Monday, October 04, 2010

Three Gigs

The Sorority Gig

There are some phrases that, during a career in stand-up comedy, you hope and pray to someday hear. "Would you headline a show for 130 sorority girls?" is one of them. I can cross that one off the list now. 130 Berkeley sorority sisters descended on Jack London Square for a show I was headlining. I was outside when they arrived. At first I thought a food court had exploded. The unmistakable sound of young girls' voices, raised to an excited pitch, bounced off cement, a tidal wave of noise and that special brand of hair-flip indignation, that only a pack of 20-something girls can get away with. They filed into the room, all wearing the same thing. A t-shirt with the name of their sorority on it, shorts, and Hawaiian-style leis around their necks. Wow. Nothing says "respect me for the strong independent woman my parents sent me to college to become", like using peer pressure to dress 130 girls, all alike, in an outfit that in downtown Oakland could best be described as "bait".

As soon as they entered the room the decibel level rose dramatically, with the sounds most people make riding a roller coaster. It seemed any question that was asked could be answered with a loud "Woooooo!" Then the sorority chant started.

It sounded like some sort of Lord of the Flies boot camp, except instead of a conch shell, it was a cell phone.

I looked around at the faces of the young comics in the rest of the show. It suddenly dawned on them that this wasn't going to be so great. Then, the guy putting it together sat down at the table and said "Conference time, guys. I've never heard this before but instead of the hour and a half show they asked for they, now want just an hour." The only thing worse than realizing a gig might not go so well is finding out right before the show that your time has been cut.

It made sense that they wanted less time. They'd arrived almost an hour and a half late. Pizzas and plates of chicken wings were being brought out as quickly as possible but we didn't want to start the show till they'd eaten. Performing while people eat usually means the comic will eat it too. So, we waited.

Girls started coming up to us. Almost all of them said one of two things. "Do you work here?" and "Who's in charge?"

The first time we heard it the girl was looking for a Red Bull. She marched up to us and asked, "Do you work here?" Before waiting for an answer she started in "It's been a long day. I need a Red Bull."

"We're the comics," one of the comics said. That didn't matter.

The expression on her face yelled, So? "I really need a red bull," she said one more time. I just sighed heavily, and turned away.

This is how it went. Girls kept coming up to us and asking for more pizza, drinks and whatever else they thought we could get them. Each time we answered with, "We're the comics," and each time they just repeated the first question, blinking at us like wounded deer, from well-to-do families.

And so it went.

The show finally started. And within two minutes, more girls came streaming out.

"Who's in charge?" A group of girls stood in front of the comics who were waiting to go on. This time they didn't repeat the question but they looked at us and one of them said "Could you ask the rest of the comics to do more appropriate jokes?"

We all sort of looked in the open door at the comic hosting the show. Alright, a middle-aged man making jokes about weed and jacking off might not have been the best choice for a host. I'm willing to give them that. What felt strange to me was their reaction to it. Sure, it's a little coarse, and the type of humor that gives stand-up a bad name - but aren't you suppose to be 22? Why are you reacting to this like some 50 year old, Christian housewife, resentful at being exposed to something different?

I watched one girl bitch-out the two servers over the quality of the chicken wings. Their faces were a study in restraint while she worked herself up to righteous indignation over snacks. When I finally went on stage, I had a mixture of indifference and anger at them as a group. The room was pitch-dark, but I could see pools of light shinning up from their laps all over the room, as they texted away during the show. Each joke I set up, and every word I mentioned, created a conversation within ear shot of me. It went like this: I would say a word like pigeon. And then I'd hear a girl say "My grandfather kept carrier pigeons!" A girl in another corner of the room would say "That's gross!" Then another one would chime in with "Becky had one stuck in her hair once." Then the first one would answer "That was a bat!" It was distracting in a way I've never felt before. I also felt old, in that way only a disinterested 20 something can make you feel. One set-up line was greeted with a loud sarcastic "Duh!"

Ah yes, "Duh". Another generation's answer, to the lack of answers, for all the problems my generation is leaving them with. "You do realize," I started telling them, "That Duh, is not a solution to any issues, right? Someday if you're the president and an advisor rushes into the oval office to say, "Mrs. President, the Aliens that just landed want to enslave us because they say we are a primitive and dumb life form', you can't respond with Duh!"

