[Welcome to the Long Version. Over the course of 2016, quite a bit of Plrknib was serialized on the homepage of the site. This page collects everything that was serialized during that time. For the complete version of the story – which includes the three missing chapters, the incredibly long 30-Years Later section, and the Bits & Pieces section (a recreation of some of the stand-up from back then), you can pick up the full copy here, or order from your finest local book store. ]
prologue – possible opening lines
Good evening. I’ll be your comedian for the next five minutes.
Good evening. My people have been persecuted for 5,784 years.
Good evening. My grandmother just died.
Anybody kick pigeons?
This is my first stand-up. So, if I throw-up its part of the act.
One time, I borrowed my dad’s b-b gun and I went in the backyard and shot out the living room window.
I’m in a lot of pain tonight. We were playing street football this morning on I-75.
I hear a dog or a weird baby.
Do you think “brewery” started out as a different word but people were too drunk to say it?
Tonight, it’s win-win, except for the intense cramping.
I’ve been on a jag lately – as opposed to in a jag or being chased by one.
I speak seven different languages. None of them English.
There are a lot of things I hate in life. But none so much as Styrofoam packing chips.
Thank you all so much for coming to Lonnie Wittstein’s bar mitzvah.
Have we met?
Slonim Woods Eight dorm house, just before winter break.
I was a sophomore and so far the year had been indistinct and depressing. Slonim was too far from the main campus, too far from the life of this world and I felt cut off, isolated. The previous year had ended on a bad note with Anita and Simon, and then Bruce transferring to Wesleyan. So I was literally and figuratively alone, and thinking I might even move back to the freshman dorms on the main campus. Other non-freshmen lived there and open rooms were almost always available, so I wouldn’t be a total freak. And it would get me out of Slonim Woods.
I had had a fight with one of my housemates, recently – an irritable trumpet player – because I “borrowed” his milk. I just wanted a bowl of cereal, and the cafeteria was two miles away. We Slonim Woods Eight folk shared a community kitchen and fridge, and it must’ve only been a cup of milk. But he flipped out. To be fair, I did open the carton, depriving him of that keen, initial carton opening experience. Of course, he had no idea who took it, and left angry notes on the fridge: Who the fuck took my milk!? I expect this milk to be replaced!
He went room to room to get answers. When confronted, I admitted the theft, but said that I’d thought, perhaps, it was community milk.
“Bullshit,” he said. “You stole it!”
So, the next morning I slogged a mile and a half through knee-high snow to a convenience store near the parkway and bought three cartons of milk: one for myself, two for him. I left his cartons in a bag with his name on it in the community fridge, and included a note: “Sorry about the milk.”
Later, he came by my room.
“You got major guilt, dude! All you had to do in the first place was ask.”
Tuesday night. I was digging through the community fridge and the community phone rang. It was Chip Chinery.
“I’m watching The Tonight Show,” he said. “Are you watching – ?”
“Nah. We don’t have a TV – ”
“Some guy just came on – and he totally stole your bit!”
And my blood froze, because I already knew the answer to the next question.
“Which bit?” I asked.
For the better part of my senior year of high school, I was Plrknib and Plrknib was me. We were one and the same. When people saw me on the street or at the club, I was Plrknib. At Wyoming High School and at Ursuline dances, at Bogarts, and at the Losantiville Country Club, at the Corral Show and Zantigo’s, I was Plrknib. I was Plrknib to cute girls, and guys that wanted to impress their girls. And to young guys who were pissed and hated me and thought, what the hell is so special about him? What the fuck has he got!? To them, especially, I was Plrknib. On cold nights and hot summer days, and sometimes when I looked in the mirror – or practiced lines, wearing a groove around the house – I was Plrknib. I was Plrknib. And that was okay. Plrknib was a fine, joyful thing to be. Cotton candy, cocaine, Pepsi with ice. It was funny and happy and free, and liberating. And it was not mine, and it was all mine. And, briefly, it made my life much, much easier.
And I was conscious that I’d been relying on it too much. But people loved it. Sometimes more than they liked me. And I thought: I don’t need Plrknib. I was fine before Plrknib, and I’ll be fine after. Yeah, okay, we make a good team. A great team. But I’m in charge. Not the other way around. I can give it up. No problem.
Or so I thought.
chapter 1 – set up
This is a story about comedy.
When you write a story about comedy – about anything, really – you form a contract with your reader and certain expectations are created. So if I’d written, say, a book about a dog, you might ask, well, what kind of dog? And I might say a Maltese Shih Tzu. And you might say, oh, oh, great, and start reading.
So, upon hearing that this story is about comedy, you might ask: well, is it funny? And the answer, honestly, is no.
One time in college I had a brilliant, brutal theatre professor who came right out and said, “I just don’t think you’re that funny.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. He just couldn’t understand why I spent so much time writing jokes and running comedy workshops when I could probably be doing much more constructive things with my time, like running soundboard on his shows.
“I don’t get it!” he said. “Why’s it so goddamn important to you?”
Yavneh Day School. First grade.
Yavneh was a bleak, rundown Jewish day school in Cincinnati, Ohio, half a day in English, half in Hebrew, regardless of whether you knew the language or not. I, of course, knew nothing. It was a difficult and disorienting way to begin my formal education, but perhaps not atypical of what was to come.
On my first day of school at Yavneh, I saw that most of the boys had large, brown mason jars on their desks filled with insect carcasses. Not knowing that Cincinnati was experiencing the end of a once-every seven years cicada cycle, I simply assumed this was my new routine: clean Oxford shirt, Kippot, jar of cicadas. But where was my jar? Did I miss orientation? Was I not yet speaking Hebrew well enough?
My mother had rushed me into Yavneh at the tail end of the age cut-off, rendering me the youngest in the class by a year – a badge that would plague me for the rest of my school years.
One brisk November day at recess, eight or nine boys from my class held me down against the cold, metal slide on the playground and rolled an old rubber car tire over me.
My family lived in North Avondale, a deteriorating, Jewish enclave that was growing urban in all the wrong ways. By 1970, fearing that my sister and I would soon have to go to public school alongside mostly black children, my parents moved us to idyllic, park-laden Wyoming, an up-and-coming Cincinnati suburb near Tri-County. We were trading yarmulkes for baseball and tefillin for color television. We couldn’t have been more excited.
On my first day of second grade, I entered Wyoming’s Hilltop School and eagerly reached out to shake hands with Greg McConnell – who would one day grow up to be class president – and he promptly kicked me in the nuts. I dropped to the ground, clutching my groin. And my new fellow classmates guffawed, heartily.
Welcome to Wyoming.
By 5th, 6th and 7th grades I was being bullied by kids of all races, creeds, and genders. Kids who were being bullied by other kids bullied me. Disabled children bullied me. Friends let friends bully me. Bullying me was like a local Rite of Passage. You just weren’t anyone in Wyoming if you didn’t beat me up, first.
Why was all this happening to me? Luck of the draw? Punishment from God? I wasn’t that much of a nerd. Okay, I was obnoxious, uncoordinated, dressed clownishly (by my mother), and wore huge, thick glasses. But I felt normal. Or believed I could be if only given the chance.
To make matters worse I had become a straight C student. And bad grades and bullying had fostered resentment and a lack of interest in doing anything sociable or even hygienic. For weeks, in 7th grade, I became an Underground Man, and stopped showering entirely. But resistance to showering not only didn’t improve matters, it earned me the nickname “Greasy.”
Grease! Greasy! Greasejob. Mr. Greasehead. Mr. 10W-40. Mr. Butane-Lighter-Head. Greasemonkey. Crisco.
Why don’t you take a shower, Greasehead?
Why don’t you wash that stanky grease off your shoulders?!
Where were my parents during all of this? Working mostly.
My father was a long-suffering insurance agent at Frederick Rauh & Co. whose life rarely intersected with mine. He went to the office, came home to eat with the family, and then disappeared into his office to pay bills or play with his massive HAM radio set. My mother owned a local mom and pop bookshop and retired early most nights suffering migraines.
As frustrated as my parents were with me, they were much more unhappy with each other and made no effort to hide it. Their fights – about nothing – would rage for hours as they parried through the kitchen, challenging one another to see who could shout the loudest. My father typically retreated, rejoined, and eventually conceded, frustrated and beaten down.
Stealing began to frame certain parts of my life. By the time I was ten I’d become expert at creeping into my parents’ room and slipping copious $5s, $10s, and $20s from Dad’s money-clip while they slept. As a cashier at my Mom’s bookstore, I was skilled at skimming $20s here and there.
What did I do with the money? Buy comic books, mostly. I was a big fan of the Flash, and the Atom, and most especially Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. The notion of a Deus-Ex-Machina-best-friend coming to bail you out seemed highly appealing to me. Thanks, Superman! Can you give me a lift downtown? Can I borrow $20? Superman – ?
As my grades worsened, my parents’ disappointment grew. Having lost all faith that matters could improve, I focused my creativity on changing report card grades, destroying teachers’ notes, and generally lying about how I was doing in school. It didn’t take much effort since both of my parents were so out of touch with my daily life. But the guilt and fear of reprisal wore on me and I’d lie awake at night, contemplating my lack of a future.
I would never go to college or hold down a job. Everyone else I knew would leave home, become self-sufficient, and get doctorates at universities. And where would I be? Curled up and shaking on a park bench somewhere, clinging to newspapers for shelter.
In August of 1978, I was kicked out of summer camp for stealing ten dollars. I was a counselor-in-training at Camp Livingston in Vivay, Indiana, and I was actually doing a helluva lot more that they could’ve kicked me out for. I had my first hangover that summer after drinking bottles of rank Kedem wine with Rob , Harvey and the camp cook. And I had smoked enough pot to improve the lives of several dozen glaucoma patients. But I wasn’t kicked out for any of that. I was kicked out for stealing ten bucks.
True, it was a drug-related crime. The $10 would’ve been used to buy more pot. It was a scheme by Rob and me. (Harvey had already been sent home along with about a dozen others in the Great-Marijuana-Smoking-Counselor-Purge of ’78.) We “borrowed” my primary counselor’s wallet – a dude maybe seven to ten years older than us – took the cash and left the wallet up on the A-field. Some camper would likely take the rap, but that was fine with us. We were dope fiends after all.
