The show, of course, was a complete disaster. Worse than anything I could have imagined. And not just because – with one exception – every joke I told died; every word that issued from my mouth bleated like some garbled alien language that no one could comprehend.
And not just because I was mentally and physically exhausted, and experiencing the cataclysmic self-doubt of a death row prisoner who’s chance for a reprieve had long since slipped irrefutably away.
It wasn’t simply a disaster because of the shame – the palpable shame – one feels as they watch themselves fumbling the game-winning touchdown right at the buzzer; the shame that I was to the audience, the club, the other comics, Don, my family, Cincinnati, God, myself, and, most of all, Roger. How much damage was I doing to him? Screwing up one of his vaunted Saturday nights and all the Cincinnati-Magazine-driven goodwill? Would he ever let me perform again?
For all those reasons, it was a miserable show. But it was an unimpeachable disaster because it was slow.
Slow, slow, slow. A slooooooow, painful death. There was no soon that it would be over. It would never be over. I was in Joke Hell and the time between jokes – between lines and words and pauses within jokes – were generational eras. And as I told each joke I had in my mind an utter clarity that the next joke coming would fare no better than the last, no matter an immaculate delivery or perfect timing. No joke in my pathetic little arsenal was going to pick this audience up or magically win them over. They hated me, pure and simple.
And I kept hearing Mike’s voice in the back of my head:
It’s not them, it’s you, it’s not them, it’s you. Don’t blame them. Love your audience.
And I tried to love them. I really did. But boy did they hate me.
Don’t walk off! Don’t drop the mic! No matter how bad it gets!
And I wanted to walk off and drop the mic. Desperately. More than anything in my life I wanted to curse them and walk off and drop the mic. But for better or worse it was my show, my night, my act – writer, producer, comic, star. I earned it. And by God, I would hold onto that mic and die my own death.
And 30 minutes turned into the 23rd hour of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Parents jokes, commercials, camp jokes. Nothing worked. White Castles jokes didn’t work. My mother parks by sound and my father bought me a driver’s ed car with brakes on the driver’s side and the passenger’s side didn’t work.
Giving to the Neediest Kids of All – well, who are they? I just don’t want to find out there’s some guy next door – ‘Hi, I’m Fred Neediest! These are my kids. Thanks for the money! We bought a Porsche!’ didn’t work.
My balls itch didn’t work. I’m not buying you anymore milk didn’t work. Scottie’s Tissue didn’t work. Mike leaving a cheese Coney as a tip didn’t work.
My Dad used to say if I kept doing it I’d go blind. I wonder what a blind kid’s father tells him? ‘If you keep doing it, you’ll go deaf’ didn’t work.
When I was little, the girl next door wanted to play doctor and I wanted to play accountant didn’t work.
My Mom said I’m hanging out with a bad crowd didn’t work and the follow-up I wonder what a bad kid’s parents tell him? Trick any good kids into joining your group? didn’t work either.
Farrell’s – BOOM BOOM BOOM – of course didn’t work.
Pound Salt just confused them.
I’m not Jewish, I’m Irish – my real name is Alex O’Bernstein – a throwaway line that almost never didn’t work, didn’t work.
Poor little Smoke Alarm, chugging up that hill with bravery in its heart, purely because It thinks it can! It thinks it can! died sadly on the tracks.
Absolutely nothing worked. It was abysmal. The room was absent even the artificial laffs that had become such a natural part of Roger’s emcee toolbox. Instead there were hostile stares from people whose nights I had ruined, who wanted their money back plus interest, people who thought well, the next guy up better be real fuckin’ good.
And at my most desperate moment, I thought: I’ll do it. I’ll do the one thing I had sworn I would not do, that I could not do. I would pull out my perfect, incredible, emergency life raft – my dark ring of power – Plrknib – and damn the Canadian magician! He had his bag of tricks. I would have mine. I would do it. Do all the stolen bits. Roger wanted me to do them. He’d be angry that I didn’t do them. What difference did it make at this point? It couldn’t get any worse. So what if the magician ratted me out and a bunch of New York comics beat me up? I’d heal. My Komedy Kareer was just about over now, anyway.
But I didn’t. I held fast. And not because of some last minute, ethical high ground that I’d suddenly discovered. Eff that. No, I didn’t pull Plrknib out because I knew – at that moment – that it simply wouldn’t have mattered. Plrknib wouldn’t work any better than Smoke Alarm or Farrell’s or Things I Learned at Camp. It wouldn’t work, because it wasn’t the jokes, and it wasn’t the audience. It was me. And if I pulled Plrknib out now, I would betray it for nothing. And Plrknib deserved better.
And I prayed for them to ignore me, to start talking amongst themselves. To treat me as no more than the background music that played as they entered and took their seats. I prayed for Roger to hit the yellow light, the red light. No bravado for me! I wasn’t Jack. I’d be perfectly happy to get down off the stage right now. Put me out of my misery. Dying, I realized that this was penance – for lying and cheating and stealing all these months, for being arrogant and cocky. No, I didn’t get to come down ever. This was my own personal purgatory. I would stay up here, suffering, in perpetua.
And I realized, finally, that I was not completely alone. Shielding my eyes from the glare, I saw in the back of the room that Mike and Jack had come in. They had made it after all, and were watching me, horrified, empathetic, grimacing in pain.
And then Jack, beer in hand, gave me my gift, my one laugh of the evening. After everyone else had moved past my act, Jack, himself, shouted out: you suck!
And I didn’t think, didn’t hesitate. It fell out of my mouth so perfect and naturally:
I see we’ve got some of Jerry’s Kids here tonight.
And they woke up. The few people paying attention began nudging those next to them, what did he say? What? Oh? Oh?!
And they roared. And Roger skipped yellow and went immediately to red.
And Jack, grinning, gave a thumbs up sign.
Thank you. Good night. You’ve been great.