Late October, 1980. Governor Reagan and President Carter appeared on TV in their final presidential debate of the election season. Carter, exhausted from a year-long recession and an unending Iranian hostage crisis, looked like one of those pink, rubber-alien dolls whose eyes pop out when you squeeze it, and he blinked constantly. My parents were die-hard democrats, but Reagan, at 69, was attractive, chipper, and enthusiastically republican in all his shaky, Grecian-formulaed glory.
At WAIF, John Zeh, a talk show host, was temporarily suspended for using lewd references including Vaseline and vibrating melons on his alternative lifestyle show Gay Dreams. It had been a slow news week, so Cincinnati District Attorney Simon Leis decided to prosecute Zeh to the full extent of the law, whatever that meant. A few years earlier, Leis, a backwoods good ‘ole boy, had become notorious for driving Hustler publisher Larry Flynt out of Cincinnati. Leis had made it his personal mission to clean up the city, removing any inkling of pornographic or prurient behavior. Over the next year, he would become the primary target for comics at the eye.
Reacting to the sudden, unwanted media attention, and fearing possible FCC fines, Tom Knox, WAIF’s general manager, told all of us DJs to scrub our shows clean or we’d be off the air, too. Up until then, the Six Pistol shows had been comprised of our own recorded sketches, cuts from comedy albums and the six of us goofing on each other – which included a fair amount of profanity.
“Can we say damn?”
“Can we say shit?”
“This is public radio!! What about freedom of speech?! Fuckin’ First Amendment?!”
“So, cocksucker’s out, then?”
To appease Tom and keep the show going, I agreed that we would fully script all future episodes ahead of time. So, I began writing full show scripts while the others (mostly Bob and Dave D) wrote supplemental material that got worked in as segments. The show grew in theme and complexity from the one-off bits we started with, and felltmore organic, more complete. Like we were really building something professional.
But it was a hell of lot more work.
Over the next month I performed three more times at the eye. The second, third, and fourth shows were a letdown after the life-changing high of that first night. But they weren’t altogether bad. Well, a couple of them were altogether bad. But I had a clear mission now. No matter how much I sucked on any given night it was going to take a lot more than death on stage to make me throw in the towel. But death on stage would get me pretty close.
I bought a hand held tape recorder, kept set lists, made notes, reviewed my act, and tracked and graded performances (and was likely overly generous to myself). On a scale of “dud” to “5 stars”, I graded the first four shows: 4, 2, 3, 2. Bob’s Navy bit opened the third show. So maybe I did owe him more than fifty cents.
And I had decided never to repeat material. Each performance I did was wholly different from every other performance. I had noticed a lot of the same faces in the audience coming back week after week – Clifton students, businessmen, construction guys, firemen. They were all paying. This was my job now. My work ethic. Didn’t they deserve to see something new?
Saturday night. After the show.
The eye had no parking lot, so comics with cars parked on the street or in the back of the Zantigo’s lot. (Zantigo was the beloved predecessor in Cinti to Taco Bell. In the mid-80s, Taco Bell finally bought them out but thankfully absorbed their menu, including the food-of-the-gods-like Chilito.) If you parked way back near Zantigo’s dumpster, they usually wouldn’t tow you.
“Lock the steering wheel,” said Mike Irwin. “Turn your wheels all the way to the side – and if they try to tow you, they’ll strip your alignment – and you can sue their ass!”
Back near the dumpster, Previty and Mike leaned on Jack’s disintegrating early-70’s Buick and passed a joint. Jack waved it at me, casually, Sinatra with a cig.
“Senior Bernstein! It’s after curfew!”
“Setting the dumpster on fire?”
“Look at the punk talk to me! Setting ourselves on fire. That your Pop’s?” He pointed to my beat up Chevy Caprice, nearby.
“Nice. So, we’re headin’ down the strip. Come with?”
“What? Y’got Sunday school tomorrow?”
“You need a dick to be funny,” said Jack. “It’s a fact of life. Am I right?”
“He’s right,” said Mike.
“What about Bobbi Jo?” I asked.
“You don’t think she’s funny?”
“C’mon – ”
“Not funny. If she was a guy – if she had a dick – then she’d be funny.”
“So this has nothing to do with her act or anything she says? This is pure anatomy? If she did everything exactly the same – except with a dick – then she’d be funny?”
“Exactly correct. Am I right?”
“He’s right,” said Mike.
“Unless she’s packing – and you don’t know it,” I added.
“Please! Trust me! She is not packing!”
Every comic who lasted more than two weeks at the eye had a signature joke, whether by design or happenstance.
Jack’s Signature Joke:
So, I’m onstage doin’ my act and I tell a joke – and this lady in the front row – she starts yellin’: “Playboy! Y’got that one from Playboy, March, 1972!” So, I ignore her. Keep doin’ my act – and she starts up again! “Esquire! Y’got that one from Esquire, May, 1979!” I can’t believe it! Now, I’m freaked out, glarin’ at her! But I keep goin’. I do another – “Penthouse! That joke’s from Penthouse, June, 1962!” I said, “Lady! My God!”