But the next morning we were called in to the administrative office. They knew it was us, no question. They weren’t going to press charges, but Rob and I were to be sent home immediately. We were driven home in the camp van, over two hours of rocky country terrain in complete, shameful silence. As for the reception awaiting me at home, I was resigned. There was nothing I could do about it now.
It had been a good – no, a great – summer. And I was unrepentant. I had learned a lot – and not just how to build a workable bong from a Coke can and a ball point pen. I had been accepted by peers for simply being myself, even when not stoned. And acceptance had given me a new view on life.
My parents had been called ahead of time, so our reunion was absent of shock. I expected them to be beyond disappointment – mortified, frightened; their response – grounded for life, community service, or military school. (I’d been threatened with military school before.)
But when I finally saw them they weren’t angry or disappointed. They were simply bewildered. I was beyond their experience.
There was only one thing to do: turn me over to a shrink.
And in that moment, I experienced what can only be described as pure freedom. They didn’t punish me. They let go of me. Gave me up to a doctor – a psychologist – and, ultimately, to myself. From that moment on I might live under their roof but I’d be responsible for my own life, my own future. No one was going to save me, protect me, or provide me with any clear cut direction in life. From now on – for better or worse – my life would be up to me.
I was 14.
chapter 2 – the eye
October, 1980. The main room at d.w. eye.
“Ever done stand-up before?” asked Roger, glancing at a clipboard.
“No,” I said. “I’ve been writing sketch comedy on WAIF for over a year.”
Don Merriss, the owner, came over.
“16. Almost 17,” I said.
“He writes comedy for WAIF,” said Roger.
“Come back in a year and a half,” said Don, “when you’re 18.”
“18?! I can’t wait till I’m 18!”
“It’s a bar,” said Don. “Y’shouldn’t even be in here.”
“I’m not drinking. I won’t be drinking! I’ll be onstage! I don’t even like beer!”
“Y’know how hard I worked for this place? Y’know how fast they’d shut me down?”
“I don’t drink. I’m not going to start just to get you into trouble.”
“I can lose my license.”
“You won’t lose your license. I promise you – I will never drink at this bar. I’ll go next door. I’m kidding. Look, I won’t even drink Coke! I’ll drink water! I just wanna do my act and go home. Okay? Alright?”
“He was funny,” said Roger.
“For a kid.”
“Don’t say kid!” said Don. “Just don’t! Just thinking about it gives me hives!”
“You’ve done jail time?” I asked.
“No! And I don’t want to start!”
“Hey,” said a Drunk Guy onstage, “do I get to do my act or what?”
“Keep your shirt on,” said Roger.
“Look at that guy,” I said to Don. “Y’think he’s been writing for radio for a year?”
“He’s legal,” said Don.
The Drunk Guy fumbled on stage, knocked the mic stand over.
“C’n ya turn down the fuckin’ lights?” he yelled. “Hot as shit up here!”
“Let the kid perform,” said Jack Previty, watching TV at the bar. “Fer Christ’ sake! I can’t hear the fuckin’ game!”
Drew Hastings and Bob Lambert called over from tables in the main room.
“Let him go up, Don! Jeez! Don’t be a prick!”
“Sign him the fuck up and lemme do my act!” said the Drunk.
Roger looked at Don. Don looked at Roger.
“One shot,” said Don, “one!” And he walked off, pissed.
“Okay,” said Roger. “You’re up third, Saturday. Five minutes. Show’s at eight. Come half an hour early or you lose your spot. Got it?”
“Really? I got five minutes?”
I walked to the bar, exuberant.
“I got five minutes!” I said to Bob and Drew.
“I got five minutes!” I said to Jack.
“Everybody gets five minutes, asswipe,” said Jack. “You’d have to be the most unfunny son-of-a-bitch in Cincinnati to not get five minutes. And they’d still give you five minutes.”
“Great,” I said. “I can live with that.”
chapter 3 – the six pistols
My mom says I’m hanging out with a bad crowd. I said there’s six of us, Mom. That’s a good crowd.
Friday night. The lounge area at WAIF.
“I’m doing stand-up at this club in Clifton, tomorrow.” I said. “I got five minutes.”
“Excellent,” said Dave. “I’ll see if Carl and Buffy can go.”
Bob came over, dropped his backpack.
“What are you doing?” he said, in slight Kentucky twang
“Stand-up in – ”
“What do you know about stand-up?”
“More than you,” I said.
“Have you got five minutes?” asked Dave.
“I’ve got reams of notebooks. I’m sure I can come up with something.”
“I just don’t want to see you fuck it up if I bring people,” said Dave.
“You gonna do our stuff?” asked Bob.
“I dunno,” I said, “most of it wouldn’t work as stand-up.”
“So, why are you doing it? Why aren’t we all doing it as a group?!”
“It’s his thing, Bob!” said Dave.
Bucky came over with a bag of McDonald’s.
“You leavin’ the Pistols, Al?” asked Bucky.
“No. No. I’m just trying this one thing – ”
“Too good for us, huh?” said Bucky. “I guess we’ll be holding auditions for a new Pistol?”
“I’m free this weekend,” said Dave.
“Nothing is changing,” I said.
“I think we should all go down there,” said Bob. “As a group.”
“I hardly have time for the show as it is,” said Dave.
“I’m sure if Al wants us down there, he’ll invite us,” said Bucky.
“Why do we have to wait for him?!”
“You don’t, Bob,” said Dave. “He did it! He took the initiative. If you want to do it – stop whining and go down! He doesn’t own the club.”
“Like they’re gonna want another Wyoming student now that they’ve got one! Probably just a fuckin’ waste of time, anyway!”
Bob stomped out of the room. Bucky looked at me, seriously, Big Mac dribbling down his face.
“Do you own the club, Al?”
WAIF, 88.3 FM, was the absolute last train wreck of a station on the local radio dial. The station occupied the ground floor of the Alms Hotel at the corner of Victory Parkway and William Howard Taft Road – one of the worst neighborhoods in Clifton. There was no heat or air conditioning, the front door had no lock, and the main area – the “lounge” – looked like an abandoned youth hostel with its heavily stained carpet. Homeless people would wander in at any time and sleep on crumbling couches. And if you talked to one, he’d probably tell you that he worked there, and, most likely, he did.
The on-air studio was as ramshackle as the lounge, with tables and equipment made of broken boards hammered together. A community-run station, WAIF had maybe one semi-permanent employee. Otherwise, there was hardly ever anyone there, except whoever was on air at the time. The fact that WAIF was cranking out actual live broadcasting to Cincinnatians daily was a testament to something, though I wasn’t sure what. Volunteerism?
But the Six Pistols – Bucky, Bob, Dave, Dave, Ron and I – were thrilled to call WAIF home. We were a collection of dweebs, losers and nerds from Wyoming bound together by poker, Risk, Tom Lehrer, Monty Python, and an utter disdain for the preps at Wyoming High School. For over a year now, we’d had a monthly comedy show on WAIF and took it very seriously. We spent hours recording bits and sound effects, and splicing ragged scraps of reel-to-reel tape together, trying to manufacture something that sounded mildly coherent. Yes, we were keenly aware that WAIF was a dump and deep down we were still losers. But what the hell, we had a live radio show.
“Did anyone bring any albums?!” I berated. “Ron – you brought one album? Guys – c’mon – could you please please buy some albums?!”
“You’ve got like 80 albums! Why do we need more?”
“Why should I have to lug my stuff all the time?! Go to Mole’s – they’re like two dollars! Besides, we can’t even use half of these because of the cursing – ”
“Tim Stamfield called in!” yelled Dave from the on-air studio.
“He said I sound like a DJ!”
“Guess what, dipshit?” said Bob. “You are one!”
In 1979, at WAIF’s peak, there was a wildly popular show on Sunday nights, Talkback with Jerry Galvin. Jerry was brilliant at scamming listeners with fake topics. And with Talkback’s success, WAIF ponied up the cash to follow him with Dr. Demento, a nationally syndicated comedy show. But after a couple months, WAIF ran out of money and replaced the good doctor with David Dugle – a local Zappa-head with an immense record collection.
Dugle’s show was called Insanity Palace. He played comedy albums – Cheech & Chong, Carlin – and would interrupt his records once a night so that he and his partner Melanie could read fake news topics to the sound of a typewriter. “Melanie,” of course, was Dugle changing his voice to a not-well-camouflaged higher register. For a live comedy show, Insanity Palace was certainly not overburdened with live comedy.
One Sunday night, on nothing more than an urge, I called up WAIF and Dugle himself actually picked up the phone. (Later, I discovered no one else was there at the time.)
“Hey – Hi – ” I said. “Do you – do you want some comedy? Some, like, local comedy? Cause I could probably write or record some – ”
I had never written a thing outside of school in my life. But Dugle’s comedy seemed so primitive compared to Galvin’s and Demento’s. And as for recording – well, everyone had these big, wonky tape recorders. At the time, it did not seem to be a watershed moment in my personal history. All it seemed to be was: fun!
“Sure, sure, absolutely,” said Dugle. “Come on in.”
Next day in the Math Lab:
Oh my God! Holy shit! Oh my God!
There were exactly six of us in the room at that moment – a medley of plaid, flannel atop black concert t-shirts, large noses, buck teeth, and glasses, all amid a sea of rampant acne. Collectively, we made Danny Bonaduce look like a Victoria’s Secret model. We needed a name for ourselves and someone – Ron? Bob? Bucky? – said
The Six Pistols!
And that was that.
The six of us spent that Saturday afternoon in WAIF’s tiny, disheveled, recording studio surrounded by machines and buttons and mics and mic stands. We were hyper and screwing around. We had our four-five bits. A Timex watch commercial parody and Action Anders – Swedish Superhero and Fruit Fresh – all low-grade, intensely juvenile stuff. But we had unbridled energy. And Dugle was generous and thought the bits were great (though he was a bit of a burn-out) and got along with everybody.
That Sunday night we stayed up late listening with our parents as Dugle played everything we recorded on Insanity Palace. A bunch of nerdy, pathetic 15-year-olds and suddenly we were on the freakin’ radio.
