Being Himself, in More Ways Than One

Bill Perron is a born entertainer.  He made his living as a carpet cleaner for many years, and hated it.  He hated swinging that big, heavy machine around.  It took its toll on his poor, aching back.  Not only that, but he didn’t find any glory or satisfaction in his job.  But one day, Bill was hired to clean the carpets at the Icehouse Comedy Club in Pasadena.  In that club, Bill experienced a life-changing moment.

Bill stepped up onto the stage, just to see how it felt.  In the semidark theatre, he faced all the empty seats.  He took a deep breath.  He imagined what it would be like to entertain a roomful of people.  He imagined all the people applauding at the entertaining things he said, laughing and enjoying themselves because of every word that proceedeth from his lips.

What a wonderful thing it would be to be a performer! he thought.

Suddenly, an orange light suffused the stage.  Bill swears it wasn’t one of the stage lights, but instead, an otherworldly orange light that shone down upon him.  And suddenly, in that moment, he realized that performing was his destiny.  As soon as he could, he went out and learned some magic tricks, and soon, he was working full-time as a magician.

I met Bill in 1990, when I was first getting into magic.  At that time, Bill had been a performer for five years already.  In fact, Bill taught me some of my first tricks.  He threw some shows my way.  He introduced me to some booking agents.  But the most extraordinary thing about Bill was that funny things were always happening to him.  And to tell the truth, I know exactly why.  It’s because he makes unusual decisions.  He’s a wacky, offbeat guy in so many ways.

Case in point: A few years ago, Bill was taking an improvisational comedy class.  His teacher assigned him the homework of creating a unique comedic character, and Bill went to town coming up with new ones.  The best of the bunch was Carlos Caliente, who was a spoof of a sexy, indeed, arrogantly sexy Spanish guy who is, in Carlos’ own words, “hot hot hot!”

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Bill developed some comedy routines for Carlos, and through the years has gone out on many gigs performing as Carlos.  He even created some modest advertising to promote Carlos.  He placed Carlos’ face onto a magazine cover and put that onto the Internet.  Over the years, Carlos has become one of his favorite characters, as you can see in this clip with his lovely assistant, Joycelyn.

A couple weeks ago, Bill’s commercial agent sent him a casting notice.  A production company wanted lookalikes of latino celebrities for a commercial aimed at the latino television market.  At first, it seemed like he had nothing to offer them.  Bill doesn’t look like Enrique Iglesias or Lou Diamond Phillips, and certainly not Sofia Vergara.  But then an idea popped into his mind.   As a kind of spoof, why not propose that he’s a lookalike for…Carlos Caliente? 

Bill immediately started to laugh.  In fact, he thought idea was so hilarious that in the end, that’s exactly what he did.

I look very much like Carlos Caliente, a famous latino celebrity.

He didn’t expect to hear anything more about it.

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A week later, though, Bill received a callback.  Bill was driving, so Joycelyn took the call.  Yes, they had seen a photograph of Carlos Caliente on the Internet, and yes, Bill did look remarkably like Carlos.  And so they had a request: Would Bill come in and shoot a commercial posing as a lookalike to Carlos Caliente?

Yes, he’ll be there, she said.

At this point, I would have laughed for about 90 minutes and then figured that I’d had my fun.  I would have called off the joke and told the production company the truth.  But that’s what makes Bill different from me.  Bill felt obligated.  Joycelyn had said yes, so he had to go along with it.  Bill showed up at the commercial ready to make some money.

In the studio, the director had a photograph of Carlos pinned to a bulletin board.  In fact, it was the same magazine cover that Bill had mocked up several years ago and placed on the Internet.

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“You look very much like Carlos Caliente,” the director said.

“Yes, I do,” Bill said.

“I mean, very much like him.”

“Yes, I’m fortunate in that.”

“We’re going to dress you up in a 3-piece suit.”

“If you want, I have a suit that looks exactly like Carlos’ suit in that photo.”

“No, we just want to do a lookalike thing.  We don’t want you to look too much like him.  In fact, you already look too much like him.”

“All right.”

It was for a latino department store, so they shot him doing things around the store–shopping, buying things, helping people.  In all, Bill spent seven hours shooting that commercial.

Bill assumes that the commercial is now playing on latino television, although he can’t be sure because he doesn’t watch Univision.  But he wonders what it looks like.  And I wonder what latinos think when they see this guy in a 3-piece suit noodling around a latino department store like he’s Somebody.

Who’s that guy supposed to be, anyway?

He’s just being himself, people, in more ways than one.

