Saturday, May 19, 2018

Good Night Harry



Note: (I wrote this the day after I heard that Harry had passed away.  It has taken me more than a month to feel like I could read it again to correct it and publish it.  I hope this is part of the healing process from grieving.  Mostly it just makes me realize that some things take much longer than 30 days)

Back in the early 80's It is what they called a suite at the Sea Sprite Motel in Hermosa Beach.  Basically it was two adjoining rooms,  one with two beds and the other with a couple of desks and couches.  In that "other" bedroom Harry Anderson and I had two identical Mac Computers... 512 version, the big beige toaster model, and two identical work stations side by side an arms length away. We are writing a show for NBC called “Halloween Night - Live”.  It was a lampoon of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”.  Between the two computers were a couple of glasses, ice, a bottle of Vodka, cold orange juice, a pack of Camel unfiltered cigarettes and a zippo. As we started to write Harry said, “This is great. Let’s get a little smoke filled room going here.”  It fit Harry’s  Dashiell Hammet vision of what a writers room should be, a poorly lit smoke filled beachside motel.
It wasn’t just any motel at the beach, the Sea Sprite was across the street from the Comedy Magic Club.  Harry and I were introduced by Mike Lacey, the owner of the Comedy and Magic Club. That club is and will always be our favorited place to perform.  Harry and I wrote and produced an April Fools show and a Halloween show at that club every year.   Harry figured when we knocked off from writing we were across the street from a great place to eat, drink and see a funny show.  It was a good plan and we took advantage of the legendary Mike Lacey hospitality.
Harry embraced personal computers with a bear hug.  I remember the day he got his first Mac. He bought it for Eric his business manager at the time.  Before  I got to the house to see this new wonder of modern electronics, Harry had already decided to keep it and buy another Mac for Eric.  Harry saw right away that the future of creativity was digital.  Mac had created a visual interface which was more logical and approachable to dyslexics like Harry and me.  Harry knew so much about the Mac,  the Genius Bar at the Apple Store would say Uncle. He was my computer guru.  I got all his hand me down computers.  He went for the newest and the fastest and at the time they were getting newer and faster every 16 months.  So I had the next latest computer every 16 months.  The thing was they came loaded with Harry’s software but absolutely no documentation. No manuals for the operating system nor instructions for the software.  My family will tell you that instructions are the last thing I ever look at for a project. So in an odd way this Anderson approach to this new computer age fit my learning skills to a tee. 
It was prehistorically simple at the Sea Sprite.  To work on the same file we came up with a system.  Harry loved a program called “Think Tank”. It was an early outlining program. So we both had “Think Tank” our Macs, we divided the show in half and worked on our sections independently.  Midway through the day we would exchange discs and I would edit his stuff and Harry would edit mine.  
Harry was an excellent writer. He was an excellent editor.  He encouraged me to write. I am a writer because of Harry.  He always had his shows and his patter written down in script form. He couldn’t believe that my routines were just in my head.
While we were writing this show, most of the times unless I had a better joke or thought I could clarify a scene, Harry’s stuff was really good.  The next time I got my rewrites back it was trimmer, cleaner and well just funnier.  Harry’s take on a scene or story was always well crafted.  
One night after coming back from the Club we were settling in on the separate double beds. They were both more my size than Harry’s.  I don’t know why but one easily forgets how tall Harry Anderson was. 
As we were going to sleep Harry said, “I have to tell you, the Milk Bottle sketch you wrote is one of the best things in the show.  I think it might be the best thing you have written.”  
I said, “Thanks. That means a lot to me,  Good Night Harry.”
Harry does not bull shit.  He will tease and satirize but he will not bull shit.  So if he thinks one of my sketches is good, I knew it wasn’t some obligatory compliment.  I remember sleeping well that night. 
The next morning when the sun was barely up I hear the familiar boing of a Mac 512 being turned on.  This was followed by the distinctive hum of Mac reading a disc, and after that the clicking sound of a Mac keyboard.  Finally the smell of coffee and Camel cigarettes got me up. I stumbled into the already smoke filled room. As my sleepy eyes awoke I focused  on  Harry in his underwear frantically typing on his Mac.  
I said, “What are you working on in the middle of the night?”
He said, “I am rewriting the Milk Bottle Sketch.” 
So began my collaborative association with Harry Anderson.  The last thing we collaborated on we wrote while I was in LA and Harry in Asheville, NC.  We emailed files of Final Draft back and forth.  I was never more creatively challenged than when I was working with Harry.  Harry Anderson made me a better artist, writer and performer.  His premature exit has created an massive hole in many people's lives. Not the least of which is mine. I doubt that I have time to meet another person like Harry in my life.  Perhaps there will never be anyone of his kind again.  
Good night Harry,
Jay

