Wake Up and Listen to Eric Bogosian
Nothing draws attention like a plane crash. Nothing burns more than someone cutting in line at the bank. Nothing stirs more than Wake Up And Smell The Coffee. Eric Bogosian makes his solo career soar in his screen adaptation of a show that started as a rant, but ends in truth. From playing Satan as a salesman to a movie producer trying to make a quick buck off some vulnerable plane crash victim via a made-for-TV movie, Bogosian is sure to keep you in the hot seat. Targeting post 9/11 themes that oddly enough were written before the World Trade Center bombing, Bogosian stirs emotion through fast satiric dialogue and uneven character structure thatís all too familiar. You may cross and uncross your legs several times or shift awkwardly in your sofa so that you make a farting sound from the leather, but your uncomfortable silence and spurts of laughter is all Bogosian needs to rile up more rant and reality.
I had the opportunity to talk to Actor and Writer (and sometimes Monologist) Eric Bogosian about Wake Up And Smell The Coffee, Starbucks and the art of writing damn good prose without burning your tongue.
When did this project start?
Eric Bogosian: This show was recorded in 2000 when the run ended. This show was actually the start; this is the sixth of six shows I did off-Broadway over 20 years so you can say it started in 1980. But toward the end with this particular show, Wake Up And Smell The Coffee, I was preparing it and rehearsing it for a couple of years before it appeared at the James Street Theater. Then we recorded it on DVD there. Now here it is.
On your website you confirm misconceptions about being classified as a comedian and a performance artist.
How would you describe yourself?
EB: Well, I come from the theater. Iíve been in the theater since I was 15 and the first thing I ever did was Shakespeare. Iím a theater person. Thatís what Iíve spent my whole life doing. For a while I intersected, doing this downtown loft scene in the late 1970s. Thatís why people call me a performance artist. It doesnít really make sense. Itís a form of theater just like the one-person performance shows off-Broadway and on-Broadway so thatís where all my shows have been is off-Broadway so I think of myself as an actor and a writer. You can call me a monologist if you want, if you need like a pigeon hole to put me in, but thereís a problem with all of these terms. Personally I think of a comedian as someone who gets up there and cracks jokes. And I think of a performance artist as someone who gets up there and cracks eggs on their head. Itís meant to be kind of bizarre. What I do rehearse is done in the theater and itís done with an audience, but itís funny you know? But if you say Iím a monologist it sounds even more boring, like youíve got to go to school or something. Itís one of those things.
Where did this whole idea come from? You said in the extras that you use a tape recorder a lot just to do your rants.
EB: Yes. Originally I was trying to practice my voice. I was just trying to learn to use my voice better so I was making these tape recordings to hear how my voice sounded as an actor. But I always make things up and as I made them up I said to myself, ĎWho are these people who are sort of popping out of me whole? How do I know who these people are?í So I sort of started collecting them, putting them together, making the monologues longer, seeing where they went putting them up in front of an audience. I was, at that time, performing in punk club. Weíre talking about the late 70s here when people used to throw bottles at the stage and fights would break out. I did characters on stage and in clubs that were very nasty types of characters. I just thought Iíd make a show of a whole group of these people. The original show was meant to be very energetic and kind of nuts and in your face. And thatís the way those first ones were. They were done in really small theaters downtown. I had no idea at the time there would be the success ratio that happened with them. And which kind of culminated in the early 90s with shows here in New York, make movies of them and things like that. Itís all been a strange kind of world of getting on the stage and doing this thing and having audiences laugh and itís really not what I set out to do in the first place. Iíve always been an actor. Iíve acted in movies, television shows and on stage and Iíve always been a writer. I write plays and Iíve written novels and this particular thing that I do and I get up there and Iím in my own show that I write is, it isnít like I got up and said ĎI have a one person show that I have to do.í Itís just this is this thing that I do and people like it. I canít explain it anymore.
Well, I liked it!
EB: Oh good!
One of the major themes I noticed was the airport.
EB: Oh yeah! I wanted to make a show about what was going on in my life at the time and I was spending a lot of time in airports and at that time I was touring quite a bit. A lot of people have to do this now and its really part of American culture and I think itís much more now than it was 20 years ago. Thereís this huge flock of human beings flying here and there everyday eating that food on the planes and staying in hotels, but we all know about them and some of us are these guys and I was one of them for a long time. I pretty much wound it down after 9/11 because it was getting too difficult, too much of a pain in the neck to fly. For a while there I was just like one of these business men who every other day, I get on a plane. The reason I put it in the show is because thatís the way things are these days. Everyoneís job is kind of wearing them out and there isnít like a feeling, itís either youíre commuting some long distance and itís coming up in white. The whole 90s thing is Starbucks. In the 60s it was the dry martini, but in the 90s its coffee and burnout and for many of us I think you have to question that. Thatís one of the reasons why the show is called Wake Up And Smell The Coffee. Weíre in the age of coffee.
