"Laughing at something is a form of accepting it, or at least making peace with it."

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An Interview with Ted Alexandro

New York’s comedy scene can best be described as one big, dysfunctional family. Comedians see each other perform in clubs, they watch each other in bars, at birthdays, and at Bar Mitsvahs. If they are lucky, every once in a while someone in the family gets a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall, as Ted Alexandro did when he toured with Louis C.K.

In many ways Alexandro is a perfect foil for C.K. because his regular-guy stage persona is funny without being potty-mouthed or shocking. His stories are just the opposite—they revel in the pedestrian and the banality of every day life. His comedy is akin to the pitcher on the mound that does a wind up where nobody knows what ball he’s going to throw next.

It is natural then, with so many comedians performing at venues like the Comedy Cellar, Eastville, the Strand, or Upright Citizens Brigade—and countless other venues—that they should collaborate at some point. And some of them do. Following in the footsteps of Louis, Between Two Ferns, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the late Joan Rivers’ In Bed With Joan Rivers, Alexandro has teamed up with his old friend Hollis James to create a comedy web series called Teachers Lounge. Recently they raised $50,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and have continued the tradition of featuring new comedians in every episode.

While many people will recognize names like Janeane Garofalo and Alec Baldwin, fewer will know Dave Attell or Jim Gaffigan, even though they have been in the comedy circuit for decades. Teachers Lounge promises to amuse and delight by bringing together the various members of this dysfunctional family whether they are known, unknown, famous or infamous. With Alexandro being in the middle of all of this, it seemed like a perfect time to hit pause to reflect on where comedy is right now and how his own philosophy informs what he does.

—Chris Cobb

I. SOMETIMES IT’S FUN TO EXPLORE IDEAS THAT MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE

THE BELIEVER: Have you ever stood with a mirror to practice delivery and expressions and that sort of thing, or do you just have trusted friends you ask to see if something works?

TED ALEXANDRO: No, I don’t do the mirror thing; maybe once or twice when I first started out. But after twenty plus years of performing hundreds of shows a year, I prefer to try things out on stage rather than for friends. I don’t see the benefit in that, really. A crowd is the only way to know if something works. Telling a friend or two doesn’t matter. A crowd is what tells you what works or doesn’t, so I’d rather go in front of them cold and see.  

BLVR: When you tell people you are a comedian, do they expect you to make them laugh right there and then?

TA: Yeah, that’s definitely a vibe you run into a lot. How many comedians do most people meet, right? People are excited and intrigued and either want you to be funny or they want to make you laugh. It doesn’t drive me crazy, because I’m not the type who’s always on. So maybe it drives them crazy because I’m not terribly amusing. But it doesn’t bother me. After twenty years as a comedian, you pretty much know the terrain.

BLVR: Actors go to acting school to study technique. Comedians don’t, right?

TA: Well, comedians have varying levels of training. It can range from classically trained actors (like Robin Williams) to people who took comedy classes to folks who just started doing it. That’s the beauty of comedy: it’s close to a pure meritocracy. If you’re funny, you can find a stage to get on. If you’re good, you’ll start to get work and eventually get paid. 

BLVR: I may be over-thinking it, but comedians seem a lot like philosophers or public intellectuals. Like Socrates on a hill debating the meaning of virtue with other philosophers.

TA: I think you’re right. Comedians are thinkers. The best ones are akin to philosophers, in my opinion. Not that that’s the goal, but sometimes these funny insights can also be deeply profound. I think the more you hone your voice, take risks and talk about things that matter, the better chance you have of getting into the realm of the philosophers of stand up. But you have to be funny. People don’t come to a comedy club simply to hear someone’s thoughts, no matter how profound. 

BLVR: Do you have a comedy philosophy?

TA: I don’t know that I have a single comedy philosophy. But talking about things that matter to you is a good place to start. Listening is a big part of it, too. Listening to your own sets and listening to the audience as you perform. It’s a conversation of sorts. There is an exchange. The more you perform, the more adept you get at the nuances of navigating that communal conversation. 

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Artists Who Play Music

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Park People by Greer McGettrick

In Conversation with Shannon Shaw, Greer McGettrick and Hannah Lew

Some musicians shred their instruments. Some make striking visual art, too. Three modern examples include Hannah Lew of the bands Cold Beat and Grass Widow, Shannon Shaw of Shannon and the Clams, and Greer McGettrick, previously singer-guitarist of the ferocious The Mallard, and a revolving member of other bands like Carletta Sue Kay, Cold Beat and FRONDS.