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Sometimes a Snake is just a Snake

I am getting ready for my show at the Uptown Theater in Grand Prairie, Texas.  (Shameless promotion). I think there are a some tickets left for the June 2nd one night only performance.  If you are near, love to drive or own a private plane please come and see the show.   Here is an easy way to get your ticket.  Uptown Theater.    And now we return you to the blog already in progress.

As I check out all the characters that will be in the show and prep them for travel, I am flooded with a range of emotion.  One of the joyful yet poignant moments came today when I was packing Amigo the Snake.
Amigo is pictured at the 4 o'clock position. 

Amigo is a puppet that my Mom made for me when I was in High School.  It is the oldest puppet that I still use.  My Mom was a genius with a sewing machine.  I have a sewing machine in my office to this day because of the magic I saw my Mom do with such a device.  The line from my show is: 
“My Mom made me this puppet so I could take it with me to High School. She though I might have trouble fitting in.”   That statement is very true.  Although I didn’t always bring a puppet to school Squeaky’s case was too big to fit in my locker.  So Mom made a soft hand puppet Snake that could easily fit into my back pack.  
As I checked out Amigo this morning I remembered the first time that I ever laid eyes on the little guy.  Mom had designed a hand puppet mouth with a long body that wrapped around my arm. The wrap around kept it from looking like just a puppet on my hand and more like I was holding a snake.  She made Amigo out of a pair of dancers tights that had a snake like pattern.  Because they were meant to be worn by a dancer the undertone was a flesh like brown color. It worked great as cartoon snake skin. 
The only problem of design was the end of Amigos tail, the part that hung over my right forearm. Mom had just rounded it off, more like a worm than a snake.  She might have been thinking that the character I had come up with was more worm like than snake like.  But to me it had a way more familiar look.  It looked for the world like a flaccid but still impressive penis.  
So here I am a 15 year old boy holding a puppet trying to tell his Mother that with this design he was not Amigo the Snake, nor Amigo the Worm.  I was trying to be professional and say that the puppet tail needed to come to much more of a point without saying the words: peter, dick, johnson, member, weiner, schlong or trouser lizard. Some how I got the point across and she made the correction.
We lost Mom last October after too many years of being unable to sew magic anymore.  It is just one of the reasons I miss that wonderful and imaginative Mother.  As a testament to her genius a letter from her to me about her thoughts making puppets for me hangs in the Vent Haven Museum.  I did not know the letter was among a puppet donation that I made to that great place.  The curator Lisa Sweasy found it and recognized the importance of her thoughts and talents and framed it with the puppets I had donated.  
My show “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only” is in some ways a valentine to my Mom and my mentor Art Seiving.  They both hold a unique place in my heart as teachers, imagineers and personal puppet makers. I am so glad to get to tell their story again on stage.  It will be a very special performance in my home town.  
As you were,
Jay

Monday, April 16, 2018

Friends are family you get to Choose

What's a BFF?


Once in a lifetime you connect with a person who becomes your Best Friend Forever. 




It was a chance meeting at the Circus Circus Reno showroom with a guy who was hired to be my opening act. I don't know what draws a comic magician to a ventriloquist, but it was an instant connection.


I became the "roper" to the "wise guy", the pitchman to the carnival lifestyle of Harry Anderson. Before the two weeks were up at the Reno gig we had hustled the pit bosses, played on the trapeze and cuffed the head of security with his own handcuffs. They closed the showroom after we left and turned it into a Keno parlor.


