Monday, November 26, 2007

Working Blue in Tahoe

North Shore Tahoe,
Ever been? It is beautiful. Where you least expect it, there are 3 little casinos just across the state line high up in the Mountains on a twisting little two lane highway. Across the street is the Tahoe Biltmore. I don't know when it was built, but the many black and white photos that lined the walls in our little casino seems to indicate they had been there for sometime. Our little Casino is called Crystal Bay. Thats all it is too, a casino. No hotel rooms or restaurant, just a few sparsely attended tables, bars at opposite ends of the place and a parking structure that seems more wishful thinking than anything else.
The rooms they put us in were nice. Even elegant. They were there just for the talent. However, they lacked doors on the bathroom and an Internet connection. Also, no Bible in the nightstand. OK, I am 99% sure I am going to be alone so the missing bathroom door didn't bother me as much as feeling cut off from the rest of the world. My phone couldn't get a clear signal either. Not having a Bible didn't really bother me.
Oh well. I am alone in Tahoe for a few days with nothing but my head.
We got up there on a Monday for a Tuesday night show. The thinking was, we wouldn't have to travel and perform on the same day. Glad we did it too. The show it's self was a major let down. It was one of those gigs where everything about it was great. The location, the room, the friendly people, everything but the show.
I still did an hour twenty though.
Tuesday morning I got up early. I just couldn't sleep and decided to look around North Shore Tahoe. I went for a drive and found two very beautiful things quickly; Starbucks and the lake front. That is the order I would put them in too. Sorry to sound like a yuppie, but starting a day without my regular cup of a coffee from the worlds biggest drug supplier is not a pretty thing to consider. They also had a wireless hot spot.
This is what I like most when I am on the road. These tiny moments where you find something familiar in a place that is anything but. I like sitting there drinking my coffee till the last few gulps are cold and surfing the Internet with the idea that there is this brand new place to go and explore. Also, having my connection to the outside world limited isn't such a bad thing. Being alone with my head is not easy either, but it is always important to listen without distraction.
And so it was that I found myself standing at the edge of another clear blue mountain lake contemplating what it is I should be contemplating. This time, there was no closed gate to enforce personal reflection. There was just that other worldly sparkle of sun light on the lakes surface and rocks that looked more like eggs just beneath the clear water. The mountains were green and silent, the sky was high and blue, and every breath tasted clean. I am always in these places because of comedy but I am never thinking about comedy when I am in these places. When it comes to stand-up lately, I feel so distracted, disinterested and wooden on stage. I hope it is a phase. Being a comic for this long is like being in a relationship; some years are better than others. What it all comes down to for me, is the creative end. I am not a good business man when it comes to my career. Self promotion is something I begrudgingly do with mixed results. What I love the most is being onstage playing with the crowd and ideas. But even that feels old these last few months. New ideas get written down, but I don't want to take the risk of trying them out. I feel old on stage. Not just in age, but in delivery, in material, in spirit.
There are nights when I am driving to a gig and a phone call from the Booker saying it's canceled would be welcomed. I hate that. I use to love going to do comedy. Nervous, sure, but excited and grateful for the work. This last year has been a bitch. No other way to describe it really. I just keep waiting for something to kick in or some spark to return. The gigs I have been doing have all gone well to great for me, but each one I come away from thinking there is another level I should be operating at but cannot seem to reach. I think thats whats bugging me lately.
Every comic has moments of growth. You can feel them. Sudden understandings or a jump in the ability to finally say what you want inside a bit. The level of your performance is just better. People notice it and you feel it. It is a great high to revel in during those all to brief moments in your life.
I have not had one of those for a long time now.
I don't practice what I preach either. So much that happened this year is intensely painful and private, yet I tell younger comics all the time thats where the best stuff comes from. What I want to do, what I wish I had the balls to do, is to start going up on stage with the barest of jokes and just talk all this shit out. When your being paid to entertain a crowd and you want to be re booked, you don't experiment; you kill. You kill with what has proven it's self over and over again. Thats the problem now. The over and over and over part. When I set up a bit that is at least 8 years old, a bit I really have no emotional connection to anymore, it gets harder and harder to sell it. Thats what being a pro and an artist is, that back and forth between making the buck and pleasing the creative process. All that baggage from Samantha is piling up and needs a way to come out. It's one thing to do it here in a blog, but the stage is where I live. Without fresh blood, it becomes a less interesting place to live.