Canít argue with that one! How do you form your prose so smoothly from scene to scene? I write a lot so Iím very interested to hear how you go about it.
EB: In this particular show more than any other show it was sort of an idea that started in it. I listened to some Jack Kerouac, who used to record his own stuff to music. I was very interested in that flow and looking how there could be a flow in the show in one piece or going from one piece to another. I love the idea of an actor turning from one character into another really quickly and you canít completely tell from watching an edited DVD of how quickly I turn from one character to another because it appears to be a cut or something but in fact thatís how fast I do it. I like to do that I think its fun to do that and its fun to see that and I like to see other actors do it. It makes you realize that youíre looking at acting that this guy really isnít that person, but heís somebody else in fact so this is all performance. It makes it more fun to see it made up in that regard. As far as the writing itself, a lot of times it starts with an improv with a tape recorder and it just requires that I listen to it a lot. I think there are two components to writing: One is generating the writing and the other is being able to edit while youíre doing it. Iím big on throwing away stuff that I donít like and I think for many writers thereís this feeling that I worked on this thing for six hours and I canít throw it away and its like yeah, you can throw it away. This is a really important part of the writer, you have to be able to sit there and read it and hear it and be able to say, ĎDo I like it? Not because I put so much time on it, but is it any good?í I use this very labor intensive approach to writing. Itís the hard way around, but this is the way I have to do it because Iím not really a natural born writer. Iíll go as far as finishing a monologue or almost finishing it then going back and throwing it all out. Thatís the way I have to do it. It takes forever!
You satirize a lot, using Satan as a sleazy salesman, fluffing religion and the Starbucks craze. Where do you come up with it? How does it form so well because it all seems to fit very well together?
EB: Well, I guess in any writing project thereís always the thing that itís supposedly about, the plot or whatever the themes are, but thereís always something behind that. But I guess what Iím trying to do with a show like this, because its in little chunks and pieces all over the place, is grab a hold of my whole mind set. The way I go about my business on a given day and if you ask me what Iím up to, like if one of my kids got sick last week or if Iím trying to go to the gym more, thereís always something more than that and thatís what Iím trying to get at. What is the thing thatís really driving me? Is there some fear, some ambition? Am I hungry for something or is there something missing in my life? And what I do is a lot of different bits and theyíre not always big bits; some are little tiny fragments that I never really pick up again. Over the time Iím writing the show, and weíre talking about years, I will pick up and put down a lot of different themes and ideas and at a certain point I look over them and pick whatís interesting or what I havenít done yet. And I may pick something interesting when I was 30 years old, masturbating or something, not really to the point here where I already covered it or everybodyís hearing too much about masturbating lately in shows so itís done. Donít do it anymore so drop that. Then look at something else about this fact that I stand in line at the bank, at the movie theater. Thereís always someone cutting in front of me and I want to kill the person; I want to tear their eyes out. Where is that coming from? Thatís kind of interesting. You get a little more torque to it than lets say, a couple minutes on Seinfeld or something like that. There are ideas in the air and we all share these things. Itís not totally original, but itís like instead of dealing with the surface stuff, I collect the whole group of things around something. I canít put it into words what that something might be, but thatís why I made the show. The whole thing being itís sort of like some exorcism. In the case of Satan, in the show, in some ways heís connected to my feeling deep down that I shouldnít do wrong things and that I should only do right things without ever really thinking about what the right and wrong things might be. I spent way too much time thinking, ĎOh my goodness. I ate at a fast food restaurant. Iím going to hell.í Or I smoked a cigarette or whatever I did that I shouldnít have done. I came up with this guy, Devilís Advocate. This theme has showed up in my work over and over again because it happens to be something that I think about all the time. Iím very conservative, rigid, boring person so I have to sort of pretend and go exploring. The only place Iím not a boring person is when Iím on stage. Not just in my writing, but getting out there in front of people is fun. Itís like skiing the X-trails down the hill, the black trail or something. In that one place I get to cut loose.
Youíve been in various films besides doing theater. Which do you prefer and how do you make the transition?
