"Wavy Gravy killed us tonight."
These are the first words spoken to me by one of the producers when I arrive at tonight's gig.
"What?" I ask not sure exactly what she just told me.
"Wavy Gravy is having his 75th birthday party next door, " she says, pointing to the building where all the noise is coming from. "Great," I think to myself, "it's always something."
Wavy Gravy is a counter-culture hero from the 60's. He started out as a clown, was part of the acid-dropping "Merry Pranksters" (Google Ken Kesey for a quick history lesson, kids), and for a short time had the unusual honor of being managed by comedian Lenny Bruce. This entire place is one giant old factory. The warehouse section has been left open for raves, concerts, and tonight, Wavy Gravy's birthday event. People are wandering around wearing everything from capes, to pajama pants. One woman has a giant mushroom hat with light-up sunglasses. Another guy has a big, red, fake clown nose. Most of the people walking around are a little drunk - and a lot high.
I start blinking, as my eyes are stinging slightly. Not from pot smoke drifting in from next door; from the kitchen. The entire place smells of burnt hamburger. White smoke is collecting in the rafters. They've opened the front doors to help with ventilation, but all that's doing is making the place cold - and smoky. About five minutes before the show starts, one of the comics bails out due to all the smoke upsetting her lungs. Another comic, who came to see the show, has agreed to take her place. Between the noise, and the constant foot traffic of burned out hippies and young stoners from the Wavy Gravy birthday show, the place is like a train station; noisy, and full of people who look lost.
Here's something people don't understand about stand-up comedy. It requires the attention of everyone in the place. Shouting over the din of conversation from people who didn't know there was a show happening, or don't care, destroys any subtlety, grace or nuance in a bit. Even if a small handful of people sitting close to the stage are there for comedy, having another 70 people wandering around trying to order beer from a party next door, ruins it. For all its bravado, comedy is actually delicate. It's not a band in the corner. It's conversation. As a comic my job is to go on stage and tell jokes. Those jokes, no matter how funny, won't work if they can't be delivered in a professional environment. As I will learn later, that's apparently pretty much just my opinion - not the opinion of the producers.
This is the second time I've been at this venue. It's damn near impossible to find. I'm not kidding. If you go to the website of the place they have a video you have to watch that helps you find it. As soon as I walk in I suddenly realize what a mistake it was to take this gig seriously. So many things are going wrong, that by the time I'm arguing with the producer about not going on, in the middle of the show, I realize I should have just walked out earlier.
The comic who opened isn't an opener. He is a very funny feature act. While the ten people who paid for a ticket attempted to listen, anyone paying attention to their body language could see they weren't happy. At one point a guy wearing a big red clown nose walked up to the edge of the stage and yelled, "Say something funny!" When the next comic went on, a burned out hippy lady sat down and ate his food. That was bad enough - but when the mic went out, no one seemed to know exactly what to do. (It was later explained that the sound guy didn't show up.) Having a huge room filled with people trying to talk over each other is not conducive to quality stand-up. After 20 years I've paid enough dues. I'm not going to yell at people so I can make them laugh. With the noise, smoke, faulty equipment and poor quality everything, this was not just a bad place for comedy: it was downright toxic.
Eventually it was my turn. I told the producer I didn't want to go on. They flipped out and yelled at me explaining that these people would then go home and tell their friends that they saw a show where they pulled the plug in the middle and that would not only be bad it would make me something less than a professional. No, I explained, these people are going to leave here tonight and tell their friends about the completely horrible show they saw, that the producers didn't have enough sense to stop. At this point, the producer starts yelling at me about all his problems, and how I have to go on stage. This is exactly what every comic needs right before going on: to have the producer complain to them about their problems. Look, unless you're the guy going on in front of this mess, you don't have problems. What you do have, is a shitty show. Sometimes "the show must go on" is a bad idea, especially when most of the people in the place don't even know there's a show going on. It's hard for me to grasp the logic of making a comic go up in front of 100 people because 10 paid. It's hard to find the logic in any of this. Producers/Bookers don't do their job of preparing a room, but then still want you to do your job, expecting you to somehow magically make it all better. Again, yelling at a distracted crowd that wants nothing to do with a comedy show is as effective as yelling at an anorexic to eat.
