Thursday, September 20, 2012

Radio Land

Somewhere in Nebraska I turned on my car radio. 

Static, farm reports, sports, local talk or some FOX News affiliate. Those were my choices. I went with the local talk show only to find out it was a religious station. The topic dealt with the way the media portrayed the ongoing abuse scandal in the Catholic church. What the guy was saying was a little difficult to hear. He was complaining that there was a case involving a pedophile, found to have abused more than 40 boys over three decades, but the media wasn't interested in covering that because it didn't make the Catholic church look bad, so they ignored it. Wow. If your whole argument boils down to: "Look, other people do it too," you've lost whatever moral high ground you thought you once had. Molesting a child is bad. Period. But when its done by someone who is supposed to be an example of higher morals its going to attract attention. That and the church authorities hiding, covering it up and treating it like any multinational corporation would treat a scandal doesn't help either.

I ended up turning it off after only a few minutes. Who thinks this way? Who thinks that proclaiming over the air that other people also commit horrible disgusting destructions of souls is the way to rally people to your defense? What kind of minor league moron believes this is the way to deal with a problem eating away at the church like a cancer? It wouldn't be the last time I heard such things on the radio.

In two months, I traveled the heart land of America: the upper Midwest is comprised by states like Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri. If I wasn't performing comedy in them, I was driving across them. It doesn't matter how much music you have on your iPod; at a certain point the best way to stay awake or be free of the voices in your head while crunching the miles is to switch on the old dashboard radio and listen to what people who live here listen to everyday. 

Somewhere in the middle of Kansas I found another local talk show. Apparently, the Iranians had beat the Americans in a soccer match. The female host was trying to explain to the male host that this was a big deal because soccer is huge all over the planet. His response, "…so what. Let the rag heads have one." That's just really bad racism. I don't mean bad in the sense that racism is bad, and it is, its bad because Iranians are muslim and people who wear turbans, as I am assuming he is referring to when he says "rag head," are Sikhs. They are from India. His racism was off by an entire continent. 
I ended up become an avid listener to right wing talk radio while driving out there. Fascinated, disgusted, amazed and stunned could also be adjectives to describe how I felt listening to what I found out there too. I'm not talking about Hannity, Rush and the usual loudmouths with a studio full of verbal gasoline, I'm talking about the regional, lesser-known guys who have to be even more spiteful and hate-filled to capture an audience. What I can tell you is that by far the most scary thing about these shows weren't the hosts. The callers had almost universally the same demeanor. When talking about Obama they could barely contain a hatred they would spit out in long, overly-stressed vowels and at times even the hosts had to tell them to take a breath. 

There is a lot of rage out there. A lot.

The last gig I had before turning my car westward and home was in Dayton, OH. The news will tell you that Ohio is a "battleground" state this election year. From the looks of most of Ohio the battle has been going on for a long time and most of the people are living among the rubble. I lost track of how many towns I drove through where almost everything on the main street was shut down. "For sale," "Closed," and "For lease" signs were plentiful. The front of buildings were crumbling and unpainted. More often that not the only place that was open was the bar. In the window of the bar would be a giant brand new Romney for President sign. Each time I wanted to stop my car and walk into the bar and ask people if they really thought a guy like Romney, who wanted Detroit not to be bailed out and made his fortune by closing down factories in little towns just like this, would care if they went under? But each time I also thought: "I don't want my ass kicked." 

