That Comedy Thing

Whenever people find out that I spent a good part of my adult life earning my living as a stand up comic their perception of me changes. Like being a veteran they assume certain things about me; that I should be funnier than I am, that I can tell them a joke if they ask, that I must know current celebrities even though I haven’t been in the business for more than 15 years. It’s not a fact that I hide, but it isn’t one that comes out in casual conversation either. Usually there will be a relevant story that requires me to divulge that fact, like how I met my wife, but for the most part it’s something that doesn’t come up all that often and I tend to think of myself in terms of the present rather than in the accomplishments of the past. There is always a look of incredulity that follows disclosure, like they can’t believe that I was ever anything else before I became a farmer, or that someone who comes across as serious could ever have a sense of humor. I do have a sense of humor, but like my physical strength I try and conserve what little I have left to share with my family. I’m becoming fond of the taciturn version of myself that most people encounter. The other day as I was backing the pickup truck out of a tight spot my youngest son asked me why I was so mad. I wasn’t and the question caught me by surprise.

“Why do you think I’m mad?” I asked him. “That look on your face.” he said as he tried to duplicate it. I smiled when I realized that every time I have to turn my head too far to the left or right, I grimace. “That’s the face I make when I’m backing up.” I told him. “Like the face people make when they’re surprised.” And then I made a surprised face and he laughed. “If I make the surprised face the next time I’m looking back, that means we’re about to hit something.” He laughed harder.

Life is like that, I suppose. The things we choose to do in life alter us, often in ways you’d least likely suspect. A great carpenter will eventually ruin his arms from swinging a hammer and wind up with scarred and bent fingers from the lifetime of work required of them. Comedy is no different. The things I once laughed at I now find insipid and shallow. Make me laugh today and you’ve accomplished something. Jaded is probably the best word for it, but that’s not it either. Once you’ve learned the mechanics of how to perform on stage in front of strangers for an hour, getting laughs every fifteen to thirty seconds, punctuated by applause breaks every three to five minutes, followed by a closer that brings people to their feet with regularity at the end of a sixty minute set, the magic goes away. I remember watching a stand-up named Rick Overton perform at the Funny Bone on South Street in Philadelphia a couple of weeks before I decided to try it out myself and he made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t remember a word he’d said when it was over. Five years later we worked together in L.A. and I sat quietly in the back of the room for his entire set and never cracked a smile. He’d only gotten better over the years, but something had changed in me.

There’s nothing funny about comedy.

I got into it by accident. I’d been working as a construction superintendent for a large firm in Philadelphia building automobile dealerships, SEPTA bus washes and VA dining facilities. The work required dealing with tradesmen, working in the elements regardless of weather, dealing with tight schedules and demanding employers in order to turn over projects as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was a great career for a military veteran — which I was — and the income was more than I could have hoped for without a degree and it satisfied most of my creative and physical needs, but it was a lonely business and there wasn’t a lot of time or opportunity to meet women, something anyone in their twenties is going to be looking for. I spotted an ad in a newspaper for an acting class and on a whim I signed up, hoping to meet actresses I suppose. The teacher was a former Soap Opera star named Curt and I did meet actresses, one of whom was also a stand up comedian. We went out a couple of times and she invited me to watch her perform one night. At the end of the show she approached me and asked “What did you think?” and I remember what I said back to her. “I think I could do that.”

And so I did.

You start doing comedy before you figure out how to write jokes, usually on open mic stages, usually late at night, usually in front of nobody. Most people can’t take that kind of initiation but I had a deep well of self-discipline and an even deeper well of self-loathing so I made it through the hard part without much difficulty. The person you are in real life is not the person people see on stage. No one is that funny (if you’re good) that confident (if you can pull it off) and that charismatic. Most comics, I discovered, were either deeply unhappy or troubled by demons you could only guess at. Sure there were exceptions, naturally funny guys who had stable lives with families and prospects beyond the stage, but that was a minority. Looking back I’d like to think that I was an exception, but that’s wishful thinking on my part. I did improve rapidly and I credit that to my work ethic as much as anything else. In the early years I worked every hell gig and seafood restaurant with a microphone in a 300 mile radius. I’d do two or three sets a night, private parties without a sound system, MC at low end strip clubs, biker bars and wedding receptions. There were always a couple of bookers that had a series of one-nighters in places like Oil City and Clarion where’d you’d be lucky to have a dozen people in the audience, but stage time is stage time and every minute you performed was another minute you could try out new stuff. Most of the guys I started with were lucky to earn $40 a gig, comics like Adam McKay and Paul F Thompkins who these days direct studio blockbusters for millions of dollars and most of them have vanished into obscurity, like Purnell “Motherfucker” Tucker and John Matta. I landed a full time house MC slot at a Philadelphia club and worked 7 nights a week until I had honed a strong fifteen minute set and confident persona onstage. Every week nationally touring comics came through and I watched them intently to see how they worked and what they did and took notes when they gave me advice. By the end of the first year I was already doing road work at club chains like the Comedy Zone and the big stand alone rooms like Charlie Goodnights, The Firm and Snickerz. Truth be told it was a lot of fun.

