Last night I had a dream that everyone fell under a spell. One by one, everyone around me became enchanted by it's power. They didn't act crazy or homicidal or anything like that, they just dressed a like, talked a like about the same things and had no interested in examining themselves or this strange force at work in our lives. Like a soft cancer, it settled into every aspect of life. I stood apart from it, fascinated by it's lure and amazed that I seemed very much in the minority. I woke up with it's name on my lips; mediocrity.
Thats right. I tried out for last comic standing yesterday.
If this were a movie you would see me wake up in tangled sheets gasping for air, sweating proverbial bullets. It would fade to black and the words, the previous day would appear on screen.
So lets do it Hollywood style, shall we.
The Day job
The boss from New York received my long e-mail detailing what I feel needs to happen to the gym for it to be maintained properly and for me to stay. It's not a bad job, but I am up against the power of money. They want to rip it all down in two years and build a bright shinning tower to yuppies. Problem is, they want to keep the club going until that day comes. Until that day, no money is being put into the facility.
We have holes in the roof, rust on machines and a membership that is mostly the age of 60 and up. Most of my day consists of members yelling at me that standards have fallen and why are we running out of items like soap?
I want to scream back, we have no money!
It's true. We sometimes have to wait a week to make sure checks have cleared before we can order the most basic supplies.
Yet, it is a good day time gig. I like having health insurance too.
I am not my day job though. No. Instead, I chose to get my identity from a far more intangible source; stand-up comedy.
I have written this many times. You need exposure to get anywhere in that business. Talent is far from enough.
A call comes from Tom, who books Cobb's comedy club.
"You still want to do this Last Comic Standing thing?"
"Sure. Why not."
"Alright. Be down here at 11:30 and will get you on the line up."
I have just been given a Golden Willy Wonka ticket to avoid the line that wraps around the block. Where maybe two hundred people wait. Some seem normal enough. Some, not so much. There is a woman dressed as a tree, a short man wearing a Viking helmet with a sword taller than himself by 2 feet. What appears to be a few homeless people who have fallen into the line for no other reason than why not, and a lot of undiagnosed mental illness. You can feel an odd energy in the air. I have reeked of it myself in the past and recognize it immediately. It is desire that is mixed with fear. It is desperation mixed with the idea that this could be it. This is not to say that everyone in line is a nut, I have some friends in that line and some very good comics spent the night sleeping on concrete all for two minuets on a giant stage in front of two producers.
I show up and find a few others who have been summoned. With a few of the other, "Invitational's" we go in the back of the club. We are led past garbage cans and rusted gates by people wearing shinny plastic I.D.'s around their necks and walking briskly.
Cameras are everywhere. People are everywhere. We are led down stairs into the catacombs of Cobb's sprawling basement. Giant lights and thin black veils separate the open areas into smaller boxes of light and humming equipment. We are told to keep quiet as we file in to the first of many interviews conducted by mostly bored interns and P.A.'s. You would think all this energy and orchestration was a place to plan an invasion. In a sense it is. This show will be beamed into living rooms across the nation. It is a network show. That gives it a credibility that the internet and cable still have not reached. But it also means that behind everything, there is a force at work molding all who wish to enter.
I have known people who have made it onto this show. It changed their lives.
Thats why I am willing to walk into it. Thats why all of us are here; to change our lives.
Heres how it works.
The first audition is in-front of the producers. They see everyone. The nuts, the new people and us. When I say "Us", I mean professional working comics. Comics who have paid whatever sort of dues you can think of.
After 15 years, cutting in line is the least they should do for us.
After paper work and interviews that will never be seen by anyone, we are lined up in groups. Thats the day mostly. Waiting in one line and being taken by people wearing earphones to another line. We stand in the kitchen and slowly, ever so slowly make our way to the stage. The two acts right before me are a guy dressed as a penguin and a guy who strapped two giant pasta strainers to both sides of his head and is a fly.
I have worked this club before. I feel like that gives me something of an advantage. I know this stage.