To promote my appearance at the club in Dayton, OH friends pulled strings and got me on Bob & Tom. Bob & Tom is a radio show that is broadcast out of Indianapolis, IN. It goes national and is the preferred morning radio show to people who are blue collar. I'm not trying to be insulting with that. Its how they describe themselves as well. The morning I was on required me to wake up at 5:00 a.m., and drive for two hours to get to the studio where I would be sitting in with them for two hours. That's incredible. These guys have made many comics' careers by giving them this kind of exposure. Before I was ushered into the studio the place was abuzz because redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy had called in. Apparently, he was on the cover of Turkey Nation. It's not a magazine about the nation of Turkey, as I first thought, but a magazine dedicated to the sport of turkey hunting. Delightful. The producer explained to me that Bob will go to me from time to time, but that I should feel free to chime in with comments. Being on this show is a tremendous opportunity. You are being heard by millions of people. Somewhere in the second hour, when I had only done two minutes of jokes and I was listening to them debate the different merits of turkey shooting compared to squirrel shooting, it dawned on me; I don't want these fans. Maybe it was me. Maybe it started weird. When Bob asked me where I was from, I told him San Francisco, right by the beach. His response back to me, thats by the ocean? OK - you don't have to know that San Francisco has a long colorful history as a port city. You don't have to know that the map of America has San Francisco on the west coast. You don't have to know that but it seems a little strange not to know that. Then he asked me whether the now-dead actor, Sherman Hemsley was gay. Not that I know of, I told him. Why did he want to know? Apparently his body was being kept on ice until his estate could be figured out. The estate was left to his partner. Ah, I got it now. Because the term "partner" can only be used to politely describe a gay mans "friend," he must have been gay. Not only is San Francisco famous for its bay, but the term partner is often used in legal documents like a will, and not just used to describe boyfriends of homosexuals. I didn't say any of that, but in my head I was already thinking that I was far, far from home. That's when the whole turkey and squirrel shooting thing got started. This lead to stories about bears. This lead Bob to playing some recorded bits of other comedians who had been there talking about bears. So there I am, having driven two hours to be on the radio at 7:00 a.m., having done a total of three of my jokes, while I now listened to recordings of other comics. For a brief moment I seriously thought about just excusing myself. Clearly they didn't want me here. They ignored me while I was on the air. Any comment I tossed in was talked over with the usual back and forth from the usual crew with the usual inside jokes. When the two hours were up Bob said to me this "If I was Jewish, and I'm not, but if I was, I could do those jokes and it would be OK. Just like if I was gay I could say those jokes and it would be fine but since I'm not I can't do those jokes." I'm not sure exactly what prompted him to give me this lecture. All I can think of is that before I went on, the producer asked me for a list of jokes Bob could go to me with. In his haste some of my jokes were abbreviated down to "Gay Stuff." Frankly, I don't know why I would take comedy lessons from someone who spent almost the entire two hours ignoring me and talking about shooting small animals, but there you go. What it tells me is that their view of stand-up is incredibly limited. If you think something can only be made fun of to get laughs then your world is small. As I drove away from the studio I thought, that's it. I have to find a way off the road. I can't deal with this mentality out here.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Intellectually Dishonest Argument

It's Friday afternoon. I'm coming down with the flu as I sit here in St. Paul, Minnesota wondering how the shows are going to be tonight. My Facebook page is ablaze with debate and commentary about the shooting at a Batman movie in Colorado.  It's comics, fan of comics and people who support the right to own guns. They're all missing my point when I tweeted: “If you're a comic making jokes about the Batman shooting you're an idiot. You're not making fans, you're loosing them.” People make the usual points about gun violence in America, stand up comics’ right to free speech, different senses of humor and how joking about tragedies is a release. 

Frankly, I'm a little disgusted with stand up comedy lately. We just had the debate about rape jokes thanks to the Daniel Tosh incident, and now comics want to whine about their right to make gun jokes how they want, when they want, however they want. That is absolutely true. Everyone has the First Amendment right to say what they like. However, people do not come to a comedy club to see comics exercise their First Amendment right. They come to laugh. You make people laugh when you make them feel good. 

I consider myself a social commentary-style stand up. That means I want my audience to think when I make them laugh. Comedy doesn’t have to be dumbed down. That means my jokes have to be constructed like a mathematical formula: 1+1=2, or premise + setup= punch line. You don't have to share the same opinion the joke is written from to laugh if it's written well. Most importantly, I never forget what my first job is: it is to make people laugh; and if I am very good and a little lucky, I can make them think second. Saying you're an artist and then arguing for the right to make a stupid and tasteless joke that doesn't shine light on any of the more important social reasons why this happens, but just about the incident itself, is an intellectually dishonest argument to make. 

An artist struggles to make sense of things, not point at them and say, I think this is funny. This never seemed more true to me when the rape joke debate overwhelmed the Internet last week. Over and over I read comics saying: “I have the artistic right to joke about whatever I find funny.” Wow! That's what you're going to hang your hat on to be an artist, your First Amendment right to make rape jokes?  Some art. Also, enough with the First Amendment argument! Let's save the right to free speech for civil rights leaders, oppressed minorities and those telling us unpleasant truths we need to hear. I know, I know, comics will say: “That's exactly what I am doing! I am expressing unpleasant truths that need to be heard.” 
No. You aren't. You aren't making a wise and thoughtful joke about society’s ills, you are making a sick joke at the expense of people who were murdered by a deranged man. If that's your style of stand up, good luck getting booked with that shit. 

