorkers still stand out. Our noses are perpetually glued to our gadgets du jour. We’re still not big on idle chit chat. We wear a lot of black as if to be ready for an impromptu funeral. And we have very clear ideas about personal space.

New York City is big and congested. We’re not as bad as Tokyo, but it gets tight on the subway during rush hour. We tolerate this invasion of our personal space by a temporarily redefining it. This allows us to be crushed together for a finite amount of time with the understanding that the moment extra space is available we will make use of it by moving as far away from each as we possibly can.

This is why New Yorkers are reluctant to car pool. (Contrary to a popular stereotype New Yorkers do have cars, particularly those of us who live in the outer boroughs or Long Island.) Your car is both an extension of and protection for your personal space. Seating is limited, the guest list is tight and it’s by invitation only. In my car I am queen controlling the temperature, the radio and the route.

It honestly never occurred to me that my idea of personal space could be regional.

I was recently working on a cruise ship out of Miami. With a few hours in port I and another comedian left the ship and went to the near by Bayside Marketplace. As I was window shopping, I walked past a man in front of a table selling massagers in the shape of a vibrating hand. (I shit you not, a vibrating hand.) He mistakenly thought the best way to make a sale was to reach out and touch me with it.

I saw it happening in slow motion. My inner New Yorker instantly became my outer New Yorker. I leaned away from him, "Matrix" style, and said, "Don’t touch me!" The pushy salesman said — to my back, because I never stopped moving — "Somebody, got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."

That stopped me. I suddenly felt like Marty McFly in "Back to the Future" and this Troglodyte had just called me chicken. I had to defend myself. I turned around and said to him, "No, I woke up just fine. What you did is a violation." He seemed truly surprised by both my reaction and my reply, but he was way out of bounds. Accidental touch among strangers is tolerable. Deliberate touch is an act of aggression.

Not 15 minutes later a young woman wanted me to come to her makeup table, so she could show me what amazing things her mineral cosmetics could do for me. She reached out to grab my arm, and I quickly pulled back out of her reach. She had the nerve to look stunned and hurt. I turned to the other comic I was walking with, who happened to be from Florida, and said,
"What’s with all the touching?"
"I guess we’re friendlier here,"
he said.
"But I don’t know these people!"
How many fewer missing persons would Florida have if it wasn’t so "friendly"? Stranger danger isn’t just for kids.

Upon cooler reflection (getting the hell out of Miami) I still don’t think I’m wrong, but I will concede that I may be operating under a different set of social rules. Where I come from touching sans proper introduction is a no-no. You don’t assume a familiarity you don’t have. I think it’s safer and more respectful no matter what region you’re from, to keep your hands – vibrating or otherwise – to yourself.

Leighann Lord is a stand-up comedian, who's style is best described as "Thinking Cap Comedy." If comedy were music, she'd be Jazz. She's George Carlin if he'd been born a Black Woman. Check out her upcoming shows @ www.VeryFunnyLady.com. Join her on FaceBook. Follow her on Twitter.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What I Learned Reading* Steve Martin’s "Born Standing Up"

© 2010 Leighann Lord

Everyone said I should read Steve Martin’s book, "Born Standing Up." And by everyone I mean comedians I love and respect. They said they’d gotten a lot out of it and I would too. But I really didn’t want to read it. Why? I’ve been angry at stand-up and haven’t been in the mood to give it any more of my time and attention.

Even the best of relationships have their disappointing moments and unfulfilled expectations. And yes, not counting my parents, stand-up comedy is my longest relationship. For the amount of time I’ve invested I should have a Ph.D., or at the very least the title of comic laureate.

Sometimes I think about quitting comedy, but I don’t know where I’d go or what I’d do. I’m ruined for "regular" work. But even if other areas of my career blossom – TV, film, best-selling books — I can’t picture myself leaving stand-up. But Steve Martin did and I have to admit it bothers me. If he could leave it without ever looking back did he really ever love it or just use it?

I also wasn’t keen on reading Steve Martin’s book because despite a few earnest years in college, I’m just not a wild and crazy girl. I’ve always been more partial to writers than flamboyant performers. Sometimes I wonder if the real reason why Rome burned is because a prop act set himself on fire and it got out of hand. It has taken me a while to learn that physicality can enhance a joke, making it clearer, stronger, better and more memorable. It’s not always just a cheap trick to counteract the effect alcohol has on the audience.

My own shortcomings play a big part of my bias for pure monology. I came to comedy as a better writer than a performer. Better is, of course, a relative term. Most comedians, if we’re honest, are horrible when we start. Like a hooker trying to quit the business, some nights the goal is just to suck less than you did the night before.

I finally decided to read the book for selfish reasons. I wanted to know if there was something in Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy experience that would make mine less painful? Surprisingly, yes.

It resonated with me when he said, "Comedy death is worse than regular death." That’s because you can relive it over and over again until you really die. When he recounted doing so horribly at the Play Boy Club that he bailed on the gig I felt as though I were right there. Although if I had been — given the times — it would most likely have been under a pair of bunny ears.

It was a poignant reminder that comedy shows can be the ultimate blind date. The comic and the audience show up not knowing each other, yet hoping it will be the start of something wonderful. But sometimes it doesn’t work out. The chemistry isn’t there. Then the happiest part of the evening is the knowledge that you’ll never see each other again.

