Friday, June 10, 2005

Comedian eh? Say something funny.

I’m sitting in my coach seat on the aisle, sizing up my seatmate. He is in his mid-40s, dressed in a business suit, wing tips and a blue and white striped tie that looks to be made from the same cloth as a Wendy’s Hamburger uniform. The tie is neatly knotted to the point where it could be silently choking him. My guess is that he will whip out his cell phone the moment the plane’s wheels touch the ground and inform the party at the other end that he “has just landed and is about to get off the plane.” I’ve always wondered why there is such urgency to relay such an obvious piece of information. I can’t imagine somebody in the terminal thinking, “Gee, I hope Stan remembers to get off the plane this time! Last time the plane headed back to Chicago and he was still on it.”
Once he actually gets off the plane, I envision him hailing a cab and journeying immediately to an important meeting. He will not check into a hotel, stop for a bite to eat or even visit the restroom. He’ll walk quickly through the terminal, a briefcase slung across his shoulder, while dialing his ever-present cell phone and telling the other meeting participants that he is now walking through the terminal and will call them back when he steps outside.
Currently he is sleeping, no doubt hoping that a few winks at 30,000 feet will keep him alert in the boardroom.
I am using this time to decide whether I want to talk with him when he awakens. I notice his briefcase contains an ID tag from a company that sells communication systems. Probably the sales type, I think. Therefore, probably a talkative type too. Do I engage him in conversation or wait until he makes the first move? Perhaps he is not sleeping but sizing me up through half-closed eyes and asking the same questions.
Plane conversation is inevitable. One rule of human nature is, the closer you are to someone, the more likely you must speak to that person in an effort to reduce the nervousness factor. A crowd of people cannot ride silently on an elevator. Someone eventually chimes in with a lame attempt at humor like, “Okay, we’re at maximum capacity here,” or “might as well press ALL the buttons.”
Air travelers are not very original when it comes to introductory questions. The two most popular are:
1) What brings you to (insert name of city here)?”
2) “What type of business are you in?”
I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to starting plane conversations. I take refuge in those two standbys as well. However, I’ve always wondered what the response would be if I turned to an elderly lady next to me and blurted out, “Do you mind if I trim my nosehairs?”
Children, of course, are exempt from question two. Their answer to question one is usually, “going to visit my Dad because the judge told me I had to.”
My rule for answering question two is simple: If I like this person and feel he or she could be a good conversationalist, I will answer truthfully and state that I am a stand-up comedian. If I feel the person is boring, I will answer something vague such as, “I’m a freelance writer.” If the person has already done something that annoys me, such as ask the flight attendant, “what do you recommend?” when she comes by with the beverage cart, then I will answer something really complex like, “I work in the IT department of a wastewater treatment and refuse removal plant.” Or I will just glare, mutter “CIA” and go back to reading Entertainment Weekly.
Let’s face it; comedian is one of the most interesting titles in the job market. Most people have never met one and those that have don’t typically get the chance to talk to him or her at length. “Comedian, eh?” they’ll say. “I once saw Jerry Seinfeld in a San Diego restaurant. Even from a distance I could tell he was funny.” I neglect to ask them how just seeing somebody qualifies them to make a judgment on this person’s character.
When I do divulge my true occupation, I brace myself for the inevitable question: “What’s it like when nobody laughs?” I don’t know why but people seem fascinated with a comedian’s failures. It may be the only job where people want to explore a worst-case scenario in detail. When you meet a construction worker you don’t say, “what’s it like when a large piece of iron falls on your head?” Or, “insurance salesman, eh? What’s it like trying to find a loophole in policies so you don’t have to dish out claims to thousands of people displaced by a tornado?”
However, there don’t seem to be any “off limits” questions when talking with a stand-up comic. “Where was your worst show?,” “what’s it like to bomb?” and “have you ever been heckled?” are all questions people feel they have the right to ask.
If I’m going to answer these questions, I prefer to do it surrounded by a group of friends who are also comedians. Then it becomes a hilarious form of group therapy. No matter how bad your worst adventure was, somebody in the group has a story that will top it. They don’t mean to one up your lousy story – they just feel a need to share and get it off their chests as well.
Okay, since you’re curious now, I’ll tell you my worst experience on stage. It occurred in May 1991 in Destin, Florida, a small Panhandle town near Eglin Air Force base. In 1991 you could have spit and hit at least five establishments that were devoting full time to comedy or having “COMEDY NIGHT!” at least once a week. Comedy was, and still is, cheaper than a band. Plus, the clientele often feel a need to drink excessively before the show begins. That makes the manager happy. So what if it terrifies the comedians? In 1991, towns that had not yet earned the distinction of appearing in a road atlas were still finding ways to bring comedians in to entertain the locals.
If you’re a history buff, you also remember that 1991 was the year the United States was involved in a three-month display of testosterone called “The Persian Gulf War.” It was an entertaining little skirmish, the first one to be covered start to finish by all the networks, with special bombing highlights at 11:30 p.m. “The Tonight Show will be delayed 15 minutes while we show you all the buildings we pulverized today.”