Last night, I told one of my favorite stories as my closer. It's about doing a gig in a bar with a Confederate flag. After the show a guy who laughed during the show came up to me and said he has a Confederate flag in his home because it represents states rights. Here we go. It does represent states rights; states that wanted the right to keep other humans as slaves with no rights. He explained that you have to look past that. Bull shit. It's another intellectually dishonest argument. It's a symbol of racism and the flag of the side that lost. Period. Maybe it does represent states rights but when those rights are about denying other people’s rights, it's a symbol of denying rights. You can't be ignorant to the fact that the vast majority see the Confederate flag that way. It's like the Nazi swastika. It started as a spiritual Tibetian symbol but when a government bent on committing genocide adopts it as their symbol you can't use the swastika as anything else. Charles Manson didn't carve it into his forehead because it represented magic and luck, he did it because it represents evil and fear. To me, claiming the Confederate battle flag can be used as a modern symbol for individual states to proclaim their sovereign right over the federal government, is the same bullshit argument comics make for tasteless jokes about a tragedy and then claim they are artists with a First Amendment right. Give me a break. 

Stand up comics have the right to tell any jokes about any subject they want but few have the skill. 

That's the point. When the audience is in a comedy club and they hear something wildly offensive they don't stop and think to themselves, well that comic has the right to express himself no matter how disgusting and inappropriate I think it is to poke fun at the tragedy on the same day it happened rather than attempt a smart and thoughtful joke that makes me think and gives me comfort. No! What they're thinking is: “What an asshole! That's not even funny.” That's what the audience is thinking. I don't know when stand up comedy became dislodged from empathy. Many times you hear comics complain that society has become too sensitive. In fact, I think we have become too jaded. Speaking as a comic that has gotten into trouble with audiences, bookers and club owners about my content for various reasons -  too dirty, too smart, too political, too whatever - I can tell you that finding the balance between what I want to say, making audiences laugh and getting paid has never been more tricky. The political climate in this country is the social climate of America. We are divided and shouting over each other. 

Stand up comics taking to the Internet to explain why they can make rape jokes is something else. It's stupid. If you want to make jokes about tragedy then you need to ask yourself why you want to be a comic, because those jokes should be seen not as a effort to make people laugh but as a warning sign from you. 

Then again, what do I know? I've just been a comic for 20 years.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Opening For a Comedy Central Special

Comedy Central filmed four, one-hour specials at the Fillmore in San Francisco, California. I got to open for three of them. Kyle Kinane, Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman. It was fun, exciting, frustrating, depressing and profitable. Fun, because I got to open in front of 500 people at a beautiful venue. Exciting, because I got to open in front of 500 people at a beautiful venue. Frustrating, because I was opening. Depressing, because for those three days I got to feel exactly how small I was in show biz. Profitable, because it paid really well.

I showed up at the theatre on-time at 5:30 p.m. Why I had to be there at 5:30 p.m. for a show that didn't start till 7:00 was never explained to me, but when showbiz calls you show up when it asks you to. I went to the security gate and gave the guy with the clipboard my name. Anytime I'm in this situation I completely expect to not get in. He flipped a page and then looked at me and said: "You're the warm up act!" I smiled and said yes, and just like that I'm past the gate and walking up the stairs to a side entrance of the Fillmore. 

I'm nervous going up the stairs because my head is full of mostly unfunny stuff. Mostly, it's about a woman. The same woman who has been in and out of my life for more than two years has taken up residence in my head. Every day I have many conversations with her, without her being there. It's the same thing every time: I finally get to explain to her why her view of relationships is wrong, and how that has hurt me. Allow me to impart some advice to anyone reading this: if you're having conversations with someone who isn't there, stop. 

That's thing about being a stand up, you take all of this up on stage with you whether you want to or not. But the thing is, most of the time, as soon as I hit the stage all that is gone. Right before? Yes. Afterwards? Yes indeed. But that brief amount of time on stage is a relief from all that crap that ultimately creates everything that the crowds laugh at. It's weird. So that's what's going on in my head as I open the worn wooden doors at the top of the stairs and like Dorothy walking into a Technicolor world, I step into showbiz. There are 100 people, most of them with headsets on, moving around inside. The Fillmore has been transformed into a giant sound stage. At the back, on their own stage, are two massive cameras. Along one entire side of the theatre a camera on a crane, attached to a four-wheeled platform, quietly revolves around the heads of people pretending to be audience so the director can test the shots. On stage, Kyle is running through his set. A bunch of people almost bump into me. I seem to be the only one standing still. I call the number of the woman I've been trading e-mails with and she pretty much appears at my side. She shakes my hand and takes me upstairs to get credentials, the all important piece of plastic I will wear around my neck for the next three days that grants me access to this chunk of showbiz. There are special LED lights set up all over the place giving the aging Fillmore a dream-like, fuzzy quality, complete with artificial smoke drifting down from special tubes they've installed to create this illusion on TV. Cables run along walls and across the floor everywhere. I notice there is another camera in the other corner of the room, and later I will meet the two person team that run the roving camera. After I get my plastic I am taken back downstairs to meet the directors and the Comedy Central people. There are three or four guys who seem to be in charge but I can't figure out who THE guy is. We make small talk, they tell me to have fun and then give me some stage advice. I smile and nod my head, taking it all in. One of them also tells me: when you get a big laugh, try to let it completely fade before starting your next joke, so that if we want to we can use that audio somewhere else in the show. Wow. He just told me that some of the laughter my jokes might generate could end up being used for the other comics. Why do people become jaded in this business? But I just smile, nod and say: “Okay.” What would you do? 

