Sunday, December 5, 2010
Everyone's a Comedian: My Not Brief Enough Foray Into Stand-Up
It was the summer of love, 1995. My band, The Poor Boys of Rock, was opening for a Pearl Jam tribute band called Itchy Fish. The venue, a bar in Medway, Massachusetts, was packed and had been applauding for us throughout our set. That was until it was my turn to sing. It was the only song in the set on which the rest of the band were stupid enough to let me sing lead vocals. I had proposed adding Hootie and the Blowfish's smash hit "Hold My Hand" to our set list. It's a simple song, consisting of merely three chords. So I thought it would be perfect for us. I sang my heart out on this little ditty, sounding as much like Hootie as possible, and when the last chord was played, when the song was over - there was just silence. Nothing. Not even a smattering of applause. I honestly think I heard crickets. It was one of the most amazing and offensive things I have ever experienced. I've seen awful bands before and applauded out of courtesy at least. I don't know if the song sucked, or if I just sucked, or if they didn't enjoy my Darius Rucker impression. I mean, a bunch of alt-rock Pearl Jam fans probably don't want to hear an H&TB song anyway. Whatever the explanation, I wanted to die, perhaps even kill myself right there on the stage, like GG Allin always promised to do. I was scarred, perhaps for life, that day. For years afterwards, this moment would stand as the symbol of my pathetic reach for pseudo-rock stardom. I could have sang a neo-Nazi anthem or one of the racist Johnny Rebel tunes from the 60s and received a better response than what I got that night. I vowed never to perform again. Actually, that's not true. I would perform as part of a cleverly named power trio "Sexx" just two years later, our only performance resulting in those in attendance actually shouting for us to stop playing. Because, like any performer, be it a tap dancer, a puppeteer, or a mime, I was born to perform. But this scene - the thunderous guitars, the stacks of speakers, the banging of the drums - through the years, was getting old. Perhaps there were better forms of entertainment out there for me.
Ever since I can remember, comedians have been my rock stars. Sure, I worshipped many of the 80s glam metal bands
when I was a teen, and tried in vain to grow my hair and have girls worship me. But it was stand-ups who had the true stage talent. Just a man or woman and a microphone. Maybe it was because it was something I couldn't do, or hadn't learned to do. I had stood in front of people and sang and played many times. It was nerve racking, but nothing a person who could play couldn't actually do, even if it was poorly and caused either unfathomable silence or near riots. At 15 my comic gods were Sam Kinison and Andrew "Dice" Clay. They hated each other, but I could never choose sides because they were both great. I had all of their tapes, and even cried when my father wouldn't let me purchase Dice's The Day the Laughter Died because of the "Explicit Lyrics" warning that appeared on the cover. I dug Carlin and Hicks, and had tapes of performers from Woody Allen to W.C. Fields. I had been a writer since high school, with humor always as the goal. The question did occasionally loom. Could I do what these talented people were doing? I had stood on stage and been maybe one hundredth of an Eddie Van Halen. Could I also be one hundredth of a Jerry Seinfeld?
There's an episode of Cheers in which the character Cliff Clavin decides we wants to have a go at stand-up comedy. Billed as “The Merry Mailman,” his routine is abysmal and consists of nothing but "What's up with that?" lines (e.g. "What about those Avon ladies? Ding-dong! What's up with that?") Even Cliff’s best friend Norm says, “I never thought I’d see a whole room full of people not laughing at Cliff.”
When Cliff is done with his set, the lights turn on and he looks around and no one is there except Norm. Cliff asks, "Where did everyone go?" "There was a bomb scare," Norm replies.
"Where?" Cliff asks.
"Right about where you were standing, actually," Norm says.
Cheers' mailman Clavin is one of the most sympathetic characters in television history. Whether it was being a contestant on Jeopardy! or having Johnny Carson do one of his jokes on The Tonight Show, he was always trying to be somebody, and always failing. We sympathize with him, and some of us even identify with him, because most of us have experienced a minor disaster like these that Cliffy had to go through. It was with John Ratzenberger's Charlie Brownesque character in mind, that I tried my own hand at stand-up comedy.