It was the crest of "Soap" for me, but Harry went on to become the star of "Night Court", "Disney's Absent-Minded Professor" and "Dave's World" as well as several network and cable specials, most of which I participated in either by producing or performing in or both. We co-wrote scripts, acts and I even wrote the introduction to a couple of his books. For a while we were developers for Macintosh software, and even converted a Mac program into an application we sold to Disney. 


But live shows were where we really excelled. We did annual Halloween shows and April Fool's shows and New Year's Eve shows at any venue that would let us do our thing, mostly during the rock and roll days of the Comedy Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. We would spend more time and energy in producing those shows than we did for NBC or CBS. 


After his series ended Harry moved to a Green and Green mansion in Pasadena. We converted his basement into a "walk through" spook house that took months to construct. For a party of special invitees one Halloween we tricked, amazed and scared a group of friends with every illusion we could come up with at the time. It was special enough that David Copperfield flew in, before we took it apart, for a command performance. After we tried to establish several companies together we realized that having fun together was much more interesting to us than trying to make a buck. My wife says, "Jay and Harry play together very well." It was Harry who coined the phrase that became the title to my Broadway show, "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only."


Harry moved to New Orleans where he opened a magic shop and nightclub called "Oswald's Speakeasy" dedicated to Lee Harvey Oswald. There was a drink called the "single bullet" and a "grassy knoll". The men's room was papered with the Warren Commission report. Harry's act was the main attraction. We made a deal that I would come into the club and do my act several times a year so he could go on vacation. The club was going strong for several months, and I was ready one week end to come down and survey the club for my show. I never made it. That very weekend the airport closed due to something called Katrina. The town was never the same, Harry closed the shop, sold the club and moved to North Carolina.


After 30 years of friendship it is not so surprising that he would fly across the country to celebrate my birthday a couple of week-ends ago. There were other friends there, but we could have had a great time just the two of us. As usual his toast was the highlight of the evening. His funniest line, "You have to remember, I knew Jay Johnson before he was what he no longer is today." 


My Buddhist friends say we are friends now because of our connection in a previous life. I don't know about that, but I hope we find each other in the next one. Harry always says, "Friends are the family you get to choose". I am godfather to his kids and he is godfather to mine, so I guess we made it official. 


I don't know why I feel compelled to write about this in the blog except to say this. Hold your friends dear, friendship is one of the great gifts we humans have been given. Don't let friends slip away even if they move across the country. In today's high tech world distance is no barrier. Make sure you tell the people close to you that you value the gift of their very existence. 


BFF is thrown around on the Internet like it was a :) or "sincerely" attached to a letter. Not to me... if I use it, I want to mean it. In this case it could not be more accurate, to me my BFF is a BFD. 


As you were,

Jay


Friday, April 13, 2018

Words Matter-

I am preparing a lecture that I am giving in Portland next month and the subject is Words Matter.  It is something that I believe in strongly and feel words have been weaponized and ill-regarded in the Trump Era.  As I look at the daily news coming from this adminstration, I can find way too many violations of what I consider common decency.  Manners and diplomacy went away the day Trump announced his run for the Presidency.

Usually my advice to people tweeting, posting, commenting or speaking is: Think before you speak and always edit and rewrite everything except a grocery list.  Perhaps the leader of the free world could find a words better than “Slimball leaker” to discribe someone.  There is a dictionary full of word on the web that could accurately discribe your feelings without personal thuggish bullying.  Usually by thinking about your words and trying to come up with the ones that are specific to what you want to communicate does the trick.  Re-reading your post only to see if auto correct has miss guessed your word before you press the send button is communication 10.  

However, after hearing the “prepared remarks” from Sarah Sanders regarding 45’s use of the term “slimball” today, (the above video) I realize that re-reading and editing is not enough.  She obviously prepared the hatchet remarks carefull and thought about what she was saying.  So... rather than re-reading and editing my advice to her is choose better. 

