They are fun to watch on TV but you have to remember everyone is being paid to be there. They know what they have signed up for and they have some understanding of what's coming.
Throwing a surprise party for your boyfriends 50th Birthday party is a good idea.
Throwing a surprise comedy show where you want him to be roasted and no one else at the party knows this is going to happen; bad.
Bad because this hipster San Francisco set would never be caught dead in a comedy club. It is beneath them. There body language alone displays their contempt for this intrusion on their Saturday night of conversation and wine. Bad because we are the outsiders coming into a group. People tend to rally behind their own when they see strangers making fun of their friend in his own home.
This was also one of those, if it could go wrong, it will go wrong gig's too.
I meet John, who will be opening on this gig. We drive down to the location, a photography studio in a back alley at 9th & Mission. When I say back alley, I mean back alley. The directions for how to get into the place sound like code for spy's exchanging information in the cold war. Go around to the back of the place. Walk down the alley till you find the green door by the chain link fence. Enter this code into the door and you should be let in.
We get there early and sit down at the All-star Cafe on the corner. By the way, that doesn't describe anyone in the nearly vacant place. An old man sits by the ATM machine in the corner periodically getting up to press random buttons in some hope of the machine finally saying, what they hell here you go! We look for a clean table to sit at before realizing that here at the All-star, it's more about finding the least dirty table. I like John. He is almost exactly 10 years younger than I am and shares all the frustrations of a single man in stand-up. It always help to share these adventures with someone you like.
On the corner of 9th & Mission is an out of business bed store with mattress still in the window. Outside, homeless sleep on cement. How's that for San Francisco? A quarter inch of glass separates these guys from a bed.
We walk down the tiny alley and are overpowered by the stench of urine. In sleeping bags by a dumpster, two men sleep. John, ever positive, notices newly built condos with terraces. "You never see terraces like that in the city." He says in admiration.
"John, what do they have a view of, the worse that man can do to himself and drug deals?"
They go for a million five by the way.
We find the blue door and enter the code. After several rings, we get a message machine. We try again with the same result. Another guy shows up and does the same thing after I explain we already tried that. He immediately starts calling numbers of people he thinks are already in there. I call the Booker.
He gives me a number of a person he thinks is also in there. I call, get a message and leave a voice mail.
We go back to my car parked down the block from the corner and just sit in it. We look like were on a stake-out now. We decide to give them till 7:15, try again and if no answer, fuck it. At this point, I hope no one is answering because of some gas leak.
Now we get another call from who is essentially the Booker's boss.
"Where are you guys?"
"Were right out front the door to the gig."
"OK, I am going to call back this guy, give you his number and he will take you upstairs to the gig."
You build up an energy for a gig. When shit like this starts to happen, you start to loose the desire to even do it. It's blue balling. Well hell, here we go again down crack alley. Sure enough, there is the other guy we saw trying to get in earlier waving his hand from the now open door.
"Are you guys the comics?"
We are taken up the stairs to the third floor where a petite woman and an older gentleman shake our hands, apologize for the communication problem and ask us if we want anything.
"No, were good."
In about 5 minuets, they start to get people to sit down on rented plastic chairs as they hold their wine in plastic glasses. It's a loft. Half work space, half living space. With high beam ceilings and a hard wood floor, it looks exactly like the sort of place every episode of Law & Order starts in. Minus the dead body of course.
But it's early.
There is a bounty of vegetarian party treats. Asparagus has been laid out next to cheese that probably costs more than I am making on this gig in a meticulous kitchen with sleek shinny appliances. The people are aging hipsters and various cool people who hang out at cafes and complain what has happened to the city.
They have money and care about politics and the environment, but homeless guys sleep less than a hundred feet from where they sip drinks complaining about the conservatives lack of compassion.
Plastic rented chairs are hastily set up once the surprise of stand-up comedy has been announced. It doesn't go over very well with half the room. In the back, people stand with the same look on their faces that you see on the student body when the speaker comes to give the commencement speech.
With in five minuets of being there, John is introduced. They have set up a Mic, but sitting on a directors chair next to John sits the Birthday boy. Never a good idea. Not only have we entered a private domain, we have now singled out the nights leader and placed him apart from his friends to be mocked.
How can this go wrong? Here's how.
I am about 15 minuets in. It's going well actually. The Birthday boy, uncomfortable and unsure how to respond, is not being very forthcoming to my questions. It makes it harder on me to come up with stuff on the fly, but I am getting some good laughs and start to relax into this show. That's when a tall guy wearing a turtle neck and the unofficial tweed jacket of a PBS pledge break, walks right up to me. He is about 6'8, so it's not like you don't notice the guy. In my mind I am thinking, This guy is walking toward me. Is this guy walking directly up to me?
He holds a beer in one hand and with his free hand, grabs the Microphone. I smile, but don't let go. He doesn't either. I say, "This is awkward."
In classic lame fashion he says back to me, "Your awkward? I thought you were Joe."
The room has gone silent.
That is never a good sign. These people know this guy and if they are going silent, something truly unexpected is going on.
"I don't like you making fun of my friend." He says in a drunk tone now holding the Mic.
"It's a roast." I attempt to explain. "has anyone explained to you how these work?"
"Are you a professional? Why aren't you funny" He asks.
There is that same electric tension in the room you feel before the first lightening strike in a storm. I truly believe I am about to be hit and none of these uber liberals is saying anything to avert the disaster!
Finally, someone says to the guy, "It's OK. Sit down."
They say it in such a way that leads me to think it's not the first time they have had to explain a situation to their tall drunk ass friend who is dressed and looks like the guy on PBS who use to have that learn to paint show.
I would of been the biggest pussy if I had gotten my ass kicked by a guy in a turtle neck.
He hands the Microphone back to me and walks off. I turn to the crowd and say, "What the fuck!"
I am just angry at this point. Angry that it was such a pain in the ass to get inside this vault of cool, angry that half the room squints at us in disbelief that anyone would find what were saying funny, angry that these people can't even comprehend how incredibly lame they are, angry that I almost got my ass kicked by some idiot who is unclear on what the fuck a roast is, angry that any question I ask is responded to with a defensive trying to be funny reply, angry that these are exactly the sort of people I make fun of all the time when I am at a club.
But I am a professional. I don't loose it and go off on the rant that I want to. Instead, I take a breath and press on for another ten minuets before saying good night and run for the door.
And I mean run. A few people come up and say the usual things after these gigs, "Tough crowd, good job, you handled that well." I just smile and reserve judgement till were back in the pee stained street.
Once we get out of the place I just sigh and check my pocket for the check. Good. I look at it and think to myself, this is why comics charge what they do. Not because they might be so good, but because the crowd might be this bad.
This dude was a photographer. I think about that. No one ever sees his bad shots. He only displays the finished product to the public. Stand-Up comedy is a much more transparent art. The crowd sees it all. The good parts, the awkward parts, the unfunny parts, the stumble over words parts, the drunk guy entering the picture parts; it's all right there in the moment. No take backs or try again with better lighting. It's all laid bare in front of people who don't even want to see it sometimes.
A photo journalist may risk his life in a war zone, but I almost got beat up in a San Francisco loft by a drunk liberal.
It would make a hell of an episode of Law & Order.