Artist versus Musician

One night at supper my son asked me this question, “If you could be a great artist or a great musician, which would you want to be?”

For me the answer was immediate. “Oh, I’d want to be a great musician.”

My son probed deeper. “Why?”

Again, I didn’t have to think long about the answer. “Because musicians get the blessing of interacting with their audience. We perform for them and get feedback.  That feedback – in the form of applause, cheers, clapping hands, cell phones held up in the air, etc. – is why musicians do what they do.  We love to share our music with those who appreciate it and their response is our blessing.  We elevate them and they elevate us.  Artists don’t get that blessing.”

My son was satisfied with this answer but it got me thinking. “Why can’t artists have that immediate response to their forms of expression?”  Then it hit me.

Imagine a concert venue filled to capacity with an excited crowd. Then the lights go down and the audience goes wild with anticipation.  A lone spotlight hits the stage on a blank canvas.  More cheering.  Slowly, dramatically, emerging from the darkness into that spotlight steps the artist with his palette.  He’s dressed in tight black leather pants and a flowing white shirt that makes him look oddly like one of the Three Musketeers.  His long lion’s mane hairdo crowns his head and is a fitting expression of his ego.

With a flair he whips out a half-inch chisel tip brush. The crowd quiets down and the anticipation ramps up.  He brazenly swirls it through the magenta oil paint on his palette and, with a dramatic pause, starts to smear magenta oil paint all over the white canvas.  The crowd explodes…they know this piece and have always wanted to see the artist “perform” it live.

Can you just see the next day at the local high school? Let’s eavesdrop as a burned-out concert-hopper recounts the event the next day at school with his friends.

“Whoa, dudes, you missed the Joe Smith live performance last night. He did all of his famous portraits right there on stage, man, it was totally awesome!  At one point, he got out his classic 2-inch beveled horsehair brush – the same one he used for making anti-Vietnam protest posters in 1968 – and wailed a solo in lime green.  Then he ripped off a 20-minute cover of Mona Lisa!  Dude, it was surreal!  The light show was lame though.  The artist needed good natural light to see what he was doing, so there were no effects at all.  What really rocked though was the encore, dudes.  We thought he was going to do something from his cubist period, but instead he brought out a block of white marble and started chiseling away!  The place went wild!  After the show, I got the T-shirt with all of his neo-classical landscapes…check this out, dudes!”

Yes, my friends, there are very good reasons why it is better to be a musician than an artist.

Where are the Clowns?

My kids borrowed It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on DVD from the library and we really enjoyed it.  It had Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, Terry Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Jimmy Durante, Spencer Tracy, Dick Shawn , Jim Backus, Marvin Kaplan, Arnold Stang, Peter Falk, Andy Devine, Carl Riner, and cameos by Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Norman Fell, Buster Keaton, Doodles Weaver and the Three Stooges!  It was a “Who’s Who” of comedy in 1963.

Well, it got me thinking. If that movie were remade today as the “Who’s Who” of comedy in 2016, who would be in it?  Just twenty-five years ago, in 1991, there were still many great comedians in their prime: Steve Martin, Whoopie Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Carol Burnett, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, Tim Allen, Leslie Nielson, John Candy, John Belushi, Billy Crystal, Rodney Dangerfield, Chris Rock, Rosanne, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Danny DeVito, Tim Conway, etc.  But most of these guys are now beyond their prime or dead.

In 1963 there was a surplus of extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime comedians. There were even some who deserved a role in Mad, Mad World but didn’t make the cut – Don Rickles, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Wynn, Joe Flynn, Bob Hope, George Burns, Phyllis Diller, Madeline Kahn, Carl Riner, Slim Pickins, Mel Brooks, Lucile Ball and so on.  Most of them had a “niche” and only played one type of character, but did it to perfection (like Phil Silvers and Don Rickles).  In short, they were bombastic clowns, and we loved them for it.

Here in 2016 I’m really at a loss to come up with ten truly great natural comedians. I don’t mean “who makes me laugh on TV” because that’s a whole different animal.  Charlie Sheen, for example, was funny on his show but I would never put him in the same league as Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal or Jack Lemmon.  Compared to Milton Berle, Dick Van Dyke or Robin Williams he’s not even in the top 1,000,000.  Only the great ones can give us those classic TV moments the way Lucile Ball, Tim Conway, Carol Burnett or Robin Williams did.  We need more clowns!

So here it is 2016. Who would you cast in a remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (directed by Steven Spielberg of course).

The Secret of Success

One day, in my last year of college, I was dressed in my finest and preparing to leave for a job interview when my father pulled me aside. He put his arm around my shoulder, squeezed me in a way that conveyed pride and said, “I want to share with you the secret of success, son.”

