Aug 28, 2009

Help-Portrait wants photographers.

There's no way I can talk about this project without drifting into "Hey, look what I'm doing!", but seriously... if you have a camera and even one pico-clue as to how to take a portrait, book off December 12th... just an hour or two will do it. I have a feeling this will be one of the most rewarding Christmas presents you give this year.

Help-Portrait is the brainchild of Jeremy Cowart (I have half his name and half of 1% of his talent.  Coincidence?). He explains the whole thing way better than I, so just go. I'll be right here when you're done.

It's a simple, beautiful idea. I especially respect that he doesn't want to see the photos—God knows there will be a lot of them. This is not about creating buzz or blog-traffic. I have resisted mentioning it, because of that whole coattail-riding thing; but I finally decided that it was too important to not pass along.

Several weeks back, I hosted "Free Portrait Day" . It was a combination fund-raiser / practice session / publicity stunt... and, I got what I hoped for: Money for breast cancer research, solid photos for my book, and—as a solid bonus—a nice shout-out from David Hobby at Strobist. Help-Portrait is very different from that.

It's personal—between you and whomever you're helping. It's not going to clothe anyone, fill anyone's stomach, or cure cancer. But it just might give someone a smile on Christmas morning. There are worse things you could do.

Aug 24, 2009

The Dirty Dozen, with Jay Malone.

[NOTE: this is a very non-photographic post. It's a re-print from my article in Chill Magazine—that free Beer Store thing in the metal rack.]

Jay Malone is one of Canada's finest stand-ups. I caught up with him and asked him a bit about the biz. Check out his page here .
  1. 10 favorite comedians performing today?
    Louis CK, Brian Regan, Bill Burr, Jo Koy, Dave Chapelle, Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan, Ellen Degeneres, Zack Galifanakas, and Derek Edwards.

  2. Who are your five favorite Canadian comics? 
    Tim Steeves, Fraser Young, Debra Digiovanni, Derek Edwards, Ryan Belleville.

  3. What is the best attribute of an aspiring comedian?
    Thick skin.

  4. What is the surest way to fail miserably at standup?
     Ignoring audience reaction.

  5. Have you ever wished you could have an intervention with a really bad comedian, to stop them from wasting their life?
    At first I didn't care. I just figured, to each his own. Then I realized that they're taking stage time from people who "should" be doing it. And they're ruining it for the audience who have a bad experience and don't come back to the club! So yes, I do think that sometimes. But there might not be enough interventionists in the world!

  6. The First Commandment of Stand-up is...
    Know when you're jokes aren't working.

  7. The biggest sin in stand-up is:
    Blaming the audience when you're not doing well. (Though sometimes it IS them!)

  8. Is there anyone out there who you feel is succeeding despite their lack of talent?
    Of course there is, but they all have the other "attribute" that you need in comedy, 'persistence'. Otherwise known as 'moxy' or 'hustle', which I would argue is actually more important than being good on stage.

  9. What's your favorite bit that you do?
    "Penis Key."

  10. How come Eddie Murphy and Jerry Seinfeld have so few albums when they're considered such essential stand-up artists?
    They made a huge impact back when the number of albums was less important than the quality. Their albums were so great they helped raise standup out of the 'alternative' world and into the 'mainstream'. Today it seems it's more about "amount" of material than anything. Which is too bad but totally understandable. The internet is changing everything.

  11. Are albums important any more?
    Albums are still very important but are definitely less so for this generation. They still serve as a sign that you've made it. And also provide a lot of income for the comics. In addition they're a good way to do your material and then put it to bed. The album serves as a nice archive that will always be there. Something for fans to go back to. Whereas without shooting one, you're old material just disappears. However, with the internet exploding like it has, the album isn't the only way for a comic to get noticed or acquire fans anymore. You can simply shoot your own album nowadays.
  12. What is up with airline peanuts?
    Airlines serve peanuts??
Jay Malone hails from Kentville, Nova Scotia. He was the 2004 winner of the Homegrown Competition at Just for Laughs and is busy headlining clubs while pursuing a television career.

Stand-up and be counted.

[NOTE: this is a very non-photographic post. It's a re-print from my article in Chill Magazine—that free Beer Store thing in the metal rack.]

"Rice is great when you're hungry and want two thousand of something."
-Mitch Hedberg

I'm pretty comfortable talking about things which I know nothing about — barbecuing, touch football, anniversary gifts —but I have mixed feelings about stand-up comedy. On the one hand, I know more than your average bear, having performed quite a bit. On the other hand, I kinda sucked wookie when I did it.

Straight up: I am not a comedian, nor have I ever been a member of the comedian party. I haven't held a microphone in almost four years and my career earnings amount to precisely sixty dollars and eight Molson Exports. (You could surpass both by gathering empties on the 401 for an afternoon.)

I first hit the stage in 1990 — and when I say 'hit', I mean impacted... cratered... still-looking-for-the-black-box kind of 'hit'. My bombing happened right before the Gulf War — and was about the scariest thing I've ever experienced. Getting married? Skydiving? Walk in the park. Making fifty complete strangers laugh? Well, as British actor Edmund Keene said on his death bed, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." I pretty much took the next decade off.

"The Four Levels of Comedy: Make your friends laugh, Make strangers laugh, Get paid to make strangers laugh, and Make people talk like you because it's so much fun."
-Jerry Seinfeld

Even when I got back to it, rare was the month that I did four sets . That is not enough for comedic mastery. It's like doing 100 pushups a day... once a year. The equivalent of trimming four Christmas trees and implying that you're somehow a lumberjack. Real comedians work every day. You gotta write, edit, practice, promote, and perform all the time. Seinfeld did stretches in the 70's where he'd go eighteen months without missing a single day on stage. And remember, he wasn't getting paid back then.

