It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from our friend Erik Sprague, The Lizardman, here on BME — and really, it’s been too long. The world is a much different place now (well, marginally different, at least), and it’s always reassuring to have him around as a bright green guide through the chaos that surrounds us. He and I recently exchanged e-mails over a couple of days, talking about the new American president, the rigors of life on the road and the difficulties of making the transition from sideshow to stand-up.
BME: The last time you wrote for BME, you were asked who would win in a fight between Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Falwell (you chose Hitchens). Who doesn’t love a hypothetical death-match? Let’s kick things off the same way: Who would win in a good old-fashioned Chicago-style brawl between Rahm Emanuel and Rod Blagojevich?
The Lizardman: I see Rahm taking this one — he is clearly cunning and a survivor. Blagojevich embodies the characteristics of the unstoppable undead and a turd that won’t flush, but lacks offense. It would be a long fight with many seeming victories by Emanuel, only to have Rod rise again before a final defeat.
BME: Blagojevich as zombie-poop? I think you just wrote several South Park episodes, my friend. Now, you were on tour throughout January, correct? For what were you out on the road? Were you able to take a moment to solemnly pour out a 40 for your boy George Bush?
TL: I was on tour for the last 10-11 days of January, and for the first 20 I was home after getting back from the fall Jagermeister Music Tour on December 23, 2008. I was running around the far-too-cold northern areas of the U.S., beginning with my now 10-years-running gig performing at the Am-Jam tattoo expo (subject of one of my old BME columns some time ago) in Syracuse, New York. From there, I had club gigs in Rockford, Illinois, at Kryptonite, and Washington, D.C., at The Palace of Wonders. Fellow Austin stand-up comic Joel Keith was along for the ride, opening up the shows.
I did not pour out anything for Bush, but considered doing so for Texas in somber worry for his return to the state. Even as a Texas convert (I moved to Austin eight years ago), I can spot his fake wannabe-Texan B.S. from miles away. It still stands as one of his greatest deceptions that he convinced so many that he was Texan. You can make a case for WMDs, but not for that …
BME: From a make-believe cowboy to a “half-breed Muslin” — what a country. Really though, what did you think of Obama’s inauguration and the phenomenon that was his campaign in general? How healthy a dose of skepticism is necessary in order to not expect the world over the next four years?
TL: I think we need a massive dose of skepticism for not just the next four years but for the rest of our lives. As great a scapegoat as Bush makes, the truth is that everyone dropped the ball and he and his crew only got away with it by not being challenged enough. The solution is not, and never will be, blind obedience, even if it is to a message of hope. I’d like to see Obama succeed, but nobody gets a blank check. For all of his soaring rhetoric and good intentions, Obama is still a politician and now president of the US — a beneficent dictator is still a dictator. For someone like myself with a number of so-called radical views which are always in the extreme minority, I am forever wary of the majority’s designated player since his job is, in part, to further their goals — often over my rights. Putting the right people in charge is only the beginning and it does not absolve the rest of us from our roles. We have to help him get things done and get them done in the right way.
BME: Do you actually have faith in the American populace to hold up its end of the deal?
TL: That may be the last bit of idealism I have left in me. I feel with the system we have that even when the populace fails, a few good people in the right spots can save things. Look at an issue like black civil rights or women’s rights and you see cases where the populace overall dropped the ball horribly, but those who were right were able to use the system to kick the rest in the ass and fix things. Of course, the system fails as well at times, and then it is up to the populace to pull things together. I think that the American people, along with the Constitutional system we have, represent a good shot at making it and that we are still, overall, on an upswing — things are getting better. The last eight years only seem incredibly horrible because we lived through them, but from a historical perspective of what the U.S. has faced from within and without, it was barely a pebble in the road. History won’t vindicate Bush, but it will tell the rest of us to put our bitching in perspective.
Random aside from these political musings: How great and how perfectly American will it be when we see the first gay shotgun wedding?
BME: I can’t wait. “Ain’t no lesbian daughter of mine gonna get turkey-basted outside of God’s good grace!” And then it’ll be filmed and played on PBS’s celebrity gossip show. This has been quite the decade. What’s your favorite cultural train-wreck of the modern era?
TL: I try to avoid getting into that whole train-wreck-watching scene; it can be mesmerizing and is generally used as a distraction from things of real importance. However, schadenfreude is just so damn tasty, isn’t it? I wouldn’t say I have a favorite, but I do take momentary joy every time I see some douchebag who railed against gay rights get outed as a self-hating closet-case, or when an anti-drug bible thumper shows up at rehab.
