The eye. Thursday night.
I was playing Missile Command out front near the bar when I noticed tremors of laughter erupting from the main room. Not just the inconsistent chirps of the regulars. This was different. This was the sound of people listening.
I stood by Mike at the back wall of the main room.
“Who’s that?” I whispered.
First time I got high – I was a neophyte. I didn’t know what to expect. I spent the whole night straightening out the phone cord.
I’m not high, I’m fixing it!
Will Durst – not the first, not the worst, just Durst – was like no comic I’d ever seen before. He had the speed and style of a beat poet, but his act was as physical as Rico’s, and he moved onstage like a cat, prowling. Durst was lean, wiry and subversive, laying concepts before you but not acting on them, not right away, anyway. His set-ups were wet clay that he molded in front of you, sculpting the bits out with his entire body.
I don’t understand coke, I really don’t. Let me get this straight – $120 a gram to make your nose run backwards into your throat and your teeth numb for 30 minutes. Is that it?
I get the same effect when I hit myself in the face with a shovel…
And suddenly there was a shovel in Durst’s hands. And the bit was no longer about cocaine. It was about the shovel.
Gonna get high now
He weighed the shovel, balanced it. The audience could feel it’s girth, it’s mass. And we were enrapt, as much a part of the joke as he was.
Durst steadied the shovel…steadied…and WHAM! – smacked himself in the face with it. He reeled, staggered – a drugged late-70’s grin across his face –
That’s good shovel.
Uproar. Wild laughter. Applause. Simplicity.
For the next 25 minutes we watched, mesmerized. Nothing Durst did was tentative. His physicality was free and fluid. His timing was fearless, speeding up and slowing down different bits. And he commanded the audience. He was the first comic I’d seen who appeared to be in utter control of both his onstage presence and material. It seemed like he could do anything with his act.
Did you know that if you took all the veins and arteries out of a man’s body and laid them end-to-end that man would die?
“He’s good,” I whispered to Mike.
“Really, really good,” said Mike.
Durst was from San Francisco by way of Milwaukee. About the same age as Roger and Challis, but much more polished. Rumor was he hadn’t intended to stay in Cinti so long, but his reception had been so incredibly positive that he had adopted the eye as a temporary home.
Cincinnati under Simon Leis had become so repressed that counter-culture comics like Challis, Riggi and Roger shined. And Durst was our rock star, a comic with beat chops, a certified political opinion, and the cojones to back it up. Even with an air of homelessness, he was like the second coming. So for a month or three, Durst became a happy fixture at the eye.
He stayed at Roger’s and hung out with the Roger/Riggi/Challis triumvirate. But if they could keep him around for a while, it was okay with me.
I drove home unable to think of anything but Durst. His act was a revelation. Here was a guy using our medium to fully express himself, to comment on the world at large: America, politics, drugs, fame, food, driving, sex, clothes, coffee, whatever. Hitting cadences and riffs and riding surges of laughter and expectation. All the things hinted at on those Carlin and Klein albums – yet so removed on vinyl – were just a few feet away and alive in his act.
Maybe comedy could be as important as a painting or film or poetry. Wasn’t there beauty in Carlin’s bits? In Albert Brooks’ Rewriting the National Anthem? When David Steinberg described cheerleaders in his mind spelling out the word “freak” while his dinner date rooted through her mashed potatoes for a lost contact lens – wasn’t that art? Wasn’t everything Monty Python and the Bonzo Dog Band and the Firesign Theatre and Tom Lehrer did art?
Maybe comedy could be art?
Okay, Carson’s monologues weren’t art. (Except maybe to Mike they were.) Durst probably didn’t think his own act was art. But to me it was. Sure. Of course. It was an opportunity to say something. To have an impact. To communicate. Tell the truth. I probably learned more about current events – Carter, Reagan, Iran – from Durst and the eye comics than from any of my high school teachers.
And now all of it – the eye, the comics, the bar – seemed suddenly to me a living, breathing, euphoric canvas. From Roger and Don to graceful Durst and half-sober Previty, to the UC students and hecklers, to Mike’s self-therapy onstage, to the comics who only lasted a night and crawled back to their simple lives. And here I was in the right place at the right time for once in my life. I had something that no other 17-year-old in Cincinnati had: a venue; a place with an audience. A place to practice, improve, try new bits. And unless I had an abysmal string of bad nights, I could probably even rely on the spot week after week.
Occupying the same stage Durst did, even for five minutes, made me think maybe I was part of something bigger. And if I paid attention and worked on my act – maybe someday I could change the world the way Durst seemed to be doing.
I had a venue. What I did with it was up to me.
And I awoke that night in a panic. I ran to the bathroom, dizzy, out of breath, sweating profusely.
“Everything okay, honey?”
“Yup. Yes. I’m okay. Go back to sleep.”
Sure, sure, I was okay.
I was just a fuckin’ criminal!
Sure, I was fortunate to share a stage with Mike, and Jack, and Riggi, and Rico, and Durst. I could be just like them! Lucky me! And what was I doing? Stealing jokes. And not just jokes from New York. Bob’s jokes! Jokes David’s brother heard on Carson! Jesus! Jokes from right down the freakin’ block in Wyoming! God! How could I ever be as good as Durst?! Who the fuck was I? Nobody. Nothing. Just a sham. With my crappy Nuts n’ shit jokes. I was nothing compared to Durst. I didn’t even deserve the spots they gave me.
All Will Durst material © Will Durst