Comic Science Improv Is Building Momentum!


It’s been a little while since I’ve written anything about Comic Science Improv, despite the fact that I’ve been meaning to.

Originally, I was going to maybe post about how we were on TV, and embed that video, but since then, we’ve launched our website, and you can see all of our media coverage there, along with some great videos and bios of our players and more.

Much more exciting is our last show, during which we packed the house at Acting Up! Academy where we perform on the first Friday of each month. In my seven years of doing improv with Face2Face and Comic Science, I’ve never seen a show with the attendance that we had earlier this month.

It’s very rewarding seeing people who had never been to an improv show a few months ago coming back to see us and bringing and referring their friends. It was so much fun watching them watch us, seeing how eager people were to give suggestions and how much they were enjoying the scenes.

But far more rewarding was watching the players. We’ve been through some transitions since we started a little over half a year ago, with some old Face2Face faces moving on and some new folks joining us, and it’s amazing seeing how this group has evolved into an amazing team. Everyone is doing incredible work, and is working together incredibly. I am so very proud of their performances, and love watching how much fun they’re having with each other.

We’ve got three shows coming up in March:

On Friday, March 1, we’ll be back at Acting Up! for our regular monthly show. It’ll be the last show there at our introductory price of $5 before a small increase next month. Kids 8 and under are free. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.

On Saturday, March 16, we’ll be at Angel’s Island Coffee for a show starting at 7 p.m. Because of the smaller size of the venue, tickets will only be available online, so buy yours before it sells out.

On Wednesday, March 27, we’re going to be doing something a little different, participating in a multi-act comedy show at Crossroads in downtown Huntsville. A couple of clean stand-up comedians will open the show, and we’ll close it out. The show will start at 8 p.m.

Ticket information and venue directions are on our website.

Come join us, and we hope to see you soon!

I’d Rather Be A Hammer Than A Nail

So here then is the latest entry in my chronicles of playing dress up.

I’ve already written about being a Civil War general, a MASH surgeon and an astronaut for the museums I work at. My latest “pretend” adventure — blacksmithing.

And this time, “pretend” is in quotes. After my work acting as Buzz Aldrin as Huntsville’s EarlyWorks children’s museum, I was asked to come do some work at the third museum in the group — Alabama Constitution Hall Village.  The Village is a living history museum, where visitors can learn more about what life was like in the city 200 years ago. But here, the workers don’t just talk about their subjects, they demonstrate them. I didn’t just pretend to be a blacksmith, I actually forged some nails for visiting students.

That said, I have a long way to go before I could say that I was a blacksmith, in quotes or not. I gained a real understanding of why it would take years to go through the apprentice to journeyman process. Nails are probably the simplest things you could make, and while mine were functional, they weren’t what you would call “good.”

Still, it was a crazy lot of fun to get to play with the toys. It was a very unique experience, and I was blessed to have the opportunity to do it.

And, it resulted in possibly one of the manliest moments of my life. Curious to learn more, I decided I wanted to step beyond just making nails and experiment with the process. There was an example of a knife on display in the shop, and one of the students asked about how it was made. I explained the process as I understood it, but, then, when I had the shop to myself, I decided to try the technique myself, focused mainly on beating the metal flat into a blade-like shape.

I succeeded in making a knife-like thing that you could use, although you probably wouldn’t want to. But at one point in the process, I actually had a decently sharp blade on it, which unfortunately was dulled in the process of finishing it.

But while it was still sharp, I stupidly decided to use my thumb to see how sharp it was. Stupidly not only because it was a sharp knife, but also because, even though it wasn’t glowing anymore, it was still pretty hot. I discussed with people a couple of times later during the day whether the wound looked more like I had cut myself or burned myself.

The best answer we came up with was that I had cut myself and at the same time cauterized the cut, using a burning hot knife I was in the process of forging myself.

Pretty cool, huh?

As much as I look forward to finding a better-paying, career-driving job again (hint, hint, world), I despair that I will never again have a job where I’ll be able to say that. Museum work can be fun.

Huntsville High School Alma Mater

Where the vale of dear old Huntsville
Meets the southern sky;
Mid the rustling of the treetops
Stands our dear old high.

When the evening twilight deepens
And the shadows fall;
Linger long the golden sunbeams
On the western wall.

When the shades of life shall gather
Dark the heart may be;
Still the rays of youth and love
Shall linger o’er thee.

