Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fringe Festival Cabaret

I did stand-up last night at the Fringe Festival Cabaret, hosted my the amazing and wonderful Doogie Horner, one of my favorite people in the Philly comedy scene.

My set last night was pretty fun. It was the first time I had done a non-open mic show in a while. And it was the first time I've done a non-open mic show at a "real" venue as opposed to someone's backyard in a while.

Since I haven't performed in front of a decent crowd, and I haven't hit up too many open mic nights the past few weeks, I was afraid of being rusty.

I have the first four part of my act down cold and don't need to look at my notes to remember the order. I flew through these parts without much of a hitch. The Fringe crowd is noticeable weird and very much into modern dance and crap like that, so I figured that my "performance art" style would work without too much hassle. I did what I felt was a good ad lib when I asked people to make The Greggulation Nation hand gesture and then "broke" from the character into the "actual" me by stammer something like "please, come on, I mean it, please make the hand gesture." It seemed like everyone also did the "Slamdancin'" call and response without much of a hitch.

From there, I did my stuff to varying degrees of success. The hypnosis part had a stumble, solely due to me messing up explaining stuff to Joey D., who was going to help me out with something. I still have to work on the logistics of that in order for that to be what I think it can live up to. I think "the hypnotist who hypnotizes himself" bit is a great idea but I still haven't gotten anyone to completely commit to it with me. And I don't want to have a plant in the crowd for that part because I really want it to be something where the bit verges completely out of control.

The end part worked really well. I really hammered the "before I begin" entrance to all of my bits. So then the "now I am going to tell a joke" part was set up very well. After that, I broke out the slingshot with fellow comic/pal Brendan Kennedy and an audience member.

After my bit, we had a "Yo Momma" joke battle. The thing I love about Doogie, and his show The Ministry of Secret Jokes, is that he really loves the absurd/silly. The "Yo Momma" battle really captures his sensibility very well, getting grown-ups to do something that they probably haven't done since they were pre-teens.

This was a really good time. I was in a previous Yo Momma battle and was the first one eliminated. This time, I wanted to make sure that I at least went on to the next round. The first time, I had to tell a "Yo Momma is so fat..." joke in which my punchline involved diabetes. But Brendan went EXACTLY before me and also used diabetes as his punchline. So I had to call an audible on the fly and it fell short.

So, my plan this time was to make my jokes as bizarre/absurd and surreal as possible. At the very least, they'd stand out. Here's an example:

"Your mother once volunteered to be my slave. I agreed to let her, as long as she begged me first. She then begged to be my slave. But then she asked me to pay her. That means she doesn’t even know what a slave is. That’s when I drowned her in a fountain next to the Willow Grove Mall food court. And no one bothered to pick up the corpse because it’s really funny in an awkward sort of way to see a dead woman where you least expect to."

I managed to make it to second place until I was finally bested by rapping overlord Roger Snair. And during my set, people were yelling "Slamdancin'" at me throughout the set. This may have been one of my friends but I don't know.

I was in the back for most of the earlier acts, but I stayed out front for the second half of the show. But continuing in the tradition of people mentioning my stuff act during their act, sketch duo Animosity Pierre said "Slamdancin'" and made the hand gesture a bunch of times.

I also got to watch Aaron Hertzog in action. The crowd was getting beat -- it was late at night and they just watched a movie where the sound was all garbled making it hard to watch. But he did an awesome job of really connecting with the audience. He's become incredibly comfortable on stage. It was great watching him up there just go right in without any qualms. Completely owned the audience, and something for me to keep in mind the next time I perform.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Prank Phone Calls w/ Dave

Aside from pro wrestling, my favorite type of artform is prank phone calls. I've been making prank calls since I've been a kid and it never gets old, albeit it incredibly immature.

My friend Dave loves prank calls as much as I do. He's hosting a radio show/podcast tribute to prank phone calls in a few weeks. For his show, he asked me if I wanted to record some pranks. My answer was a resounding yes and, there is no irony in this statement, it may have been the biggest honor of my career.

We made about 20 calls to various degrees of success. I won't go into the details of our calls (don't want to ruin the surprise of what we did) but it was a lot of fun. We also both noticed a few interesting things.

1) I definitely improved my form as I went on. My timing became better and better -- I started to develop a good instinct as to when to put in a very awkward pause.

2) A lot of noted prank phone callers tend to do pranks that go on for a long time. The ones I liked the best last night were very short. I think my favorite call probably lasted for less than 30 seconds.

3) It really is like stand-up comedy where you have to develop a voice/persona. We repeated the same types of calls a few different times; the more I performed these pranks, the more I had a voice for the character I was portraying.

4) You also have to be quick on your feet and react to what your victim is doing. I think this is pretty similar in knowing how to react to an audience and change it up on the fly. You have to make a decision on your direction very quickly. Knowing how to find that is hard.

Anyways, I'm excited for this project. I think we're going to record some more in a little while.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tritone Open Mic Night

I hit up the semi-new open mic night at Tritone. I was mostly going because my good friend TJ wanted to pop his stand-up cherry tonight but he backed out at the last second. I am going to haunt him until he finally does it because he's a hilarious guy who is a huge comedy nerd. I think if he'd quickly become good and, more importantly, have a ton of fun doing so.

