What Becomes A (Semi) Legend Most

Joan-Rivers-What-Becomes-A-Semi-Legend-Most-CoverI had few friends when I was growing up in Kansas. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a fanciful fantasy life. I had HBO in my bedroom where I watched Harper Valley PTA and Making Love, and the televised stage production of Vanities (starring Shelley Hack, Meredith Baxter and Annette O’Toole) every time they aired. I would read James Baldwin novels in the library because I was too afraid to check them out. I had every issue of Gentlemen’s Quarterly from 1982 on that I kept neatly stacked in the nook under my water bed. And I had a cassette tape of Joan Rivers’ What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most that I listened to regularly on my Sony Walkman. I did not understand at 15 or 16 precisely why I loved Joan Rivers so much, I just knew that I did.

Embarrassing confession: one time I went drinking with some high school classmates. I actually don’t even remember who it was, a group of 3 or 4 other guys. We were not close friends and I felt privileged and nervous to be out drinking Malt Duck at a place called The Spot. (At least I think it was Malt Duck and I think it was a place called The Spot.) I did not drink much when I was a teen, if you can imagine, so I was nervous that if I became drunk I might confess that I was gay. So, I got drunk and thought about how much I loved Joan Rivers. Please forgive me for my momentary departure from my blog’s strict PG-13 rating, but I actually confessed to my new friends at The Spot that I wanted to french kiss and yes, titty-fuck Joan Rivers. My new friends laughed. I laughed too. “See? You’re totally straight,” I silently congratulated myself.

In all honesty, I did think Joan Rivers was beautiful. I know at the time, part of her schtick was to make fun of her looks, but I didn’t get it. I thought she looked glamorous and sophisticated and stylish. She was so different than Kansas, what with her talk about Jews and plastic surgery and how Liberace wanted Tom Selleck to be his proctologist. When Rabbit Test aired on HBO, my Mom told me it was written and directed by Joan Rivers and I thought, my goodness, is there nothing this amazing lady can’t do?!?!

A few years ago, I went to see a screening of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work with a question and answer session with the film’s subject and star. I went with my friends Traci and Linda, fellow storytellers, who had their own memories of growing up hearing and watching this comic genius, this woman who paved the way for other female comics. I don’t really remember any of the questions or any of the answers, I just sat there thinking, this is so cool, Joan Rivers is 15 feet away from me.

I’m not going to lie, though, there have been several times in the last few years where I’ve heard things that Joan said or did where I’ve thought to myself, oh no, Joan, too far! If something crosses the line and it’s funny, it’s comedy. If something crosses the line and it fails, it’s mean. If you’d asked me what I thought of Joan Rivers on Wednesday, my answer would have been less gracious than had you asked me on Thursday.

Since Thursday, like many people, I have been thinking quite a bit about Joan Rivers. I do an internet search every few hours to glean the latest news on the legend’s health status. Every friend I’ve seen in the last 72 hours, I’ve initiated a Joan conversation. I worry about Melissa, who is my age, and like me, her mother’s only child. I even keeping thinking about that horrible tv movie they did where they played themselves.

But back to me, for just a moment. When I remember that little freak whose best friend was a Joan Rivers cassette tape, I now think, that’s pretty funny, but a little sad. At the time, when I was that little freak, I thought my plight was almost entirely sad, but maybe, just a little bit funny. Malt duck, titty fuck, oh, grow up!

If Robin Williams’ passing reminded us of the fragility of life, Joan Rivers’ recent crisis reminds us of life’s absurdity. Flatlining during a minor procedure that was not even elective? It’s like the set up to a joke. Can we talk? Whatever happens, we know that comics will be riffing on it for years to come. If Joan Rivers survives and one day returns to doing shows, you can easily imagine her making light of the dark. And we hope she does and that she does and that she does. I read somewhere that in her show on Wednesday night, (btw, she’s 81, doing a live comedy show the night before surgery; that is grit.) she joked that she could die at any moment and what a story it would be for the audience members. ““Do you understand you would have something to talk about the rest of your life? You were there! ‘I was there, she just went over!’”

What’s the difference between comedy and tragedy? According to Mel Brooks, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Others have said that comedy is tragedy plus time. And I am conforted by that idea, that the pain eases and humor emerges as time passes. It was certainly the case for the 15 year old version of myself.

