Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Comedy is Hard a Documentary by Gene Kalmes

In 1997 I traveled to Hollywood from Wisconsin to take part in a comedy class instructed by Mike Parnon at Budd Friedman's The Improv and make a documentary film about it.

The trip like all my trips by the seat of my pants was an adventure in survival. I blew a clutch in the Rockies and almost died in a 12 foot blizzard coming down the west side of the mountains once back on the road. Threading the needle between two reflector signs I could not stop. The snow coming like a twilight zone episode hurling in the headlights at my windshield I just screamed, "ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" for about 8 hours as God kept me from plunging to my death with a semi truck up my ass.

Once in LA I still needed to find a place to stay and thanks to the car repair my hotel money was gone. I would sleep in the car until Rich from the comedy class loaned two of us students his couches. Thank god for Rich.

The three weeks I was in town was a pain in the royal ass. LA is the harshest place to survive in. Don Byner, John Byner the legendary comedian's son, and his girlfriend Melissa produced some demo videos of comedians together, spent some quality time like taking in a Jay Leno taping.

While there I shot and edited probably about 20 demo tapes and one was for Hal Sparks who killed at his debut at the Improv. I am proud to know had I not been there he probably wouldn't have gotten that amazing moment captured on video. I am sure it had to have helped him move on to the next step in his success.

At the time I was going through withdrawal (love withdrawal) over my broken up relationship with my son's mother. My son, only 9 was taking me leaving very hard. I would soon return but he had it in his mind I was never going to return.

I was pretty depressed and had gone on PAXIL, buying into the magic bullet hype of anti depressants and not one to go without drinking I don't think the mix helped my attitude much but the three weeks was incredibly stressful.  I finally sold my video equipment to Don and drove out of that God forsaken city. I bought a 200.00 guitar on the way out and by the time I drove all the way to Florida with the guitar across my lap--imagine the sight... I could play a couple chords.

The next year I would spend writing and recording songs and ended up back in Wisconsin. The footage from the standup comedy class would wait for about 10 years before I finally edited it into a film.

The Documentary is sort of a fictional film simultaneously. The goal of any movie is to tell a story so I made the crux of this film a comedian who bombs who vows to try again.

The journey home on the train is a fictional invention. I wanted the lead character to be identified with any comedian who ever bombed. Most all comedians have had that horror more than once. The better comedians learn how not to bomb.

There is also a fictional invention of a grisled veteran comic who is in his hotel room waiting for a gig, looking back on the earlier torment, and he has recently been blacklisted due to an altercation with a heckler. I don't look at the person in the film as me I look at it as a character in a story.

The film shows some new comedians including one of the very first performances by Frank Caliendo the great impressionist from MAD TV. He sat down next to me the night I had taped my act at the Madison Funny Business and my camera had also caught his time on stage.

I asked him if I could use some of the footage and he said yes although he felt like he had bombed. I told him, man, you didn't bomb. He said to me, he thought maybe his act should be more like mine, a combination of impressions and monologue. I laughed and said, "Dude, don't change a thing. You are going to be famous in a week."

And I was right.

It wasn't but a few weeks later he was signed in Hollywood.

The funny thing about me making it in Hollywood is there seems to be some sort of cosmic block. It is in a large part my own mental hangups, fear of success, self sabotage, and yet something bigger. Like I am supposed to be exactly what I am-- this outsider who is so angry--- and yet free to criticize their system and all the other systems in the world that I am somehow uniquely equipped to do because somehow I manage to make the most of my failure.

For it is ultimately failure that makes me free and angry enough to bite and admit it, an audience loves a character who doesn't give a fuck. A character more willing to tear apart the boss than kiss his ass. There was a period of time I tried to kiss up but I hated having ass on my breath. The second I chose to be exactly what I am was the second I became a stronger artist and person.

After 911, the world really did change and I don't care if you are one of the dummies that believes 19 Arabic hijackers successfully thwarted NORAD and buildings turned into dust and all sorts of other ridiculous anomalies, my change came from realizing how evil certain collectives were in this world. As I began researching my life went crazy from becoming a targeted individual to eventually becoming someone who will not surrender to these bastards. This too has made me a better, stronger, more self satisfied artist.

The movie, COMEDY is HARD is a blend of real and fiction and I think it shows how talented I am. In my opinion I should be an A list Actor/Writer/Director with high grossing films. In 1986 my first screenplay was optioned by a producer on the Universal lot and the brass at Universal called it "Brilliant."  So somehow, I have managed to both screw up my career and yet compile what I believe is a volume of work that deserves to be recognized as an artist working without a budget or a net. You wouldn't believe how little I have survived on. I probably spent 70% of my last 25 years living and sleeping in video studios, on one hand working around the clock, on the other, not caring about pay only that I was doing what I felt I was being called to do. I can show hundreds of videos I produced commercially to barely live hand to mouth but I am proud of the work.

I really have lived an incredible life thus far, full of laughs, tears, struggles, near triumph and even intrigue that is another unsettling story all together. For crying out loud, as seen in this movie, I bounced off an Amtrak train at 14 years old and survived. How many can say that?

But here in this movie it is a sort of Rocky story about someone trying hard and finding that the reward wasn't the riches but the journey. The laughs were of course the point. If the audience laughs you did your job. If they don't either get back on the horse or don't waste your time or theirs any further.

So I want people to see this film more like an actor in a fictional story than a documentary because I approached the edit as I would a screenplay, looking to find the struggle, the conflict in what it is like for a person trying to master the comedy stage.

Frank Caliendo
Hal Sparks
Geno Kalmes
Budd Friedman
Mike Parnon
Amy Snowden
Don Byner
Robert Dewberry
Walt Stevens
Sara Brown

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