Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 2 Nov 00 23:35
Prepare to giggle, wink, and nod in socio-political agreement or despair -- it's an inkwell.vue interview with Alan Thornton and Alan Friedman of Southern Discomfort! Southern Discomfort, if you're not familiar, is an Atlanta-based musical satire group - think Capitol Steps. In fact, Southern Discomfort was founded in 1996 by one of the original Steps, Alan Friedman. Since then, SD has released two CDs, played venues from hometown Atlanta to Washington, DC, and accrued an impressive list of private and corporate clients. (More information in that vein can be found at <http://www.southerndiscomfort.com>.) The group's latest CD release is "Struggling Like Hell to be Moderately Amusing" Their musical targets this time range from the presidential race to telemarketers, from Dr. Laura to Viagra. Alan Thornton has been with the group since its earliest days, as has his wife, Terrilee. He oversees the staging of each number for live performances, which members participate in each song, and, in his own words, "is generally on the lookout for clunker notes and bad attitudes. The latter are encouraged, by the way." He and his wife share a home with above-average toddler Sparky, dog Maggie, and cat Dobby; they have another daughter who lives in North Carolina. Alan Friedman is an award-winning former journalist and former Congressional aide, whose two-act comedy called "Letter of Intent" was produced for four performances in Atlanta in 1992. He adds, " My novel, Second Chances, completed in 1995, is a great paperweight in my home office." Alan and Alan will be interviewed by Angie Coiro, who is a San Francisco-based voiceover talent, actress, and radio personality. She's been an announcer/reporter/interviewer with KQED Radio since 1989. Please join me in welcoming them to inkwell.vue!
Angie Coiro (angie-aaron) Fri 3 Nov 00 09:35
Thanks, Linda! And aloha, guys! Let's begin at the beginning, as did Alan F., with his original inspiration. Alan, we already know you were with Capitol Steps. In forming Southern Discomfort, what new direction were you anticipating? It's clear on the new CD you go beyond the political, and into the more universal realm of that which touches/annoys us all - for instance, telemarketers. Is that the evolution you looked forward to? And, Alan T.; talk about taking these satires off the page, and bringing them to bloom before a live audience. Here and there on the CD, there's audience reaction to a bit of business on the part of a performer. Give us a glimpse of that live experience.
early and often (sd) Fri 3 Nov 00 11:30
Hi Linda and Angie. Thanks for having us. It looks like I got here before Friedy did so, I'll answer your question inside out if you don't mind. The kids in the cast come up with a lot of ideas for their blocking and staging so I just stand back and let that happen when it is working. Some of the non-lyric provoked laughs on the CD come from John Rocker scratching his crotch and the dancing go-go boys who wield whips behind Dr. Laura. When we do the new Gore song about choosing Lieberman as a running mate, we pick Al up in a chair and dance him around in a circle. We choose cast members for singing and comedic ability. Most of us have theater backgrounds. We use very few props and ascribe to Jerzy Grotowski's poor theater concept. Except that we take it a little step farther by not only acting poorly but also singing poorly.
brooklynite (brooklynite) Fri 3 Nov 00 12:10
Hi Linda and Angie, As Alan T. said, thanks for having us aboard. As to the vision I had when starting the group, I think it was pretty blurred. The Steps were a good inspiration and we started in an presidential election year (1996), so I figured there would be lots of political material. But since we're located so far outside the Beltway, it became apparent quickly that our political references would have to be broad in nature. In DC, you could probably poke fun at the Secretary of Labor and people would get the joke. Outside DC that's not the case. Since I figured we could only have so many political references in a show, I thought it might be good to branch out to any topical material that audiences might understand. I thought that would make us more universal. In addition, we perform about once or twice a month and so if we tried making the same kind of jokes as on late night talk shows, all of our material would be old instantly. So we've had to try to come up with material that has some shelf life to it. As Alan said, we choose cast members for singing and comedic ability, although it also helps if you've been in therapy, even physical therapy.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 3 Nov 00 12:10
Hey! Sounds like my kind of group! Let me just add a note to all of you reading along from outside the WELL - if you have questions or comments for Alan Thornton and Alan Friedman - e-mail them to email@example.com and we will see that they get posted for you.