How cool was that?
sample six pistols sketch: celebrity piranha kicking
After a half dozen more Sundays with Dugle, WAIF rewarded us with our own show, late at night on the last Saturday of every month. And with that, the Six Pistols found themselves in Geek Nirvana.
Dave D, Bucky, Ron, Bob, and I wrote prolifically. At the other extreme, Dave S., my best friend, never contributed a single piece of material to the show. Additionally, he couldn’t act and any voices he did were extremely nasal because of ongoing sinus problems. (Bob, at least, could fake a British accent, albeit with a Kentucky twang.)
However, Dave did make a lasting contribution: he brought sex to the show.
More than any of the Pistols, Dave loved being on live radio. The comedy, he couldn’t care less about. But live, he was primal, untethered, a rock star.
So, if the DJ that was supposed to follow our show at midnight failed to appear – which happened frequently – the Pistols, having exhausted our albums and taped material, would start taking calls from the audience. (Stunningly, people were actually out there listening.) And Dave would come alive. Hey! Hello! How are you? What’s your name? How old are you? What are you wearing? What are you doing up so late? Wait a minute. Let me call you, offline.
Back at home, one of my Dad’s hobbies turned out to be uniquely useful. As an obsessive 70’s hobbyist, whenever he got into something like photography or HAM radio he’d go and build a working dark room under the basement staircase or an actual 50-foot-high radio tower in the back yard. As an audiophile, he had accumulated a full set of recording and editing equipment including an actual reel-to-reel tape deck, stacks of tapes for recording jazz off the radio, microphones, a splicing machine and spools of multi-colored leader tape, and even a magnetic bulk tape eraser. It never occurred to me that these weren’t general items found in an average household. But with all this equipment conveniently available we started recording and editing bits right there in my living room.
For our entire junior year, the Pistols continued the monthly show on WAIF. By senior year we had become, if not honed, then tighter simply by being attached to one another round the clock. High school became easier. We’d been written up in the school paper, featured in the WAIF program guide. Students knew of us. Liked us. Some listened regularly to the WAIF show and even invited us to parties.
But the initial thrill of radio had faded. The others were now distracted by college admissions and completing their senior years. The shows continued – but they wrote less and less while I kept cranking it out. For me, the more we did, the hungrier I got, and a once-a-month show with five other guys wasn’t enough.
Solo made sense. But it might not work. I might bomb. I might die. And if I died – well – fine. I’d go home, go back to radio, get on with my life.
My expectations were low.
chapter 4 – prep
I had written the entire act in a couple days and didn’t review it with Dave or Bucky or my parents or anyone. Soliciting opinions would only jinx me, make me crazy.
Pre-med, pre-law, pre-mature ejaculation
That was one of the bits I had auditioned with.
I’m taking advanced courses at school: pre-med, pre-law, pre-mature ejaculation
Part of me was amazed that I’d gotten the nerve to audition in the first place. Everyone else was a minimum five to ten years older than me, and all had performed to the sound of polite, pitying laughter from Roger and some of the more civil comics. But no one was that funny, myself included. I assumed most everyone had scored points for simply having balls enough to get up on stage.
Kid said “ejaculation!” Ha!
For more than a year now, I’d spent hours at a time holed up in my room with Carlin, Klein, Bruce, SNL, David Steinberg, Woody, Cheech & Chong, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart – anybody with a comedy album. I studied the albums voraciously, which is another way of saying I listened to them over and over. Of course I didn’t understand any of the craft – joke construction, timing, use of imagery, twisting of logic. I knew nothing of “Rule of 3s” or playing off an audience.
But I’d kept notebooks of bits since the Pistols started, so I had a lot to work with. I picked out 10 bits. Timed myself. The act took three to five minutes depending on how fast I went. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and memorized lines, sang lines. I wandered the house like a gunslinger, saying bits out loud to no one, trying to catch myself off guard or lose my place, so that I could get back to where I had left off, quickly.
Finesse wasn’t a consideration. If I could get on stage and get the words out of my mouth in a semi-proper order without suffering utter humiliation – that would be a win.
chapter 5 – dr. weiss
“This happened fast!”
“I bet you didn’t have time to think, did you? There was an opportunity and you had to make your choices quickly? You’re really ready, aren’t you?!”
“I guess – ”
Dr. Weiss was proud of me. His eyes gleamed. He grinned. It was a huge win for him. And me, of course. He couldn’t say he was proud, but he wanted to and stopped himself for professional reasons. And I wished I could have given him permission to be proud, but I guess boundaries were important.
Dr. Weiss was short and wiry, with a long, curly brown afro indented by a massive bald spot. He dressed in casual outfits, with hippie and disco accoutrements, always in earth tones. And he wore brown leather boots – not Western – but the more discofied kind with zippers on the sides, giving him a mod, hipster look, which is pretty much what he was.
He was divorced. No kids. I had quizzed him about it a few times:
“Why don’t we talk about you for a change?”
“What would you like to know?”
I considered myself a pretty good deal for Dr. Weiss. I’d been seeing him for over two years now and I suspected I was one of his more successful patients. Week after week, I watched a parade of depressed, middle-aged women going in and out of his office. Few teens. Fewer single men. Occasionally, a beleaguered, beaten-down couple arguing as they came and went. Beleaguered and beaten down was the typical look of just about everyone who came to the office. Few, I thought, were as pleasant and upbeat as I was.
“What am I, anyway? A client?”
“You’re a patient. I’m a doctor. So, you’re a patient.”
“I don’t feel like a patient. I mean I don’t feel broken. I don’t feel sick. Am I sick – ?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“But I’m still a patient?”
“Couldn’t you call me a client?”
“I can call you whatever you’d like.”
“But – I’m really a patient?”
“Well, I don’t know that we need to label you, per se…”
In the two plus years I’d known him Dr. Weiss had moved offices several times. The first – a colorless Clifton high rise apartment – had only lasted the time it took to give me enough Rorschach tests to find out whether I was psychotically imbalanced or just intensely, dysfunctionally bored.
The day I met him, I noticed that he had a set of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots on a shelf.
“What are those for?”
“Some patients like to use them.”
“Yes. Would you like to?”
“I don’t think so.”
The next office was on a residential side street off the main drag in Clifton. The waiting room was small, cozy and hip with dark brown shag carpeting and wooden benches with orange and purple cushions instead of chairs. And it was littered with New York magazines. My mom had subscribed to New York, but I’d never read it until I was in Dr. Weiss’ waiting room. Over a period of months, I became engrossed in tawdry New York urban night life adventure stories – particularly 24 Hours on 42nd Street – a lurid account of a writer cruising pre-Disney 42nd Street for drugs, peep shows, pimps, psychics, hookers, religious meetings, food, and usable bathrooms. Waiting in Dr. Weiss’ office became almost as enjoyable as talking to him. And I was pleased when patients before me ran over, giving me more time to read.
A few months later, Dr. Weiss moved again, finally settling into a small, sterile office at Bethesda Hospital. Still in Clifton, but a longer walk from all the action.
Therapy had had a residual effect: it bonded me and my father. Not in any review of my therapy sessions, but in our trips to and from the doctor’s office. Dad would drop me off on Saturday mornings and head to work. I’d meet up with Dr. Weiss then walk – or hop a bus – a few blocks to Phantasy Emporium (not a sex shop – Phantasy Emporium was Cincinnati’s sole comic book store. I worked there the summer after I was kicked out of camp, and George, the grumpy owner with a mile-long beard would pay me in comics) then walk to Little Vine to Mole’s, the Cupboard (Cinti’s pre-eminent head shop), and finally Jupiter Rising, the arcade next to Bogarts.
Dad would meet me at the arcade, and then we’d head to Zantigo’s (precursor to Taco Bell) for lunch. It was an extremely pleasant routine. In fact, Dad never asked what Dr. Weiss and I discussed, even when I prompted him.
“Do you want to know what we talked about?”
“No. Should I?”
“I mean – if you want to tell me – ”
Sometimes I did tell him. But more often than not I said nothing. Because, ultimately, what did it matter? It was just another uneventful moment of the week.
chapter 6 – opening night
Clifton was a hippy town, a mini-Haight Ashbury, but smaller and a bit cleaner. It was the University of Cincinnati’s campus and during the 70’s the town was alive with bars, boutiques, head shops and restaurants like Zino’s Firehouse Pizza, In Cahoots with its mile-high reubens, and the Beacon-sized Bogarts, where any mid-level name band could make you feel like you were at a happening.
On Calhoun, sandwich row, you could start at one end, say, Adriatico’s Greek deli and work your way down, eating and barhopping. Towards Clifton Ave you’d hit Arby’s, Wendy’s, the Acropolis, and then it was bar, bar, bar, bar, campus bookstore, bar, laundromat, Tony’s Pizza, bar, bar.
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.
The crowd – yes, an actual crowd with 30 plus and counting – filed in. Roger Naylor, anxious host and emcee, flit around seating people and making small talk.
In the back, near the bar, comics fidgeted. Waiting was unbearable and jokes and bits buzzed in my brain like etymological mayflies. So, I killed time by hiding out in the eye’s cellar.
The eye had a mostly unused cellar with darts, a few chairs, and a small, concealed bathroom. For me, a concealed bathroom – with stalls and locks that worked no less – was key. I made a mental note to never tell anyone it existed.
Drew Hastings was in the bathroom throwing up. He didn’t look like he should be throwing up. He looked like he should be styling hair. Drew was far and away the tallest, best dressed, best coiffed comic at the eye. (Likely, he was the best dressed, best coiffed anyone at the eye.) With wavy, blown-back 70’s hair, a full mustache – styled, not barbered – and well-tailored, faux-Armani suits, Drew had the elegance of a man fresh off the dance floor without ever having broken a sweat. So, it was awful to see him puke and potentially mar his perfect outfit.
“Out in a sec,” he yelled, gargling and splashing water.
Drew opened the door, shook out his mane. In his hand, he cradled a petite coffee cup.
“Alright?” I asked.
“Never better. How’s the hair? Good?”
“Nerves,” he said, taking a gulp. “Butterflies.”
“Maybe if you drank less coffee?”
