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It’s late on a Monday afternoon when I catch the train; I’ve got a great date night planned ahead of me – a quick dinner, a glass of wine, and two seats for a one-time-only show in New York. Except I’m the only one on this date, and my head is heavy with chagrin about how much I’m looking forward to this. My wife is not with me; she’s at home in NJ taking care of our 5-year-old daughter, and the show she convinced me to get tickets for starts in 2 hours.
How could I do this to her, you ask? Because she told me to.
Four days ago I’d gotten an email letting me know this show was going to happen, and that tickets would go on sale at 1pm on Thursday. At 1:05pm, I called, hoping I could still get two tickets; it went something like this:
Can I still get two tickets for Monday night’s taping?
“Sure, we can do that.”
Great! How much do they cost?
“Well, sir, each admission is granted for a donation of $100.00.”
“We aren’t selling tickets, but we’re giving tickets to donors in exchange for their $100.00 tax-deductible donation.”
So… for a price of $100, I get a ticket?
And that’s not selling tickets?
“Sir, would you like to make a tax-deductible donation or not? Other donors are waiting.”
… I’ll call back – I’m a little chagrined by this.
“Okay sir, keep in mind this is a very popular show & grants for admission are going fast.”
I appreciate that, but this is chagrinning.
As most real men do when chagrinned, I called my wife. I’m not entirely sure what this is about – a donation at a set level in exchange for entry? How many other arts institutions operate like this? I’m very comfortable in sliding scale & pay-what-you-will sorts of shows, but this was my first run-in with this type of potential moral turpitude in the arts, and I struggled long and hard with the ambiguous patronage.
I told her those details, combined with the difficulty of Monday night child care services & the time requirements – the ‘granted admission vouchers’ had to be picked up from Will Call at 6:15p – were all leading me to conclude that the costs of this whole thing were huge, and it would be hard for the benefits to outweigh them. What time could the sitter be there? Could we get into the city by 6? What about dinner? Do we have an accountant?
I was ready to bail. But Renee was committed to the idea of this event, and wasn’t about to let questionable write-offs stand in the way of a cool experience and a solid date night. So she convinced me to call back & exchange my patronage for admission vouchers.
But of course, the childcare plans we intended to make never materialized. In-laws unavailable, and since the show had no determinate endpoint, we can’t let the sitter be waiting around on us until midnight.
Damn! I knew it was a bad decision! See, honey? Too spontaneous. This lack of foresight & planning just cost us $200, and I’m certain I’ll have to explain our ‘donation’ on Form-1040WTF! It’s all your fault!
Because she’s awesome, instead of wailing the woes of our lives of parents & cursing the logistics of living in the suburbs, she gracefully, thoughtfully tells me, “You should still go. Call a friend & find a date. I’ll watch Kate.”
Because she’s awesome, I’m here on the train headed to Pace University to see the live taping of Inside The Actors Studio with Steve Carell as the guest.
Botched date night notwithstanding, I’m ecstatic about my dubious donation because Michael C. Scott is one of the best comedic characters I’ve seen on TV, because Stephen v. Steven was one of the best-executed sketches I’ve seen on cable, and because the same guy that played in both of those roles ALSO became the creepiest low-key psychopath rich guy I’ve ever seen on a screen in Foxcatcher. It’s my personal opinion he should have won the Best Actor Oscar; Keaton was also amazing in Birdman but in large part he was just Keaton, and while I didn’t see Theory of Everything & have no idea what Eddie Redmayne brought to life as Hawking – but I saw Steve Carell create a complete character with a lot of complexity in Foxcatcher, and I think they ended up giving weight to the more prominent physicality of Hawking.
In any case, for the range I’ve now seen Carell operate in, with such a high level of commitment, I don’t think there’s an actor out there that I’d rather attempt to emulate. So when life emailed me the opportunity to get inside his brain alongside James Lipton, I was in – shady ticket sales or not, I “donated” the money for two “grants of admission”. Charming date with my wife or not, I intended to make sure someone else got to enjoy that second grant.