I went into tonight's open mic night just looking to fool around. I didn't prepare a set list like I usually do and I didn't really think too much of what I wanted to do. I'm starting to rewrite a lot of my material -- have an idea to use my current material and to make it more of a narrative -- but in the meantime, I'd just like to mess around on stage.

I did that tonight. I went first, which I've grown to actually like. A lot of times, I hate it because the crowd isn't warmed up and it makes it harder to get laughs. But tonight, I was really happy to do so; there weren't too many people there aside from other comedians, it's easier to get things done and to relax the rest of the night. And it also gives a good chance to cut out early if need be.

I decided to go to the old bag of tricks to start tonight, as opposed to going right into my baby powder toss. I asked the audience for a quarter. Someone gave it to me, and then I said I had to feed the meter. I waited about 30 seconds then came back and said that "it's after 8" which is the meter paying deadline in that part of town.

Then I did the beginning of my act. This was funny because no one bought into it aside from Luke and Aaron. The last time I saw those guys, Luke said something interesting about my "slamdancin'" catchphrase call/response. Other people have said it, too, but not as eloquently as Luke did. He said that he thinks it's even funnier when he's one of a few people to do the call/response because it's like his own private joke. I think that's really awesome -- the people in on the joke really get it, which makes it funnier when no one else has any idea what's going on.

So, since this place was dead, I decided to again do an Andy Kaufmann rip-off bit. I had this planned for a while but was hesitant to try it. I have four BoyzTown songs that I can sing. I tried out "1,000 Ft (2 Get 2 U)" tonight. The end of this song is a countdown from 1,000. So I kept on singing until the light came and made it to about 988.

The rest of the show was weird, as poorly attended open mic nights tend to be. My baby powder bit was mentioned at least 7 times by other performers, none of whom I really know all that well.

I came up with another idea when the show ended. I grabbed the mic from the host (he was in on it) and said I wanted to finish my song. So I started from where I left and kept on counting down for a few minutes.

I know a lot of comics don't like open mic nights in general. And, specifically, ones where no one pays any attention are particularly dreadful. I think I like these the most. At "real" shows where people pay money and stuff, I rehearse and "stay between the lines" with my material. But when no one gives a shit, why not really just go all out to see what I can get away with? Maybe something will stick.

Oh well. Good enough show. The two dudes who run it -- Jack and Tommy -- are really good dudes. Hope they continue it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bedtime Stories: The Rhythm of the Night

Last night was the monthly BEDTIME STORIES, the show I started up about 2.5 years ago.

Out of the shows we've done, this may have been the weirdest. And what I mean by that is not with the material (although we, naturally, had some great, weird stuff), but with the audience reactions.

My stuff didn't seem to get over well at all. As is the case a lot of times w/ Bedtime Stories, I couldn't prepare my material until close to deadline. Usually, I at least have a good idea of what I want to do pretty early on. But then w/ work, real life, booking acts, PR, etc., my own stuff gets pushed off until later.

Thankfully, I think I have about a 75% rate w/ my stuff at Bedtime Stories. I usually like to keep my stuff as brief as possible. And, if I have a second bit I really like, then I can bust that out as well. But my theory is that, while I host/produce BS, it's not about me. People don't pay $10 to see me act a fool. They pay to see the ensemble.

But hosting means I perform first. And that puts a lot of pressure on me -- I'm starting the show off, and if I do really well, the show almost always kicks ass. But if I don't do so well, then it's already at a handicap.

Thankfully, I've developed a bit of a formula for organizing the show. I always have Jon Goff "bat second." This is because he's awesome and, quite probably, the funniest act in Philly. (Hope I don't step on any toes, but a lot of people say the same thing.) He's the PowerPoint Comedian Master. He's also super high energy and extremely likable. Then after him, I'll have a live act -- a lot of times, I like to use this space for someone fairly new to the show, since I always try to book one act who has never done the show before. (Which is hard.) Then I try to alternate between videos and live bits -- can't have two videos back to back logistically.

Another bit I've learned is that the show could always use a "breather." By that, I mean I like to have a low-key act that breaks up the more manic-y things that usually go on. For that, I usually count on the assistance of "Little Miss" Jaime Fountaine, who performs a wonderful Catholic School Girl act. She usually reads a letter/diary entry to the crowd. It's really adorable and charming -- it doesn't get the robust laughter that a lot of other things get, but it always wins the crowd over. And, almost always, I've discovered, what goes on after her has about a 100% success rate of killing. I attribute this to Jaimie's likability and understated act; right after, something more outlandish happens and it's an awesome transition for the end of the show.

I've also had really great luck in getting a great concluding act. A few times, we've been able to pull off a "SNL Ending" where the entire cast emerges on stage, which I absolutely love doing. But you always want the last act to be one of, if not the, strongest bit of the night. Somehow, just by lucky guesses, this usually happens. Case in point: Secret Pants' "Three Minute Prom" for The Prom show; they came together with it at the last minute, were worried about it, but did what might be my favorite sketch they've ever done. It left on such a high note, it was awesome.

But back to last night's show -- I certainly didn't win the crowd over to start. Jon tried to do "AV Mad Libs" last night. It's an awesome idea and I hope he does it again -- the regulars who go to the show really enjoyed it. One stand-out video that I loved was by The Feeko Brothers, who did an act that was something that really challenged the crowd, which is my favorite style of performing. I have no idea how their video didn't kill; it was incredibly well done, spot-on and hilarious.