Language, particularly written language, can be less than clear just because English is so confusing.  Words can be verbs one minute and nouns the next, they can mean what they mean or have a street definition that has the opposite meaning.  Great writers spend hours finding just the right word that communicates exactly the image the writer wants us to visualize.  A writer (Press Secretary no less) doing a job that is supposed to clarify the decisions and in this case Tweets from the President of the United States has to be extremely careful in her choice of words.  Sarah Sanders has shown time and time again, like her boss, she does not choose words wisely nor even intelligently.  Leaders, Responsible leaders, do not use the words of a low class mobster. A legally delivered search warrant is not an attack on America.  Attorney client priveledge is still alive and well, and if you call people out and insult them in a Tweet, expect someone to write a book calling you a thug.  

I have tried to avoid blogging politics lately, but when the very subject you are doing research on is so blatantly abused almost daily, I just had to get it off my chest.  
As you were,
Jay

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Eye to Eye

As a side bar, I once interviewed a lady who lost her vision ( went totally blind) at 15 years old. Through advances in technology, and 50 years later she had an operation to give her vision back when she was 65.  I remember that interview very well, and now I understand a little more clearly what she was feeling.

My right eye has always been extremely myopic. I could see things up close but not things farther than an arms length away.  I have had glasses and contact lense since I was 16 years old.  For many years hard and soft contact lense were a miracle to me, I could put them on in the morning and see great all day long even read with the contacts. I was an excellent patient for daily wear soft lense.   However, age causes everyone to lose short vision over time, and I was slowly developing a cataract in that right eye.  So even with glasses, readers, or contacts the short vision was dicey with flares and halo’s around lights in the night time becoming increasingly problematic. If I wanted to see a stage play clearly I had to wear contacts but to read the Playbill I had to have reading glasses. It was just one of those things you just get used to over the “snail’s pace” of time. Friends had radial keratotomy and laser surgery to correct their vision, but I was never sure it was right for me although my “prescription”seemed to be perfect for the operation.  
For the last decade I have been using contact lense for stage work, but for everyday I just had my distant correction glasses which I took off to read or do work close. For me that was easier than using readers with my contacts.  But the glare of lights at night time was really getting to me... with nothing that glasses or lenses could do to correct it.  

I have a great optomologist who noticed the cataract developing in my right eye, causing most of the problems of light and glaring.  That was the bad news, the good news: with new developments in eye surgery a patient did not have to wait until cataracts are really bad before getting rid of them. The best news was that while they were extracting the cataract they could implant a lense to make me see distance more clearly.  And it is an outpatient procedure which meant I was less than two hours in the hospital.  It was simple and virtually painless.  The IV for the procedure was the worst part. 
I feel like the lady who got her sight back. I have never seen so clearly in my right eye.  In fact the biggest problem I have had all week is adjusting to more light and more color in my perception than I have had in a long time.  I am almost over loaded with new colors and a new sense of distance.  I wake up in the middle of the night and can clearly see what time it is on the cable box clock.  This may not be a trill to some, but it is very exciting to me.

The funniest thing that happened to me during my procedure happened at the prep. I went in early in the morning and was escorted to an exam room before taken to a hospital bed.  There a nurse put a series of drops in my “surgery ready” eye.  These were in addition to the three sets of drops I had put in that eye at home already.  She would matter of factly tell me what the drops were for, i.e.  “this will dilate your eye” .... “this is an anti-inflamitory”.  Then she put a drop into my eye that started stinging like crazy, and said, “This is to numb the eye.”  I said, “It stings, than’s an oxymoron.”  She paused for a moment and said, “No it is just a mild anesthetic.”  

The lady I interviewed said that, after her surgery, if she got lost in the house she would just close her eyes so she would remember her way around. For me I just close one eye to remember. 
Happy St. Patricks day to all the Irish and wannabes.
As you were,
Jay 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The Ape and Jay

To comply with some self emposed decorum of disclosure, Charles Peachock sent me an Audio Ape some years ago just to see if I would like it.   I used it,  loved it and gladly paid for the 2.0 Upgrade. He asked me to review the Audio Ape and this is what I came up with.





Jay Johnson and The Audio Ape


On stage, a ventriloquist controls all the voices, movements, timing, jokes and sounds coming from a puppet while pretending not to be responsible.  Some might say that’s a classic case of a control freak in denial. Well,  I‘m a ventriloquist...  Here’s my story, you decide.