It is kind of sweet to think of 15 year old me, holed up in my bedroom listening to stories about Heidi Ambromowitz and Marie Osmond making Debby Boone look like a slut and the Queen of England having an affair with her husband Edgar from a woman who made me laugh a lot at a time when I really needed a friend. I don’t know what the future holds for Joan Rivers. But whatever happens, it will be with the passage of time that her family and friends and fans process the outcome. Until then, we have no shortage of Youtube videos of Joan being Joan to make us laugh and ease the sadness. I’ve posted two here, one from The Tonight Show, circa 1982. And also, an episode of her web series In Bed With Joan from just a couple weeks ago where she interviews drag superstar Bianca Del Rio. It makes me a little sad to watch these videos, of course, but also a little happy too. Funny.

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Laughter Through Tears

Picnic-dancing-scene-Kim-Novak-hot-heatIt’s been over a week since my last post.  I had a show on Saturday night that I was nervous about, I felt that I had to conserve all my creativity for that.  It ended up being a great show and my set went pretty well, if I say so myself.  That being said, all I can think about is the saying that goes something like, it never went as good or as bad as you think it did, which, of course, I only think about when something goes well. I tried googling the expression, but just came up with a lot of articles about this.

Anyway, I will tell you what I talked about on Saturday.  The theme was theme and the show’s host, my good friend, Traci Swartz, asked us to explore our themes.  What’s your theme?  Everybody comes to Hollywood with a theme.

A couple weeks ago, I was at home by myself with the dogs on a Friday night.  Eric was in Temecula visiting his parents.  There is something that I like about being home by myself, like it’s a little date with myself.  I had a nice bottle of wine, some leftover pizza I’d made (in my show, I said I’d made a delicious turkey sandwich, which was an unintentional lie, I found some old notes, indeed it was pizza, not that it’s integral in ANY way to this story), and I curled up on my couch like the Little Mermaid to watch Turner Classic Movies, specifically, an interview with Kim Novak, the notoriously shy pinup girl from the 50’s and 60’s, most famous for movies like Vertigo, Pal Joey and of course, Picnic. I’ve always been a little judgemental about Kim Novak’s Madge, that she was a little too much of a movie star in the role, but listening to her talk about the film and the character, I realized I’d been wrong.  Much of Novak’s own life echoed Madge’s and I understood how Madge’s beauty was a burden for her.  Novak spoke of director Josh Logan’s autobiography where he commended her performance and wrote that Novak wore her Queen Neelah crown as if it were a “crown of thorns.”  And I think throughout Novak’s career, she always had to fight to be seen as an actress instead of as a movie star.  

Later in the interview, Robert Osborne (and let me just take a moment to say how much I love Robert Osborne, no one could be the spirit and voice of Turner Classic Movies better than him) asked her about the movie Liebestraum she made in 1991.  She said that she’d been nervous about making a movie, because she had not made one for a while, but when she talked to the director, Mike Figgis, she felt like they were on the same page.  Then when filming started, things went awry, she and Figgis had problems communicating.  She became quite emotional sharing that she wanted to talk to him about it, to get things on track, but she didn’t and that she regretted it.  Fidgeting with a crumpled tissue, tears streaming, glistening down her face (even today, nobody cries more beautifully than Kim Novak), she confessed, “I just couldn’t make a movie after that.”  Maybe it was the sauvignon blanc, maybe it other things, but I immediately burst into my own, less videogenic tears.  It resonated with me, because I have my own tormented relationship with acting, that at times, it’s just too painful.  And I have this thing about how much we all need our art to survive.  We are all artists, and that’s not to say we are all good artists, but I believe it’s something our souls need.  

And then I became VERY emotional, I got up from the couch and walked into my bedroom and flung myself on the bed where Millie (named after Picnic, btw) was on her pile of pillows, licking them.  I took her into my arms and buried my face in her fur, drowning it in my tears.  I wept for Kim Novak, that I’d been so judgemental all these years about her Madge, for her hypersensitivity, that she might someday act again.  I wept for myself, weeping for the acting class that I left because the teacher told me my Vanya was too weepy (can you imagine?), for the fact that I had not had an audition in weeks.  I wept about my day job, that has become increasingly soul crushing.  And I wept about a few others things, too.  And the weeping sort of turned into wailing.  It turns out, I had a lot of pain that night.  Ricky had joined Millie and me on the bed and he couldn’t understand what was going on.  I was moaning and wailing.  Millie was growling because she doesn’t like anyone touching her pillows.  And then Ricky started howling.  Wail, growl, howl.  Wail, growl, howl.  We made for a loud, dramatic chorus.   While I was weeping for all that made me heart break, I had a little out of body experience where I could see, or rather, hear, how we must have looked, and it made me laugh.  Actually, it made me laugh pretty hard.  And then as I lay on the bed, tears, growls and howls subsiding, I immediately felt better, something had been released.