The night of the show there are less than ten people in the audience a quarter to show time. The other comics and I each look at each other with that familiar look. When you get into comedy, you never imagine these times. You never think about the gigs you drove 5 hours to to be in front of a handful of people spread out inside an ark. Thats what this place looks like too, an ark. All the wood and tables set up like the last supper give it that feeling. The Booker is a nice enough guy, he just keeps asking us about other comics who would work well up here. We don't know yet what up here really is so it's hard to say exactly.
We start the show a quarter after with about 60 people spread threw the room. Not bad. The host goes up. He is relatively new, but a smart writer. As an opener, he lacks that sort of energy you want someone to have, but if the crowd is half way decent, they will come together and start listening. Once that happens, they will hear some really fresh really funny jokes. There might not be a better joke writer right now than this guy.
This crowd never really came together however.
Crowds are curious things. Like an individual, they have their own personality and unique challenges. This crowds main challenge was Tina.
After the show, the Booker told me, "Yeah, thats Tina. She usually comes and sits in back talking too loud. This time they wanted to sit up front."
Of course the did.
Rule number 4,028: When putting together my dream room, I will have hosts seat the crowd, not let them sit down where ever they want. This accomplishes two very important things to insure the success of a show before it even starts.
1. The crowd is distributed evenly in the room. No empty pockets or concentrations of crowd in any one spot.
2. If you know someone is coming in drunk, loud or demonstrates anything that appears problematic, you can seat them in an area of the room where they will cause the least amount of negative impact on the show.
Thats just Tina?
Thats what we want, a Booker who is co-dependant with the audience.
Tina, cannot shut the fuck up. Every joke requires her comments. Every set up is greeted with a hardy drunk girl "WHOOOOOOO!" You can see the faces of the people around her. They are more than a little fed up with the constant and annoying interruptions this drunk girl creates on the order of every 30 seconds.
Of course there is no bouncer or manager or any staff to go over to her and ask her to quiet down.
The opener is not really a guy who engages the crowd, so he respectfully ignores the distraction and plows forward. Most of the time the person gets the hint and shuts up after a while.
Not Tina.
Ah drunk people. What a loud world they must live in. To communicate with the rest of us, they have to yell.
Next up is an old friend of mine. Maybe the booze has really kicked in, but Tina becomes such a distraction toward the end of his set that at one point he looks down at the three other guys around her table and says, "Will someone please stick a dick in her to shut her up."
Almost an hour into a show, that gets the nights first round of applause from a crowd that hasn't come together yet. As a result of that, his closing bit just sorta sits there and he is left with no other option than to just say, "Well, thats been my time."
Every comic hates that moment. You have done all you can and still they are just looking at you when every other crowd that ever heard that joke laughed and then applauded.
Not these guys.

