Open Mike

Michael Tessler, far left, at the Icon Oscars at Walt Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida. Photo from Michael Tessler

Transcript:

[Movie trailer voice] In a world, on an island … a long island, there is a man, a curly-haired man, on a bold and courageous journey to create the best column ever written. Will this Jonah-Hill-looking fellow overcome his childhood lisp, will he make audiences laugh, find out in the next exciting chapter of OPEN MIKE: The Column.

To quote the late great Robin Williams, “I do voices.”  What does that even mean? [Yoda voice] Ermm, master of voices I am, make you laugh I shall [Yoda laugh]. This fascination of mine first manifested itself at the young age of 5, shortly after my youngest sister was born, leaving me with a horrendous case of middle child syndrome. My parents literally learned to tune out my voice, leaving me with no option but to invent and discover new ones.

My first real character voice was an impersonation of my Uncle Jean Pierre. His thick Parisian accent was like nothing I had ever heard before. So I began to replicate it. Weeks later and after a few thousand attempts, I figured it out. My face scrunched upward, my nose lunged toward the sky, and his voice came out of mouth — (in heavy French accent) [French laughter] “Bonjour my name Jean Pierre, and I am proud Frenchman!” this caricature version of my uncle became a hit at family parties.

From then on my range of voices grew 10-fold. Every movie I watched, every video game I played, every foreign accent I heard, I absorbed and replicated. Character voices became an outlet for this otherwise socially awkward child. There’s no better feeling than brightening a room and having the power to produce laughter. No matter your age there’s no way not to laugh at the dueling Michael Myers characters Shrek/Fat Bastard bursting into a room shouting: “Get in my belly, you stupid fat donkey!”

Voices weren’t always for an audience though. Most of the time they were just for me. One year while re-watching the  “Muppet’s Christmas Carol” (arguably the greatest film ever made), I became obsessed with learning the Muppet voices — starting with Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Beaker, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and inevitably Miss Piggy. Learning Miss Piggy was the first time I ever made the connection between voices and voice actors. Frank Oz, who famously gave life to Master Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back” also played the sassy frog-loving pig we know and loathe. [In Yoda voice, then Miss Piggy voice] “Ermm, pigs, pigs lead to pork, pork leads to bacon, and bacon leads to the dark side, Kermie, don’t you love mwah?” How stunning, to hear how the voices connect to one another.

  But truthfully with time and practice anybody can do a line or two. What distinguishes professionals from amateurs is the ability to carry out any kind of dialogue, conveying any kind of emotions, and being able to do so without a second thought. Rehearsing this looks like pure insanity but is beyond rewarding. My favorite example is of Andy Serkis, who played the dual personalities of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.” “Frodo’s our friend! Yes Yes! GOLLUM! GOLLUM! Stupid fat Hobbit(es)!” After hearing his voice, I knew I needed to up my game.

There’s literally voice recordings on my phone of every character you can possibly imagine, communicating with one another! That’s my favorite part honesty, having great historical figures and pop culture icons interacting with one another. For example:

Richard Nixon: I don’t know Bill, that wife Hillary of yours strikes me as a real crook.

Bill Clinton: Oh Rich Nixon you are so funny. If candidates were metaphorical fast food items, my wife Hillary would be a Big Mac.

Jack Kennedy: Do you mind if I chime in here? Rich you look like you sweating again.

Richard Nixon: I bet you think you’re SO hysterical Jack Kennedy.

Fozzie Bear: Wakka Wakka!

Richard Nixon: Why is there a Muppet in this scene!

Kermit: Sorry about that everybody, wrong sketch! Although while we’re here, I’d lobby you about an issue I’m passionate about, it’s not easy green!

Bernie Sanders: Hello, adorable green frog. My name Senator Bernard Senators and the top 1 percent of mammals are being treated better than 99% percent of all amphibians. I like to wave my arms in the air like an inflatable tube man at a used car dealership.

… scene!

In my life I’ve been blessed to have performed in front of thousands of people. One of the most rewarding experiences was performing a musical parody of Disney characters on a stage once graced by Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker, The Joker), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian, Harvey Dent), Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh, Tigger), Warwick Davis (Wicket, Professor Flitwick) and so many other vocal greats. There is nothing more magical than the look in a child’s eyes when they hear their favorite character speak to them, calling them by name. One can only hope it inspires them the same way my [in accent] French Uncle Jean Pierre did!

So, as my former employer Mickey Mouse would always say, “Thanks folks, see ya real soon! Buh-bye!”

TBR Interactive: This column is the first in our interactive series. Hear the column come to life by scanning the QR code or use the link featured below.

By Michael Tessler

Covered in ash, crawling through rubble, debris and fire — we found hope. Watching as brave heroes marched into towers set aflame — we found courage. Seeing an American flag rise above a hellish landscape of melted steel, blood and death — we found unity.