EB: I donít know if I can do films all the time because itís kind of intense. Thatís why I donít do them all the time. For me I get to do a style of acting thatís way more deep and intense than what I would normally do because even stage acting is always kind of a little fake. Itís just whatís really intense about it is youíre with the audience. In a movie itís almost like Iím becoming this guy. When I did Wonderland with Val Kilmer a couple of years ago we had scenes that didnít even show up in the movie that you can get in the DVD or extras or something. And weíre sitting around smoking crack together and heís the porn star and Iím supposed to be this notorious criminal and the two of us were just going crazy with this stuff. And it gets so intense and it was good like that. I just donít think I could do that everyday. I think certain people like to be in that frame of mind and for me, also thereís just a little too much focus on, I donít know, the whole fact that youíve been in the movie or something then it becomes this kind of an ego thing and I donít need too much of that in my life because I kind of become obnoxious with it. So, itís better for me to have it in bits and pieces. How do I prepare for it? I prepare for every role the same way, it doesnít make a difference if Iím doing a solo or if Iím doing a character on stage. I always start with script. I always sit and just keep working the lines over and over again until the character starts to float toward me and I get him and I just know who this guy is. And as a result sometimes I just donít. Iíll be offered a role in something and Iíll say, ĎI just donít know that guy, I donít know how to do that guy. I donít know who he is.í When I play a bad guy, which Iíve done a number of times in TV and movies, the reason why I like to play these guys is I get to really stretch out and be a kind of person that I canít normally be in my day to day life. I think De Niro said it once that you get to play the character without the consequences. And thatís true. In Wonderland I had something like eight people killed and I didnít have to go to jail for it. Its fun. (laughs) I get killed in movies and I get killed in Talk Radio, but Iím not dead. So thatís also good! (laughs)
Iím glad that you acknowledged the whole ego thing in Hollywood because I think a lot of actors do it, but donít acknowledge that theyíre doing it. So thatís refreshing to hear.
EB: Thereís a lot of ways to get your ego stroked in this world and it may come in the tiniest things. When you do something like a movie and people see you in it the egos go. Thereís a number of actors in the city that do a number of movies and do seem to have their heads screwed on right. Phil Hoffman being kind of the king of the group, well, I shouldnít say king, but someone we look toward as someone who has done a lot of film and has a very idealistic idea of what weíre doing on stage or in film. Itís good. We support each other in the city with this approach to it. I donít know what other approach you could have. I mean if you do anything any other way youíre just asking for trouble. Maybe thatís L.A. I donít know. I donít know who this movie star would be, but whoever they are who are obnoxious about it, in a way, theyíre their own worst enemy. They donít get to have a good time. Lock themselves in their trailer or whatever theyíre doing. Some silly shit. (laughs)
Youíre known for never shying away from lifeís ďdisturbing truths.Ē Is this something you want to be remembered for?
EB: Well I guess Iím modeling myself after the people I like who, in terms of writers and actors, I just like people that are a little bit more rigorous and unsentimental. I donít like sentimental stuff. I do, but I donít fall for it every time. I cry when I watch Forrest Gump for God sakes, which I make fun of it in the show, however, I donít want to make stuff like that because I think its basically tricking the audience. Itís bologna, especially if youíre talking about life or death issues. It becomes kind of a political choice to say, ĎIf weíre going to talk about this stuff letís not be stupid about it. Keep our eyes open.í There are guys like that who write that way. I also like actors with a great sense of humor. I was fortunate to know Frank Zappa before he passed away and he was the kind of guy who would sort of do this artsy stuff, but heíd have this great sense of humor behind it, too. There are comedians who have done great work in that vein, whether its Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks, someone like that who just sticks it to you. Chris Rock when heís good. I really like that. It has to do with my heroes. In an ideal world I think any audience feels that they are, in some way having a conversation with other people, but also with your peers. In a way youíre kind of idealizing any of these guys because you donít know whether theyíll like it. In a way youíre thinking, ĎWho would like this? Who do I wish would like this?í So thatís how a style gets evolved. With what you were saying before, I donít know whether I get up in the morning and say Iím only going to think about harsh things and certainly these days itís hard for me to not think that way because sadly a lot of harsh things happened in the neighborhood where Iím sitting right now. Itís not something where I can just sit there and say Iím going to write about death. I just canít do it today.
The show also points to a lot of post 9/11 issues and themes.
EB: It was written before 9/11. Thatís the whole weird thing about it.
Yeah, definitely. Itís very strange!
EB: It is weird. Itís kind of scary.
So how do you work with such global material thatís so personal to everyone, especially seeing as how you wrote it before 9/11?
EB: You know, I guess like I said before thereís just ideas in the air, in my head. Iím not that concerned about making any kind of political statements, but I am interested in what Iím thinking about. What was kind of crazy about 9/11 is that what I was thinking, even in the name of the piece, Wake Up And Smell The Coffee, was like ĎCome on everybody, snap out of it.í People are getting a little crazy here and terrorists are on my mind all the time and airplanes are on my mind all the time and Iím just going a little too fast and it feels like its getting a little out of control. So, I reach out for these topics because they fit into the way Iím thinking about this stuff, not like I feel Iíve got to tell anybody about any of these things because Iím assuming everybody who sees my stuff reads a newspaper or in some way are informing themselves. They donít need me to give them a news report. I write about things that are on my mind and I do read the newspaper so a lot of this stuff is on my mind. And like you say, itís a post 9/11 world in a pre 9/11 piece. The world was so much simpler then when I wrote that and it was easier to go dancing around a lot of these really scary themes which show up again and again in the show. Itís kind of uncanny. I donít think I could do it today, actually. I donít think I could write about all this stuff. It would be a little too painful. Itís a lot to handle.
- Danielle Henbest
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