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by T. Mike

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just a line

Part 5
Strangers in a Strange Land of Strange Strangeness

      We had made it to Austin, deep in the heart of Texas, where the stars at night shine big and bright. Texas is big country; the biggest. Everything in Texas was bigger than we were used to. The streets were wider, the clubs and bars bigger, everything. Our legs were barely long enough to reach the ground. Poor little Jason would frequently get stuck hovering in midair over a patch of particular bigness and we'd have to grab him by the arms and pull him to smaller ground.

      But finally our long journey had come to an end. Well, half of it; there was still the trip back. But that was still some 96 blissful hours away. We intended to make the most of it 'til then, cramming into this all too short a time everything there was do and see and experience, everything that could legally be done in a hotel room. We showered frequently, used towels with great abandon, lathered up with the free soaps in a frenzy and helped ourselves greedily to the complimentary danish in the lobby, all the while holding back great toothy grins of glee as we shouted "Carpe diem!" to the startled hotel staff while grabbing handfuls of free brochures! Look out Austin, we've got a lot of living to do! Swearing to disdain any common chain restaurant we could eat at back home, we headed immediately for a Denny's. There, Jason slips the waiter a C-note to acquire one of Denny's best kept, not-on-the-menu secrets - a special blueberry shake normally only available to Freemasons.

      We check in at a club called Esther's Pool, and wander like children lost in a wonderland, or sporting-goods store, in awe of this shrine to comedy. We can't believe it- a whole club just for comedy- and not a plain brick wall in sight! We've never seen anything like it. The complimentary Bud Lite key rings are carefully wrapped in cotton for safekeeping until they can be handed down to our grandchildren. With trembling fingers we sign up for classes with the grandmasters of improv we never heard of and whose names now escape me, seeing as how I don't remember them. We gawk like the rubes we are. A helpful staff member takes us in hand to walk us the few scant blocks to the Holy Grail of our trip: The O. Henry Museum. We tread lightly, as if walking on hallowed ground, or pudding. We gawk some more. "Sure is small," we whisper breathlessly. "And closed," answers the wind. And it will stay closed our whole journey, open the precise half week we will be gone; a slap in the face that hardens our hearts and makes us turn away from our idyllic dream and grit our teeth before the nightmarish hell that awaits us. We must not forget we are deep in the heart of this enemy Texan camp, where the coyotes howl while on the prowl. Even the fire hydrants here are a different color and mock us. One pushes Jason too far, and he chips a tooth before we can separate them. "Hush," we whisper to Jason's struggling form, "There'll be plenty of time for that later."

      After suitably girding our loins back at the hotel, we attend the first night of the Big Stinkin' International Improv Festival. We sit uneasily in the club (the prestigious "Velveeta Room") surrounded on all sides by white, white, white improv people. A lot of white boys our age. Frightening, really. And geeky, too! Oof! Not just glasses, acne and protruding adam's apples geeky, oh no. We're talking multi-sided die-owning, fedora-wearing, sci-fi-tv-show-of-choice-trivia-knowing levels of geekiness. Geekier than us! And that was really frightening. Anyway, we're all there listening to Jeffrey Sweet, a geek elder, not so much lecture, as ramble pleasantly. And mention his book. I think it had something to do with improv. As he loses us, our road-fried brains slowly slide our eyes sideways to the crowd, nervously observing the awed faces and occasional drool as we surmise the fussbudget on stage and his pals chipping in their two cents worth to be revered as some kind of improv gods. "Who are these people?" we'd frequently mutter to each other. But then Mr. Sweet made a terrific joke about the death of McLean Stevenson. Now we were back on his side. It was really funny. You had to be there. Then he showed some really cool rare videotapes of excellent comedy by the early improvers, from way back when you had to wear a suit and a tie just to go to the bathroom. These people used a now lost improv technique called "scripting," where a skit would first be "improvised" and then mysteriously "scripted" and then "made better." Only the first part of this ancient process survives in the improv troupes of today, and then only thanks to a sheepherder who discovered scrolls carefully sealed in clay jars in a cave outside of Chicago. Another interesting thing about the early days of improv is that the thirteen tribes of improvers were to spread improv throughout all the land but instead divided themselves evenly between New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

      After an evening of pleasant rambling we all went to some bar and partied down with other uptight white geeks our own age, only they were IMPROV troupe members and we were SKETCH troupe members. Big difference, bear that in mind, please. So what does a barful of geeks do for fun? Karaoke! We watched the members of various improv groups embarrass themselves at karaoke. Then I did.

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