Friday, August 30, 2013

Bijou Diaries: From Stand-up to Super 8

James and Rodney, the Ace Comedy Team, caught unawares as they wait 
to perform their sketch, The Altman's Pit-Cooked Barbecue Gospel Hour, 
Featuring the Fulbright Family Singers, at a benefit show for UNC's STV.

Publisher's Note: This is the second installment of Bijou Diaries, an ongoing column that tells my story of how the Bijou Film Center project came to be. Much of my love of movies, theaters, stages and show business comes directly from my experience as a performer and media maker. -- James Parrish

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a performer. I wrote and performed for Off the Cuff, a weekly comedy show that was part of UNC Student Television's offerings during my student years at UNC-Chapel Hill, which led to stand-up comedy and improv (with my good friend Rodney Honeycutt, pictured above), and I majored in Speech Communication with focus on Performance Studies. All of this was a natural progression.

Like Elvis (Presley, not Costello), I started out singing in my church choir as a kid. Thanks to my dad, who I wrote about in my first Bijou Diaries post, It Begins with a Kid, I started making media at a very young age. Using a standard cassette tape recorder, he interviewed me at age 5 about a recent moon landing (though I spent more of the recording talking about and impersonating Oscar the Grouch and other Sesame Street characters) and soon after that cassette recorder was mine. I made radio plays; recorded myself playing piano and singing (I took piano lessons from 3rd through 8th grade); interviewed my kid brother, pretending I was a reporter for Kidsworld, a popular Saturday morning TV show that ran from 1976-1986 where kids were the reporters; and later, in high school, I used it to record original songs and covers with my two best friends, Rodney and Rodney (Introducing them, I often took a line from Newhart, where one of the characters always announced "This is my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl.").

So, by the time I got to UNC, I was ready for more. When Rodney Honeycutt came to UNC my sophomore year, we both got involved writing and performing for Off the Cuff. Here's the intro to the show. (If you watch closely you'll see "James and Rodney" jumping up and down in front of the camera; also, my roommate Rob Means wrote the theme song and he and I recorded it over Christmas break. He programmed the synth/midi stuff and played the keys; I played the guitar part; we both vocalized "off the cuff.")

Regularly writing and performing comedy sketches for Off the Cuff, led Rodney and me to try our hand at stand-up at a long defunct Chapel Hill bar called Theodore's. Soon after we found ourselves in the right place at the right time -- UNC renovated the Student Union and turned an arcade into a caberet-style theatre. Because we were regularly performing around town and on campus, we got asked to help them create some programming for the space so we put together a few benefit shows, inviting local musicians and fellow Off the Cuff writers/actors to perform stand-up and participate in our emcee sketches between each act. That led to being invited to open for Carol Leifer and Steven Wright. As you can imagine, we hoped these opportunities might lead to our "big break" so we made a comedy tape (yes, a VHS tape, people) to send to Carol Leifer and others. It never led to anything except that we had a great time. Below is one of the sketches that made it on the tape. Rodney and I had always included some Andy Griffith humor in our stand-up act and it had evolved into this sketch where we presented a "lost episode" of The Andy Griffith Show where we explained why Sheriff Andy Taylor never carried a gun. Of course, in our stand-up act, we played all the characters. Here a few of our Off the Cuff friends helped us do a more polished version of Sheriff Without a Gun. (Watch closely and you'll catch me in a secondary role in addition to my lead role as Sheriff Taylor. Rodney plays Barney.)

In addition to making this tape, Rodney and I did some open mic nights at Charlie Goodnight's Comedy Club in Raleigh and a few other things, but eventually, we stopped performing. We had graduated and moved onto to more pressing matters. Katie and I got married in 1990, a month after she graduated (Rodney graduated that same year), and a year after I graduated. I was already working for UNC-Chapel Hill's development office, learning the ropes of fundraising and using my improv skills in a very different way. Rodney got a job teaching high school history, eventually ending up at our former school, South Johnston High.

Throughout college and the years I lived in Chapel Hill after graduation, the two Rodneys and I still got together regularly to write and record original tunes (one day I'll post the Super 8 music video we made for our song "Country Dreamer"), but it wasn't enough; I was feeling a big creative void now that Off the Cuff and James and Rodney were just a memory.

One day, I noticed a flyer for something called Flicker, a bi-monthly screening of short Super 8 and 16mm films, being held at Local 506, a Chapel Hill club. It sounded cool. Out of curiosity and longing for some creative inspiration I went, and I remember leaving Local 506 feeling like I was walking on air. I was energized and inspired, full of my own ideas for little Super 8 masterpieces. In fact, that night I wrote down several ideas, including an idea to make a film about the Benson Sing, a Southern gospel singing convention that has been held in my hometown since 1921. (I don't want to go too far down the rabbit hole today, but I got some grants from the NC Humanities Council and NC Arts Council to shoot 16mm footage of the annual outdoor event, but still haven't finished the film, thanks to a move to Richmond and a big choice I made ... you'll have to read the next installment to find out about that.)

Anyway, I became obsessed with acquiring Super 8 equipment and began shooting rolls of film on every vacation and making music videos and comedy shorts with Rodney and Rodney.

But the most meaningful film I produced during my Super 8 period is one that Katie and I made with my Grandma Peedin. It's called Grandma's Biscuits, and in it Grandma tells the story of the first time she made biscuits (she was 11 years old) and shows me how to make them. It took the news that she had cancer and not long to live to light a fire under me to finish the film. Thankfully she got to see it before she died, and I learned how to make her biscuits. I've got a long way to go before they are as good as hers (if they ever will be), but then again, she had been making them for 66 years by the time I made this film.

So, I'll close with Grandma's Biscuits and a promise to pick up the Bijou story again soon. Warning: Don't watch this film on an empty stomach!

Grandma's Biscuits from James Parrish on Vimeo.


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