How bad is the economy right now? Burglars in England have been using Google Earth to locate old churches with lead roofs. Once they find them, they steal the lead in the middle of the night, and sell it to scrap dealers. England has thousands of security cameras, all over the country. I guess they didn't put any on church roofs. Guess they thought God had his eye on those Turns out he didn't; but the congregations of those churches are exposed to heaven a whole lot more now, as a result. I don't know what special brand of grief awaits you in the next life, for stealing a church roof, but when historians look back on this era and ask, “What was the final indication of the economic apocalypse?”, I think they're going to say, “When people started stealing church roofs for scrap metal”. How bad are things? Did I mention, people are stealing church roofs!?!
Then again, my business is doing well. Private gigs, and small corporate events for the holidays, have made a comeback this year. Maybe it's a sign of recovery. I like to think there are no bad gigs; but at the same time, there are easy gigs - and then there’s opening for a Michael Jackson impersonator, in front of 40 cancer doctors, at 3 o’clock on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Everything’s going pretty well, until I ask a nurse, "What’s the strangest thing you've seen, as a nurse?" Without so much as a hint of hesitation, she answers, "A patient who drank his own urine."
Wow. Ok, I now know a few things: 1. It's no longer a PG show (as promised), and, 2. I’m going to make a joke about apple-juice-gone-bad, really soon. I’m going to hate myself for it, but it's going to get a laugh. I do - and they do indeed love it.
It was one of those gigs I went into thinking: “It's only half an hour.” That seems like forever, when the crowd is only mildly laughing at jokes that, usually, kill. It takes awhile for them to buy into the whole show; after all, it’s the middle of the day and we’re in a restaurant. I wasn't supposed to go on ‘till all the food was cleared; but surprise, it was getting late and I figured it was now or never. You don't really feel like an ‘artiste’, as busboys bump into you, clearing dishes; or when your best stuff falls flat. At one point, a man asks me to “quiet down” - because his baby starts to cry. Ugh. I glance at a wall clock and realize, I've still got 20 minutes to go. Still, I know I’ll get paid; and I know things are relatively good.
A few nights earlier I had a gig at an Indian casino, in Middletown. Where? Exactly. All I can tell you is: you cannot make it there from San Francisco in three hours, with traffic, and rain. At some point Red, the feature act (riding in my passenger seat), might have been praying. And I’m pretty sure he’s an atheist. We had about 15 miles to go, and needed to be there in 20 minutes. No problem. Well, that was before the rain picked up; the twisty road narrowed to one lane; the mountain closed in; and there was a complete lack of any reassuring signs that there was civilization close by. Like some character in “The Lord of the Rings”, I barreled up the side of Mt. Helena faster than I should be going - all to get there on time, and bring the good people of this Godforsaken place the gift of my wit. It was pretty clear we were going to be late. I told Red we’d pull the “girlfriend needs the bathroom now” maneuver, when we got to the gig. That's where I pull up, you go running out and find whoever’s in charge, while I park the car.
We’d already called our contact person – and been told “They’re off tonight.” Awesome. Red goes running in; a few minutes later, I come in to find him talking to a confused bar manager, who sends us in the direction of the DJ (who’s sitting at a table with speakers on both sides.) "I'm sorry were late," I tell him. He smiles, barely taking his eyes off the TV and says "We usually wait till the game ends before starting the show." Double awesome. Glad I broke more than a few laws to get here, only to have to wait around an extra half hour before starting the show.
I wonder around the casino, and like most small Indian casinos, it’s clean, but sad - in a way that’s hard to put my finger on. The places reeks of smoke; pale, overweight men, and way-too-skinny girls in tight jeans, wander through slot machines - like zombies in a mall after the apocalypse. Why does every Indian casino play a ‘Best of the 70's’ soundtrack, too? Maybe so the gamblers can fondly remember the last time they were winners? I don't know. A Boston song plays; then Dirty White Boy (Foreigner), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis, when Peter Gabriel was still with them), and the most ironic of songs to hear, while you’re betting what’s left of the 401K at the crap table: The Logical Song (Supertramp).
When Red goes on I look at the crowd. Crowd might be overstating it a bit. There are about 20 people scattered haphazardly around a small bar, just off the casino. Their expressions are a mixture of tea party members being asked to balance their own checkbooks, and the kid who gets socks as a Christmas present. Occasionally, they laugh, but it’s nowhere what Red's jokes deserve. Eventually, it’s my turn. I take the stage, and in a few seconds I realize exactly what it’s like to perform at an ADHD Convention. Slot machine bells, calls from people, and conversations enter the place from the casino, like a wave of distraction. They’ve turned the sound off, but the TV's are still on. There’s a loud conversation at the bar between two guys, but when I think about saying something, I just figure, it isn't worth dying here; so I just let it go. I start my act, but it becomes clear almost instantly, that this show is going to a riffing adventure. Most of the audience is made up of off-the-clock employees. It’s great that they bring in comics every Thursday for employees. Ugh!
For the most part people are laughing and it’s going alright. There’s one table of three, where a woman stares at me like she’s just discovered day-old garbage in the crib where she’s left her baby – and I’m the garbage. Like most comics would, of course, I have to talk to her. I ask her name, and she drones out something I can't remember. I ask what she does for a living, and she says, “Nothing”. When I probe a bit more, she says she can't work because she’s disabled. In my head I’m wondering if it’s just her face that’s disabled - but I don't say that. Christ, this is going to be a long show. I tell some jokes that do alright, but nothing like they should, and that’s when I throw out the first ‘emergency dick joke’ - and BOOM! Damn. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, I’d hoped they’d go a little more highbrow; but dick jokes you want? Then dick jokes, you get. That goes pretty well for a little while, but I have an hour to cover. That’s when one of the other employees tells me to ask the security guard about "poncho."
When she says “poncho”, almost everyone laughs. I love it when the crowd starts amusing itself with inside jokes. I ask - and of course, it’s one of those “Why didn't I get this information sooner?” moments. Oh, and a dick joke. Apparently there was a hypnotist here, and during the show he made this security guard guy think he lost his dick. He doesn't say dick, though, he just points to his groin and says, “Poncho”. This confuses me for awhile because I don't understand why this guy wants to take his dick camping. Then I think this happened to him while he was trying to stop a crime at the casino. That would be a pretty amazing thief. Once I figure it all out, I ask the crowd if he got on the Public Address System and asked people if they saw his boy. "Attention players, we're looking for a lost boy about 6 inches...I mean, 4 inches tall when happy..." This destroys with the crowd. I want a shower.
I drive to Corning, a town outside of Redding. I do an hour for a company that is somehow involved with farms; then turn around to make the three hour drive home. I have to be in Walnut Creek the next day, and Santa Cruz that night.
I’m a comic. That means I drive for a living. Telling jokes is just something I have to do before I can sleep. And yet, I love this! I love opening the door to my hotel room and seeing crisp white sheets. I love the fear and excitement of being handed the microphone, and not knowing what’s going to happen. I love the drive home, with the high of either a great show, or composing another good “I survived a gig from hell” story. I love being a comic, even when it seems that telling jokes is the smallest part of what I do. These road gigs and private shows are fun to me again, because no matter what, when I want to feel like an artist, I have my storytelling show.
And most of these other gigs? They aren't bad at all.