Monday, April 21, 2014


I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy storytelling venues. Give me a personal yarn with humor over a stand-up routine on taxicabs any day. Recently, I decided to try participating myself. Other than running off stage at a Kiss concert, I have never done stand up, nor have I had the desire. If I want thirty drunks to love me I can just buy them another round. I don’t need to craft a five-minute set.

But storytelling is different. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It requires description, it allows you to share genuine emotion. And it can be very funny or poignant. I tell personal stories all the time in this blog, why not give it a shot in front of actual people? And like the blog, storytelling offers no real financial gain, so that has me written all over it.

Anyway, I submitted a piece to Sit ‘n Spin. This is a once-a-month storytelling night at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood that’s associated somehow with Comedy Central. (Trust me, I have no illusions of being “discovered”) The readers tend to be working writers and their stories usually range from hilarious to deeply moving. Not having enough depth for the latter I strove for the former.

Many of the stories I’ve heard are autobiographical so I adapted a section from my book on growing up in the ‘60s (THE ME GENERATION… BY ME – available here). I submitted the chapter about my sort of first girlfriend, Eleanor.

Happily, it was accepted and I made my maiden voyage last Thursday. I honestly did not know what to expect. I arrived at the theater dutifully an hour before the show. The other participants were all veteran readers – Jill Morley, Jeff Kahn, Ron Zimmerman, Claudia Lonow, and Taylor Negron. They also knew each other but made me feel very welcome. What struck me was how confident they all were. Completely at ease. They chatted, touched up their make up – this is how I imagine backstage at a strip club to be. An audience of a hundred people was expected but this fazed none of them. What this said to me was their stories must really be great. So I read over mine, suddenly second guessing every joke. They started glancing over theirs and wow, even their fonts were smaller. These folks had it down.

Jill, Ron, Taylor
Maggie Rowe, who runs the program, swept in offering pizza and drinks. She was followed soon after by fellow-reader Ron Zimmerman, now dressed in bloody rags with fake blood dripping off his face. And I was the only one who batted an eye. He casually asked if any of us had any hand sanitizer. Taylor Negron brought a guitarist. Did I under dress and under prepare for this? Was it too late to see if Cirque du Soleil was available?

We did a walk-through on stage. I was second up. I was assigned a music stand stage right. To get to it I would wait backstage in the corner until Jill Morely finished. There would be applause, the lights would dim, and I would go through the split in the side curtain and maneuver my way past some risers to my spot. When I was done, there would (hopefully) be applause, the lights would go down again, and I would exit the stage through the same curtain opening. Piece ‘o cake.

The show started. I took my position backstage. Jill read a very funny piece about receiving lesbian love letters from prison. She was getting good laughs. I felt relieved. This audience was responding to smart jokes about statutory rape.

Finally, she finished, there was enthusiastic applause, the lights dimmed, and I groped my way out to my waiting music stand. I was hit by a spotlight. AAAAGH! It occurred to me: I had never been hit by a spotlight before that wasn’t emanating from a police helicopter. I looked out at the audience and just saw blackness. I had no idea how many of them were on their phones or leaving.

I launched into my piece and thankfully started getting good laughs. Nothing relaxes you like laughter. In a few places they were laughing at straight lines. That’s when you know you’re scoring. I discovered where everyone’s confidence came from. When reading a personal story, who better than you delivering it?

I finished to warm applause, acknowledged with a nod, and the lights went out. This time they really went out. Not like the rehearsal. It was black. I staggered back to the curtain, somehow avoiding clocking myself on one of the risers.

I reached the back curtain but couldn’t find the opening. So I’m groping along, now terrified that the lights were going to come back up and there I will be on full display, spread-eagled, feeling my way along the curtain. What an exit that would be!

Fortunately, I found the slit and slipped through just as the lights went back up. Whewwwww!

I was so glad to get it over with early. I retreated to the dressing room. One by one the rest of the readers took their turns. We couldn’t really hear the performers backstage but we could hear the audience laughter. Everyone’s piece seemed to go well. The bloody rag guy, Ron, was supposed to be Jesus Christ. So I don’t think his essay was personal. Ron has one of the truly great inventive minds in the business.

