Over the past few years, the performing arts center at Valencia College's east campus has served as a Chicago nightclub, a Times Square dance hall and a 19th-century German school; this weekend it becomes a Gramercy Park apartment for the stage version of The Seven Year Itch. But last week, for one night only, the venue was repurposed as a comedy club, allowing students and the public a rare opportunity to see a comedy icon test out brand-new material.
Michael Winslow, the sound effect-spewing star of 1980s classics like Police Academy, Gremlins and Spaceballs, was a staple of my childhood VCR. And as his recent free performance at Valencia demonstrated, there's much more to this Central Florida resident than just a repertoire of wacky noises.
As befits every big-name star, Winslow shared the stage with a pair of opening acts recruited from the ranks of local colleges, who warmed up the crowd with evidence that the art of stand-up is still alive and well among the up-and-coming generation.
First, UCF "super-senior" Sean Philippe spun salacious yarns about 'shroom-addled dogs and armed infants with the cocky attitude of a young Chris Rock; he was followed by Valencia student Hannibal Callens, who harnessed his wildly theatrical physicality and command of dialects to deliver beat poetry one-liners with a political punch.
The evening's headliner was welcomed with a cleverly edited video montage that turned four decades of Winslow's most recognizable appearances into a rap song. That soon segued into a steampunk-style title sequence declaring the start of "Michael Winslow's Sound Adventures." The next 40 minutes were a fusion of gentle observational comedy, eerily accurate musical mimicry and adolescent auditory absurdities, all tailored to showcase Michael's famously talented mouth.
While best known for vocal imitations of inorganic objects – whether the beep of a grocery scanner, the flap of a toilet paper roll or the pop of bubble wrap, all instantly recognizable – Winslow is also like the black Rich Little, able to impersonate everyone from Chris Tucker and Eddie Murphy to Christopher Lloyd and Arnold Schwarzenegger. While I'd wondered if his 20th-century pop culture references would connect with a college-age audience, it seems the current obsession with the retro '80s and '90s serves Winslow well, because his humor drew hearty laughs from the Valencia crowd.
Though primarily a comedian, Winslow's equally impressive musical talents took center stage in tributes to Led Zeppelin, Prince and Jimi Hendrix. Not only is Winslow able to capture the original artists' vocal stylings, but he also mimics every instrument in the band, from bass and drums to electric guitar.
Thanks to a cutting-edge digital looping device provided by Roland, he can now play all the parts simultaneously, allowing him to build layers of his voice into a complex composition in front of a live audience. A longtime audiophile, Winslow "was using Roland equipment in the '70s," he told me after the show, saying that the technology has "finally caught up to me."
"I dare you to try"
Following his set, Winslow graciously stuck around for an audience question-and-answer session that was both intimate and inspirational. When asked if his unique performance style causes him physical problems, Winslow was painfully honest, saying "your throat can catch on fire. ... It is a singular life, and I wouldn't recommend it to everybody." (Of course, that didn't stop him from following up with a sample of Mongolian throat-singing and an ear-piercing bagpipe simulation.)
The hurt he's overcome hasn't only been physical, either; as a military brat moving to a different country every two years, young Winslow "didn't have a lot of friends, so [he] would end up making up [his] own soundtracks to movies." Even as his career was getting started in the '80s, Winslow struggled, he says. "I was living in my car at the time, and I just wanted to get a job" when he auditioned for the voice of Stripe in Gremlins, he admits.
Despite the challenges he's faced over the years, Winslow keeps looking forward; his Valencia performance was filmed as potential audition footage for the Bonnaroo Festival, Adult Swim or Disney.
He also keeps encouraging young performers to pursue their ambitions, even if it isn't always easy.
"Just bear in mind, for all the folks who think, 'I don't think I can do this,' remember I'm thinking about you. There are other performers out there more scared than you are, trust me," Winslow told the students in conclusion. "You learn by doing, and you can do this. I dare you to try it!"