Charles Rosen also nearly stole the show with his performance as "Ballsack," the ex-lead singer of a punk band he grew up listening to. During the week, he asked if he could literally set himself on fire on stage. I didn't think this was the best idea safety-wise, but I'm kicking myself now about that. If he did that, and we made sure that it was safe, it would have been absolutely brilliant. But I don't want Bedtime Stories to go down as "The Great White of Alternative Comedy" either. But I think I should have let him.

But still, it was just a weird crowd. Also, there were more videos than live last night, which is logistically a pain. But the last third of the show was one of my favorite stretches we've ever done. Meg and Rob kicked things off with a video that was brilliant; lately, anytime I've seen them do videos or perform, I walk away saying, "that's the best thing they've ever done." The crowd was blown away by it.

Then afterwards was a new group called Camp Woods making their second public appearance. They had a really elaborate set that I thought might take some time to set-up, so I figured they should go next-to-last. As with any new group, it's always interesting to see how they'll perform -- first sketches tend to go over wonderfully and have a great energy to them. And they followed suit with a completely unique piece. I really loved them -- their sketch had a bit of a "twee" feel to it that juxtaposed incredibly well w/ the darkness of the bit. Also, they're completely committed and two dudes made out on stage. Just an A+ debut.

Finally, the show wrapped up w/ music guest Jose El Rey. He's a friend of mine who lives in Miami who has become pretty popular in S. Florida. I knew he was going to absolutely rule. He's a complete professional and knew how to read the crowd perfectly. He hit a home run and it was quite possibly the best single act we've ever had at the show.

Overall, I'd give the show a good B+. It wasn't going so well at first, for reasons I'll never be able to figure out. But it really clicked at the end and people left on a super high note.

If I could go back and change it, I'd do the following:

A) Have a briefer personal act, or at least rehearse the shit out of what I ended up doing.

B) Have Camp Woods go right after Jon.

C) Have Meg and Rob go right after that.

Then I think everyone else would have gone on superbly well from there. And I would have loved to have the next-to-last act be Charles setting his genitalia on fire, followed by Jose El Rey.

I'm pretty convinced if all of those changes were made, it would have come off as one of the two or three best shows yet.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Filming w/ Emily and Rob

I filmed a bit for Bedtime Stories last night w/ Emily and Rob. It's a piece called "Positive Heckling" that I hope to show on Wednesday. I'm not sure if that will happen yet because it's going to take time to edit, but we'll definitely use it.

I'm a huge fan of "reality comedy" like Sasha Baron Cohen, Jackass and the like. (But not that dumb shit with Ashton Kuchar or whatever his name is.)

I've done some stuff with it before but it has never worked out. The first time I tried was a few years back at "Match Day" which is when med students find out where they will do their residencies. I had to operate a camera AND ask questions. I learned right then that won't work. I also learned that, when you go into a reality type of thing, you have to go in with an outline in your mind how you want the bit to work. Obviously, you can't script it, but you definitely have to plan out a bit of a narrative. If you don't do that, then you just end up with a dumb home movie.

I filmed something a while back with my friend Laura and old 6B comrade Jason. This was for the "Hipsters" Bedtime Stories. Laura is a natural who is completely fearless and a lover of pranks. We came up with a plot/characters. I was a "TA" in TV production at a local college who was somewhat hip. Jason was the tech dork camera guy. And Laura was the on-air talent who was a suburban sorority girl. The assignment was to do a piece on a sub-culture outside of your social group, so I got Laura to go to a hipster bar to interview cool kids.

Laura was absolutely amazing. She had absolutely no shame asking people questions like "How are your pants so skinny? Are you a bike messenger or cocaine addict?" and "Are you going to vote for Obama? I think I'm going to because he reminds me of the guy from the Black Eyed Peas. Do you listen to them?"

People completely bought into her act and not one person batted an eye at her. The story arc of the piece was to basically expose hipster superficiality and superiority. These people were trying to be "open" but were so predictably condescending.

My favorite part -- these two girls, on camera, kept on saying to Laura "Oh, you're great! You should totally come hang out with us some more!" As soon as Laura's back was turned, they talked a ridiculous amount of shit on her.

Alas, the sound and lighting for the piece was screwed. It would have been an absolutely gold mine of comedy.

I can't wait until I finally get a reality piece together that's awesome. I think last night's stuff has potential (especially since I think Emily is the funniest person that I know); however, we filmed all of it from a moving vehicle.

We'll see.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Johnny Goodtimes' Back Yard Mon. Aug. 17

My friend Chip sent out an e-mail talking about a spur-of-the-moment open mic show in local legend Johnny Goodtimes' back yard. This was right up my alley and I was super happy to get there.

I knew all but five of the people in attendance. But it was completely loose and awesome; everyone was trying out new material and having a great time on stage.

I got up there and had to improv some stuff because there was no mic stand and I needed Johnny to hold the mic for my intro. I also talked about the many illustrious venues I've played at through my years as a famous comic -- especially an open mic night at the TGI Friday's on City Line Ave. -- and how playing in a dude's backyard was the pinnacle.

Since I knew everyone there, the whole "Slamdancin'" part got over without any problems. I then tried the hypnosis thing again. My friend Pat volunteered for it. The set-up got a good response and Pat was super awkward (which is good) when I knelt before him under his control. He ended the bit quickly but this was actually an awesome read on his part -- the bit got laughs and he reeled it back in so I could move on to the next part while in the flow.