I remember snuggling into bed at the end of the day, grabbing the remote and being entertained as our country’s “smart bombs” intelligently leveled alleged Iraqi weapons depots. General Norman Schwarzkopf, highly decorated as “the first general who made war fun,” eloquently and humorously explained the carnage. Hell, on a good night, this guy was better than Letterman!
Although the war lasted less time than some women are in labor, the soldiers had been preparing at length. Desert Storm began in August 1990 as Desert Shield. It was then that soldiers realized how boring the desert was. Yet, as good soldiers, they took up positions in Saudi Arabia, anxious for the day they could knock down some Iraqi establishments, be interviewed by CNN’s Bernard Shaw and share a joke or two with Schwarzkopf. It wasn’t an easy existence – no liquor, no women, nothing that the fine men who make up our Armed Forces desire on an hourly basis. Even worse, the soldiers were not allowed to return immediately after Desert Storm was over and the war was renamed Desert What Do We Do Now? It took about six weeks before the government began releasing them to their home bases. When that happened, the population of Destin, Florida exploded.
Not realizing Destin was a military town, I arrived on Sunday evening, fresh from a five-day club date in Mobile, Alabama. That gig went surprisingly well and I considered Destin to be “found money.” Sunday is usually a slow night in the comedy club business, with many clubs dark. The chance to make two hundred bucks was enticing, considering that Destin was less than an hour’s drive from Mobile. Destin is a beautiful town, located on the Gulf of Mexico and popular with vacationing Floridians. Yet it’s not overrun with retirees who strain to see above the dashboards of their white 1975 Cadillac Eldoradoes while traveling 20 miles an hour on the interstate with their left turn signals on.
Through intensive therapy, I have managed to repress the name of this particular club from my memory. But I do remember that it was not a comedy club at all. Perhaps the pink neon lights, the stars and other celestial bodies plastered on the exterior and the “every night is ladies night” message on the marquee tipped me off. This place had DISCO written all over it. That should have been my signal to hit the gas and keep going until I was safely in Pensacola or at least outside the city limits. Comedy does not work in discotheques. Discos have hollow, echo-ridden sound systems that were built specifically to play one song at ear-splitting levels for an hour with a lyric such as, “YO, GET UP AND DANCE. YO, GET UP AND DANCE. YO, MUTHA AT TABLE THREE, GET UP AND DANCE”
I arrived at six, as instructed by the booking agent who, by now, has probably made millions promoting female Jell-O wrestling. The comic who would precede me on stage was also there. He looked as if he was doing this simply to earn enough money for his high school prom. We were ushered into the office of Mel, the manager, who had put a desk in between several empty beer kegs and labeled it an “office.”
“You the comics?” he asked as we entered. “Yes,” I said as my opening act nodded silently “Ya’ll sit down and we’ll go over a few things. Wanna beer?”
“I don’t drink before shows,” I said, while the opening act looked at his shoelaces. Mel seemed puzzled by this response, as if I had already broken the first rule of his club. RULE 1: IF YOU ENTER MY CLUB, YOU WILL CONSUME ALCOHOL EVEN IF YOU ARE HERE FOR AN AA MEETING!
“Suit yourself,” he said, popping a cold one from the refrigerator he kept between the kegs. “Okay, here’s how it’s gonna work. We’ll start the show about 9.” Pointing to the high school kid he continued, “You will go up and do about 15 minutes. Make it a good 15.” I wondered if this kid had a “bad” 15 or if he even had 15 minutes at all. Mel then directed his bloodshot eyes at me. “After Junior here does his act, we’re gonna stop the show for a few minutes.”
I sat upright. “You’re going to what?” I said. “Stop the show,” he replied. “I know a lot of the comics don’t like that but trust me, I’ve been in the business a few years and I know what works best.”
Mel failed to realize there is a distinction between the “get people hammered and take their money” business and the comedy business. Once a comedy show starts, it should not be stopped unless there is a grease fire in the kitchen. You simply can’t re-start comedy. If Jay Leno took an intermission during an hour set, I guarantee you the second 30 minutes would not be nearly as funny as the first.
“Why are you stopping the show?” I asked.
“So everybody can get another drink,” he replied, as if this were the stupidest question he had ever heard. “We’ve got lots of drink specials going on tonight. Ya’ll like it when they get drunk, right?”
I should have gone out to my car, thrown it in reverse and crashed it right through the dance floor. It would have been the most sensible thing to do. Comedians do NOT like inebriated audiences. Making a roomful of strangers laugh is difficult enough without introducing alcohol into the equation. It’s like walking up to a garbage collector and saying, “you like it when people don’t bag the trash first, right?”
I sensed that Mel, the know-it-all bar owner/comedy guru was not about to budge on this issue. At this point my greed took over, replacing the urge to leave. I wanted my 200 bucks and I was going to get it.
“Okay, after everybody gets a drink, then I go on?” I asked
“Not so fast city boy, “ he replied. “Then we’re gonna do our joke off. That’s where we go through the crowd with a microphone and anybody who wants to can tell a joke.”