Alan Friedman (brooklynite) Fri 3 Nov 00 12:12
Sorry, that was Alan Friedman on my earlier post. Messed up my pseudonym. I'm always doing that!
early and often (sd) Fri 3 Nov 00 12:29
I thought we might beg for song ideas here. Our song about Ritalin was written by a federal prosecutor so I suppose we'll take help from anywhere. We could even write a song with submissions from the assembled gathering. There is a group limerick writing section on the Well. It could be like that only, good.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 3 Nov 00 12:39
Cool.. I see Linda has started a topic just for that in inkwell.vue 93
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 3 Nov 00 13:41
I have a question.... ok, ok, a cliche question. Who are your influences, competitors and role models?
Angie Coiro (angie-aaron) Fri 3 Nov 00 14:54
And, when you're done with that: All art is transitory to some extent (okay, that's as philosophical as I'll get, I promise) but your creations are so linked to the moment, especially the political satire. How much consideration does that get when you're compiling something semi-permanent, such as a CD release? Do you give any thought to finding stuff that will still be funny years later? Or, is it just a given that this is music for the times, and hey, it's going to date rapidly?
Farai N. Chideya (zimby) Fri 3 Nov 00 15:16
Who do you want to win the election (who will give you more material)?
rhyme disease (choco) Fri 3 Nov 00 18:05
And do you rhyme at the dinner table? IN the shower? Driving?
Alan Friedman (brooklynite) Fri 3 Nov 00 18:06
Thanks for the great questions. I'll answer from my viewpoint (writer) as best I can. I'm sure the other Alan (T.) will have his own thoughts. To Zimby, from a show standpoint, I'm not pulling for one person over another (although we've got a Lieberman song called "Everything's Coming Up Moses" that we could probably adapt and use for a while after the election if Gore wins). But you never know how an administration is going to turn out in terms of the material they can provide. (a nice non-committal answer for an election season) To Angie, it's a real balancing act when you're going to put out a CD that has some political material on it. Unless we write a song about a specific event (which we try to avoid doing because of short shelf life), most issue-oriented political material can last in a show 3-6 months (because most political issues never seem to die), which can still make it current at the time we release a CD if we do so within a few months of recording. We had a McCain song that was a bit outdated even when we recorded it, but we liked it so we kept it on this CD. Since politics only comprises about 20 percent of our material, we balance some of the more time sensitive songs with ones relating to subjects that hang around a long time, like corporate acquisitions and managed health care. There are a few songs like that from our first CD recorded in early 1999 that we still use. Now, Lieberman was chosen after we put our current CD to bed, so we recorded our Lieberman song and posted it on our website where people could download it for free. It is a balancing act, and we're always trying to write new material in an effort to keep our show fresh and up to date. To Gail, I had lots of influences, most of whom I can't discuss here for fear of getting sued. I've always liked to play with words and write song parodies. As such, I used to like reading Mad magazine. I think Broadway shows have been a big influence in that I try to use a wide variety of music in finding song parody vehicles, and some of the best come from Broadway shows.
Alan Friedman (brooklynite) Fri 3 Nov 00 18:12
Choco, I will rhyme anytime, anywhere. Makes it kind of hairy trying to jot down an inspiration on a pad while zipping along I-285, the Perimeter, which is Atlanta's version of the Beltway. Actually, the rhyming isn't as big a challenge as finding the right song vehicle for a parody, one that can be connected in some way to the issue being commented on. A couple years ago I was driving with the radio on when the song "Age of Aquarius" was playing. I started playing in my head with the word Aquarius and came up with Acquire-us, to which I wrote a song about corporate acquisitions that is one of our most popular tunes. You never know where or when the inspiration will strike.
early and often (sd) Fri 3 Nov 00 18:55
well, Nader would be nice. he seems kinda human. his administration would be lots of fun since he doesn't have many plans yet. luckily we stick to song parodies and don't really do skits, i'd hate to have to huff a whole airbag full of potsmoke or anything like that. Of the two folks with more than 7% of the vote, i think Al has more potential for satirists. he's the wooden man that tries to dance and kiss his way into our hearts. Bush has that whole deer in the headlights look going on but i don't think that making fun of him would be kind, at least that's what my Mom taught me. My influences in what we do are Sam Shepard, Lenny Bruce, Mort Saul, C. Everett Koop, and Sgt. Barry Sadler, Louis Armstrong, and the US Women's Volleyball team.
