When I’m a little kid I just want to tell funny stories like my Uncle Andy. He’s the one in the middle of the picture — below my mom and above Aunt Mika — with his tongue out.
You know someone like him. The whole space brightens when he walks in the room and everybody laughs before he leaves, whatever the situation.
Eighteen years ago at the wake for his mom, my Baba, we’re all shell shocked, the room is silent. Baba was a force of nature, a crazy, super-talented artist — emphasis on crazy — and an academic with a work ethic no one should try to live up to (I won’t bore you with the details of the 11-volume encyclopedic history of Ukrainian music she assembled). So much talent, so much ability. And wonderfully incompetent in the role of doting mother and grandmother.
But she tried hard.
Andy breaks the silence at her wake by saying, “When I quit drinking, Ma comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve been talking to Mika and she explained how important this is for you, and I want to help. So I’m going to quit drinking too.’ But Ma, I says. You don’t drink. And she says, ‘I was going to quit coffee, but that would be too difficult.’”
Andy brought Baba back into the room for me. For all of us, because we all had a story like that about her, and somewhere under the sadness we understood that she’d always be with us. Laughter heals. Andy never said that but he knew it to his core.
The day Andy dies, about a month ago, my cousin Alana and I are sitting at the kitchen table in the Toronto house where my grandparents lived, having tea and talking. This is what my family does. My Baba and Dido sat at this table having tea and talking. My mom, Alana’s mom (my Aunt Mika), and our Uncle Andy sat around this table having tea and talking. We’ve seen this our whole lives and now it’s our turn.
Sitting there with Alana, I have a revelation but don’t want to say it out loud because it feels a little self-centered. Then she says it so I don’t have to: “You and Andy have a lot in common.”
How is it just occurring to me that my Uncle Andy is my biggest influence?
I write my first song because of Andy. This is in Atlanta where my parents live. Andy’s at Oglethorpe University, I’m four, my sister Krissi’s an infant. Andy’s babysitting us. I’ve got the kitchen sink full to the top with water, soap bubbles, and my boat collection, and I’m flooding every corner of the room. Krissi is busy flooding also — diaper after diaper after diaper.
When my mom calls to check on us, Andy says, “Well, Dean wants to join the Navy, and this kid keeps shitting and shitting and shitting.”
At which point, Andy hears four-year-old Dean in the kitchen start singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” and keep singing it til the parents get home.
I still think it’s the best song I’ve ever written, and it’s got Andy all over it.
Maybe two or three years later, I discover the stereo in the dining room at my grandparents’ house. You remember those old stereo cabinets? Big wooden furniture, you slide the door to the right, you’ve got a stereo, to the left, the record collection? Andy’s record collection.
I’m sitting at the dining room table, headphones on, stack of records in front of me, and Andy starts sorting through what I’ve missed. He hands me Taj Mahal’s Live at Fillmore East record, The Real Thing.
“You gotta listen to this one,” he says. “He’s got four tubas in his band.”
Now, six-year-old Dean is thinking the exact same thing you are: “Does anybody need to hear a band with four tubas?”
But if six year olds are experts at anything, it’s at tuning in to people’s energy, and you can’t look away from the electricity coming off Andy when he talks about music. There was no one I trusted more, and the music he played for me was raw and real and human, the type of music that heals in that same way laughter can.
To this day I still listen to The Real Thing. It’s that good. And he kept putting blues records in front of me, and then country, and then jazz. But it’s only now that I hear that early music in every song I write and perform. It’s now that I look back and understand he made that music so much a part of me that when I moved to New York City to go to college, I got cast as the blues singing plant Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.
When I’m nine Andy catches me on the floor of his room reading through his collection of National Lampoons. “Kid, why you keep going through my stuff?” he says, but he can’t stop himself from showing me more, and it’s the same excitement he brings to music.
He hands me the Blues Brothers album Briefcase Full of Blues, and when he’s not explaining who’s in the band and where else I’ve heard them, he’s telling me about Saturday Night Live, and oh, you gotta listen to this Steve Martin record.
