I walked into the eye and Mike Irwin made a bee line towards me. Christ, now what?
“Hey,” said Mike.
“Hey,” I said, and started towards the basement.
“Wait! Wait!” said Mike holding up his hands. “I know – look – look – I know what you’re thinking – what I said to you the other night – that was messed up – about being a kid and hanging out and everything. That was wrong. Way out of line.”
“It’s fine. No big deal.”
“Yeah. Yes it is. It is a big deal. It was stupid. Fucked-up. I mean, who am I? Who am I saying that kind of bullshit? Who the fuck do I think I am?”
“It’s really – it’s not – ”
“I’m an asshole. I mean it. And I’m sorry. I formally apologize. That’s what this is – a complete, formal apology.”
“That’s okay. Really.”
“Listen – you only go around once, y’know? You need all the friends you can get.”
“I hear that.”
“And calling you a kid – ”
“Well – ”
“I’m a fuckin’ kid! I’m the biggest goddamn kid I know! Look – Jack likes that stuff. Goin’ to bars, shouting he’s a comic. He’s good at it. Thrives on it. And I accept that. But it’s not me. It’s not me. I’m just here to do my act. And if you make buds along the way, great. But what I said last night was wrong. Just wrong. Way way outta line – ”
“I’m sorry. Sincerely.”
“I probably was being annoying.”
“You weren’t being annoying. Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck am I?”
“I forgive you.”
“You’re sure? Do you want – I dunno – ten bucks or something?” He reached into his back pocket.
“Do you – Can I – ”
“Buy me a Chilito.”
“Absolutely. You got it. You got any money?”
“You got it.”
Cincinnati color: Part of the local dialect is that people say Please? when they really mean excuse me? or pardon me? or what the hell are you saying?
Mike Irwin and chipped ham:
Cincinnati’s a strange town. You don’t have chipped ham. How can you not have chipped ham?! It’s the best! I went to a deli the other day, and said, “I’d like some chipped ham.” The lady said, “Please?” I said, “Okay, can I have some chipped ham, please!?”
”So, what the hell is chipped ham?”
“What is it?”
“It’s chipped ham. Everybody knows what chipped ham is!”
“I’ve never heard of chipped ham in my life,” I said. “Chipped beef. Chipped beef is like the best food on Earth!”
“Eugh,” said Mike.
“That stuff in a jar – ?”
“No – no – that’s crap. That’s like plastic. Y’gotta get it fresh – ”
“Thin and fresh, so it crumbles. Y’can’t get it everywhere. Y’get it at Findley market – that’s the best – ”
“Best food on Earth. Salty. Red. Dry. Dried beef.”
“Is that what chipped ham’s like?”
“No. No. c’mon – you don’t know? Everyone eats it – ”
“Right. You’re one of them – ”
“One of – ?”
“I’m being facious.”
“It’s like facetious, but – forget it – ”
“Why don’t you just say facetious?”
“I’m trying to tell you about chipped ham.”
“It’s sweet. And it just falls off in pieces. Y’don’t even need to put it on anything – eat it straight out of the bag.”
“Yeah, chipped beef is like that – eat it right off the wrapper.”
“But it’s salty. I’ll get you some.”
“I’ll get you chipped ham.”
“We’ll do a trade.”
“You can do that? You can eat it?”
“I eat bacon.”
“Of course. That’s our big secret. Jews love pork. And they love to have other people serve it to them.”
A lot of the eye comics performed with a pseudo-hip, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Drew was cool and detached. Rico was the displaced improviser. Roger was eternally reminding folks that this was only a “temporary gig.” And Jack was doing comedy as long as comedy was doing him.
But Mike Irwin was pure stand-up. He lived stand-up and the eye was as necessary to him as breathing. At 21, he was the next youngest comic after me. He had more albums than me, and worked and worked and reworked his material and studied comedy, worshipping everyone from old wave conservatives like Rickles and Carson to hipsters like Albert Brooks and Martin Mull. If the universe were fair, he would’ve been the most successful comic at the eye, simply because he took it more seriously than anyone. I admired his work ethic, tremendously.
And, importantly, he was fat.
The great thing about being fat is there’s always someone fatter. Oh sure, I’m a little overweight – but that guy over by the bus – he’s fat! Hey Lardo! Tubby! Why don’tcha lose a few!?
Sung to the tune of I am Woman:
I am fat hear me roar, too big to fit through the door!
You’ve been a great crowd! And hey, I’m a great crowd, too! Good night!
“So, what would you do if you weren’t fat?”
He sucked the cheese out of the tail end of his Chilito like an ice cream cone.
“Average-size jokes. I’m so average weight when I sit around the house, I don’t. I’d do ten minutes on how I used to be fat and losing weight killed my act.”