“Y’fuckin’ kidding me? Kill myself first, thank you.”
Drew and I shared the bond of those who seek the obscure, private bathroom. If he had a British accent he could have passed for a swingin’ mod, circa-Alfie. Lovey. Ducky. But as soon as he opened his mouth that god-awful, Cincinnati horse-talk came out – just like it did with Roger and most of the comics.
“Y’know,” said Drew, “there’s over 30,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.? 30-fuckin’-thousand! More Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s and Burger Chef combined! It’s sick.”
“Who’s eating all this fuckin’ Chinese food?”
“Mm – I eat a lot.”
“’Course you do. Y’know why?”
“Because you have to! There’s over 30,000 fuckin’ Chinese restaurants! You have an obligation to the fuckin’ U.S.-China economy, pal. Need to fuckin’ keep up! And the worst part is – I hate Chinese food. Fuckin’ hate it! But I eat it all the time. All the fuckin’ time! Why?!”
“Because there’s nothing else to eat! I don’t have a fuckin’ choice!”
“You could cook.”
“Cook?!! Fuck that. 30,000 restaurants.”
“Is that true?”
“No idea. Whadda you want? Metrics? Sounds right, though. Right?”
“Great. What’re you? Third? Fourth?”
“Cool. I’m second. Better head up,” he said, Lysoling the bathroom. “You’ll wanna give that a second. Hang loose!”
And he was gone. I waited it out in the basement. Five minutes later, roars of laughter and applause. Time to head up.
Dave and two friends – Buffy and Carl – sat at a small table close to the stage. Buffy waved at me, bouncing gleefully. I noticed mini-cassette recorders – like little transistor radios – on a lot of tables. Comics recording their acts.
The room, at 45-50 people, felt like a full house. They seemed like a nice crowd, mellow with low expectations. Comics sprinkled through the audience chortled laffs of self-preservation. In the back, Roger – the Captain of our ship – laughed a clear, strong, fake laugh, as if to say: It’s-my-show-folks-if-they-go-down-I-go-down.
One comic – Mike Irwin – laughed loud and often. A well-oiled leprechaun, he issued a generous, high-pitched hyena’s cackle that was grating, infectious, and full of empathy; like he could see deeper into the material than whatever the comic was putting out; like he was laughing not at the joke, but at the joke’s potential. This was intensely comforting to the comics, who felt that no matter how bad things went, at least one guy out there “got it.”
“Next up,” said Roger, “is a young man who’s been writing for WAIF radio. Let’s give a warm welcome to Alex Barn-stein!”
And I was onstage. And my heart stopped pounding. I was simply there. Talking. Moving. Trying to be funny. No sense of self, time, technique. No sense of anything but the here and now, the lines and the people in front of me. And I waded through my bits. At home they had clocked in at three-to-five minutes. Here, they took twelve.
This is my first stand-up. If I throw-up it’s part of the act.
The next bit wasn’t mine. It was something Dave showed me at school that week. Probably wasn’t his, either. But it seemed like an easy laugh.
Impressions! I said. Elvis!
I laid down on the stage like a corpse, arms folded.
Same thing, but with arms and legs sticking up in the air, like a dead horse. Some laughs. Not bad. Maybe they’d seen it before?
I’m in high school and I’m taking some advanced courses. Pre-med, pre-law, pre-mature ejaculation…
Guttural laughs – ho ho ho – wash over me. What a nice feeling. People I don’t know are laughing at something I said. How lovely.
I come to every class.
Ha. Groan. Eh, maybe he’s not so funny?
A lot of people have weird fears – claustrophobia, agoraphobia. I have verbophobia. Fear of verbs. It can be difficult – like when I’m asking a girl out: ‘want to…date?’
When I got to the pauses I convulsed, spastically, unable to utter the verb.
We can…back to my house, and…!
The and…! pause was supposed to connotate a sexual reference. Enough of the crowd seemed to get it. Polite laughs. Completely acceptable.
There really is a verbophobia, by the way. I’d read about it in school. It has the same meaning as Logophobia: a fear of words, although not specifically a fear of action words. (I.e. there is no Nounophobia – or Prepositionophobia.) But a literal fear of verbs seemed funnier to me. So, the word’s true meaning wasn’t that far off.
Peripherally, I noticed a waitress bringing Dave’s table a pitcher of beer. This registered as important, somehow. But I couldn’t think about it now.
I hate dogs – especially big ones. My neighbor has a dog that’s part Irish setter, part German tank. I know a girl that named her dog, “Dammit.” Whenever she gets angry, “God dammit!” Dog runs up and licks her face.
I actually did know a girl, years ago, at kibbutz camp that had a dog named, “Dammit.” And whenever she got pissed he really did lick her face. Good therapy, I bet.
Drew, at the bar, guffawed, nursed a new cup of coffee. At the back of the room, high above the audience, a yellow light came on. Huh? What’s that mean?
I closed on Things I Learned at Camp. There was no set-up. Just the lines as is. Camp came up a lot in my bits. Talk about what you know, right?
When you dive into a pool, don’t have someone hold your legs.
When you go swimming in a lake, remove your glasses first.
When you run from a horse, let go of the reins.
When I was six I took horseback riding at Camp Wildbrook, a day camp in Cincinnati, and I was terrified of horses. I thought they were gigantic, monstrous things and the idea of riding one absurd. And we weren’t even riding them, we were just supposed to walk them around this tiny track and back to the stable. There was only one rule: don’t let go of the reins.
I had the reins of, what seemed to me at the time, Secretariat. I was leading him around the track. But after a minute, I thought he was getting too close. So I walked faster, trying to put more distance between us. But he walked faster, too. And when I walked even faster he started trotting after me. Then his nose came down and brushed against me. And I panicked and ran, still holding onto the reins, screaming that the maniac horse was going to trample me. Thankfully, one of the trainers ran over and grabbed him.
“Why didn’t you let go of the reins?!” he asked.
So, when you run from a horse, let go of the reins.
I left the stage to decent, healthy applause. Cheers from Dave, Carl and Buffy. Roger, passing, as he jumped back on stage, whispered a matter-of-fact, nice job. As I edged to the back of the room, Bob Lambert and Mike Irwin called: Kick ass! And a couple at a back table reached out and grabbed my arm: Verbophobia! Fuckin’ funny!
My mind, my body, were floating. I’d survived. Succeeded! I could die now. But it was too fast! I wanted to go up again! Right now! Start over! The world had opened up to me. It’d been so obvious. This was what I was supposed to do. Yavneh. Wyoming. Camp. WAIF. Everything had built up to this. My future was crystal clear. d.w. eye had been dropped in front of me for me! For my personal benefit. This had been my real bar mitzvah. Today, I was a man.
I went to the bar to get my free Coke. In the front room, Don talked to Dave, Carl and Buffy, and he looked pissed. Their pitcher was half empty, and they were all pulling out i.d.s. Don scanned the bar. When he caught sight of me, he glared.
“Outside!” he said.
Dave and Buffy collected their things, and tossed me deeply guilty looks. Carl took a last, defiant swig of beer.
“You fucked up!”
“But I – ”
“We had a deal,” Don barked at me. “We had a deal, and you broke it. And now – you’re through.”
“I – ”
“Thank you. Good bye,” he said, and shut me out of his club forever.
“Asshole! Fuckin’ asshole!” Carl yelled at the door.
“Aw shit,” said Dave. “That was completely messed up.”
“You were soooo good!” said Buffy. “So funny!”
“I – I – ” I was in a dream, barely processing what had just happened.
“I’m practically 18, man!!” said Carl, throwing rocks at the side of the eye. “I can drink anywhere in this fuckin’ town! Asshole!”
“Carl – shut the hell up!” said Dave. “You’re not helping!”
“You didn’t even drink!” said Carl, pointing at me, as if somehow I had screwed up his evening. “We drank! You didn’t do shit! Why should he kick you out?!”
“You were really really funny,” said Buffy. “I laughed! I never laugh!”
“You laugh constantly,” said Dave.
“I do not!” said Buffy, laughing. “Okay. But really – I really really laughed at you. With you.”
“What are you gonna do?” asked Dave, looking at me with immense pity.
“I have no idea.”
“You wanna come with us?”
“Yeah – come on,” said Carl. “You don’t need this shit!”
“Carl! Shut up!” said Dave.
“I’m fine. Fine,” I said. “It’s – I was just stupid. He’s right. It’s my fault. We had a deal. And I screwed it up. I screwed it up.”
“You didn’t screw up shit!” said Carl.
And then they were gone. And I was alone, outside in the cool Clifton October air. Despondent. On a desert island lined with empty parking meters.
I had been good, right? I mean – I did it. I did it – so I could do it again. I knew it. Christ, the whole thing was surreal. Why did everything have to be tainted? Why couldn’t I just have my one, perfect moment? Was it short-sightedness? Stupidity? Or was some cosmic force just trying to make things really difficult for me? Jesus! I knew I was on my own here – but come on! Now what was I supposed to do?! Pretend it didn’t happen? Go somewhere else? Where? Another club? There were no other clubs! This was it! This was what there was – and I fucked it up!
And I leaned hard up against the parking meter parking meter parking meter. This couldn’t be it. Couldn’t be. No. If I gave up now, it’d have to be for a better reason than stupid friends drinking in a stupid bar. No, there was no choice at all.
I went back in.
I found Don behind the bar, still fuming, and wide-eyed at seeing me back inside. I held up my hands.
“You’re right. You’re right.” I said. “I screwed up. I completely screwed up. I wasn’t thinking about them. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking I’m not drinking – so why should I worry? But y’know what? They were my friends and I invited them and they ordered a pitcher. They were my responsibility and I should have been on top of it! I should’ve been paying attention. Should have warned them. Told them the rules. So, I screwed it up. I did. And I’m sorry.”
“They should have never been here in the first place!”
“You’re right. You’re right. I was just – I was excited about the show.”
“If someone had seen me serving them – minors!”
“I know. I know. You’re right. I – I swear – Don – they’ll never come in again.”
“You’re friggin’ right they won’t. I know they won’t!”
“I promise – I will never ever ever bring friends in again, ever. Ever. Just me. I will invite no one. I promise. I swear to you. I will bring no one to the club.”