Then I meet the executives from Comedy Central. They are two young, beautiful women; the exact demographic I have a hard time talking to in person, let alone attempting to network my way into my own special. One is impossibly tall and one is impossibly petite. They thank me profusely for doing this. In my head I'm thinking: “Of course I would do this - why are you thanking me like I just returned your lost dog?” Again, smile and nod. They also present me with a very expensive bottle of wine complete with a thank you card. The impossibly petite one then tells me that I should allow it to breathe for at least half an hour. Yeah. That's going to happen. The producers, the Comedy Central executives and the floor director were all warm and friendly, and that was the last time any of them made eye contact with me. Ah, showbiz. For fifteen minutes each show I was super-important. After that, I couldn't find a place to stand to get out of the way. That's how it went twice a night for three nights: be back stage ready to go on when they told me, do ten minutes and then get off, get out of the way and wait to do it again. 

Kyle Kinane was great, a true comic in every sense of the word. He was also cool to me. Considering that this was an hour long special for Comedy Central, he seemed very calm. He also had his manager, road manager, entertainment lawyer and a friend with him, not to mention the constant buzzing of assistants, producers and production assistants. He dealt with all of them like a regular guy. In fact, in between shows he offered me some of the sushi they brought for him. Me being me, as hungry as I was, I said no. Not just because I didn't want to risk having food fall out of my mouth but his manager shot me a dirty, “don't even think about having any of Kyle’s sushi” look.

Before the second show there was a big discussion about where the towel Kyle uses to whipe his forehead with when he comes off stage should be placed. Keep in mind, there is a two-person camera crew, the floor director, his manager, Kyle, me and a production assistant all crammed into a small space just off the side of the stage as the discussion unfolds. Finally Kyle puts the thing on a mic stand and says that's fine. The floor director then informs anyone else listening in on a headset: "Kyle has placed the towel on the mic stand just off-stage. No one is to touch it." I can imagine a hundred heads around the theatre responding with an affirmative nod. Two minutes later, when I am the only one standing there, one of the suits comes by and moves it. When I look at him he just looks through me like everyone else who seems to be in charge. It's not hurting my self esteem because frankly, it's weird. I am virtually invisible. I see the Comedy Central executives, floor director and producers many times over the next few days and each time it's not like we make eye contact and then they look away, they just don't see me. Then, each night, when it's about five minutes before I am to go on, the call goes out over the headsets: "Anyone have eyes on the warm up act?" and suddenly I am visible! 
My sets are the sets you dream of when you're a young comic. The audience is already super hyped to be there. A production assistant goes out and essentially scares the hell out of them by telling them don't eat, drink or go to the bathroom. Yup: if you get up to go to the bathroom, you won't be allowed back in. We are making T.V. here people, not giving you an exciting night out. After a five minute break I go up and get an applause break just for saying I live here in town. 

That's how it goes. The crowd is mine for ten minutes.  While I am up there I work hard to make them remember me, and then it's done. The last show goes as good as the first and five minutes after I was on stage getting laughter from 500 people, I am walking down Geary Street, in the drizzle, in the quiet, headed to my car and alone again. It's a weird sensation. I am high from the set but so completely alone that the silence rings in my ears more than the applause. 

The comedy life. I will do it again and again, whenever I get the chance.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Becoming Viral wrote an article titled “The 10 Most Satisfying Cases of Hecklers Getting Destroyed”. I was ranked number 5. Patton Oswalt, Jamie Kennedy and Bill Burr were also included in the list. Needless to say, I was in some very good company. I found out about the article the way anyone finds out about anything these days: on Facebook. I woke up to multiple postings of the link on my page. People congratulated me. There were 50 new subscribers to my YouTube page, along with a few dozen new comments on the clip.