Our nation, at least for a moment, stood as one. Though shattered, our hearts pounded together in perfect rhythm. We knew that we would overcome the horrors seared into our memory that dreadful September day. Americans, by nature, do that — overcome. We rebuild, we remember and we defend our great American experiment. For more than two centuries we’ve fought for that noble concept, despite all odds and adversities. No enemy foreign or domestic has ever been able to change that simple and profound truth.

Thomas Butler from Kings Park, right, made the ultimate sacrifice while saving others on 9/11. Photo from Michael Tessler
Thomas Butler from Kings Park, right, made the ultimate sacrifice while saving others on 9/11. Photo from Michael Tessler

My memory of that day is the clearest of my entire childhood. For so many years I’ve loved heroes I’ve never met. Mourned at the reading of names: the mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. They often come to mind, especially their families, whose loss remains profound and ever present.

Fifteen years later we’ve strayed far from that national singularity, that special comfort knowing that even in the chaos, we have one another. Today it feels that we are torn so far apart that I can barely recognize the America I love.

In this time of darkness, I’m reminded of wisdom bestowed upon us by the greatest generation, in a time not so dissimilar from our own: “… the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Perhaps our nation is still reeling in forgotten grief. Or maybe we’ve lost our national innocence and have given into the cynicism. Perhaps a decade of violence with no end has rendered us apathetic to the world at large, but I refuse to believe that is true or permanent. There will never be a clear path forward, but it must be clear that there is a path forward.

We do not have to agree with one another to show civility, we do not have to hate to protect ourselves, and we must not allow fear to dictate our lives. Those who perished represented nearly every facet of the American people. Their religions, race, sexual orientation, gender, hopes, dreams and aspirations in no way diminished the gaping hole we felt from their loss. They were people, they were our American kin, and we must ensure that “never forget” is not just a Hallmark slogan but an eternal call to action.

We are Americans. We will crawl through ash, rubble, debris and fire to give one another hope. We will march up towers aflame to give one another courage. We will raise an American flag above a landscape however hellish to let the world know that we are the UNITED States of America and that “a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In loving memory of Thomas M. Butler, the hero I never knew.

Michael Tessler is the Special Projects Manager for TBR News Media.

Above, members of Friday Night Face Off after the show on Aug. 5. Photo by Michael Tessler

By Michael Tessler

Admittedly my definition of fun has always been a bit out-of-sync with my fellow millennials. What do I mean by that? Well, my perfect evening entails a glass of scotch whiskey, a small group of friends and an invigorating game of Risk (yes that board game from Seinfeld). We wouldn’t just play with normal rules either, we’d add elements of intrigue, diplomacy and politics. It’s quite literally the nerdiest way someone could spend an evening BUT there are plenty of valuable life lessons to be learned from the game: camaraderie, collaboration, but most importantly … never fight a land war in Asia! (Napoleon and Hitler probably wish they had gotten that memo). So yes, I’m not your average 23-year old, not by a long shot.

In the name of faux investigative journalism, I decided to venture outside of my comfort zone and into the sprawling mini-metropolis that is Port Jefferson Village after dark. Together with my partner-in-crime and honorary investigator, Sarah, we began our journey. Being an avid “Pokémon trainer” Sarah insisted we visit Port Jeff’s biggest Pokémon location, Harborfront Park.

For those who don’t know, Pokémon GO is a mobile game that connects the real world with the digital one, allowing people to “catch” animated Pokémon by visiting real places across the country and globe. It’s a whole lot of fun and rewards players for exercising by giving you special access to rare Pokémon. With that being said: Madam Mayor, I strongly urge you to establish a Pokémon Preserve near Harborfront Park so that we can protect the rare indigenous Pokémon that call Port Jefferson home!

Honestly though, it was pretty wonderful seeing all those families and young people outside. After some 15 years of hibernation, the children of the ’90s have finally reemerged in search of pikachus and pizza!

Afterward we made our way over to Theatre Three. This wonderful local theatre offers not just mainstage musicals and concert series but is also home to an excellent troupe of improv artists. Each week they put on a tremendous live show known as Friday Night Face Off (FNFO). These professionally trained comedians break up into two teams and battle each other in various improv games. Styled similarly to the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I can guarantee it’ll leave you in stitches! Having seen their shows well over a dozen times, I can tell you that each performance is unique and filled with new hysterical material. Although the show isn’t child friendly (16 years old and up please), it is the perfect way for adults to end or begin an evening! There’s even a bar right in theater so you can enjoy a drink during the performance.