I ended it with the slingshot again. Obviously, I can't afford to print a t-shirt and fire it into the crowd every time. Instead, I fired a "diploma" from The Greggulation Nation Community College.

I loved messing around with my material. I didn't do the "jokes" at the end, which was fine because everyone there has heard me do it 50,000 times already. But I think that, at a real show, I might be able to actually get close to doing an okay 10 minutes. Anytime I've gone that long before, it really starts to drag about halfway into the set. And now I have the slingshot which will be a pretty good ending, I think.

Boston, Mon. Aug. 3rd

I've never done my stand-up act outside of Philly. We were going up to Boston to visit our old stomping grounds. I did a show a few months back w/ some Boston folks who came to Philly. I shot one of them a Facebook message and got on his open mic schedule.

I was really eager to do this show. And, especially, I wanted to try out a new bit I've been working on in private.

I did my baby powder/intro. It didn't get the response I like and I had to yell at the audience to do the hand gesture thing. I also flubbed the timing of the "Slamdancin'" call/response part. And, since no one knew who I was there, no one knew what I was doing at all and had no trust in me.

But for some reason, I forgot to check my set-list and skipped a bunch of bits that usually work. And then I rushed too quickly into my new bit. With this, I ask an audience member to come up on stage. I talk about how hypnosis saved my life from an addiction to cough drops (which I have to work on, the set-up sucks), and I wanted to show the audience how hypnosis works. So I got someone in the crowd and, as I dangled a necklace in his face, I told the audience how I would be under HIS complete control.

I was really excited to try this out. I really like crowd participation stuff. Usually, comedy is about the comic having control over the audience. But I figured why not let the audience, at least for a few moments, have control over me? The Helium show really inspired me to see what else I could get away with on stage -- why not do something like that as a big experiment? I'm not a big fan of improv, but I really love it (and at UCB they're awesome at this) when something looks like it's completely heywire but gets reeled back in.

The set-up line got a laugh, but the guy didn't buy in at all and, in fact, was a dick on stage. The bit ended within seconds.

Also, the whole "non-stop introduction to a really anti-climactic ending" thing didn't work because of how flustered I was.

It was the worst I've performed (and not just in stand-up) in at least six months. But I still got one of the better reactions of the night. I don't think it's because my material is so insanely strong (because it certainly isn't) that if my delivery sucks it will still get laughs. A lot of the stand-ups at this night weren't so good (most likely because they're just getting started), so I think that I've performed at least a little bit and have a novelty to my act helps a lot.

I at least took some satisfaction knowing that I was about 100 times better than the asshole who did the hypnosis with me. Wow. He was horrid.

Helium, Sat. Aug. 1

I entered Helium's annual Philly's Phunniest Person contest. On my night, 15 people performed. I went going in thinking I had absolutely no chance of advancing to the semi-finals; I haven't performed stand-up for that long, and I thought the crowd was going to be more into the type of comedy I don't really like -- ethnic stereotypes, shocking language/sex jokes, etc.

But I still wanted to at least stand out for the night. I rehearsed my act a ton in the weeks ahead of time in the shower and while walking my dog. And I started to think up of other ideas to stand out. I came up with the idea of my fan club ("The Greggulation Nation") holding up signs with my "Slamdancin'" catchphrase. Then, after talked with my comic friends Dave and Aaron, we came up with an idea of a t-shirt cannon firing t-shirts with my face on it to the crowd.

That got changed a little bit; my friend Bryce made a t-shirt with the phrase "Greggulation Nation" on it. And I looked into building some sort of potato gun, but it looked way too hard for me to build, since I've never really built anything before. So that got changed into a slingshot comprised of a funnel and two bungee cords that I made with my friend Mike.

I was really nervous the day of the show and had a lot of manic energy. Being that I get like that a lot, I've learned ways to counter that when I get too up. I got to downtown really early and meditated for a while in Rittenhouse. My head became really clear and I headed to the show.

I distributed my signs and recruited Jon and Rob to join me on stage to help prompt the crowd with a few of my bits. I was really worried about time, since I have no concept of it, and if you go over the six minute time limit you would be disqualified from the contest.

I think it was actually the best I've ever performed this material. I really trimmed my set down a lot. I think the baby powder bit really worked and it got the crowd really interested. They also seemed to really buy into the catchphrase call/response part which I do second.

I also nailed something I have problems with. A few months back, I did a show my friend Luke used to run at Drexel. And I stumbled into a line where I said, "Now I'm going to tell some jokes" that got a great, unexpected response, since I had no ideas of saying it. I decided to tailor a lot of my set towards that one line -- doing almost a set of introduction until I got to that line, and then afterwards I tell a really stupid joke. (In his book, Steve Martin talks about how punchlines are simply a release of the tension created by a set-up of a joke. And he wanted to know what would happen if the release of the joke was the exact opposite of how it was usually released. It worked for him, so why not just steal that?)

But once I got to that part of the act, I realize I still had some time to kill. The 4:30 light hadn't come on yet, and I kind of froze since my bit wasn't ended yet. I started to get a "Slamdancin'" chant again since it was the first thing to came to mind, but I should have told a few other corny jokes as well.

Finally the light came on. And I set up the slingshot with Jon and Rob. I got the crowd to make some "nooooissse!" and launched a t-shirt into the crowd.