“Yeah, that’s not my problem anymore. You had your chance. You fucked it up.”
“Don – everyone deserves a second chance – ”
“I don’t trust you.”
“I know. I – I – I – just – shit – I thought I was good up there.”
“You saw what I did?”
“Of course. It’s my bar.”
“So – did you – do you have any comments – or – ? Anything?”
“You were choppy. I liked the verb thing. People liked the camp thing you closed on. But yeah – you were good. It was good. That was your first – ?”
The two waitresses – blondes in tight, white d.w. eye t-shirts – passed by, grinning.
“Yeah. Yes. That was it.”
“Didn’t look like it.”
“Thanks. Thank you.”
He stared at me, sizing me up. I made efforts to look humble and pathetic.
“Look – ” he said.
“You know I’m sincere about this.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t drink. I could give a crap about beer and liquor and the bar and – ”
“The show is in a bar. That’s the reality of what we’re doing here. It’s a bar! It’s not the comics that keep this place going. It’s the drinks. The liquor. The liquor keeps this place alive. If you want to stay here, those are the rules. No one under 18. Period. Period!”
We stared at each other.
“So, then you’re giving me a second chance?”
“But you are?”
“No more friends – no one under 18.”
“And this is probation for you!”
“Understood. You got it.”
“There won’t be another chance!”
“Absolutely. Great. Thank you! Really. You won’t regret it!”
And we both breathed and turned back to the stage. The audience was laughing and applauding another comic.
I was back inside.
And like that, my life had changed.
chapter 7 – porkopolis
Cincinnati’s adopted mascot is a flying pig. Go visit sometime, and practically everywhere you look will be statues, billboards, posters, eateries, sports jerseys, pillows, books, stuffed animals, porcelain figures, window decals, rugs, sheets, blankets, lamps, etc. depicting flying pigs of all colors, shapes and sizes. All cheerfully grinning and flying, their lithe little piggy wings sprouted.
Pork is understandable. During the early 1800’s Cincinnati was one of the nation’s leading importer/exporter of pork products – and, to this day, celebrates with the nickname Porkopolis. But why flying? Well, because the massive Ohio River that snakes up against the city is prone to intense flooding during heavy storms. How will the pigs escape this Wrath of God?Grow wings, of course. So, there were pigs, pigs, pigs flying everywhere, all the time.
Except in my not-quite-kosher house.
My paternal grandparents kept strict kosher. But my family was modern, advanced, reformed. We mixed milk and meat, had a single set of plates and utensils. Still, we kept no pork, no shellfish, no bacon in the house. You had to go out for that. So, we ate out quite a bit.
In its absence, pork was omnipresent, always lingering. Oh, bacon was okay. Bacon and sausage were almost Not Pork, breakfast foods, pizza toppings. But pork chops, ham, pork loin, ribs, roast, spam – none were ever eaten even out of the house. So, if a friend invited you over for dinner, say, my mother would politely inquire what was being served. And if the answer was wrong, then please excuse Alex. I’m afraid he has other plans this evening.
Me: “They could have picked lamb, right? No one eats lamb, anyway. What did they – spin the big kosher wheel and it landed on pork?”
Dad: “Think it had something to do with trichinosis.”
“You don’t see millions of non-Jews suffering from trichinosis every day.”
“Actually, kosher isn’t about pigs. It’s about how you kill the animal. You have to – ”
“Slit its throat under the neck – the humane way – ”
“So, why don’t we just slice the pig under the neck?”
“Uh – ”
“And what’s up with shellfish? And why is it okay to eat bacon at restaurants, but not at home?”
“Well, it’s already there. So, no harm done, right?”
“You don’t think it’s kind of inconsistent to have one set of rules inside the house and another set outside?”
“Well, we’re trying to maintain some traditions while getting on with the convenience of our lives.”
“Y’know, every Jew I know eats bacon. They served bacon at my bar mitzvah. At a Jewish Country Club.”
“See, you’ve stumbled onto one of the most important truths about our people.”
“Jews like bacon.”
“And they like to have other people serve it to them.”
chapter 8 – WHY
Wyoming High School. Late October. The office of Ken Miller, laconic guidance counselor with a graying Beatle’s haircut.
“I want to get into the WHY program.”
“You missed the cut-off,” said Ken.
“I know – but it hasn’t started yet, right? You’re still picking students?”
“It starts next week – but – ”
He looked through my records, grimaced.
“Wow,” he said. “There’s no way you could do WHY.”
“Because – ?”
“You’ve got a C-minus average.”
“Look at my English and Math! Bs! B-minuses. I got a Pass in typing. If I take WHY that only leaves one class.”
“The WHY students earn the right to be in WHY, Alex. It’s a privilege. It’s not for every student.”
“I’m a senior! C’mon – my grades’ll be fine – ”
“I can’t – ”
“And I just got a new job.”
That stopped him.
“And look – I’m gonna do it, anyway, whether I’m in WHY or not. I just thought maybe – we could work something out.”
“What do you mean you’re gonna do it anyway?”
“At night. It’s at night. I’m not skipping classes – ”
“But I thought if I could do it through WHY – if I could get credit for it – maybe I could get something out of it – WHY could get something out of it – ”
“What’s the job?”
“I’m doing stand-up at a night club in Clifton.”
“You’re really doing that – regularly?”
“Every week, so far.”
“Yeah. Y’know, I’ve already got a radio show.”
“I mean, this isn’t McDonald’s or some internship at my Dad’s dental office. I write these shows – write and perform my own act. I’m getting paid along with the other comics. Adult comics.”
“Ken – this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life and I’m already doing it. Isn’t that what WHY’s all about? Wouldn’t you want to have someone in WHY who’s driving the bus, instead of having the bus driven over them? So to speak?”
He looked at me, the gears in his brain turning.
“It’s at night?”
“So, you’d do WHY at night? And during the day – ?”
“I’ll take my four classes – just like every other WHY student.”
“Mm. I don’t know if that – ”
“Other students are gonna be watching TV at night while I’m working. What’s the difference?”
“That’s not how it’s supposed to – ”
“Fine. I’ll do it during the day – ”
“Work at a night club?”
“I’ll work at WAIF and the club, day, night. I’ll be writing, doing research, rehearsing – ”
“Hnh. They’ll have to sign off on it – whoever’s running it. The owner? He’ll have to fill out the paperwork – ”
“Not a problem.”
“And you’d have to pick up your grades.”
Dave, Bucky and Bob ate lunch. I plopped down with my tray.
“I’m in WHY.”
“No, you’re not,” said Dave. “Seriously?”
“I just cut three classes a day out of my life – !”
“For what?” said Bob.
“The club’s at night!”
“I’ll work at WAIF during the day.”
“Doing what? Defumigating?”
“Don’t they share broadband with a deaf school during the day?” said Bucky.
“A deaf school? A deaf school?” said Dave.
“What?” said Bucky.
“What’s a goddamn deaf school need a radio station for?!” said Dave.
“Confirmation that they’re really deaf,” said Bucky.
“WAIF does share broadband!” said Bob, pissed. “They’re not on the air till five!”
“Look – ” I started.
“So, why don’t we get credit for the Six Pistols?!” said Bob. “That’s all you’re doing!”
“So, go get credit, Bob! I asked. Sue me for asking!”
“What a douche!” Bob fumed “They friggin’ love you here!”
“Please,” I said. “I kill myself on our shows, Bob – ”
“I kill myself on PreCal,” said Bucky.
“You’re gonna go home and watch TV all day!” said Bob.
“Yeah, and you’ll be watching Dallas while I’m working – so, we’re even.”
“Actually, I do PreCal at night, too,” said Bucky.
“You make me fucking sick!” said Bob.
“Y’gotta admit – it’s a great scam,” said Dave.
“It’s not a scam!” I said. “It’s work. I’m gonna be working on my act!”
“When you’re not watching TV,” said Bucky.
“Fine. When I’m not watching TV.”
“Bastard!” said Bob.
A couple senior girls came over. Senior girls never came over.
“Did you just get in WHY for working at a night club?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Actually.”
“Thanks. Thank you!”
They left. The others stared at me.
To cement the deal with WHY – Wider Horizons for Youth – I started interning at a radio station a couple days a week. But instead of WAIF, I decided why not intern at WEBN, the most popular rock station in Cincinnati during that late-70s peak of progressive rock. But the DJs and staff at WEBN were so coked-out and self-absorbed that they never noticed or cared whether the interns actually came in or not. For three weeks, I mindlessly stuck labels on commercial cartridges. But one afternoon, after witnessing, horrified, as their #1 DJ dismissively scratched a stylus across David Bowie’s just-released Scary Monsters and then flung it into the garbage, I stopped showing up altogether. No one ever called to ask where I had gone or if I was ever coming back in. Ken never questioned me about it. In fact, no one seemed to be aware that I had ever been there in the first place.
Still, I wasn’t quite ready to give up my sincere effort to be a radio intern, so I drove to WAIF eager to volunteer. But helping out there was ludicrous. I was already a DJ so there was no need to prove myself. And the station really was off-air until five pm. When I arrived, the only person there – Tom Knox, the General Manager – just stared at me sideways. Undaunted, I gave myself the task of organizing their “record library” – stacks of tattered, heavily used albums lying all over Tom’s office floor. (And, of course, he didn’t want them sorted.) After two days I abandoned my interning efforts and relegated myself to sitting at home, watching TV, and working on my act.
WHY had gotten me out of three classes at school, but that still left English, pre-cal, chemistry and typing. Chemistry was beyond me, but I seemed to be struggling through it, especially when I made it to class. English and math I felt secure in. But typing, I loved.
Typing was a blow-off, but the only class that directly impacted what I was doing at WAIF and the eye. At home, my parents had a crappy old manual Underwood typewriter with six or seven keys that stuck whenever you hit them and I’d fight the thing just to get a page out. The models in the typing class, on the other hand, were not just modern cartridge typewriters, they were IBM Selectrics with keys you barely had to touch and built-in, erasable correction tape. The teacher, a brittle octogenarian, didn’t seem to care that I’d taken up permanent residence in her class as long as I was touch-typing and my speed was improving. So, while all my peers were in the gym working on hoop shots, I was in the typing lab churning out scripts.
chapter 9 – previty
The eye. Wednesday night.