We all ran out to take a curtain call. I hadn’t taken a curtain call since I was in the 8th Grade production of OKLAHOMA playing Curly in the dream sequence. Jill had to reach over and grab my hand. Oh, that’s right. Everybody holds hands. And bows. And acts humble. I have to say, the curtain call was the weirdest part of the night. I just don’t think of myself as a “performer.” When I had co-written that musical performed at the Goodspeed Theater I asked one of our stars, Andrew Rannells, what it feel like to be out there on stage feeding off the energy of the audience? He said, “Why don’t you just write yourself a part?” and I said, “Because I can’t sing, dance, or act.” But read my own words; that I can do. So the answer to my question to Andrew: it was very cool to feed off the audience’s energy. Cool enough that I plan to do it again in the future.

I have an idea for another story, but first I’ll have to see if Ron will loan me his rags and fake blood.

Thanks to Maggie Rowe, Jill, Jeff, Ron, Claudia, Taylor, and everyone at Sit ‘n Spin. You all made sure my story had a happy ending.


Scooter Schechtman said...

"...associated somehow with Comedy Central." Did the show start at 8:04 PM?
Wasn't Taylor Negron in Three Dog Night?

Anonymous said...

That was Chuck Negron.

Claudia Lonow was Michelle Lee's daughter on Knots Landing. Weird thing about Twitter is that I ran into her tweets to Alec Baldwin asking if he remembered her. (He did. Baldwin started his career on that soap.)

gary G. said...

over the past few years, i've been to a few hundred spoken word shows and even dared to read a few times myself, and ken's piece stood out as one of the best first time readings not only because he's a smart writer who knows how to craft a joke, but because he also chose a story the audience can connect to. a total success. and he should be doing more. nice work, sir.

cjdahl60 said...

You should probably give a listen to "The Moth" and "Snap Judgment." Both are storytelling radio shows from NPR and available as free podcasts on their websites and iTunes as well.

Anonymous said...

Polish up your stories, call the Speakers Bureau, hit the college lecture circuit. Mark Twain could do it, you can do it. Add another job title to the Levine resume

vicernie said...

check out The Vinyl Café on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Stewart McLean has been reading his Dave and Morley stories for twenty years.

Mitchell McLean said...

You might get better fees on the college lecture citcuit if you claim to be Ken Levine, game developer. Then you can get on stage and tell an amusing story about pretending to be the BioShock guy. :-)

Breadbaker said...

You're quoted numerous times by Mental Floss in its Cheers list today.

Oscar Groucho said...

I've seen Taylor on a gazillion tv shows, usually comedies...maybe he's been on some of yours. Anyway, interesting stuff, I'd like to attend such an event, if only I can find one. It's a 2 1/2 day drive to LA so that one's out. Do you all take your show on the road?

RockGolf said...

It's "Stuart" McLean, and start with a couple of Christmas stories that are now considered classics:

Dave Cooks the Turkey

Christmas at the Turlingtons

Dave Cooks The Turkey said...

Link to Soundcloud

Cap'n Bob said...

More Claudia, please!

benson said...

I heard Jean Shepherd read some of his writings about twenty five ago. He was very entertaining. Kind of wish he hadn't the the post Q and A. He came off as a real jerk.

Actually remember a prof reading (from Playboy) "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories to our entry level broadcasting class in college.

Johnny Walker said...

Awesome idea for an evening! Very cool that such a thing exists.

Are you trying to get into prose writing, Ken? This post feels more fleshed out and in depth than usual. (Not a critique either way, I enjoy both styles!)

TMM said...

I write for a staged sketch show and Taylor Negron was one of our guest performers a couple years ago. He showed up to rehearsal without even having seen the script for the show that would be performed 12 hours later. We were all sure it was going to be a disaster, but when the lights came on everything that came out of his mouth killed. I've written for and seen over 200 shows like this and never have I laughed harder.

Anonymous said...

when a hero of yours sites you as doing something right it's miles past a compliment.

Anonymous said...

Taylor Negron comes across dynamically onstage, but for some reason, he never translated across a big or small screen. He's great with showmanship, but as an artist, I never believe him for a nanosecond. I always think he's jerkin' me off. Like a carnival barker sharing false sentiment about the fat lady.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The nearest to that I can think of is a folk club where people sing ballads - not "ballad" as popular music misuses the word but ballad as in long, traditional story songs, either comic or tragic.

When you get that just right it is indeed very cool.

Well done.


Unknown said...

"If I want thirty drunks to love me I can just buy them another round. I don’t need to craft a five-minute set."

I honestly thought you were going to say:

"If I want thirty drunks to love me, I'll just go pitch a show to them at NBC, I don't need to even buy the drinks, they're already liquored up."

Quick Friday question:

Would you ever turn down a pitch opportunity due to which network was asking for the pitch?