School we love, high school
Live for aye, Our alma mater dear,
May thy sons be leal and loyal to thy memory.

We Have Met The Enemy

From the beginning, they were the enemy.

I firmly believe, that in Alabama, you must be either an Alabama person or an Auburn person. Even if you move in from out of state, even if you have your own team back home, if you live in Alabama, you must have a preference between the two.

I grew up an Alabama person. There was no reason, no connection. My family was Alabama people, and so, so was I. Which, meant, by extension, that I had to be an anti-Auburn person. No reason for that, either, but it didn’t matter. Boo, hiss!

But, then, they gave me reason.

When I was at Ole Miss, we had a coach that was doing fairly well for us, our first new coach in forever, Tommy Tuberville. And we loved him dearly, and put up billboards about him, and gave him a nickname, and just all around thought the world of him.

And Auburn stole him, and he betrayed us to go there, and broke our hearts.

So then I had both completely unfounded traditional reason, and new concrete reason to dislike Auburn, and so I did.

Over the years, having been an Ole Miss student for over half my life, I’ve become less passionate about my identification as an Alabama person, since, really, I’m actually an Ole Miss person, even if I’ve kept my required “Alabama resident preference” for the Tide.

Over the years, as I’ve become friends with Auburn people, who had actual reason to be Auburn people, like, you know, having actually gone there, I’ve become less passionate about my identification as an anti-Auburn person, a transition made easier by the aforementioned Alabama shift and the fact that Ole Miss has now gone through several more coaches and Tuberville, whom I’ve been told is actually a pretty decent human being, is no longer at Auburn.

That said, it was still weird to actually wear orange and blue.

I went down last weekend to the A Day scrimmage game with Rebecca. I wore an orange shirt. We sat in rather good seats in Jordan Hare, and waved orange and blue shakers. We — or at least she — cheered Auburn cheers. I went to Toomer’s Corner and Tiger Rags.

Before the day was over, at dinner in Birmingham, for the first time in my life, I told someone “War Eagle.”

It was weird.

I don’t know that I’m converted yet.

But at least I didn’t burst into flame or anything.

“One Day, Down In Alabama”

“Early evening, April 4, shot rang out in the Memphis sky …”

I was working as a substitute in a middle school one day in February, and the teacher, it being during Black History Month, had left an assignment for her students to read excerpts from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

The students, as students tend to do, were becoming more interested in talking to each other than in doing the assignment, so I asked if they would like me to read it to them.

I am, I should note, a decent reader.

They were enthralled. They’d probably never actually heard a recording of the speech, and you can tell that having the words actually come alive, actually be a speech, instead of just another reading assignment, let them feel the power and emotion of King’s words.

Unfortunately, their reaction caused me to get a little overconfident.

The excerpts in the book were good, but it left out some parts that I felt were worth including — the “Free at last” part, for example, and the titular “I have a dream” parts, particularly the “one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” section.

So for the next period, I offered to read again, but this time, instead of reading the excerpts in their book, I looked up the full text online.

This was, arguably, a mistake.

I was able to keep the students enthralled with the excerpts, but the full speech proved to be too long for their attention span, and I had to balance trying to maintain discipline without losing the flow of the speech.

And, I’ll admit, at one point, it made me sad. I’m reading this historic speech to a very predominately African American classroom of students, and I’m having to deal with, for example, one student taking off his shoe and making another smell it as I’m trying to read. And it just seemed — disrespectful. Not to me, but to King, and his followers and peers who changed the nation. Show him the courtesy of listening to the words that helped change your life, you know?

But, then I wondered — what would he have thought? How would King have reacted to see African American students so disinterested in his fight? To be acting out in that way instead?

And, really, part of me wonders if maybe, just maybe, the fact that 49 years after he gave the speech it could be so taken for granted would bring him a little happiness. That maybe, just maybe, that’s kind of what he was trying to accomplish.

The Best of Huntsville, Alabama

My Huntsville picture post the other day was part of a blog carnival by local bloggers, titled “The Best of Huntsville, Alabama.” Go check it out!

Saving the Newspaper: “This Is Our Story”

The Birmingham News Multimedia Co.'s employees gathered Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, to celebrate the launch of a new print, broadcast and online marketing campaign. (Photo by Joe Songer-The Birmingham News)

“This is our story.”

With those four words, The Birmingham News will launch an aggressive branding and marketing campaign on Sunday using advertisements in print and online, television commercials and billboards, the company announced.