My brother (a professional comedian) came to the show. He said he loved what I did and that I actually created a bit of chaos in the crowd. I loved that he said I got that kind of response -- everyone else got the usual "if it was funny, we laughed. If it wasn't, we didn't." But I think I came off as anarchic and like I was out of control, which is awesome.

I didn't make it on to the next round, however. I was later told that I may have been disqualified because baby powder ruined at least seven drinks and one plate of nachos.

My Stand-Up Act

A little over a year ago, I decided to start doing stand-up comedy. As indicated on my appearance on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? in 8th grade, I always had a dream of doing stand-up comedy. I did a few stand-up type of things in college but didn't pursue it after school since I found work in journalism, which took up nearly all of my time.

But I always wanted to do comedy. I ended up in a sketch comedy group (The Sixth Borough) and doing some storytelling/bizarre stuff at Bedtime Stories, the theme night comedy/variety show I started in Philly. But I started to meet a lot of the local stand-ups and got the bug to try that out.

I hit up a few open mic nights. I got some good reactions, but I started to like my act less and less. I was doing a really awkward act, complete with stretching routines before hand and a monotone delivery. Mostly, I was ripping off Dave Hill, who is my favorite comedian in the world.

So I started to change up my act. I wasn't sure where to go with it, but then one day while watching hoops I saw LeBron James do his traditional pre-game ritual of tossing baby powder in the air. I thought that would be a great way to start my act, since I couldn't remember anyone else doing anything like that.

I am actually one of the few people with good comedy tastes who enjoys the work of Dane Cook. His material is pretty bleh, but I love the way he moves on stage. And I also read Steve Martin's awesome "Born Standing Up," which talks about his stand-up career. I took from the book that Steve Martin wanted to try to do the exact opposite of what everyone else was doing.

I know a ton of amazing stand-up comics here in Philly. And there's no way I could do what they do in terms of observational comedy and things like that. So, I figured that for me to stand out, I'd have to try and do the exact opposite of what a lot of other people were doing.

So why not ape an act like Dane Cook's? He has catchphrases, hand gestures and crowds yelling punchlines of his jokes at him. I don't know anyone else who has any of that, so why not develop something around that?

So, I developed the persona of "The Greggulator" (my self-inflicted and unfortunate nickname in college). I thought it would be funny to see some guy no one has ever heard of at some open mic acting like he has a fan club and a popular catchphrase/hand gesture combination.

And that's where it stands.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Newsroom Confidential: Macarthur Park

Curiously, I never covered sports, aside from a few freelance pick-ups here and there. This may shock you since I watch roughly 146 hours of basketball a week. Angelo Cataldi caused this. Angelo is best known for his work as the drivetime host on Philly Sports Radio 610 AM, America's Most Ignorant Sports Radio Station.

He also was an adjunct prof at La Salle. I had him in a Sportswriting class. The mission of this class: make talking about sports as painful a process as possible! Watch a big, dumb oaf brag ceaslessly about the nomination for the Pulitzer he got two decades ago! Watch your classmates mirror his every opinion on sports and sportswriting, even though just hours earlier in the Food Court they had the complete and total opposite opinion!

ASSIGNMENT: Bring in your favorite piece of sportswriting and discuss why you like it so much. (Essentially, a book report. I was a junior at a college charging nearly $30,000 a year.)
WHAT I DO: I bring in a copy of Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot," which details the lives of four high school basketball players (one of whom is a 14-year-old Stephon Marbury) from the projects in Coney Island as they try to make it despite growing up in a culture of violence, poverty and despair. A truly amazing book in every way, shape and form.
WHAT HAPPENS: Angelo Cataldi cuts me off in the middle of my presentation! He dismisses my report. The reason? Because he never heard of the book, thus, how could it be any good?

Angelo Cataldi nearly made me hate watching sports. He DEFINITELY made me give up any aspirations of sportswriting, since people like him (or Steven A. Smith or Bill Conlin or Peter Vescey) seem like the ones who are at the top of the heap.

(Side note: I almost got sweet revenge on Cataldi. At the end of that semester in college, La Salle had an auction. One of the prizes was to sit in on the 610 AM morning show with Angelo himself. I won this auction and went down to the studio. My plan was to, if I was brought on the air, to tell everyone live and in person what an idiot Cataldi was. They never let me anywhere near the air, however.)

Most of the sportswriters I've worked with have been pretty awesome folks. I couldn't do their job. As much as I love sports, I have no idea how I could feign interest in a high school girl's volleyball game. At least with an incredibly boring zoning board of appeals meeting, I could pretend like someone gave a shit about what I was reading.

The sports guys at the first newsroom I worked with were pretty awesome. The captain of the team was Jim Jones, the so-called "Dean of North Jersey Sportswriting." When I started at the paper, Jonesy was in his 70's and had been covering local sports for close to 50 years. He was a great writer and more than willing to give his time to teach the ropes of different aspects of the business to a newcomer such as myself. He was also wickedly funny and great at pulling practical jokes.

Being of The Greatest Generation, Jonesy had some problems understanding computers. The Ridgewood News was filled with older folks doing random jobs -- typing in press releases and writing features, mostly. I frequently had to go to Jonesy's office and fix his computer for him.

One day, he came up to my desk and asked if I could help him with the computer. I said sure and ventured to his office (which smelled of a combination of stale beer, cigars and whiskey.) I ask him what's wrong with his computer.

"Do you know this Anna Kournikova?"