When I go on the mic is feeding back. It takes another few minutes to figure that problem out. Almost everything else is forgivable. Almost. The one tool we use, the microphone, has to work. That's just common sense. At one point two girls yell "tell a joke." I thought that's what I had been doing. In fact, all of these jokes have worked every time I've done them before. Why? Well, they're good jokes, but the crowd was there to see comedy and paid attention. I ask," why are you here?" The answer: "To get beer and pee!" Ah, my ideal comedy audience. Then, a spotlight that I guess was suppose to be turned on at the start of the show is turned on in the middle of a joke. Nice! Just as I was getting a little bit of traction with them some genius interrupts it by deciding to turn the spot light on. It's kind of hard not to notice when light suddenly blinds you. The audience member directly in front of me is physically shaking from the cold trying to huddle in his jacket. The noise is overwhelming and I can see still more people from the party next door, coming in. This sucks. And really, the person I have to blame for all this is me. I took the gig. I walked in prepared to have fun and do my best, and when I told the booker this was awful, he yelled at me for believing my lying eyes. I'm sick of this shit. This is what killed comedy. People always blame the comics for poor shows, what about the bookers? They picked the talent, found the venue and set up the sound and lights. Why can none of those things be working properly, and it's alright? But the moment I point out how awful it will be for me on stage, I'm unprofessional?
This is what hurts live stand-up comedy. A bad comic in the middle of a good show can be overlooked. Great comics on a bad show gives us all a bad name. Sure, most of the people here don't want to see stand-up, it's smoky, noisy, the mic isn't working properly, the spot light stepped on a punch line just as I was getting somewhere with this crowd - but I'm the asshole for saying I don't want to go on because the conditions are ridiculous? Give me a break!
When I come off stage, I take my money from the guy without saying a word, and keep walking out the door into the rain. I don't feel bad. I'm angry. I'm angry that incompetent people have run stand-up into the ground with poor quality shows. I'm angry that other comics take this work because they think it's all part of paying their dues. I'm mostly angry that a show I was looking forward to playing on turned into a reminder of everything wrong with live stand-up. What's really sad, and what the producers don't seem to care about, is how much these people will remember how awful this show was, and what that does to stand-up as a whole. The next day I look at my calendar and decide three shows are going to be shitty. I cancel them.
The Facebook debate also begins. One of the other comics on the show posts a quick neutral breakdown of events. I chime in, the producer chimes in and once again I am told that what I saw wasn't what I saw. Again, he leaves a long list of things they had no control over and again I remind him that a producer's job is to have control. I am told that the smoke filling up the place wasn't a result of a grease fire and it wasn't that bad. Never mind that the comic who left was coughing up a lung and my eyes were watering. I am told that there was no threat of violence. It doesn't matter that I never said that. I am told that the restaurant didn't honor its agreement to stop serving at nine, that the sound man not showing up isn't their fault, and those ten people sitting in the cold with facial expressions that read as anything but enjoyment, enjoyed the show. We go around and around again and finally I just do what I should have done that night: stop talking and walk away from it.
Now I have to ask myself the big question, the hard question; what is my part in this? Besides saying, "My part was thinking pros would be putting this on," of course I have a part. Sure, I can't blame them for the grease fire that resulted in smoke. I can't blame them for the place not honoring whatever agreement they have in place. And here's the thing; I didn't do anything wrong. I showed up early, first one there, came with a great attitude (because after 20 years I still love being on stage), and all I did was speak a truth that was self-evident to anyone with eyes and ears; asking a comic to go up with everything stacked against him is disrespectful.
Recently, it's become clear to me that no matter what you do as a comic or how many people laugh long and hard at your stuff, it only takes one asshole to ruin it. More and more the person ruining it, though, isn't someone in the audience at all. Unfortunately, it's the bookers and club owners. I was told by the Booker of a club that I was banned because I called an audience member a bitch, and they couldn't afford to have their guests treated that way. Here's a thought: instead of taking the side of someone who got in for free, showed up drunk, and disrupted the show - maybe you should take the side of the comic who did the job of making the people paying attention laugh? After all, if a comic calls someone a bitch and the audience bursts into affirmative applause, chances are they deserved to be called a bitch. After she left, the show went on just fine. For some reason a lot of gigs cater to the lowest common denominator. Not just in the talent they book, but in the "guests" they encourage to come. If a club thinks they are building a quality customer base by encouraging the behavior of out-of-control drunks who didn't pay, good luck with that business approach. I would much rather play in front of a small but appreciative crowd, who paid to get in, than a large, mostly-boisterous crowd that has to be controlled. A lot of places don't see it that way. Like so many other things in America, they pick quantity over quality every time. What most comedy shows are really selling is alcohol, with a side of stand-up. It has undermined the quality of stand-up because we have to pander to a mentality that thinks being drunk is as much a part of stand-up, as the jokes are. Anytime a business goes down that road, it sets itself up to fail sooner, rather than later. I went around and around with this booker too, before I realized, "I don't want to work a room that values drunk morons who got in for free, more than they value me". What have I lost by sticking up for myself? A few shitty gigs that under-pay me, and under-value the art of stand-up, that's what. And maybe, a little shiny-new self-respect.