Truth, and other overrated ideas

Special to The Times

When I was a kid, I lied a lot. Lying, for me, was easier than learning to tie my shoes. I could tell lies like my best friend, Dave, could eat French fries — by the fistful.

When I was in junior high school, I used to cut class and take the bus downtown to watch movies in the big, old, rat-infested theaters. If you were a kid you could get into R-rated movies, no problem, as long as you paid. My classmates liked to hear my renditions of those movies, in all their gory detail. “Deliverance,” “The Godfather” and “Walking Tall” went over especially well.

For some reason, I missed the opening of “The Poseidon Adventure.” Even though it wasn’t an R-rated movie, it was a Disaster Movie — and Disaster Movies were the next best thing to R-rated movies.


Instead of telling my classmates I hadn’t seen the movie, I just pretended I had. The more I went into detail about what happened (the movie poster was extremely helpful because the one-liner screamed “Hell Upside Down!”), the more I became convinced I had actually seen the movie.

Some people might call that pathological. I call that “The Beginning of How I Became a Writer.”

Eventually, I would become a writer. But deep down, I didn’t want to be just a writer — I wanted to be a monologuist.

I knew I was hooked when, in the 1980s, I saw Jonathan Demme’s movie version of Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia.” Sure, it was great, but more important, there was this part in it where Spalding admitted he wasn’t telling the truth.

This, to me, was an epiphany. I needed to know that it was sometimes OK for writers to lie. Until then, all the playwrights I had been studying — guys like Arthur Miller — were saying things like, “All plays are political.” And truthfully, I didn’t understand that. What’s political about “The Odd Couple”? It’s just funny.

In the mid-’90s, when I was a graduate student in the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop, I actually spent time with Spalding Gray. Honestly, I did. This isn’t a lie. In fact, I once took him owling — which involves going out into the woods late at night and calling owls. Really. I even have friends back in the Midwest who can use their vocal chords to call owls. Me? I cheat and use a boombox with a Peterson Field Guide tape with owl calls on it.

By this time I had seen most of Spalding’s work, and because there isn’t a whole lot to do in Iowa City late at night except drink beer, Spalding actually agreed to go owling with me one night. So there I stood, holding my boombox aloft — like John Cusack in “Say Anything … “ — and the owls came. Beautiful, snow-white, barred owls. After half an hour or so, Spalding asked me if I knew where he could get a hot dog at that hour. That’s not a lie, either.

So while I watched him eat his hot dog at a truck stop — yes, I once watched Spalding Gray eat a hot dog at a truck stop in Iowa, that’s not a lie — I asked him how much of his other stuff might have not exactly been, you know, truthful.

Finally — I think he was getting fed up with me by this point — he said, “It’s called ‘poetic license,’ kid.” Actually, he didn’t call me “kid,” that was just my own example of poetic license.

By the time I made it out to Los Angeles, there were a lot of monologuists at work. Great ones too: Anna Deveare Smith, Kevin Kling, Julia Sweeney, John Leguizamo, Lewis Black, my own good friend Evan Handler. But within a few years, the market seemed glutted.

There was one guy who had a one-man show and, I swear to God, his show was about growing up as an orphaned girl who got abused by her foster parents, then in her 20s became a transgendered transsexual, then got hit by a bus. The show was called “The Bumpy Road to Recovery” — and supposedly it was all true, and there was even “life-affirming” humor in it. I thought, “Enough.”

I quit writing monologues and started writing for television and film. I also started reading a lot of nonfiction. One day I picked up Mark Perry’s “Grant and Twain” and discovered that Mark Twain did one-man shows! All this time I thought it was performance artists in the 1980s who invented them. (My first monologue play, “Skinny White Boy,” got reviewed in the Performance Art section of the Chicago Reader. I never could figure that out.)

Anyway, Twain could tell a tall tale and make it as believable as an everyday anecdote. And he could relate an everyday anecdote and make it as entertaining as a tall tale.

Touring around the country and playing theaters to plug his latest book, Twain told stories. Some were true, some were not — but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were famously entertaining.

Because he was Mark Twain, he’d occasionally have famous people in his audience — a wealthy industrialist or poet or even an ex-president or two. Speaking extemporaneously — or not — he’d sometimes lampoon those people as part of that evening’s entertainment. But not everyone found humor in the joke. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes were among those not amused.

On the other hand, if you were famous and happened to have a sense of humor about yourself, you and Twain might become buddies. That’s how Twain met and befriended Ulysses S. Grant — and they remained friends for life. In fact, many scholars believe that if the two hadn’t met, Grant never would have written his memoirs, and Twain might never have finished “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

I’ve been working on “My Buddy Bill” for a little over a year now. Reading Perry’s and other books about Twain inspired me — as did the real-life events that occurred over a couple of years during and after I wrote for the first season of “The West Wing.”

Most of my work on the play has been in front of audiences. Audiences, unlike writers, never lie. If a joke or a line is funny, they laugh. But if they’re bored or not engaged, they cough, shift in their seats or unwrap the crinkly wrappers off their hard candies.

After one performance at the Berkshire Theatre Festival over the summer, a woman came up to me and told me, “You’re the next Garrison Keillor.” I was hoping for someone younger, like David Sedaris. Another person told me, “You’re the next Rick Moranis.” That was flattering because not only is Rick Moranis very funny, he happens to be my 9-year-old daughter’s favorite actor. One woman told me — and this was my personal favorite — “You’re no Elaine Stritch.”

“My Buddy Bill” is about my unlikely and somewhat fantastic friendship with former President Clinton. You’d be surprised what the real-life, behind-the-scenes White House looks like. It’s not at all the beautifully lighted mahogany you see in “The West Wing.” In real life, at least when I was there, the walls needed paint, the desks were beat up and the computers were at least 10 years old. And what’s more, did you know there’s a souvenir shop inside the Situation Room of the White House? The Situation Room is the room where the president convenes with all his Cabinet members during times of crisis. And there’s a souvenir shop in it. I bought stuff there. I don’t know if it’s still in operation under the current administration, but it was under Bill’s.

Now that I’ve admitted that I’m pretty much a pathological liar, you might be tempted to disbelieve the stories I tell in this play. “This guy was never friends with Bill Clinton,” you might think. But sometimes the truth, at least in my life, really is weirder than fiction. Swear to God.

Playwright Rick Cleveland’s other plays include “Danny Bouncing” and “The Nauseated Traveler.” He won an Emmy award in 2000 for “The West Wing” and spent five seasons as a writer and producer for HBO’s “Six Feet Under.”