Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rage Across America Tour: July!

I've found that this month has evoked a strong, strange sense of déjà vu for me, for a number of reasons. Des Moines is the first city I ever toured to, for one, and the show I'm touring is a sequel to the first I brought to Kansas City, for another -- not to mention the fact that this was the KC Fringe's tenth anniversary. Just about everything I experienced seemed to be happening in the shadow of something I'd experienced before.

VENUE: Java Joe's CoffeeHouse

Des Moines is a weird place. (Actually, I take that back -- everywhere is a weird place. There's no such thing as normal.) I remember my first night there many years ago -- I impulsively contacted all the other out-of-towners and, since we'd been running tech rehearsals and promoting all day, set out to find something to eat at 11pm. On a Thursday. We were stunned to find everything closed. Finally, we found a pair of guys smoking outside a bar. I approached one of them, saying, "Hey, we're from out of town, and we were wondering if there was anywhere nearby we could grab a bite to eat..." and he, no exaggeration, hands-on-his-hips Errol-Flynn belly-laughed at the very idea of finding food after ten o'clock.

Of course, that was years ago, and back before I was more adventurous on the road. This time, I noticed that my venue had a poetry slam taking place the night before my show. My experience at C4 in Rochester taught me that I'd be a fool to not take advantage of this and, after some grumbling and heel-dragging, I hastily packed my stuff and left early enough to check into my hotel and walk down.

I slipped in the side door, ordered a beer, and signed up to compete when the list went up. I'm a competent slam poet, though not a great one -- so imagine my surprise when I plowed through to the final round. After my first set, the host peered out at me and asked "Wait a minute, who the hell are you?" I explained I was from out of town, and he was generous enough to give me a chance to plug my show from the stage.

Aggressively handed out postcards to everyone on the way out, and it paid off -- turnout was small, but more than half of it was from the slam. (The other slightly-less-than-half was from the local libertarian community, so that press release paid off.) Venue offered me a door-cut, so it didn't cost me a dime -- if nothing else, it was another live-fire rehearsal I made some pocket change off of, and it was great to have the chance to connect with both the poets and the politicians. (I chatted with one of the former about the now-defunct Iowa Fringe, and assured him that I, for one, was just waiting for a bunch of them to get together and get it up and running again. I'd be there in a heartbeat.)

HIERARCHY: large city
NICKNAME: Paris of the Plains
VENUE: Westport Flea Market

Another one of the (many) nicknames of this place is the "Heart of America", since it's close to both the population and geographic centers of these United States. I tour a lot (obviously), and just about every city I go to claims to be nation's cultural crossroads. This is the one place I've been (and, indeed, it's one of the reasons that I keep going) that I think has a credible claim to the title.

There's just plain a little of everything there. There's some of the Midwest, some of the South, and a great big dollop of both the coasts, everywhere you go. It certainly has its share of racial tension. I remember a sketch comedy I toured back in 2008, which contained a series of jokes involving racial slurs. In Minneapolis, we'd get some audience pullback, then a sort of cautious "Okay, let's see where they're going with this." In Kansas City, you could hear a fucking pin drop.

I love Kansas City. This is my seventh consecutive year working there, and I fall a little more in love each time. It's weird, but it's a different kind of weird than Des Moines. Similar, in some ways, to Indianapolis. I have the impression that both are, overall, conservative cities, and consequently their arts communities compensate by swinging way left. Jesus-bashing, Bush jokes, and naked flesh go over like gangbusters in both places.

(KC has an obsession with burlesque that the local audience seems totally unconscious of -- every time I bring up the fact that it's unusual they look at me like I'm crazy. No, I say, every Fringe has, like, one or two that do okay. This Festival always has, like, a dozen -- that are selling out every show. It's both awesome and mystifying to me.)