“For too long, we have allowed other voices to shape public perception about us and those public perceptions are inaccurate — the false perception that we’re dying; the false perception people don’t read us; the false perception that we are no longer relevant,” News Publisher Pam Siddall told employees Thursday.

“We’ve got to go on offense,” she said. “We have an amazing story to tell about us to go along with the amazing stories we tell about others every day.”

— The Birmingham News, via

Ever since I went to the Mississippi Press Association convention back in summer of 2009, any time anyone in the newspaper industry talks positively about the health of the newspaper industry, it reminds me of the “I’m not dead yet” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When the newspaper industry was truly healthy, or, more accurately, when it was as healthy as it was even when I was a part of it, no one felt the need to discuss that at length. We talked about things like covering the news.

That said, I like The Birmingham News slogan. A lot.

As a former newspaperman, it’s sad to me watching the decline of the industry. Sadder still because the newspaper industry is dying at its own hands. Not since the music recording industry in the early Naughties has there been an industry so devoted to doing itself in. The largest part of that, and we’ll get back to this in a minute, is failing to understand that quality profits come from a quality product.

But the other half of it is that newspapers have spent the latest 30 years fighting a war by continually investing their efforts in battles they can’t win, instead of those they can. Thirty years ago, the enemy was television, and increasingly cable in particular. Since then, the internet has joined the fray, but fighting with many of the same weapons as cable news — immediacy and ubiquity. Cable and the internet can put you in Baghdad as something is happening. Your local newspaper can’t. Period. End of story.

And yet newspapers try to fight the war by somehow figuring out how they can emulate that with local reporters and dead trees. It’s a foolhardy battle, and one that was lost before it began.

Instead, newspapers should be fighting the battles that they can win; they should be investing in the areas that are as one-sided in their favor as those other areas are for new media. The newspaper’s strength isn’t Baghdad, unless that newspaper is actually in Baghdad. The local newspaper’s strength is in-depth coverage of its community. Nobody sticks TV news or the internet to their refrigerator.

And so many newspapers just don’t understand that. That fact was driven home to me heavily a few years ago by one of the newspapers where I used to work, The Times-Post in Houston, Miss. The newspaper was bought out by a chain that operates several Mississippi newspapers, Journal Publishing, and renamed The Chickasaw Journal, after the chain’s flagship paper, The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. The Times-Post name had heritage in that community going back, if I recall, over a century; in my opinion, it belonged more to the people than to the publisher. Changing the name demonstrated where the local community and its heritage ranked in Journal Publishing’s priorities.

The Birmingham News’ new slogan hits the proper focus exactly. This is the battle they can win — Tell the story of their community, better than anyone else.

And that, I like.

And the point about the origin of news is very valid. Every day, millions of people read unknowingly newspaper stories without picking up a newspaper when they go to Google or Yahoo! for news. Much of what we think of as internet news really starts with the newspaper. And the irony is, if internet news ever kills newspapers, internet news will die the next day.

But I have to take exception with the part about perceptions. Yes, it’s good to create positive perceptions about the industry. But you can’t ignore the fact that the negative perceptions about the newspaper industry also start with the newspaper industry. Birmingham lost a newspaper in 2005 when The Birmingham News Company decided to shut down The Birmingham Post-Herald. It would be understandable for Birmingham citizens to see that as a negative reflection on the state of the industry. Newspaper across the country are laying off reporters en masse. Again, it’s understandable if that creates negative perceptions.

Newspaper chain owners are focused on profits, and, as the industry changes, are increasingly working to generate those by improving their margins by cutting costs. If a newspaper makes the same amount of money, but has fewer reporters, it’s more profitable. Better for business.

The problem is, cutting costs almost invariably means cutting the quality of the product. You simply cannot cover the local community as well if you have fewer reporters on the streets in that community. And then the owners want to charge subscribers the same amount for a lower-quality product, and are surprised when circulation drops, and then want to charge advertisers the same amount to put their message in front of fewer eyes, and are surprised when ad revenues drop.

The new slogan, the new focus for The Birmingham News is a step in the right direction. If they mean it, it’s a huge step.

If they’re just throwing a huge champagne party for poorly-paid staffers, then it’s a show of bad priorities. But I’m going to be optimistic.

But the fate of the newspaper industry will ultimately come down to one thing, and one thing only.