The clip is a time capsule in many ways. It’s from around 2008. There are plenty of Bush jokes, and comments on the stupidity of the Iraq war. I’m skinny, have long hair, and was probably at the height of my abilities as a ‘comic who riffs’. I posted the clip five years ago, and it slowly accumulated about 300,000 views over the years. (Thanks mostly to hard-core comedy fans and insomniacs.) The clip also brought in a little bit of money, thanks to Google's AdSense program. It also got me offers for some gigs, but those were mostly in England. It would be cool if I could do those, but traveling to England for a one-night gig probably wouldn't be too wise. There the clip sat, and that was that. 

On the first day included me in that article, almost 25,000 new people saw the clip for the first time. OK, that’s impressive. I went to sleep that night pleasantly surprised, and sure it meant nothing more. When I woke up, I had hundreds of messages waiting for me from Facebook, email, and of course, YouTube. Overnight, another 25,000 people had watched the clip. One hundred new people became subscribers to my YouTube channel, and new fans popped up on Facebook. I had to turn my phone alerts off that day; it was beeping every time a comment came in from the digital ether. 

The clip was recorded at The Punch Line in San Francisco, at a Sunday night showcase. It wasn't a particularly memorable night. No one had grabbed the crowd yet; it was getting late, and was thinking the thoughts of every comic who’s had to close a show, in front of a tired audience: Shit. 
Seriously, I know I’m good, but so many times before I go on stage, my thoughts run something like: “This crowd is done; but I'm really good, so I’ll grab them; this is the night I fail completely; I've handled worse crowds on quieter nights; I’m not funny”. And so it goes, until the first real laugh comes. Luckily, that laugh usually does come. That laugh is why I’ve earned the right to close most of the Punch Line’s showcases. I'm not bragging. Not by any means. It’s work. Going up at the end of a two-hour show, when everyone else has brought their A game can be daunting. But here’s the thing: it’s made me a really good comic. Landing in front of an audience that thinks they've seen it all, and are just waiting to leave, means I have the potential to amaze. 

So, the article comes out, and by the end of that week, I had almost 200,000 new people view the clip. The number of subscribers and comments doubled. Stand-up comedy is still a very individual thing. I watched the views climb past 500,000, sitting in a $30 hotel room in Winnemucca, NV. That was an empty feeling. Here I am on my way to a gig I have little confidence will be fun, worried about paying the rent (like I am any month), and yet 500,000 people have seen me do my thing via this five-year-old, seven-and-a-half minute clip. Some of this is just the comic’s mentality of attacking anything good; but some of this is the never talked-about-truth of living in the digital age. No one said it better than in 1968, when Andy Warhol predicted, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." If everyone who viewed the clip sent me one dollar that might make a difference. If the comics on that list had decided to tour together, that would make a difference. It’s a hollow feeling to see the number 500,000 next to your name. I didn't feel any difference. 

I don't remember the circumstances of how the heckler and I started talking. People don't believe me, but a lot of times when I’m riffing, I’m not thinking. That’s the secret to riffing; if you think, you’re done. There’s just some Zen part of my mind that takes over. There’s no filter or pause, I just say what I say and keep moving no matter what. I think the secret is the same thing you learn in any improv class; you never say ‘no’ to a suggestion, and anything the crowd is saying is a suggestion. At some point this skinny kid, drunk and trying to be a little menacing said, “I'd like to talk about you for a while.” The audience awwwed like we were in a coliseum and a challenger had just thrown down an insult. There’s no way I would ever hand over my microphone to a member of the audience. No way. But then I remembered: the Punch Line always kept a backup mic on stage, ready to go. I grabbed it, brought it forward and said, “OK”. What followed next was beautiful. Honestly, if I’d scripted this, it couldn’t have turned out any better than it did. All my powers were in full effect, and the audience was so completely on my side, I would have had to TRY to lose them. With all the other comics on the list, you’ll notice they pretty much attack the heckler with insults, anger, and force of attitude. What I’m most proud of in this clip is how my style remains clearly different from that. I let the kid hang himself. I stay likable and never yell at him. I think of it as verbal Jiu Jitsu; you use your opponent’s words against him, without really seeming to attack him. It’s not always how I deal with it, but that night, with a drunk, unpredictable kid on stage with me, it worked. 