BME: Let’s get back to talking about touring: You’ve been going out on the Jagermeister tour and other such things for, what, 50 years now? What are some of your favorite and least favorite things about touring?
TL: It certainly does seem like it has been that long sometimes. I have hosted the Jagermeister Music Tour since 2003 and it has been some of my more high-profile work. I love touring. It is the perfect fit for me, I was made to live and work on the road … which is why for the last decade I have spent over 200 days a year on the road. The best parts would probably be the travel and performing for new and different people around the world. If there really is a complaint to be made, it is like the lack of appreciation for the job. Many people seem to think it is just one big party, and while it is a job I love, there is still a lot of real work involved.
BME: So what’s a typical day/week/[appropriate sample size] on the road like? Also, do you have to bring your own cocaine, or do the venues typically provide that?
TL: The joy and the challenge of life on the road is that there is no typical day. Every city and venue provides a new different experience. For tours like the Jagermeister Music Tour, the cycle was often something like:
5-7 a.m.: Possible media slot, usually a morning radio show.
11 a.m.: Load-in to venue.
12 p.m.: Daily drop of production materials.
12 p.m. till finished: Production setup — poster hanging, VIP section setup, anything else that needs doing.
3-5 p.m.: Possible media slot.
6 p.m.: Doors.
7-11 p.m.: Show.
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Load-out to truck.
2 a.m.: Buses roll to next city.
Rinse and repeat — rinse being optional since showers are a luxury you grab when/if you can.
When not out with Jager or a similar national traveling production, I tend to tour on my own from one gig to the next. These can be tattoo conventions, comedy clubs, private events, TV shoots, etc., and they are all different. My days then tend to be media promotions, performances, and travel — all-day flights and/or marathon drives across the country.
Cocaine, and other drugs, are pretty easily available across the board but who pays depends on the gig and your level of celebrity. The quality varies and it almost all comes with the hitch of having to hang out with the provider more than you would like.
BME: Right. So when Metallica wants a bottle of pure Velociraptor semen, they can probably just request it in the tour rider, no questions asked. Hey, do you have a tour rider? If so, what’s in it? Have any of the bands with whom you’ve toured over the years asked for anything particularly strange?
TL: I have had a rider in the past and sometimes still do, but it is usually strictly for things I need for the show but won’t have the time or opportunity to get and/or traveling with would be difficult or impossible. A few examples being fuel for fire acts, concrete blocks, empty beer keg, various ingredients for stomach pumping, live insects for myself or a snake to eat. The thing about riders that most people don’t realize is that you do pay for that stuff; during settlement, the cost of things on the rider will be taken out as expenses before you get paid. A rider is a convenience, since you don’t have the time to run out and buy new socks or get snacks for the bus, and often you pay a premium for them since many venues will gouge on the price. I have seen people try and charge $6 for a single diet coke or $30 for a case of water.
In terms of weird rider things, I know of a band that specified no mixed color candies (like Skittles) because their OCD drummer, no joke, would sort them compulsively; he also had to have all the wingnuts on his drums lined up or he couldn’t play without stopping to fix them. Another band had a lead singer who required a massage at a specific time before the show started or they got the option of canceling the show. Weirdness on riders is usually there to make sure people are reading everything they should and paying attention to detail, or it is something that makes sense if you know all the details.
“It’s not that I can’t read,” says The Lizardman, “it’s just that I don’t follow instructions well sometimes.”
BME: Let’s talk about your act itself. Does it vary depending on the audience/sort of show? How has the act evolved over the years?
TL: I see myself as providing an experience for my audiences and making them active participants in that process. As a result, the show will necessarily vary, but there is still a certain form that it generally follows. In the past, I have tailored shows to any situation that I could manage to get myself booked into, but now I often try to use the show to manipulate the situation. I’m not sure how much sense that makes as stated, but it works in practice.
My show has evolved and gone through many permutations through the years. It might seem subtle to some observers, but to me, not surprisingly, it seems like night and day. Probably the biggest shift has been my move towards stand-up comedy and spoken word and finding a home in those genres. Back when I first started, I said that I would always do stunts, even if it was just in my living room, because no one would come and see, but now I find myself doing more and more of my stunts and rituals strictly for myself in private or semi-private situations because my work as a performer has taken me to a place where I am more a comedian/commentator. The audience is still there for the stunts (and I do still include some of my favorites), but as a performer I have moved away from doing them onstage — at least as the main draw.
BME: That’s interesting. Do you feel like you’ve always been funny enough to do stand-up and just made a decision to not include it so much in the earlier days, or is that something you had to teach yourself along the way as well?
