Friday, March 2, 2012

Who Books That?

Whenever a group of comics get together, be it in the ‘green room’ of some club or on the rare social occasion when large numbers of them congregate in a single place, inevitably the conversation turns to ‘war stories’ about various gigs we’ve played over the years. Most of them are hilarious to us, mainly because we survived them and live to tell the tale. And almost all of them fall into the category of what we like to call hell gigs.

No long, detailed explanation is needed here. The name says it all. These are places in which the owner of some bar or dive has decided to ‘put comedy in’ on his off nights to bring in some extra coin for the place. Notice, I said the place, not the comics, because one of the first clues about a hell gig is that it will almost always cost the comic just about all the money he or she is making on it, plus a dollar more, just to rub salt into the wound, to get to the gig and back. Usually, it is never less than two hours from wherever you are, and it is always filled with people who consider truck nuts either hilariously funny, or a form of fine art.

Hell gigs seem to defy explanation. If you ever been an audience member at one of these modern day gladiatorial events, you’ll probably remember wanting desperately to leave the building, coupled with the overwhelming urge to shower repeatedly once you got home. But like Lady Macbeth’s damned spot, this memory will not be washed away from your mind. Think back to that moment in time as you rapidly made for the exit, all that you yearned for, in fact the only life imperative you had at that moment was to get out into the clean, fresh night air and rid yourself of the evil you’d just experienced. But hell gigs, like any horror, are eternal, lingering; gnawing at you like giant rats would if you were covered in rancid meat and tied to a stanchion in a New York City subway tunnel.

Surviving a hell gig as an audience member prepares you for nearly anything you might encounter in the future. Let’s say that somewhere down the road, the moment comes when your kid dares to reveal to you that he or she is abandoning college and a prosperous future as a physical therapist for a ‘career’ in show business? Hah! The horror of what you witnessed years earlier will rise up, like the bubbling pus-filled soul-carbuncle that it is, and you will beat the living crap out of your kid if the subject is ever brought up again. Case closed; and you’ll have the added advantage of free physical therapy in your Medicare years when you have your hips replaced.

If, by chance though, you were the unfortunate soul on that same night who, by decree of the club owner, was just forced to endure forty-five gut wrenching minutes ‘performing’ for a room full of strangers who were taking a verbal blowtorch to your psyche and soul, you’ll recognize the symptoms of a hell gig immediately. They include, but are not limited to, wishing leprosy of the tongue and throat on the guy in the front who continually yelled “Hell yeah!” after each premise, regret over not having told the entire audience that you were happy the steel mill closed and they’d all be homeless in six months, and on the drive home, by your repeated use of the word “fucking” as it pertained to the audience, the club, the booker, the architect who designed the building, the inventor of the microphone, the town, the mayor, the mayor’s wife and kids, and your high school guidance counselor, who should have pushed you harder to get a handle on your future way back when.  

 Hell gigs are not limited to geographic regions either. They can happen in rural shitholes with apropos names like the Rusty Testes, and they can occur just as surely in a grand theater, as I can testify (and will, shortly). No one, not even scientists, can determine exactly what causes them. Like the sudden appearance of a third nipple on a baby’s head, hell gigs are the result of a mysterious cosmic confluence of nature’s yin, yang, and some other karmic stuff. Hell gigs are the ultimate, real-life Ziggy cartoon; one of those moments when you ask yourself, did you ever have one of those lifetimes when nothing seems to go right?

I’ve had my share of them to be sure. There was the time, for instance when I was heckled repeatedly by some of the more prominent members of 1977 World Champion New York Yankees. This one broke my heart because back then, I’d have defended my Yanks to the death if someone ever spoke out against them. And even though they completely ruined my show, I forgave them, because, hey, they were Yankees.

Not all of my hell gigs were that innocuous though. Over the years, I have been tackled by an Amazonian woman and dry humped by the same. I don’t know why she chose that moment for the dry humping, but she was very large and very muscular and easily brought me down just as a lion brings down a wildebeest on the Serengeti. And yes, I said tackled, as in a football game. I must say, to my credit, I never broke stride and continued steadfastly doing my act, on my back, while she humped away.