Our first story begins on a breezy March afternoon in Massachusetts in 2004. The New England Patriots had just won their second Super Bowl. Million Dollar Baby was the Academy Award winner for Best Picture. And Fantasia Barrino was on her way to becoming the third American Idol. Our (that is myself and my then girlfriend, soon-to-be fiance, and now wife Amy) neighbor Margaret had just published a book about being a survivor of a physically abusive marriage. We were very happy for her, both for coming through it strongly and for being a published author. To celebrate the book's publishing there was a spaghetti dinner at a local bar. For whatever reason, there was also going to be some open mic comedy. Nothing like some comedy to kick off the publishing of a memoir about spousal abuse. Margaret, knowing what a sensitive and funny guy I am, and Amy, despite knowing I certainly am not the former, each suggested I participate.
When you have a tendency to be funny in your everyday life, people will sometimes say, "You should be a comedian." I'm not someone who's always on. In fact, most times I'm completely off, like an air conditioner in the wintertime. But when I'm comfortable, I can be quite amusing, and some people have indeed said this to me. It's not uncommon, however, for two people to have completely different impressions of me - one will think I'm a comedian, the other that I'm just a creepy, silent dude. Of course, I had never done the stand-up thing before, but, like Cliff Clavin, I had always secretly wanted to. Then again, I always wanted to be a pro wrestler. To try that without any actual training would lead to certain injury, perhaps death. Just ask Brian Ong or Branden Starr. Well, guess what? You can’t because they’re both dead.
Tragic wrestling school deaths aside, just by pondering it, I was beginning to succumb to the "You should be a comedian" idea.
I really thought about it, whether I wanted to do this. It was open mic. What could it hurt? Of course, I had to come up with a routine. Would I be a singing comedian? A prop comic? An impressionist? So I prepared myself a set, some based on things I had already written. No sense in writing new material, I lazily thought. I mapped out a short set list and practiced. These would be my topics:
Part 1. Spring, Easter and Religion
Part 2. Gay Marriage
Part 3. The Red Sox-Yankees Rivalry
I think part of me wanted to burst some bubbles as my material on gay marriage and the Sox-Yankees rivalry might cause a little controversy. Watch out! Here's comes the new bad boy of comedy! I could have just gone up there with some memorized jokes from a Milton Berle book. Maybe drawn a face on one of my old socks and had everyone in stitches. Instead I wanted to do anti-religion, pro-gay marriage, and anti-Sox fan material.
Thus, on a cool spring night, Amy and I drove to this bar. The name of it escapes me. I think I forgot the name as soon as we walked in there. We had a tough time finding it, and I secretly prayed we wouldn't. I was ready to chicken out. I didn't want to tell Amy this. She believed in me, believed I was a funny man. Perhaps if I had piped up and said, "Oh, well. You know, there's a wonderful Italian place somewhere around here," she would have given up. Alas, after driving in circles for twenty minutes, we found the place.
We arrived, ate our dinner, and watched some absolutely atrocious stand-up from students of some guy's comedy class. Who's teaching stand-up in Fitchburg, Mass? I had no idea, but what a group. This boosted my confidence a little. Even if I sucked, my material was better than this! I figured most of these people received the class as a gift from one of their children. You know, just as you would buy your mom a pottery class? Oh, I was full of big talk and criticism. Just let me up there!
