Sunday, April 3, 2011

Charlie Sheen & De Cordova – Neglecting the Dog

Charlie Sheen & De Cordova – Neglecting the Dog
By Tom Wilmeth
Written April 3, 2011

Interesting how timing works. Just last night I was reading Mark Twain’s thoughts about one of his contemporaries. The theme of undeserved recognition in the world of arts & entertainment surfaces regularly when Twain recounts his own years as a platform performer. But the familiarity of this particular instance seemed uncanny:

Mark Twain was commenting on how a humorist identified only as De Cordova had quickly achieved a reputation with scant talent as a writer. People were anxious to see De Cordova in person and to hear him deliver some comedic tales. In the case of this novice performer – long forgotten even when Twain related the incident in 1898 – this new celebrity had packed a large hall with an audience eager to be entertained. It was a generous crowd, so sure of the humor that was about to be poured forth that they initially laughed at almost anything this man said or did.

However, as De Cordova failed to deliver the comedic goods – the audience’s demeanor quickly shifted. There were walk-outs; there were cat calls; there were demands for refunds. Mark Twain and his fellow, seasoned platform speakers took no small delight in this failure. It seemed that arrogance had gotten the best of the recently elevated De Cordova. Part of Twain’s purpose in writing the brief, previously unknown vignette was to stress the importance of preparation. In this instance, the man thought he was above getting his act ready for a major engagement by rehearsing to smaller and less scrutinizing audiences.

According to Mark Twain, this type of performance preparation is called “Trying It Out on the Dog.” To get any comedy act into shape, it must have constant revision and polish – there is no substitute. Twain stresses that this preparation is only possible in front of an audience. I have been told that Bob Hope and The Marx Brothers, to name only two subsequent acts, would regularly book halls in the Midwest to try-out new material and to hone their comic timing before taking new pieces to radio, Broadway, or the movies. (I guess this makes The Midwest “the dog” in this analogy, but that’s OK with me.)

In this morning’s paper I see that Charlie Sheen’s first live show in Detroit bombed. The parallels recounted by Mark Twain in 1898 and the Detroit reviewers of 2011 are remarkable – walk-outs, cat calls, demands for refunds, an audience’s unmasked hostility for a performer who could not deliver. But while parallels abound, let’s be fair. De Cordova apparently did not openly taunt or purposefully insult his audience. De Cordova did not mock the patrons for spending their money on the evening’s alleged entertainment. De Cordova did not glibly admit that he was using this engagement as a testing ground for his future performances. De Cordova was just plain bad – an entertainment rookie with a falsely inflated sense of his talent. Sheen was hyperspace bad in a warp nine free fall.

What is the point of the present commentary? To embarrass Charlie Sheen? Of course not – he does that himself every waking minute. No, I write to stress the obvious, placed in my head this morning by simultaneous encounter of these two reviews. And the obvious is – There is nothing new under the sun, history repeats, and we can learn from the past. And especially that Mark Twain is still well worth reading. Maybe Charlie Sheen should give it a try.

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