As the clock ticked away, and I spent more time with them, I starting to forget the class issues. (Trust me, watching a 22 year old yell at working people about how the wings she showed up 90 minutes late to eat aren't good enough will bring them up). I started to have fun, and then something caused a loud moan of displeasure to ripple through the crowd. I know it got their attention because most of the little pools of light from cell phones disappeared.

That's when I looked at them and told them to "take the stick out of their asses. You're in college now! You came here to be exposed to things. Well, this is it!"

I finished on my big closer and got the hell out of there, not trusting myself to say anything more to them.

They filed out of the room just as they came in, and I felt an odd wistfulness, mixed with class-based resentment. For them, the adventure is just beginning. They have youth, brains, beauty and all the benefits that an education from a school like Berkeley will give them - and yet, they also have closed minds, like middle-aged bankers who think they know everything. They have no problem talking down to people, over things that don't matter at all. They speak and walk as if they expect the world to only present them things they like, and want. I remember an article I read once about political correctness being taught as a subject in Berkeley. The professor in it said, "Everyone deserves to live in a world where their feelings aren't hurt." Maybe, but that world isn't reality. This is where you grow up and learn to think critically, not bitch out the local wage slave over chicken wings and be shocked when a comic says a bad word. Sure, I'm generalizing. I'm sure I only noticed the few of them with these qualities. At least, I hope so.

The Private Gig

I love private gigs. Mostly I love the money. They pay well. The most common thing I hear when I show up is a story about the last time they tried having a comic. People walked out, the comic was too dirty, the F-bomb was dropped liberally, and the board of directors is extremely nervous about trying it again. I've heard all of this at one time or another, at these small private gigs.

My latest adventure with corporate America took place in Selma, CA. Before you make an Alabama joke, I've already heard them all. Almost no one knew that California had a town named Selma. If I hadn't had a gig there, I wouldn't have known, either. After being there for an afternoon, I think the only difference between the two Selmas might be that civil rights hasn't made it to the one in California, yet.

Selma is located in the central valley, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. You get there by taking highway 99, or what I now think of as I-5's reason to feel good about itself. Highway 99 is "Grapes of Wrath" country. You see rusted-out trucks, almost completely obscured by roof-high weeds. Abandoned hotels line the route like Aztec temples, peeking out of the jungle. Well, more like white trash temples, I guess. Parking lots are cracked where the plants try to reclaim the asphalt. The signs are little more than faded billboards with ghostly letters. I imagine that you'd have to whisper the names if you were to read them out-loud.

I pull up to the gig. It used to be a "Pea Soup Andersen's". You know, the place with the giant windmill? Apparently they also built one here. "Pea Soup" didn't make it, so Holiday Inn took over. There's a small man-made pond, with a sign in front that says, 'Remember, Swans bite'! Inside, I'm greeted by a 12-foot-tall statue of a raisin. This is raisin country, I guess. Those California raisins are all over the place. The statue looks like a huge purple ballsack. There is a small kiosk with a video screen. It has a single red button beneath it, and a dusty sign that reads, "Hear the story about Pea Soup Andersen's and the Honda car lot". Wow, they are starved for entertainment. I push the button but nothing happens. No flicker of static, or peal of music, just an unsatisfying click noise. I see my fingerprint clearly on the button after I press. How long has it been since anyone pushed this?

The gig is for a company that sells crop insurance to farmers. No doubt they are conservative. I am not too worried about that, really. I am smart enough to avoid politics at these shows. That doesn't stop them from bringing it up to me.

First, there is no stage. I am standing between two tables and addressing the group of 50 or so people, who just finished lunch, at round tables. The man sitting about 10 feet away from me makes a crack about San Francisco. Of course he does. I ask him what he means and he responds "You're from San Francisco. I have to keep you on a short leash."

Without thinking I just blurt out "That is the gayest thing I've ever heard!"

The crowd laughs. He makes a face best described as sour.

