Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Three O'Clock Call

In the 90's, if you were a stand-up comic in San Francisco, this is how you got on the much coveted Monday night showcase at Cobb's. At 3PM, where ever you were and whatever you were doing, you stopped, got to a phone and dialed the number to Cobb's comedy club. Almost instantly you would hear a busy signal. You knew that all over town, every one of your friends who was a comic was doing the same thing. If you had a day job and worked in a office, you took advantage of the numerous lines you could dial out on at once. If you had roommates who were comics and there was a house phone you all shared, you flipped a coin to see who would go first. If it was close to 3 and you saw a phone booth, you got to it, dialed popcorn to make sure you weren't dialing too soon, and then waited with your quarters to start dialing. I left the end of movies early to make the call. I got into fights with girlfriends over stopping everything, and I mean everything, to make the call. I got in trouble at day jobs, yelled at by strangers who wanted the phone booth and looked at me like I was mad if I was at someone else's house and asked to you the phone. This was right before cellphones started showing up in everyones hand, too. The ideal situation was to use a land line while you were using your cellphone as one of your friends also dialed on their phone. Everyone, and I mean everyone who was anyone in San Francisco comedy at the time, did this.

You would dial, get a busy signal, hang up and repeat the process till you got through. If you did get through, you would get Tom. He didn't so much answer the phone as much as he spit the name of the club into your ear, "Cobb's!" Then you would say something like, "Hi Tom. It's Joe Klocek. Can I get on tonight?" 
Thats when you heard the familiar sentence, "Try me next week." That was that until next Monday.

By 3:03 it was all over. The 12 spots had been filled. My class, the group of friends and comics I came up with, checked in with each other after the call. Around 3:05, Tony Dijamco's phone would start ringing. "Did you get on tonight?" He would breathlessly answer the phone.
"Nope. You?" went the usual refrain.
Tony became the clearinghouse for information about who got on and who didn't for that night. But we also discussed what Tom had said. Ok, sure, he told most everyone the same thing, try me next week, but how did he say it to you? Was there a lengthy pause where he seemed like he thought about putting you on? There were countless discussions about the way Tom turned you down the way conspiracy nuts debate the merits of the single bullet theory in the JFK assassination. 
"But when he said it, how did he say it?" was a pretty common question over the phone at 3:05 in San Francisco back then. 
Tony would field everyone calling in with the same question "Who got on?" If One of us had, Tony would tell. "Rodney and Dan got sets! Thats my other line. See you down there?"

And then, one day, for no particular reason Tom might say, "OK." and you were on! That got you on the showcase but one set does not get anyone in. Once you got on, you still called every week and hoped to get back on. Once you were getting on regularly, you hoped to move up the list. The other part of this is the list. It created status. It worked like this. If you were a new comic, you got 5 minutes in the first hour of the show, maybe a 7 minute set. The second hour of the show was made up of more experienced comics getting 10 to maybe 15 min sets and then the last hour of this three hour showcase would be heavy hitters, maybe two people splitting the hour among themselves with the headliner being the comic Tom thought had something special. If you were on that night, you would show up and the list would be taped to the podium by the door. You would find your name, look at the time you were suppose to go up at and how much time you had. The numbers were all printed clearly by your name; your order and amount of time, so no one could say they didn't know and if you went over your time, heaven save you from Toms wrath! 

Everyone noticed where everyone was on the list and how much time you were given. If one week you were ahead of someone and the next week that person was now before you, it could mean you were moving up or, it meant Tom was fucking with both of your heads. There was as much discussion about where you were on that list as there was about what Tom said when you called. You knew someone was in if they were getting 15 mins somewhere in the last half of the show. There was also a clear way of moving up. Every once in a while Tom would pull one of the comics out of the whole thing and make them the house M.C. That meant they got to host one week a month for six months and at the end of that you were bounced up to feature status. For a local stand-up, the next big goal after you get in at a club is to move up from opener to feature. To be told you would be the next house M.C. at Cobb's meant you would be featuring at both clubs in town by the end of a year. I can't emphasize enough how big a deal this is for a comic.

Everyone wanted on at Cobb's because the thing it had going for it was Tom. There are as many opinions about Tom as there are stories. I can only tell you this. Tom insisted you push yourself to be creative. Tom demanded you do more than just make a room full of people laugh. Its not a revelation to realize there is more to comedy than making a room full of people laugh, but it was a revelation to find a club owner who was willing to risk profit so we could find our voices. If you were good at crowd work, he made you work on your material. If you were playing the hits constantly he would make you do your "b" stuff so you could find a way to be stronger with it. If you were a comic who was generic and didn't push the envelope in anyway, you didn't last. These were paid crowds, too. Not some random open mic in the back of a bar with a shitty sound system, this was a beautiful looking, pro comedy club down in the Wharf. They got lots of tourists just walking in and some of the biggest names in comedy worked that small room based on the reputation of it. Tom grew his regular audience as much as he pushed the comics. You could come any weekend not knowing who was working and be blown away. If the Punch Line was considered going to comedy high school, back then, Cobbs was comedy college and if you wanted in you made that 3PM call till you didn't have to anymore. 

Once I got on and then in at Cobb's, the 3PM call got easier. I would call, say hey Tom and he would say, you're on. Then, I would use my phone to help get a friend on. I was getting up at the Punch Line on Sunday nights and even opening at both clubs when one night, everything changed.

My best friend in comedy, Dan and I, were down at Cobbs. Tom was in a peculiar mood and was pulling comics aside after their sets and handing out the benefit of his knowledge. The only more terrifying than fearing this man didn't know you existed as a comic was enduring his advice as a comic. Word spread fast and one by one people went up knowing Tom was paying attention to everyone that night. Standing outside the showroom, Dan and I were talking about a joke, a girl in my life or are dreams of world dominion based on our comedy. You know, the usual stuff. Tom walked up to Dan and said, "Follow me to my office."
As soon as Tom said it, he was already moving toward the office door rapidly as Dan and I traded looks. Just a few moments later Dan emerged without Tom in sight and told me, "Tom made me the house MC!"

I was happy for my friend but I felt the first of many poison twinges of resentment for getting something I wanted. Thats when Tom "appeared" at my side, turned to me and said, "Follow me to my office." Just like with Dan, he took off almost as soon as he said the words to me and just like before Dan and I looked at each other with anxious eyes. Toms office was tiny. It had a desk with a computer, no window and a calendar with the names of the headliners written on each week. Tom pointed to a week on calendar "Are you available this week?" He asked. "Yes" I answered without really knowing. "OK. Thats your feature week. You're a feature. You're ready."

And just like that I went from one of the funny guys in town to the guy people watched. It was the start of a three year period in my life where I was at the top of the local comedy food chain. I loved it. I truly truly did. When I look back now I see all the reasons I peaked when I did and all the reasons I am still here writing this. it was my season of magic and the happiest I have ever been as an adult. I was broke, had bad teeth and owned two pairs of jeans but I've never been happier or felt more creative in my life. 

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