TL: With the exception of very rare cases, “funny” or “not funny” is not a natural inescapable state for people; it turns out that “funny” is interesting and insightful presentation. Think about one of the staples of humor (one which I personally try to scrupulously avoid): the differences between men and women. Someone can say something that is beyond obvious to everyone, but make them laugh by presenting it with a personal insight and in a manner which engages the audience in a way they weren’t used to or expecting. Everyone has to teach themselves and/or learn to be funny — this is often called “finding your voice,” and it is the process of figuring out how to present your anecdotes and observations in a manner which people will not only accept but also crave. I have always had, and almost everyone does, the premises which are the seeds of “funny,” but it takes time to develop and refine them.
In a way, the sideshow acts were a crutch — a way to draw and hold people through the developmental process of refining the comedy. I avoided some of the pain many stand-ups have to face through the early days by having an additional element that supported my work on the comedy/commentary and kept me in decent gigs. Now, I have well refined stunt acts and comedy that stands on its own without the stunts so, it is the best of both worlds.
BME: In the past, you’ve mentioned some inspirational sideshow/etc. figures. Who are some of your comedic inspirations?
TL: I think I have been influenced more in terms of philosophy than style when it comes to comedy. Some of the names that leap to mind for me are Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Mitch Hedberg, and Don Rickles. Martin’s book, Born Standing Up, had a real influence on how I approached some things and look at performing. It hit me at just the right time when I was working through some things and really had me thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with each show.
BME: A recent review of your show stated that you were “offensive to many of the crowd, insulting Asians, women, overweight people, among others.” As a Jew, I’m rather offended that we didn’t make the list. To what sorts of things was the reviewer referring? And be as candid as you like, I can guarantee that nobody will have read this far into the interview.
TL: I love that review. In fact, I have been quoting it as part of a bit in my show since I first found it online. My best guess is that the reviewer was referring to a joke where I talk about chasing Japanese people pretending to be Godzilla, which is really a joke about me being delusional and/or under the influence. As for the women and overweight people, he must be referring to a bit where I mention that fat chicks give the best blow jobs, which I think is a compliment — not to mention an empirical fact according to the evidence most men have collected.
I apologize for not having offended Jews that night, but I had to cut a lot of material for time. That guy posted that review almost a month after the actual show and wrote almost entirely about me, even though I was a grand total of maybe 15 minutes out of a four-hour show that night. But he only wrote one line that wasn’t about me — I call that reaching someone. The rest of the crowd laughed and cheered but he waited a month to act indignant on a website.
BME: Now that you’re moving more into stand-up and storytelling rather than stunts, is it challenging to get audiences to take you seriously, what with you being “The Lizardman” and them potentially expecting a bunch of gross-outs or what have you rather than cerebral/topical humor? Do you think your appearance/”novelty” status could be a hindrance in this respect, or has it not been an issue?
TL: The great thing about club-level and alternative comedy venues is that the crowds are very accepting of anything, so long as it is good. If you show up with good stuff, they get past anything else quickly. I think that being The Lizardman is an advantage so long as I use it properly. My modifications make me memorable and provide me with an instant conversation starter. At this point, my biggest challenge may not lie with winning over new people but rather hanging on to those who were more into the stunts, but that has gone well thus far. For instance, a couple years ago the lawyers for the Jagermeister tour decided the stunts presented too much liability, so I had to go to a purely stand-up hosting routine — which is probably one of the most difficult and hostile ways to do stand-up. But it ended up working out and giving me a great deal of confidence. After shows, though, people would come up and ask why I didn’t do any stunts, and after I explained they would generally say that it sucked that I couldn’t do them but they really enjoyed the show and laughed their asses off. On my own though, as I said, I do include some stunts — my favorites and the fan favorites.
So, thus far, I would say it has mostly been a non-issue, but I could see it becoming one if I continue to succeed because it makes for a harder sell. Breaking some molds is OK, but people are protective of others. When TV first latched onto me as the weird guy with an education, it was a sort of feel-good story challenging the preconceived notion of modified people as uneducated. Convincing agents and the like to give me a shot at being funny goes against their expectations in a way they don’t like to risk; they don’t have faith in people to get past the initial shock of my appearance. It also doesn’t help that much of my material is not TV friendly — I often hear, “We loved the show but we can’t air that sort of stuff.” But that is very much the story of my career, gaining little by little and winning over those I can get to take the chance.
Visit The Lizardman online at TheLizardman.com for tour dates, speaking engagements and various ephemera.
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