Jack repeated the Bible more than any comic repeated any single joke at the eye ever. Most folks – comics and civilians – could recite the entire joke with him. But everyone knew the punchline. One night, a heckler did the line right before Jack could get to it, and it got him his biggest laugh to date. It was Jack’s good sense to recognize that the bit had somehow transcended him and to own that instead of the joke, itself. And yelling out the Bible! quickly became a tradition at the eye. On a particularly up night, Jack, the nimble maestro, could signal the crowd and the entire room would erupt:
It may have been the first audience participation bit at the eye, and it happened completely organically. Cheap or cheesy, it was the perfect close to his set. Not even Durst or Riggi could rally the room like Jack did around that great, awful joke.
“So, Jack,” I asked. “Who writes your stuff?”
He stared at me, amused.
“Yer shittin’ me. You are funny!”
“I don’t write my stuff.”
“You buy it?”
“Buy it?! Yeah, at the joke shop!”
“So, where do you – ”
“Anywhere! Everywhere! Books, magazines, TV, other comics, comics you never heard of – not Carson. I like Carson. I’m not gonna do somethin’ obvious! Somethin’ everyone knows!”
“Unless you do,” added Mike.
“Unless I do,” agreed Jack.
“You don’t write anything?”
“Nothin’. I dunno. Okay – a line maybe – but I try to avoid it. Too much like work.”
A couple college girls looked down the bar at us and grinned. Jack raised his Heineken.
“That’s right! Professional comedians! Make ‘em laugh!”
He pointed to me.
“24! Not 16! He’s not even with us! Don’t worry!”
They smiled and passed into the other room. Jack looked at Mike and me.
“What a gig!”
“Your whole act is stolen?” I said.
“Well, if you put it that way – yeah.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?”
“’Course not. Why should it?”
“It’s not your act!”
“’Course it’s my act! I’m the one doing it!”
“But it’s not original! It’s from – books! It’s – ”
“It’s original to people who don’t read those books!”
“So? What are you? A joke cop?”
“I’m a writer!”
“Well, I’m a comic! I’m not a fuckin’ writer.”
“But you’re – ”
“Look – before you piss me off too much – you think I’m funny?”
“I – ”
“Am I funny? Be honest. Do I get laughs?”
“Yeah – yes – most of the time – ”
“I’m not up there writing a novel – I’m trying to get laughs. That’s my mission. Joke ‘em. Not read to ‘em. So, do I do that effectively?”
“I – I – yes. You do.”
“I – but – ”
“You think your way is the only way?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Mm. I don’t see ten Senior Bernstein’s taking the stage here.”
“No, you don’t. You don’t.”
“Alright then. So, who’s buyin’? Mike? Senior?” He looked down the bar. “Ladies?”
The eye was off to a good start. That first core group – Drew, Jack, Mike, Bob Lambert, Bill Hollifield, Rico Diaz, Mike Fox, Curtis Hopkins, Bobbi Jo Fields, Cap & Johnny, and me – seemed to be at about the same level. Local guys with poor-to-no joke construction, awkward delivery and wildly uneven most of the time. But we landed bits frequently enough to keep Roger from showing us the door.
If you were doing at least passably, Roger would give you a spot the following week. If you died, particularly two nights in a row, he “rested” you. And if you didn’t come back swinging, available slots became less frequent, if at all.
New comics auditioned on Wednesdays. Guys who had come to the eye figuring they were funnier than the rest of us. Most died their first night out and were never heard from again. But once in a while, a newbie killed right out of the box and that was it. They were part of the stable.
Typically, Roger gave me one of the first three or four slots of the night, and I always stayed after my act to watch the other comics. It was like having my own private club, getting to see the show free each week. An evening usually ran till midnight or later, especially if the audience was going strong. If it was a school night I might try to rip myself away early. But it was here, at the eye, that I was getting a real education.
I watched the other comics to see what they kept and what they discarded; if they listened to the audience and adjusted their acts; played along or became hostile. I listened, amazed as the exact same bits died one night and had the house in an uproar the next. And it made me crazy when no one laughed at something I deemed brilliant. I saw the effects of too much beer on Jack and Bill, too hot lights on Mike, too much coffee on Drew. And I watched Roger watching everyone; the good coach studying his team and making adjustments.
I took it all very seriously.
And the eye was infinitely exciting. Everyone was trying something, trying to figure it all out. And even the comics who sucked were interesting in their own ways.
And it was harder than I thought it would be. Writing, practicing, rehearsing. Thinking about it all the time. Trying to stay fresh, interesting. Perpetually recreating my act – myself – every week. It was enthralling and joyful, having so much purpose, suddenly. But there was doubt, too. Sure, the other comics weren’t Carlins or Woodys, but it seemed easier for them. Less stressful. And on bad nights, the fear crept in: Maybe I wasn’t that funny? Maybe I wasn’t in the other comics’ league? Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this?
November 13. My 17th birthday. Old enough to drive, too young to drink.
My parents handed me a box.
“Wow – it’s big,” I said.
I got the wrapping off. It was a typewriter. A real one. Smith Corona Coronamatic Electric, including two side-loading ribbon cartridges with correcting strips.
“This is mine?”
“It’s portable!” said my Mom. And she was right. It came with a thick, dark brown plastic carrying case.
“Nice. Not too heavy.”
It was very heavy. It had girth, but I liked that.
And I realized, for the first time, how much stand-up was a relief to them, a bright spot in their universe. Their son was driving off to who-knows-where at night in the middle of a school week, but he was getting better at something. It was that closet rebellious spirit they both had. That, for better or worse, if you wanted something badly enough – if you believed in it – you should go out and get it. And fuck everyone else.
“This is like a real thing,” I said.
“We thought you could use it,” said Mom, sincerely.