Writing Updates: My Agent of Chaos, 74, 509 / Stephen King Limited, 31, 757
What I’m Reading Now: Eight Million Ways to Die, by Lawrence Block
I’m a writer. That’s how I brand myself. That’s how I think of myself. I’ve written something like eighteen novels, six nonfiction books, two poetry collections, and two short-work collections. I write a monthly column for FEARnet.com, and for about a dozen years, I regularly kept a journal about my comings and goings. I’ve been a writer all my life, because it’s what I always wanted to be, and I worked hard to get where I am.
Conversely, I kind of stumbled into the theater.
It doesn’t take much effort for me to be a superfan. My formative years were spent in the service of Stephen King. If you want to be a Stephen King superfan, it’s so easy to do. The prolificacy of his work and the work about him make it easy to get obsessed and stay obsessed, to quote John Irving. The King stuff served as a template of how to be Very Involved with the things I love. Other stuff followed: Springsteen, BNL, Drive-By Truckers, Seger, MST3K, Daredevil, Archie, Buffy, tattooing itself … and, of course, Disney. And the improv. Under everything, the improv.
I got into ImprovBoston in the early 2000s. Maybe 2000 itself. My friend Joy had moved up from Rhode Island and gotten involved with a troupe up here in Boston. They performed at IB and I went to see them and, gradually, started seeing everything. Just everything. I had a couple of Lost Weekend scenarios, substituting liquor for sweet, sweet comedy: I’d get out of work on Friday and head to the theater and stay there till it closed, and on Saturday I’d get up late and do some writing and do the theater until it was time to head out to Rocky Horror, and repeat the pattern on Sunday, when the shows started earlier. At one point, I remember, I spent my entire week’s salary at the theater. As a special incentive, they – very briefly – offered a lifetime membership for $350. I snagged it at once. It paid for itself in two months. It’s been thirteen years since then.
Fast forward to 2012, when, in February, the current producers of Sketchhaus offered to make me co-producer. I took it and took to it with aplomb. We started filling theater seats every week, and there’s nothing more gratifying to a creative person than seeing immediate results. In the summer, one of the theater’s most prolific actors, Sam Ike, asked me to help assemble an ad hoc troupe of performers plucked from other sketch troupes. I called it Sketch Avengers, and only in the third week of rehearsals did I realize I was the director. The show was popular, and because I’m a big fan of ambition, I created a show called World of Hurt, which was three different shows in three different comedy styles over the course of a month. In the meantime, I found time to do a smaller sketch troupe called Duct Tape Revolution, and we performed to a sold-out crowd in November. We did another show this past Thursday, which kicks off a whole 2 months of us doing a show every week. Three of those weeks are going to be in the main theater, the first time I’ve been on that stage with my clothes on.
I love the theater. I love this theater. And for a long time, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to symbolize that on a tattoo. There used to be an ImprovBoston mascot – The Goon – but I hated it, and didn’t want it on my body. The symbol for the comedy camp, Camprov, was awesome, and that weekend I spent up in Maine with improvisors was amazing … but it was a one-time thing, and didn’t really sum up my thoughts about comedy.
Then, last year, I read the Jerry Stahl fictional biography of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, I, Fatty, and the gears started turning.
Before the theater, I’d been into comedy my whole life, and I’ve long been fascinated by – I’m just going to say it – fat comedians. Stand-ups, SNL actors, sitcom stars, movie stars. John Belushi, John Goodman, Chris Farley, John Candy and on and on. There’s this whole archetype of fat funny people, stretching back to the Borscht Belt and Vaudeville and beyond. When I was in fifth grade, my English teacher would sometimes play us old radio shows, and I can still remember hearing “Who’s On First” for the first time. Then I saw a picture of Lou Costello and I fell a little bit in love. Same with Allan Sherman, who did “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and whose song parody album, My Son, the Nut was the most popular album in the country for almost two weeks in 1963. Then I started catching Honeymooners reruns on TV and oh my God, Jackie Gleason.
And then, oh then, Laurel and Hardy. It always surprised me how they could seem sophisticated and slapstick all at once, how charming yet abrasive, and how funny they still were. Comedy always changes and it always stays the same. The fact that I can pull up YouTube and look into the past to see these two guys hit themselves in the face with boards or bicker with each other or, especially, try to say good-bye from an old jalopy for like twenty minutes … that’s fascinating to me. And Oliver Hardy is part of that whole archetype I remain both riveted by and, yes, attracted to: the funny fat guy, who is always, always more complex than his onstage or onscreen persona.
