Sunday, June 10, 2012

The SNL Shuffle

Just on the heels of Kristen Wiig's departure from Saturday Night Live, Andy Samberg announced this week that he was leaving as well.    Now everyone is holding their breath to see if Jason Sudeikis will make a hasty exit as well to follow his movie career.   As cries of "It's the End of an Era" ring out from Perez Hilton - you have to put these career changes into perspective.  Since the very beginning of SNL, actors have left the show looking for movie glory.   It's the natural evolution of things.   It's normal - so relax citizens there is another awesome player waiting in the wings just hoping they can get out on stage and show you what they've got.  In August 2005, you had never heard of Kristen, Andy or Jason and now you're wondering how the show will survive without them.   Lorne Michaels, the veteran producer has seen it all before - smart, funny, and talented people coming on the show and smart, funny, talented people leaving the show.   People coming and going - that's life whether you have an accounting firm, a non-profit, a church or a comedy troupe.    It can be painful but fate has a way of bringing new people into your life even if you hate change.    The funny part is, you usually feel richer for the fact that they showed up just when you thought that other person could never be replaced. 

Chevy Chase left Saturday Night Live after about a season and a half.   That seemed like a huge loss - who was going to do prat falls, Weekend Update and Gerald Ford once he left? But Bill Murray came along and created his own world of crazy and it seemed like the show would survive.   It's certainly had it's ups and downs - like the years when Lorne Michaels left in 1980 to pursue other things because he was exhausted from the pressure of producing and writing every week.    When he left, the woman left to pick up the pieces, Jean Doumanian was sabotaged by the writers left behind and NBC slashed the budget by 65%.   The show struggled for a few years until Eddie Murphy revived it and then left in 1983 to pursue a monster acting career. The history of SNL has had it's share of fights, creative struggles and controversial sketches and yet after 37 seasons, it's still one of the longest running TV shows and has over 120 players on the show.   Old farts like me remember the first shows with George Carlin and when the Muppets used to do sketches as well because Jim Henson wanted to something a bit edgier than Sesame Street.   I've seen SNL's evolution since I was in junior high so I guess it's helped me be more philosophical when I've had to deal with things that have happened in the comedy troupes I've been a part of.  

When I performed with Mental Floss in Miami, they had a pretty stable group of players to perform.  In fact it was too stable, a better word might have been intractable.   The male players were gold and the women players were expendable.    As a woman, you had to be twice as funny to be taken half as seriously.  Sort of how I imagine things were in the early days of SNL - from what I understand John Belushi was pretty dismissive of Jane Curtain, Gilda Radner and Loraine Newman.   The men were with the Mental Floss company for years and rarely left to do plays.  It was like they had peed a circle around the theater to keep any new funny guys from daring to enter - girls were fine because we were not a threat.  So the same guys did the same bits for years and years and after awhile, it became very incestuous - creatively they inter-married and the comedy offspring became mutants of their former selves.  I've heard that happens a lot in comedy groups - you have the founding core of four or five actors refusing to move on and not wanting to let new people in for fear that their own status within the group would be compromised.   But as you look at Saturday Night Live and the iconic characters have been created over the years - the ebb and flow of actors has brought in a new cavalcade of ideas and sensibilities.  Let's face it - if Bill Murray and Chevy Chase were still on the show - they would look like tired old men doing the same lounge lizard and prat falls over and over - it wouldn't be fresh - it wouldn't be funny. 

As I've found that out any number of times myself with the OTC Comedy Troupe - people move on and at first it's a blow but then someone new comes along that you had no idea existed before that audition and all of the sudden you're excited by the prospect of them joining the company.   I guess because of my work with Mental Floss that I'm totally cool with people that I cast working with other theater companies - but sometimes it bites me on the ass.   I have the uncanny ability to cast talented people who other theater producers see in our show and then they get approached to do plays thanks to the OTC showcasing their talents - and of course they take the offers.  The holidays are the worst with every theater company in town doing a holiday review or play, so I've actually stopped trying to do performances around then because it gets to be a logistical nightmare to have enough people either not in other shows or in town to do them.   I guess sometimes I bemoan that loss of loyalty but then I've never wanted to hold anyone back either.  I've had actors who've done other projects and been right back after they ended to start doing improv again.   