When my time comes, another guy with a plastic I.D. around his neck and a earphone radio tells me to start walking up those tiny black steps to the stage.
It might be a stage I am use to, but this is not the usual situation at all. About 40 feet from the stage at the center of the room sits two women behind a news caster style desk. There is a camera on a giant crane that silently moves about like the menacing tentacle of some alien robot probe. There are several other stationary cameras quietly taking in the view and lights that are so intense they feel more like a weight on my face than light.
I feel a curios rumble in my bowels. This is something other than nerves though. This is the cilium husks I took last night starting to have an effect on me.
What great timing!
I take the mic out and launch into a collection of my jokes I am most happy with at the moment.
They actually smile at some of the punch-lines.
One of the producers stops me around the two minuet mark.
"You were barreling through your jokes. Slow down and be the Joe KLocek we all know and love tonight."
In other words, I am moving onto to the next set of auditions this afternoon. I am not in the big show yet, but I am a step closer.
It is Paige. She is one of the producers on the show.
Heres some odd history for you.
Years ago at the Punchline, we were on the bill together. I was opening and she middling. I destroyed and the next night they reversed the order.
I am still here though and she is making more money than I have seen in my entire comedy career so far.
More cameras get in my face asking how it feels. More paper work and lines and plastic people doing their job without passion or wondering why.
They are parts in the machine I am so eagerly attempting to join in the most audacious way; by being good.
I have time to call the day job and fill them in. What I thought might be two hours at the most is turning into a all day thing.
My phone battery is dying, I have to constantly shit and I keep looking at my little black book of scribbled jokes asking myself what I should do for the next round.
The next round
A few of us make a run for lunch and get above ground to make calls. I eat a burrito and shit again. What the hell is in those pills?
This round, we line up and get to perform for the celebrity judges. One of the guys on the new show, Chuck and the guy from third rock from the sun.
I get moved onto the next round. A guy who moves with the efficiency of a SWAT team member takes me to the head of more stairs and tells me I will walk down them, hit my mark and Bill Bellamy will interview me. Like a cow going down a shoot to his final reward, I walk down the stairs and when I walk past yet another black fabric barrier, I am blinded by an industrial strength light; Bill's teeth.
He is tall. I don't remember anything other than that. I stand next to him like a prop for less than a minuet answering questions about how I feel. Then, it's out another set of doors where another bored looking person whose job consists of sitting on a stool in the dark and pointing to where the comics who made it, shows me where to exit.
Somewhere on a stair well leading to the surface where no one else is, I let myself smile that genuine smile of accomplishment.
Now I let myself start to dream.
I am on the show tonight along with 16 other acts. I am going to be seen on network TV. If I can get past this night, I am on!
You can't help it. No matter how many times I have told other comics to take it set by set and let it go, I am picturing myself in a sunny L.A. office with a manger asking me what I want to do?
Now comes the business part of this. For those who are performing tonight, we have to fill out a half inch thick packet of paper work. Contract. credit check and background check.
I want to tell jokes, not join the C.I.A. or rent an apartment.
It takes 30 minuets to fill out and most of the questions I can only answer with a Not Available.
Then, its back to the car with yet another ticket waiting for me.
San Francisco gives them out like Valentines day cards. I drive back to the day job, where nothing has blown up and what little paper work that sits on my desk can wait till monday when I come back in and pee all over desks and say, I quit fuckers!
I turn right around and head back to the basement where we have been told to be at 6:45 for the 8:00 show.
There we are. I know most of the people on the show. There are also a bunch of people from other cities who apparently already did their first round elsewhere and are doing the show here. Seattle is well represented. A guy from Minneapolis who keeps saying he is surprised that he is not nervous and two hot girls who don't talk to anyone but themselves are also there.
I sit at a table with Larry "Bubbles" Brown, Candy Churrila, Mike E. Winfield, Jason Downs, Drenon Davis, Tony dijamco and the Meehan brothers.
We do what comics do in this situation, alleviate the tension by rifing tasteless jokes with each other.
I think Candy won this unofficial round telling Larry, that his snack of corn nuts smelled like a retards feet.
