Thoughts On Live Riffing For My 40th Birthday

Thoughts On Live Riffing For My 40th Birthday

Matt Campbell (left), me and Chad Plambeck live riff “The Giant Claw”
at the historic Grand Theater earlier this weekend.

This doesn’t concern writing or my career but, if you’ll indulge me, I want to ruminate on something extraordinary that happened to me this weekend.

On Thursday, I turned 40, and for someone who doesn’t need much of an excuse to agrendize himself and drag his friends along with him, this seemed like a choice opportunity to do “something.” When I turned 30, that “something” was doing stand-up comedy, in public, for the first time. Given that I live in Central Nebraska and didn’t want to drive two hours to the nearest comedy club where I was likely to bomb in spectacular fashion, I rented out a historic theater and invited my friends and family. My kid, who was three at the time, got the biggest laugh of the evening when she heckled me and my brief career in stand-up ended before it began. Still, it was fun and a great memory, plus I get to seem like I’m cool and that aging doesn’t bother me.

With that precedent in place I was flailing around for something to do and on a trip to the Alamo Drafthouse in Omaha earlier this year, I thought I had found it. There was an ad for a group that was going to do “live riffing” over a movie. Upon doing a bit of research I found out this is something people do in cities across the country wherever they can organize it. As a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (I will go to the wall for the new version on Netflix) and RiffTracks and as someone who has saw Frank Conniff live TWICE, I thought I had found my project.

If this were a work of fiction this would be the part where some sort of obstacle was thrown in my path. In real life I wsa met with nothing but enthusiasm and open doors. The Grand Theater loved the idea, as they are a non profit theater and wanted to try some different programming. My brothers from other mothers Chad and Matt were down to write jokes and Chad found the perfect movie – The Giant Claw. This 1957 misfire moves along well for a flick of it’s type, is a scant 75 minutes and has one of the goofiest monsters ever committed to film. On top of that MST3K and the like hadn’t gotten to this one yet and the rights were easy to get. SCORE!

On top of that, I had been in a play recently through the Grand Island Little Theater where I’d done “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” a kind of redneck Prairie Home Companion sort of show with a killer pit composed of guitars, drums and the like. During the 4th of July holiday I poached a couple of those “pit crew” folks (Jeremy Johnson, Andrew Flaherty and Matt Boyle) and we put together some pleasant, loud rock and monster-themed songs. And with that, I turned 40 the Thursday before and got ready for the show this weekend.

Writing jokes for a B-movie proved to be somewhat of a tricky thing. One of my favorite hobbies is to get together with friends and throw comments at the screen through a beery haze, but this occasion called for a little more prep work and structure. I found, from a writing standpoint, that some of the single punch line jokes work well but what Chad, Matt and I found the funniest were the long form jokes – an entire sequence where the hero thinks he’s lost, an urgent phone call that turns into a food order, that sort of thing. The audience ended up agreeing.

Aside from a few snafus with the microphones, the day was an absolute dream. Great cupcakes, great friends (about 90 people showed up), good music, the laughs flowed pretty freely and at the end we all got our picture taken with La Cacanya. What a goofy looking bird!

Now that I’m 24 hours or so away from the show, here’s what sticks with me.

-I have the best friends a guy could ask for. It’s a real “It’s A Wonderful Life” sort of thing if I stop and think about it for a few seconds.

-Before the show during the music segment we witnessed likely the first time in history someone got choked up to a Weird Al song when the band played his version of “Happy Birthday” off his first album. Give it a listen. 

-I’m a big advocate of the DIY, “let’s put on a show” aesthetic but, in my narcessistic haze, only now realize just how many people were absolutely vital toward making this event happen. Chad and Matt, Jim Pohl and the folks at the Grand, Sarah Bockoven for the party planning, the guys in the band, my family for coming out and for the after party and every single person who showed up to indulge me in this little birthday project. I guess the larger lesson is “make friends and then utilize their talents to your own ends.” And “marry well.”

-Watching a B-movie over a dozen times is like the “Kristen Schall is a horse” joke. It’s funny then not funny then painfully not funny then funny again.

-I’m not nearly as organized as I think I am.

-You can stay out late and party a lot when you’re older. You just pay for it more.

There will be more book talk soon (news incoming!) but, if I could tie it to my writing career in any sense it would be this – if you see an idea or are struck with inspiration run with it as far as you can. What you can do and who you know matters, but the rewards can be great. Or, in this case, goofy and fun.

I’m not doing anything for my 50th. Of course, I said that 10 years ago….

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