Nine-year-old Dean takes all that back to Atlanta and everywhere he goes. I write my first sketch comedy, a live bowling tournament broadcast by Howard Cosell where last year’s champion has a bout of diarrhea that drowns an entire city, performed into my dad’s Dictaphone. Okay that last part was stupid. Dad grounds me and I don’t get to go to Six Flags.
But that doesn’t stop Dean from taking his new love for comedy to fourth grade, which lands him in detention until he graduates from high school. In that time, Dean will only manage three days without some sort of detention or KP duty.
All thanks to my Uncle Andy.
But within a year of graduating college, I land my first regular humor column in an international magazine, go on to write for publications on five continents, and when I stop doing that, I realize that my ability to write a punch line could pay a lot of bills in advertising.
And in the past two years, I toured a comedy and music show around the US and UK, all that time telling funny stories like my Uncle Andy, playing music that grew out of what he played for me. But I didn’t understand that’s what I was doing.
All those years ago when my dad grounded me for being silly, I understood why. He wanted what was best for me. And thank God my Uncle Andy was there to remind me, “No. This is the good stuff.”
He was always teaching me, always supporting my interests, especially when I worked for him for two summers in his general contracting business. Andy taught me how to build and fix things. One day we’re working on my grandparents’ cottage, screening in the front porch so Baba can get some peace from the mosquitoes, and he’s showing me how to cut molding. You want them just right, so they fit tightly in place and stay there without nails or screws.
“If you’re gonna bother to do something,” he says, “you do it right.”
I hear him say that every time I work on my house, and sometimes I’d call him for help, although I try not to call too often because I don’t want to be that relative. But when Alana and I are sitting at the table at my grandparents’ old house, my Aunt Mika says, “Andy would tell me every time you called. It really meant a lot to him.”
I wish I’d known that. I have so many more things I need to fix.
But he took care of that too, by showing me that the people you love don’t really leave. They’re still in the room, and every time I pick up a tool, or sit at my desk to write my next project, I can hear Andy’s voice and the whole space brightens.
My show, Voice of Authority, is about a string of those days when the US Department of Justice comes after me for $19 million. True story. And the song that serves as the core theme of the show is: No damn luck today.
On opening night at the FRIGID New York Festival, the plan is to interrupt that song at the top of the show with a ringing telephone, because there is always someone in the audience who doesn’t turn off their phone despite the announcement, right?
In an ideal world, I’m interrupted during the first verse. I stop, accuse the audience of making things very awkward, and then realize the ringing phone is mine.
Oh! That’s my lawyer, I have to take this. Sorry.
In the real world of opening night, however, the sound cue never comes and I get to the end of the song, which is a surprise I didn’t see coming. I find myself thinking, “I’m gonna have to improv my way around this plot point.”
Which is what I start to do. I’m almost there and boom, there’s my sound cue – classic iPhone ringtone. And it’s loud enough to drown out a jet.
WHOSE PHONE IS THAT?!!
So what do I do now? That is literally what I’m thinking as it happens.
It also happens to be what I’m thinking when I get hit with the $19 million lawsuit. So in a way, I guess theater is a lot like real life. Something goes very wrong, what were your priorities suddenly seem a lot less pressing, and this newfound crisis owns all of your focus.
Sounds awful, right? Except for one thing: You are now 100 percent present.
Some people pay their gurus a lot of money to get that way, and some people pay their lawyers.
When you get it into your head to do something like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Fringe staff is pretty good about getting you to ask yourself, why are you doing this? If you can’t answer the question, you’re not ready.
Aside from the various ways I want to advance my career and my work, my reason for doing this is to become a better artist. A better actor. A better performer. A better writer. Doing a show for 22 days (with only one day off) in front of people who don’t know you will do that and more.
My five shows at FRIGID are just the beginning of that road, and it’s one that has started off bumpy. But we live for moments like this whether we like it or not, because now we have to make a choice, and if we can find the courage to make a bold one, it might take us somewhere we’ve never been before.