Apple is now the second-largest company in the world. In the mid-1990s, it was on deathwatch, just as the newspaper industry is today. How did it go from being almost dead to being on top of the world? It did what it does well better. Even during the leanest times, Apple continued to work to improve its products. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he stopped the company from trying to figure out how to make products cheaper to increase margins, and focused on creating products people would actually want to buy. He stopped investing in losing battles, and started fighting winning ones.

That’s the decision now facing the newspaper industry. The industry can continue the way it is going, seeking the immediate gratification of maximized profits from lower costs. Or it can stem the tide, and actually invest in producing something people want to buy. Quality profits from quality products. The life or death of the industry depends on which of those two options they choose.

But, in the meantime, there’s not much blood left in the stone.

The Mayor of Piggly Wiggly

Banner Hall in Jackson Mississippi

Not a Piggly Wiggly

I’m the mayor of a Piggly Wiggly in Jackson, Miss.

For the longest time, the trips from Oxford, Miss. to Huntsville and back, or from Indianola to Huntsville, or Houston or Eupora, were drives that had home on either end. I left home to go home. There was “where I live” home and there was “where I’m from” home.

Now, I’m back home in Huntsville. Where I live is where I’m from.

But there’s a part of me for which Mississippi will always be home.

I spent my life from the ages of 17 to 27 there. In a very real way, I grew up there. I graduated from college there. I got my first real job there. I got married there. I learned about life there. I spent a lot of my formative years in Huntsville, but Mississippi forged me, shaped me, refined me. The relatively gentle molding was done in Huntsville; the heat and beating that strengthen something or break it happened in Mississippi.

Mississippi also has a much greater corporate sense of place for me. I have a feel for Huntsville, but little feel for Alabama. Mississippi has a personality and character for me that I don’t feel in Alabama. I’m much more aware of Mississippi as one place, versus the collection of cities that Alabama is for me. Wherever I am in Misssissippi, even in the middle of nowhere that constitutes so much of the state, I have a sense of being there.

As a result, although I never lived in Jackson, going back there this past weekend had an element of going home, more than I expected before I got there. I posted a comment on Twitter about how going home (to Huntsville) had taken me so far from home (Mississippi). In a way, it makes sense; if you count all the days and nights I spent in Jackson over the years, I may very well have spent more time there than in Houston, where I did live.

This was my first time going back to Jackson in over two and a half years.

Going back, there were ghosts. There was a ghost, tenuous but fresh, from the last time I had been there, a trio of stops on the way to Louisiana for marriage counseling. Those memories were from better times, before things fell apart.

There was a ghost, older but less tenuous, from my marriage, from all the time we had spent together in Jackson, or that I had spent in Jackson while she was in hospitals. It drove home the tragedy of decisions made along the way.

But mostly there was a ghost of myself. A ghost of the younger me who lived there, who spent time there. A younger me for whom life was much simpler. I had only worked in one field since college. I had dated, and married, one woman. I wasn’t involved in a variety of organizations; my only extracurricular writing was to amuse myself. I had fewer bills. And, to be honest, the romance of that simpler life has an appeal. From time to time, I wish I could just leave everything here and go back to Mississippi.

But it was a good reminder also that simpler isn’t better. I like my life here. My life here, in general, isn’t more complicated because it has to be, but because I choose for it to be. I’ll be glad when my second book is done, but I wouldn’t trade writing it. Improv and church groups take up my time, but they make life more enjoyable, and, frankly, make me a better person. Post-divorce relationships have their challenges, but, gracious, any challenges Heather and I are dealing with are totally worth it.

It was good going over there. It was good hanging out at old haunts. It was great spending time with great friends. I can’t wait to go back. But it was also good coming home. I like what was waiting on this end of the road, too.

In the Indianola Pecan House store at Northpark Mall in Jackson, they were displaying a newspaper story that I’d written about the company 13 years ago. It was a little flattering. But that’s a ghost that I’m very content to leave in Jackson.

I used Foursquare to become the “mayor” of one of my old favorite restaurants, El Charro, and of a Piggly Wiggly. I liked the idea — “The Mayor of Piggly Wiggly” would be a good southern novel for someone to write. If you do, mention me in the acknowledgments. And Lain, since I really stole the idea from him. But those mayorships were more ghosts that I liked leaving behind.

So those ghosts can stay in Jackson. But the real me? I’m back home in Huntsville.