|Looking for Janis|
A friend sent me a link to a music and humor blog the other day thinking I would get a kick out of the references to days gone by, inside jokes that only us old people would find amusing. What they didn’t know was that the Janis Joplin music that the blog was playing would remind me of Janis staring down on me from the wall of the Janis Room at Threadgill’s. Not a pleasant memory of my youth but of the location where we used to hold a weekly Libertarian Toastmasters (Politimasters) meeting and the terror I went through pretty much every week that I was expected to give a speech there. The kind of thing that should carry a trigger warning, if I believed in those kinds of things.
Anyone who’s ever tried to speak in front of a large group of people can commiserate with me here, if not completely understand what I’m talking about. It wasn’t just fear that I felt, standing there trying to speak, and Stage fright is too dismissive to cover it. Perhaps Topophobia describes the feeling; and further might explain why Janis (and so many other performers) resorted to numbing herself before getting onstage. I know the meetings went better when alcohol was served beforehand (at least they seemed to) How can you be expected to be entertaining when you can’t shake the feeling that you’re going to melt (or explode) at any moment?
Public speaking is one of the most common human fears, and this was confirmed by my own experiences within the Politimasters group. The group itself died from a lack of participation. We just couldn’t get enough people. 10 people is what you need to run an effective Toastmasters training group, and we couldn’t even get 10 people interested in meeting every week to practice their speaking skills in front of an audience.
Toastmasters and stage fright in turn remind me of my high school speech class and the dreaded speech class project, another instance (and another trigger warning) of getting up in front of an audience and perform in front of other people. The teachers decided to do a mock version of The Gong Show, this was the 70’s after all, in front of the entire school body as well as guests. To make matters worse they decided we would determine in advance whether we were going to be gonged or not (I think they missed the point of audience participation a key feature of The Gong Show) A friend of mine convinced me that we should try and do Abbot and Costello‘s routine Who’s on First, and we (she) decided that we didn’t want to be gonged. I went along with the plan lacking even the slightest idea what I could possibly do that an audience would find interesting. [I’ve written a piece more recently, Coping with Dysgraphia. It might shed light on why it was that I was convinced I couldn’t be interesting.]
I memorized the routine. I read it every day for more than two weeks. Performed it in front of family a number of times. I could do it backward by the day of the show. When that curtain rose, I couldn’t remember word one of the entire thing. I am, to put it bluntly, speechless. Both of us end up reading the routine from cards that we carried on with us. There is no other way to describe it, it’s bad and we should be gonged for it. The audience wants us gonged, and can’t figure out why the judges don’t go along. I remember the feeling of thousands of people in the audience wanting my blood (although I’m sure the auditorium in Stinnett didn’t hold more than a few hundred; and ‘wanting blood’ is a bit of an exaggeration. Just a bit) when I walked off that stage I swore I would never do anything like that again.
…And Janis is looking at me from across the room. “You had a speech prepared for Toastmasters tonight, right?” Pure terror.
The reference that stimulated this trip down memory lane removed itself from public view a number of years ago, forcing me to rewrite the opening paragraph of this piece. Having embarked on a cleaning edit, I decided to do a few other wordsmithing edits while keeping the feeling of the piece that I had intended to communicate intact.
Well, that’s true as far as it goes. The real reason I’m editing today is because Chuck Barris died this week, and as much as I hate to admit it he had a real impact on my life, as is partially related above. My family watched The Gong Show every day if my memory serves me right. The show was on in the hour after we got out of school and since we only had one TV and two channels back then, I cringed my way through most of the stupid on it. There were occasional gems to be found but I don’t think love or like are words I would apply to The Gong Show. The show was more like an inoculation for stupid than anything that I might remember with affection.
If you haven’t seen Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and you are a Chuck Barris or Gong Show fan, you might want to give it a chance. It is a very strange film about a very strange man. I personally would rate the film as meh. I know that is what I thought because it made so little impression on me that I barely recall it. The vast majority of films that I’ve seen rate a meh; so while that’s not a glowing endorsement, at least I didn’t gong it and send it back unwatched. There have been quite a few of those over the years. Too little time, too much to watch. The Wife and I wanted to see it because Sam Rockwell plays Chuck Barris, and he does a credible job of channeling the man and the madness that was the 70’s as seen through the rearview mirror. Personally, I’d rather look at the 70’s through the lens of Barris’ eyes than mine. He was always more charitable to the stupid than I could ever be. It was his saving grace.