I’m in the FRIGID audience at the Kraine Theater watching David Carl and Katie Hartman in their hysterically funny David and Katie Get Remarried. Katie — whose character is needy, narcissist, and biting — is singing a song she wrote about David after a breakup so she can forget him forever. She’s at the emotional peak, about to break free, and David’s keyboard stand collapses, crashing to the floor. Katie stops dead, robbed of her climax, and stares at the audience. David looks her direction with what I read as genuine fear.
In the seats we hold our breath and the tension is excruciating. We’re mostly certain this is a real problem and not a staged one, and now we can’t look away. What are they going to do?
What they do is never leave character. They grab this moment and milk it for all it’s worth. David is on the floor with his keyboard looking like a naughty five year old caught with a broken heirloom. Katie is forcing a smile that burns like the fires of hell.
And we’re still holding our breath.
Until she slowly turns her head his way. We see the fear on his face grow and we’re witnessing theatrical perfection. This stage relationship has become so real and we are all invested in it. All Katie has to do now is throw away line about ruining the climax of the song and the audience comes to pieces.
People on the street could probably hear the laughter outside the building.
So what did I do when my sound cue went wrong? Did I get through it? Absolutely. Did I stay in character? Mostly, but I’ll admit to letting my frustration with tech throw me off my game. Did I handle it as well as Katie and David? Absolutely not. But that’s what I’m working toward, and it’s why I’m taking this show to Edinburgh.
To learn. From what others do. From what I do. To embrace the unknown. To remember to have fun. To go somewhere I’ve never been.
Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved by the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera, will be at 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17–21, and at Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2–24. Follow him on Twitter @deantemple, Instagram @thatdeantemple, and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa…
(Pictured above, my mom, my baby sister, mom’s ’68 Mustang, and me with the mop of black hair.)
You have this ambitious project that you need to take on, the kind of project that most of the world around you sees as utterly impractical. And while you can’t imagine how you could survive without this, the rest of your world can’t imagine how you’re going to pay your bills and do this at the same time.
For me that’s the moment I decide to write Voice of Authority and take it to Edinburgh Fringe.
So my question to you is, how do you know if you can trust your mom enough to tell her about it?
If you’re an artist, or even just a human being, I suspect you understand my thinking here. Moms can get acutely curious about what their kids are doing, particularly when they’ve become accustomed over time to questioning your judgment, as mine has.
My show is a true story about landing in a $19 million lawsuit with the Department of Justice. There’s no track record of good judgment my part. For all she knows, this is one more thing I’m doing that’s going to cost her money.
And she’s right, it is.
But that’s not the point. No one’s judgment strikes you as hard or as deep as Mom’s. Sorry Dad, that’s just how the world works. And if you’re going to tell her about it, you’re going to have to accept a couple of things:
If you don’t follow through and take the show to Edinburgh, you’re gonna have to answer the question “Whatever happened to taking your show to Edinburgh?” More than once. Possibly over a holiday dinner in front of a table full of people.
If you make a shambles of it by not preparing, you’re going to prove her more subtle and passive aggressive judgments of you correct. You might also find yourself answering questions about that during the holidays. Along with the one about how you could have put that money towards law school (it’s a little late at this point, Mom).
You’re going to have to know why you’re taking a show there.
The first two are brutal, yes, but that last one is the killer. That’s the divide between the amateur and the professional, the trophy hunter and the provider. And dammit, sometimes as much as I hate to admit it, Mom is pretty insightful.
I’m going because I want to get better as a performer and a writer, and 21 days of performing on the road in front of strangers will do that. I’m going to meet the sort of people I want to work with in the future. I’m going to develop this story into a bigger show or another medium altogether. And I’m going because it puts me in a spot where I have to prove myself, and I seem to have reached a point in my life where that matters.
But that’s enough about me. Back to the question. How do you know if you can trust your mom enough to tell her about this project? That might depend on whether you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And she might surprise you, because no one gets as excited to see you driven and focused as your mom does.
Dean’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority runs at FRIGID New York Feb 21, 28, and March 5, 8, and 9 (Tickets»). He takes it to Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe from Aug 2-24.…