Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Things Learned in Bars : Open Strong

This is how I learned to write in drinking establishments.

I started speaking in public under the name Hoot Brooks about three years ago.  The first thing I learned was that a joke based on 1960s TV - one that  friends and family thought was funny - would get blank stares from a young audience at Goodnight's Comedy Club on a Tuesday night.

Thursdays and Saturdays in other venues didn't go so hot either.

Young audience is a relative term.  Let's just say the under-fifty crowd is not going to have the familiarity or nostalgia to fully appreciate my impression of Andy Griffith if he were the captain on Star Trek.  Beam me up, Goober.

Before long I learned that comedy was not my thing. Humor, maybe - but not comedy. So at the open mics I started trying to share short bits of science and history - kind of abbreviated Malcolm Gladwell lectures. My goal was not to get laughs, but to hold the audience's attention for the five minutes.

My most popular bit (so far) is a short biography of an eccentric character from the Civil War. At a writer's open mic, or maybe at a venue packed with students, I could open my talk with the phrase "In the mid eighteen hundreds--"

But in your average beer joint I couldn't even complete that sentence before the audience started to evaporate. Half the patrons would suddenly head for the bathrooms, or the bar, or maybe step outside for an important cigarette.

So I began to open the story with I'm going to tell you a true story about a crazy man...

And that worked.  The next few sentences would also have a hint of mystery and a bit of urgency. It was like I was firing a few short machine gun bursts to get their attention. 

As matter of style one might want to open more gently sometimes, but the strong opening is a good tool to grab an audience you don't already have.

And now I just need a tag to close this with and put a button on it.

Beam me up, Goober.












What am I doing here?

In 2013 I became fascinated with the one degree of separation between Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle.  

Twain loaned his neighbor William Gillette money to start his theatrical career. Around 1899 Gillette's company bought the stage rights to the Sherlock Holmes character. (Doyle had killed off Holmes in 1893 and wouldn't bring him back until 1903.)  Gillette went on to play Holmes over 1300 times on stage.

I had a story idea for the discovery of a lost Twain manuscript about Holmes in the old west. (There was such a Twain story, but it parodied Holmes mercilessly. It was called The Double Barreled Detective Story.  I wanted to do something with the Holmes that we all know.)   Doing my best to emulate Twain, I wrote three chapters narrated by a Kansas farm boy who goes off to college and ends up as the assistant to an English lecturer. Of course the boy is dragged into mysteries solved by the brilliant but peculiar Englishman. .I was going to call the book Games Afoot:The Lost Games

Somewhere in there I realized I didn't have the chops to do a whole book in the voice of America's most famous writer.  I once read a thing that said one learns to write in relationship to an audience. I started doing comedy open mic nights. I wrote short pieces that could come in at under five minutes. Some of these are Twain related. I hope to put together the Twain bits into a stage show called Visitor from the Past. 

I hope I finish Games Afoot some day. If I don't, the journey of writing and performing short pieces has been satisfying in ways I couldn't have predicted. 

In 2014, when the project had steam, I actually had some audio commercials made to promote the book.   They may never be used, but here they are for your listening pleasure. 















Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Killin' It

I saw the shirt around often when I was stationed on the west coast in language class.
One day our instructor, who was a very nice lady from Russia, was testing us on the words for “people” and “country”.

One of my classmates volunteered a sentence in Russian, - I want to go to new countries, meet new people...

when another classmate slaps the desk in laughter and finishes the sentence with the words for and kill them!


Everyone in the class laughed. Everyone laughed except the poor instructor who didn't get that it was a joke from a t-shirt. She suddenly looked nervous to be in a room full of murderous American assholes.


I told this story at an open mic at a bar in Carborro one night. There was a burst of laughter from a table of women in the back. I went looking for them later and the bartender told me, “Oh, those German girls just left. ”

Dammit, I knew I should be touring Europe. My act would kill.

-HB