Friday, February 19, 2010


There has been a running theme of quitting in our life (I don't say "lives" because ever since we met as teenagers, it's been one life, except for the brief period of separation when Duane graduated college but I still had 2 more years to go, but let's not get technical, OK?).  Actually, sometimes it's just been pausing (as I mentioned when we began this blog; I'd paused in my writing after meeting Duane, remember?) and sometimes it's been quitting.  You know, I don't think of quitting as a negative thing; I think it's just that we, as creative people, get easily bored and need to move on to something else.  Or, occasionally we, as creative people, get frustrated and decide to take our toys and go home.  OK, maybe it is a negative thing sometimes.  Maybe I'll just type and let you judge.  I hope you're sitting because judges sit.  So sit.

There've been many things we quit over the years.  Some of them I've already discussed (monogamy, veganism) and some are mundane (gym memberships, day jobs).  But there were two major quittings (quittals?) (the Ape just suggested "acquittals") which had some significance to our career as Dick and Duane.  I'll start with the second one in today's post, because as you may have already noticed, I don't usually think in order.  It's like that Get Smart episode where the CONTROL scientist gives Maxwell Smart a camera which is actually a tape recorder and a tape recorder that's really a camera.  Max: "Why hide a tape recorder in a camera and a camera in a tape recorder? Why not just take pictures with the camera, and record with the recorder?" Scientist: "Because my mind doesn't work that way, that's why!"  And my mind doesn't work from A to B to C.  It's more like C to A to D to B. 

I started doing stand-up comedy around 1993, after taking a class which taught me the basic rules, which I then tried really hard to forget because I didn't want to sound like everyone else who'd taken a stand-up class, you know?  Things seemed (in my naiveté) to take off quickly for me...I won a talent contest, competing against 20 other comics, with only a few weeks of stage time at open mics under my belt.  From there, I performed everywhere I could (not just comedy clubs, but also cabarets, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, hospitals...anyplace somebody was putting on a show) and I was getting stronger and more confident each time. I was thrilled to have discovered what it was I truly loved and did well; plus, it combined two of my favorite things -- writing and having a roomful of people watching me.

But I was also hitting the stand-up comedy brick wall, and it wasn't until much later that, looking back, I realized what it was (I'll get to that).  You see, my main goal was passing at one of the major clubs in the city.  ("Passing" means getting regularly booked at that club.)  That's how you not only develop your act but also where you get seen by the industry and get booked on a late-night talk show or a comedy festival and from there, a sitcom and stardom and your very own anatomically-correct celebrity doll.  So, I auditioned at every club and I did really well at most of them, usually "killing" and at times clearly being the best of the night.  But each time, I watched as others passed while I was passed over.  I remember once, another comic turned to me and said, "I don't get why I passed and you didn't.  What did you do, piss someone off?" I really had no idea.

All I could think was that, despite my getting lots of laughs from the audience, there must have been something wrong with my act, so I continually scrapped entire perfectly good chunks of my material and started over with a new approach.  One club said I was "too personal" so I switched to more "social commentary,' and so on.  Here's what I was doing in the Fall of '95, but I would soon drop most of it:

Meanwhile, I was getting booked regularly at clubs & benefits outside of Manhattan; I produced & starred in a couple of one-man shows and continued to grow as a performer.   But passing at the NYC comedy clubs continued to elude me.  And looking back, I realize now that part of it was homophobia.  This is not something I ever acknowledged at the time, because I refused to play the victim and wanted to "own it" myself (thanks, Dr. Phil), but it all kind of makes sense now.  I used to hear from my comic friends that certain club owners were referring to me as "the fag" or "that homo" behind my back, but I just brushed it all aside.  Then one night, I was emceeing a show at a club uptown and I casually mentioned on stage that I was gay; after the show, the manager pulled me aside and said I couldn't perform there anymore because it wasn't "that type of club."  That happened at another club, when I was actually pulled from the show ten minutes before I was supposed to go on stage because the owner said, "This ain't no homo show."  No amount of arguing or persuading from me (or from the headliner, on my behalf) could convince him to let me perform.