Another Mel stroke of ingenuity! Allow inebriated soldiers a stage! Oh, this was getting better all the time. Could the Jell-O wrestlers be far behind? “Of course, we ask them to keep the jokes clean,” Mel added.
“Of course,” I replied, knowing full well that instructing a soldier to tell a clean joke was like telling the Rev. Jesse Jackson to make a short speech.
Alas, eight o’clock rolled around, Mel unlocked the doors and the soldiers began streaming in. Actually, whole battalions began streaming in. Some were still in their combat fatigues. I imagined the 82nd Airborne flying over the club on its way back from Iraq and the infantry commander instructing the pilot, “No need to return to Fort Bragg. We’ll just jump out here.” These guys were ready to PARTY, which is what they should have been allowed to do. But Mel decided everybody should be forced to watch a comedy show, which is what we were there to provide.
After the first drink special, “penny tequila hour,” the opening act went onstage. I had to hand it to the kid; he played right into their hands. He didn’t have material. Instead he opened with something like, “AMERICA ROCKS!” This prompted a roar from the dance floor that lasted about 90 seconds. Guys were high-fiving each other, punching each other and downing beers at the speed of one every five seconds. Then they quieted down to await the lad’s second joke, which was something like, “Doesn’t Pamela Anderson have great tits?” This kid was killing them! Meanwhile, I waited backstage, praying that Mel had ordered all automatic weapons be checked at the door. This couldn’t get any worse, I thought.
Oh, but it could. We hadn’t even gotten to the joke off.
After Junior finished his act, to a standing ovation I might add, the troops began to participate in the second drink special: ALL THE JACK DANIELS YOU CAN DRINK FOR A BUCK! From the safety of Mel’s office, I peered out at the horror that awaited me. By now guys were pulling tables together so entire infantry units could exchange pleasantries. Girls from the town mingled with the troops and consumed the same beverages. It was the first time I wished another war would break out. It would be the only way this show would be canceled.
The joke off began. It consisted of a bar waitress walking through the room with a microphone. Occasionally an inebriated serviceman would grab the mike, as well as the waitress’ ass, stand on a table and say the following:
“Hi, I’m Mike from Infantry Division 2744. I want to dedicate this joke to all the other guys in the platoon. Some are still over in that shithole but they’ll be coming home soon. Everybody knows WE KICKED SOME TOWEL HEADED ASS!”
A roar went up from the room that Saddam Hussein probably heard. Mike basked in the applause before continuing.
“Okay ya’ll shut up. Hey, shut up. HEY, SHUT YOUR ASSES UP. I got a joke to tell. Okay, here we go. Two penises and a vagina walk into a bar together…”
I neglected to hear the punch line as I was out in the parking lot, vomiting. Again, the urge to leave was overwhelming. I saw my car in the parking lot. It seemed to be saying, “Come inside me. Start my engine. Step on my accelerator. We’ll leave this place together. If you need 200 dollars that bad, I will stop at a convenience store and you can rob it.”
I walked back inside. Mel was waiting for me. “Sounds like a great crowd to me. You ready?” I nodded and Mel walked onstage to introduce me.
“The headliner tonight is from Chicago. That makes him a Yankee but we won’t hold that against him. He’s a really funny guy. At least, he had better be funny. Give a big Destin welcome for Gary Schwern!”
I walked into the lights. “How’s it going, Destin,” I began. “Say something funny,” came the reply from the one soldier who appeared to be listening. The other 499 were still yelling and wishing that the jokeoff hadn’t ended. “Hey, I just came from Mobile, Alabama, “ I continued. “I got to see a Civil War reenactment. It wasn’t real authentic. I don’t think Confederate soldiers sat around drinking Budweiser after battle.”
“You suck. Bring back the first guy. That guy was funny,” came the reply.
The show went downhill from there. Most of the time, the audience ignored me. Occasionally, they stopped to hurl abuse my way. If they had grenades, they would have used them.
Mel told me to do an hour but I bailed at about 35 minutes. I didn’t care if Mel never paid me. I didn’t care if the agent never booked me again. I simply wanted to get out of this establishment with all four limbs still attached to my torso. When I got offstage, Mel was waiting for me with a puzzled look on his face. “Boy, I don’t know what got into them tonight, “ he said. “They’re usually pretty quiet.”
Of course it’s bound to be quiet when your entire clientele is 5,000 miles away, fighting a war.
I ventured into his office to collect my payment. “Cash or check?” he asked. “Cash,” I replied. If a check bounced, it would mean conversing with Mel again, something I did not want to do. Mel counted out ten 20-dollar bills and told me to give him a call in a few months because he wanted me to come back.
"Sure thing,” I said, knowing that I wouldn’t call Mel until the next time our troops went into battle. The day we invaded another country, I’d be on the phone with Mel saying, “Can I perform tonight?”
That was 14 years ago. I’ve done thousands of shows since then. Some were outstanding, most were good, others sucked. But the night in Destin remains at the top, or rather the bottom of the list. Now that I have blogged about it, I feel better. Now that you’ve read it, maybe you’ll be quiet the next time you meet a comedian.

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