Don't get me wrong; you absolutely have to get up there — even if you're not in it for the long haul. If people say you're funny and there's a 'new talent' night in your town, put down the damn Wiimote for five minutes and write some gags. Even if nobody says you're funny, but you feel the itch, pick up the phone and leave a message at the club. Just remember, when they finally call you back, life is going to get very strange.

"Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things. "
-George Carlin

Once you're committed, people will treat you differently. The closest analogy would be if you happened to be a pretty good cook, then suddenly decided to open a restaurant. Friends and relatives who once raved about your culinary prowess now look upon you with equal parts worry and pity. "Dude, you braise a mean coq au vin, but your own bistro? Good luck with all that."

Another unwelcome development is that any time you're funny,  people will think you're "doing a bit". The worst part is: you usually are. Then comes the unsolicited material: "You should talk about that time we stole the lobster tank from Mandarin... What about doing a joke about Dad's bed-wetting... You should lip-sync the Mighty Mouse theme, like Andy Kaufman!"

Which brings us to the greatest handicap in stand-up — that which is also the core of its beauty. It's you, and only you. Musicians can play cover songs well into a professional career, but comedians are never, ever allowed borrow someone else's material.  This is why a guy on stage might say, "I'd like to do a little something by Eddie Money," but will never say, "I'd like to do a little something by Eddie Murphy." 

Trust me — the emcee will know you stole it, and you'll never work at that club again. You'd be better off expounding Micheal Richards's views on African-Americans. Yeah... maybe don't do that, either.

"The good thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chance of a date on Saturday night."
-Woody Allen

If you're a young, single guy who's considering a life in comedy, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you have no one at home who will get upset when you're hitting the clubs every night. The bad news is, it's a terrible way to meet women.

Women in the audience either come with a big, jealous boyfriend or a pack of co-workers who don't want your company. Also, since most comics are already uber-neurotic, consider the implications of two of them dating. All comedians share a trait called neediness. The need to make people laugh, the need to forge a bond with an audience, and the need to need to kill one other when they go out for more than two dates. 

"I believe in the institution of marriage, and I intend to keep trying till I get it right." 
-Richard Pryor

If you're a married guy, there's also good and bad news. The good news is, you already have lots of material to work with. The bad news is, you'll be out a lot, honing your craft. Here's a tip: if you're trying to sell this lifestyle to your significant other, don't describe it as a 'low-paying job', but as a 'free hobby'. Hopefully, your wife will be supportive. If not, you'll at least have a whole lot more material.

"Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?"
-Groucho Marx

So you wrote some gags; you practiced; you did the show. Maybe you even killed. But, hopefully, you bombed. Hopefully? Yes, because the only thing more dangerous than winning the first time you go to a casino, is kicking butt the first time you get on stage. You're going to have some tough nights, and if it happens sooner rather than later, it will save you a lot of future anxiety.

Oh, and memo to friends and family. The following is not a compliment: "You're brave. I could never do that."  What you're actually saying is, "If that was half as painful to perform as it was to watch, why didn't you just strip naked and smack your ass with a rolled-up newspaper for five minutes?"

It's not a life for everyone, but it's definitely a rush. Even if you only do it once, you'll be ahead of all those guys who die, never knowing that comedy was hard.

10 tips for aspiring comics :

  • Do it often. It's easier to nail your material and gain confidence with repetition.

  • Practice with the TV and the radio on. Learn to overcome distraction.

  • Figure out which way to twist the mic stand, before you're on stage.

  • Instead of cue cards, jot important words on your water bottle with a Sharpie.

  • Don't wear a funny t-shirt. It risks topping your material.

  • If you're nervous, look at people's hair instead of their eyes (unless Mr. T is in the audience, in which case you have bigger problems).

  • You shouldn't have to swear. It's like a "ninja using a gun".

  • When heckled, tell your mom to ease up a little.

  • Record your act, then smash the tape-machine when you realize how wimpy your voice is.

  • That blinking red light does not mean "fries are up".

  • Aug 18, 2009

    Seamless, not peerless.

    Dave & Wendy 1

    Note: This post is mostly for my own benefit—as a checklist for my next session involving white seamless backdrops.
    1. Get a lot of headroom. Then get some more.

    2. Bring a friend... anybody... to help carry tileboard, seamless roll, and to help raise the backdrop crossbar. It's a real pain, otherwise.

    3. Get far away from groups, to effectively maximize the width of your backdrop.

    4. Use the reflective floor, and clean it right on the spot! Don't wait 'til post to erase those scuff-marks.

    5. Pull subjects far enough away from the seamless to minimize backdrop reflection on them—unless you want it.

    6. If you're doing a whole batch of shots in one way, use a grey-card off the top to calibrate your white balance.

    7. If you can at all help it, gobo the #&$% out of the backdrop strobes. It spills big time.

    8. Although I like primes, a quality zoom lens is handy for quickly switching between singles and group shots.

    9. Go M on your camera, and lock it down once you've thoroughly nailed the test-exposures.

    10. If you're only using one key light, get someone to hold a bounce on the other side for the group shots. 

    11. Overexposure is the enemy of good skin-tone. My last session went a little sunburn-y because of this. Nothing a little PS can't fix, but still... it's a good idea to watch your histograms—every channel, preferably.