By BRIAN KEARNEY
It’s December, and I’m sitting in a Portland wine bar, waiting for a show to start. I’ve never seen The Late Now, but the website says it’s “Portland’s latenight whipsmart show,” so I’m bracing myself for something like Conan O’Brien with learned asides.
The corner of the bar has been turned into an improvised stage. There’s a band up there, and when it comes time, they strike up James Brown’s Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something. A man in preacher’s robes is ushered into the room in a huddle of transgender magi. He’s still preaching about this special time of year as he takes the pulpit. Then his robes part to reveal the headless, naked baby doll he’s smuggled in, its hands tied to his by puppeteer’s strings. The baby dances with him in creepy off-time, and the stage is thronged with shepherds, virgins, and a woman dressed as a goat swigging from a bottle of Old Crow, all singing James Brown’s music with words of their own. And I think to myself, whatever this is, Conan it is not.
The preacher is Leo Daedalus, and The Late Now, the show he’s been running at Portland venues for the past four years, is not an easy thing to pin down. It collides elements from talk and game shows, cabaret, improv, monologue and sketch comedy. You could call it a variety show, in the sense that a bewildering variety of things could happen at any moment.
The show added another hat a week ago, on February 5, when the season premiere was recorded live in its new home, Tony Starlight Showroom, ahead of an upcoming debut as a web series. This show, along with the other three in the season, will be available to view on The Late Now‘s website later in the spring. February 5 also marked the centenary of the founding of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, a seminal event in the Dada art movement, and February 5’s The Late Now was a Dada special in honor of the cabaret, one of its guiding lights. National Public Radio regular and Dada expert Andrei Codrescu was there as star guest.
Last week’s show marked a watershed for The Late Now in more ways than this. Though it’s the brainchild of Daedalus, who also hosts, the series has taken a small army of volunteers to keep going over the past four years. It’s been a community endeavor. The same people who write the material also perform it, build the props, do the sound and lighting, publicize and produce it – all, Daedalus says, “for essentially no money.” It’s a voluntary structure with very little slack. “I look around the room,” says Daedalus, “and I can’t think of a single person I can say of what they’re doing, ‘Oh, anyone could do that.’”
One of the reasons Daedalus says he wants to expand onto the web is so that the people involved can receive more than a token for their efforts. But as The Late Now grows, the stakes are also getting higher. The show is taking on a business loan – “mostly so we can pay people” – and is beginning to hire for roles Daedalus has filled personally or with volunteers in the past. This represents a significant culture shift, and it’s not without its risks: How will this new professionalism effect a show that’s run this long on little more than enthusiasm and good will?
The sign above the mailbox tucked away on a north Portland side street reads, “Anna Leander and Leo Daedalus.” Inside, the first thing you see is a row of clocks set to Pyonyang, Helsinki, Reykjavik, Toronto, Honolulu, and Xpacetime: the Portland zone. Beneath the clocks, The Late Now’s writing team – any of the cast and crew that wants to come, it seems – are gathered. They’re there to generate material for the opening Tony Starlight show that at this point is less than three weeks away. James Cook is on the couch next to Leander, who’s knitting busily (“Someone put a nickel in me,” she laughs). Alex Reagan, aka America’s Favorite High-Altitude Cohost, is at the kitchen table. Beside him is Tom Haythorn, who, when I saw him last, was dressed as an elf, walking around with a lit blowtorch in his back pocket. Haythorn is an electrician, among other things, and he has the keytar Leander will play on February 5 open in front of him on the table. It’s a perfectly good keytar, but someone stored it with the batteries in, and now Haythorn is scraping away at the battery port with a small square of sandpaper. When Ian McNicol – who’s listed as “regent” on the company contact list – arrives, the meeting gets under way.
“We need a puppet show,” says Daedalus. He’s standing pen in hand by the whiteboard that’s resting on his piano. “Does anybody have a puppet?” Leander thinks she might still have the puppet she made in her senior year at Arizona State University. She disappears for a minute, returning with an orca glove puppet with a pink mohawk. Haythorn puts down his screw gun and tells everyone about a witch puppet his ex’s mother brought back for her from eastern Europe. It’s in his possession now, but the thing, he declares, is pure evil.
“Why do you have it?” Daedalus asks.
“I stole it and hid it so it’d be out of her life,” Haythorn says. “I’m waiting for a full moon so I can take it out and fuck it up.” The conversation goes from there. Idea after idea is tossed out. Now God is in the puppet show, a god-puppet in flames, god with a banjo, god with a flaming banjo, a flaming gay god who plays banjo in a Dada folk band. That seems to be pretty much the writing process: people say what comes into their heads until the laughter reaches critical mass, and Daedalus writes it down on the whiteboard.
The creative free-for-all on display at the writers’ meeting is at the heart of Daedalus’s approach to the show. “I’m basically of a dyed-in-the-wool anarchic constitution, and I’m not particularly comfortable with hierarchies of any kind, so as far as I’m concerned, any idea from any quarter is just as legitimate as another,” he says. As The Late Now writers’ meetings go, he later tells me, this one was unusually controlled and low-key. “Sometimes, especially early on in the process, it can be just about drinking and riffing, and in fact we come up with whole scenarios for the show that basically we couldn’t do because we would probably get deported.”
