An Ode to Alt-Weeklies

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This morning, I wrote my final article for Pittsburgh’s City Paper. In the long run, it’s exciting, because I’m moving to another country. But this overcast Monday, the feeling is lukewarm. I have written for City Paper, off and on, since Fall of 2001. I have seen the paper evolve dramatically—from the sloppy, inky, oversized bundle of a decade ago to the sharp-looking newsprint magazine it is today. But it isn’t just leaving City Paper that makes me wistful: It’s taking my leave from alt-weeklies in general.

I love alternative newsweeklies.

Ever since I first picked up a copy of InPittsburgh, I wanted to contribute to its pages. Coming from rural Vermont, I couldn’t believe that such a gutsy, witty, street-savvy publication could exist, much less be available to anybody for free. When arts editor Stephen Segal interviewed me in a spare room at the InPittsburgh office, I was so star-struck that I might as well have interviewed for Rolling Stone. I wrote more than 100 reviews, features, profiles and interviews for InPittsburgh, as well as two first-person cover stories—and all before the age of 22. I wrote two stories about the effects of September 11th. I would have written more, but the paper was bought out and discontinued two weeks after the planes hit the Towers. I was devastated and have never really recovered. I still contend that InPittsburgh was the best alt-weekly ever to stuff a newspaper box.

I begrudged City Paper for defeating InPittsburgh, but I had recently graduated college and needed a job. I wrote briefly for CP before receiving an invitation to “audition” for Seven Days, back in Burlington, VT. I hadn’t expected to return to Vermont, but the idea of writing regularly in my home state was too exciting to refuse. I spent a week in Burlington (appropriately), wrote a couple of features for Seven Days, seemed to impress the editors, and was offered $25,000 a year, plus benefits, to serve as their first-ever staff writer. I was ecstatic.

From the moment I arrived in Burlington, everything went wrong: I moved into a boarding house and was spied on by the landlord; an earthquake rattled my bed frame in the first week; I bought a car, whose engine imploded on the freeway; I moved into a crummy apartment with a suicidally depressed office worker and a sociopathic Satan-worshipper; my long-distance girlfriend broke up with me; a family friend died of a brain tumor; I was nearly arrested for being present at someone else’s drug deal; a guy was shot to death on my street; a drug-addict tried to evade her mother at my house; my best friend’s girlfriend slept with half the city and when I finally told him what happened, she framed me, claiming that was one of those affairs; and—most importantly—the editors of Seven Days seemed to despise me from the moment I arrived, edited my copy to shambles, and fired me after four months, leaving me without a paycheck, insurance, or any kind of future.

(For the record, Paula Routly and Pamela Polston are very strong women who have succeeded in establishing a very respected periodical. On paper, I admire them for it. They are also the most terrible people I have ever met. I do not exaggerate. The. Most. Terrible. People. I pity anyone who ever interacts with them. I would pity them, for having to live with themselves, if they weren’t such incredibly poor excuses for human beings. Just sayin’).

I thought my career was over, and if it weren’t for losing my life’s savings, breaking my lease, selling all my belongings, taking a Greyhound to Pittsburgh in the dead of winter, sleeping on couches for four months, and maxing out a credit card, I would probably still be living with my parents. In part, it was Pulp that got me through that bitterly hard winter—writing news briefs and theatre reviews for $35 a pop. Pulp replaced InPittsburgh, and although its quality was mediocre, Pulp had a lot of chutzpah and personality, and I loved contributing to it. I penned another 100+ articles for that weekly, and (again) would have written more, if the paper didn’t dissolve in 2005. Another one bit the dust.

(Here I should mention The Front, a short-lived “weekly” that attempted to replace Pulp, but aside from its abysmal management, The Front was a pathetic publication, and my contributions were the sloppiest slop in the slop bucket. My one cover story about the Pittsburgh music scene was so awfully researched and written that music poobah Manny Theiner gave me grief about it for half a decade, and I’m pretty sure he still despises me).

So I went back to City Paper.

By this point, CP was the only game in town, and its pages had profoundly improved. Marty Levine—still the greatest news editor I’ve ever worked for—revamped and invigorated the news section, and it was Marty who personally rehired me as a freelancer. I later reported for Charlie Deitch, who isn’t just a kindred spirit in the journalism world, but who probably understands my interests and reporting style as well as any editor I’ve ever worked with. My closest relationship has been with Bill O’Driscoll, the paper’s arts editor, who is not only a terrific editor but also a fellow outdoorsman, theater fan, environmentalist, and all around great guy. Freelancing is a lonely biz, and these guys have done their damnedest to make me feel welcome and included. Movie critic Al Hoff went so far as to invite me out for beer, and we shot the shit one evening in Bloomfield. When we hang out like normal people (which is rare), it feels something like alt-weeklies used to be, in their Village Voice heyday—a countercultural institution, a punk-rock, fight-the-man street-rag.