At 7:30, we are still asking each other questions. Can we do the same stuff? How much time are we getting? How do they judge us? Do we get a check if were in AFTRA? What does this all mean, really?
At a quarter to eight, the director and producers come down stairs and fill us in. Paige, gives us the low down. "Congratulations on getting this far. You are the best of the best. There is no set number of people who will be picked. If you hear your name called, you walk down the center to the judges table where you will be handed a red envelope. This is important, don't open it because there is nothing inside."
A handful of us laugh and riff some variation on, just like Hollywood, or just like our dreams, or of course.
I ask about doing the same jokes.
"Do what you feel represents you the best."
The second guessing begins in earnest now.
What represents me the best? Shit! After 15 years you would think I would have this down.
Now comes the pacing, the looking at notes and the last line we will be herded into tonight. Oh, I am 15th in a line up of 16 acts. It dosent bother me. I know I can hold my own in a late slot. I am just not so great with the 3 minuet thing. Ask any girlfriend I ever had. I just don't like quickies. I have been spoiled by all my ample San Francisco stage time and the short forum is not what I do best.
The line winds through the kitchen once again. Slowly, ever so slowly I go from behind a wall, to sitting on a giant stainless steel table to against a wall. Oh, and I run to the bathroom a lot.
The "bathroom" that is nearest to us is barely a bathroom. It has a toilet in it, but it also has a mop bucket, drain and a thin coating of every pathogen known to man.
This is the glamorous side no one ever thinks about.
Hand written signs with exaggerated exclamation marks warn you not to flush paper towels in english and spanish. Ever see Trainspotting? The scene where he goes into the dirtiest toilet in all of Scotland? It's like that.
In a situation like this, you look for signs. Everyone is grasping for some positive cue from the universe. When I made it to a cafe before the 6:45 call time, the number I was handed for my order was 1.
In the bathroom there is a soap dispenser with the brand name, gojo on it.
I continue to debate with myself right up to the end about what to do. I am also grateful that Mike Meehan is standing behind me with his brothers. Mike has always been a calming influence. He is a zen rock garden in an otherwise chaotic garden of weeds.
Eventually, I move from standing against the wall in the kitchen to standing directly behind the stage on a X made with white tape on the floor.
I am next!
You can hear the roar of the crowd. They are hot! The place is amped in the way that only TV cameras artificially create.
Bill Belamay says my name and it's up the stairs and out into the light and noise of a crowd on fire.
I put my hands above my head and they respond with the typical extra howl of energy. There is no time for give it up to the host, or how are you, or keep it going for the other acts-it is time to kick the doors in and be the Joe Klocek we all know and love.
So thats what I do.
Laughter and applause breaks are my reward. When I say good night and walk off, I have that feeling that is so rare but is the high you chase as a comic. I know it was a perfect set. I can count on my hands when I have had this feeling. I can count on one hand when that has been rewarded however.
These are rare moments; when you can live up to your own expectations. It's all you can ask for. Its a great feeling to have. It tells me I can do this and it tells me if they don't pick me its not because I wasn't funny.
Now comes the hard part, waiting.
It is almost 11:00PM. It has been a 12 hour roller coaster ride. Kevin Avery, the friend and comic we just roasted last weekend has been given the impossible situation of going up at the end and doing time as we are positioned in two neat rows behind him. Its pandemonium. P.A.'s are swirling around the stage micro managing us, cameras are moving and the audience is growing impossibly wrestles. Kevin, in a impossible situation, does great though. After all, he is a pro.
Now, Bill comes back and explains to the crowd what has already been drilled into our heads back stage already. Then, it begins. A name is called and the crowd responds with a burst of applause. Then, Bill goes silent. He is being told the names on an ear piece at a pace meant to produce theatrical tension that the cameras eat up like rabid wolves. You can feel their lenses lapping up all the smiles and expressions of let down.
It goes like this, "The next comic......to move on, is..................INSERT NAME HERE."
