Jon Etter

Writer, Teacher, Resident of the October Country


Okay, not every piece of writing can be a gem and not every performance is going to be Olivier playing Hamlet. What follows is a description of three 24-hour scripts that, for a variety of reasons, flopped. Fingers will be pointed, blame will be assigned, recriminations will be bitter. As far as “lost”… Well, I have them all, but I think I’ll just let them rot in their electronic graves rather than exhume them to shock and repulse (or maybe just bore) the public.

Just to review the 24-Hour Theater process Alamo Basement followed:

8:00 PM: Writers meet. For two minutes writers brainstorm character ideas, write them on slips of paper, and put them in a hat. Two minutes are then spent doing the same for settings/situations. Once done, each writer draws a character from one hat and a situation from the other, which is writing option number one. Writer then repeats this to get option two. Each writer then has until 8:00 AM to pound out a script based on one of those two options. One of the two parts must be used. The other must at least be mentioned. Elements of options 1 & 2 cannot be swapped for each other. For example, if I randomly drew “a cannibal” and “a toddler’s birthday party,” my sketch would have to either focus on a cannibal or be set at a toddler’s birthday party and include a mention of the other one somewhere in the dialogue. Ideally, my sketch would have a cannibal at a toddler’s birthday party (which would be awesome).

8:00 AM: Writers bring printed copies of the script to wherever the table read and planning session is, ideally the actual site of that night’s performance. Actors and directors read through scripts, settle on roles, and decide which sketches from previous performances will also be performed to fill out the full hour and a half to 2 hours of the night’s performance. Sketches are blocked out, props are scavenged, lines are rehearsed, everybody preps like mofos.

8:00 PM: Performance.

As you can see, this is an amazingly ridiculous way to put on a show with immense potential for failure. Yet almost everything usually came off really well. Almost. Which leads us to:

“Lost” Script #1: “Star Trek: The Oldest Generation”

The draw that night gave me “World’s Greatest Grandpa” and “the Starship Enterprise.” Solid stuff and I think the script had some decent gags. The basic premise was that Captain Kirk’s grandfather, “Pappy” Kirk, is on the ship for a visit and wreaks havoc by revealing embarrassing details of Kirk’s childhood, making racist/speciesist/xenophobic comments, using the power core as a toilet (because we were a classy outfit), and almost starting a war with the Klingons. Overall, I stand by most of the jokes although the writing was a bit too rushed to be really good (more on that later).

Where this one really died was in the performance. A lot of lines got dropped or swapped around, timing on some jokes was really off, and, unfortunately, only one of the actors had actually seen any episodes of the original Star Trek series (much to the shock and horror of all the writers who could quote chapter and verse from it). Honestly, it’s amazing that this so rarely happened given the time constraints we were under, which is really a testament to the talent of the acting cast. In spite of all that, I’ve got to say that the guy who played Captain Kirk did a fantastic job considering he only had impressions done by the writers to base his performance on. Unfortunately, his stellar performance wasn’t enough to save the sketch, which was immediately retired upon completion.

“Lost” Script #2: “Employee Appreciation/Insemination Picnic”

This was actually written the same night as “Oldest Generation.” The previous month, one of the other writers managed to crank out sketches to go with both of his randomly selected prompts in the allotted 12 hours. Impressed, I decided I would do the same for a future performance. What I overlooked, however, was the fact that neither of his scripts were that good (in my opinion). Consequently, I also wrote two somewhat half-assed scripts in the time that should have been spent just writing one whole-assed one.

Something else working against this particular script was the prompt itself. While the situation was very workable and full of potential–“a company picnic”–the character prompt was, at best, problematic: “sperm.” Yes, my draw was “sperm at the company picnic.”

What I came up with was based a bit on the insurance company that my mother worked for, which did a really good job (and still does) taking care of its employees, including paid vacations for completing coursework, exercise and sports facilities for employees and their families, college scholarships for their kids (one of which helped pay for my B.A. in English Education), etc. Basically, they try to make it so nice to work for them that you won’t want to leave. It worked–my mother worked for them until she retired and my sister has spent her entire working career with them.

For my sketch I thought I’d take those very admirable attempts to keep employees and their families happy to ensure a dedicated and productive workforce to their logical conclusion. In it, a new employee attend Touchlemen Industries’s employee appreciation picnic to discover it’s also their annual day to breed their employees with each other to create the next generation of Touchlemen employees. Not necessarily a bad premise, but the sketch wasn’t fully developed and the actress who played the new employee, one who wasn’t usually a member of the troupe, found the premise and some of the jokes so gross that she initially refused to do the sketch, which I can say with some pride is the only time that happened with any Alamo Basement sketch. Naturally, that didn’t bring about the best performance.

The performance of this sketch was solid and it actually went over pretty well with the audience, but we all kind of agreed afterwards that this was a one-time-only performance due to its crude nature. But as I pointed to everyone, if you put sperm in the writers’ hat, things are going to get unpleasant.

“Lost” Script #3: “Bio-Doomed!”

This one is all on me. And truth be told, I’m not completely sure that it was actually performed.

This was at the very end of my involvement in Alamo Basement. Work was busy, I was planning a wedding (well, helping with that in minimal ways), and just a bunch of other things were making it harder and harder to stay involved with Alamo Basement. But I still pitched in here and there.

Now I can’t remember all the details, but for some reason the troupe was doing some special mid-week show and the timeline was kind of wonky. The de facto head of the group, Mike, had asked me if I wanted to take part, to which I had said, “No, I have to work that day and I have a horrendous cold that makes forming and expressing coherent thoughts mandible ham-pants.” So imagine my surprise the next morning when Mike emailed me the single prompts they had drawn for me: “teenagers trying to buy beer” and “Bio-dome.”

Rather than just ignore it and go about my day (the right call in that situation), I spent my lunch hour and prep period–maybe an hour and fifteen minutes total–slapping together a skit in which two dumb teenagers living in the bio-dome (which was big news at the time) try various ruses to get the people minding the bio-dome supplies to give them beer, constantly failing to realize that everybody knows everybody in a small, closed environment like that, so that the two people who could give them beer know it’s them every time. A limited premise with minimal characterization and pretty obvious jokes–easily the worst thing I wrote in my time with AB. Once it was done, I sent it off unedited to Mike and washed my hands of the whole thing. Not an approach to writing I’d recommend for anyone.

There you go! And now that I’ve recounted my greatest failures, in my next post I’m share what was easily the most popular skit I wrote for Alamo Basement: “The Texas Chainsaw Support Group.”


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