Defining the American Dream
Jimmy Tingle and Vincent Straggas screen documentary tonight
Comedian Jimmy Tingle began performing in Boston’s stand-up scene in the 1980s, catapulting to national venues such as 60 Minutes II, The Tonight Show, and The Late Show with Conan O’Brien. In 2002, he came back home to open the award-winning Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theater in Somerville, which lasted for five years.
“Jimmy left the stand-up scene, and set out to perform more meaningful one-man political shows in his own theater,” says filmmaker Vincent Straggas (COM’82). “To me, he embodies the American Dream.”
Collaborating with Tingle, without a contract or an agent, Straggas set out to create a documentary. Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream includes performance footage and interviews with Lewis Black, Robert Altman, Janeane Garofalo, Howard Zinn, Jesse Jackson, Robert Reich, Al Franken, Mort Sahl, Bobcat Goldthwait, Tingle’s mother, and more.
“It went against my business training,” says Straggas, who worked on WGBH television shows such as Masterpiece Theatre and Evening at Pops, and now owns his own film production company, Flag Day Productions. “But it was the freedom of a handshake between friends. Maybe that’s naïve, but I think it speaks to the notion of the American Dream: the film was created through two people talking, trusting one another, and allowing the process to work.”
As part of BU Cinematheque, a College of Communication program that screens and discusses the work of accomplished filmmakers, Tingle and Straggas will be on campus tonight to screen Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream. After the showing, they’ll stick around to answer questions, and if the audience is lucky, Tingle might perform some stand-up.
BU Today: Why did you want to address the idea of the American Dream?
Tingle: When we started making the film, the country was divided over war and politics. After 9/11 there was chaos, and reports were worsening by the day. It seemed important to think about our values, and to ask questions: What is the American Dream? Is there such a thing? What does it mean to be an American? What do we stand for? Who are we?
So I thought the American Dream was an understandable yet very broad theme. I hoped it would inspire people beyond the immediate negative headlines, to look at a bigger, more unifying and hopeful picture of the country.
How did you set out to create the film?
Straggas (right): Whenever Jimmy had a performance, I’d take a camera along to shoot it. The film started to shape up as something, but we didn’t know what that something would be.
Tingle: The structure felt loose. So I wrote a one-man stage show called Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream, based on the idea for the film. That became the backbone.
Straggas: Jimmy’s routine was based on the structural elements he deemed were an important part of it, such as money and corporations, religion and how faith helped build the American Dream.
What is the American Dream?
Tingle: For someone just emigrating from India, it means traveling to a place with better opportunities. For someone running across the U.S.-Mexico border, it means increasing pay from $3 per day to $3 per hour. For someone else it means being the first member of the family to go to college. For my father, who grew up on a farm, one of nine children, buying a house in Cambridge was a huge accomplishment.
But there’s a downside too. My mother says this generation’s interpretation of the American Dream is materialistic. Individuals are concerned about themselves and less about others. If they have a house and two cars, they think everything will be OK. But it’s important to think of your spiritual place in the world, how you’re connected to your community and family.
How did you select the people you interviewed?
Straggas: We set up interviews with performers who filtered through Jimmy’s theater; many are his friends.
Altman was filming Tanner on Tanner, during the 2004 presidential election, an update to the Tanner 88 television series. Altman’s crew shot at Jimmy’s theater, and so he gave us an interview
But we didn’t stop at comedians, filmmakers, historians, and politicians. We included Steve, a homeless man Jimmy knows.
Tingle: Steve was five years ahead of me in school. I remember when he came back from Vietnam. He became an alcoholic at a very young age.
I ran into him about a month ago. He went through rehab and is now sober and off the streets, living in a veterans hospital. I’m glad he’s doing better. I’d like to add an update in the film about how Steve has turned his life around.
Describe your collaboration.
Straggas: Jimmy has a very unique voice that he wanted to get across. And I have my own. It took a while to find our collective voice to finish the film. We mixed our styles.
The initial title was The American Dream. But we realized it had to become Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream. It had to be seen through Jimmy’s eyes, told in a singular voice.
What’s the message?
Straggas: The message reflects who Jimmy is as a person and a performer, very different from what we usually see on the comedy scene. There’s no profanity, and it’s honest. He sends a positive and inspirational viewpoint. You do see some scars, because things aren’t always great. But it’s not meant to tear the dream apart. When people watch it, they should feel that the American Dream does exist.
Tingle: I hope it will inspire someone who always wanted to be a comedian, musician, teacher, doctor, or lawyer to go after his or her dream. Maybe it will inspire someone to start a business, run for office, work on social issues like universal health care, think about what their religion stands for, appreciate the men and women who serve in the military, and feel grateful for what we have and who we are.
I hope people won’t be so critical, and maybe a little more grateful for the big picture and the freedoms we have.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Tingle: The film took five years to complete. I would have set more benchmarks to speed up the process. I was never under a timeline. My deadline was, Does this make sense? Are we telling a story well? Is the theme consistent throughout? I wasn’t ready to rush it and put out something that was inferior.
But the interview with the late Howard Zinn happened this past summer, one of the last interviews. If we finished the film a year ago, he wouldn’t be in it.
Straggas: And Zinn turned out to be the best person to conclude the film.
Have you been living the American Dream?
Tingle: When I found comedy, I viewed it as the perfect outlet. I could express myself without playing an instrument. Since I wasn’t a musician, it was a good match.
So I started doing open mic nights, and I fell in love. Nobody censored me. It was based on merit. If you could deliver, entertain, be funny, and develop new material, you could excel.
Being on stage with a microphone, I was an author, writer, inventor, and entrepreneur. To me, that’s a big part of the American Dream.
Straggas: I left WGBH after being there for a long time. While I was there, I was living the American Dream and didn’t realize it.
I have three children, and I’m putting them through school. So I was chipping away at my own projects. I didn’t have any money for films, but I found a way to create them. That speaks to the American Dream.
Straggas: I’m creating a documentary about blind orphans in China. I plan to complete it by the end of July and then shop it around.
Tingle: I grew up in Cambridge, in the shadow of Harvard University, and now I’ll be graduating from there in May. I’m finishing the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration program at the Kennedy School of Government.
What advice would you offer students?
Straggas: When I started working at WGBH, I told a director how much I wanted to make films. He said, “You’ve just got to do it” — and that was before the Nike ads. He was right. It was the best advice I ever got.
Tingle: Don’t wait for the phone to ring — take chances, make your own breaks, and follow your dreams. If you’re happy doing what you love and you don’t give up, you will succeed. We live in a free country; take advantage of the freedom.
Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream screens tonight, Wednesday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m. in the College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Ave., Room 101, followed by a discussion with Jimmy Tingle and filmmaker Vincent Straggas and possibly a little Tingle stand-up. The event, part of BU Cinematheque, is free and open to the public.