My mind raced with excitement.  “Wow!” I thought, “My dad, the VP of a large insurance company, is finally going to share with me those priceless words of insight and wisdom that every young man dreams of. Here, in this place at this moment, my father is going to pass on the family wisdom to the next generation of business executives.”  I listened with heart pounding.

Dad looked at me with his smoldering eyes and and said, “Always wear an undershirt beneath a dress shirt.”

Are you kidding me? That’s the McFall family’s secret?  Wear a flippin’ undershirt?

I was sure Dad would say something like, “The man who puts in that little bit extra each day is the one who gets the promotion.” Or perhaps, “Find the oldest, wisest man in the company and learn all you can from him.” Or maybe even, “Buy AT&T.”

But no…what is the McFall secret to success? “Don your Fruit-of-the-Looms, boy.”

Dad did not stop there, unfortunately. As I stood there devastated, he droned on about the benefits of wearing an undershirt with a dress shirt.  “It keeps you more comfortable in both cooler and warmer weather. It keeps your dress shirt tucked in better and makes it stay crisp longer. It absorbs perspiration so you won’t have embarrassing sweat stains.  Plus, some dress shirts are thin and you can see through them to an extent, so an undershirt makes it look better.”

Years later now, I look back and ponder the collective McFall family wisdom. Dad was right, you know.  T-shirts do offer near-magical benefits to your wardrobe.  So, as a loyal McFall I always wear an undershirt under my dress shirts to this day.

Still, I just hope that one day when I pull my son close, wrap my arm around him with a squeeze and say, “Son, I’m going to share my secret of success with you,” I will be able to summon something a tad bit more profound than, “Don’t neglect your undies.”  As I imagine that day now, a few options come to mind:

  • Brush and floss after every meal.
  • Never use an ink pen that activates with a clicking sound. You’ll end up nervously clicking it in a meeting and irritating others.
  • You don’t have to be on time to every meeting, just never be the last one to arrive.
  • Never complain out loud in front of the Administrative Assistant. They are fiercely protective of the boss and remember everything.

Someday, I may get an opportunity to share the McFall secret of success with my son. I only hope that when that day comes, I will have achieved some measurable level of success to make it worthwhile.

The Humility Award

I used to attend a denominational church that did something odd. Once each year they would formally recognize the Member of the Year and the Family of the Year.  The recognized member or family would be called forward, handed a plaque and asked to say a few words at the pulpit, just like at the Oscars.  Thankfully, the church stopped the practice after only a short run, but it was a bit awkward for the few years that it lasted.

One Sunday the pastor announced, “We’re giving the Family of the Year award to the McFall family. Would the McFalls please come up to receive their plaque?”  I walked up on the stage alone while the congregation applauded politely.  The pastor asked, “Where’s the rest of your family?”  I replied, “My wife’s home with sick kids.”  The pastor played that off very well by explaining that it demonstrates healthy priorities.  I was mortified. However, I was not half as mortified as the lady whose husband got Member of the Year.  He was was not there because he was working!

After handing me a little plaque (that is now forever tucked away in a box somewhere in the attic) the senior pastor put the microphone in my hand and said, “Please say a few words.”

Stop right there. Now, put yourself in my shoes.  You’ve just been awarded “Family of the Year” by your church and all eyes are on you as you put the mic to your face.  But what words could possibly suffice for having just been chosen as a model of Christian humility?

I contemplated the Sally Field Oscar response: “You like me! You really like me!” but quickly ruled that out.

I thought of doing the typical award show response and thanking everyone who helped me get where I am today. That did not seem prudent either.  Can you imagine me saying, “I want to thank my Bible study leader for regularly pointing out my sins and selfish tendencies”?

I pondered doing the standard false-humility thing by saying, “Awww, gee. I don’t deserve this.  Bill over there in row three is far more humble than me.”  The entire congregation would see through that one in a millisecond.

Honestly, I don’t remember what I did say, but I think it was just something like, “Ummm…thanks.” And then I shut up and immediately went back to my seat without my family.  The awkwardness persisted in the hallways on my way to Sunday school class as people congratulated me.  You can neither acknowledge that you truly earned it this year, nor should you say you don’t deserve it.  I was never so glad for a Sunday morning to end!

If you are a pastor and you ever consider handing out Member of the Year or Family of the Year awards, please reconsider. While there is value in lifting up people who set a good example of faith, to be honest the congregation already has identified them as faith examples because they are always serving and loving others.

On the other hand, if your congregation engages in any kind of member or family of the year recognition, please do not waste one second rehearsing what you will say when they hand you the microphone. If you are spending time practicing your Member of the Year speech, you do not deserve it.