Then of course there was the time one of the wise guys in the neighborhood I lived in came up to me while I was on stage, and handed me a bullet. I smiled and said thank you sir for the nice, shiny bullet, at which point he replied in a not-so-soft tone, “If you don’t stop seeing my wife, I swear to God, the next one goes in your fucking head.” And then he just walked away and disappeared into the crowd. I pride myself on being a quick study and took his scholarly advice. I left the wife and the cannoli behind and never worked there again.

How about this? By the way, all of these stories occurred while I was still living with the other tribe, but that doesn’t make them less horrific. Okay. Ready? So, I’m recently divorced, kind of lonely, and have sort of a mad crush on a much younger girl who works in the local convenience store. I would go in there three, four times a day and buy coffee and cake, coffee and a newspaper, coffee and a sandwich...all to be able to finally work up the nerve to ask her out. After all, I hadn’t really dated in about ten years, so I was rusty at that sort of thing.

She was cute, and God help me, but there was something about the uniform that made her irresistible. And so, after spending about three-hundred dollars on coffee and whatevers all week long, I finally got up the nerve to ask her to come to a show on the following Saturday. To my surprise, she accepted.

Now for a comic, Saturday shows are what we live for. The audience is relaxed, in a good mood, and the room is generally packed. The shows tend to be lots of fun for us, and we look to kill at them. I really wanted tonight to be special, so that I could impress what I hoped to be my new, best girlfriend.

Earlier that day, I got the car washed and vacuumed, bought a new outfit, got my hair done, polished my shoes and really looked reasonably good, I thought. At about 6 pm I picked her up and off we went. I was nervous; she looked great, and we made small talk all the way to the gig.

We arrived at the club early enough to have dinner in the restaurant upstairs. I didn’t seem to notice that she was slugging down the red wine with great gusto. That’s how enamored I was with her.

By show time we had settled in the back at the comics’ table, and I made sure she was comfortable with what else, but a glass of wine. Then I left her to go in the back room for my pre-show warm up exercises and meditation, a ritual I practice to this day.

Unknown to me, by the time I reached the stage, she was stinking, pie-eyed drunk. And it wasn’t until I was three-quarters of the way through what arguably was one of the best shows of my life that I heard this voice yell out from the back of the room the two words that, to this day, echo in my head whenever I pass the brand of convenience store in which she worked.   .

“EAT ME!” she screamed...repeatedly...six, maybe seven times, each one louder than the previous. I watched as they led her, MY FIRST DATE IN TEN YEARS out of the room. All I could think of was where was that guy with the bullet now, and why isn’t he here to end this?

But without question, the Mother of All Hell Gigs for me was at the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. If you aren’t familiar with it, the Arts Center is a large outdoor venue which can seat about five thousand people. The greatest stars in the world have performed there, and it had been a dream of mine for yearsto do the same. It all began with a phone call.

“Julia, its Paul (my agent). I got you this opening act gig at the Garden State Arts Center (its old name) on the 15th. You’d be perfect for it.”

Immediately, I assume that it’s going to be a BIG star, like Tony Bennett, or maybe even Sinatra. Dare I ask?

“Great Paul! Who am I opening for?

“Bugs Bunny on Broadway. It will be a great experience for you, big house, huge stage and good money.”
Now immediately, my gut check pleaded with me to say no. All I could picture was a bunch of community college acting students wearing big, gigantic, steroid looking Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd heads, dancing around like a bunch of idiots, yelling “What’s up doc?” and “Sufferin’ Succotash!” in my face. I was fully prepared to knock them all on their asses right in front of God and all of South Jersey if necessary. Plus, I was concerned that there were going to be kids present and my act wasn’t exactly squeaky clean. Still, the phrase “good money” rang in my head and after a pause of about thirty seconds, I took the gig. I was to receive $500 and twenty complimentary tickets.

