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. Continue reading
I had finished my act and was in the back playing Missile Command. (I couldn’t touch Mike’s high score – but could beat just about anyone else’s.) Roger had introduced Jack as the weekend’s opener. But now the room was quiet – like when Durst had the audience entranced – but different. I could hear murmurs, an angry shout followed by broken, awkward laughs. Drew, near the bar, waved me over. Jack, on stage, was shouting at the audience.
What were we talking about? Shit – I forgot the – forgot the punchline – oh yeah – C’mon, everybody! C’mon – heard the fucker so many times – you could do the joke better’n me! C’mon! What do y’want? New shit? New shit? Buy me a fuckin’ jokebook, motherfucker. Was that rude? Fuck. Excuse me.
The comics looked on, eyes wide. Jack was loaded, as drunk as I’d ever seen him.
Mike Irwin had gotten a Saturday spot opening at the eye. He was the first of us – of the original, core group of comics – to break through that wall. I knew he’d be first. No one deserved to open more than Mike, and I was thrilled for him. We’d become good friends, traded albums, worked on each other’s acts, paced each other. Mike going up was a confirmation for the rest of us. We’d put in the hours. Now, more than ever, I knew it was possible.
“Not ready,” said Roger.
“I am. Really. I really am!”
“Soon. Keep working.”
Day of the Corral Show. At home, in the kitchen.
I was working on a script and Mom was making homemade soup. She had recently discovered the Cusinart food processor – a new cooking tool with rapidly spinning blades – and I thought Mom + Cusinart = blood + hospital visits = new material.
By January of ’81, I had clear goals and focus. I knew what I wanted – and more importantly I knew I knew what I wanted. I was conscious, suddenly, that most of my peers seemed to be drifting. That they weren’t driven by anything. Didn’t have plans or goals or dreams. Sure, maybe, they were good people. But they were just going about business. Shapeless. Formless. They were going off to college, to parties, excelling at whatever they excelled at, I supposed. Wrestling, golf, shopping. What did they look forward to? What did they enjoy? Who were they? Maybe they didn’t need focus, like I did. Maybe, for them, what they had was enough.
I had focus, goals, and a clear path in front of me, and was thrilled to have it. I wanted to be the best stand-up in town, in America. I wanted to be on Carson, wanted my own sitcom, maybe join SNL as a writer, performer. Make movies, win Oscars. Get attention and love. And I was enjoying the road to get there.
I had clarity.
And, perhaps, just a smidgen of arrogance.
Plrknib wasn’t the only joke I’d kidnapped from New York. If I was going to risk doing one, well what the hell – why not a few? After picking through my notes, I pulled other bits that seemed like they’d fit in my act: another Mittleman bit about dating, Mark Schiff’s Make me a sandwich, a joke about the DC-10 plane crash, and a one-liner that I used just once to open my act:
I got this job through the CETA program.
The line worked, but honestly, I didn’t really know what CETA was. I had thought it was like RIF (“Reading Is Fundamental!”) – but getting a stand-up job through RIF didn’t make even slight comedic sense to me. So, when I discovered CETA was a minority jobs assistance program, I thought – hmm – maybe I shouldn’t be doing this bit in my act. And that was it for that one.
Mole’s Used Records.
I leafed through the K’s – King Crimson, Kings, Kinks –
“Hey – man – ” said a UC student with afro and a ripped flannel shirt, “I saw you – I saw you – at the eye last night! Plrknib!”
“Good stuff, man! Yer okay!”
He reached past me into the K bin, pulled out a Kings album.
“Oh shit! Amazon Beach! It’s out of print!”
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.”
Friday, November 21.
My fifth performance and it was crap, my worst ever up to that point. It had been a month since I’d first performed and nothing had been as good as that first, fiery performance. In fact, Roger had rested me the previous week. This week I was on the verge of the flu, but I had promised myself that, if offered, I would never not take a slot – not after barely surviving that first show. So, I went to the eye with a sore throat and lousy material. It was the fifth time in a month I had tried to write an entirely new act and the effort was exhausting. The other comics were repeating. They couldn’t have cared less about new material and returning patrons.
And everyone else killed that night, so I assumed I would too. But I crapped out so miserably, I wanted to die.
Hidden on the corner of West Clifton and Calhoun – under a giant, black and white sign in the shape of a monocle – was a nondescript, little hole-in-the-wall: d.w. eye.
Small on the outside, small on the inside, with two rooms separated by a bar so you could see from one room to the other without getting up and spilling your drink. The main room was decorated with light green wallpaper offset by muddy brown palm trees. And in the middle of the main room was a very small stage.