Armagideon Time

The comedy troupe’s name was “As Yet Unknown.”

It was an slight modification of my original suggestion “As Yet Unnamed,” because “unknown” better fit the rhyme scheme for the theme song Leech wrote and he had a weird thing about making cosmetic changes to assert a semblance of control.

Besides Leech and me, the original core members were an assortment of Gen X slacker-dude archetypes plucked from the college town haunts Leech frequented. We had a film student who dabbled in alt comics, an indie rock musician who dabbled in performance art, a minor player on the local stand-up circuit who dabbled in conspiracy theories, and a convenience store clerk who (rarely) dabbled in basic hygiene.

Things started off on a strong note. We hashed out collective vision of what we hoped to achieve, backed by Leech’s assertions that he had an “in” at one of the bottom-rung UHF stations in the Greater Boston media market. All we’d have to do was bring the talent and content, and the rest would fall into place. My hopes were that we would settle into an MST3K kind of groove — medium-sized fish in a small pond with an eye toward some wider (if minor) recognition.

This dream depended on Leech being on the level, which meant it was doomed from the start. It soon became clear that his “connections” and prowess as a producer had been vastly exaggerated, prompting the film student and musician to bolt for the exit after a couple of meetings. The rest of us stuck around because, quite honestly, we had fuck all else to do with our Sunday afternoons.

Despite the glitter myths of fame and fortune and the “magic of the craft,” theatrical stuff requires a whole lot of work. A good deal of those tasks are repetitive and tedious, which is why I never bothered to the handful of opportunities it tossed in my direction. When I joined the troupe, it was under the (really stupid) assumption that Leech would be handling the logistics and the hustle, leaving me free to write and perform as required.

In reality, Leech didn’t have the required skills or will to pull it off. He didn’t want to deal with shooting schedules or equipment wrangling or any of that boring shit. He wanted a ready-made entourage and a delusional sense of “being somebody.” It’s why we had a theme song before we even had clear idea of what the troupe would be doing, and why our meeting involved into goofy field trips and countless hours of wheelspinning.

I played along because I liked the rest of the group and enjoyed the frequent group outings to the bowling alley next to Fenway or the Friendly’s in Fresh Pond Plaza. Plus, this sad facsimile of actual dramaturgy somehow managed to boost my creative flow. For the first time since high school, I felt motivated to write on a regular basis. Most of the stuff was typical sketch boilerplate “inspired” by Kids in the Hall, The Young Ones, and the Ben Stiller Show — loads and loads of hyper-topical wank, ham-fisted satire, and molded plastic dadaism. Most of it was garbage, but it wasn’t meant for the long haul. It was created for a moment that came and went while we waited for Leech to get off his ass and give us some direction.

Leech must have sensed things were approaching a critical mass of discontent, because he managed to put together an actual project — the only one the group participated in — in the spring of 1995. How it did it was very simple and very Leech. He signed up for a Boston public access production class and duped the other attendees into working on his Big Thing, a short film titled How to Be a Punk Rocker.

I was nominally the co-writer on that one. That mostly amounted getting handed a finished script from Leech and then desperately trying to soften the “THAT’S A JOKE, BUM-DUM-DUM-DUM” beats he confused with skillful humor writing. In any case, most of my revisions ended up getting discarded before production.

It was filmed in and around the Studentland warrens behind Harvard Ave in Allston. The most significant things I remember about the shoot were getting up at why-the-fuck-am-I-doing-this o’clock on a Saturday morning to catch a ride with the stand-up guy, only to discover that Leech — who stayed over at the apartment where we’d be filming — had partied too hard the previous night and decided to take a two-hour round trip back to Dorchester on the subway to freshen up.

The two of us passed the time in a Dunkin Donuts, watching a some of elderly Vietnamese men argue over a game of dominoes and waiting for the rest of the crew to show up. It was our enviable task to explain to the no-nonsense guy driving the public access equipment van that the person in charge was running three hours behind schedule.

By the time noon rolled around, Leech finally showed up and I’d begun to realize the heat that had been building behind my face wasn’t rage but rather the start of a nasty case of the flu. The shooting went well and quickly, though I could barely make it through my scenes when they came around. The growing sense of illness, the heat of the lighting rigs, the spilled-beer-and-ferret-piss stink of the “authentically punk” apartment (rented by business majors from Long Island with blue mohawks and trust funds) all conspired against me as I kept flubbing my cues and sweating profusely.

We did manage to get it done, although my voice was entirely shot and I required a couple of days of bedrest afterwards.

The finished product was — and I’m being very charitable here — utter crap, but it was enough of an accomplishment to get the troupe thinking about future projects. To make up for departures and make things less of a sausage party, we recruited a pair a women into the group. One was a chirpy coworker of the convenience story guy who lasted only a couple of weeks with the group. The other was Maura, who was insulted when I mentioned we were looking to recruit some women and didn’t immediately ask her. (I didn’t because I wasn’t sure she’d want to associate with a dude who had once creeped on her, but she seemed willing to roll with it despite some initial tension.)

I started scripting a follow-up project tailored towards each group member’s interests and strengths. It was little more than a riff on WKRP‘s “Daydreams” episode, but it was fairly tight and written with the available budget (zero dollars) and convenient filming locations in mind. When I presented it to the group, I got back a chorus of complaints about “dominating” the troupe’s writing…even though I was the only person turning in anything but vague premises shouted between frames the Kenmore Square bowling alley.

The pushback and the bullshit behind it killed whatever creative momentum I had. It was a moot point, anyhow, because Leech had slipped back into his ways of boasting big and delivering next to nothing. As Yet Unknown was effectively finished except as the pretext for a bunch of twenty-something slackers to socialize and talk shit. We stopped talking about writing and performing and instead concentrated on making fun of Leech and punching up the worst possible song in the Papa Gino’s jukebox.

During one of these public gigglefests, I found out that the convenience store guy was big role-playing game enthusiast and curious about “the whole Warhammer 40k thing.” I lent him my copies of the core rulebooks, which sent him on a small scale spending spree and an open invitation to game with him sometime. The dude wouldn’t have been my first choice of a co-hobbyist, but he was enthusiastic, fairly likable, and not some neckbearded basement dweller with a “Men’s Rights” bumpersticker.

In the grim darkness of Warhammer fandom, there are only less horrible choices.

One Response to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Dramatic aside”

  1. John Michael Manning

    Greg showed me this yesterday. For the record, I didn’t make the above comment.

    I hope is is well.

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