My ex invited everyone we knew to the show (it was free, of course), and I must admit that I took a little pleasure in saying the phrase “mention that you're my guest at the pick-up window”. After all, it was a major venue, and I was going to be on that huge stage.  What followed was perhaps the greatest show business disaster since Ishtar.

Show day came, and it was one of those hot, sticky, late summer days that can only be found in New Jersey. A couple of movements would induce enough perspiration to leave pit stains the size of the Great Lakes on a light blue shirt, which coincidentally, was what I planned on wearing.

I got there early for rehearsal, and also because I wanted to get a picture of the huge marquee that was visible from the
Garden State Parkway with my name plastered across it. But there was no evidence of my appearance on it; only Bugs Bunny, who I was beginning to dislike more and more with each passing minute.

Backstage at the theater, the place was abuzz. Scenery was being moved around, actors and techs were scurrying, putting props in place and testing sound. I introduce myself to the stage manager, who explains that there are no puppets on the show, but that it was the Warner Brothers Symphony Orchestra, who would be playing the classic musical soundtracks in synch with the cartoons. Pretty cool, no? I begin to feel a bit better; because I’m thinking maybe won’t be many little kids here after all.

The stage manager explains that I’m to do twenty minutes as the crowd is milling in. Show time is about a half an hour away by now, and I go to my dressing room to change.

Five minutes before the show is about to start, I make my way to the wings and look out at the great expanse of seats. They are nearly empty-all 5000 of them. The audience is just now trickling in and I’m praying that they delay the warm up, but no such luck. This is a union shop and if the ticket says show time is 6 pm, then its 6pm. And before I knew it, the announcer was introducing me.

I walked out there onto this great stage, where some of the greatest stars in show business history had stood on hot summer Jersey nights just like this one. If they could do it, so could I, I thought. But it was not to be.

About 200 people had filed in by the time I hit the stage, and none of them in the front. The place was so empty, that the only row I could clearly see that was filled was with the group that I had given tickets to. But I was a pro, and the show had to go on no matter what.

“Hello New Jersey! How’s everybody doin’ tonight?”  No response. Nothing. Just the vision of people leaning forward with the hands cupped to their ears. It was then that I realized the full sound system wasn’t on in the back, which was where all the people were. NO ONE COULD HEAR ME.!

It went downhill from there. I was sweating so much that my blue shirt made me look as if I had just come in from a swim in the ocean. Time defied Einstein’s theories and slowed down to a crawl. As I crawled through my act, I could see people starting to point to me, wondering if I was doing a sound check or if I were part of the show. I searched vainly for the trap door in the stage that would swallow me up and deposit me somewhere far, far away.

Sixteen minutes into this show business version of the Inquisition, I began to hear chanting coming from the back of the arena. I stopped speaking for a second (no one noticed anyway) and focused on a group of teens in the back who were standing and chanting in unison...


Mercifully, I saw the stage manager in the wings, and he gave me the wrap up signal. I couldn’t get off fast enough. I think I may have run.

“I shouldn’t even pay you!” he screamed. “You said the word bitch up there. I specifically told you to watch your language”.

Now I don’t know what the hell I said up there. I may have said bitch, but really, I think “bring on the fucking bunny” trumps the word “bitch” in any swearing contest. But I guess he didn’t hear that. I got my check, and sheepishly made my way back to where my family and former friends were sitting. I grabbed a seat next to my five year old daughter, who patted my leg and said, “You were pretty bad, but I love you anyway.” Somehow that took a lot of the sting out of it all.

Time and distance make these stories lots of fun to tell when comics get together; we all have them, and the telling of them brings us all a little bit closer in the shared experience.  But you know what? No matter how bad the gig was, when we’d meet up at a New York or Philly club afterward, inevitably, someone will ask, “Who books that room?”, and call the booker the next day for a date. That’s just the way it is.

 That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat! Abbondanza!



No comments:

Post a Comment