“You wouldn’t just give the whole thing up?”
“You’re saying I only do stand-up ‘cause I’m fat?”
“I’m not saying anything. I’m just asking.”
“Food jokes aren’t fat jokes. You don’t have to be fat to eat chipped ham.”
“It’s just funnier when a fat guy does it?”
“I do TV. Commercials. UC. I talk about Sparky Anderson. Simon Leis.”
“But I’m fat! I am fat. I mean – if I got on stage – if any fat guy gets onstage – and doesn’t talk about being fat – then everyone thinks he’s crazy! I’m the elephant in the room, literally. I have to deal with that!”
Mike, the Jedi Comedy Master:
- “You gotta love your audience. Otherwise, why do it? Why put yourself out there? Get in another line of business. Don’t waste your time here.”
- “Don’t ever walk off in the middle of your act.”
- “First rule of comedy: Don’t drop the mic! Whatever you do! Just don’t do it! That’ll get you banned from the club forever! Remember when Bob Barry dropped the mic? First night ever – y’think they’d give him a break? They kicked him out on his ear! He dropped the mic.”
- “You get the viral effect – one guy on one side of the room igniting the rest of the crowd. There it goes – there it goes – see – he’s going to suck in the rest of the – aw man! Man! Look at ‘em go!”
- “The more they laugh – the funnier you get. It’s a cycle. You get ‘em on your side – bad material doesn’t even matter. Same bits – but they kill! You could read the phone book. That’s the peak!”
Mike was a University of Cincinnati student, and to supplement his eye income (if you could call it that) he worked at the UC student center bowling alley. When I visited, he’d set me up with free games.
The student center was in a labyrinthine, underground UC area. When there was a crowd Mike gave out bowling shoes, reset lanes, set people up on alleys, and yelled at disruptive kids. But there was never a crowd, so mostly he just bowled. After comedy and chipped ham, bowling was Mike’s passion. He had his own ball, a pristine, blue marble thing, a few pair of stolen bowling shoes, and several bowling shirts. His favorite – the one he always performed in – had the word These embroidered on the pocket.
“These!? It’s…These!” he’d say, jovially, with open arms, indicating nothing.
Mike: “And what’s with the amphetamines?”
It was true. At least three of my jokes used the word “amphetamines.”
I hate the Muppets. I don’t get the relationship. A sadistic pig and a frog on amphetamines –
“You mean speed? Reds? Pills? Uppers? Bennies?” He stared at me, confounded.
“Have you ever taken amphetamines?”
“Uh, well…I’ve had coffee.”
“See – it’s weird when you say it. People who take amphetamines don’t usually call them amphetamines. All I’m sayin’.”
“I mean it’s kind of funny, in a clinical way…”
“But not three times?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
Gold Star Chili is the worst chili in Cincinnati. Mike and I ate there the other night. He bought two Cheese Coneys…left one for tip.
“And you should repeat,” said Mike.
“I feel guilty repeating.”
“Everyone repeats. You don’t have to repeat everything. Drop in a couple new bits, repeat the rest.”
“Look – it’s real admirable you’re trying to do a new act every week – but some of your bits aren’t getting enough workout. You’re throwing away lines.”
“I dunno. I just – I see the same guys coming in every week – I feel guilty.”
“Everyone repeats. Carlin, Klein, Dangerfield, Pryor. Night after night. They’re working their jokes. Honing ‘em. Some people actually come to see the same jokes.”
“You listen to the same albums over and over.”
“Yeah, but that’s Carlin and Klein – that’s not you and me.”
“Maybe you and me are Carlin and Klein to the UC crowd?”
“And you oughta work the kid thing more.”
“Absolutely. Milk it. No one else has that. The parents stuff. Teenagers. High school. Everyone has parents. Like with me – everyone’s weight conscious, diet conscious. I’d be crazy not to use it. You’d be crazy not to talk about being a kid. Your camp jokes work because you look like a camper. They get it. If Drew or Jack or I did camp jokes they’d just stare at us, incredulously.”
“I’m telling ya.”
“Drew should do disco jokes.”
“He should. Hates disco, though. I don’t think he realizes what he looks like – that he looks that disco.”
“Ever tell him?”
“Nah – he just gets wiggy about it.”
“He’s gonna get an ulcer with all that coffee…”
“Y’know he throws up before every show? Nerves.”
“Well, so why’s he drinking so much coffee?!”
“Drinks it black, too.”
“That’s messed up.”
“See, that’s what he should talk about. Disco and coffee.”
I did a personal best, picking out bits from all the earlier shows. The performance was uneven – only worth maybe three – three-and-a-half stars. But after a month-long slump, with two solid bombs, it was a helluva place to be.
All Mike Irwin material © Mike Irwin