The one actor I've worked with pretty much since the beginning in 2005 is Adrian who is my "Improv" husband.   We've worked together since early 2002 when we were both in Bric Players - a small improv group that was performing in a theater in Duluth.   We got each other right away and could figure out our own inside jokes like the fact that my butt and a black man's fascination with booty can make for some really funny moments in the shows.  Adrian has his own interests including a really cool comic book named Ms. Johnnie which he took time away from the group to pursue.   I was glad that he took that time because I'd hate to have someone choose something that I'm doing out of duty and turning down other opportunities that they might regret later.  I have had actors come back with theater horror stories about directors from hell, terrible casts and wishing they had saved all that aggravation by staying with the group to begin with.   I always welcome them back glad that they've seen how things could be under someone who might not have their best interests at heart. 

I've also had to deal with my share of egos, divas and total nut bars.   As anyone whose ever produced or directed can tell you - actors are not always the most stable lot.   Most are wonderful team players but some are out for their own personal gain and will screw over anyone to get there - which always amuses me because I'm not the big time.  Screwing me over is not the next step to getting that standard rich and famous contract - it just hurts your karma more than anything else.   I've had actors show up  in the middle of the web show and expect to go on the minute they arrived.  I had one actor who wanted to make fun of handicapped people and then was royally pissed when I told them no.  I had another actor that wanted to do a sketch about pedophiles and was told by the entire cast that it was inappropriate.   I had another male actor who would try to sneak in jokes during a show about smacking women around - really?  Was he not paying attention to who was running the group?   I always found it interesting that they would complain on their way out that I wasn't edgy enough to let a sketch like violent incest with the handicapped into a comedy show.   Another actor wanted to run a workshop by having the group work to exhaustion in 100 degree weather and then try to create when they were dehydrated and near heat stroke because that's where "true inspiration comes from."  When I told him that was a bad idea, I was accused of being a fascist and that I lacked vision.   He later went to another improv group where he felt "totally accepted."   When the OTC was rehearsing out of that group's space - I found out later that he was pretty much impossible to work with and had to be evicted because he got weird and started to live at the theater.   Another player used to come to workshop late, leave early because she was doing stand-up, never helped set up or tear down after shows and was very rude to the sound guy in a theater for a New Year's Eve show we were doing.  I guess the fact that this guy could determine whether the audience could hear her was a non-issue.   All these people were talented but their emotional and creative baggage weighed the group down like an anchor on a ship that just wanted to set sail.  When they were asked to leave privately the thing that I noticed was that the rest of the players never asked me what happened.  There was just this shared sense of relief that they were gone. 

I guess the thing that I've learned the most in doing working in theater and improv groups in general is that no one is irreplaceable.  Every time I've lost a major talent in the group - someone else has managed to show up just in time to fill the void.  Sometimes it's a new actor, sometimes it's another actor who I haven't put in different pieces because those other actors had their signature characters and I stupidly never thought to give them a chance to shine in that piece.  I can count the number of times on one hand that I thought that the OTC was down and out for the count. Then I would hold auditions knowing that if I didn't get a least three or four decent people - the group would just fade away - game over.   I once started doing stand-up because at one point it felt like it was just me.   But then the word get out that I needed people either through audition notices or e-mails or Facebook and I would have the actors that I needed for the corporate gig or performance.  Probably my best advice for anyone whether they are show business or any other business is that you are replaceable but you can certainly make yourself indispensable.  Do crazy things like help out without being asked, go above and beyond and just flat out be easy to work with -it helps.   As Charlie Sheen found out - you can be a major talent but if you are disrupting what everyone else is trying to do - they will find a way to replace you with someone who is a whole lot less trouble.   Even Sheen admits now that his antics and being fired was not "Winning!"  

So for you loyal SNL viewers fear not - season 38 will come along just fine.   They have a talented group of people and writers who have been through this before.   Lorne Michaels has a great eye for talent.  When Tina Fey and Amy Poeler left, they thought the show would never be able to replace them and yet, there was Kristen Wiig, ready to step into the void.   Before Tina and Amy, there was Molly Shannon.  Before 1995, no one had even heard of Will Ferrell.    While I might not be producing on the level of SNL, I have been doing improv comedy since the late 1980's and there are a ton of talented improv actors out there doing their thing - making people laugh and enjoying every minute of it.   They will find the next big talent - hey it might even come from someone who has worked with the OTC - you never know.    For me, the comedy world is unpredictable, fun and one hell of a crazy ride and you don't have to be live from New York see that.  

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