Part of what feels weird about watching the clip now, is remembering where I was emotionally at that time in my life. I had pretty much just returned from a disaster in L.A. a few months prior. In the six months I lived there, the girl I moved in with cheated on me, I went flat-broke, and realized no matter how big a fish I was in the small pond that still is San Francisco, I was just another guy telling jokes, waiting for stage time at shitty open mics in Hollywood; where dreams are indeed made, but the effort required means a lot of compromises, if you ever dream of being seen by wider audiences. When I got back to San Francisco I was hollowed-out inside, in a way few other things had ever done to me. When Molly, all around amazing person behind the San Francisco comedy scene, and Punch Line Booker, started putting me back up on stage we were both a little worried about how it would go. But the first time back on that stage I remembered who I am. I am a stand-up comic. It’s the one thing I do better than anything else I've tried in life. I’m better than a lot of other comics, and the fact that almost no one knows my name doesn't matter when I'm up there. I’m in the moment. I’m free in a way few people will ever be. And on that night, on that stage, with an adoring crowd realizing just how awesome this was - I got it on tape. I wish I was still that good. The last six years since my return from L.A. have been a mixed bag of soul-searching, other women confusing my relationship issues, and near-misses at a wider career in this crazy, stupid business called entertainment. 

As of right now the clip has passed 636,000 views on YouTube. I've made a little money, and have tons of new fans on the Internet. And that has to be enough.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


When people think of standup, I doubt they think of cafes. In San Francisco, you can't have one without the other. A lot of open mics are held in tiny cafes. What that means is a lot of people sitting down to have conversation over coffee, or people staring at their laptops get interrupted by people just starting out in standup. The mix can be unintentionally hilarious if awkward social interaction is your thing (and really, who doesn't enjoy a good train wreck?)

I've been hitting open mics again. Taking a slip of paper up in my hand and just throwing ideas into the wind can be exhilarating, in a way headlining sold-out shows in a dedicated comedy club can’t. There’s also the "San Francisco factor" that makes these shows something different. This is my latest adventure in “Cafe open Mics”.

While waiting to go up, I’m standing in the corner watching it all. The guy up right now is doing his best. I've seen him before. He’s putting everything he has into it, but the small group feels more confused than anything else. The audience consists of 10 or so people, sitting at square cafe tables that have been placed in a semi-circle. He stands in
front of them as the host politely spaces-out on a stool behind them. What I’m watching is the action over his shoulder outside. This cafe has a huge glass window that looks out on the front parking spaces. The first space is taken up by a low dumpster. Two elderly Asian women, right out of central casting, are methodically going through the dumpster. Occasionally, they toss a box or plastic bag into their wire cart. The scene looks like something from Bladerunner. What makes it all surreal is that while these two women demonstrate just how bad the economy is, a guy inside is trying to make people laugh with jokes about nothing. Then it takes the first of many odd turns that make this night wonderfully strange. The show has reached that point where people start to zone out. It's not going to be any better than this, folks. The guy "on stage" starts repeating the host’s name (his glassy-eyed stare seems fixed on a point above all our heads.) The comic repeats his name several times. Finally the host answers with a plaintive “yes?”, and the comic asks, "can I do a dirty joke?" Apparently the host has told everyone that this is a PG-13 show. When a comic asks if he can do a dirty joke you know the mood is about to change. Sure enough, the host gives his permission, and within five seconds we hear the words ‘cock’, ‘pussy’ and ‘rape’. Delightful. It's such a rapid change. The comic commits to a rape joke, where seconds before the jokes were harmless puns. It causes a few of us in back to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the situation. Unfortunately, we laugh right as he delivers the punch line, stepping on it. This upsets him. So, he repeats the punch line. This makes me suppress another laugh because the dichotomy of watching two elderly women pulling stuff out of the trash while a comic gets upset that we spoiled his rape joke is too bizarre not to laugh!

Then I hear my name. I'm up! I've always been an ‘in the moment’ type of comic, so of course I call attention to the two women acting out some modern Charles Dickens poverty tale, as a guy gets angry that people messed up his rape joke. To my surprise, even though the window is clear, people just realize there are two women digging through a trash bin as we all sit in the comfortable warmth of a café, scratching our collective balls and wondering what’s going on. As we all turn to look out the window, one of the women smiles a big toothless grin and holds up a bunch of bananas she's pulled from the dumpster. A woman sitting at one of the tables says in a 1970's stereotypical Russian spy accent "that is the landlord." Since most of the people here are familiar with the café, they laugh in that way that tells an outsider, like me, that this is the truth. That really is the café’s landlord! I look at the woman and simply ask "really?" She sheepishly nods her head and I say "I don't know how much you're paying in rent but clearly it's not enough." 