On Saturday I emailed 18 of my (geographically) closest friends, certain I’d find a taker within hours & could continue trying to figure out where to grab dinner in the Financial District without having to buy sheep’s clothing. But out of 18 people asked, I only got five responses, and of those five, three people of not-insignificant means tell me that the donation of $100 was too rich for them. Two of them, from fellow actors, included the classic “saving my extra cash for Christmas gifts because I just quit my day job”, the urban “don’t have the extra benjamin lying around”, and the third (from a corporate bigwig at a firm of bigwigs that gets hired by lots of other bigwigs) was along the lines of “$100 is a lot of money to part with, no?” I assume the other 13 non-respondents had better plans already, because assuming they didn’t respond because they just don’t like me hurts more.
To my chagrin (which at this point in the story is at near-record levels), perhaps I valued this particular experience much higher than my peers. Saturday passed with no takers.
Was I out of line? Could I really not find a taker for such a unique opportunity to see a really cool dude talk to an older but almost as cool dude? (Lipton is one interesting cat; if you haven’t read Inside Inside yet, I highly recommend it.) HOW WAS NO ONE AS EXCITED ABOUT THIS AS I ALMOST WASN’T?
Sunday is the Lord’s Day, so everyone must have been catching up with The Big Guy, because no one emailed This Guy. I went to work Monday morning, still hopeful.
Monday at 3pm I still had no solid leads. Chagrin rising… RISING… maybe this was The Big Guy paying me back for capitalizing myself as ‘This Guy’ in that last paragraph.
So I dropped my price. For the price of just dinner & drinks, a former colleague agreed to buy the ticket; as I don’t have tax-exempt status, or a lawyer, I couldn’t rightly call it a donation. My colleague’s great people, and at 90 minutes to show time, I was quite happy to think she was as excited to do this as I was – all she needed was a little discount. So we met for a quick quaff & a bite, and headed to the theater, looking forward to a great show.
As we got seated & settled in, with the stage crew bustling about like shadows of a fluttering flame, she turns to me and, in all sincerity, says “So what’s this Inside The Actor’s Studio?”
My chagrin exploded everywhere.
Not only did I take a hit on the price of the ticket, but I had managed to give it to the ONE person I’d invited that HAD NEVER SEEN THE SHOW BEFORE.
Touche, Big Guy. Well played.
As schadenfreude-edly funny as you may find that (it’s okay – I too would laugh), I’m happy to report that was not the funniest part of my evening at Inside The Actors Studio.
Exceeding my expectations, Carell was whip-smart, spot-on with his timing, and amazingly, genuinely self-effacing. The parts of his life, career & philosophy that he divulged over the course of the next 3 hours rang quite true with this particular audience member. In short, by 10:30pm, if they had given me a mic to ask him a question in the classroom section, the only serious question in my head was, “will you be my adopted father?”
Maybe many actors have this ability to ask others questions that are really more about them, and have issues with their pater familia, but I’m certain mine is a rare hybrid. Here’s why, after less than 3 hours of hearing from the real Steve Carell, I was ready to call him Dad.
The interview started as it always does, and it seemed to me that Steve was fine talking about family & growing up to the extent that Lipton felt it warranted, but it seemed like a witness on the stand – whether the subject matter or his interrogator, Steve sat still, answered questions, and continued sweating. It wasn’t until they reached the beginning of his performing career & his all-too-close brush with law school that he appeared willing to dig in; he tossed off his too-hot, poorly-chosen blazer (the blazer was wool & intended for a 30-degree New York December evening, not the spots & fill lights of a stage) and really seemed interested in explaining to Lipton that it was as much luck as effort that brought him to where he was that night.
The first note he hit that resonated so crystal clear with me was when they landed on Steve’s improv background, where Lipton elicits from Steve that what that foundation gave him was “freedom to fail”. Aside from being a great thing to learn, it also happens to be the greatest thing that I’ve learned from improv, and is the one lesson that has enabled me to do EVERYTHING I’ve done artistically since 2006. My first improv class, at Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS), had me celebrating failure in the first 10 minutes of class, with a simple game called “Ball!” Basically you volley a large beach ball around the circle of improvisers; when someone misses a return & the ball hits the ground, you’re all asked to celebrate – literally, “Wahoo! We Failed!” – and just pick up the ball & start again.