The flip side of that is that, being that rarest of animals -- the fiscally conservative artist -- no one quite seems to know what to do with me when I swagger in, brandishing my politics on my sleeve. (I had several audience members tell me point-blank that they weren't seeing my show because of the content, which I respect more than the phony glad-handling I received in LA. I was gratified to see that my years of working here are paying off -- I'm generally known to the audience, and I had several people coming up to me gushing praise for my previous shows, even as they acknowledged that they weren't attending this one.)

One pleasant surprise I found -- in every city on this tour, I've been appealing to local libertarian groups. For whatever reason, this is the state that responded effusively. They plugged my show, and I had a handful of libertarians showing up at every performance, often inviting me out and buying me drinks afterward. The sense I had from them was one of wariness (is he really one of us, or is he making fun of us?) (, answer: both), which rapidly progressed to relief (oh, thank God, we can actually relax and talk about these ideas without fear of reprisal). I'm nothing but grateful to them, and hope that I provided something in return.

The experience was probably best summed-up by the late-night shows I performed at. The Festival runs a late-night cabaret (of which I've had the honor of being one of the hosts for several years). It's a strange animal with a strange mix of audiences and responses, and I definitely got the full range.

One night, the evening took the format of a playful game show, in which we were asked random questions via the spin of a wheel. Not that I'm a comic genius with the ad-libbing -- it's a loose, silly, late-night kind of deal -- but wow, did I get a sense of audience hostility. My politics were a recurring joke, and I'd look out to a sea of tight-lipped frowns every time I opened my mouth. Not to dismiss the (painfully likely) possibility that I was just chronically unfunny, but I seemed to get audience pullback before even stumbling towards a punchline.

A few nights later, I did another comedy set to a packed house. (And I'll be honest -- I overheard some audience members behind me bad-mouthing me, not realizing I was in earshot. It got me good and angry, and angry is when I seem to do better with audiences.) Frankly, I killed it. One of those shows -- they were hanging onto every word and I knocked every laugh-line out of the park. It was fun, it was gratifying, and it reminded me of the fact that the material actually works when there's a critical mass of people who are sufficiently relaxed -- which makes it all the more aggravating when that audience doesn't show up. Which I have to regard as a marketing failure, on my part. Too confrontational? But how the hell else do you sell this?


In Des Moines? Strongly reinforcing what I've already begun to suspect -- that these one-night shows can't just be one-night shows. You've got to show up at least a week in advance to start putting yourself out there and promoting.

As for Kansas City -- enh. I've had other performers, both there and in LA, pull me aside and give me marketing advice, which seems to boil down to "Be more sassy and confrontational!" But my sense is that that is exactly what is alienating my potential core audience. Not that this is a new problem, for me. I have lots more data, if I could only figure out what the fuck to do with it.


As part of the tour, I've included in each programme a "First Amendment Box", in which audience members may write any extreme, absurd, or politically incorrect thought -- and submit it anonymously. I share them here, with no commentary or context.

"Sometimes I feel like I desire stronger relationships with others - but don't say anything due to what they may think like - to tell my husband I have feelings of being with other men who were so amazing in bed & spirit, or telling girlfriends I want to get with them, not that I would, just that I want to, or telling people I believe in Jesus, that's got to be the hardest honest statement to admit to those I know these days."

"Superman sucks donkey dick. Marvel > DC!!! Keira Knightley should not put away her nipples. She has literally no boobs though so it doesn't matter if you see the nips or not. Milton [Friedman]'s assertion that capitalism separates the spheres of economic and political power is a load of crap."

"Quack-a-dilly blip. What to do you call an 80 year old atheist...agnostic. What do you call an oppressed libertarian...Democrat. What do you call a successful business man who is a libertarian...Republican."

"If you are a lawmaker and pass a law = you should have to live by it also...not be exempt. I know how to live my life and spend my money better than any lawmaker or rulemaker. They think - they know how to live my life better than I."

"Our hope is to remove Gov. Sam Brownback in the next election. Or replace w/ anybody but Tea Party person. The GOP party are the zombie party seraching for brains."

"What I meant to say is that George Bush is a narcissist while Dick Cheney is a megalomaniac. And the two cannot be considered in isolation."

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