Sunday, March 30, 2014

Talking Trash: Comedy Prop As A Litterary Device

Esquire reporter Chris Jones speaks at Plattsburgh State, not suspecting what lurks near his feet. 

© 2004 Luke T. Bush


"It's stained with evil."

Sacrosanct Rule of Journalism (SRJ): Never open with a quote.

Chris Jones wants to be funny.

Man, don’t we all?

Esquire Magazine reporter as stand-up comedian with a podium. Trying to entertain an audience of mainly youngster college students.  Only a few oldsters in the crowd like me and a friend.

Setting: Plattsburgh State College Center, Warren Ballroom B.  Flags from various nations hang from the ceiling perimeter except for the towering wall divider to my left.  The accordion barrier with its warped chrome surface creates smeary reflections, divides the huge conference room into A and B.  Chris must be B list.

He mentions that he feels like a B-lister this evening.  He’s competing with some sort of sporting event happening that night, the Sweet Sixteen.  I don’t follow sports.  All I can envision is a young Molly Ringwald with candles.

SRJ: Never ID yourself as "I," say instead "this reporter."  Better yet, stay invisible, objective.  You don't exist.  Floss daily.

The guest speaker is dealing with some handicaps – besides being an Esquire reporter.  Lassitude hangs on him, no bright-eyed and bushy-tailed radiance.  Dressed college-student-slob chic, a black GUNS N' ROSES T-shirt, looking like he just rolled out of bed after a long night.  His hirsute countenance evinces he skipped shaving that morning.

He’s just driven all the way down from America’s backyard from a place called Port Hope (Home of the Canadian Firefighters Museum!), a trek to get here.  On the way he remembered his wife's birthday.  Guilt.  Maybe fear.

Leaning on the podium, favoring his left side, he mentions he has hurt his shoulder.  (Result of an accident while renovating his old house?)  It could be pain or pain-killers or both dull his edge.

Or possibly his house sits near a cache of radioactive waste they forgot to clean up.  Another health factor. With those big Esquire paychecks did he ever buy a Geiger counter?

But to his credit Chris presses on like the he-man sports heroes he follows and writes about as a columnist for ESPN The Magazine, his other gig.

Or maybe this laidback persona is part of his comedy persona.  Steven Wright minus the metaphysical stonerism.

Chris says he wants to keep it light but keeps slipping into serious topics related to journalism.  He has a difficult crowd because many of the students in the audience heard him earlier in the day speak in journalism class.  How do you keep your material fresh the second time around?

One story probably repeated: He got hired at Esquire by showing up with a box of doughnuts.  Funny.  That routine doesn't work for me during an interrogation at the police station.

Chris mentions he feels old.  He appears to be in his forties.

My friend and I, both in the same age bracket, look at each other, share a comment.  We both eschew Just For Men hair dye (“Find in it the MENS section!”) to conceal our gray/white hair.  And this guy thinks he’s old.  These whiny kids nowadays.

(Fun fact: Chris Jones, Class of '96, Bishop University.  Do the math.)

Despite my senior patience the talk goes on a bit long.  Running out the clock to earn his fee? With camera sitting in lap I start debating whether I should kill some time imaging the liquid abstract shapes on the wall divider right next to me, grossly distorted world flags: LSD impressionism.  But that would be rude, especially sitting near the front where the speaker can easily espy me.

But I re-focus on Chris when during Q&A he asks for questions to lighten his presentation.  Once again: too serious.

As a writer/photographer/ex-janitor I had noticed something.  While shooting Chris (photographically) I had to deal with a distraction to crop out later.  With color imaging always avoid something that draws the eye away from your subject like a brightly-chromatic object. (Sacrosanct Rule of Photography.)

I raise my hand.

Me: "From what I understand details are important in reporting."

Chris: "Oh sure."

Me (pointing): "So could you explain to me the orange litter next to the podium and your reaction to it?"

Chris: "Litter?"  A huh moment.

He looks to the side of the podium, sees the tissue ball on the floor, a crumpled up remainder of a sorority event held earlier.  He picks it up.

I ask if it's a napkin.

"No, it's a decoration," he notes while formulating a witty remark.  "Details are important."

Chris makes comments about DNA traces on the discarded decoration, the evil stain joke.

He adds: "I'm probably going to be arrested for just touching it. I'm too old."

Man, whiny kid.

I asked him if he was going to autograph the litter.

He shoots me a quick laser glance.  OK, getting into the heckling zone, back off.

At least I gave him a prop to work with.  It generates laughter.  Not as messy as Gallagher and the watermelons.

Chris mentions that when he’s writing he has to know how his article will wrap up. Me, I start at the beginning and hope to find the ending.  After all, every article has to have a point.  A Sacrosanct Rule of Journalism never to be transgressed.

But with this piece I’m stuck.  Almost.  Writing is only as hard as you make it.

Time for a standard comedy device.

A sudden blackout.

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