It’s a simple game, with a simple lesson – but that’s not to underscore its significance. Steve Carell himself just said that freedom to fail was the biggest lesson he learned – and this guy’s movies have grossed >$1B at the box office, and he’s been nominated for Oscars & won Emmys. Simple or not, he let that willingness to embrace failures lead him to great heights. Mainly, this is because the low points, like Evan Almighty & having The Dana Carvey Show canceled after only one (and a bit) season, didn’t fall on him as weights. They fell in front of him, as steps toward the next thing. Pick it up & start again.
Another mind-tickling moment came up as he discussed his start at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Interestingly, he almost walked away from The Daily Show when he was asked to join it in 2000. When he was first on that show as an assignment reporter, his segments were interviews of folks with somewhat-askew realities. He described one of his first assignments, interviewing “someone that thought aliens had invaded one of the underground lairs at Disney World,” but said that the tone of that segment was making fun of “people who clearly aren’t well.” My spider-sense tingled then when he described himself as someone who “tends to over-empathize with people”.
You may not know this about me, but I get choked up with joy watching an Olympian set a new world record – but I also get a wee bit weepy just watching the end of Home Alone (when Old Man Marley hugs his no-longer-estranged son as Kevin looks on from his window). Gets me every time. I get so caught up in what I imagine the emotions are for that person – good or bad – that I tend to become a blubbering mess. So I tend to run away from conflicts, because I’m not interested in feeling my own empathy about the pain coming from the other party – including the mild discomfort that can arise when I’m on stage doing a stand-up bit that goes too far or too dark.
This level of empathy makes it nearly impossible to stand & ask for what you want, by the way. For me it works something like this:
1) I want something different than what’s in front of me – I want to tell jokes that get a little angry at life, for instance
2) I imagine that in order for me to get what I want, someone else has to give up some piece of what they have/want – audiences might not be up for that level of anger; they want jokes about boobs, babies or bacon
3) I realize that they probably don’t want to do that, because if they did, they already would have done so – I’d already be famous if people really liked angry life jokes
4) for me to ask them to sacrifice something will cause a bit of difficulty for them while I get what I want – they’d have to filter through all my crap & worry about whether I’m funny or just angry, which is not why they came to a comedy club
5) more often than not, I decide that empathizing with their pain is a higher cost than I’m really willing to pay for what I want – in our example, this is where I realize that convincing them I’m okay while still being angry is WAAAAAAY hard, and even if I succeed with 80% of them, the other 20% will be upset… they might even send me a mean tweet.
6) I run away, looking spineless, AND not getting what I want AND I feel bad for having asked – I say something like “Stand-up is hard, let’s just talk about you now.”
When Steve Carell was doing those not-so-nice segments, he almost ran away too, going so far as to talk to his representation about considering his options if he bailed; luckily Jon Stewart, who had just recently taken over the show, started charting a different course at that point. Jon & the writers decided they could keep the segments going, but they would “turn it around and make [Steve] the butt of the joke,” which made it all the funnier, and kept Steve Carell interested in doing the show.
Had he not gotten lucky with Stewart’s intervention, we might not have seen his turn as Evan Baxter in Bruce Almighty, someone else would’ve played Anchorman’s Brick, and we might have ended up with a fake CG version of the chest-waxing scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin. Oh… and Michael C. Scott might have been played (brilliantly, perhaps) by Ben Falcone or Alan Tudyk.
This is why empathy is good, but while you’re busy preventing someone else’s chagrin, you might also be busy preventing your own success. (Go ahead Jon Kabat-Zinn, email me for the rights to that one.) You need people around you that are willing & able to prevent you from fucking up your own destiny. Good people. Like Jon Stewart. Or my wife.
There might be many other actors & comedians who’ve learned the freedom to fail, and there might be plenty who empathize in a deep way, but to be in the middle of that Venn AND to have managed to achieve the level of success that Steve Carell has without an inflated ego… well, if there’s a pedestal, he’s earned a spot on top of it in my book.
That pedestal has been empty for a while. It may have cost me some chagrin, it may have cost me some moral quandaries about ‘donating’ to the arts, and it may or may not ACTUALLY be tax-deductible, but I’m lucky my wife intervened & made sure I didn’t let this opportunity pass me by.
If the IRS comes for me, tell them it was all her idea.