After a great show we visited several of Port Jefferson’s late night hot spots. Schafer’s was a real treat. Complete with a DJ, dance floor and all of the latest party equipment, it felt less like your conventional bar and more like an upscale club in Manhattan. Following some dancing, catching up with old friends and an impromptu freestyle rap battle (I owe my skills to “Hamilton the Musical”), it turned out to be a pretty wonderful evening. Port Jefferson, while a quaint village by day, truly transforms into a popping late-night paradise when the sun goes down. There’s no age limit to the fun as there’s a venue for everyone!

Now I’ve already made my plans for next weekend! Anybody wanna join me for a rousing game of BATTLESHIP? No? That’s alright. I strongly advise taking a visit to beautiful Port Jefferson during one of these beautiful summer nights!

Michael Tessler is the Special Projects Manager for TBR News Media, a former political consultant and Disney cast member and mostly unsuccessful Pokémon trainer.

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Michael Tessler

By Michael Tessler

With a Congress that fails to do its job, a Supreme Court that has become increasingly politicized and a president who can only pursue his legislative agenda by bypassing the legislature, we have effectively compromised our federal government. “Checks and balances” have been replaced with bounced checks and a political game of seesaw — one wherein achieving compromise is near impossible. Lobbyists have procured tremendous power as the American people have all but ignored the huge significance of local and state elections.

So let’s break down some numbers. Back in 2014 voter turnout in New York was only 28.8 percent. We were not just electing a governor but also filling all 27 of our congressional seats. That same year, roughly 6,730 miles away the Afghan government held its election. People risked their lives going to the polls. Throughout their nation the Taliban led attacks on polling stations. Voters ran the risk of having their finger removed if they were found by the Taliban and identified as a voter. So what was their turnout? 58 percent. That’s right folks. In a nation where you could literally be dismembered for voting, they achieved a turnout rate 29.2 percent greater than our own here in New York. So what’s our excuse? Fear of parking tickets? We can do better.

This issue isn’t just isolated to New York. All across the nation we ignore the importance of our local and state government. Why? It’s extremely boring. You don’t see Martin Sheen or Kevin Spacey going around accepting acting roles as a county treasurer or state assemblyman. Media has romanticized the presidency. We’ve made it our central focus to the point where all other offices fall to the wayside.

To understand the significance of state government, look no further than the collapse of every major world superpower from the Egyptians to the Romans, to the Ottomans, to the Soviets. What makes us different isn’t the fact that we have a democracy: 123 countries have democracy. What makes us different is our unique system of federalism. Now I know what you’re thinking. “This is the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Please make it stop.” No, I can’t. It’s just too important.

So I’m sure somewhere deep in your subconscious you’re asking yourself, “If federalism is so great, why doesn’t everybody use it?” That’s a great question. Just look to our friends in the European Union. They’re attempting what I call reverse federalism. They’re struggling to achieve the unity that our system has had for over 200 years.

Our founders were brilliant in that they had the foresight to create a centralized government to unify us financially, militarily and culturally. Europe has had literally thousands of years of internal strife that makes genuine friendship difficult for many of its member states (e.g., thanks a lot, Germany). Just imagine how difficult the job of our government would be if suddenly California decided it wanted to opt-out of the dollar in exchange for its own currency.

Europe, try as they may, will likely be unable to recreate what we have here. Our union was forged during our revolution and with each conflict that followed (with the uncomfortable exception of the Civil War).

Federalism ensures the survival of this great American experiment because the likelihood of 50 self-sufficient states collapsing simultaneously is slim to none. We have to remind our politicians that our power does not come from the top but from the bottom. If our federal government fails in the task of governing, their gridlock should not deter the whole union. Unfortunately, there is yet a political party that has seriously adopted this policy in the 21st century.

We don’t need big government or small government. We need smart government. For example, in terms of health care, one size doesn’t fit all. The health care needs of New Yorkers will be different than the health care needs of Floridians (well actually most Floridians are New Yorkers so this might not be the best example, but you get my point). We shouldn’t pretend each state is the same. Nor should we pretend that the federal government can pass a budget let alone manage a national health care system (e.g., the genius who built HealthCare.gov). Surely, the best hope for America is one that has been there all along. So this election vote not from the top down but from the bottom up.

IN SHORT:

Trump Notes: Civility cannot exist when Americans confuse bigotry with bluntness. We aren’t perceived as weak because our military isn’t big enough. We’re perceived as weak because we’ve allowed our sacred institution of democracy to become a warm-up act for the Kardashians. This vitriol incites violence. Now more than ever we need national conversations, not national disagreements.

In brighter news: I’m a Jew who gave up pizza for lent. If that doesn’t make America great, I’m not sure what will. Looking forward to writing more. Share your thoughts with me at MJT[at]TBRNewspapers[dot]com.

Michael Tessler is the Special Projects Manager for TBR News Media, a founder and former political consultant for the Continuum Group firm, and the former President of the International Youth Congress.