Thursday, November 11, 2010

Orlando Jones and Mad Tv

The work of any decent artist is the amalgamation of their life experiences. Those experiences are unique to each and when combined, influences greatly the path the artist will choose (or was chosen by providence for them) that they will follow. The older one gets, the clearer one sees when and where the dots connected. A major dot was connected with a phone call in 1988.

The greatest peripheral influence on my art (I use the word peripheral in this case because the help came from outside the normal artistic realm), was from Orlando Jones. I met Orlando shortly after leaving the Navy in 1987. I was hired to do a photo shoot with one of his roommates, called to make an appointment and Orlando answered. Though complete strangers, we talked for nearly an hour as though old friends and when I called again, the same thing happened. We formally met a few weeks later at a house party he was throwing and a month after that, we were roommates and have been best friends since. Brothers really.

Orlando was still in college but would soon depart for Hollywood to become a writer for 'A Different World', 'Sinbad', 'Roc' and 'Martin'. His on air break came with Fox's 'Sound FX' before joining the initial cast of MadTv. We always stayed in touch and during the first season of MadTv, I authored a few sketches for him that made it to air, with the first being 'Racism vs. Spam', based on one of my paintings. I had no desire to become a comedy writer. While painting I would simply have ideas run through my head that I would pass along to Orlando. He would ask me to write them up, then tweak and pitch them.

In 1996 after yet another censored exhibition, I grew tired of art (and the annoying people around it), and decided to quit before yielding. Orlando told the Exec. Producers and Head Writer about my writing contributions to the show to date, and after an exhaustive process, I was hired as an apprentice writer. I had no writing experience whatsoever outside of the few sketches written for him. I was dubious, but he flew me out to Los Angeles, provided lodging, money, a car and a laptop and told me point blank, 'There's a writer in you, you just don't know it. Write, and I will correct." Little did I know how that act of selfless generosity on his part, along with blind faith on mine, would forever change and shape the art that I had just vowed to quit.

Artists by nature are nomads. We usually operate on a singular creative level - from head to hand to canvas with nothing betwixt or between. It's up to us to shape the process and the resultant product as we see fit. On day one, I learned that television does not work on that creative schedule. It is by definition, a collaborative medium. Ideas that were once my own now belonged to the cruel and heartless room of writers (15-20) sitting around the conference table during a Monday morning pitch session, all there for one reason - to get their ideas and jokes on air and justify their jobs. It was brutal. You pitch an idea that you may have thought was complete and funny, only to have it make its way around the room. By the time it was filtered by the many voices and made its way back to you, it was unrecognizable, but somehow better, streamlined, funnier and edgier than your original pitch. It was also assigned to someone else who contributed more to it that you did, to write the first draft.

At first, the process demoralized and depressed me. I was working with smarter, funnier, well traveled and more informed people that seemed to have an indispensable fountain of comedic and pop references at their disposal. With an hour show to write and tape on a weekly basis, the speed of the game was extraordinary and I struggled mightily to keep pace. It was Orlando Jones that coached but never coddled me. After all, 'This is the business. This is what we do." Our relationship evolved and resembled that of Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in 'Bull Durham', and I could hear him telling me on a daily basis, "Quit thinking Meat and just throw the ball. You have the talent or you wouldn't be here."

One immutable fact registered with authority. The audience, or in other words...ratings. It's about them - so write for them. Unlike art, this was no longer about satisfying my impulses, it was about reaching and sustaining audience. The average sketch is 6 pages long, three minutes of air time. That's all you had. Establish the joke, deliver the joke, get the hell out while they were still laughing. In other words, 'come to the party late and leave early.' I remember pitching a sketch idea to Orlando that I thought was hilarious only to have him stare at me like an idiot before asking, "Are you going to knock on every door and peddle that sketch to the audience with a manual? Simplify, son, simplify!"

Over the coming months, I never really got comfortable, but started learning how to shape and filter ideas. I began to hear the voices of the other writers (primarily Orlando's) in my head, challenging, questioning and streamlining my pitches. The result was the beginning of understanding how to structure and work out a specific process to find the 'joke'. How many times had Orlando asked me, "So, what's the joke?" The joke - the spine of the idea on which the comedy is hung. What's this sketch really all about? Boil it down to it's most basic, realistic, and essential elements then rebuild it comedically. Quit writing comedy and start writing reality - a strange idea for a comedy show. Not really. Anything can be made funny, but first it must make sense. The greatest and most successful comedies are at their heart based on realistic premises. Find the joke and the rudest and most savage of thoughts could not only be delivered effortlessly, but accepted by the audience using comedy as the delivery device.

Between 1996 and 2006, I had gone on to write for 6 comedy series, 4 of which involved Orlando directly. The teaching and learning has never stopped. By the time I made the decision to return to art, the filtering process had taken hold and to this day shapes the way I approach all of my ideas about art. ALL OF THEM. Before my stint as a writer began, there was an oppressive element of anger about my art that was correctly translated as offense to the audience. It was my trademark and eventually led to my demise in 1996. Not only is that element still there, it's admittedly worse. The difference is that because of what I learned as a writer, I now employ a creative process that takes the same difficult topic, reduces it to its core element to 'find the joke', rebuilds it with an emphasis on identifying and embracing an audience, then infuses it with humor to dull the senses until the laughter stops and reality sets in. In a phrase, 'It's all fun and games until I poke you in the eye.' A statement from the latest review of my exhibition 'Subjective Perception' by Mary Bentz Gilkerson sums it up:

                 "This is precisely what makes his work so challenging not only to the average viewer,
                   but to many art insiders as well. His imagery is very accessible, luring the viewer into
                   a dialogue that then turns their preconceptions upside down. Images that are
                   associated with comfort and ease are turned around to force a sense of unease."

Because of the process, it's become somewhat easier to produce the product. I admittedly still struggle with ideas - but that's the challenge offered by the need to push further with each new painting. Once that stops, you're done. I've been blessed to have people like Orlando Jones in my life and write this as a 'thank you' to a debt I can only repay by continuing to honor the knowledge given by applying it and urging others to take the time to find and recognize the roots of their creative process. It is an unconquerable force that once you humble yourself to its power, let go and trust it, it will take you on a frustrating and at times, rewarding journey. 

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