Nonetheless, even at as controlled a meeting as this one, there’s a true sense of being among a group of friends just making each other laugh, and seeing where it goes. After the meeting, I asked Daedalus for his thoughts on what’s kept the group together and the show going for the past four years. “I think people like being part of something that’s bigger than them, part of a group project that has momentum and that’s exciting and fun,” he said. It’s not something the group tends to talk about, he added, but some members who already lead very busy lives have spoken to him about why they continue to set time aside for the show: “They appreciate having The Late Now as this place to play and be creative and remember that there’s more to life than just grinding and paying the bills.”
The level of creative independence and the sense of ownership the people involved have are other factors Daedalus cites for the show’s longevity. “It’s my genuine conviction that you get the best from people if they are doing what they most want to do. That’s how I feel personally, and I project that on to everybody else.” When people get involved, he says, “I’m never telling them, ‘Here’s what we need, can you do this?’ I’m inviting people in and finding what they want to do. I think people really feel that they can bring themselves into it and feel ownership of the project.”
Rather than spurring a shift toward micromanagement, the show’s expansion for the web seems to be increasing this tendency. The latest show, he tells me, is also the first one in which there’s too much going on for him to follow, much less to be there on every decision.
I’m wondering if this expansion also represents a threat to the loose, informal community that’s grown up around the show, so I ask. “This summer when I announced these changes, several people – rather to my surprise at the time, now I understand it more – basically just left,” Daedalus replies. “They didn’t want to see the show professionalized, and they were concerned about various things that personally, I didn’t think they needed to be concerned about. Things about it becoming less fun, less anarchic, et cetera. And it was difficult to see that happen.”
There’s also the question of whether some of the show’s anarchic edge will inevitably get rounded off to fit the web series format. It’s a question that Theresa Pridemore, The Late Now’s co-executive producer, has heard before. “People have asked me, are you going to lose this charm?” she says. “And it’s never going to happen. There’s always going to be something rough there. You could see adding new media to it as a way of adding too much polish, but to me it’s a way to experiment, to combine the visual aspects of the show in new ways.”
That a new professionalism will displace the magic isn’t something Daedalus thinks will happen, either. “I’m personally not worried about losing what was valuable about the more crazy, winging-it, duct-tape mode we were in, precisely because that’s what’s really important to me,” he says. “If that were ever to go away, I wouldn’t want to do it.”
There’s a sense of tension at the opening of the February 5 show, a nervous expectation absent from the Christmas special. The tension twists up a notch as, half way through his opening number and with the cameras rolling, it becomes clear Daedalus’s microphone is not going to work. Crew members scramble across the stage, looking for the problem, and Anna Leander, who’s fronting the house band, carries a kettle drum across the stage so they can get at the wires behind her. Leander has been knitting what looks like a pink woollen condom, and it snags on the leg of the drum and gets dragged across the stage, which for the moment has become a chaos of wires, bodies, and wool. Then someone figures out the mike isn’t working because it’s got no batteries in it. The Late Now’s Dada spirit reasserts itself. Daedalus is laughing and giving the audience permission to laugh. What could’ve a been a moment of small disaster is transformed into one more part of the show.
Fears that this new Late Now might lose its unruly energy and rough edge turn out to be groundless. Now Daedalus is dancing in the lap of Codrescu, the internationally known poet and broadcaster who is his star guest; now the dinner-theater crowd are aiming paper planes at the same poet and broadcaster’s head; now Codrescu’s picking them up and shoving them down his clothes in a makeshift codpiece and Shakespearean ruff. There are obscure David Bowie covers and Dada references, but along with the highbrow there is still a primal energy to the show that the stage barely contains. The channels this energy flows down seem wilfully hard to predict, and as a live experience, The Late Now remains as pleasing and perverse as you would expect from a show whose push for commercial viability involves a good 20 percent sound poetry.
I’m thinking back now to a tech rehearsal, a few weeks before the show. Behind the drums, band leader Charles Pike thumps out a familiar beat, and everyone in the room stops what they’re doing to listen to Anna Leander sing Feeling Good. “She sounds even more like Nina Simone when she has a cold,” Daedalus, his pleasure unconcealed, says when she’s done. When she sings the same song on show night, it’s after a Bowie tribute section and she’s still in costume, dressed as the Goblin King from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. The throaty burr is gone from her voice, but still the song sends shivers through the crowd. For a moment it’s easy to forget the platinum hair-metal wig she’s wearing and whatever it is – a wool condom, maybe – that’s shoved down the front of her leggings in homage to the Goblin King’s package. I forget about these things until Daedalus comes back onstage and draws gleeful attention to them. What he’s drawing attention to is the peculiar combination of the ridiculous and sublime that makes The Late Now so special as a live show.
How will this translate to the small screen? That’s the next question. Come spring, we’ll all see.