I’m not sure what my family made of my move from Construction — where I’d been steadily rising, moving on to larger and larger projects — to a life as a road comic. Ohio on Monday, Indiana on Tuesday, Michigan for the weekend. This was before cell phones and as I became busier I tended to disappear for months at a time. Travel, I soon discovered, was the biggest part of the job, spending four, five, ten hours a day driving between gigs, unloading at a Red Roof Inn an hour before showtime and then turning in a thirty minute performance as a Feature act, or middle. I worked with great comics and I worked with horrible ones. There were prop acts and ventriloquists — ‘vents’ as they were called with a sneer — filthy dirty comics and fat slob drunks. I had carved out a role as an all-American, boy next door kind of character with clean material that played well everywhere and it helped that I behaved myself and showed deference to club owners and their staff. My intro, “A former sniper in the US Army and a current writer for Cosmo Magazine” was what they’d call a dog whistle today. It gave me cred with the men and piqued the interest of the women and was so atypical that it gave me a minute or two to capture their attention while they tried to make sense of the juxtaposition. I was smart enough to see that the only way to do well was to develop a reputation and the only way to do that was either to be outrageous or funny. I worked hard at writing and kept voluminous notes, adding to the pieces that worked, night after night, one show after another. At eighteen months I landed an agent and from that point on I was on the road for 365 days a year.

There were, at that time, two ways to make it as a comic, either touring full time, or staying put in either New York or L.A. and hoping to sign a deal. A lot of road comics were catching breaks at that time, Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr both came off the road to do sitcoms and there was a boom in clubs opening in every corner of America. Hooked up to one-nighters I was beginning to make enough of an income that I’d almost caught back up to what I’d left behind in construction. The downside of course was the loneliness of the road. A couple of hours a night in the club followed by twenty or more in a hotel room or the car allowed for some deep reflection. I started to write for periodicals, some popular, some embarrassing, and I built up a pretty good cache of short stories, scripts and a novel along the way. When the weather was good and I had time between gigs I camped out; National and State Parks, farmer’s fields and abandoned kivas. I fished in rivers and lakes, hunted arrowheads on Amish homesteads and visited museums and attractions from one end of the US to the other. I began to look at what I was doing as an education rather than a career and I started to pay close attention to the changing face of the country. I tried to write jokes each day that fit the local audience, something about their particular region or town that they knew was absurd or unique but that other people would overlook and it always came first to help me find a connection with the crowd. I’d become a confirmed road comic without realizing the choice I had made, but it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that time and though I can’t say I was happy, I was content.

About five years into it I started doing the competitions and I always made it to the final three. The competitions were the industry’s way of finding the next big thing and sometimes they were fair and sometimes they were rigged. I only cared about the audience vote and I won those and that was enough for me. I did manage to get enough attention to get on some of the comedy shows that were so popular at the time, An Evening at the Improv, Comedy on the Road, Friday Night Videos, but I never came close to a sitcom deal and I couldn’t bring myself to move to L.A. — which I hated — or NY — which I hated slightly more. I hooked up with a college agent and within a year I was the top booked comic on the college circuit. The money improved but the travelling got harder, sometimes booked to do 3 events in a single day with three or four hundred miles of travel between them. I rarely worked with other comics at this point, seeing them only when there were club dates or passing through their hometowns and I became increasingly more isolated, alone.

You’ve probably never heard of the funniest people in stand-up because what audiences find funny — Jeff Foxworthy, George Lopez, Larry the Cable Guy — were definitely not what comics considered top shelf. Guys like Brian Bradley, Brian Haley and Brian Reagan (the Brians) were by far the best, not only great writers and performers, but exceptionally decent people with real lives. The ones that a lot of people do know, the ones on television constantly, were some of the most vile and unpleasant people you could ever imagine meeting. I won’t name them, because like they say if you haven’t got something nice to say, don’t. So I won’t.