Yes, this was the mid '90s but it felt like it could have been the '50s.  Remember, there was no Logo or Here channel yet; Ellen would come out in '97 and Will and Grace would begin in '98. There was really no gay comedy scene as there is today; I think there were only a handful of us in the city.  Although, I felt and still feel that it's a shame that we have to be segregated into "gay comics" and "black comics" and "[insert minority group here] comics."  I guess it always comes back to my growing up listening to Marlo Thomas's Free to Be...You and Me album and not wanting to be labeled or compartmentalized.

Then, I discovered the Lower East Side "alternative" scene going on at the Collective Unconscious and later at Surf Reality.  Along with Duane and my cousin Stacey, we formed a trio ("The Cousins") and had a blast creating the kind of silly physical shtick we'd learned while watching & worshipping Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.  We really stood out at first because the others were doing more "serious" performance art and poetry, but soon other stand-up comics discovered this other world and headed down from the mainstream clubs.  Stacey dropped out to concentrate on her film production catering company, and the duo of Dick and Duane was reborn (that's the earlier story I'll get to later; remember how my brain works!).

The Cousins: Richie, Stacey, Duane

I continued to do solo stand-up for a while, cutting off my hair ("Maybe it's the hair that's holding me back!") and rewriting a whole new act for myself, but nothing could compare to the joy I had performing with Duane, so I eventually quit (there's that word again) to concentrate on the duo.  We continued to do alternative shows like Luna Lounge @ Rebar and at various gay bars and private parties.  As a gag, we entered the Star Search drag contest at the bar Barracuda and, although we weren't in drag, we won (doing a brand-new bit called "Gloria"), which led to our being given our own weekly show there.  But we still wanted to pass at the mainstream clubs, so we auditioned and auditioned, just as I had as a solo, but again we hit that wall because nobody wanted to take a chance on a gay duo.  The manager at one of the clubs in the city actually told us that he wanted everyone to be the same and that it would be too "disruptive" to have anything different in the lineup (of straight white men).

Then we got cast on an episode of the USA network show "Up All Night."  The not-so-funny script called for us to play a couple of effeminate queens who go into a beauty shop for a makeover, but we insisted on rewriting it as a couple of goofy knucklehead soldiers who lose a bet.  It aired in Feb. 1998.  They loved it and decided to hire us as regular writer/performers on the show.  That would have been a great break...however, according to wikipedia: "In April 1998, USA decided to re-brand itself, and canceled or overhauled many of its long-running programs -- Up All Night was one of those casualties."  So were we!

Eventually, as immensely fun and satisfying as it was, we took a break from performing.  It was originally supposed to be a short break (a "hiatus") but it soon felt as if we'd quit and would never set foot on stage again.  And that was actually kind of liberating.  But then, we joined Facebook two years ago, uploaded some sexy photos and quickly became popular (sexy photos will do that).  I added some video clips from a performance of ours at Caroline's and people started writing to us regularly, asking when & where we'd be performing next.  And, as if waking up like two Rip Van Winkles, we suddenly realized that there is a whole new world of gay comedy out there and we're ready to return.  Just don't call us "gay comics."  We're comics who happen to be gay.

Right, Marlo?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Parsippany is Burning

It all started in a quiet NJ suburb, in a time called The 70's.  And it all took place over a 2 or 3-year period.  Mother and Father told me never to play with matches, but I was fascinated with the words:  "close before striking".  I think it was the word "striking" that appealed to me.  I liked the idea of striking a match.  Maybe I just liked the idea of striking and that's why Richie and I had so many knock-down fights early on in our relationship.  Actually, he enjoyed provoking me because he knew how to get me mad and I'd jump on him; I fell for it every time.  Don't get me wrong, it was not an abusive period of our relationship and I'm not blaming him (although he would say stuff like, "What's the matter, tough guy?  You call that a punch??").  It's just that there is always that thin line.  Every fight ended us up in bed because, you know, it was the next logical step.  Just look at the popularity of the UFC.  Or Sam and Diane on Cheers.  There is a primitive psychosexual connection.

