"We've got to pay this debt off," deadpans A. Whitney Brown. "It's physically sickening to think that for the next 30 years, all the taxes from the first 2 1/2 months of every American worker's paycheck will go straight to rich Japanese bankers to pay the interest on money we borrowed so Ronald Reagan could make Walter Mondale look stupid."
Sure, it's convoluted. But that's the way Brown sees it -- "it" being "The Big Picture," his semi-regular commentary on "Weekend Update" segment of "Saturday Night Live."
"I pretend to explain the entire world," says Brown, a five-year veteran of the "SNL" writing staff. "But if anyone takes it seriously, that's their fault."
Suddenly, his normally stentorian voice drops down to a warm, grandfatherly tone: "It's a joke, son. You know?"
The jokes began in 1971 in San Francisco. Brown was a writer. "But," he says, "the most difficult thing is getting people to read. If you can make them laugh, they'll keep reading." So he decided to make them laugh.
Brown was also a juggler who performed on the streets, in shopping malls and circuses. To keep the audience's attention, he worked comedy into his routine. Eventually he realized he would "never be the best juggler," so he went straight into stand-up. "SNL" veteran Al Franken caught his routine on "The Tonight Show," called Brown and brought him onto the team.
Since then, Brown's been writing sketches for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, such as John Lovitz's Pathological Liar character, monologues for the guest hosts and, of course, the bombastic "Big Picture."
The first "Big Picture" aired about five years ago, when Ronald Reagan Jr. was the late-night comedy show's host. "I knew his father was going to watch," recalls Brown. "It's a rule of parenting. And I thought it would be fun to confuse the guy and talk about international politics in a humorous way. I think I did confuse him. Somebody did."
A. Whitney Brown is performing at the Comedy Cafe on Friday night at 8:30 and 10:30 and Saturday night at 7, 9 and 11. Tickets are $12.49. For information, call 202-638-JOKE. VARIETY Leroy Jenkins does things with the violin that would make a musicologist cringe. He plays mainstream jazz. He improvises avant-garde jazz. And he tinkers with classical styles. So far, so what? He plays them all at once.
"It's an alternative way of listening," says the composer, "on a large scale."
For example, Jenkins will compose a three-part piece that has a fixed beginning and end but a wildly improvised middle section. And the middle may have absolutely nothing to do with the other two parts.
Or he'll play a "lovely melody," then improvise on the theme rather than playing a completely different movement. Or sometimes he'll take three notes and play them over and over, sustaining the passage "until I lose interest -- or the audience loses interest -- and then I quit."
Jenkins, a southside Chicago native, started playing the violin at 8, studying classical at home and fiddling gospel tunes at church next to Bo Diddley. Eventually he went off to Florida A&M to study music, and earned pocket money playing jazz saxophone in clubs. After college he moved to Mobile, Ala., to become a music teacher. He wanted to continue playing violin, but after a recital in which only 10 people showed up, he decided to change his strategy.
"I thought, 'If I'm going to make a living doing this, I've got to change my approach,' " he says. " 'I can't attract black people to classical music.' So I switched over to jazz violin and started playing John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis -- all these guys who were popular in the '60s."
In 1965, he says, he was introduced to "a new kind of music" by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians: avant-garde.
"We were investigating all the modern composers," he says of the AACM, "and we added that to improvisation. We started to write music with the adventurous attitudes we got from these composers."
Over the last 20 years, Jenkins has applied what he learned at the AACM to other projects, such as the Revolutionary Ensemble in the '70s, the Mixed Quintet in the '80s and his solo work and compositions of the last few years. His pieces are played by such ensembles as the Kronos Quartet, the Oberlin College Jazz Band and the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
But the most important thing, he says, is not the commissions but the audience. "I think about the people who come to listen to me," he says. "It may not sound like it sometimes, but I really do."
Leroy Jenkins is performing at Strathmore Hall on Friday night at 8. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors and students. For information, call 301-530-0540. CYBERPUNK REBELS In 1982, William Gibson published a post-modern science fiction novel called "Neuromancer." Nobody -- especially Gibson -- ever thought that it would inspire a revolutionary movement. But then, there's never been a movement quite like "cyberpunk."
"Gibson described things in the context of science fiction," says film producer Peter von Brandenburg, "and people said, 'Let's invent it.' Like using Jules Verne as a blueprint. Like someone saying, 'Let's build the Nautilus' after reading '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' ... It has influenced a generation like no other book has -- not the Bible, not the Communist Manifesto."
Von Brandenburg's 50-minute documentary "Cyberpunk" investigates the techno-movement, the world of computer addicts. He interviews its members, from the "stars" to the "freaks"; traces the development of cultural spinoffs such as "industrial music," "chip couture" and computer-generated "process animation"; and relates stories of how hackers invade and disrupt mega-corporations' communications systems (one 14-year-old, he says, moved a satellite).
"I'm as powerful as a national agency," says one hacker. "And in a couple of years, I'm going to be much more powerful... . Someone said, 'You can write a virus to take down the banking system. Would you?' If I think it's necessary, I will... . This is is all about empowerment."
Von Brandenburg has also applied the cyberpunk style to his film. To conceal some of the interviewees' identities -- since "cyberpunks operate on the fringe of the law" -- he uses process-animated images of devils and alien creatures rather than traditional shadowing. His score is the industrial sound of bands such as Front Line Assembly and Manufacture. The subjects, except for former Harvard professor and psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, are garish, like punkers crossed with Flash Gordon.
The film pulses like a computer come to life. It's dazzling and cartoonish; traditional film clips are decorated with vibrant, geometric computer graphics. It's what von Brandenburg calls "infotainment in reverse."
"I wanted to create something with visuals that will blow your circuits," he says. "I wanted to bring something educational and cloak it, make it look like entertainment."
"Cyberpunk" will be presented at the American Film Institute tomorrow night at 6:30 and Tuesday night at 8:45. Tickets are $6 for nonmembers, $5 for members. For information, call 202-785-4600. BALLET OF OLD JAPAN After World War II, the Japanese not only had to rebuild their country, they also had to revive their culture. One of the results was the founding in 1948 of the Matsuyama Ballet, a classical company that performs both traditional European and new Japanese works.
For 40 years, the Matsuyama has performed in Tokyo, China and Western Europe, yet never traveled to the United States. Until now.
On its debut tour, the company is presenting two tragic ballets, the classic "Giselle" and the somewhat parallel, 400-year-old Japanese tale "Mandala."
Set in a traditional village in the early Edo period, "Mandala" recounts the passionate relationship between an artist and a Christian girl. The artist has been commissioned by a wealthy patron to complete a series of drawings of ordinary people in the image of Buddha -- a "mandala" -- when he meets the lovely young Moe.
"It is in the time when Christianity was prohibited in Japan," says prima ballerina Yoko Morishita (who dances the role of Moe) through an interpreter. "She is hidden, because her existence is forbidden," but eventually "the painter realizes that she is his ideal figure for the mandala -- the tapestry of these images."
"He has to fight with the enemies to keep her," says Morishita, "and it is very spectacular. At the end, they have no hope for their love story and they die tragically."
The Matsuyama Ballet performs at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $37 to $17 and available by calling 202-467-4600.