whatsamatterU (dwaite) Sat 4 Nov 00 05:53
I'm listening to the CD for the first time as we speak. Even my wife is cracking up at some of the songs and choices for your paradies. We both love Ginko Pills and Tennessee Schmaltz. Your musical tastse are extreemly varied. You started to explain how you start a song, but we were wondeirng how much of a group effort composition is, and how much are these individual efforts. How many writers were there on this CD? Are you considering touring out of atlanta? The capital steps did make some appearences out of the beltway and I'm not coming to Atlanta anytime soon... thanks
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 4 Nov 00 08:02
Anybody here remember the skit on Saturday Night Live when Nader was host, where he was safety-testing a lifesize inflatable doll? Now, *that* was pretty funny. (sorry for the digression; back to the interview...!)
Alan Friedman (brooklynite) Sat 4 Nov 00 08:33
Glad you and your wife like the CD, whatsamatterU, and thanks for the question about the songwriting process. It may vary depending on the song, but, for better or worse, here's a general picture. As I mentioned, I write most of the material. I seem to have a penchant for this sort of thing. But whenever I get an idea for a new song and I've drafted it, I run it by Alan Thornton. He's a wonderful sounding board who has a good sense of what's funny. He's also very much to the point. If he doesn't think something is funny, he'll let me know right away, or he may suggest lyric changes to make the song better. I'm very much open to input because I think a show can become monotonous if it contains only one perspective on humor. Then we take the song to the goup so sing through it. If they don't think it's funny or it works, they will tell me, too. At which time I promptly fire everyone (just kidding). The group becomes more involved in the translation from paper to performance. Often times it's a performer's way of selling a song and Alan T's way of directing it that can turn a so-so funny song into a very funny song. As long as they sing well, we give our performers a good deal of leeway in figuring the best way to sell a song. When we get song contributions from members of the group or outside folks (there are 2 folks not regularly in the group whose material we've used, and there are four group members who have contributed material we've used in shows and on CDs), usually Alan T and I put our heads together to see if we like it and if there's any way we can improve upon it. As to touring outside Atlanta, if someone in another city wants to bring us to town for a show, we're there. We have done a few shows in Washington, DC, but I'm ready to have us go just about anywhere in the US folks want to book us.
Nancy White (choco) Sat 4 Nov 00 08:51
Thanks for the rhyming insight. I asked because I have a friend who I think is addicted to rhyming. He loves the sounds. He memorizes great runs of rhymes and when stuck in traffic, riffs and rhymes. He now carries a small voice activated tape recorder, I believe, to avoid the interstate rhyming collision effect! Have y'all done any ballads? Somehow funny ballads strike me...well...funny!
early and often (sd) Sat 4 Nov 00 13:00
hey dave, glad you and the mrs. are getting a chuckle out of our efforts. as for the songs that Friedman writes, I think that they happen in three chunks, someone gets a cut line going like the day that the boat ran into the shopping pier in New Orleans, we were in a green room waiting to go on and my wife started singing,'Floating past the City of New Orleans, Cafe au lait and beingets drifin by, I guess the Captain couldn't see the shoreline, now I'm lookin a crawfish in the eye.' She and I fleshed it our later and brought it to the group and they suggested that she wear a mask and snorkle to sing it with. We tweaked the lyrics a little after the group heard it and it went on to the playlist for a while. Friedman usually gets the cut line and the nearly finished song to me by himself then we e-mail versions back and forth once or twice and then go to rehersal with it. Audience reaction really has a say in the life of a song, too. There are some that we've only performed once! We do ballads and sometimes they work well. My Satchmo version of "It's a wonderful World" goes over well but I think we have to keep the tempo up most of the time to keep an audience interested for over an hour. A moving target being harder to hit and all that.