When my final review hits the presses, this Wednesday, I will have written 194 articles for the paper—plus a few, back in 2001, that predated internet archiving. These include art reviews, book reviews, news items, features, previews, interviews and (mostly) theatre reviews, for which I won two Golden Quill awards. Some of my finest and most eloquent work has debuted in City Paper, including a handful of cover stories. Meanwhile, CP has covered some of my endeavors as well, including an enjoyable interview with editor-in-chief Chris Potter (about my first book) and a very flattering preview of The Mountain.

I’m obligated to fear for the future of alt-weeklies. How will they survive, in the hyperactive world of HuffPo and Tumblr? Weeklies existed before cell-phones and the World Wide Web, when there was still a need for edgy local reporting and zine-like layouts. Weeklies dominated the 90s, because there was no where else a writer could say “fuck” in a headline or a reader could find a shemale escort. Today, such unhinged expression is everywhere, and only a split-second Bing-search away. The death of the Phoenix was crushingly laden with symbolism. I learned the hard way how fragile the weekly can be, much less the freelancer who feasts on its crumbs.

But for now, I’m just proud and grateful. These years have meant difficult, uphill battles, but I also got to hang out with pro wrestlers, grab sushi with Anthony Rapp, and shake hands with Michael Ondaatje. I chatted up homeless people at a Greyhound station and demonstrated Tupperware with a drag queen for a live audience, all in the name of journalism. Indeed, when I went skydiving, I leapt out of that plane to write one of my favorite cover stories. InPittsburgh used to have this terrible advertisement, posted on billboards all over town: “THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE.” It was supposed to be a pot shot at City Paper. But in the narrative of my life, it’s true. There was no alternative. Nor would I have wanted one.

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Ha-Ha Funny: My Life in Humor

Hodgepodge Society Book Cover

(My final performance in Pittsburgh,

The Robert Isenberg See-You-Soon Tour,

plays tomorrow night, July 20, 8 & 10 p.m.,

at The Arcade Comedy Theater, Downtown. Join us!).

I still remember telling my first joke.

I was riding in the car with my Dad. I was in elementary school. The Green Mountains scrolled by the window, along with the rolling fields and hills of my hometown. My heart pattered, bird-like, because I was pretty sure this joke would work.

“Hey, Dad,” I said. “What does Darth Vader say in his sleep?”

“What’s that?” Dad said.

Then I made that iconic breathing sound—the krkrkrkrkrkr-khwoooo that Darth Vader always makes through his mask, but also slightly nasal, like a snore.

My Dad laughed. And not just a chuckle or a snort, but a triumphant bellow.

“Now that,” he said, “was a joke.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t really understood how jokes operated. Their mechanics defied me. I would use the basic structure of a joke, like: Hey, Dad, what is the color of a leaf? Green!” Then he’d shake his head and say, “That’s not a joke, though. It’s a statement, but it’s not funny.”

I was determined to be able to make people laugh. But I didn’t really know anything, and I certainly didn’t grasp irony. The comic genius of my grade school was MacArthur Stine, who was effortlessly funny and never laughed at his own punch lines. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. Like all class clowns, he was whip-smart and could get away with anything, because the teacher always secretly loved him.

Not surprisingly, MacArthur Stine grew up to be a pro sketch comic.

 •

This is all to say that comedy isn’t my natural habitat. Some people are born with the comic spirit, but not me. At birth, I was literal and straightforward, sensitive and ponderous. I loved humor, but my understanding was cartoonish—mostly because I watched only cartoons. I could execute bone-breaking slapstick, to the horror of adults, like slamming into walls, tripping and rolling, and dead-falling to the ground. But there’s only so much clumsiness someone can watch. People like wit and irony. They want a good zinger.

The older you get, the more weathered and cynical, and like a bolt of lightning, humor electrified me in seventh grade. I owe a lot of this to Aaron, my adolescent best friend and one of the most brilliant and iconoclastic people I’ve ever met. He showed me Mad Magazine. He played Naked Gun 2½ on VHS. We wrote short comic sketches for class assignments. Aaron could be quite serious, but he also loved to improvise with his environment; to Aaron, the world was a tactile, interactive place, and he could toy with it at will. Being shy would never win me friends or fulfill me as a living, breathing human, I realized. It wasn’t enough to be a weird little ginger who thanked people too much. Something had to give.