Off to one side of the stage is a large curtain. It is the only thing between us and the crowd. When my friend comes off stage, he is standing there fuming.
"That fucking cunt in the front row will not shut the fuck up! Have fun."
Now it's my turn.
Before I get on stage, I already have my work cut out for me. The Booker, getting drunker on wine and then switching to shots of Jaggermister, tells me to do as much time as I want. Ordinarily I would greet that sentence with a smile. Tonight, not so much.
When I get up there, I ignore the drunk bitch directly in front of me and stay on course with material. My heart is not entirely in the delivery, but it gets the laughs I need and the crowd is close to reaching that critical mass when they stop being a bunch of people at tables and become a solid thing unto it's self and give in to the show.
It's hard to tell sometimes if it is something happening in the crowd or something happening inside myself. But this show has that blah feeling. There just sitting there because it's the day before Thanksgiving and they have nothing to do and I'm just up there with a Microphone telling them jokes my heart is not really in. It's these shows where I feel like I could tip it closer to a better show if I was a little more on my game.
Who knows. I know I still care though. I know I want them to have a great show so I pull out every trick I can think of. That includes engaging Tina.
I stuck with material longer than I normally would of, but once I start riffing, that fills an hour.
You get the feeling from the crowd when you have chosen the right target.
Tina was the right target.
I only get off stage when the TV's that line the walls in the place suddenly come on. No sound, but all of the sudden we are all treated to various helpings of sports, news and interviews. I take that as the signal to get off stage. I am informed when I come off that that was in fact not the signal to come off and no one knows why that happened. An hour and twenty minuets in front of a crowd that is less than stellar is enough. I gave them their moneys worth.
Now comes the time honored tradition of waiting around after the show wondering if you should respectfully bring up the fact that you haven't been paid yet, or start getting drunk with the locals.
I just want to get my check and jack-off in my little room to the thought of already being in the car and headed home.
Really, it wasn't such an awful gig. It's just that I feel kinda dirty for having done it. Thats all.
There are just too many of these gigs. The Booker, drunk and a little stumbly now, does the post show review. He tells me that I did great and he would love to have me back in February. And you know what, I will do it too. I will do it because I know I am better than any one night at any one room.
When he breaks down the other two guys acts, it almost makes me laugh out loud for the accidental compliment he gives them. "Tonight, we had thoughtful comics you had to listen too."
I think you have to listen to them all.
What he is saying is that their jokes were smart. This crowd was not.
All in all, beautiful location and a good time with friends, but this is like so many other one nighters where the crowd is not half as cool as they think they are and the Booker says he wants quality when what he really needs for this room is road dogs with hours of easily digestible dick jokes.
Thats what makes me wonder about my set.
Sure, I pulled out some old stuff that relied heavily on that part of the body for laughs. It was the right thing to do. As an old friend in comedy once told me after a intense debate about doing what you want verses giving a crowd what they want, he simply said, "You don't bring Sushi to a Barbecue."
True that!
As a comic, you want to reach a point where you can raise the crowd to the level you want to work at. I have had some of the best shows with religion and politics in places you wouldn't think it would fly. I always give them the benefit of the doubt. I will throw some bits out there and see how they do. If they don't bite, I can try to sell it a little harder. If they still don't hit, well hello dirty stuff! After all, as much as I want this to be about me, it is after all about the crowd. As the headliner, I feel a certain obligation to be able to get them to laugh. Thats my job on a show, to be the best. After watching two extremely talented and funny comics battle a crowd that seems largely disinterested or dim, what am I suppose to do? I am suppose to go up there and kill. Thats what. They don't care about my personal struggle to write smart heart felt material about love and loss and all the phases of grief you go through. They just want to laugh.
We all forget that sometimes. The crowd shows up with an expectation of hearing jokes. A comic shows up with the expectation of the crowd being great. When we say great, we mean smart, hip and greeting the jokes our hearts are in with thunderous applause.
A lot of the time, thats exactly what happens. But more often than not on these types of gigs, they don't want to hear your tightly written and genius joke about whats wrong with Government. They could care less that you finally got that bit about your heart being broken to work at the last gig you did. They want jokes.
When I was young the term working blue confused me. I thought it meant going to work when you were sad.
On this show, it meant what it has always meant and it also meant what I thought it was too. I cant speak for any other comic, but on nights like these you hit a moment on stage that is almost like an out of body experience. You see yourself on stage and you see the faces of those in the audience. Your saying jokes correctly, I mean the words are coming out right, but it makes no difference. The laughter just isn't coming. Thats when you hit that curious moment inside yourself when you can either shut down and phone it in, or find the will to push forward with what is required.
Plan B, for me anyway, is always the riff gun.

Standing in back of the Punch Line last night, I am talking to a friend of mine. We are talking about riffing and getting more new stuff out there. The pressure to kill has never been greater. I think everyone feels it. Where do you take the chances needed to grow that new stuff? Where is it OK to have a quiet set while your hammering out something new?
The truth is, I am a very lucky comic. With the degree of respect and trust this town has given me, I should be able to start using some of that stock to take bigger risks on stage.
I will tell you something I honestly believe, I am a very good comic. If I could find that last missing little piece, I could be a great comic. It's just that one little thing I need to find. Something in delivery or subject matter or what?
I remember watching Jim Short at the old Cobb's. Man, there was a golden time. Virtually unlimited stage time in a club with a paid audience. What a gift those years were to all of us back then. Jim was always a funny guy. Always stuck out. But at some point, he made the choice to start doing what he wanted the way he wanted. So, on those 3 showcase nights, he went up and for 6 months he bombed. I mean he just ate it up there in silence.
I remember the "water cooler" talk about it at that time. Is he funny? What is he thinking? That sort of thing.
For 6 months, 3 nights a week in 15 minuets bursts, he went on stage and performed in silence. No matter what had worked before or what his instincts must of been telling him in the moment, he shut all that out in the hope of perfecting his voice.
If you have ever watched Jim Short, then you know he is a force of nature on stage. Relentless tightly written smart bits just keep coming. But that only happened because he decided he was going to use whatever stage time he would be given to learn how to do what he wanted.
Obviously it worked.
I remember being outside one night and hearing laughter like thunder threw the walls.
"Whose on right now?" I asked someone.
"I think it's Short!"
And that was that. After 6 months of nothing, it fell into place. His gamble paid off. I think it is time to follow that example.

1 comment:

Dean said...

OK, forget all that shit about your life being a black and white French New Wave movie... maybe it's that picture of Y.A. Tittle, his football helmet off, his hair matted down with sweat and dirt, and the smallest trickle of blood running down the bridge of his battered yet Romanesque nose. Worn down as he was, you knew he was going to put that helmet back on and get out there and finish the game...