I, of course, know her intimately well.

"Can you help me find pictures of her on the computer? I don't know where to find them. I really want to find pictures of her."

I helped a 75-year-old man find pictures of a teenage Russian tennis player.

A few months later, Kournikova would play at a tennis tournament held in nearby Mahwah. Jonesy covered the event, and snapped over 100 pictures of her in action. Only her. Despite hours of tennis matches, he did not take one picture of any other competitor.

He also managed to figure out what hotel she was staying at and took a picture of her leaving her bedroom. That picture was on the front of his door the entire rest of the time he worked at the newspaper.

Jonesy was great. His assistant editor, Brian, was completely insane. When Brian was normal, he was a perfectly fine guy, very personable and nice. When Brian had a few drinks in him -- which, by 11 a.m., was the case -- he was completely insane. Brian always had a story about something going on in his life. At one point, his apartment (more like a room in a boarding house) burned to the ground. He would spend his days in the newsroom cornering folks about where they lived, asking them if they had any extra room so he didn't have to sleep in his car anymore. I don't believe anyone took him up.

I was working late with Tom, Jeff and Alex one night. We were doing our work when Brian came stumbling into our office. His eyes were completely dialated. I know this because he was staring right into my eyes. He wouldn't stop staring at me. He ended up standing two feet away from me, his eyes completely fixated on mine.

"Hey, Gregg." He said this, not even acknowledging the presence of three other people in the room.
"Uhm, hey, Brian."
"Hey, what's your favorite song?"
"Uhm... I don't know."
"Go ahead, give me your favorite song."
"'The Kids Are Allright' by The Who."
"I don't think I know it."
"Oh. It's a great song."
"Do you know what my favorite song is?"
"Uhm, no."
"Macarthur Park. Do you know how it goes?"
"Yes. I do."
"Macarthur Park is friiiiiightening in the dark.... someone left the cake out in the raaaainnnn...."

For the next five minutes, in a falsetto, boychoir alto, this grown man started to serenate me with Richard Harris' epic song. His eyes never left mine. He then left the office like nothing happened.

Newsroom Confidential: My First Murder

I got into work around 9:45 on Monday morning, about 15 minutes late, which was par for the course. Maria, the editor at Suburban Trends, literally through to me a copy of The Record, the daily paper which both covered our publication zone and also owned our publication.

The bottom front page had a big headline. "BABY KILLED IN HASKELL" it read.

Suburban Trends was my second newspaper. I had been there about four months, covering the towns of Wanaque and Ringwood. I had never heard of these towns until I started my beat, and I warmed up to them fairly quickly. Ringwood is located along the New Jersey/New York border, filled with a multitude of state parks, stunning views, expensive private lake communities and a very active (and downright nasty) political climate.

Wanaque sat to the south. The part of town closer to Ringwood was very woodsy, quiet and suburban. In Haskell, the other part of town, it wouldn't be shocking to see a pickup truck with a Confederate flag parked on a front lawn. It was dusty, in need of a major paint job, and a little bit frightening.

It was a great place for a young journalist to grab a story.

By that fateful Monday morning, I had already cut my teeth. I was about a year into my career, and had established a bit of a reputation in the North Jersey Media Group company. I was seen as a very strong reporter, a very quick learning, capable of turning out a decent amount of copy. I also had a reputation as being someone who wasn't afraid to yell at an editor, a publisher or a company higher-up -- putting me in the doghouse pretty much from day one.

(To re-up this back to The Wire: I have more than just a little McNulty in me, even though I do not drink or sleep around. I have a hard time keeping my opinions to myself. I enjoy pissing off authority figures, particularly incompetent ones. It took me a long time to temper the part of my personality requiring me to serve the role of the self-righteous center-of-attention. In short, I am an asshole.)

I had no idea what to do. I had already figured out by this point that pretty much everyone in the newsroom with me was completely worthless. My editor never left her desk, except when she had to go to our corporate offices in West Paterson for some prime ass-kissing time. The assistant editor was too busy scouring goth personal webpages. Most of the other reporters were a bunch of housewives who worked about ten hours a week, writing great stories such as "Bloomingdale BOE Votes To Hire Gym Teacher."

This place was not conducive to a young reporter who dreamed of making it to a big city daily newspaper one day. It was a place where the folks thought it was "cute" to have the title of reporter, something they could tell the other soccer mom's in their cul de sac about. My editor was also in grad school and a teaching assistant at the time. She used to grade papers while at work. The sports editor at the time used to show up once every two weeks and openly talked about how he wanted to get fired.

I had no idea what to do. I had covered a handful of decent stories -- a police stand-off in Midland Park, two teachers who ended up in a fist-fight at an elementary school in Wanaque -- but I had never covered an actual murder. And I knew everyone I worked with was completely worthless. So I had to concoct a plan on my own.

(It's a bit of a cliche for people to expect newspapers to have these grizzled veterans taking cub reporters and learning them a little bit at a time. I never met those people. I, and most other journalists, had to learn everything on my own. I had to learn what to expect at a council or board of education meeting. I had to learn how to cover a court case, where to find legal briefs and what to ask attorneys. I had to learn how to get police records. Learning on your own, and learning quickly, is a definite strength for anyone in the business and has its merits. But it would have been nice to have a little bit of help for really basic questions.)