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A Child’s Dream

Last weekend, I did a stage show.  As usual, I started off with my butterfly trick, in which two butterflies magically appear flying around me, and for a finale, they multiply into a couple hundred.  In the end, they all float to the floor and the audience discovers they’ve transformed into paper butterflies.

Later in the show, I noticed that 5-year-old Ethan had one of the red butterflies in his hand.

“These butterflies are magical,” I told told him and the audience.  “If you put a butterfly under your pillow tonight, in the morning, there’ll be a one-dollar bill.”

I winked at his Dad and the audience got a good laugh out of it.

My biggest surprise came after the show, when Ethan was saying goodbye to me.  In his hands, I noticed, were 40 or 50 paper butterflies.  His smile was wider than the Mississippi as he said: “I’m rich!”

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The Forever Smile

“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

It’s an old show-biz saying, and it’s true.  You may be able to tell jokes that crack up your girlfriend.  You may be able to tell jokes into the mirror that elicit huge mental bellylaughs.  You may see yourself as the funniest man alive.  But until you go up onstage and see how a real audience reacts, you’ll never know how difficult comedy really is.

When I was learning the ropes in comedy, I studied a number of comics and learned from them.  Steve Martin, Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, and David Letterman are but a few.  But in that top five, I must squeeze in a man who starred in his own TV comedy sitcoms for nearly 20 years, and who insinuated himself into the heart of a generation with his buttoned-down mind, Bob Newhart.

The best thing I learned from Newhart was the deadpan.  Because I am who I am–open, disclosing, honest–I tend to laugh at my own jokes.  Some people like that, okay.  But jokes are always funniest when they’re delivered deadpan.  Here’s what happens:

Comic tells a joke.

Audience laughs at the ludicrous concept that was presented.

Audience realizes comic doesn’t get how ludicrous it is.

That makes it even more ludicrous.

Audience laughs even harder.

Not only that, but Newhart reminds me of my Dad.  Looks like he works in a corporation as a cog within a wheel.  Never dresses ostentatiously.  Never calls attention to himself.  Never acts wacky.  So in some ways, Newhart was a father figure to me.

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That’s what Dad would look like if he were a comic genius.

There were other father figures from that era.  David Jantzen.  Pernell Roberts.  Rory Calhoun.  Burt Lancaster.  Jeffrey Hunter.  But among that select group was certainly Bob Newhart.  In fact, a funny thing happened a few years ago when I saw Newhart in the movie Elf.  I was enveloped in sadness.  Funny as Newhart was in that movie, it was obvious that he was aging.  I hung my head.  My father had died a couple decades earlier, but once again, the daylight was fading from my father’s sky.

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About five years ago, I was hired to perform a magic show at the Bel-Air Hotel.  Believe me, it’s a palace.  Every cubic inch of that place oozed quality and expense.  From the landscaping to the swans to the ultraexpensive cars to the antique furniture to the huge fireplace to the ever-smiling faces of the employees, this club was not something you belonged to if you had to wash your own dishes.  To top it all off, it was the holiday season, so there were wreaths, Christmas trees, and red and green everywhere.  I was a little nervous walking in, as if I might break a tree ornament and immediately be in debt to them for $850,000.

“I’m the magician,” I told the organizer upon arriving.

The huge room was being prepared, but there were no guests as yet.

“You’re early,” she said, her brow furrowed.

Two hours early, to be exact.

“I like to be early so I can prepare,” I said with a smile.

So I set to work, making sure all my props were set.  To be honest, it wasn’t a big show, but instead, just a small parlour show in a corner.  There were about 40 seats set up in front of me, and around the corner, other entertainment was set up, as well.  There was a huge dancefloor and catering tables set up with the most fabulous delicacies.

When the time came, I started my show on time.

Are you ready for some real magic?  Give me a yeah!

Yeah.

Give me a yeah!

Yeah.

There were no exclamation points at the end of their yeahs, and that’s sometimes the problem with wealthy audiences.  They’re sometimes a bit of mystery to me.  Seriously, I came from the middle of the middle class.  I don’t know what bores the rich.  I don’t understand why boredom is such a currency in their world.  I don’t always get the details right when it comes to clothing or haircuts or faux pas.  And wealthy humor is a huge mystery, trust me.  When it came to this audience, they were fabulously dressed, but they had seen it all before, and even if they hadn’t, that was the way they were going to play it.