Angie Coiro (angie-aaron) Sat 4 Nov 00 15:08
Over the years, especially in live performance, have you found boundaries that the audience won't follow you over? Say, the thin line between satirizing and just being mean? What experiences have shaped the subtlety of how/how not to present a particular idea? And ... what's the political make-up of the SD team? Are there any striking ideological differences that keep your targets, and your treatment of them, balanced? Or do you all skew along roughly the same lines; if that's the case, how do you keep from being a sledgehammer for a particular bias?
early and often (sd) Sat 4 Nov 00 21:26
there was a deafening silence once among a particularly conservative (white/rich) group when we referred to a republican alienating African- Americans in a song called 'bye-bye Black vote'. They jumped right back on board with the next tune, though. It is easy to hit issues that people are sensitive about or to make fun of their heros. We really try not to be overtly mean, though. You know there is enough to critize Bob Barr about without having to mention that he looks like a Pekingese. Also, we don't make light of tragedies. There are plenty of other things to discuss. Satirizing behavior allows us all to be comfortable with criticizing anyone and everyone. We have always been equal oppertunity offenders and regularly apologize for failing to offend any particular audience member. I believe it is safe to say that most of the group is fairly liberal although it doesn't really effect what we do on stage. The only member who ever balked at delivering a lyric was a conservative who couldn't stand to sing a song praising Jimmy Carter's post Presidential efforts. I'd be happy to be a sledgehammer for Campaign Finance Reform, the more- than-two party system and lots of other common sense ideas. They'd still have to be funny, though. That is why we're there. I feel that all of our material lobbies for some sort of improvement.
Angie Coiro (angie-aaron) Sat 4 Nov 00 21:39
Ah, well; with that in mind - do you feel you can use the music of SD to move beyond preaching to the choir? Maybe actually change some minds about specific issues? It would be great to hear of any instance where you felt you'd actually done so. Or is it more a matter of cheerfully venting? Alan F., you flashed on an interesting point up there, about being sued if you reveal your inspirations. What are the legal fine points of using an established, copyrighted tune? (I have visions of you forking over all the door proceeds to copyright lawyers!) If I remember my basic media law course, parody itself is largely protected - but what about the music you use to parody some unrelated topic? The Telemarketer song, for instance - are you counting on the kindness of Bob Dylan to leave you alone?
Alan Friedman (brooklynite) Sun 5 Nov 00 06:34
Angie, I was being facetious, I guess, about being sued (at least I hope so). Although I'm not a lawyer, most of the material I've read says parody is protected. I suppose the biggest case related to that issue in the past few years was the suit against 2 Live Crew for their parody of the song "Pretty Woman." As I remember it, the Supreme Court ruled that it was a fair use. Again, I'm not offering a legal opinion because I'm not qualified. And even though telemarketing seems a different subject than that contained in Rainy Day Women, one might be able to make the case that getting phoned by a telemarketer could feel similar to getting stoned (as in being pummeled). As to the points you and Alan T. exchanged about using our endeavor as a forum to make a statement, I agree with Alan that first and foremost a song we use has to be funny. From my view, the reason we do our act is to make people laugh, in this case by making fun of things people might experience in their day to day lives. I sometimes find when we use a song to try and make a statement or push a particular point of view, it just doesn't go over. Even one song like that in a show is one too many. As Alan T. said, most of us are probably on the liberal side, but we feel it's important to make fun where possible regardless of the target's political leanings. I think people find it easier to laugh at our show when they know we're not playing favorites.
Dave Waite (dwaite) Sun 5 Nov 00 07:27
I suppose that's kind of a tough love sometimes to stick to the Middle of the Road and offend everyone... Do you send out material that is non MOR only when you have a counterpoint song...like say tree cutting and tree hugging?
Alan Friedman (brooklynite) Sun 5 Nov 00 08:22
Mostly we try to provide counterpoint in our political stuff, like balancing a song about Bush with one about Gore. It doesn't always come out even (we have a song about Lieberman because his selection was noteworthy, but nothing about Cheney because his selection seemed rather unremarkable and, to be honest, we couldn't think of anything funny to say about him). There are some non-political cases, like with a song we have about Dr. Laura being a hypocrite, where we are unabashedly one-sided.
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