I started doing research, and here’s what hit me bigtime: despite a childhood trauma in which his brother drowned and a divorce or two, Oliver Hardy had led a fairly happy life. He got to make a bunch of movies with his best friend and he eventually married the woman of his dreams and they lived happily ever after. Whereas conversely, Roscoe Arbuckle (born only five years before Hardy) had a horribly abusive childhood, became an alcoholic during Prohibition, was haunted by a nickname he hated, and while he was at one time the highest paid actor in Hollywood, he was eventually accused of a killing a young prostitute – a crime he didn’t commit – and blacklisted. Though the charges were dropped and the jury actually apologized, Arbuckle was haunted by his reversal of fortunes the rest of his life, and died early.
You know that Kinks song, “Celluloid Heroes”? I’ve walked down Hollywood Boulevard and looked for Roscoe Arbuckle’s star, and Oliver Hardy’s star. They say celluloid heroes never feel any pain, but they do. Some more than others. How come Oliver Hardy lived such a relatively happy life, while Roscoe Arbuckle’s was beset with sorrows?
I thought on it, and thought on it, and sometimes there just aren’t answers.
But when I’d reached the end of my thinking, I had my tattoo idea. That’s something, at least.
I met with John two weeks ago. You remember John: affable, friendly, into comics. In Kelly the Wonder Tattooer’s absence, John became my go-to guy for my ink. His work on my Drive-By Truckers tattoo was top-notch and it had been relatively painless, but it had been smallish and a somewhat straightforward “icon” tattoo, like my Seger Eagle or my Springsteen or BNL pieces. My idea was weird and I wasn’t sure he’d be able to wrap his mind around it.
“Okay,” I told him, “I want Oliver Hardy as Comedy, and Roscoe Arbuckle as Tragedy, in sort of ovals.” I’m a writer, not a talker. I gave him one of Hardy’s iconic pictures, where he’s in the bowler hat and his hair sticking out from under is quite sincerely the sexiest thing in the whole world. I also gave him Arbuckle’s mug shot.
John looked at the pictures, looked at me, and there was something dancing in his eyes. “Oh, I can work with this.”
Yesterday, I hadn’t done anything more than step inside Chameleon Tattoo when John snatched me up and brought me into his studio. “I liked the frames around them, but then I had this idea from an old-timey picture where it could be black and then sort of fade around the portraits, so it looks a little sepia.” That’s when I first realized that, while this was my tattoo, John had taken ownership of it. There’s little more exciting in tattooing than when a tattoo artist gets super involved with it, like when Kelly did my Steampunk Dr Pepper. These are nutty ideas, and when someone is taken by them, that invariably leads to greatness.
“I trust you completely,” I told John. He smiled and I hopped up on his table and we got to work.
“You’ll notice I have four machines set up,” he said, sweeping his hand over them like the gun dealer in the hotel room in Taxi Driver. One for outlines, one for shading, one for close work, and then another one that I’m sure existed just to deliver maximum pain to the skin near my bone. “I love old-timey stuff. I could not stop thinking about this one.” Hooray unique ideas! Hooray enthusiasm!
Guys, I don’t need to go into the pain again. You know how it is. Glassy and horrible up near the bone. Dull and horrible by the meat of my calf. Not so bad and actually enjoyable on the side of my leg. I hit the euphoria a few times – once when John picked up on my hints and played “Thunder Road” for me – and a couple of times I thought I was at the end of my endurance. Then I sat up and watched him awhile, and I knew I couldn’t let it go until he was done. It was just too terrific.
“I had some ideas about filigrees,” he’d said at the start, and I didn’t even let him finish. “I love filigrees, yes, do that!” Now I was watching him put the finishing touches on the flourishes and the banners and the shading, and it hit me. This is number 20. As of right now, I have twenty tattoos: small and large, big and small, generic and unique. Some of them have deep stories attached to them, and some of them exist because they look cool. I got my first tattoo in 1999 – my bear claw – and since then I’ve had ups and towns, passions and quiet moments, new interests, new friends, new setbacks, new joys. And throughout all that time, I’ve gotten new ink.
It’s about the theater, and it’s about tattooing, and it’s about my life: twenty in, comedy and tragedy don’t just cover the inside of my left leg; they cover everything.