Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Impossible Day That Went Perfect

Driving to L.A. has always felt like something out of a fairy tale, mixed with some Mad Max, post-apocalypse epic. There is nothing out here. Around the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the weeds in the middle strip of the highway grow tall. Dust just sort of lingers, like a dark smudge where the horizon should be. The power lines stretch off into the distance, like soldiers in formation. Rectangles of green and patchwork quilt sections of brown dominate the landscape. To the east is flat, hot land. It rolls right up to that out-of-focus border of pollution, a dirty wall surrounding an impossibly large kingdom. To the west are mountains, that don't look all that tall. Behind me and in front of me, there’s only the road. In some places they’ve repaved it to a reassuring, hard darkness, with fresh asphalt. In most places, though, it’s still a faded ribbon, cracked and pocked.

Every time a sign rolls by telling me how far L.A. still is, I glance at the dashboard clock. It seems like only time, not distance, is passing.

I have to be in L.A. by 8 p.m. Actually, I have to be at the Improv on Melrose Ave. for a show that starts at 8 p.m.; then I have to run off-stage, jump in my car, and get across town to the UCB Theater to do the “Comedy Death Ray” show that starts at 8:30. Oh, and the day started at 7:00 a.m. in San Francisco, where I got up to drive the two hours to Woodland, CA, for a private lunchtime gig. I have to finish THAT gig, and be in my car by 2 p.m. if I expect to make the first gig in LA on time. In other words, everything has to go exactly as planned, with nothing getting in the way to disrupt things. This includes my baggage around LA, any car issues that might pop up, and shows running long, short, or whatever. The thing that upsets all my finely- tuned plans turns out to be something I didn't even know could break. A cigarette lighter. In the car. My GPS/phone, which is plugged into this cigarette lighter, stops working 20 minutes from the first gig in Woodland. Did you know those things can break? It has to be a blown fuse or broken connection - but I thought those things were pretty much unbreakable. This means all the addresses I loaded are unavailable to me. A friend offers to email me Google map directions. The plan: stop at a Kinko's and print them out. We can't find a Kinko's close enough to the 5 to make that work, so it looks like I’m going to be driving with one hand, holding the Blackberry with the other as I navigate around LA. How could that go wrong?

I haven't performed in L.A. in about five years. The last set I had there was a good one. It was at the UCB Theater. Jeff Garlin, from HBO's “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, asked me to do his show there. Hey, I had even gotten back together with my girlfriend. It seemed like things were going my way. Shortly after that, we broke up again, and I decided, “Fuck LA, I’m staying in SF and that's that!” No matter how good the SF comedy scene has been to me, though, the industry is in LA. With my new teeth and rebuilt sense of self, it was time to show my face in LA again. What better way to accomplish this than doing a show at the Improv built around Bay Area comics? Then I got the crazy idea to do what everyone else does, reach out to bigger names for help getting on shows. I've never done that. I guess I was always afraid to do that, for some reason, but it’s how the business works. I texted Greg Proops and boom, just like that, I’m on

‘Comedy Death Ray” at the UCB Theater in Hollywood, baby! The catch is, I also have a private gig that afternoon outside of Sacramento. I decide to try and pull them all off in one day of driving, soul searching, and testing the limits of my inner acceptance. I mean, if you're gonna try you might as well risk a little sanity too, right?

