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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 18, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Lyrics, Improv, Big Fish, Grappa Grill

So I was listening to the Nashville station on XM radio, and I hear Toby Keith singing about something that just hadn't registered with me till now. Somewhere, someone -- probably a commander of one of the great cowboy armies we're always hearing about -- is giving whiskey to his horses before his men.

I never knew that horses took to whiskey at all, till now. Thank heaven Toby Keith is on the job, telling us the way that good cowboy commanders run things.

But then I wondered, How does Willie Nelson feel about this? Does he hold with giving whiskey to horses before men?

I think not! Because there was his voice, right along side Toby Keith's, affirming that the way to fight evil forces is to raise your glasses against them, and give whiskey to your men first. Because everyone knows that as long as his horse ain't drunk, a man can ride into combat all likkered up and do OK.

Does anyone have the slightest idea what this insane song is about?

Yes, I know, it's really "whiskey for my men, beer for my horses," not "before my horses." But really, does the correct lyric make any more sense than the misheard one?

Do you have a question about the lyrics of some song? I remember struggling to make sense of England Dan and John Ford Coley's hit "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight," which had a line that sounded to me like "I'm not talkin' 'bout millennium." Finally I figured out that it was "I'm not talkin' 'bout movin' in." The reason for the confusion, though, was that the syncopation made it feel like there was another syllable in the word "movin'," and the accent was not on the first one.

Same reason for the confusion in Billy Joel's "Allentown." His line "They threw an American flag in our face" was almost unintelligible, because the accent in the music made the word "UM-air-RICK-an" instead of American. So it sounded to me like "They threw it up and ripped a flag in our face."

Kind of makes you realize that lyric writing is actually hard, and sometimes you have to change the music to fit the words, or the words to fit the music, because if you sing straight through, people have no idea what you're talking about.

Are there lyrics that don't make any sense to you? Go to the website Am I Right -- http://www.AmIRight.com. But don't go there first, because the only search engine on the site is limited to searching for band names. What if you don't know the name of the band whose lyrics you're mishearing? Best plan: Type what you think the lyrics are into Google, and chances are excellent that Google will take you straight to the right page on Am I Right.

Am I Right is a great place to hang out. You have to love any site whose slogan is "Making fun of music. One song at a time."

*

Speaking of XM radio, they've just announced that their music stations will stop running commercials starting February 1st. They'll also be adding more music stations -- though I hope that doesn't mean they'll eliminate some of the talk stations. I'm not sure I can survive long drives without the comedy channels and Fox News.

No ads on music stations: just one more reason to sign up for XM, if you haven't already.

And no, they don't pay me for saying that. It's just that the only way I can be sure that XM radio will continue for me is if it makes huge profits, and the only way it can do that is if a whole bunch of you sign up, too.

That's why I write good reviews, of course -- in the hope that if enough people buy stuff I like, it'll be profitable enough that it'll still be available for me.

You didn't think I was doing this out of altruism, did you?

*

Last week I ended my column with a teaser about the C&E Improv Factory, an improv comedy troupe from Los Angeles that is going to put on a free show this Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the LDS church (on Pinetop Road, off of Westridge, a few blocks south of Bryan Parkway).

I found out about this company because two excellent actors I worked with closely here in Greensboro went out to LA and promptly joined this group. So to those of you who have enjoyed Aaron and Lauren Johnston's comedy in scripted shows, I can only say that they're even better without a script.

What is improv? The word is short for "improvisational," and the show consists of watching some very clever performers play games where seemingly impossible tasks are set, and they solve the problems with such panache that you laugh in delight.

The creme de la creme of all improv is the tv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, both in its original British incarnation and in its more recent Drew-Carey-hosted American version. Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie stole both shows. Nobody has ever been as good at improvising excellent and funny song lyrics on the spur of the moment as Wayne Brady. (With the possible exception of Sally Clinton, whom I knew in college -- she could make up lyrics about anything, with perfect meter and rhyme, on the spur of the moment. But she was not actually human, according to rumor, being half elven.)

In real life, however, improv rarely goes as well as it does on tv. In fact, the performers often find themselves over their heads. In most big-city professional companies, the easy way to extricate themselves from disasters -- nobody's laughing and they can't think of a way out -- is to toss in some obscenities or really filthy sexual jokes.

But The C&E Improv Factory does not use that option -- their comedy never resorts to "blue" humor or offensive language. It's like working without a net -- but they're up to it.

Part of the fun of live improv is that as an audience member, you can help come up with some of the hurdles these performers have to jump over. It makes you feel like part of the show. And since you can't beat the price, why not try it out?

*

Of course, after I mentioned the coming show in last week's column, someone wrote to me pointing out that for some time now, there has been a local Greensboro improv company called The Idiot Box on Elm Street (in Elm Street Center, just south of February One Street). With shows on Friday and Saturday nights, at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., they also run a clean show -- so clean that the performance I saw had an eleven-year-old kid's birthday party among the audience. And the ticket price is eight bucks -- not a bad price. (The candy and drinks are all a buck each, too -- nobody has to make change.