 •

Understand, though, that Vermont is a kind of bubble. I had no cable or Internet growing up. My parents’ on only periodicals were National Geographic and TIME. Vermonters famously avoid the problems of “Flatlanders,” and when they rant, it’s to people who already agree with them. The only Vermont comics I know are Tom  Murphy and The Logger, who are downright wholesome.

The elephant in the room: Vermonters offend very easily. People don’t move to America’s most rural state because they’re social butterflies. You can silence a room with one ill-advised comment. Luckily, everybody loves Garrison Keillor.

Not surprisingly, my first successful comedy was recorded on audiocassette in my friend Rory’s basement. Rory was also facilely hilarious, a master of voices and witty banter. I wrote a comic script based on an ill-conceived role-playing game, Ars Magica, about a klutzy wizard and his long-suffering henchman. I gave the cassette to my Mom to listen to on her hour-long commute to work. I didn’t expect much. It was just adolescent silliness, after all.

“What did you think?” I asked dully, assuming she’d hated it.

“I loved it,” she said.

“Really?”

“Honestly,” she said, “they’re the best characters you’ve ever written. And the dialogue is wonderful. It’s so funny.”

So there: My Mom liked it. Gold star.

 •

Three centuries after my family arrived in the New World, my family is still fairly Germanic. I love our New England vibe, but we are relentlessly formal. And relentless formality isn’t exactly a recipe for edgy standup.

Don’t get me wrong: Aside from being wonderful, my parents are very good-humored people. They love to laugh and they greatly value cleverness. We like to riff at the dinner table. But my family isn’t funny. We don’t trash-talk each other or play pranks. Our language is generally Rated PG. I prefer it this way, because I love the way I grew up. But funny families always astonish me. Those families seem impervious to insult or sarcasm. They are impossible to fool. They leapfrog from punch line to punch line. They have energy and verve that I couldn’t imagine.

Even when it’s just a big ruse to hide their existential pain, I still find it convincing, because, goddamn it, they’re just so funny.

 •

Joe Lyons and I started the Hodgepodge Society overnight (literally), and our first show was a genre-defying sleeper-hit. Folks just loved the idea of two goofballs in tuxedoes reading scripts on music stands. But I didn’t magically become funny one winter day in 2006. Making people laugh took years of serious practice.

This is typical, of course. Like most people, I used to think that comics just stood on stage and invented their monologues as they went. I could never do that, I thought morosely. Sigh.

When I realized that almost all comedy is scripted, and that improv artists are extremely rare (and rigorously trained), I realized that yes, perhaps I could make people laugh onstage. Theater helped, of course, but I also recognized that “comedy” was not my bag. I could never be a Gaffigan or Hicks. For that matter, I could never be a Rudd or Rogan or Apatow. I need a little entrée with my dessert. I laugh hardest when I’m not expecting to laugh, when I don’t need to laugh. Comedy clubs are the death of me, with their two-drink minimums and aura of misery. Sketch shows get tedious. Unless it’s fantastic, improv makes me chew all the flesh from my thumb.

But “humor” is a different category. Humor is the stuff of Steve Martin and The Far Side cartoons and The Muppet Show. Dave Barry is a humorist. Sarah Vowell is a humorist. It’s not that they’re smarter or more sophisticated or better people or openly laugh at New Yorker panels; it’s just a different temperament. Carlos Mencia must gore his audience like a bull. David Sedaris warms you up, draws you in, and when he reaches his punch line, you’ve forgotten that you’re supposed to laugh. Laughing at comedy means relief. Laughter at humor means joy.

For half a decade, Joe and I entertained audiences as our Hodgepodgean selves, Lord Robert von Isenberg and Sir Joseph Lyons, Esq., and we had mountains of fun. The form felt free-spirited and inoffensive—the tone of an adult “Fraggle Rock.” For nearly 10 years, I have co-written the Pittsburgh Monologue Project with my friend Brad Keller, and while many of these monologues are serious and even grim, scores of them are sidesplitting. For a full year, I co-hosted For Real For Real with my friend Gab Bonesso, a Moth-style storytelling series that was routinely hysterical. During our first open mic, a random guy approached the microphone and said: “I wasn’t gonna tell a story tonight, but I guess I’ll tell you guys why my family calls me The Naked Ninja…”

I mean, really. You can’t make that shit up.

 •

The Robert Isenberg See-You-Soon Tour is a rare opportunity to revisit my comic incarnations. To work with such close friends—and such talented comic actors—is a dream come true, a luxury I will not enjoy again for a long time. If laughter is the best medicine, then tomorrow’s show will serve as a kind of late-night pharmacy. I’ve come a long way since the Darth Vader routine. When I bow out of town, the last thing I want to give people is an irreversible smile.