There are nights - and then there are nights.
Comedy, in a small room of mostly-conservative wine drinkers, might not sound like an ideal set-up. The Wild Vine Hideaway Bar, in Danville, is just that; quaint, tiny, and filled with 40-something professionals, seeking the wine-drenched pace of a Norman Rockwell America with wifi. Danville is quiet, dipped in charm and airbrushed with an air of condescension. Basically, it looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting of the place Prozac would go, to retire. I spent some time as a teenager in Danville. Being here feels like stepping back into a life I only recently made peace with.
I've performed there three times now. Every show has been fun, interesting, and a little challenging. The first gig, you can hear as a podcast on my site, standupjoe.com. I didn't record the second gig, but it was fun, with plenty of audience interaction. This last show was by far, one of the more unique evenings in comedy that I’ve witnessed, in a long time. I thought I had seen it all, too.
Young Joey Bragg, 14 years old, fiercely funny, and on fire with his Father's support, like always, is my feature act. I like the kid. He’s wildly talented. I’m also jealous of the support his Dad gives him. He’s with him at every show. I got into standup because I didn't have a lot of family support, or desire to achieve anything in school. His Dad encourages him, drives him to gigs, and tapes him at every show - and is a school teacher! That Dude is everything I thought would have kept me from getting into comedy, and yet, there he is helping his son to be a comic.
Joey goes on stage and starts getting laughs right away. He knows what he’s doing. I can see trouble brewing when his jokes start featuring the words “retard” and “rape”. And, the front table is 7 women, all of whom, I’m guessing, are also mothers. Jokes with “rape” and “retard” in them are a tough sell for any comic, but from the mouth of a 14-year-old boy, I imagine it’s especially troubling for the women up front. It doesn’t help that at least one of them is already pretty drunk. How drunk? She gets up, obviously annoyed at the jokes, and starts toward the bathroom, in back. There’s Joey's dad, camera in hand, recording away. The women stops, and in a stunning display of callousness says to him, "Not Good!"
I’m not a father. I don't know how I’d react if some drunk know-it-all woman swaggered up to me, and told me my child wasn't good at something, while he was doing it. Joey’s Dad says what I think most people would say in that situation: “Fuck you!"
"Excuse me?" the woman asks, incredulously.
"Fuck you!" he repeats.
The women turns, shouts the owner’s name, and instantly, shit is on.
"Did you tell her ‘Fuck you’?" the owner asks.
"Leave! I want you to leave my place right away! You don't tell a patron of mine that!"
Joey’s Dad bolts outside.
Meanwhile, Joey is still on stage, oblivious to the drama with his dad in back. Joey has his hands full with an audience that isn’t buying it. Watching him, I realize that, because he’s young and cute, he gets away with a lot in the clubs. But here, in what feels like someone's living room, doing the most edgy stuff I'd seen him do yet, he struggles with this predominantly-female audience.
The host is trying to get him off stage, too, under the owner’s direction. This is the third time he’s worked here, so I can't imagine the owner is that surprised by his act. Then again, I have to admit to being a little surprised at his choices tonight, myself. The owner asks if I’m OK to perform; as I start up to the stage I think, “Well, at least it will be a mellow little show, now.” The weirdness has passed.
I make some jokes at Joey's expense: "Man that kid is jaded. If I didn't know his age, or how he looked, and I was listening to him over the phone, I would just be like, ‘how long were you in Vietnam, man?’ "
I open on stuff I don't usually open on, Halloween family stuff, but it seems the right way to go. The women up front are laughing, the rest of the house is laughing, and even though I can see a bunch of people outside, still wrangling with each other, I feel like this is going to be another great show here. I start riffing around, and that's when I meet Carol; or rather, that's when I start to deal with Carol.
"Carol, as in Christmas Carol", is how she introduces herself later on in the show.
How do I describe Carol? At one point when another audience member tells her to shut up, she stands up and stares in the general direction of the request. I say, "I think Mount Rushmore just stood up!"
People only laugh if your words paint a true picture, in a way they wouldn't have thought of; or, if it's just the truth.
Is it because Carol has a huge rack? Or that she seems a little like an angry penguin, holding a bolder? I don't know. She’s also loud. Maybe it’s that classic drunk-voice thing, where she thinks she’s being quieter than she actually is; or maybe it’s just that she’s an out-of-control, undiagnosed alcoholic, who’s being incredibly obnoxious, in the middle of a show a lot of other people were trying to enjoy. Any of those descriptions works for me.
At a certain point, or what for Carol was clearly a certain number of glasses, the show becomes about containing her madness. I love talking to the crowd and dealing with hecklers. This is something a little different, though. The crowd completely turns on her, to the point that when I ask the classic question: “Who came here tonight to see me?”, and the place goes nuts, she still keeps going. Actually, she stands up, comes to the stage, and raises her leg to show me that it’s real. I never thought it was fake, but - What? Then, she gives me the finger. Here’s where a flicker of contempt crosses my face. I look in her eyes, and believe I see not just a drunk, but a spiteful person so full of herself that she’s lost all concept of anyone else in the room. I can feel myself wanting to lash out at this disgusting person, but I’ve learned, in comedy, you can’t tear into a drunk, woman heckler like you can with a man. Some social convention is still in place. The crowd won't tolerate a comic being hostile to a woman, no matter how verbally disruptive or abusive the woman is. I've seen whole shows turn because the comic became harsh with a woman heckler. I tolerate her, play with her, firing snappy comeback, after comeback – and, like most drunks, she can't quit. Standing up, approaching the stage, giving me the finger, embarrassing her friends - and still the show goes on, without her being kicked out. This is the difference between a small show in a little place like this, and a club. At a club, she’d be kicked out instantly. They just don't put up with this shit. She remains, for the same reason Joey’s Dad got kicked out; she’s a regular, who goes there a lot, and spends money.
That’s the Danville I remember from my past! I was a bus boy and line cook in a few restaurants there, during the 80's. It seems that the mentality that “image is everything” was born in the day-glow, plastic 80’s. Danville was a town of VIP's, and they never let you forget it. I was the broke kid walking to work, and living with his sister. It sounds like the start of half a dozen teen-angst movies from that era, except I never won the big game, or got the girl. I went home smelling of ribs from Tony Roma's, and stayed up late eating cookie dough, reading science fiction books. When someone asked me recently why I got into stand-up, I thought about it, and explained that I was actually very shy for most of my life. I was the nerd everyone picked on - but I was always listening. Now, when I'm on stage, and blasting the crowd with socially-aware comedy, or searing heckler comebacks, it's really me pointing to them and saying, “Being 14 was hard, but now I’m making you pay for it!” Tonight I’ve seen a comic who’s only 14, blasting away at the crowd’s middle-aged, slightly-drunk psyche, and I wonder, “What is this kid going to be like when he's my age?”