Music has always been a part of my act. Over 45 years the delivery format has changed exponentially.  I have traveled with full orchestra charts, 5 piece band charts,  cued up cassette tapes, CDs, mini disks, MP3’s and thumb drives.  There is one thing, though, that hasn’t changed: Whether it is a conductor, band leader or sound person, someone has to know my act and execute the cues at the right time. 

Because of this,  over the years, my cues became simple, few and hopefully “bullet proof”. I joke that they are easy enough to be “done while mixing a Margarita”. (It’s true. I once worked a comedy club where the Bartender doubled as the audio man with the sound board behind the bar. If I heard the blender going I knew I had to wait for my cue.)   

For me, the timing of my sound cues is as important as the timing of my jokes. If you have ever experienced that “eternal stage wait” between calling for a sound cue and NOT hearing it, you know the nightmare. There have been remote control systems designed before; but, the problem with most old remote control sound systems in the past is not just their large size and short range, but you still had to travel with some sort of music player that the remote could control. Short of hiring a sound man to learn your show and travel with you, is there another way?  

Finally there is. It is a digital solution, The Audio Ape. The Audio Ape is a remote control sound system that’s small, easy, effective and controls the sound on my iPad which already travels with me.  By using the music function, programming and display capacities of the iPad (or iPhone), Audio Ape is a sound designer and audio programmer in a package that’s not much bigger than a deck of cards. 

Audio Ape interfaces with several great sound apps, my preference is GoButton.  It allows me to fade, edit, cut and stack sound cues without destroying the original tracks. I can reprogram different cues easily and control them with a touch of the Audio Ape Remote button about the size of a zippo lighter. I even modified a remote to function as an ankle switch. Now instead of trying to limit the number and complexity of my sound cues, I am looking for ways to expand them. It has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for my live performances.  With Audio Ape I can directly control, underscore, tag and orchestrate my performance with music and sound effects.

As a ventriloquist my bottom line is this: I don’t trust anyone to control the operation and timing of my puppets on stage, why would I want someone to control the operation and timing of my sound cues? Is that a control freak in denial or a professional entertainer who wants to do the best show every time? You decide.

As you were,
Jay

Friday, February 16, 2018

Guns are not the Problem

So another school shooting and another predictable response.  Thoughts and prayers from the politicians who get lots of money from the NRA.  Other gun supporters  say, “not the time to talk about gun legislation, let the families grieve.”  The best response was a Right wing pundit saying it wasn’t a gun problem but a “Mental Health” problem.  Really?
One of the only things that this President has done in his volital year in office is to resend an Obama amendment restricting the mentally ill from purchasing guns.  So clearly the Trump adjenda does not agree that school shootings is  a “mental health” problem.    
 
If we will not restrict the manufacture of guns nor prohibit their distribution, then let’s levy a license on guns. Guns should be regulated and taxed in the same way automobiles are regulated and taxed. There is a license for the vehicle and more importantly a license for the operator.   The operator must show competence, awareness and maturity to drive/operate a car.  How much more competence is needed to shoot/operate a gun. 
A license can be denied because of a low score on the written test, the eye test or the shooting test.  The gun itself must be insured against accidental discharge and there will be checks to confirm proof of insurance on every gun owned.  The NROA, National Rifle Owners Association reminds you there is a senseable approach to licensing gun ownership. 
Remember:

Guns don’t own people, People own guns.  

There are now more guns than cars in the United States. In terms of public safety guns and cars kill an equal number of people each year. However, automobiles are highly regulated, licensed, and more importantly insured. There is no probation period for owning a gun as there is for a driver.  How does a gun owner show responsibility.   Why is a drivers license test so much harder than a gun license test.  Oh that’s right, there is no such thing as a gun license test.   

Obtaining a drivers license is an accomplishment of physical and mental skills so worthy as to be accepted as a legitimate source of identification. Why isn’t a gun license recognized as a form of identification. Oh that’s right,  there is no such thing as a gun license. 

So it is not a gun problem nor a mental health problem, it is a licensing problem. 
As you were, 
Jay