Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Day Well Spent

Wednesday June 19th, 2013 – Milwaukee, WI/Libertyville, IL

   The emotional roller coaster ride continues. It was mostly a series of tremendous ups today, but there was one down. I guess without the downs the ups are meaningless, so for today I’ll attempt to keep my focus on those. There were several, and it was a day that will have a lasting impact.

   I drove up to Milwaukee for a series of errands this morning. With gas prices sky high, one has to clump errands together these days. I hadn’t seen my cousin Wendy in a while, so I asked if she wanted to have breakfast. Her daughter Katie is the working partner of Milwaukee Police Officer Josh Albert who was severely injured by a wrong way drunk driver in a car accident in October.

   Wendy reported that Josh is not only up and walking, but he’s back to work. That’s miraculous news, and anyone who saw him being rolled into Shank Hall in a wheel chair would agree. I will never forget the emotional vibe that engulfed the room when he arrived that night. It was electric.

    I was delighted to hear the super news about Officer Albert, but then she followed that up with a horrible story about how the 8 year old daughter of her other daughter has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. That really bothered me, and still does. Life can be so ugly, and I fail to see why.

   Why doesn’t Charles Manson have a brain tumor? That waste of sperm chugs on into old age a stalwart picture of health, but a beautiful little 8 year old girl has a brain tumor. Who is in charge of handing life’s fates out, and where is the complaint department? It all seems SO uncalled for.

   After breakfast I attended a book signing by my long time friend Tyrone Pierre Dumas. Tyrone is in the generation of Milwaukee comedians ahead of me, but we’ve been friends going on thirty years now. He goes back to my earliest days, and has always been a supporter of everything I do.

   He wrote a book titled “Food is my Orgasm”, and today was his big day. Tyrone has also been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and has had some other health issues. His book was written with the premise that some people like food more than sex – or at least would have to think about it.

   James Gregory in Atlanta joked about that same thing when we hung out a few months ago. He said if forced to choose between the best sex of his life or a great meal he’d have to really think it over. Tyrone has been working on this book for years, and he put out a press release to invite me so I had to show up. Even with gas prices soaring, the price of friendship was worth every cent.

   At the end of it all, nobody will remember how much my gas cost today. Seeing Tyrone’s face light up with recognition when I walked in the book store immediately told me I had made a wise investment. He was telling everyone that I had driven up from Chicago, and they all appeared to be impressed that someone would come all that way just to attend a book signing in Milwaukee.

   I would have driven up from Miami to see him have his day. Writing a book or doing anything else creative is never an easy task, and I for one can relate to the process. I bought a book at full price, and was happy to do so to support the effort. There was nothing but positive energy in the room, and that’s what life is supposed to be about in my opinion. I was happy to see his success.

   Tyrone stopped doing comedy years ago, but he’s still a dented can like most of us are. He saw the hard road comedy is, and chose instead to be a husband, father, community activist and make his contribution that way. He’s a top shelf human being, and I’m proud to call Tyrone my friend.

   Tonight was also a big night at Improv Playhouse in Libertyville, IL where a comedy class I’ve been teaching had their graduation show. Those are always fun, but tonight was extra special. Of all the classes I’ve ever taught, I’d have to say this was the one that worked the absolute hardest.

   They were a group of Toastmasters, and unlike most of my classes they had previously known each other before signing up. Most of the other classes are random groups comprised of a totally unfiltered mix of anyone and everyone from anywhere and everywhere. This was a different mix.

   These people wanted to learn to add humor to their speeches, and quite honestly I was a bit of a skeptic when I’d heard about them. Improv Playhouse attracts a different clientele than Zanies in Chicago, and it’s far enough away where they don’t compete. It’s not far from home, so I do it.

   We’ve had a few classes to this point, but honestly nothing special. It’s been a tough sell to get full classes, but standup comedy isn’t their focus like a Zanies or any other comedy club. They’re an improv theatre, and standup is a side bar. That’s fine, and if we can fill a class up I’ll show up.

   This was a totally different scenario. They came to Improv Playhouse specifically requesting a class custom made just for them. I’ve had a couple of requests like that over the years, but these guys came to learn. They were from a corporate background as a whole, so I aimed my lessons at that angle. It was a challenge for me to customize my lesson plan, but I always enjoy challenges.

   The leader of the group is a guy named Eric Feinendegen. He’s in the financial business, and is an award winning speaker in the Toastmasters world. He told me at the beginning of class that he wanted me to “whip the group into shape”, so I tried to oblige. If someone tells me they want the truth, I’ve always been one to give it to them. Come to think of it, I give it when they don’t ask.

   It was funny to me to hear these people grumble and groan throughout the run of the class. I’ve never thought of myself as a taskmaster, but they seemed to view me as a cross between Captain Bly and some ruthless Third World dictator. All I was doing was stressing comedy fundamentals, and not backing down. The process is NOT easy, and I assured them I understood their feelings. 

   And I totally do. Nothing about standup comedy is easy, even though the best ones can make it look that way. Looking effortless requires PLENTY of effort, and this class got to see how much that was. It was a lot more than they thought, but to their credit they kept showing up each week.

   They had a splendid work ethic, and even though they moaned and groaned they were a willing bunch and trusted my input - for the most part. Some of them fought it at times, but I never mind that at all. I am there to make suggestions, but in the end it’s the student who gets the final word.

   Tonight was their reward for all their hard work and putting up with what they perceived to be my constant and relentless harassment, and they all came through with flying colors. I love to see these nights happen, and I’ve seen it too many times to count. I never get sick of it though, and it was just as much fun for me to watch them go up and kill it as it was for them. They all nailed it!

   The biggest compliment of all came from Eric when he made it a point to come up afterward to tell me I changed his life. He said taking my class opened his eyes to a whole new world, and it’s comments like that that make me keep teaching all these years. What a flattering thing to hear on many levels, and I was truly humbled by it. This was a fantastic night for the class and a big day for Tyrone Pierre Dumas, but I still can’t help thinking about an 8 year old’s delicate situation.

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