Wednesday, December 14, 2011

“Looks like you’re always stuck in second gear. Well it hasn’t been your day, your month, or even your year, but ... I’ll be there for you...” (From the Friends theme)

I’ve been having long phone conversations with my old friend Nick Cosentino lately. He’s different from the other imaginary people I occasionally hear in my head, in that he really exists. In fact, back in the day, when he first landed on the shores of Manhattan from a distant land known as Chicago, we were roommates.

It was a ‘best of times, worst of times’ situation, because I was recently separated from the horror show I laughingly refer to as my first marriage and was living in the darkroom of my fledgling graphic arts studio. Imagine the positive energy generated from eating and sleeping in a room whose windows were sealed, and whose walls were painted black. I spent most of my days curled up in the fetal position on the pull-out couch, contemplating which brand of razor blade would be most effective in opening a vein.

Nick was left at my doorstep, a homeless infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. He had a note pinned to his blankie that simply read. “Please give my baby a good home. I’m afraid he’ll grow up to be a comic.” Okay, that didn’t really happen. I met him one night at the Improv when we both had returned from a Jerry Stanley (Carnation Instant Comedy Club) Jersey gig. Like Hal Ennis, Jerry was also a pioneer in the biz, picking up where Hal left off and expanding the network of places to work. All we needed then was a milk crate to stand on, a Sears Mister Microphone, and the state-of-the- art house sound system, designed by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority for announcing the arrival and departure of trains.

I got work from Jerry not for my amazing talent, but because after six months of not getting any, I finally walked up to him and said, “I have a car”. Miraculously, the bookings suddenly flowed like water from a mountain stream cracked open by one of Thor’s lightning bolts.

My job would be to drive in from Jersey, pick up the comics, take them to the gig, emcee the show, drive the comics back to town (at my own expense of course), then drive myself home, back to Jersey, all for the amazing sum of about thirty-five American dollars.

Nick was a little ahead of me career-wise and in age, by a couple of years. I don’t remember the circumstances, but we hit it off quickly. He had been sleeping on another comic’s couch and need a place to live. I suggested that I had a floor worthy of a sleeping body and he was welcome to ‘hit it’, as the kids today are fond of saying.

It didn’t take long for both of us to realize that this was truly going to be an Odd Couple arrangement. Nick is neat and organized; I’m a slob. Nick was methodical about writing his material; mine was on napkins, matchbook covers, and placemats scattered all over the place. Nick was a hustler for work; I was sure a team of managers and agents from ICM were enroute from California at that very minute to sign me to a contract. Nick grounded me and kept me from floating away to some fantastically magical place where I could just push a mental button that read, press here for amazing comedy bits and ideas. Most importantly, Nick believed in me and my ability to soar as an act.
My office was on the first floor of an old turn-of- the-century-house in Englewood, New Jersey. I lived in the back, in the dark room, morbidly depressed, sleeping twelve to fourteen hours a day, like a fruit bat.

Nick, on the other hand was quite industrious. He tidied the place up, made it homey and found handyman work around the area (he’s a master carpenter). He tried his best to snap me out of the kind of depression that only comes when a first marriage dies and your psyche is mangled in much in the same way a cross-town bus would would mangle a gaggle of homeless puppies if it ran them over. But it was pointless. The business was going under, there was no comedy work coming in, and all my creative juices were devoted to the creation of evil plots designed to exact revenge on my can’t-come-soon-enough-ex-spouse.

My roomie on the other hand, seemed semi-perpetually cheery. He was always on the phone with this agent or that, booking himself as a headliner in clubs I only dreamed of playing. I was jealous of him in that scary, Shakespearean way, where you know nothing good can come of it and I’d have to eventually do penance by poking my eyes out. God, Shakespeare was such a drama queen, wasn’t he?
He also seemed to have a way with the ladies; Nick, not Shakespeare. I don’t know how Shakespeare did with  women. Remember, neither of us (Nick and I, not Shakespeare and I) had twenty-dollars between us; he was sharing an OFFICE for a home, and sleeping on the floor. He had no car, and very little work. And yet, women were able to look past all of that. I can remember awakening briefly from my catatonic state once to pee. Emerging from the bat cave, I walked past his office/room and he was ‘entertaining’ a Japanese girl. Even in that depressed, dazed state of mind, I couldn’t help but marvel at his ability to succeed. Two weeks later, the first girl was gone and a second Japanese girl had taken her place. This was even more remarkable, given that at that period in time, there were maybe three and a half Japanese people living in Englewood and he was ‘entertaining’ two of them.