Once this hilarity ended, there was an improvisational comedy session. I guess there's an improv troupe in Fitchburg also. Who knew it was such a hotbed of comedy? I guess you can call it “Third City.” Somehow, I participated in this improv thing. I don't know how or why. Amy may have pushed me up there. The ridiculous thing is I actually killed. I was a riot and I really should have quit while I was ahead. The bit consisted of a duel between two contestants in which you had to name things, like brands of shampoo or types of venereal diseases, and keep naming them until someone can't. I was up against a woman and felt shampoo brands was more than a little sexually bias. But I'm pretty good at making stuff up. So when I ran out of brands, I'd say something like "Henderson." And they had to take my word for it. There were no judges. No one was checking my work. It was a stupid game, really, with a lot of holes. Finally, I lost. I shouldn't have said "Hitler." No one was going to believe that Hitler was a brand of shampoo. I then had to pretend I was dying - a foreboding sign of things to come. I was on my knees and everything. I was so Shakespearean. When this was finally over, I still had to painfully wait through a woman playing a bunch of songs on a guitar. Did I really want to be a part of this? I mean, is Letterman or someone from Comedy Central here? Why am I doing this? It was fight or flight time, and I was fighting for some reason. I was ready to make my comedy debut.
Finally, it was my turn to go up. This young man introduced me. He pronounced my name correctly, which surprised me. But, honestly, if there was one instance in which I would have liked a creative mispronunciation, this was it. So, I sheepishly walked onto the stage. Now here's the thing that really destroyed me. This is the thing that would have made or broken my experience: Had I gone up with my notes, a la Richard Lewis or Janeane Garofalo, I might have killed. I still think the material was stellar enough. Enough, I'm saying, for a bar in Fitchburg. I'm not saying hand this material to Chris Rock and he has a new HBO special. I'm saying it was funny enough compared to what I witnessed through the course of the evening. Most of the students had used notes. Make fun as I did, I was less than a student. I had been watching this stuff for twenty years, criteria I ridiculously thought made me qualify to perform without the prerequisite the other "comics" had. For some reason, I thought notes were a little hack, even for a beginner. But what did I have to lose? If I wasn't such an arrogant stand-up snob, I might have done well for myself. But, no, I had to go up and try to recite my first ever stand-up act by memory. I was practically shitting myself walking up to that microphone. Then I went on, getting a small amount of laughs with my bit about how the Easter Bunny killed Christ.
Then came my hilarious Miracle Whip bit, the tail end of which went:
That’s a board meeting I wish I were in on:
“Okay, Ted, what new product ideas do you have?”
“Well, sir, how about we put human feces in a can and call it Second Coming Sloppy Joe Mix?”
“Why, that’s a dandy idea, Ted!
Say, could you pass the crack vial?"
This was slightly reminiscent of the old Grape Nuts routine ("No grapes. No nuts."). And I regret that last line immensely. Someone in the crowd actually shouted at me, "You're on crack!" and I froze. Holy crap! I was just heckled! I saw the guy too. He was playing pool, probably not even listening to most of what I was saying. What do I do? I don't have any comebacks! I could tell him his mother's a whore and have him stab me in the parking lot later. I wanted it to all be over. This set, this night, my life. I mean, if Freddie Prinze, Ray Combs and Richard Jeni did themselves in, what chance did I have?
I wanted out of there immediately. Get the hook. Cut it short, I told myself. I was having a panic attack; yet, I was still holding that microphone. So I ignored the heckler, and within seconds I made the executive decision to axe the pro-gay marriage portion of my little show, which examined the arguments against same-sex marriage. There I would have been in a seedy hetero bar in Fitchburg defending the homosexual's right to be married to a bunch of people who were no doubt angry to be living in the one state at the time that would allow this to happen. I had a whole section about the slippery slope to incest and bestiality. I explored the Biblical arguments, and that it says homosexuals should be put to death, but it also says that any woman who can't prove she’s a virgin when she's married should be put to death. And "Yikes!" (I actually had that written in my notes - "Yikes!") That would make for some interesting ceremonies. There would have been just a bunch of material embracing the rights of homosexuals performed by yours truly in front of a bunch of drunks. Would it have been a hate crime if I had been beaten up afterwards? I'll never know, because I punched out of that bit like a fighter pilot from a burning jet.