That's when I notice a guy behind the counter sprint outside and get the bananas. When he comes back in. I ask what I hope is on everyone's mind, "you’re not going to use those are you?" In typical San Francisco fashion, he tells me that bananas have "...this excellent organic packaging that renders them safe." Wait, I'm still not done processing the fact that your landlord is rummaging through the trash for food, and now I also have to handle the information that bananas fished out of a dumpster in front of the café, as a comedy show is happening, are going to be resold to people in smoothies! At this point any jokes I wanted to try out are pretty much useless. As I voice that realization, the little group of audience laughs and points out the window again. The woman is smiling and holding another bunch of bananas up. This time she’s gesturing that they’re for me. What can I say? I smile back, and politely refuse as I mouth the words, "No thanks. I'm trying to cut down on my botulism." San Francisco. Why do I continue to live here? The jokes write themselves.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Meanest Thing I've Said?

One of the meanest (but possibly funniest) things I've ever said to a heckler, happened recently at a one-nighter gig in the middle of nowhere. Even by the low standards of one-nighters, this was bad. Five minutes after the show was supposed to start, the booker showed up with checks that didn't have our names on them. "You can just fill it in." Oh, this isn't shady. The opener’s entire act seemed to be about how he didn't want another man’s dick near his mouth, or near his ass, or in his hand. I don't know what he thought he was telling us, but I think the man has some desires he’s fighting not to have. When every punch line in your act essentially consists of ‘not wanting a dick somewhere on your body’, it’s time to get honest with yourself. What was more troubling was the audience. Half the time, they laughed at his juvenile, homophobic ranting. The other half, even this small young crowd of drunks just looked at him with faces that seemed to say, “really?” He went on for twenty minutes. At one point he even looked over at me. I couldn't disguise my disgust. "The headliner is like: ‘More dick jokes? Yes!’" Before the show, he told me he’d been doing this for 6 years. He also said that unlike some guys, he isn't looking to be a star.
Mission accomplished, dude.
I don't really remember doing a joke. I can't exactly call it riffing, either. They were too dumb, or too drunk to really know what was happening. From the beginning, a table of two girls directly to my right couldn't shut up. I say ‘couldn't’, because I’m not sure they actually could have shut up, thanks to all the chemical help they’d apparently ingested. Here’s why I say that. As I get on stage, the girl stands up and announces she is going to the bathroom. I answer with a simple “OK”, and upon hearing this she asks if I want something.
"Like what?" I ask.
"A deal," she responds.
"A deal on what?" I ask.
"On whatever you want."
"What do you have?", I ask ,trying not to get annoyed, and looking for some payoff in this weird exchange.
She has walked in front of me now, and facing me, says, "You know how white girls in Washington are." That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that when she says this she makes the unmistakable motion of pretending to shoot up. A few minutes later when she returns from the bathroom there is a noticeable change in her. Shit, this is what I have to deal with tonight?
We go back and forth all night. I cannot get a single joke out without this girl or someone else in the audience blurting out whatever enters their Ritalin-deprived monkey minds. Finally, near the end of the show, she stands up with a cigarette in her hand and just like before, announces she is headed outside for a smoke. Exasperated I simply say, "Well, enjoy your cancer." She looks at me and fires back, "I already beat that!"
This statement alone, that she already beat cancer, is stunning, considering she is now headed outside to smoke. But I don't say that. I don't comment on how stupid this person is. Instead, I say "You beat cancer? Or are you such a horrible person that the cancer was like, ‘I have to get out of this bitch!’"
You really have nowhere else to go after saying that to someone. I wish I could say the "audience" even had a clue about what was happening in that moment. At that point the show was over. I looked at them and said, "I'm sure you all have people who love you, somewhere, but you're all horrible people. Good night." As I walked off the stage, the drunk/high/stupid cancer survivor girl came up to me and as she tried to hug me said, "You were funny!" I shook my head and stopped her from touching me. "Oh, OK", she said, a little surprised. The opener was lying back in the booth laughing his in-the-closet head off. I put my jacket on, grabbed the batch of my CD's (that I didn't bother trying to sell), and said to the girl as I walked out the door, "You need to quit drinking, or quit going to see comedy. Maybe both."

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The 2011/2012 New Years Gig

New years is always a big deal kind of night no matter what. The crowd has an energy unique to the event and the pay is better than usual if you’re a comic. To be honest, I've always considered it a huge mind fuck. You have no choice but to reflect on your year and what you want for the new one. Granted, I am coming at it from a cynical point of view at the moment. A few days before New Years I was suppose to open for a band in Modesto, CA. It didn't happen. A few days before that gig the booker sent me an email saying they would prefer no opener. Actually, he forwarded me an email from the bands management saying they didn't approve of an opener nor did they want one. The whole thing left me feeling a little screwed. What made it all the more frustrating was that for once I asked for more money and got it. I got an extra hundred bucks but not before the booker made sure to tell me the theatre didn’t think my clips on line were any good anyway. Thanks for that added bit of passive aggressiveness. In the end, it didn’t matter anyway because as the forwarded email explained, they didn’t want an opener.