One by one, people are called and go down to the judges table to get their empty red envelopes and bask in the energy of a crowd that looks bored by now. When I look at the audience, I am struck by the unusual number of hot women seated at the tables. I look at a blond in the front row who seems to be flawless. She gives me that little cheerleader wave of the hand and a smile I will be thinking about till the day I die.
Afterwards we find out that a craigslist add was placed for attractive women to attend the show.
Even the audience has been casted!
Then, Bills says the words that send a chill down the spine of everyone left on stage, "There is one ticket left!"
It has to be me. Right?
This whole part of the show is dragged out for about 15 minuets. For 15 minuets my heart feels like a trapped bird and my chest is the cage it is trying to escape from. My mouth is dry and I laugh for no other reason than what else can you do? I am hot, tired and after 12 hours of hurry up and wait and more than anything else in the world, I want this. God, I want this!
For a guy who is so comfortable knocking the establishment constantly, I am always surprised by how much I want that little pat on the head this would mean.
I lick my chapped lips for the thousandth time in a row and shift weight from one foot to the other taking a deep breath.
This is what is going through my head. OK, If I don't get called, It means nothing. I can go back to my life and work at just being happy inside my own skin. Maybe if I had done more of that work there would be that extra spark in my eyes and my name would of already been called. Don't think that Joe! But I will be OK. I will not fall into depression and fuck my life up with the lie that is in the bottom of a bottle or the darkness I can pull around myself like a familiar blanket. I will still be a respected comic in this town. This will be alright. So what. Then again. It could be me. I could be called and move on and that means more face time on that box that sits in every home in America. That means I will have won a lottery like no other. It means people will have to learn how to say my name. It means, it means....
"The last comic......to move on.........is.........."
The girl standing next to me whispers, "Now what?"
"We get the fucked off this stage." I say.
I am crushed. Devastated. Ruined.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
We file back into the kitchen. The winers and losers are kept separated. We are not allowed to go downstairs and get our stuff. The cameras are down there now on the shining faces of the winners.
When I ask why we have to wait a P.A. tells me the judges want to come and shake our hands.
I say, "I think it's to give the winners time to go through our stuff."
Tony, my good friend and former roommate looks at me and says, "No regrets."
"Well, one big regret!"
A guy standing next to him laughs.
Tom, the booker and former owner of Cobb's surprises me. He walks right up to me and without a word simply hugs me and says "sorry Buddy."
This is the moment I find I have to keep the tears back. I blink and then Tom, true to form goes into a rant. "I can't believe they are rewarding bad comedy, hack shit and old jokes! I am going to talk to Paige!"
I didn't see anyone else set. I can't say I agree or disagree with him. But here is a curious fact I am sure is sinking like a stake into everyones head back stage; they did pick all the young and pretty people with flawless skin and unnaturally white teeth.
It was casting. Not who was funny.
The only redeeming thing was they did take the Meehan Brothers.
Even they were surprised.
I stood on stage and watched the two judges explode with laughter consistently during my set. I walked off that stage knowing I had the crowd with me from word one. I know that talent, ability and skill will always be trumped by youth & beauty. Hell, I have allowed it to happen in my own life on more than one occasion. Why are we all so willing to give beautiful people attributes they may lack? Because their pretty? Or because they were more funny than I was?
We all just stand there for a few minuets looking at our feet with the knowledge that we are the left overs, the bargain bin of CD's, the pants with one leg shorter than the other.
We are the island of misfit toys. We work. We are funny. But we are what we are and show Biz is what it is too.
So close again. So close to getting in-front of a larger audience where I could take it to the people and end up with a million fans hitting my site in a single night to see the uncensored and undeniably funny that I can create.
This business is so unfunny most of the time.
I excuse myself after shaking hands with the celebrity judges and do what I have been waiting to do all day.
Take a shit.
Then I cry a bit and tell myself not to let it sink into my bones and break me.
I turn to the paper dispenser and take the last 8 square inch of toilet paper.
Of course this is how the night ends. Me in the basement of Cobb's wiping tears on my sleeve and wondering how to exit this situation with grace.