First, I scoured the article in the Record. I learned the alleged facts of the case: a 20-year-old gave birth to her newborn baby, stabbed it to death, hid it in a plastic bag and left her son in a dumpster behind her trailer. Making it even more complicated, she had recently moved to Wanaque from Mexico, staying with her brother and sister, who claimed they had no idea she was pregnant. After she killed her kid, she went to work at Burger King where she started bleeding. An ambulance took her to the hospital, where doctors immediately knew she gave birth but didn't have a child with her.

From the article, I saw most of the information was coming from the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office, who were now handling the case. I called them to get information as to what happened, and they sent me a press releasing with the basics of the crime. I had names, an address and the police version of what occurred. I now had everything The Record had already printed.

Many daily newspaper outfits own the weeklies in their same coverage area. This is who weekly reporters compete with -- someone who gets a paycheck from the same exact company. (Which I'll get into more later, because that creates many problems.) Our paper came out on Wednesday and Saturday. If something happened that made the Record on a Monday or Tuesday, I still wrote about what happened for the next issue. My strategy was to always try to put a new spin on a story or dig up new information.

There was one thing The Record didn't have with their story. And that was a quote from the family of the alleged murderer. And, having read The Record every day for that year, I knew their reporters were too lazy to try and talk to them.

Now, what I said earlier about that newsroom being filled with wastes was a bit of a stretch. There were two solid people who worked there. The first was Matt, a fellow Clash fan who fits an archtype all-too familiar at a weekly newspaper: the overly talented reporter who, for whatever reason, couldn't catch a break and end up at a newspaper which paid more than $28,000 a year in salary. Matt was always quick to provide me with a phone number or lead when I was stumped on a story. For this, he gave me the phone number of a few area attorneys who could help me figure out the legal system, since the only real experience I had came from watching Law and Order reruns.

The other was Andrea, a college intern who was working with us. Andrea was originally from Peru, having moved to America with her parents only a few years earlier. She was really pretty and she seemed, at first, as very timid and shy. I initially thought she would quit in a few weeks but she wrote a few decent features at the paper which impressed me.

And, most importantly, Andrea spoke Spanish. I guessed this was needed since the family involved in this murder were illegal Mexican immigrants.

I paired up with Andrea. She also read the story and agreed immediately to give me a hand. We came up with a list of questions to ask the family and discussed how to approach them. Luckily, we found a phone number for the family and Andrea gave them a call. They were happy to talk to us.

On our way up, Andrea and I talked about what could possibly cause a woman to kill her newborn child.

"Maybe she didn't know she was pregnant," I said.

"No, you would just know you're pregnant," Andrea replied.

"Well, maybe the hospitals in Mexico aren't so great," I said. "Maybe the doctors there had no way of telling if she was pregnant."

Andrea looked shocked.

"If you think hospitals are like that in Mexico, I don't want to know what you think they're like in Peru," she said. I started laughing, realizing how completely ignorant I was to anything outside of suburban New Jersey.

We drove up to Wanaque, behind a hardware depot, down this dingy dirt road littered with garbage. There, we came across a double wide. Police tape was all over the ground. Behind the house, there was a big dumpster which was also marked with police tape. In front was a bloodied plastic bag.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I felt nauseus. I knew the story was horrific, the latest in a long string of baby murders in North Jersey. But earlier, it was just another article in a newspaper. Now, this was something else. This was real. And this was awful.

Andrea and I approached the house. We knocked on the door. A Mexican guy in his late-20's came out in a wifebeater and jeans. Next to him was a petite woman in her 20's. They were both crying.

Andrea started talking to them in Spanish. They were talking back to her. I couldn't understand a word. Andrea was writing furiously, trying to translate to me what they were saying. But it was obvious. They had no idea their houseguest was pregnant, they had never thought she was capable of something so twisted, and they were scared shitless that they could also be arrested.

We spent about 30 minutes with them. We eventually thanked them and went back to the office. Andrea translated the notes and sat next to me and I started to write the story. It took us about two hours to finalize our copy, as we talked about how to shape every paragraph.

I then went home and started crying my eyes out.

The story had some legs, with The Record doing a few follow-up pieces. Ours ran that Wednesday. It was the only article to have a quote from the family.

Newsroom Confidential: Part One

It's easiest to start at the beginning.

It's my first day of high school, third period. The class I have signed up for is journalism. How and why I ended up in this class is beyond me. I walk into the classroom. A guy with a beard, around the same age as my parents, is sitting behind the desk. I sit in the back corner. He's soft-spoken, congenial and has a very quiet sense of humor about himself. His name is Mr. Ehrlich.

He goes desk-to-desk, asking everyone their name. He finally gets to me. He says something to me and I, now semi-comfortable playing the role of class clown, crack a joke. The class laughs. And so does Mr. Ehrlich. I immediately take a liking to him. I am very into the assignments given to us -- how to write a lead paragraph, how to write in the "inverted pyramid" style, how to brainstorm story ideas. Mr. Ehrlich also takes a liking to me. A few weeks into class, he introduces me to the senior editors of the paper. He tells them that one day I'm going to be editor-in-cheif.

It didn't quite happen that way. The top editor spots went to the best students in the journalism program. I certainly wan't that. But I was a loyal student of Ehrlich's for all four years of high school.

Everything I needed to learn about journalism, I learned in his class. It wasn't just writing, either. It was about how to take responsibility for what you produce. How to handle pissing off people who don't like what you write. How to completely immerse in yourself in a story and beat. What to do when you can't contact any of your sources. And, most importantly, how to deal with petty squabbles with shithead, know-it-all editors.

