With beginnings like mine, and with the necessity to apply Hollywood-style spin to beef up one's bonafides, it'd be easy to tie this week's question back to some well-meaning teacher back in Chicago Public Schools who saw better in me than I believed lay within. Maybe she'd resemble Michelle Pfeiffer. Read from the classics and explain them to us in our own street semiotics.
|Is it a Gangsta's Paradise, Coolio? Is it, really?|
"So, like, King Richard III was tryin' to be gangsta with his, right? 'cuz he got robbed in the gene pool and is rockin' a humpback 'n whatnot. Anyway, he figures he can marry ol' girl, you know, that cat Earl Warwick's daughter."
"Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick," says the best Catwoman.
"Whatever. Anyhow, he's like, butt-ugly, right? And he ain't the favorite kid, like, at all. But that wasn't gonna stop dood, 'cuz he gotta get his. Like I gotta get mine."
My boys who sit next to me will co-sign and give me some dap (if you're older than 50, that means slap me some skin.) Then some pretty girl who gets good grades (even though she can't let anyone know because it'd make her look soft) would say something smart about how I never get mine from her. The rest of the class would go "Oooooh." I'd make some profane comment and have to stay after class. Miss Pfeiffer will turn her chair around so we're on the same level. I'll pretend I'm not listening. She'll pull out my English composition she graded with an A. Tell me I have potential.
"You don't know me," I shout. "You ain't even from here! This is just a job for you. You don't really care about the 'hood!"
I'll shoehorn into my dialogue a reminder I'm from a broken home and I'll be joining a gang any minute, just like my brother, and father. I'll admit I'm afraid. Then, in her outlander's wisdom, Miss Pfeiffer will administer the only medicine I need: a hug. I'll break down in tears. We'll share a moment. Some old Motown tune, like Ain't No Mountain High Enough, will play. She'll dance with us when we should have been doing maths. The uptight Assistant Principal will walk past, look in the window, and then write her up. Samuel L. Jackson will get into a gang war with Clifton Collins and some white kid with a blonde dye job who seems really confused about his cultural place in the whole thing.
Shit. I'm messing up my film references. My bad.
|"I told you punks, office hours are on Mondays and Thursdays."|
"English, m*therf*cker! Can you teach it?!"
Anyhow, I just don't have any stories like that. I received a workman-like education from working-stiff teachers in a CPS magnet school, grew up across the alley from the most expensive public library projects of its day, hung out with kids who were smart too, and who had parents who were a lot more available than mine. I'll admit, growing up, I had it rougher than most. What I had better than most were equally brilliant friends, who came from equally odd family circumstances but who were similarly unattracted to criminality. Within reason, I'm sayin'. We were all Chicagoans, after all. The utter absence of social corruption would be met with suspicion. And derision.
See, in the hood, if you suddenly find yourself without a father, you likely find many other fathers. Even more unique, your fathers can be your age. Of all my wonderful friends coming up, none was more of a father to me than Rommel Shaw. And no one encouraged me to get myself in constructive trouble more than him. It was Rom who had the stroke of genius for me to take my hilarity out of the living room and onto the stage. And from there, a star was born.
Or a monster was created.
I won't bore you with an autobiography. That isn't what this week's question is about. I'll just riff on one of the most profound times I endeavored to make my biggest life influence piss his pants.
We shared an apartment together in Hyde Park, Chicago. I was gigging rather well for having been new to stand-up (still within my first two years.) My peers wondered why I was coming up so fast and always had such strong material. It's because I had lived with the guy who made me reach for funny, and who had the same penchant for culturally obscure and outdated references. One eyebrow raise from Rommel during a late-night conversation and we'd be up until 4am, with me standing up, and Rom rolling around on the floor in tears. Thing is, you only get so much time in the spotlight when you're new, and I wanted more than just five minutes of solitary stand-up delivery. I had entire seasons of television inside me (not to mention a lot of piss and vinegar.) I pitched Rom the idea of my own sketch comedy show. In that room, at that late hour, I had an unlimited budget and cast.
Growing up, Rom and I loved war pictures, the more cliched the better. We'd quote them in strange situations, busting up in laughter to the befuddlement of anyone else around. In my imaginary sketch show, I'd bring all of that into it, and why not, the only audience of the entire first season I wanted was Rom. I wanted to do a crazy movie trailer, like we'd seen the cast of SNL and SCTV do so often.
"You gotta do some old war picture stuff, Danny."
"I got it. I got it. It's all in the title, right? And the best titles are about setting."
"Bridge On The River Kwai."
"Ice Station Zebra."
"Hell Is For Heroes."
"Danny Gardner in...THREE MILES OF SHIT."
"The Axis has unleashed their most frightening weapon! Three miles of human defecation! Only the worst soldiers the US Army ever produced are insane enough to go in. Danny Gardner leads a rag-tag bunch of yahoos..."
"It's always a rag-tag bunch of yahoos!!"
"Gotta get George C. Scott in there."
"George C. Scott, as the General. 'I don't care what it takes, mister. If we have to crawl through three miles of shit to bring Hitler to heel, by God, we'll do it!'"
|"He's either onto something or off his rocker."|
"Carroll O'Connor, as the Sarge. 'Get on that radio, Corporal. Let our boys know...they're walkin' into...THREE MILES OF SHIT. God help 'em.'"
"'Dammit, Sarge. We can't send our men in there. That's SHIT!"
"It's a real flick, man."
"Ernest Borgnine! Can't have a war picture without Ernest Borgnine, Danny."
"Ernest Borgnine as Happy Jones, the company cook. 'I've been responsible for some shit in my day, but never any shit like that shit! Those Nazi bastards are some geniuses."
"And we need paratroopers."
"Who parachute across enemy lines into THREE MILES OF SHIT?!"
"That's genius, Danny! That's the funniest shit I've ever heard."
|I should've named my firstborn Ernest Borgnine Gardner. |
She's a strong young lady. She would've adjusted.
The material felt so good, y'all. We laughed and edited and rehashed it and laughed so much more that the room started to get small. It began to hurt to be funny. In fact, I got sad. I never told him this, but I actually started to feel afraid that I wouldn't be able to realize ideas such as these. It wasn't enough just to be funny for Rom anymore. The guy who drove me to every open mic. Who vetted all my material. Who helped me prepare for my first acting role. Who bought me my first suit, ever, so I could go on stage in my first big show looking clean and mature.
In that moment—in those THREE MILES OF SHIT (haaaaaaaa!)—I realized I was good enough, and that hurt, because I would have to leave the safety of the best audience I could ever have: my brother Rommel. I had to give myself a chance, except without him in the back of the club, laughing loudest, cheering me on, would I really be able to make it? Sometimes being funny is the most dangerous thing in the world.
Somewhere between THREE MILES OF SHIT (haaaaaaaa!!!!) and A Negro And An Ofay, I learned screenwriting and long-form creative writing and got good enough to be produced and published. Thing is, being completely honest, I think I'm just trying to relive those moments with my best friend and brother, who had my back since the day my Pops died when I was nine years old. Moments where I thought I was only making Rom laugh, but I was actually learning to be the writer I am now. The memory of those days is as funny and profound as when they first happened. My future may be as good, as will my writing, but nothing will ever be better—
—than THREE MILES OF SHIT!