Timing and Sardines

No, this isn’t a commercial for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs the movie, either.  It’s singing praises of my daughter.

Yes, I said praises.  Just because I often speak of hardship, problems, grief, frustration, and anger I can also talk about love, life, concern, empathy and . . . well, pride I guess.

As long as I can remember I’ve been an oddball of a human being.  I’m not complaining about that, I’d never have it any other way.  In a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I should have been thoroughly excited by the fact that the Georgia O’Keefe or Manitou galleries were in walking distance.  For the record, I do love O’Keefe’s stuff, and peeked into the Manitou on the way by.  But my highlight was seeing the Chuck Jones gallery.

Yeah, I admit it.  Chuck Jones.  The Looney Toons guy.

Schroeder & Snoopy.  From the Jones Gallery
Schroeder & Snoopy. From the Jones Gallery

I was geeking out about original paintings by Dr. Seuss.  Animation cells and etchings by the animator Bill Melendez for the old Peanuts cartoons.  (I even got an etching . . . called the gallery after I got home)

I misspent years of my youth, unable to run or jump quite as much as my older brother, at home due to asthma.  I wasn’t an invalid, I went outside, I played, I just couldn’t play quite as much.  So instead I watched television and read books.  Lots of books.  I also love Looney Toons.  I also saw Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers because they were in syndication.  They were on the television in the hours I was at home.  That was humor.

It was timing.

You see, even Steven Spielberg, in an interview about Chuck Jones, said that his comic timing, in every movie from Jurassic Park to ET the Extraterrestrial admitted that he learned timing from watching Jones’ cartoons.  Not The Method and not from someplace like the NYU Film School or the Actors’ Studio.  He learned from a guy with a goatee, straw hat, and a Bugs Bunny complex.

So I have lived this life.  I love good timing and good storytelling.  My favorite writer is Dickens – the same author most kids hate in High School.  My favorite television writer is Steven Moffat – not for Doctor Who (thought he episode Blink is unbelievable) but for his work on Sherlock, and Jekyll and the movie Tin Tin.  It’s a tale, woven and played through the script and the direction.  Timing, again, whether comic, horrific, or dramatic is insanely important.

So how does this relate to my daughter?  She grew up with those very same influences.  We watched those old Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote  and Bugs Bunny cartoons.  She gets tongue-tied and she says “hmm…pronoun trouble.”  (If you don’t get the reference, look it up.)  She quotes Groucho as easily as she would Brad Pitt in today’s world.  So she grew up with her father making silly Bullwinkle voices and quoting Monty Python’s Flying Circus and can jokingly quote the Dead Parrot Sketch saying things about climbing down the curtain to join the choir invisible . . . it’s a late bird.  She loves the cleverness of buying an argument and the sublime puns of Chico Marx answering Groucho when he says “I’m talking Dollars, Taxes!”
“That’s where my friend lives . . . Dollas Taxes . . . ” (say it out loud.  You’ll get the joke)
We went and saw a play in New York that was insane in its comedic timing, particularly when the jokes went wrong and she adored it.

Noises Off.  Abbi's first play as an AD.
Noises Off. Abbi’s first play as an AD.

So when Abbi, my oldest, got the chance to be assistant director of a comedic play . . . about a bunch of actors trying to do a play . . . I actually believe, to a degree, that the drama director gave her the duty because Abbi had that comic timing.  Perfect…comic…timing.

Tonight was opening night, and because it’s a Thursday and notoriously bad for ticket sales, we all went.  School night and all.

Now, before you all complain, yes I know the play/movie Noises Off which originally starred Carol Burnett was PG-13.  I also knew that a girl spent a good part of the play parading around in her underwear.  I also remind you all that most of today’s television has far worse than what this play contained.  My kids weren’t appalled by it.

We went having intentionally not seen the movie (Abbi asked us not to watch it first) and walked in with an open mind.  One character of the play was in the audience behind us.  The self-reflexive nature a slow burn that made us laugh, but only just started to simmer when Act I was completed.  I was laughing about the prop at the center being a plate of sardines, but that was a chuckle.

Then came Act II.

Abbi, you see, choreographed Act II.  She told us in advance and she was almost biting her nails as she came up between acts to thank us for coming opening night.

Then the curtain came up.

And we laughed.  All four of us laughed . . . crying we were laughing so hard.  As I watched the action . . . behind the set, the same actors trying to act out the play they rehearsed in Act I, Abbi had choreographed a menagerie of props and a subtlety of activities the likes of which might require more than one viewing for me to have seen it all.  The actors trying to pantomime whispering in front of us, the audience while a supposed play went on behind the fake set was intricate, crazy, and required . . . timing.  In the slapstick pratfalls I saw Stan Laurel with his bawling face.  I saw Harpo Marx and his insane pranks played on the unknowing woman in Duck Soup.  I saw Dick Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman at his Los Angeles home.

God help me, I saw Chuck Jones.

There’s a line from Spielberg that tells it perfectly:
“It’s not the point where the Coyote leaps off the cliff and plummets to the ground.  It’s the fact he floats, his head sticking out of the puff of smoke . . . and that moment.  The moment of cognition where his foot feels nothing but air and he realizes it’s about to happen…then falls the inevitable fall.  That’s timing, and Chuck Jones perfected it.”  (It’s not actually a direct quote, I’m remembering, but it’s close!)

That was what I saw last night.  I know why Abbi was nervous.  There were eight actors . . . eight egos . . . on the stage.  Every person had to hit their mark, every prop had to be in place, all the pratfalls had to go off without a hitch.  And she did it.  The Act felt like it was five minutes long it made us all laugh so hard . . . and I was a little bit worried after the first Act since I felt it was a bit slow and the actors a bit hesitant.  But this . . . this was like watching One Man, Two Guv’nors in New York . . . though I admit, not Tony caliber actors.  Not yet.

Chuck Jones used to have  saying: “we all go through life hoping and thinking we’re Bugs Bunny, but in the end, we’re all really Daffy Duck.”

But tonight . . . my little girl had her Bugs Bunny moment.

The set for Noises Off
The set for Noises Off
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