In addition to playing bass, Hannah helps run two independent record labels and shoots films. She’s screened her work at the San Francisco Video Festival, Theatre Arteau and SFMOMA. A sample of her music videos include The Mantles’ “Hello,” King Tuff’s “Alone and Stoned" and Hunx’s "Private Room,” all of which belong on your playlist. Cold Beat put out its first full album in July, and she designed the cover and shot three videos for it. If you’re going to release a record on your own label, you might as well design the whole thing.

Even before retiring The Mallard in April 2013, Greer had been making woodcut prints and silkscreens. She’s used a number of her prints on concert posters for her band and others, including White Fence, Habibi and Thee Oh Sees. The print she made for Woolen Men would look like it belonged in the swinging sixties if it weren’t so modern and original. It took her two layers of paint and about a week of work, and it needs to be on an unbranded billboard─just boom, enjoy this, it’s for you, not Coke or blue jeans. Once she transcribed Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury by hand and hung the pages as a thirty-five inch by sixty-five foot installation at the Michael Rosenthal Gallery in San Francisco because, why not? The first record by her newest musical project, ELINE COUT, is a collection of soundscapes called 13 pieces.

Shannon Shaw is a bass player and singer whose rich, gravelly voice you will always recognize once it graces your ears. In addition to playing in Shannon and the Clams, she plays with Seth Bogart in Hunx and His Punx, and played in Ty Segall’s one-off cover band The Togas. She also draws and paints. She painted Mark Bolan’s face. She painted the cover of Nobunny’s second album, First Blood. Another painting appears on the cover of the I Need You Bad compilation, which features Burnt Ones, Warm Soda, Sonny & the Sunsets and The Sandwitches. She’s shown some of her work in Bay Area galleries, including a show with Greer at a venue called Vacation.

So, how do they do it? When do they do it? Does their music influence their visual art and their visual art influence their music? They kindly agreed to share their thoughts and stories.

Right now, San Francisco is an expensive metro area growing prohibitively more expensive. Somehow, the music coming out of it remains some of the country’s best, though with the high-tech boom (to quote the band POW!) and the exodus of many musical residents, who knows for how much longer. The title of the San Francisco Is Doomed comp makes a guess, and it plays off of Crime’s 1979 punk album, illustrating how boom and doom are longstanding parts of the city’s lifecycle, from real estate to art, on down through the unstable substrate. Oakland is its own animal, and it’s thriving in response. For now, these Bay Area artists are fortunate enough to live in a lively creative community where they can collaborate on projects with so many other musicians on both sides of the water.

Shannon was on tour in Australia and Spain, Hannah and Greer busy playing and traveling, so the group traded the immediacy of phone conversation for a rolling email exchange. When you work in multiple mediums, sometimes you do a blazing live show, and sometimes you curate a virtual gallery of thoughts on Gmail.

Aaron Gilbreath

I.  FLEETING QUALITY / INSTANT CONNECTION

BLVR: Do you think of yourselves as musicians first, visual artists second, or is that an arbitrary, unproductive division to impose?

HANNAH LEW: Although I admire people who specialize in one thing and are defined by that skill, I am not one of those people. I don’t feel like one medium satisfies my creative needs or has the ability to express my feelings/ideas 100%, so I make space for varied artistic practices. Music feels like the most direct practice in terms of accessing and communicating my feelings, so I guess I prioritize that form. Visual art is another language altogether, though video making can be pretty similar to songwriting. The process has a different flavor of catharsis.

GREER McGETTRICK: I’ve struggled with the semantics of using “artist” and “musician” for a while now. I tend to consider myself an artist that plays music. I think music can be another medium of art or craft based more in technique and theory. I consider that I express my emotions better in music and my thoughts more in visual art. Lately I’ve been learning cello and reading music for the first time. Ideally, when I get to know the instrument better, I’d like to compose with cello. 

SHANNON SHAW: I feel like a generally creative being that naturally gets into something new all the time. I guess I am riding a music wave currently but that may come and go. I often revisit themes or methods from the past when I get into a new medium but ultimately want my art to be ever changing. I fully agree with Hannah on feeling as though one medium cannot satiate her creative needs. I also find that I handle most daily human tasks in a “creative” way because that is what works for my brain. Communicating, cooking, planning, exercising, traveling, etc. I find that I approach most of these things in a similar way to how I approach writing a song or painting a portrait.  