And while performing my show, I must confess that I was thinking about deadpans, because it’s one of my challenges, not laughing at my own jokes.  I wonder if it’s because smiles and laughter are important elements in my social toolkit.  You smile and people melt.  You laugh and everything’s okay.  I learned that early on and it opened a lot of doors.  To be honest, it takes a lot of effort to turn it off.  So I was working on my deadpan skillset, trick by trick, joke by joke, when suddenly, I spotted somebody in the back of my audience.

He was standing.  His arms were folded.  And amazingly, he was laughing.  Bob Newhart was laughing at my jokes.

I’ll tell you, it was like a train suddenly passed through me.  I smiled, and to be honest, my deadpan was gone for the rest of the show, because my smile was plastered on my face permanently, like, forever permanently, like there’s probably still some of that smile left after five or six years.  Newhart’s presence didn’t make me nervous, though.  It was just something great that was happening, and I pushed it, I played it.  With my show, if I speed up the pace a bit, it always gets better, and that’s what happened on that wonderful evening, it just kept getting better and better. And suddenly, it didn’t matter that the audience was a dud, because Bob Newhart was laughing at my show!

Finally, I reached the grand finale of my show, which you can see in another context, below.

It’s the knockout punch of my show, and the audience finally showed their love for me and I was considered a hit, and in no small part because of who had showed up in the back row.  And when it was all over, I had a slight bead of sweat on my brow and the audience was dispersing and I was looking around for my father, but to my dismay, he was nowhere to be found.  Some lovely people came up and congratulated me on my show, and one even asked for my autograph, but my father never showed.  I scanned the ballroom, looking over everybody’s heads, scanning for that one face that was burned into my memory from years of watching it on television.  But the ballroom was large and crowded, and in the end, I had a lot of packing left to do.

It’s okay, though.  It was enough just to see him laugh.  Standing in the back, his arms folded, Bob Newhart laughed at my jokes.  Wow.  I will never forget it.

Always Wear Your Glasses When Eating Cookies in Alaska

In 2005, while traveling in Alaska, my mother had one of the most strange and painful experiences I’ve ever heard of.  I venture to guess that you’ve never heard of anything like this before, either.

Mom was wandering around in Talkeetna, which is a quaint little town set in the shadow of Denali, the highest point in North America.  She wandered into a cafe and saw a giant chocolate chip cookie in a bakery case.  She couldn’t resist.  She ordered it and walked outside, smiling up at the saturated blue sky.  It was such a beautiful day to eat a chocolate chip cookie.

My mother and I at a glacier in Alaska

My mother and I at a glacier in Alaska

Now, Alaska is a fabulous place, filled with more nature per square mile than most states have in a hundred: luscious forests, a profusion of moose, bears, manatees, and other unexpected wildlife, peaks and valleys and bays and glaciers.  It gives you a glimpse of what Manhattan, Chicago, and Los Angeles must have been like before Columbus brought all his friends for an extended party.  That transcendent beauty was what my mother was pondering when she bit into her cookie.

Immediately, she felt an intense, shooting pain in her tongue.  She dropped the cookie and spit out all that was in her mouth, but the pain continued.  She had no idea what was causing the pain, but it continued, even deepened, so she began to walk, looking for help.  She remembered that her tour group leader had appointed a street corner two blocks down as an emergency rendezvous, so she began to make her way towards that spot.

While walking, Mom was sure she would faint before she got there.  But my mother is nothing if not a survivor,  so she focused her mind and forced herself to remain conscious.  After what seemed like an eternal march, she finally arrived at the appointed corner.  A tour guide immediately took her elbow, saw that she was in intense pain, and rushed her to the ER.

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When the doctor finally saw her, he peered inside her mouth with a light and immediately spotted the problem.

“You’ve been stung by a bee,” he said.  “On the tongue.”

My mother was shocked.  But gradually, she began to piece together what must have happened.  A bee must have landed on the cookie.  Since she hadn’t been wearing her glasses, she thought the dark spot was a chocolate chip, not a bee, so she bit into it heartily.

“If you had tried to pull it out by yourself,” the doctor said, “the stinger would have broken off in your tongue and we wouldn’t have been able to get it out.  But I have special tools that will allow me to extract it completely.”

Two years later, I traveled to Talkeetna again with my mother.  She felt vaguely uneasy.  She was going to ignore the cafe, but I insisted that we revisit the scene of the crime.  I insisted that she buy another chocolate chip cookie.  I insisted that she go outside and eat it again.  I insisted that she rise above her fear.

So she did.  It was a great big chocolate chip cookie.  She wandered outside, sat down on a bench, and began eating.  It was a fabulous cookie on a fabulous day in a lovely state that has no peer.  This time, though, she insisted on one small difference: that she wear her glasses.