Over the next year or so, we grew very close. I had begun to work on Sunday nights at a hole in the wall bar in Cliffside Park, NJ called Jacqui Cooper’s. I was hired to produce a weekly “Gong Show” at this place, and my duties consisted of scanning the greater Cliffside Park area for hidden gems of talent to showcase. In between acts I was to entertain the three people that populated the place. What happened next was remarkable.

As you might imagine, the quality of ‘talent’ that showed up was so horrific, that their performances would have made a suitable substitute for ‘waterboarding’ at Guantanamo, and delivering far more reliable intelligence. In order to keep the ‘crowd’ from turning violent, Glenn Takakjian, the piano player with the band, and I began doing improvised bits, that were getting laughs, particularly from the owners.

Each week, we would do more improv stuff and feature less ‘talent’ and each week the place was getting more and more crowded. We were doing improv and music for four hours every week! And in six months, we had a line outside the door, waiting to get in.  

“You’ve got to come to this place one Sunday night,” I told my roomie. “Something is happening here that I cannot explain. I’m tearing the place up, and I’m not doing ANY material.”  

He did. He came, and he watched.

“You are at your absolute best when you are just riffing”, he said. You don’t need structured material, you just need an idea, and a premise, and then you just improvise the shit out of it. That’s your strength. That’s where your act should head.”

We had many conversations over the years about that same sort of thing. But our time in Englewood came to an abrupt end when we returned one night from the city to find the office padlocked. Apparently, the landlord wasn’t convinced that my non-payment of rent would someday be overshadowed and forgotten when the state declared the building a comedy landmark. So that night we snuck in through the window, removed our valuables and high-tailed it out of there. We weren‘t roommates anymore but, we would be friends from that point on; except for one four-year break in-between, when I came ‘out’ to him.

Nick, my dear friend, had an awful lot of difficulty with my announcement, as did many other people. To hear him tell it, he was going through a lot of personal stuff at that time and could not emotionally handle any more bad news. But it was his use of the phrase “feeling betrayed by me’ that really hurt the most, I think. We were, as he said over and over, “like brothers”, and he was not prepared to think of me as a sister. And so he told me at one point that our friendship was finished. I understood. I didn’t like it, but I understood. So many of my friends and family moved out of my life in that short period of time that I seriously considered not moving forward with my decision for the surgery, and remain miserable for the rest of my life. But that would have been the ultimate betrayal, wouldn't it?  It was a gut-wrenching time, to be sure. I guess I’m saying this now, because I hope that the families of the people coming out now will read this. What your loved one is contemplating is an enormous decision that will indeed affect you. But you have to believe that it is affecting the person you love even more, and I beg you to put your feelings aside for a while and consider the enormity of his or her decision. They, like me, are about to erase themselves from the earth and begin a new life as a blank slate. Imagine that if you can.  No history, no pictures of themselves as a kid, no life prior to their new one. It will be as if they were just dropped on the planet, fully grown, with no knowledge of how to be a woman or man, or what the rules of survival are for their new tribe.

I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent, but that’s what Nick told me to do way back when. So blame him.

I’ve taken up enough of your time here, but I do want to leave you with some good news. While Nick and I were estranged for those years, to his credit, to his ENORMOUS credit, he has come to realize that I am the same person he always loved. Even better, he sees that for me, this was the right thing to do, because I am happy. We are close again, and growing closer all the time. In fact, he is coming here over the holiday, and because I only have one bedroom, he is once again sleeping on the floor!

All of this goes back to our current long conversations and my re-emergence into comedy. This blog has been enormously helpful to me by allowing me the opportunity to write as freely as I want; to ‘riff’ as Nick says. I don’t know who reads it or how many have read it, but I do know that for the first time, I feel freer than I have ever felt before. This is my new Jacqui Coopers. I can tell you that if you ever see me perform once I am up to speed, you’ll see it in my eyes and I hope that you can share that joy with me. Thanks Nick, for being my big brother and for adopting me as your little sister. I love you.  


  1. Nice, but would it have killed you to tell them sleeping on the floor meant on a foam rubber pull out couch? Or that when I visit you it's on a blow up mattress! Do you think I could have nabbed those Japenese girls with only linoleum and a blanket?

  2. How is Nick Carmen-Cosentino-Mellancamp these days?