Then there is my love life. Single, 43 and enough existential baggage packed by the skeletons in my ever enlarging closets that any women I am slightly interested in better have the emotional equivalent of a very large luggage rack. When midnight hits, the crowd transforms into a sea of couples. It is a very unusual sensation to be standing in front of a crowd of people all focused on you and feel utterly alone. No matter how much I tell myself that this holiday is over hyped with all the expectations to have a great time next to someone you love, I can’t help feeling like those aren’t such terrible things to wish for on yet another New Years. Anyway, thats whats going through my mind as I show up at the theatre in The Marin Center across the Golden Gate Bridge. When I step on stage, all that disappears. I am in my element doing the thing I am best at.

As New Years shows go, this one is pretty cool. I have the cake slot. I am up after the opener. He kills, I kill and then its a half hour intermission before another comic and the headliner go up. In theory, that should take us right up to 11:55 when we all go back out on stage and do the count down thing. That isn’t exactly what ended up happening.

Its never fair to judge a stand-up comic by one show. Anyone can have an off night or a show go sideways on them. It happens. Its part of what makes stand-up dynamic. You are only as good as your last joke. No matter how much the crowd is with you they can always stop following you. There is something exciting about that. As a comic, the art is balancing what you want to talk about with the audiences expectations. Since all audiences are different, no show will be exactly like the last one. Where one crowd is excited by something another is repulsed. Some comics love to push a crowd past their comfort zone. Some comics are safe. Most of us are a mix in unequal parts of what we want to express with what we know will work. Reading a crowd isn’t about selling out your voice, its being respectful of an audience. Looking at them they don’t appear to be a crowd that wants dick jokes or to hear the word fuck, a lot. This doesn’t deter the headliner. I’m in the green room with the other comics when we start to notice how quiet its become. There should be the usual laughs coming from the crowd. Thats when the organizer of the event walks in and raises his hand. “He just took this show from here to here with a cock circle bit.” He says, lowering his hand.

“Cock circle?” I ask.

As he starts to explain, we can hear someone from the audience yell out, “Move on!”

I start to walk to the wings in morbid curiosity.

Perhaps its the same person but when I get there I can clearly hear a male voice shout out, “Enough Vagina jokes!”

The headliner, is now dealing with something of a mutiny. He’s asking the audience if he is right or this guy is right? I look at my phone and can see we are less than fifteen minutes away from Midnight. The organizer walks past us and says, “He’s losing them.”

People are starting to leave, too. Like, a lot of people. The headliner smirks and says, “Any man who says, no more vagina jokes should turn in his dick at the door.” The crowd laughs in an awkward way. More people in the crowd yell out more feedback. The comic isn’t backing down. In fact, he starts doing something you might of seen happen before- he starts punishing them. They don’t want dirty jokes so now he starts giving them his roughest stuff. Peaking through the stage door I can see people streaming out. Its five minutes before Midnight. The scene inside the theatre is tense. The organizer walks up to the host and just says, “Get out there!” He wants us all out there, too. Now, the four of us are standing there on stage with one microphone. At least its not in the hands of the headliner who stands there holding onto the Mic stand and looking down. We have five minutes to cover. The opener tells a joke. The organizer hands me another Mic and I say, “Welcome to the most awkward New Years count down ever.” The crowd laughs. Great, we covered another fifteen seconds. Then I hear the headliners voice again. “In my defense...” I’m not sure what else he said. I looked at the comic standing next to me who is showing me that we are almost at midnight on his phone. The headliner starts telling a joke that starts with asking the crowd who has step kids. I’m already shaking my head as he starts in about how evil they are. Oh God. Is this really happening? The joke continues with something about him confronting his step kid by shouting his job is to fuck his mother. You can imagine how well that goes over. Then, the comic next to me says, “It’s Midnight.” He doesn't have a mic so I yell it again, “It’s Midnight!” The host starts to loudly count down “10! 9! 8!...” When we hit midnight and everyone applauds, we can’t get off that stage fast enough. Wow! What a phenomenally strange and uncomfortable way to ring in the new year.

After the crowd has left I head back stage to grab my coat. The headliner is sitting on the table looking dejected. There isn’t anything to say. He looks up and simple says “I just lost the will to do comedy.” Thats fairly dramatic. I’ve had that sensation on stage at times too. However, I wasn’t beating the crowd up with more of what they were hating.

That was New Years 2011/2012 for me. How was yours?