Comics had to show up every Wednesday to get a number. Shows were Saturdays, at first, then Fridays, then after a few weeks, Thursdays and Sundays, too. Comics got $5 and a free drink for performing.
Jack Previty hung out at the bar, a glassy, elfin smirk on his face, a bottomless mug of beer in his hand.
“So, you what? Yer in school? Roger Bacon? What?”
“Wyoming? Out west?”
“By Tri-County. Near Hartwell.”
“Huh. I thought you were comin’ from like California – now, that’s a commute! An yer in what – seventh grade?”
“12th. I’m a senior.”
“Senior! So, how you – yer mom drop you off?” He grinned at Ervin, the bartender. “Mom drops him off!”
“I drove. I’ve got a car around the corner.”
“A car? Sure. Your car?”
“I – no.”
“S’okay. S’okay. I drove my Dad’s car once. Got it back before he noticed. Now, me – I got my own piece-a-shit in the back. Parking sucks, huh? So, whadda you drinkin’, anyway? C’mon – ”
“Coke. Just Cokes.”
“Just Cokes. Okay. I’ll buy you a just Coke. Ervin – a just Coke for my pal – Senior – ?”
“Bernstein. Alex Bernstein.”
“Senior Bernstein. Jack Previty. Pleased to meetcha.”
Jack Previty was not quite human. A chain smoker in short-sleeve, button-down Oxford shirts, a manic, Cheshire grin plastered on his face whether he was onstage or off, and a black, pomaded Elvis do that made him look like Carmine Ragusa’s coked up, giggling half-brother. Jack was a favorite at the eye, the comfort food of local comedy. He had no aspirations of becoming the next Carlin or Pryor. He was the guy who liked to get a little toasted onstage, tell old jokes and see smiles. And sometimes, if he was a little too hammered, he’d steal bits right from the other comics in the room.
Yeah – that’s one of Mike’s! Mike Irwin, Ladeez and gennlemen! My pal! Man, those fat jokes don’t work for me, boy!
Mike: “Oh shit.”
But you couldn’t hate him. He was Jack Previty.
“And listen,” said Jack, “if y’ever want to buy me a beer – that’s okay, too.” To Ervin: “Right? If he buys me a beer – or two – right? That’s okay – as long as he don’t touch anything?”
“See?” Jack went on. “That’s okay, then. Don’t touch. But paying – that’s no problem!”
“Give him another on me,” I said.
“Senior Bernstein!” said Jack, “Class! I like that! Listen – y’ever want me to buy you a six pack – y’know – not here – you tell me. We’re good that way, see? You ’n me.”
“I mean it!”
“Thanks. I don’t really drink beer. But – ”
”Everyone likes beer! What – ? You a whisky man?”
“Uh – ”
“A Doers Man?”
“Doers? Forget it. The fuck should I know! So, Senior – who writes yer bits?”
“Yer bits. Yer stuff.”
“I write it.”
“All of it?!”
“Yeah – I – ”
“That’s incredible! The verb thing?”
“Wrote that yourself?”
“Trigger?” He stuck his arms in the air, a dead horse.
“I – no – ”
“That was a – my friend gave me that one.”
“Really? Gave it to ya? Mighty generous!”
“Stays up late?”
“Must stay up late. ‘Cause it was on Carson two weeks ago.”
I stared at him, stunned.
“Oh my God!”
“Yeah. How ‘bout that!”
“Oh shit – I didn’t – you think they knew?!”
“I sure as shit did!”
“Oh man – they must think I’m a – ”
“Pfft! See – you are funny!”
“I didn’t see it on TV – ! I swear!”
“Pal – honestly – nobody fuckin’ cares.”
“You ask yer friend where he got it?”
“No – ”
“Thought he wrote it himself?”
“No. No. I thought his brother told him – or – I dunno – ”
“Well, then his brother’s watching Carson. Shit, it worked, man! Got a laugh! That’s what counts!”
“I just – ”
“Bernstein!” Roger called from the main room.
“Yer up, Trigger” said Jack. “Go getcher number!”
chapter 10 – the navy
My opening bit Sunday night:
Roger Navy 4-0-9er. You sit facing a TV screen – but it is unlike any TV screen you’ve seen before. For one thing there are no commercials and a sweeping white band circles the screen every five seconds. Bogie’s bearing 5-4-9 50 miles! Suddenly, you realize it’s not just a simulation – you’re under actual enemy attack!
I flailed around the stage, evoking young cadets smoking joints and then suddenly getting blown apart by bombs and heavy artillery. I made shooting and exploding sound effects.
The Navy. It’s not just a job – it’s a life or death struggle for survival.
Math Lab. Monday morning.
Half a dozen nerds congregated. Dave absently sucked the jelly out of a donut. Doug Borges leaned over to him.
“Not supposed to eat in here,” he whispered.
“Bite me,” whispered Dave back.
“So, I opened with The Navy last night,” I said.
“The Navy? Roger Navy four-oh-niner?”
“Yeah – I like acted the whole bit out by myself.”
“Yeah – it went pretty well. Little bizarre – but it – ”
“That’s Bob’s bit, isn’t it? Didn’t he write that?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Huh. I didn’t even think about who wrote it. I just thought it’d work as a one-person bit.”
“So you didn’t ask him?”
“You think that’s bad?”
“It’s Bob. If it was me or Bucky – we could’ve cared less.”
“Yeah. You may be fucked.”
Bucky came in with two milks and his large teeth.
“He’s fucked,” said Dave.
“Why are you fucked, Al?”
“He performed The Navy in his act last night.”
Bucky nodded: “You’re fucked.”
Then Bob came in.
“What?” he asked, in a Kentucky twang.
“Late for class!” said Dave. And he and Bucky ran out. Bob glared at me, sideways.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I – uhm – so, I performed last night. Was a good show. Very solid. And I was trying out some new bits. And – I had the idea – of doing a Pistol’s bit – of, like, acting the whole thing out by myself – “
“Yeah. And so…the one I did was…The Navy. But! I didn’t know it was yours! I swear!”
“Who’s did you think it was?”
“No idea. Dave D? I dunno. I wasn’t thinking – I was just looking for material.”
“So you took mine?”
“I didn’t know it was yours!”
“So, you would’ve taken anybody’s?”
“Well – yeah. Yes. Basically. I mean I was just sifting through bits. And this one was just sitting there. And I thought it would work as a one-person thing. I don’t know if it even had your name on it! Although, maybe.”
“So, your own stuff wasn’t good enough?”
“My stuff was fine! I just wanted another piece, that’s all.”
“How’d it do?”
“Good. Great! It went over great. Look, Bob, I’m really sorry I didn’t ask. I didn’t – ”
“How’d you do the sound effects?”
“With my mouth and a kazoo.”
“How’d that work out?”
“Fine. Fine. Look – I swear I won’t do it again, okay? I promise.”
“You can do it again.”
“I won’t. I promise. Seriously.”
“Just tell me if you do.”
“Sure. If I do, I will.”
“Before you do it.”
“Absolutely. I will. Thanks for not giving me a hard time.”
“They really laughed?”
“So you owe me like a cut, then.”
I stared at him, stupidly.
“I performed it.”
“I wrote it!”
“Fine.” I reached in my pocket, dropped fifty cents on the table.
“I made five bucks. The Navy was – what? – 10% of my act? Less? Technically, I owe you a tenth of a glass of Coke, too. But I’m good for it.”
“No – no – I’ll get it to you. Don’t worry.”
Realizing I had stolen Bob’s bit made me crazy and I decided to never use The Navy again. It wasn’t worth the stress. Was using the bit unethical? Was I stealing? Who knows? I wasn’t thinking about stealing or ethics or ownership. I was simply trying to figure out how to fill five goddamn minutes onstage. And honestly, I did feel a certain amount of ownership of the Pistols’ material. I was the one that forced them all to write bits month after month, like some nagging den mother. I’d gotten them a radio show for God sakes! All they did was complain about having to write all the time! And except for that one, single time on the radio, we never even played The Navy again! Bob had no plans to use it. Like everything else we’d written, it was just lying there, languishing. Why not get more mileage out of it? Wasn’t using it, in a way, a favor to Bob? Was I not, in some way, publicizing his bit? If he’d used one of my bits, I’d have been flattered!
At least that’s what I told myself.
So, what had all this taught me?
Coming up with new material week after week was going to be harder than I thought.
The Navy © Bob Bence
chapter 11 – the bible
Late October, 1980. Governor Reagan and President Carter appeared on TV in their final presidential debate of the election season. Carter, exhausted from a year-long recession and an unending Iranian hostage crisis, looked like one of those pink, rubber-alien dolls whose eyes pop out when you squeeze it, and he blinked constantly. My parents were die-hard democrats, but Reagan, at 69, was attractive, chipper, and enthusiastically republican in all his shaky, Grecian-formulaed glory.
At WAIF, John Zeh, a talk show host, was temporarily suspended for using lewd references including Vaseline and vibrating melons on his alternative lifestyle show Gay Dreams. It had been a slow news week, so Cincinnati District Attorney Simon Leis decided to prosecute Zeh to the full extent of the law, whatever that meant. A few years earlier, Leis, a backwoods good ‘ole boy, had become notorious for driving Hustler publisher Larry Flynt out of Cincinnati. Leis had made it his personal mission to clean up the city, removing any inkling of pornographic or prurient behavior. Over the next year, he would become the primary target for comics at the eye.
Reacting to the sudden, unwanted media attention, and fearing possible FCC fines, Tom Knox, WAIF’s general manager, told all of us DJs to scrub our shows clean or we’d be off the air, too. Up until then, the Six Pistol shows had been comprised of our own recorded sketches, cuts from comedy albums and the six of us goofing on each other – which included a fair amount of profanity.
“Can we say damn?”
“Can we say shit?”
“This is public radio!! What about freedom of speech?! Fuckin’ First Amendment?!”
“So, cocksucker’s out, then?”