Here is where the show takes a turn. Well, here is where it could have taken a turn. If we were at a comedy club, I would have made it my mission to climb up his ass, and retool his thinking; but this is a private gig, so I have to behave. Sort of.

I riff out a bit about him taking me for a walk. There are a few faces around him that suggest I have taken this too far, but so what, the majority of the crowd is laughing. Later on I ask him what he has against the city. He says, "It's fine. It's the people that live there that are the problem."

The crowd takes a sharp collective intake of breath. I know better than to press this any farther. He is at the edge of his tolerance scale. When I finish the show, people come up to me and shake my hand. One woman has blue eye shadow, that she has evenly applied around each eye, causing her to look like a punk raccoon. I bite my lip and shake her hand. A few of them say, "You had to pick on the biggest red neck in the room." I remind them he spoke first, and all I did was hang him with his comment.

A day later I get an email from two women who were at the show. They send me a photo of a pickup truck. We think this is that guy's truck. It has bumper stickers that read, "NRA", "Fire Pelosi" and "Obama's last day".

If only I'd been at a comedy club when this guy started up! The thing I'm amazed at with any of the Tea Party people, is the total and almost complete lack of logic. Sure, you can say it's more about fiscal issues, and it's not about racists with guns, and badly-spelled signs. Sure, you can say with a red face that you want to take your country back, and return it to the way it use to run. What I am shocked at, is that none of them seem to realize that the economic mess they're blaming Obama for now, was created when "their side" was running things - the way they want to take them back to. Returning to what fucked us is not a solution. It's social suicide by willful ignorance.

But it isn't in a comedy club, and I'm not going to say that, because no matter what, I win. I get paid, and he will be bitching about this for months to come, in Selma,CA. Score.

The Cool Gig

I was outside the UCB Theater in Hollywood. There was a young couple holding hands. He had a beard, unruly hair beneath a cap, and a simple t-shirt with some ironic saying printed in a retro font. She was from the school of photogenic teens, who knew everything about vampires. Slim and stylish, dressed in torn jeans, they each moved in a way that suggested hours spent in fascination, staring at their favorite stars on red carpets. They had a practiced indifference to them. They were detached from everyone else around them. In other words, they were cool.

Hipsters in every sense of the word, they didn't walk down the street, so much as stroll upon it, like their every step carried some supreme meaning we couldn't hope to divine.

The squint of his eyes, the pout of her lips, the length of their stride - all might as well be one, big, casual shrug of the shoulder, in answer to an unasked question. It was how they lived their lives, I thought. Los Angeles is a dirty city full of beautiful people, and here was a perfect example of its children. They were young, beautiful, and I could rush past them because I was on the show. That pleased me far more than I care to admit.

When I was on stage, I noticed how beautiful all the girls were, and how handsome the guys were. That's what they were, too, guys and girls. It makes sense. It's L.A. How many beautiful people go there to be the next 'whatever'? Here they were.

After the show, I wandered around to the front of the theater. I was tired and distracted, trying to orient myself with the street signs so I could find my hotel. I heard a male voice say, "You were great, Man!"

I turned and there they were, beaming smiles with perfect brilliant teeth. He held her hand, but the other was stretched out for me.

I blinked and she said "I loved the Admiral Akbar joke!"

She said it in that way where her eyes went wide as she lingered on the "o" in looove.

"Thanks," I lamely said. In my head I was thinking, "I was hating you about two hours ago, now you're my biggest fans." God, I can be such a judgmental prick sometimes.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Squirt Gun Perfect

We're driving home from the Airport. It's late August, a few weeks before the start of school. Heat waves shimmer above the black top in the distance. Huge clouds, that look more like foam on a beach than clouds, appear on the horizon. My Sister Michelle, my brother Pat, Dad, and I, are in the car. He drives slowly home. I am maybe 9, 11 at the most. A lot of my memories of my father are of him sitting behind the wheel of our car. Most of our conversations took place like that. I'd watch the side of his face for a clue to his mood. Smooth and solemn was normal, but crow’s feet spreading across his right cheek were preferred. Today, he's not only smiling, but trying to control his laughter. We're driving back from O’Hare Airport just outside of Chicago. The circumstances of what-for and why, have been lost to memory. More than likely we went to watch planes land. We did a lot of that growing up as a family. We went to Navy Pier in Chicago to see the giant cargo ships. We went to a railroad yard to watch freight trains from a run-down bridge, that we lovingly nick named, "the rickety old bridge". Trust me, this was good entertainment back then. Standing on a bridge held together with little more than warm tar, and a soft blacktop surface, as we watched slow-moving engines shove empty box cars around in the heat, was a perfect day.