Big surprise here:  when I was little, I cried a lot, and I always remember my mother holding me, patting me on the back, saying, “It’s okay, get it all out.”   I think we all have a few themes, one of mine is that I cry, a lot.  Someone once told me that I luxuriate in my tears and if I wasn’t so true, I would have been offended by such an outrageous statement.  But we need our tears, as much as we need our laughs.  Stresses and sadnesses and hurts build in our body until there has to be a combustion.  

I feel like Robert Harling really nailed it when he wrote Steel Magnolias, that there is something synergistic about crying and laughing, that not only can they feed the other, perhaps it’s their job to feed the other.  Either way, I agree with Mr. Harling and Truvy Jones and Dolly Parton, in fact, it is my theme:  Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.

Lucy

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A couple days ago, we recognized the four year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.  Whenever I think about MJ’s passing, I think about my dog Lucy who passed away a couple days after Michael.  This video I’ve posted was filmed two weeks after Lucy’s passing.  I remember talking to my friend Traci, the show’s producer, that morning, saying I didn’t know if I had it in me to go on stage and be funny. But sometimes grief can lend itself to comedy and the laughs get us through the sadness. Doing this piece helped me heal and move forward.    

Who Am I Anyway, Part 2

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I found a few more Black and White headshots.  Looking at these pictures made me think about the times I had my pictures taken. My first headshot shoot was a photographer I found in Backstage. I had been in NY a few months, fretting about not having a headshot. He lived in Stuyvesant Town and took pictures out of his living room. I picked him because, even though I was very closeted at the time, I thought he was cute. He kept telling me to imagine the camera was a pretty girl that I liked. My second headshot shoot was with a fashion photographer my friend Tania knew. I worked as his assistant for a day and he gave me a discount rate on the session. I actually enjoyed working as his assistant, being on set for a catalog shoot at a loft in Chelsea. I don’t know where that picture is, but I do have the requisite jean shirt that was de rigueur for every 1994 actor headshot. When I moved to LA, I had to get new LA headshots. My favorite photographer was a guy named Sandy Spear. He lived near Sycamore and 4th and he’d take his pictures in the neighborhood. I think he charged something ridiculously affordable like $80/ roll and all you needed was one roll, because he was a great photographer. Also, his wife had been in the Off-Broadway production of the Real Live Brady Bunch as Marsha. I just looked him up and it looks like he lives in San Diego and is still taking pictures. I also had a photo shoot with a maitre d’ at one of the restaurants where I worked. He insisted on taking every actor’s picture. The one thing I most remember about the guy is that he kept slices of brisket in his suit jacket pocket so he could snack when he got hungry. The pictures aren’t too bad, but the Olin Mills type back drop blending with the Lance Bass frosted tips I had at the time make it look like there are fireworks coming out of my head. My last black and white photo shoot was a guy named Timothy Fielding in 2002. He asked me if I wanted to do half b & w and half color, I said no, I didn’t think the color trend would last very long.

Who Am I, Anyway?

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A few years ago, I started collecting old black and white headshots. I love them. I like color headshots, too, but I think there is something so romantic and dramatic about the b & w’s. When I look at my old headshots, I want to start singing, “I really need this job, please God, I need this job…” Here are a few pics from my collection. Every one of them tells a story. Also, if you’re reading this and you want to send me YOUR old b & w headshot, please do.

Ray Barnhart Likes Girls

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since I posted this video. This is from a night I produced called Ray Barnhart Likes Girls. Five of my favorite storytellers (Sarah Taylor, Rebecca O’Brien, Amy Scribner, Traci Swartz and Linda Bailey Walsh) joined me to share tales of the relationship between gay men and their straight female counterparts. It was a fun night and the rush I felt at the end of the evening I still carry with me. My best friend Michele is still my best friend Michele and it’s exciting to think about how much her life has changed since 2008. She is the busy mother of two toddlers, at least one of whom has inherited his parents’ performing gene. Her husband Stan is no longer new on the scene and he has turned out to be as special as I suspected he might be. And me, my life has changed in a few ways, too, but I’m still the kind of guy who can spend a Friday night in front of the computer drinking chardonnay, eating pizza rolls and reliving a favorite memory.