To appease Tom and keep the show going, I agreed that we would fully script all future episodes ahead of time. So, I began writing full show scripts while the others (mostly Bob and Dave D) wrote supplemental material that got worked in as segments. The show grew in theme and complexity from the one-off bits we started with, and felltmore organic, more complete. Like we were really building something professional.
But it was a hell of lot more work.
Over the next month I performed three more times at the eye. The second, third, and fourth shows were a letdown after the life-changing high of that first night. But they weren’t altogether bad. Well, a couple of them were altogether bad. But I had a clear mission now. No matter how much I sucked on any given night it was going to take a lot more than death on stage to make me throw in the towel. But death on stage would get me pretty close.
I bought a hand held tape recorder, kept set lists, made notes, reviewed my act, and tracked and graded performances (and was likely overly generous to myself). On a scale of “dud” to “5 stars”, I graded the first four shows: 4, 2, 3, 2. Bob’s Navy bit opened the third show. So maybe I did owe him more than fifty cents.
And I had decided never to repeat material. Each performance I did was wholly different from every other performance. I had noticed a lot of the same faces in the audience coming back week after week – Clifton students, businessmen, construction guys, firemen. They were all paying. This was my job now. My work ethic. Didn’t they deserve to see something new?
Saturday night. After the show.
The eye had no parking lot, so comics with cars parked on the street or in the back of the Zantigo’s lot. (Zantigo was the beloved predecessor in Cinti to Taco Bell. In the mid-80s, Taco Bell finally bought them out but thankfully absorbed their menu, including the food-of-the-gods-like Chilito.) If you parked way back near Zantigo’s dumpster, they usually wouldn’t tow you.
“Lock the steering wheel,” said Mike Irwin. “Turn your wheels all the way to the side – and if they try to tow you, they’ll strip your alignment – and you can sue their ass!”
Back near the dumpster, Previty and Mike leaned on Jack’s disintegrating early-70’s Buick and passed a joint. Jack waved it at me, casually, Sinatra with a cig.
“Senior Bernstein! It’s after curfew!”
“Setting the dumpster on fire?”
“Look at the punk talk to me! Setting ourselves on fire. That your Pop’s?” He pointed to my beat up Chevy Caprice, nearby.
“Nice. So, we’re headin’ down the strip. Come with?”
“What? Y’got Sunday school tomorrow?”
“You need a dick to be funny,” said Jack. “It’s a fact of life. Am I right?”
“He’s right,” said Mike.
“What about Bobbi Jo?” I asked.
“You don’t think she’s funny?”
“C’mon – ”
“Not funny. If she was a guy – if she had a dick – then she’d be funny.”
“So this has nothing to do with her act or anything she says? This is pure anatomy? If she did everything exactly the same – except with a dick – then she’d be funny?”
“Exactly correct. Am I right?”
“He’s right,” said Mike.
“Unless she’s packing – and you don’t know it,” I added.
“Please! Trust me! She is not packing!”
Every comic who lasted more than two weeks at the eye had a signature joke, whether by design or happenstance.
Jack’s Signature Joke:
So, I’m onstage doin’ my act and I tell a joke – and this lady in the front row – she starts yellin’: “Playboy! Y’got that one from Playboy, March, 1972!” So, I ignore her. Keep doin’ my act – and she starts up again! “Esquire! Y’got that one from Esquire, May, 1979!” I can’t believe it! Now, I’m freaked out, glarin’ at her! But I keep goin’. I do another – “Penthouse! That joke’s from Penthouse, June, 1962!” I said, “Lady! My God!”
Jack repeated the Bible more than any comic repeated any single joke at the eye ever. Most folks – comics and civilians – could recite the entire joke with him. But everyone knew the punchline. One night, a heckler did the line right before Jack could get to it, and it got him his biggest laugh to date. It was Jack’s good sense to recognize that the bit had somehow transcended him and to own that instead of the joke, itself. And yelling out the Bible! quickly became a tradition at the eye. On a particularly up night, Jack, the nimble maestro, could signal the crowd and the entire room would erupt:
It may have been the first audience participation bit at the eye, and it happened completely organically. Cheap or cheesy, it was the perfect close to his set. Not even Durst or Riggi could rally the room like Jack did around that great, awful joke.
“So, Jack,” I asked. “Who writes your stuff?”
He stared at me, amused.
“Yer shittin’ me. You are funny!”
“I don’t write my stuff.”
“You buy it?”
“Buy it?! Yeah, at the joke shop!”
“So, where do you – ”
“Anywhere! Everywhere! Books, magazines, TV, other comics, comics you never heard of – not Carson. I like Carson. I’m not gonna do somethin’ obvious! Somethin’ everyone knows!”
“Unless you do,” added Mike.
“Unless I do,” agreed Jack.
“You don’t write anything?”
“Nothin’. I dunno. Okay – a line maybe – but I try to avoid it. Too much like work.”
A couple college girls looked down the bar at us and grinned. Jack raised his Heineken.
“That’s right! Professional comedians! Make ‘em laugh!”
He pointed to me.
“24! Not 16! He’s not even with us! Don’t worry!”
They smiled and passed into the other room. Jack looked at Mike and me.
“What a gig!”
“Your whole act is stolen?” I said.
“Well, if you put it that way – yeah.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?”
“’Course not. Why should it?”
“It’s not your act!”
“’Course it’s my act! I’m the one doing it!”
“But it’s not original! It’s from – books! It’s – ”
“It’s original to people who don’t read those books!”
“So? What are you? A joke cop?”
“I’m a writer!”
“Well, I’m a comic! I’m not a fuckin’ writer.”
“But you’re – ”
“Look – before you piss me off too much – you think I’m funny?”
“I – ”
“Am I funny? Be honest. Do I get laughs?”
“Yeah – yes – most of the time – ”
“I’m not up there writing a novel – I’m trying to get laughs. That’s my mission. Joke ‘em. Not read to ‘em. So, do I do that effectively?”
“I – I – yes. You do.”
“I – but – ”
“You think your way is the only way?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Mm. I don’t see ten Senior Bernstein’s taking the stage here.”
“No, you don’t. You don’t.”
“Alright then. So, who’s buyin’? Mike? Senior?” He looked down the bar. “Ladies?”
The eye was off to a good start. That first core group – Drew, Jack, Mike, Bob Lambert, Bill Hollifield, Rico Diaz, Mike Fox, Curtis Hopkins, Bobbi Jo Fields, Cap & Johnny, and me – seemed to be at about the same level. Local guys with poor-to-no joke construction, awkward delivery and wildly uneven most of the time. But we landed bits frequently enough to keep Roger from showing us the door.
If you were doing at least passably, Roger would give you a spot the following week. If you died, particularly two nights in a row, he “rested” you. And if you didn’t come back swinging, available slots became less frequent, if at all.
New comics auditioned on Wednesdays. Guys who had come to the eye figuring they were funnier than the rest of us. Most died their first night out and were never heard from again. But once in a while, a newbie killed right out of the box and that was it. They were part of the stable.
Typically, Roger gave me one of the first three or four slots of the night, and I always stayed after my act to watch the other comics. It was like having my own private club, getting to see the show free each week. An evening usually ran till midnight or later, especially if the audience was going strong. If it was a school night I might try to rip myself away early. But it was here, at the eye, that I was getting a real education.
I watched the other comics to see what they kept and what they discarded; if they listened to the audience and adjusted their acts; played along or became hostile. I listened, amazed as the exact same bits died one night and had the house in an uproar the next. And it made me crazy when no one laughed at something I deemed brilliant. I saw the effects of too much beer on Jack and Bill, too hot lights on Mike, too much coffee on Drew. And I watched Roger watching everyone; the good coach studying his team and making adjustments.
I took it all very seriously.
And the eye was infinitely exciting. Everyone was trying something, trying to figure it all out. And even the comics who sucked were interesting in their own ways.
And it was harder than I thought it would be. Writing, practicing, rehearsing. Thinking about it all the time. Trying to stay fresh, interesting. Perpetually recreating my act – myself – every week. It was enthralling and joyful, having so much purpose, suddenly. But there was doubt, too. Sure, the other comics weren’t Carlins or Woodys, but it seemed easier for them. Less stressful. And on bad nights, the fear crept in: Maybe I wasn’t that funny? Maybe I wasn’t in the other comics’ league? Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this?
November 13. My 17th birthday. Old enough to drive, too young to drink.
My parents handed me a box.
“Wow – it’s big,” I said.
I got the wrapping off. It was a typewriter. A real one. Smith Corona Coronamatic Electric, including two side-loading ribbon cartridges with correcting strips.
“This is mine?”
“It’s portable!” said my Mom. And she was right. It came with a thick, dark brown plastic carrying case.
“Nice. Not too heavy.”
It was very heavy. It had girth, but I liked that.
And I realized, for the first time, how much stand-up was a relief to them, a bright spot in their universe. Their son was driving off to who-knows-where at night in the middle of a school week, but he was getting better at something. It was that closet rebellious spirit they both had. That, for better or worse, if you wanted something badly enough – if you believed in it – you should go out and get it. And fuck everyone else.
“This is like a real thing,” I said.
“We thought you could use it,” said Mom, sincerely.
chapter 12 – driving lesson
A year earlier, on a February morning, my dad decided to teach me how to drive on the highway in the middle of a blizzard. We were approaching I-75 – one of the two major expressways in Cincinnati – and at that point I’d never merged onto a highway in any weather, much less a blizzard. As I merged, I turned the steering wheel a bit too hard to the left. The car skidded 180 degrees and then drove towards oncoming traffic.
Whether it was the surreal, heavy snowfall, or a clouded lens of pure fear, the traffic – trucks, cars, everything – came at us like a glittering, slow motion stampede.
“Get out of the car!” yelled my father.
I shoved open the door and jumped, and then watched the car continue it’s slow slide forward. Dad, now also out of the car, yelled to me:
“Did you put it in park?”
I stared at him, speechless. Did I what?
Beautiful, life-threatening vehicles skated past us, caroming off the side rail, slipping into ditches. And it occurred to me how typical this was of my life – of me and my father. Being thrust into some insane, completely preventable situation of our own creation.