But I'm getting off track.  My childhood fascination with matches and their ability to create fire is where I was heading.  But it wasn't just fire on its own; I combined it with my interest in architecture.  No, I didn't burn down neighborhood houses.  I would build my own houses from small (usually shoe) boxes.  I would spend a few days building these homes.  Using old fabric or rags to make carpets and drapes.  Using packaging material, toothpicks, cotton and found objects for furniture.  Each house was fully furnished, with art on the walls (tiny reproductions of classic paintings, framed in toothpicks).

Once the homes were completed, then came the best part -- taking them outside on the patio and setting them on fire.  It was the construction/destruction process that intrigued me.  Sometimes the fire would start in the kitchen, sometimes in the bedroom.  But I grew a little bored with the slow and incomplete burning of the homes, until I discovered that a little of Dad's lighter fluid dabbed in a few areas of the homes made for a raging inferno of total destruction.  I needed to feel the heat of the flames.  Soon, the model homes had to be bigger.  Multiple boxes were connected and stacked to create bigger dwellings with separate rooms and multi-level residences.  The bigger the house, the bigger the fire, so I had to eventually take it from the patio to the end of the back yard near the lake.  I didn't want to burn our real house down and I didn't want Mom to know.
My birthday with Mom and Dad.  Who doesn't like a cake on fire?

This was all done during the warm summer months and I waited until Mom and Dad were not around.  I always had the garden hose on and ready for fire duty (I may have been playing with fire but I was also a boy scout, so safety came first).  Wait, I just remembered that I once did a winter fire using a Swiss ski chalet that I'd built as an art class project in school.  I created mini-mountains out of snow and placed the chalet among them.  The fire began at sunset and was over quickly.  The charred remains were buried in the snow, leaving no trace of a blaze.  It was the perfect crime.

Except for the first few, I never did the burning alone.  After I had made an art form of these events, I would always invite a friend or one of my sisters to watch with me.  One year for my birthday, one of my sisters and her friend bought me real doll house furniture so that I wouldn't have to construct all the furnishings from scratch each time.  They bought metal and plastic items so that they could hopefully be used more than once.  With a little reupholstery and some paint, I was able to reuse them a few times until the plastic pieces became too melted and misshapen.  To replace them, all I had to do was take my bike for a ride down to the end of Intervale Road where one of the best toy stores stood.  Man, this store had everything.  My favorite things to save money for were Matchbox Hot Wheels cars.  It seemed that every month they had new models out and it was such a turn-on for me to go shopping for a new vehicle.  The Saturday morning commercials would get me revved up to want the latest cars. 

Cars and trucks still get me going.  Now that I think about it, I guess it was a good thing I never sexualized the fires.  That could have become a real problem later on, right?

One of the last burning events I did was my houseboat.  I made it from balsa wood; it was quite large and contained very little furniture.  I loved that houseboat; it was a perfect burn.  I lit a birthday candle in one end of the cabin and at the other end, I placed a cotton ball soaked with rubbing alcohol.  (Dad had hidden his lighter fluid....I'm not sure why.)   There was a trail of tissue paper that lead from the candle to the cotton ball.  The plan was that once the candle burned down, it would light the tissue paper, which would in turn lead the flame to the cotton ball and ignite the alcohol.

The houseboat moved silently through the water of the lake and once it got about 20 feet out, it burst into flames and sunk.  The small group of kids that came to watch reverently applauded.  And that was pretty much my last event.  I remember doing a few more houses with firecrackers after that but they didn't have the same destructive or emotional impact.  Those just looked like explosions had occurred in small areas of the homes.  Little by little, the lure of the flame burned out.

I found out recently, when I confessed this childhood activity to my mother, that she'd been well aware of what I was doing and had monitored my events carefully from the kitchen window, always wondering if and when she was going to have to seek professional help for me.  She says that she felt better about it once I started to invite others to watch the burnings; she was relieved that, at the very least, I wasn't retreating into a secret world of my own.

I'm going to guess that my next life's fascination was fitness magazines.  I'll save that story for another day.