However, perhaps just as bad was the bit I decided to go into next. I went straight for part three of my act: how Red Sox fans are stupid with their "Yankees suck!" chants every place they gather. I even did a Ted Kennedy impression in this bit. It was terrible. I also did a bit about the Curse of the Bambino. So, seven months later, when the Sox won their first World Series since 1918, you can bet I was taking partial credit for the victory.
I managed to get through this portion, and I didn't get lynched, but I was completely embarrassed and I wanted out
of there toot sweet. But Amy and I stuck around to say goodbye to Margaret. We never saw her. Amy later told me she said I was funny. But we saw her a lot less around the neighborhood after this. She was probably hiding behind cars every time she saw us. Either way, my first, and what I thought would be my last, stand-up performance was history. I was glad it was all over, and I really thought I would never do it again. I was worse than Cliff Clavin, Fozzie Bear, or anyone else who tried stand-up.
Now, I don't know. I might just be extremely hard on myself. Amy says I certainly am. After all, actor/comedian Richard Belzer wrote, in his 1988 book, How to be a Stand-Up Comic, that, "Failure is inevitable in early stand-up comedy," and that, "Everyone bombs in the beginning." He also wrote that, "You can't be a part-time comedian any more than you can be a part-time brain surgeon." Well, I decided that I would be less than part-time. After this experience I put performing stand-up completely out of my mind. One and done. That was my motto.
Now comes part two of our saga. Made, perhaps, oh, a thousand times worse due to the fact that rather than performing in front of a bunch of Central Mass drunkards, I was standing in front of my co-workers. Nearly two years after the Fitchburg Massacre, my department at work was having another of its yearly Christmas parties, or "Winter Celebrations." In fact, it was in January, on my mother's birthday, making it all the more horrible. The year prior, my co-worker Jim, who was a deejay on the side, brought his equipment to deejay the party, which was a karaoke extravaganza. Who knows if they ever paid him for his services? But it was such a success they decided to do it again. This year, as luck would have it, someone decided to expand and make it a whole talent show. There would not only be karaoke for all to sign up for, but if someone had another talent - like comedy perhaps - go for it. Being a guitar player, it did occur to me that I could just sing a delightful song. But there was no way I was going to laboriously bring my guitar into work and make an ass of myself that way. I only need a microphone to embarrass myself, thank you.
Right now, reader, you're probably asking, "Asshole, didn't you learn anything?" But, see, I had just come off one hell of a best man speech at my brother's wedding in England. I mean I killed. I was Jack the Ripper. But, of course, I was very much helped by my notes. Everyone reads from notes when giving a speech. That was the one time I was ever smart - or good - when standing in front of a crowd. Thus, basking in this recent victory, and forgetting the "You're on crack!" heckle that had been haunting me for 21 months, I said to myself, "Comedy, eh?" So I proudly marched up to the sign-up sheets and wrote my name under "Comedy." When it got out to my team members that I had signed up, one of them, my buddy Steve, asked me, "Have you done it before?"
"Once," I replied, just as confidently as if I had performed in clubs all over the country, and forgetting that you wouldn't go 21 months between your first and second brain surgeries. Steve was the kind of guy who participated in nothing, and someone I should probably have paid attention to. Words cannot describe the stupidity of doing something like stand-up comedy in front of everyone you work with. Parties like this should really be done outside of work, preferably at night at a bar. Not for ninety minutes in between the workday like this was. Booze is a necessity for karaoke, comedy, and anything involving a microphone and a crowd of people. Even priests have a big chalice of wine to get them through. I must have thought I was going to be great, and be a star to everyone or something. I mean I killed just a few weeks prior! My comedy translated to a whole nother country! I was on fire! Someone should really have slapped some sense into me. I let this best man speech go to my head.
The key, once again, was the notes. I again decided to absolutely NOT use notes while on stage, choosing instead to try to memorize my act as a seasoned veteran would. Mind you, a year later someone did a monologue from Jaws while reading notes. It wouldn't have killed me to do the same. Have I yet beaten to death that I really should have used notes in both of these instances?