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Go Forth (Vol. 31)

An Interview with Dolan Morgan

Where did Dolan Morgan come from? The stories in his first collection—just published by Aforementioned Productions—make you wonder. Here, psyches stretch the dimensions of physical space, and the most intense aspects of relationships (yearning, loss, pursuit) are played out on geographies that may feel like game boards. The weather is alive.

Morgan came from Connecticut. He grew up in a family that was both large and miniscule, in a space that was both rich and poor. He got himself out of high school early, and at age seventeen he headed to New York City and never looked back. He became a full time schoolteacher and quit in his twenties when he realized he was looking at the rest of his life. Now he designs curricula, and writes fiction and poetry. Currently, he’s thinking about hijackings as myths, as well as the literary subgenre that features monster sex.

When the Knives Come Down also happens to be the first full-length, one-author work to come from Aforementioned Productions. Since 2005 they’ve been publishing work online, in chapbooks, and in an annual print journal. This is a glorious debut for both parties.

—Nelly Reifler

I. JEFF GOLDBLUM OFTEN FAILS

NELLY REIFLER: So, my first question is about your sense of That’s When the Knives Come Down as a whole. Each story has its own, complete world, and the characters and their experiences feel completely organic within those specific worlds. For me, the contrasts and echoes from story to story make the book and its arc super strong. I’m wondering if you conceived of the stories as pieces of a collection while you were writing them? Did they respond to each other? And if so, how?

DOLAN MORGAN: In some ways, the collection is just a bunch of unrelated stories without any kind of theme tethering them together. No rhyme, no reason. Just one thing after another blindly shouting at you without aim or purpose. But of course that’s not actually possible. I’m willing to admit that I’m a person and I wrote them and I have things I care about and those things shine through whether I write about goats or planets or monsters.

In an earlier iteration of the collection, I intended for all the stories to be linked around a central idea. That idea, taken broadly, was catastrophe, and in particular that everyone secretly wants disaster to happen to them. The original structure was contrived and a bit forced, and I ultimately made a lot of changes to the lineup, but that initial concept still shows up in a lot of places. Characters lust after bad choices, pray for things to go wrong, and gently nudge their lives in the direction of collapse. Likewise, I’m obsessed by good acts being the root of all evil, that somewhere behind every abomination is a series of reasonable decisions made by people trying to do the best they can. There’s that old tale about a beggar who runs into death at the market. Death points at the beggar, inspiring so much fear that the beggar borrows a friend’s horse, rides to the city and hides for the night. The friend, pissed to lose a good horse, asks Death why he scared the beggar like that. Death replies he was merely surprised to see the beggar in the marketbecause their appointment was for later that night in the city. The end. Anyway, it’s possible that all of my stories are that story, except that the beggar usually knows exactly what’s coming. 

NR:  It’s true that, in many of these stories, there’s a sense of people desperately (secretly, perhaps unconsciously) wanting to be delivered from the cages of their lives by some powerful and painful outside intervention.

Did you have readers through these different conceptual phases? If so, who was reading the stories and how did you work with them?

DM: For a lot of the stories in That’s When the Knives Come Down, I shared initial drafts with a small group of friends. They’d help locate points of confusion and amusement. I wasn’t interested in deciding if a story was good or bad, but more along the lines of: What happens if I do this? Or this? Or that? Like a science lab. I wanted to gauge effect/impact of specific maneuvers more than quality/value overall. I think this approach stems most likely from my sense of wonder/awe (abject fear?) at the chasm that exists between a person’s brain and the rest of the world. How does anyone manage to say anything to anyone. It’s a lot like Jeff Goldblum trying to teleport things in The Fly. He has two chambers, and he tries to get something in X to travel to Y. You know, like from the inside of my head into anywhere else. And in the movie, like me, Jeff Goldblum often fails. The item in the teleporter won’t translate correctly. Things aren’t received as intended. The steak tastes funny. The monkey dies. That’s how I feel most of the time, and feedback has helped me to know if I’m writing a story or accidentally transforming into a human/insect hybrid. 

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Episode 28: What We Hear When We Read

Peter Mendelsund is an award-winning book designer and the author of What We See When We Read, a phenomenological treatise on the visual art of reading. In this episode of the Organist, Mendelsund discusses the auditory side of reading and the sound of the classic orators of literature, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. CONTAINS ADULT LANGUAGE.

See more from the Organist.

More:
What Does Anna Karenina Look Like?
Peter Mendelsund’s Blog
Peter Mendelsund’s Book Covers