We pull up to a stop light. The windows are all rolled down, just like most of the cars around us. That stands out in my memory. You could be at a red light and a complete stranger would be a foot away in the car beside you. They'd turn and smile, or simply just nod. You could hear the radio station they listened to, catch a bit of conversation, or make awkward eye contact - all without glass between the two of you. We tend to think of the world as being a little smaller when we were young. I once went back to my grade school after being in Junior High for just a year. I walked into the gym and was stunned at how small it had become. I think this is different. The scale and pace of life was both smaller, and more open back then. I can't explain it any better than that, either. I fear falling into nostalgia, but I clearly remember a freedom back then that's been traded for iPhones, rolled-up windows, and everyone staring at movies running on little screens. When I imagined the future, I pictured everyone somehow more close, more happy, more perfect. I never saw that all these devices would isolate us in the midst of each others' company.

My sister holds a squirt gun in her lap. It's a square angular thing with the words, "quick fill cap" printed on the side. Super Soakers were still a decade or more away: this model, with a large screw-on cap that could easily be held under a faucet, started the squirt gun arms race that ultimately lead to those, I guess.

We are all struggling to keep straight faces. She raises it slowly to the lip of the window, waiting for the light to turn green. It’s an eternity. A childhood's worth of Christmas morning expectation crammed into a minute. The light turns green; my sister raises the gun slightly above the window, aims at the driver in the right turn lane next to us and pulls the trigger three times before lowering it again. The cars around us move forward, but as we do, we see the driver reach to his neck and then look out the window in bewilderment.

It is supremely funny to all of us in the car.

What makes it more than just funny is my Father being a willing accomplice. At first my sister hides it from Dad. When she gets caught, he does the responsible parent thing of warning her about how someone might crash. 'Course, he says all this with a smile. This was also before road rage stories flooded our urban legends and evening news. This was still completely innocent. At the next light, he points out an open window. When we realize he's giving us permission, a thrill goes through the three of us. Dad is in on it! We promise to only do it at stop lights and not while the car is moving. We pull up to the next light and this time, I'm handed the water pistol. The driver sits shirtless in his wreck of a car, Rush or some 70’s band pounding from the stereo. My Dad can’t do it, so I get in position from the back seat. It will be a tricky shot. I aim just as the light turns green, and try to hit him diagonally through his open back window, from my open window behind my Dad.

“It pulls a little to the left,” my sister advises me. I crouch down. The “target” is air drumming, his head going up and down in time to the music. Again, the wait feels impossibly long. My brother is giggling next to me and my dad is whispering to “…be quiet.”

The light finally flashes green. I aim and squeeze the plastic trigger. The first shot misses.

“To the left!” my sister says, a little loud.

I correct my aim and the next two streams of water hit him behind his right ear and shoulder. Even as we pull away, none of us can help busting up. He goes into a fit, thrashing around to find the source of water. Cars behind him begin to honk. As we pull away, he sees us cracking up. We hear the start of what I can only assume is a "fuck you!" That makes us laugh harder.

For the entire two hour ride this is what we did. Like bank robbers, we perfected our technique. Dad would even slow down to make sure we would hit red lights. He was the getaway driver every time.

When we pull onto the little street we live on, we're disappointed it's over. I didn't know that the moments like this were coming to an end. In a few short years, I wouldn't want to be caught dead with my Father. The ability of fun to stop time, completely, for an afternoon, would happen less and less too. Those massive, billowing clouds that would collect in the corners of the Midwestern summer sky, would lose their fascination for me. Looking at trains, planes and ships would be lame. But for that afternoon, everything felt as if everything was where it should be. It was perfect.