I like the drive to LA on the 5. I think it’s because I know that for those 6 hours I have no other responsibilities. Most of the ride I alternate between phone calls and rolling the windows down to lose myself in that jet engine sound, of wind filling the car up. I suppose it’s a sort of Zen. That seems like a fitting meditation, approaching a city where the car is everything, and everyone comes with expectations that defy any attempts at being realistic. When I’m 100 miles from LA, the Grapevine is yet to come. When I’m 50 miles out, I’m still descending through the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s 7 p.m.; that sooty, filtered light I think of as unique to LA, obscures the sun, spilling the remaining day like butter across my windshield, as I push 85 m.p.h. to make it on time. This is where the excitement of getting there becomes the mild anxiety of reading directions from a cell phone screen. I’m looking at the names of streets and freeway numbers, and I flash on a hundred movies, TV shows and magazine articles, where these names are mentioned in passing. Arriving in LA is always a curious mixture of longing, and nostalgia for that dream of being a star you can only have, before you actually get to LA. The city is dirty. A hot wind, carrying grit and car exhaust, occasionally moves the candy bar wrappers and Big Gulp cups around the streets, but mostly the air is stagnant. The 70's architecture doesn't go well with the palm trees and mega-sized billboards proclaiming the next piece-of-shit sitcom as the ‘show to watch’. My eyes go back and forth from dashboard clock, directions on the Blackberry and, oh yeah, the road. Scary, huh? I ‘m a menace! At one point I’m on Hollywood Blvd. I pass the theater where the Oscars are held. Traffic is slow. Busses, cars and tourists, paying even less attention to the other cars than I am, all seem purposely put in my way to make me late. I’m squinting at street signs, pushing my foot down on the accelerator darting in and out of lanes, all while looking at the damn clock that never tells me what I want to see. I turn off Hollywood Blvd. I know my next turn is Melrose, and when the realization hits me a new set of concerns crowds into my brain. Will I look like I just drove 6 hours across the desert with red, ragged eyes? Will I be able to get lucky not once, but twice, with parking, so I can make both shows? Last, but not least (and I laugh to myself when I realize I am just thinking of this now), what is my set list?

I make the last turn and there it is, the Melrose Improv. I recall the line Obi-Wan says to Luke, in Star Wars, just before they meet Han Solo, " will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy..." It's not that bad at all. Walking into The Improv, you bring all your expectations and fears with you. Instead of a metal detector, the doorway somehow magnifies the feeling of “less than”. I’m smiling because I found parking a block up, and tonight there really is no other pressure than having a good time.

I’m up first so I can make the other venue. The host kills, introduces me, and like coming out of a blackout I’m on stage, holding a microphone in a packed, air conditioned room, thick with excitement.

I kill.

That’s all there is to it. Having a bad set or a good set isn't something I think about much these days. I just do what I do. I look up and notice the light telling me to get off is on. It means I’ve gone too long. I’m not use to short sets but in LA, 15 min. is considered long. I finish up, say goodnight, and all at once I’m back in my car with my Blackberry in hand, cursing the traffic on Melrose and wondering if the left turns and right turns in these directions are actually left and right.

I make it over to the UCB about 10 minutes into the show. The host is on and killing. When I walk into the green room, Janeane Garofalo is talking to someone about smoking in the hall. I look at the list and I’m actually up second, after Natasha Leggero who was a judge on “Last Comic Standing” this year). I’m nervous. The place is packed, and the host is telling a hilarious story about a mushroom trip. When I’m introduced, I walk out into the light and for a split second I think, “I want this to go great!” I’m a little too much in my head, but I do great. I’m not prepared to say I killed - but I do great. I boil down some of my best jokes to just the hits; throw in some riffing because hey, they talked to me; and close on a joke involving Admiral Akbar from Return of the Jedi, that gets an applause break. And just like that I’m done.

Anyone who succeeds in show business, succeeds not only because they’re talented performers, but also just talented talkers. I’m great with crowds. One on one is where I shut down. This time I make myself talk to the other people on the show. I ask advice without saying, “Can I ask your advice about something?” I hang out for awhile, shooting the shit, and then like a wave crashing over my head, all the adrenaline washes out of my body, and a profound exhaustion hits me. Christ I’m tired. I have a shitty hotel room close by, and in five minutes I’m standing in the "lobby" of a $60 a night hotel, listening to the man in the wife beater T-shirt rattle off the rules about visitors, and why the health department won't let him keep donuts out too long in the morning. I’m not a comic or aspiring anything. I’m just a really sleepy guy, whose day started at 7 that morning, in a city 500 miles away, with an impossible list of things that had to happen perfectly, for me to be standing here with a sly grin of accomplishment. I didn't get offers from managers, or stage time from comics who have made it into that next level of possibility; but all I wanted was to feel comfortable on these stages after years avoiding LA. That’s when I think, “It happened.” Everything did work perfectly. Sure, the GPS died, but it worked out. I found parking close to each venue; had great sets; and accomplished the most difficult part of this trip for me - talking to people. When I sleep, I’m not even thinking of the dog barking outside my window, or that the air doesn't work, or why all shitty hotel room bedspreads have the scratchy sensation you don't want to think about for too long, before I fade to black.