TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN
…He gathered us together to begin the workshop. After two days of world class comedy instruction, we finished the weekend by doing what Boom Chicago calls the “student show”. Basically the students and the teacher put on an improv show for invited guests, friends and family. It’s a laid back affair and a good chance to put newfound skills to use.
As we prepared to go on stage that Sunday afternoon, I was cramped in the rafters, waiting to go on. Our teacher, the man I’d met at the bar on Saturday morning, was going on with me for the first scene and the lack of backstage space made it necessary for he and I to position ourselves unnaturally close to each other. Packed in between heavy curtains and a large piece of wooden set decor, our faces just inches from each other, I was nervous as hell. I am always very nervous in those final moments before taking the stage, but I could see that my teacher was cool as a cucumber, taking it all in stride. Just before the curtain raised, I asked him a final question:
“Man, do you like doing shows seven days a week?” I asked, wracked with nervous nausea.
“You know it.” he replied, a cheshire cat grin decorating his face.
And then the curtain rose, and we, the self-proclaimed modern warriors of humor, galliantly strode out, into the arena.
It was a great show and, at the time, the Boom teachers called it “the best student show” they’d ever seen. I have no reason to doubt their assessment.
For me, that workshop was a turning point. Comedy, not just the watching but also the performance of it, had its lovely hooks in me. Although I never went on to become a professional comedian in the traditional sense, I have ended up making my living on a stage, in a comedic fashion. Bill Hicks is part of the reason. But another part, the biggest part, was my unforgettable teacher for that workshop in Amsterdam. That guy was so brutally honest with me concerning what really mattered about making people laugh and his prophetic words as well as his humbly confident, forever ironic, and optimistically skeptical view of the world has inspired me on and on over the years.
So, you may be thinking, who was my teacher that fine weekend at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam?
His name is Jordan Peele.
As I sit here writing these words in January 2018, Jordan has written and directed the brilliant film Get Out, which the New York Times considers to be the best movie of 2017.
The best goddamned movie of the year!
Jordan left Amsterdam a short while after teaching us that weekend and has gone on to fame and fortune in America. He first got famous making television in the form of the comedy duo Key & Peele, but his film Get Out, which he wrote and directed, has skyrocketed him into the cultural stratosphere. If you haven’t seen Get Out yet, stream it as soon as you can. I highly doubt you’ll ever find a more entertaining, troubling and truthful depiction of race relations in modern American life.
When I met and worked with Jordan Peele way back in 2002, I wish I could have recognized that he would go on to kick ass in the big leagues. But I didn’t. What I saw was an empathetic, energetic, tirelessly curious, fiercely intelligent, and impossibly funny young man who was kind enough to help a lot of people learn how to be funny.
Over the next several months I tried my hand at stand-up comedy. I did the open mike night at The Comedy Cafe in Amsterdam several times and also formed an improv group called Dreamers Express with four other aspiring comedians. Our group practiced and practiced and then put on a showcase in Amsterdam which combined stand-up and improv. We rented a theater, invited all our friends and had a fantastic night.
It was a true adventure. Standing on a brightly lit stage, mike in hand, armed only with a few jokes and anecdotes, hoping to not get booed off the stage, it’s a humbling experience.
All in all, I did ok. I got a few laughs, but I also got blank stares. I stuck with the open mike nights for a while trying to write and perform jokes. In the meantime I’d also developed a character I called Hansje Dansje, who was a potato farmer with a very heavy Dutch accent who interviewed people in the street. I modelled the character on England’s Dennis Pennis who found fame on the BBC mostly for interviewing celebrities on the red carpet and insulting them in a whole variety of ways. I found Dennis Pennis hilarious particularly because he could insult a celebrity without them really noticing it. They’d become so accustomed to standard questions from interviewers that Pennis could count on his targets sleep walking down the red carpet where he’d zing them with a fresh put down. One of my favorite Dennis Pennis moments was when he said to the actress Demi Moore as she strode down the red carpet, “Demi, if it wasn’t gratuitous and was done considerately, would you ever consider keeping your clothes on in a movie?” Ms. Moore was not amused and marched on, clearly furious.
Over the next several years, I worked more and more on the Hansje Dansje character, eventually filming a pilot for Dutch television with a producer named Michael Pilarczyk. We spent two days interviewing tourists in Amsterdam and filming the process. Hansje’s schtick was to play dumb and try to get tourists to reveal why they’d come to the city. Despite spending a lot of time on the project, and getting some interesting moments on film, the show wasn’t picked up by any broadcasters and it never made it to TV. But that wasn’t for lack of trying. I drove Pilarczyk crazy by calling him at all hours of the day, hoping, pushing, to make something happen. It never did.
Fresh off the failure of bringing Hansje Dansje to Holland’s living rooms, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Over the years, I continued to write short character sketches and filmed them at home. Eventually I discovered iMovie and YouTube and starting chucking these lo-fi creations onto the internet. It would be an understatement to say that my little movies weren’t very good. They were shite, with occasional flashes of potential. The good news, though? They were mine. The quality didn’t matter all that much as I never had pretensions beyond making amateurish stuff. What mattered was that I was creating and was bold or foolish or egotistical enough to put them online. So I kept putting them out there, with no real goal in mind. I just liked making them and the hours I spent conceiving, filming, and editing were very gratifying. I was completely content in the idea that my highly amateurish ideas would never lead to anything.
But I was wrong, in the very best of ways…