Returning home, Cincinnati had never seemed so laid back, so peaceful. I had been gone from the eye for over a week now, but my return was hailed by “Eeey! Jailbait! ” I was excited to be home, because that’s what the eye felt like now. And I’d brought back a notebook full of bits.
New York cabbies are crazy. To them, the color red means blitz.
New York is like the balls of America – it’s my favorite place, but it’s easy to get hurt.
The December 13 show went well, maybe my best show since the first one. Smoke Alarm and Parking did well. The audience was upbeat and a lot of the New York bits landed. But while I was gone things had changed. The eye had gotten new blood.
“Who the hell is Bert Challis?”
“He’s good,” said Mike. “Funny! So’s Riggi.”
“Riggi? Who’s Riggi?”
“Friend of Bert’s. And Durst’ll be back in a couple weeks. Wait’ll you see Durst! Incredible.”
“Our first headliner!”
“We have headliners?”
“Since we started the new Saturdays.”
“What happened to Saturday?”
“It’s a real show now and – ”
“What about us?”
“Gone? I liked Saturdays!”
“Yeah – but if we can afford headliners – ”
“But I liked Saturdays.”
“So, here’s the thing, Roger’s signing us up to open, see – ”
“For the headliners?”
“Right. And it pays $25! But you gotta fill half an hour.”
“I – ”
“A good half an hour.”
“I can do that.”
“I’m telling you, we’re cooking. Cincinnati Magazine’s doing an article.”
“Don wants to cut an album – ”
“And wait’ll you see Durst – ”
“Who is he?”
“From San Francisco. He’s coming back in a few weeks. And we’ll have him for an extended run. Great stuff. And Challis is tight, too.”
“Challis, Riggi and Durst – what a set – !”
“Who the hell are these guys?! What about Jack and Drew?”
“They’re really good.”
“How good can they be?!”
Bert Challis had come to the eye fully formed. He wasn’t some neighborhood guy who had never been on stage before. Bert had an act. He wasn’t a headliner yet, but his ten minutes were solid, and he was local. And Roger liked having someone in his stable with reliable material. With long burnt auburn hippy hair and a thick cowboy’s moustache, Challis was edgy, irreverent, and cocky. And I didn’t like him.
Now that I’d finally gotten comfortable with the existing guys at the eye, Challis had come along, taking spots away, and raising the bar to boot. And I thought he was ripping off Steve Martin. Martin was intensely popular at the time and everyone at school, in workplaces, on the street – was shouting, “Excuuuuse me!” and singing “King Tut!” and making Steve Martin references.
Challis did a bit with a puppet – a cute, cuddly dog puppet – and would invite an audience member to pet it. And when the person reached over the puppy barked at them, viciously. Huge laughs. And it probably was all Bert’s – but it felt like Steve Martin to me. Of course all the comics were influenced, consciously and unconsciously, by other comics. And if you told me you heard Robert Klein or Woody Allen in my bits I’d have been elated.
Roger to the comics on Wednesday: “I’m proud to say that one of our very own is opening this Saturday. Mr. Bert Challis! How ‘bout a big hand for Bert!”
“He just got here – and he’s already an opener?”
“He’s good,” said Roger. “He’s ready.”
“You’re not ready. Keep working. And maybe one of these days you’ll open Saturday.”
“You think my jokes are any good?”
“Of course they’re good,” said Mike. “They’re great. They work.”
“Yeah, but cooking, driving, candy – y’don’t think they seem like – I dunno – a low form of comedy?”
“Yeah, but you’re a low form of comedian. And I mean that as an insult. No – I’m being facious. Look, fat jokes are the lowest form there is. But they work for me!”
Saturday morning. Dr. Weiss.
“I’m gone two weeks and suddenly people with talent show up!”
“Well, it was inevitable. I hear about it all the time now. A colleague of mine even – ”
“He came to the show?”
“He did. He loved it.”
“Did he see me?”
“He saw someone do a puppet thing. Said it was very funny.”
“Shit! That’s Challis. Shit.”
“Well – you knew it was unavoidable. In a way it’s very healthy for you.”
“Healthy? How is it fucking healthy?! Excuse me.”
“It’ll make you challenge yourself even further.”
“I don’t want a challenge! I’m challenged enough as it is! I wanted it to be easier! I just started getting in the groove again and now these guys’re making it even more difficult! And I’m stuck with these one-liners – ”
Smoke Alarm had been a solid rock to build the act around. But it was too fast. No build. A flash of lightning and done. And I realized my act had become an endless series of throwaway lines.
How come there aren’t real candy bar names? Nuts ‘n shit! And for you natural candy bar lovers: oats ‘n shit!
It was making me crazy. I wanted longer bits, bigger bits. Bits I could wrap my teeth around. A couple times I had attempted longer story bits – Farrell’s – the one about driving with Dad in the blizzard, an airport scene – but they were too wordy, and meandered endlessly.
What I wanted was a joke with a build that masqueraded as a story; a machine with specific parts in specific places: little traps evoking thoughts and reactions that would pay huge dividends in the end, like Woody’s Moose joke. But I had no conception of how to write or construct one.
“What’s wrong with one-liners?”
“They don’t build to anything. I don’t want to be Bob Hope!”
“If you have enough of them, does it matter?”
“I want a piece of meat. Something I can lure an audience into – ”
“That sounds complicated.”
“You can’t expect to go from a three-chord song to a symphony overnight. You’ll make yourself crazy.”
He leaned back and played with the zipper on his boot.
“Have your parents seen the show yet?”
“What?” I stared at him, confused.
“Have either of your parents seen the show, yet? Have you – ”
“Why are we talking about them? I mean – yeah, they’ve been very supportive. Finally. Dad gives me the car to get the eye every night, which is huge.”
“But he hasn’t seen the – ”
“No. No. Look – we were talking about my act and – ”
“Well, I just – ”
“Did he ask you about me?”
“No. Not at all. I just thought”
“Then why are we talking about him?”
“I thought it might be – ”
“Helpful. Worth talking about. If – if you – ”
“Look – y’know what? Last night was fine. Really. It was fine! It was a good show. Three stars. But I don’t know that every show is going to be like that. Y’know? I just don’t know. I never know – week to week – what kind of audience I’m going to get. I mean, God knows what will happen on any given night! I need a good, tight act I can 100% rely on! I can’t live not knowing what’s going to happen week to week. It’s too painful. Once I work that out – maybe – maybe – I’ll invite them. Okay?”
I was no longer perpetually panic-stricken that each week would be the week that Roger or Don would ask me to leave. Finally, I felt like a regular. Yet I knew I could still do better than being simply the best 17-year-old against no 17-year-old competitors. I knew I was as good – or better – than some of the other comics. But it wasn’t enough.
There was no guarantee that things would work out for me. There was no map. No father or uncle in the business mentoring me along. It was just me moving forward, forward, reflecting and moving forward. Making choices and praying they were the right ones, leaping off cliffs, hoping for the best. The possibility of failure was always there. And I imagined my past like angry wolves chasing me. And if I couldn’t keep moving forward, they’d catch me and devour me and shit me out. Comedy had been good to me. But failure would take it all away again. And send me back, back to kids running tires over me on the slide at recess.
And I wasn’t going back.
I had given everything up for this: school, my health, probably the Six Pistols. It took weeks of Thursdays to figure out if just a single bit worked or not. It was too slow. I needed help. I needed an edge.
And then I realized I had one.