Monday, October 27, 2008

The Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean visits Indianapolis

The Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean visits Indianapolis

I'm sitting in Row A, seat 103 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre. There are 20 other people in the entire theatre. Mostly because I'm 45 minutes early.

I'm waiting for the Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean to start, and the fair weather fans are out in the lobby, or still on their way to the theatre. I've been waiting for this show since they announced it back in July. The stage is empty, and the crowd trickles in.

The Vinyl Café is a radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, similar to Prairie Home Companion. In fact, it's on right after Prairie Home Companion on WFYI public radio, so the comparisons are inevitable.

Sure, music and a couple of stories are the mainstays on the Vinyl Café's 60 minute offering (compared to the added radio skits, fake commercials, and News from Lake Wobegon on PHC). But a live show is twice as nice. Two hours of music and stories, including what we all came for: Dave and Morley stories.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a way-big-huge fan of Prairie Home Companion, and have listened to the show for nearly 30 years. I've seen two live shows, and met Garrison Keillor twice. He even gave me some writing advice that extended my humor career by 10 years (so you have him to blame for it). Having said all that, I think Stuart is funnier– laugh-out loud funny – than Garrison Keillor. He makes me smile and chuckle. He's comfort food for my soul. But Stuart nearly makes me wet my pants at least twice per show. Five alarm chili.

I've been looking forward to the show for nearly 4 months, but now I can't wait for it to be over. I get to interview Stuart after the show is over.

A Vinyl Café stage setup is pretty simple. A few microphones, a couple of music stands, a piano, and a double bass violin. There's a chair, end table, and lamp sitting in front of a video screen. That's where Stuart sits while the musicians play.

Row A, Seat 103 is about 30 feet from Stuart's empty chair. On the screen is a photo of Stuart standing in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. From where I'm sitting, Stuart is staring right at me. It's creeping me out. Not to mention the seats are as small as airline seats, and when the guy next to me shows up, we almost start wrestling over the armrest.

Finally, the lights dim, and the crowd of 800+ fans start clapping like we're trying to revive Tinker Bell.

"Tonight, we've got music from Dala and Danny Michel, and three Dave and Morley stories," Stuart says.

You'd think Oprah just walked onstage and said she's giving Cadillac Esplanades to everyone.

"THREE Dave and Morley stories?!" we all gasp. The woman next to me swoons and nearly passes out. Dave and Morley are characters in Stuart's regular stories. Anyone who listens to the show is hooked by the Dave and Morley stories.

We get our performances by female duo, Dala, and singer-songwriter Danny Michel, the three Dave and Morley stories, and even a story and slideshow of Stuart's life, including a couple of photos that Stuart probably wishes were never made public. So I'm showing one of them here.

(Never give Row A, seat 103 to a guy with a digital camera that has 16x digital zoom.)

After the show, I meet Jess Milton, Vinyl Café's producer. She's been the producer for four years, but she's been with the show for five. I ask her what a producer does. Basically she does everything but being the talent. She helps come up with the script for the show, decides what stories should make it on, picks the musicians, and will even help sell merchandise before and after the show. Tonight, she even works the lights.

"We'll get you an interview with Stuart after he signs autographs. Are you okay with waiting that long?"

There are at least 60 people in line for autographs. It will probably take 90 minutes. I tell her it's no problem.

"Or you could do it over the phone if you'd like."

Hmmm, wait for 90 minutes to interview one of my literary heroes in person, or do it on the phone tomorrow. . . what to do, what to do. . . ? I tell her I'm happy to wait. I already called my wife and told her I'd be home really late.

I also meet Tony Decker, the show's road manager. We discuss the historical meaning of the name Decker(s) – we're menders of thatched roofs – and talk about what the road manager does. Tony sells merchandise, manages the travel arrangements, maps, and making sure everyone gets to where they need to be. He works when the show is on the road, and gets to stay home with his kids when it's not. Lucky guy.

Jess and Stuart are so worried about making sure I get some time with him that I apologize.

"This is just an interview for my blog," I tell Stuart as we walk back to his hotel.

"Yeah, but it's your blog," he says. "That's important."

He says it in a way that makes me think it is. Or at least he thinks so. And that's what makes Stuart McLean a fan favorite. You believe what he says because he speaks with sincerity and promise.

Finally, we sit down in the hotel lobby. It's 10:40, and I've got 20 minutes before my car is in danger of being towed (I knew that parking spot on the Circle was too good to be true).

"Since jokes generally rely on that a-ha moment, how do you deal with the laugh that comes before the joke?" I ask.

"I actually plan on that," he says. He structures the story so he can get the laughs from the crowd. A crowd that is so familiar with Dave's foibles, shortcomings, and misadventures that a mere mention of Dave, a cake, and an elevator brings anticipatory groans and laughter from us.

"But since humor relies on a technique like Surprise or Recognition, how do you create those jokes so they get the laugh afterward, not before?"

"Well, I don't know much about humor techniques," he says. "I just do it intuitively."

What? The two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humor, sort of Canada's humor Pulitzer, doesn't know humor techniques?

"Three time," he corrects me.

Hey, if I was chosen as Canada's funniest writer three different times – only the fourth writer to do so – I'd be picky about it too. I got your humor techniques right here.

"Sometimes the dancer just doesn't know the dance," he says. "If you were to have me look at a humor piece, I could give you feedback and tell you what would make it funnier, but I couldn't tell you what to do beforehand. I could teach a class about it, but it would be repeating what other people have said."

But Stuart does understand the rhythm of language, and you can hear it in his stories. You can sort of read it in his books, but it's when you listen to his stories that you really hear the lilting rhythm.

"The rhythm of language is something I pay a lot of attention to," he says. "I'm always looking for it. You should look for the poetry in what you're writing. Rhythms of language are very, very important to me. I'm always looking for the swing of the words."

"Where do you get your ideas?" I ask. "Is this stuff that happens to you, or other people?" I cringe inwardly. I got tired of answering that question years ago.

"I ran out of my own stuff early on."

I know the feeling. That's why the advice Garrison Keillor gave me ("Write about current events. Don't limit yourself to your own past.") extended my writing career by 10 years.

It's 10:55, and Stuart is looking more tired than he's letting on. He's such a nice guy that if I kept talking for another hour, he'd probably sit there with me. Instead I ask him to sign my notebook and I get a photo with him. We chat for a couple more minutes, and Stuart says they're already planning to come back to Indianapolis. I tell him I'll be there when he does.

Row A, Seat 103. Keep it warm for me, because I'll be there. With a better digital zoom.

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