Blame It on Bill Irwin

Posted by – June 18, 2006

Last night, after hearing from one of my preview readers that the first chapters of my new book come off as dispassionate, I sat around a little overwhelmed, a little frustrated, & a little sad. Not because she was wrong, but because she was right, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

I couldn’t work on the manuscript at that moment because I wanted to burn it, so I put on PBS just in time to catch a documentary* about Bill Irwin. For those of you who don’t know who he is, you might have seen him as “The Flying Man” who fell in love with Marilyn on Northern Exposure (oh, how I miss that show), or you might remember him from that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” video that was played to death. It’s less likely that you saw The Regard of Flight (which was one of PBS’ Great Performances series), or his Broadway shows, Largely New York and Fool Moon. But you should have.

A Buster Keaton fan can’t help but love Bill Irwin, for the obvious reasons, but this Damfino just loves that there’s someone around to make me laugh. Being the somewhat hyper-verbal type that I am, I don’t find a lot of intellectual humor very funny. Mostly I think it’s mean-spirited, actually. But a pratfall or a spittake done well gets me every time. A pratfall with a good reason behind it is even better. Hat tricks rule, in general.

The documentary ended with them interviewing Irwin himself about becoming an older clown – pratfalls and physical humor aren’t easy – and he talked about what he might or might not do as a “retired clown.” But what he said that hit me between the eyes is that being an artist is largely about what’s inside you, & looking at that honestly, and then telling the story.

The timing was impeccable. I’m not really excited about the idea, because I’d much rather hide more and show less. It’s so much easier to be pedantic, but so much more boring, and so much less useful. So I’ll forge ahead, pull out my spleen, and see what comes of it.

But I’m blaming Bill Irwin for the whole terrific mess.

* And whatever you do, don’t read that awful essay on the PBS site about the documentary. It’s exactly not the introduction you want. Honestly, the Bobby McFerrin video would do you better. I’m particularly fond of the Northern Exposure episodes, but I loved that show too. What you really want is to see The Regard of Flight, which you can buy here.

2 Comments on Blame It on Bill Irwin

  1. kiss of athena says:

    Good, because I actually liked how it read.

  2. Red says:

    He’s fantastic. I’ve seen him twice live: once for the Harlequino Studies (or something, I can’t remember the name) at the Signature, and once in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Both times he was very good, but in the first he was surrounded by folks who seemed to be learning about clowning, whereas he was already adept. So it felt a bit like catch-up.

    In Woolf, though he was *splendid*. All of the precise physicality he brought to the role made it one of the most exciting performances I’d seen in “naturalistic” theatre in a long time. He was really wonderful.

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