After I met my wife it all began to unwind for me. By then I had adopted a dog on the road and the jaded part of comedy had kicked in big time. There were only a handful of people who made me laugh anymore and I didn’t want to lose even that. I lost my interest in being a docile and obedient comic who would act pleasant even when being heckled and started to stand up for myself, no pun intended, when club owners made unreasonable demands. The PC thing had just begun to infect the college market and you could tell by the lists they’d hand you at the beginning of the show telling you what you could or could not joke about on their campus that the death knell was tolling for comedy. The really funny lines always pushed at the boundaries of acceptable and more and more you’d hear people — always a small minority — hiss or object if their feelings had been hurt. Sometimes it was understandable, I once asked a blind guy why he wouldn’t make eye contact, but sometimes it was absurd, “My sister had a cat and that’s not funny.” WTF? had not yet become a thing, but I remember thinking the equivalent of WTF?

The year before I gave it up I was voted Campus Comedian of the Year by NACA (beating out Carrot Top, go figure) and had I stayed I could have milked that cow for a few more years, but every year I got older and every year the college kids stayed the same age. It was like Rip Van Winkle while being awake.

I married. My wife got pregnant. We moved into an old farmhouse in my hometown. I got a new agent who wanted me to be on television. I started doing voice overs and commercials in NYC and commuting by train in and out of the city made me question everything about what I was doing. One talent agency wanted me to MC Lilith Fair. On New Years Eve right before our first child was born my agent booked me into a gig in Altoona, Pennsylvania working with KC and the Sunshine Band, yes, that KC and the Sunshine Band, because according to my agent, “You’re big in Altoona.” If that wasn’t a sign from God then he doesn’t do signs anymore. My last gig was at a club in the Mall of America the same week Gladiator came out. They put the comics up in an apartment known in club circles as a comedy condo and the conditions when I checked in were heartbreaking. Used condoms on the floor of the bedroom, beds unmade and filthy, kitchen sink filled with dishes. I remember watching Russell Crowe go through his own disillusionment with Rome at the same time I was falling out of love with America and like him I thought that when it all came down to it it’s your family that matters more than the crowd. During my last show I was killing, as they say, the audience getting one of the best performances of my career because it was my last. That afternoon before the show I had made my decision in the same way I had decided to become a comic, just like that. At one point the audience was really enjoying themselves and I outstretched my arms and asked them “Are you not entertained?” and they responded with laughter and applause. Before I went into my closer, the best bit of my act, I shared with them that I was done with comedy. This was my last show, they were my last audience and this was my final bit, ever. I remember how they reacted, that room full of strangers who had been enjoying the entire show up until that moment and they all moaned together like it would make a difference. I appreciated it, thanked them for it and I set into the last bit the best I could and at the end they gave me a standing O to round out my career, whether I deserved it or not. The owner paid me at the bar after the show and before I left town I went back to the comedy condo and washed the dishes and made the bed and cleaned the bathroom, vacuuming my way out the door. Then I drove twelve hundred miles back home to my wife, straight through the night and I never did stand up comedy again.

A lot of people who find out that I was a stand up comic think I should be funny, all the time. “Tell me a joke” they’ll demand, like you’d ask a dentist to clean your teeth if he announced what he did at a cocktail party. I have a line that I use when they tell me they don’t think I’m a funny person — “There’s nothing funny about comedy,” I reply, deadpan. And then they smile and ask if I have ever met any celebrities and depending on if I like them or not I tell them yes or no. I learned a lot doing what I did, how to write well, how to be comfortable being alone, what America is all about and how much it is changing, how big and beautiful it still is and how worthwhile every little thing can be, from a good meal to a decent night’s sleep. Without stand-up I never would have met my wife, never would have had my beautiful, wonderful children, never found the life I treasure so much today. I would have missed all the friendships with all the talented people and seen all the sadness and despair that I knew I didn’t want in my life even if it had paid me a fortune. I suppose I’m not all that funny, although my children think I’m hilarious, but that’s the price you pay when you get too close to something and do it for too long. You build up scars and wear out parts that made you good at something until you’re like the old carpenter and if you know anything about how to construct a joke, that’s a call back. We do what we do when we do it because there is definitely something out there that needs us to. Fate, free will or predestination or maybe a combination of all three, we move through our lives leaving this path behind us that lets us know we were on the right track even if we wind up where we never expected to go.

And that’s that comedy thing.

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