28 January 2009

Spotlight on......Fred Betzner

In this interview, I talked to friend and funny man, Fred Betzner. Fred and I met as co-workers at City Theatre and now he has moved his employment location down the street to JB Booksellers where his new co-workers are graced with his comic relief and funny charisma. Lucky for them, sad for us.

You have a particular style/brand/aesthetic of humor, how did it develop and who are your comedic heroes and heroines?
Well, it's a rich tapestry. I think that, like all aspects of anyone's personality, my "style" has been influenced by a thousand different sources and shaped over such a long period of time that it's difficult to describe concisely. But I'll try.
I was very sheltered as a child, my father was a Christian Minister and my parents imposed many, some fairly arbitrary, restrictions on what I could watch. The one thing I was allowed to watch without any restrictions was Nick at Night, which, for anyone who doesn't know, would show sitcoms and dramas from the 50's, 60's and 70's after 8pm. So while I wasn't allowed to watch Roseanne or Cheers (both of which I believe are now on Nick at Night, makes ya think) I could watch as much of The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and Mr. Ed as I wanted.
And I watched them constantly, I loved it, I really didn't feel like I was being deprived of anything (except The Simpsons, I was very upset that I couldn't watch The Simpsons) because those old shows are SO GOOD! And remain some of the best ever produced.
Seriously, you want a master class in physical comedy? Watch The Dick Van Dyke Show. Green Acres is one of the most absurd things that has ever been created, that show is INSANE!
So my early comedic influences were all from these classic comedies. I don't remember a whole lot about my childhood, but I was diagnosed with ADD (not the hyperactive version) and few things held my attention like television, I just absorbed everything I saw and when I wasn't watching it I was thinking about it (and getting in trouble for not focusing).
But it kind of made for some isolation in high school 'cause while all of my classmates were watching Bevis and Butthead, I was watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which frankly, is better than Bevis and Butthead).
Anyway, so I had this bedrock of the classics from my early youth, but once I started getting into 9th or 10th grade, my parents stopped caring as much and I got to watch Seinfeld and Newsradio and Wings (not a great show, but it had its charms) and David Letterman and, once I was in college, South Park.
So I guess in many ways, all of these styles and characters just stuck in my head. I honestly don't know how I would describe my particular aesthetic, though I hope it comes across as smart and inventive. I will say that I've always been drawn to the random, what is "funny" if not what's unexpected. And I am really interested in bringing back some styles of comedy that are, for all intents and purposes, dead.

How do you get through comedic block/writer's block, or a just a case of the plain old blues?
Ha, well if I knew the answer to that I'd be a hell of a lot more productive. And happier. Writer's block…honestly, I walk away from it until I'm inspired again, it can sometimes take, literally, years. The blues (or as I like to call it "crippling depression") don't so much present writing problems, in fact it often feeds it.

What is your life motto?
I don't really have one, so I'll give you two. One for life that I made up just now:
"Be nice to everyone except Douchebags (and be mean to them in a way that they don't get).

And for comedy, I'll steal one from South Park, "If you can't make fun of everything, then you can't make fun of anything."

The last time you had a deep, full throttle belly laugh-- what or who caused it and what were the circumstances of said laugh?
Oh god, I laugh out loud all the time, I don't even know. Probably something ridiculous one of my friends said...or at The Daily Show.

You studied film and theater in college, you bake amazing bread, and something tells me that you're a great chef!!-- can you tell me more about your diverse interests and how you find time for them in your daily life?
I'm interested in just about everything. I love learning about science, the law, politics, biology, the history of ridiculous things. I would hate any and all of those things if I dedicated my life to any of them but as it is I like finding out interesting things about them. And I love coming across people who love what they do. Someone who is excited about the most boring thing in the world can make it seem really interesting.

Let's talk about the Hodgepodge Society. What's it all about? What is your part in it?
The Hodgepodge Society is an ancient organization of wits, raconteurs, and erotic pastry chefs dedicated to the betterment of society through humor. Or well, that's the set-up anyway. In actuality we're a..."sketch comedy group" is probably the easiest way to describe it...though that's not wholly accurate. The whole idea came about after a close friend of mine attended a very depressing night of theatre (the kind of theatre that a friend of yours will do, and you have to go, and all their inner demons and, well, crippling depression are all there on stage for an hour and a half) and walked away drained saying to himself, why can't this just be fun. Wacky even! What ever happened to vaudeville? The idea is to have the zaniness of a Marx Brothers movie on stage, we're getting to that point, but most of our venues have been on the small side. I am one of three primary writers alongside Joe Lyons and Robert Isenberg who co-founded the group while I was living out of state. Since my return I've been primarily focused on creating content for our website which we are constantly trying to grow (and is in desperate need of an overhaul/face lift). I wrote a series of video shorts about the election which has gotten a very positive response; we also have a podcast that is a much more traditional sketch comedy show. All can be found at http://www.hodgepodgesociety.com/.

What creative projects are you currently working on?
Boy, I'm about to start writing a one act play for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, I just finished our 6th Hodgepodge Podcast (or Podgecast) and we are about to start brainstorming sketches for the next batch, I'm at the beginning of the process of making a Hodgepodge video game, and we are MC-ing some comedy nights at the Cabaret Theatre downtown over the next few months.

What has been your greatest reward, creatively?
I love it when the things that I do connect and work on an audience the way I want them to and thought that they would. I like it when my instincts are proven correct. I'm not naturally very confident so it's nice when I make a choice that ends up working out.

What has been your greatest challenge, creatively?
Really, forcing myself to get motivated. It's not easy to work an 8+ hour day at a job that you hate and then spend a significant portion of your free time working on something that has little immediate tangible reward. I love having completed a project, but sometimes I just hate the process of getting there.

What's on your current reading list?
Ok, the first volume of Peanuts comics from 1950-54 as well as the biography of Charles Shultz, Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco which I've read before but frankly wasn't smart enough at the time to fully appreciate, John Adams by David McCullough, and a book about physics concepts as exemplified by comic books.

Who have been important mentors, influencers, muses, instigators to you in your development as a creative person? Why?

Well, I think I touched on many of these in my first answer; I'll talk about actual people here. My father could be described using many colorful adjectives, some flattering many not so much, but "funny" would certainly be among them (maybe "goofy" is more accurate, but you get the idea). In my adult life I've really tried to be as self analytical as I could be, because there are a lot of aspects of my father's personality that I detest, many of them the same ones that he claimed to hate in his own father. So I really have dedicated myself to not falling into that trap, to take the best parts of what has been passed on to me (and I do believe that to some extent personalities are passed on genetically, though I have no idea if that is a scientific reality) and discarding the parts that I don't like (a short fuse, a general inadaptability, etc). This may sound depressing, not to mention off-topic, but I actually think it's a really good life skill, and has led to a creative approach that I really like. The ability to watch something, really enjoy parts of it, separate out the parts you didn't and then learn from other people's mistakes has been very valuable to me.

Fred Betzner is a contributing member of the roving sketch comedy group, The Hodgepodge Society. He has a notable laugh. Sometimes he is very quiet but when you're lucky, he drops a comment into the conversation in a giggle inducing, high-pitched voice that could only be Fred. He bakes some damn fine bread and I also think he has a talent for cooking up some really yummy Italian food-- though I can't be certain. He also knows an awful lot about film- and on many occasions we've had long and complicated discussions dissecting mainstream and indie titles.

Thanks Fred!