"Distraction is the enemy of comedy," he said. I’ve never heard it phrased so perfectly and succinctly. Comedy is so delicate, I’m amazed it ever works at all. What do we need besides funny material and courage? Proper sound, lights, and the audience facing the stage would be a nice start. What can mess it up? Almost anything: a chatty audience, a ringing cell phone, loud wait staff . . . a big gapping dance floor between the audience and the comedian? Awesome! There is, of course, no guarantee that a show will go well even if the set up is physically and technically perfect, but as the saying goes: I can do bad all by myself.

I was surprised to learn how meticulous Steven Martin was about his act. Every word, gesture, and nuance meant something. It was precise. This spoke to the perfectionist in me, the comic who writes down everything and arranges her set book categorically with a color-coded table of contents.

I think every comic can nod their head in understanding when Steve Martin talked about what it was like when people met him and expected a performance. "The performance is just that," he said, "a performance and that’s on stage." I’d like to put that on a T-shirt. I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t mind talking with audience members after a show. If something funny comes up organically in the course of the conversation, that’s great. Hell, that’s ideal. But if it doesn’t, can’t we just be happy with the pleasure of each other’s company?

I am ever grateful that he dispelled the legendary and deeply believed myth that "one ‘Tonight Show’ appearance can make you famous." In fact Steve Martin’s career, though stratospheric, was not meteoric. It was a progression. Each gig built on the one before it. There was a good deal of trial and error, persistence, disappointment, luck, hard work and self doubt.

After reading "Born Standing Up" I understand why he quit stand-up comedy, but I find myself wondering what an older, wiser and perhaps even funnier, Steve Martin would be like on stage today. And in the end it doesn’t matter if you leave stand-up or have the mic pried from your cold dead hand, on some level we’re all wild and crazy for ever having the stones to stand-up at all. Ain’t love grand.

* In the interests of full disclosure I listened to the "Born Standing Up" audio book, read by the author. Now, any audio book lover will tell you that "read by the author" can be disastrous. Not all writers are meant to be readers (Stephen King) but I really enjoyed listening to Steve Martin. It made perfect sense, of course, for him to read his own story. And he did so with a sweet sincerity that made it an easy listen.

Leighann Lord is a stand-up comedian, who's style is best described as "Thinking Cap Comedy." If comedy were music, she'd be Jazz. She's George Carlin if he'd been born a Black Woman. Check out her upcoming shows @ www.VeryFunnyLady.com. Join her on FaceBook. Follow her on Twitter.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Boobies in Belgium

© 2010 Leighann Lord

I’m not a buxom babe and I’m at peace with that. I wasn’t always. Puberty was a trial. Despite reading Judy Blume’s “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret” and faithfully executing its famous exercises – repeat after me if you remember: “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!” — my little cupcakes seemed genetically preordained to be modest. They’re a respectable 34B instead of the sought after 36C or dare I dream, D.

I once went to Victoria Secret to get measured, to make sure I was wearing “the right bra.” I was secretly hoping they’d find something I’d missed. The good news? Yes, I was wearing the wrong size bra. The bad news? It was too big for me. According to the evil Victoria Secret measuring tape, I’m a double A. Stand back everybody. I’m packing batteries. I’m an academic. Going from a “B” to an “A” is supposed to be a good thing. What can I say but, “Fie on you, Victoria, and a pox on your secret!”

Let me be clear. I’m not flat chested. But I know, from a purely esthetic point of view, my bust is not the main attraction, but an integral part of the total package. I’ve got a couple of good team players.

So it was with total surprise when I caught a man in the act of full-on ogling my boobies. I was on a tour in Europe with a day off in between shows. Our hosts were kind enough to take us to Liege in Belgium to shop at the open air market.

As I walked past an older gentleman sitting at an outdoor cafĂ©, he casually looked me up and down and then his gaze fell abruptly to my chest, and stayed there, riveted. It was so far out of the realm of my personal experience, and it happened so fast that I wasn’t sure it happened at all.

I would have dismissed it completely had a friend not been there to witness it. I turned to her with my, “Did that just happen” face and she responded with her, “Yes, it did” face. She too seemed surprised but also oddly impressed. There was a hint of, “You go, girl” in the arch of her eyebrows. I was content to let the incident pass, filed away under random acts of reckless eyeballing when one block later it happened again.

What the deuce? One’s an anomaly. Two’s a pattern. But why? I wanted to ask but didn’t have the nerve to say, “Excuse me, Sir? Why are you staring at my boobies?” I have no idea how to say “boobies” in French, Dutch or German, the three main languages spoken in Belgium.

Perhaps Europeans just don’t share the American fascination for freakishly large breasts, preferring instead more natural proportions. This could correspond to the smaller food portions Europeans mysteriously seem capable of surviving on. Apparently, they don’t super size their food or their women. Now that’s refreshing. Let’s hear it for European sophistication.

It would be fair to say that I was both tickled and offended. Well, according to my inner feminist I “should” be offended but this was clearly at odds with my inner adolescent who, at the age of 18, was clinically depressed when a much hoped for last-minute growth spurt didn’t materialize. “Fie on you, Judy Blume!”

But the older I get, the more real life resides in undulating shades of gray. Yes, yes, yes, objectification is wrong, but may she who has not gazed appreciatively upon the chiseled male models on the Abercrombie & Fitch billboards cast the first stone. Is there a time and place to openly appreciate what is pleasing to the eye? Any random afternoon in Belgium.

Note to self: Check on the status of my dual citizenship request.

Leighann Lord is a stand-up comedian, who's style is best described as "Thinking Cap Comedy." If comedy were music, she'd be Jazz. She's George Carlin if he'd been born a Black Woman. Check out her upcoming shows @ www.VeryFunnyLady.com. Join her on FaceBook. Follow her on Twitter.