This being a work event, I had a toned-down set planned. I was very careful picking the material. So I went with 80s nostalgia. That sounded like a great idea. A wonderful topic, in fact. Who doesn't love the 80s?
Here was my topics list:
Part 1. 80s game show Puttin' on the Hits!
Part 2. Fortune-telling game MASH
Puttin' on the Hits! was a syndicated lip-synching talent show in the mid-80s hosted by Allen Fawcett. I thought segueing from karaoke, and also with lip-synching hilariously being offered as a talent, to a retro topic like Puttin' on the Hits! was ideal and very safe. I also figured this would segue beautifully into my bit about the old Mansion-Apartment-Shack-House game.
Deejay Jim introduced me as "funny man." I was the lone "comedian" among seven or eight karaokers. And this was recorded. I know that. Someone has this on tape somewhere. So picture this material with very frequent stuttering and pausing and portions of it omitted because I forgot some lines. This went far worse than the Fitchburg Massacre did. And picture, also, that I was wearing what looked like a barbershop quartet shirt while performing these jokes. Belzer wrote that, "Your look is a matter of personal style," but I certainly didn't want to give off a Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby vibe.
It was show time. I began by stating that I wanted to do karaoke, but that Jim didn't have "Fishheads" or "The Humpty Dance." That was about the extent to which my game plan worked. I staggered through the rest of my act like Edgar Allan Poe through the streets of Baltimore:
You ever do Puttin' on the Hits with your friends, and lip sync to “Material Girl,” and everyone laughs at you and throws stuff at you? Oh, I did. Sitting there with my little sticker albums and my Lurky from Rainbow Brite pillow I made in Home-Ec… Hiding my sister’s friend’s jelly shoes while they’re in her bedroom:
Miss Mary Mack mack mack
all dressed in black black black
Playing MASH - Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House.
Brilliant segue, yes? I wish I could tell you it came out that way. At this point the microphone was a .357 Magnum and I was R. Bud Dwyer. I was trying to put together as much of my act that I could recollect into words as coherently and quickly as possible so I could get off that stage. It was then that I realized why they call a bad stand-up performance "bombing" or "dying." This is not hyperbole. It really feels that way. I can't say exactly where the Butt-headesque "Uhhhhh"s appeared. I do remember saying the words "I'm blanking," at one point. I realized I was doing worse than the comic Amy and I saw at this dive in New York who, during his set, actually said, "I hate my own act." However you feel about the sample material as it's written, just know it was delivered horribly, and I spaced out a number of times. I did get laughs, perhaps sympathy ones. I don't remember what Jim said when it was over, but I do recall returning to my seat, and seeing my friend Steve completely unable, or unwilling, to look my in the eyes. He was embarrassed for me, as he should have been. For once I couldn't wait to get back to my cubicle and do some work. There were a small few who told me I did great, but, overall, the after effect was akin to the Hootie fiasco. On my drive home I was like Philip Seymour Hoffman after he tried to kiss Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. "I'm a fucking idiot! I'm a fucking idiot!"
The following year (Yes, I stayed for nearly two years after this.) my boss tried to coax me into performing again, but I was having none of that. I was officially retiring the microphone, the barbershop shirt, everything. I would not be appearing on Last Comic Standing anytime soon.
And that was my foray into the world of stand-up, perhaps the shortest career ever save for the countless people who smartly did it but once. I don't know that I ever would have had the stamina or heart to bomb hundreds of times over the course of months or years. Twice in a two-year span was plenty. I ended up having more respect for stand-ups than I had even before.
Steve Martin said, “Comedy may be big business, but it isn’t pretty.” The latter was probably never truer than when I was on stage, with the possible exception of when Steve Lubetkin leaped to his death from the hotel next to the Comedy Store in 1979. I imagine that was pretty darn ugly.
If comedy truly equals tragedy plus time, then I learned that tragedy equals comedy plus me. And I understand why people bungee jump or skydive. It's a hell of a lot easier on the ole nerves than trying to tell jokes on stage.