The thing about improv is, the only way it can fail is if the performers show fear or embarrassment. As long as they look like they're having fun, so will the audience -- even if they're sometimes kind of bad at the improv game they're playing. The audience enjoys the attempt, even if it fails.

But it's better when the attempt succeeds. Which is why improv is at its best when the performers are all confident and sharp-witted and really good at the games. The night we watched, a couple of the performers were top-notch, but the other two had their ups and downs. Kind of going through on-the-job training.

Even so, we all enjoyed the show enormously. Because at least the less-skilled performers showed no fear and plunged right in. And more than once, the ones who really were ready for prime-time found a way to save the others from themselves.

I guess what I'm saying is, go to The Idiot Box -- and, if your kids are old enough to know good theater manners, you can safely take them to the early show and you'll all have a great time. But don't be surprised that some things -- most notably the song-invention game and the joke-telling game -- make you wish you were watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? But on Whose Line, you don't get to be there in person to take part!

If the audience keeps supporting them, the Idiot-Boxers will only get better and better! And some of them are pretty terrific already.

So come see the C.& E. Improv Factory for free this Saturday on Pinetop Road, and then go again and again to see The Idiot Box on Elm Street for eight cheap bucks.

*

I don't go to Tim Burton movies -- they always look dark, in an affected, ain't-I-cool-to-have-such-a-weird-imagination way.

But Big Fish is based on a novel (by Daniel Wallace), and the screenplay is by John August, who got writing credits on both Charlie's Angels movies and is working on the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So it wasn't going to be just Tim Burton out for an evening of gargoyling the peasants.

We ended up enjoying the movie a lot -- laughing out loud quite often, and enjoying the extravagant and sentimental ending. It's the Ewan McGregor performance I've enjoyed the most, though as usual he plays the bigger-than-life, never-believable character, while Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, and the new-to-me Marion Cotillard carried the emotional weight of the movie.

Well, they were up to the job, so despite the fact that the flamboyant moments all went to Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, and Tim Burton's usual cast of slightly-to-seriously weird people, this movie managed to have the kind of heart that makes a fantasy worth watching.

Oddly enough, while all the details are different, in essence this is the same movie as last fall's Secondhand Lions -- a young man who is in need of a father gets a pack of lies instead, and only with difficulty comes to know what the truth is. If you've seen one, you won't be surprised at all by the ending of the other.

And as for logic -- there are gaping holes in this plot, where Burton tries to have things both ways, magical and real, until you have to give up and go along for the ride.

One side note was the casting of Matthew McGrory as Karl the giant. They used computer graphics to exaggerate his height, but the fact is that McGrory really does suffer from giantism, a dangerous and deforming condition; and watching him on screen at first gave me the uncomfortable feeling that I had stumbled into a freak show, where you pay your money to look at other people's pain.

Fortunately, McGrory himself, giving a simple but generous performance, went a long way toward dispelling that response -- he lets us see the man behind the body. And the writers and director, to their credit, use him as more than a gimmick.

At the end, while I had been entertained all the way through, I couldn't help thinking that the filmmakers must have believed they had revealed something profound about Truth, or Love, or Father-Son relationships. If they thought so, they were wrong. But if they thought they made a piece of delicious candy, to be enjoyed for a moment and then forgotten, then they were right. And that is not an unworthy goal to have accomplished. Most movies fall short even of that.

*

AOL's restaurant listings for our area are a joke. They rate them -- one to five stars. The first 150 five-star restaurants they list include a lot of chains, dives, and diners, and only a couple of the restaurants that even try for five-star food and service. Five stars for Taco Bell? Yeah, right.

Perhaps they ought to make sure their stars actually represent something. Let's start from the assumption that the best Taco Bell in the world is one star, and go from there.

And people wonder why AOL isn't everybody's go-to site for everything.

One restaurant a visitor would miss completely by looking at the AOL guide is Grappa Grill on Lawndale, across from Target. We went there with friends and saw one of the most congenial settings for dining in the city. The six of us sat in a raised, enclosed booth -- a delightfully old-fashioned touch. Hidden away in various corners they have banquet rooms of various sizes that made me start wishing I had some reason to throw a party.

But of course decor doesn't mean anything unless the food is good, and I'm happy to report that an unobtrusive but efficient staff brought us food that deserves a place of honor among Greensboro restaurants. From soups and salads to entrees and dessert, I was delighted, sometimes with new combinations of flavors, and sometimes with old favorites done very well. There aren't that many good traditional cremes brulees to be had in this city, but Grappa Grill has them.

If only the staff had not been quite so unobtrusive. I'm sure the menu said it somewhere, and it might even have been on the bill -- but we were in the midst of lively conversation and the last thing I was thinking of was closely examining these documents. A whisper from the waiter saying "A twenty-percent tip is already included" would have been helpful.

However, when they realized that I tipped on top of their total, they were conscientious enough to call and see if I really meant to put several of the waiters through college all by myself. I did not, and we adjusted accordingly.

And now that I've warned you, you won't be taken by surprise the way I was. So don't miss a chance to find out how many ways Grappa Grill can warm you on a cold winter night.


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