Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hardy and Arbuckle


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, 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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Disco Smash

Let me just take a second to share my gratitude in a reasonable, dignified manner:


Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.

The Now

My Kickstarter for my novel Roller Disco Saturday Night is now funded. It’s more than funded, actually. The final total is $5,683.52. My goal was $3,100, meaning we raised over $2,500 more than I was aiming for.

We did that. We. I’m just blown away.

The original goal for the money was to take a month off of one or two of my jobs, get some new writing hardware and software, and set to work to make Roller Disco Saturday Night the best novel it can be. All of that is still in place. I’ve already requested April off. At this point, I may actually be able to take a second month off (right now, I’m thinking July) and dedicate even more time and effort to finish this book by October – the month this novel will hopefully be complete.

I envision many late Friday and Saturday nights out in the city, hunched over my laptop, bringing this world of mid-1980s teenagers to life. It’s my big writer’s dream to do stuff like that – fighting through my insomnia and my own doubts, fueled by caffeine and drive, pounding out keys and getting out 10 pages in a sitting. It doesn’t always happen now because my life is so busy. I usually get out three pages a day if I’m writing fiction. It will be able to happen starting in April, and that’s because of your generosity and my indomitable ambition.

What Happens Next

I’ve got a bunch of writing to do.

Currently, I’m working on a novel called My Agent of Chaos. I didn’t plan for it to be a novel, but that’s how it worked out. I haven’t finished a brand-new novel in a couple years, in part because the two books I tried my hand at (Tangerine and American Storm) either fizzled or stopped working, and in part because I was up to my elbows in nonfiction. And I still am, at that. I’m very nearly finished with a book called Stephen King Limited, a revision and expansion of two chapterbooks I worked on last year for my publisher, and I’m contracted for a book on King’s Dark Tower mythos.

My Agent of Chaos will, hopefully, wrap up this month. I’m proud of it; almost all my novels are Watch Kev Work Through Shit experiments, and this one takes on a time of my life that I never really examined before. It’s dark, maybe, but good. I have never used an unreliable narrator before, and it’s been fun to try.

SKL will likely be done within a couple weeks. The Dark Tower book will be one I work on going forward, concurrently with Roller Disco Saturday Night. My plan is to do the nonfiction in the daytime, where I can nerd out with research and stuff. I’ll save my fiction for the night.

I also have promised a few things to my backers. The 10 people who became Major Backers will receive places in Roller Disco, unless they’ve asked not to. The 45 people I’ve promised to write poems for will get them over the course of my writing process. As promised, I will sign them and send them to you. Haiku, free verse, epic poem – I don’t know what will come out, but those are all yours. Those same 45 people also get a new compilation of work I will deliver digitally: short stories, essays, sketches, and of course those poems. That collection will be called Hack Music and will be ready as soon as the poems are.

And Finally

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all. When I was growing up, reading Stephen King’s behind the scenes stuff about the publishing industry and how the cogs and wheels all turned, I dreamed about writing a book that was good enough that a publisher would take it and send it out to the world and people would buy it and like it and I’d be a bestselling novelist. I have not given up on that dream, and likely never will.

But the reality is that I’m not there yet, and working on a dream is hard, hungry work. I’ve been a published author for three years and have never had an advance. Until now.

The way that publishing works in my idyllic dream head is not the way it works in reality; maybe it’s how it happened once, but like I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not the 80s anymore and the midlist has all but disappeared. But if this experiment has shown me anything, people still believe in writers and writing, and want books to succeed. This book is going to succeed.

Thank you.

Monday, March 4, 2013

One Day More!

Another day, another destiny. Okay, I’ll stop.

What an amazing journey this has been, everyone. For the past three weeks, I’ve gone from nervously pitching my novel to you, to being afraid I’d come way short of my goal, to hitting my goal early, to watching it grow almost exponentially, to seeing it enter the land of Just Plain Nuts. For a writer not used to getting paid for his fiction, this time has been one of the most exhilarating of my life. I profoundly thank you for helping to make this particular dream a reality.

I’ve always thought that Roller Disco Saturday Night wouldn’t be a particularly easy sell. It’s got a fun title, maybe the best title I’ve ever used for a book (though two of my mysteries – The Color of Blood and Rust and The Taste of Concrete On Your Tongue – might be even better, just because of their over-the-top pulpiness), but it’s set in an odd era, the mid-80s, and it’s a grownup book about six teenagers having their coming of age story.

It’s a weird concept for a novel, and weird concepts in mainstream books don’t generally fly in 2013. At stores and on Amazon, you’ve got the big blockbuster bestsellers and you’ve got the really struggling obscure people. The midlist – the bastion of novels that were odd and sold well but not bestseller well – has all but disappeared. My books tend to be dick lit Nick Hornby type novels, and as far as I know, there’s one person who sells that type of book well in America, and that’s Nick Hornby. But still I write what I love, because these stories need to come out. This one’s going to come out, I hope, in October.

There’s one day left of my Kickstarter campaign for Roller Disco Saturday Night. I’ve raised enough money to take that month off, and likely another. My goal has been more than met. But I know that some folks had said they wanted to donate near the end, and here we come to the end.

The prizes are still valid, including the personalized poem for $50, the hard-copy signed chapterbook for $100, and the chance to have a character named after you in the book for $250, plus all the in-between digital prizes like my other chapterbooks, the digital compilation of new material, and a first look at Roller Disco when it’s finished. All that’s still valid, for another 26 hours.

Once again, everyone, for donating and making this one of the best things ever in my life. Thank you again, and I’ll check in tomorrow, when we wrap this puppy up.