(The first time, but certainly not the last, I truly wanted an editor to die a fiery death came my sophomore year. Like many disaffected teens, I fell into the world of alternative music. One of my favorite bands of the era was The Lemonheads. They had released "Come On Feel The Lemonheads" which I reviewed glowingly for the paper. Our section's Entertainment editor -- an incredibly dorky immigrant from India who wore Mickey Mouse sweatpants. At the end of my review, she for some reason thought it was a good idea to write the following: "You should buy this album. It might just spit you in the eye!" She also added her by-line to my article for that one line submission. She later became one of 11 foreign-born girls from my class to achieve the status of valedictorian.)

I wrote a lot for the high school paper, most of it entertainment writing or bizarre first-person stuff. But I did learn how to write news (interviewing US Senator Frank Lautenberg when he came to our high school to trump The Brady Bill) and human interest pieces. But I, not-so-secretly, always coveted a spot on our high school TV news. I was never selected for a slot, due to my poor grades.

This decided my choice of major in college. I was a Communication major, specializing in TV/Radio/Film Production. I worked mostly at the TV station, editing sports pieces, and had a few radio shows at our decrepid radio station. Also, I was a lot more interested in drinking massive amounts of alcohol and smashing things that didn't belong to me. I didn't write much for the paper, just enough album reviews to qualify for the newspaper formal at the end of the year, one of the premier events on the La Salle social calender. Plus, I didn't really like the staff of our paper, filled largely with students from the honors program, most of whom artfully raised their hand to answer questions in class and had the fashion sense of TV's Blossom.

I learned the hard way (par for the course) that I hated Communication as a major. I had a particularly brutal TV Production class, where the final project was for our class to write and produce our own 30-minute TV show. I'll spare you the details, except we'll leave it to say I was referred to as "Little Hitler" by one of my classmates, a fraternity member I had nailed trying to plagarize old David Letterman bits for our project that he tried to pass as his own, and as a result more than a few of my classmates wanted to kick my ass.

I did have journalism classes in college. These were largely the biggest waste of time imaginable. Everything possibly taught in a journalism class I learned my freshman year in high school.

This steered me away from the thought of working in TV for a living. And then I graduated, armed with a 2.7 GPA, no marketable job skills and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

I eventually moved back in with my parents, after a tenure working at a supermarket, followed by a job selling makeup at a woman's cosmetics store. My dad is incredibly sensible, to the point where it's annoying. The first thing he did every day when he arrived home from work was to ask me how many resumes I sent out that day. The answer was usually "none, but I drafted Vladimir Guerrero in the first round of my ninth fantasy baseball draft of the season." But eventually, I started getting them in the mail.

I noticed in the back of our local paper that a lot of local newspapers were hiring for reporters. I sent my resume to a few of them. And, somehow, I landed two job interviews.

(This shocked me at the time, as I had no writing clips. Or experience. Or much of anything except a pathetic resume. But later on, I figured out how I landed the interviews. This was 1999, when there were still some remnants of the economy left. I had a few friends who, right after graduating, ended up working at some computer network thing doing about 10 minutes of work a day for about $35,000. These jobs don't exist anymore, meaning there is a lot more competition for a slot at a small, weekly newspaper.)

My first interview was for the paper in Montclair, where I used to purchase both comic books and punk rock albums. I met the editor, Mark -- a middle-aged guy who came off incredibly intimidating and pretentious. He interviewed me and asked if I had any writing samples. I told him I didn't. He then gave me an assignemt to write for his review, about a new shop opening downtown, and a bunch of phone numbers to call. I did just that and in about two hours I handed him a 400-word article. He told me he would talk to me if he had any interest.

Two days later, I had another interview, this time in Ridgewood up in Bergen County. I met Ellen, a woman in her 50's who was the editor of the paper. She explained to me the duties, asked me the standard interview questions, and then gave me a paper filled with paragraphs randomly picked apart from a news story. She told me to re-arrange the paragraphs and then to also critique the story. I did just that. She looked it over for a few minutes. And then she came back outside.

"If you're interested, I'd like to offer you a position here at The Ridgewood News."

I accepted on the spot. I literally ran out of the office towards my car. I was now a reporter.

(Mark did call me the next day. He offered me a position on his staff, also. I turned him down, since I already accepted the Ridgewood job. In a few years, Mark would once again come to play a hand in the direction of my career.)

Newsroom Confidential -- Preamble

If you've read my blog for a while, or you know me at all, then you know of my obsessesion with THE WIRE. THE WIRE is a show on HBO that is, without question, the greatest to have ever aired in the medium of television.

This season, The Wire's grander theme is focusing on the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun. This naturally made me happy, having spent many years as a newspaper reporter. I'm also kind of back in the business. A trade publication recently hired yours truly. I am once again a professional journalist.

This has naturally made me think about my days as a reporter. I started off at the bottom rung of the industry and, despite many attempts at sabotaging my own career, ended up realizing my dream and making it to a daily newspaper. Then I realized it wasn't what I wanted anymore and quit the business. But, honestly, it's not anything you can ever quit. No matter what I do, I'll always consider myself a reporter at heart.

Here are my stories of working in a newsroom.

If you're a journo reading this, and you feel like contributing, you can e-mail me at and I'll post what you want.

see web stats