Together, we stood in deep, tread-marked ice watching his poor Chevy Caprice slide unerringly into an immense 18-wheeler. We were extremely lucky. No one got hurt. No one pressed charges. And despite barreling into the grill of a truck several times its own size, our Caprice suffered only a crushed headlight. The 18-wheeler, of course, remained in perfect condition.
chapter 13 – bad night
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.
Of course, everyone had bad nights. No big deal. Better luck next time.
After the show.
Jack and Mike headed to the eye’s front door.
“Lakewood or Sandbar?” I asked.
Jack threw Mike a look. Mike glared at me.
“Y’know,” he said, “you don’t always have to hang on us.”
Jack grinned, glazed over. I was dumbfounded.
“I mean – Jesus!” Mike continued. “You’re like a fuckin’ shadow! You’re always there!”
“I – ”
“It’s annoying,” he said. “We’re trying to do stuff here! We don’t need some kid hanging on us all the time!”
“Fine,” I muttered.
“No offense, there – ” smirked Jack.
And they were gone.
And I drove home blurry through pummeling rain. On the radio, a dead and brooding Jim Morrison moaned Riders on the Storm.
So, what did I care? I was sick, anyway. I didn’t want to go out. Why was I putting myself through all this bullshit? What did I have to prove?! No – no – it wasn’t personal. I had to keep reminding myself. It was just how the cards fell. Do the work. Just do the work. Keep at it. Keep practicing. If I could just figure it out – if I – if things would just fall into place – but – Jesus – kick me while I’m fuckin’ down, why don’t you?! Ah – shit – I didn’t know these guys. Not really. Okay. I got it. Who wants a kid next to them at a bar?
The next morning was drizzly and gray, and I felt like a film was covering my body.
I drove Dad to his office, but I shouldn’t have been driving. He was absorbed in yesterday’s paper – and as I came off I-75 I heard myself trying to talk, trying to croak out words about the night before.
“Last night – last night – ” I mumbled. “Didn’t go so – ”
And suddenly, I was stuck there in the intersection – at Hopple and Central Parkway – where traffic merged from five different directions. With maybe half a year of actual driving under my belt, I should’ve focused on the turn, the turn, but I was too busy trying to talk about the night before. And then the light was red, with me stranded in the intersection, still trying to make that left – and cars coming fast on both sides, honking – COME ON! MOVE IT! OUT OF THE WAY! ASSHOLE!! And then Dad woke up.
“What’s –?! What are you – ? Make the turn! Make the turn!”
“I – ”
“Come on! Go! Move!”
I lurched forward past the intersection, completely overshooting the entrance ramp to his office building.
“What the hell are you doing!?”
“Trying to get in,” I said.
I backed up, nearly hitting a guy on a motorcycle behind me, and then swerved into the exit-only side of the lot as another car tried to leave. The car honked, pissed. But I managed to edge past him, up the narrow ramp. Dad was livid.
“What’s the matter with you?!” he said, getting out of the car.
“Sorry. Sorry,” I said, “I had a bad – ”
“Fine,” he said. And he slammed the door and went into the building.
Dr. Weiss studied me.
“How many other comics are there?”
“10? 15? I dunno.” My voice was muted. “There’s seven or eight main guys – another five or six drop in, drop out.”
“And how many are in high school?”
“None,” I said. “Just me. The next youngest – I think Mike Irwin’s 21. Then they go up in the mid-20’s, 30’s, 40’s – ”
“So there’s a minimum four year difference between you and all the other comics?”
“And who’s the audience?”
“Businessmen. Tourists. Locals. College students. So?”
“So,” he said, “the audience relates to the older comics. They have the same experience.”
“So, I should quit?”
“Do you feel like quitting?”
“Then what should I do?”
“Stop trying to compete with the other comics. You can’t. It’s not a level playing field. If you were all boxers – they’d each have fifty to a hundred pounds on you – you wouldn’t be allowed to fight them.”
“Most of ‘em do have fifty to a hundred pounds on me.”
“So how many 17-year-old high school students are there?”
“That’s your competition.”
“I’m the only 17-year old comic at the club. Probably the only one in Cincinnati.”
“So what am I supposed to do with that?”
“Of course. You own the field. At least until some other 17-year-old with balls as big yours come along. Then you’re going to have competition.”
I sat up, startled.
chapter 14 – mike
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.”
”So, what the hell is chipped ham?” I asked.
One of Mike’s best bits was about chipped ham. He loved chipped ham, but could never find it in Cincinnati.
“What is it?” he asked.
“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.
“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.
chapter 15 – roger
Jack, on why the incredibly hot eye waitresses kept ignoring me:
“Yer jailbait, Jailbait.”
“C’mon! I’m just another guy – !”
“Get some perspective, kid! Yer a pizza-face 16-year old that tells jokes! Y’aint Denny Terrio!”
Roger covering for a comic that just bombed:
Alright. That was the dramatic part of our evening. Now, let’s get back to the comedy.
Comics watching Roger onstage in his trademark skin tight, pre-pre-pre-washed jeans sans briefs:
“What’s he got – a roll of quarters?”
Roger Naylor, our emcee/manager/producer, had incredibly long hair, a baby face, and what seemed to be a massive package in his pants which, on some nights, could be more distracting than anything he was saying. But he was a fair manager and looked out for his comics.
As for emceeing, he was decent but not your garden-variety comic. Instead, he had a Will-Rogers-by-way-of-Kerouac ramble that was folksy and honest, and missed as often as it hit – but typically glided by on pure charm. And his nightly, verbal walkabout always started with the same pre-amble: I’m not a comedian. I don’t do jokes.
Sure, it bugged some of the comics.
“He doesn’t tell jokes! He just talks! How’s that being an emcee?!”
“Who cares? He’s funny. I like him!”
“Screw you – you like everybody!”
But I didn’t care. I got along with him fine.
chapter 16 – rico rico rico
That was Rico Diaz’ tag line. Rico was our improviser, our very own Second City, Groundlings, and First Amendment rolled into one wiry black guy with horn-rimmed glasses. And he was a complete enigma.
After weeks of going over my act with Mike I had finally begun to get a glimmer of craft. Of Rules. Yes, we didn’t have to just perpetually wander in the dark, hoping we’d trip over usable comedy. There seemed to be actual, universal, generally accepted comedy precepts – rules – that we could work with, e.g.
- paint pictures with words (the clearer, the easier for the crowd to see);
- take sharp left turns (lead ’em one way, go the other);
- tell the truth; and of course,
- the Rule of 3s.
Everyone knew the Rule of Threes. Things in threes were always funnier. 1-2-3. Done. Two’s not enough. Four’s too much. Unless your bit’s a list, then the sky’s the limit.
But just when I thought I was beginning to grasp some of this, Rico came along. He didn’t do jokes or set material; didn’t seem to notice that there even were rules. As it was, he barely had a discernible act. And whatever he opened with always quickly mutated into something completely alien, so you never knew exactly what you were seeing.
The first night I saw Rico he opened with a couple awkward one-liners that somehow morphed into a long, palsied Tom Waits impression, with Rico spastic, hunched over, smoking a lit cigarette, and growling out lyrics. Of course no one in the audience had any idea who Tom Waits was. But if we had, we would’ve likely thought the impression impeccable.
After the Waits routine, he reverted back to plain “Rico” now suddenly aware of the audience and almost embarrassed by what had happened onstage, as if he’d been momentarily possessed. It lent a tremendous level of freakish innocence to the whole thing. Up to that point, Rico was probably taking more risks on the eye stage than anyone.
I suppose Rico embodied the most important comedic rule of all: at the end of the day, there are no rules. No one really knows anything. Anything – anything at all – at any time – could potentially work on stage. That was the beauty of comedy.
Offstage, Rico was an extremely sweet, shy guy, not one to socialize or play into the friendly rivalry that the rest of the comics shared. Most nights he’d hang out only for a few minutes after his act and then disappear – occasionally for months at a time. And just when you started to wonder whatever happened to him, he’d be back in the line-up.
He was fairly schizophrenic about his name, too.
My momma said to me, “Ri-co! Ri-co! Ri-co! What – are – yoooouu – doing?!
He played the line so lyrically, Roger started announcing him that way:
Let’s give a big hand for Ri-co Ri-co Ri-co Di-az!
But as nice as that was, after a few months he’d suddenly get introduced by another name: Bruce Wade!
“Rico – what happened to Rico? Who’s Bruce Wade?”
“That’s my name. My real name.”
“Yeah. But Rico sounded great. Everyone knew you as Ri-co! Ri-co! Ri-co!”
“Yeah. I know. I just thought I’d use my real name for a change – see how it sounds – ”
That lasted for a while. But then a few months later, Roger introduced him again:
Give a big hand for the comedy stylings of Ri-co Bruce Wade!
And a few months later:
Bruce Rico Wade!
Bruce Rico Rico Wade!
Bruce Rico Wade Diaz!
Bruce Ri-co Ri-co Diaz!
What a chameleon!
chapter 17 – smoke alarm
In late November on a Sunday morning my mother burned something she was cooking and the smoke alarm went off.
And the joke was there – right there – in the air like a piece of low-hanging, very ripe fruit. And I ran – ran up to my room and shut the door and started writing in my notebook:
Her cooking. Her cooking is so bad – in the kitchen – in our kitchen we haven’t got a timer –
So she uses the smoke alarm.
And there it was: a joke. A real joke! It felt like a joke. Smelled like a joke. Looked like a joke. A kid’s joke. A parents joke. It was the first joke I’d written that felt finished, self-contained, not an idea or a fragment or some warmed-over Six Pistol bit – something only high school boys would think was funny. It felt like a joke that a real comedy writer would write. A real stand-up would tell. It almost felt like I’d bought the thing. And all because my mother had burned something in the kitchen.
And what the hell, it was true. She really was a lousy cook! I mean, you couldn’t identify half the stuff she made – mixing meat and cottage cheese and ketchup and pineapple. Rock hard hamburgers, bony chicken, gristly steak. And forget anything ethnic. It had never occurred to me that my mother was such a bad cook. But now – it was staring me in the face! Man!
Okay, it was a one-liner. There was no story, no build. But so what? A good joke was a good joke, right?
Thursday night’s audience confirmed it.
so she uses the smoke alarm!
As if on cue, the room erupted – erupted – at the punchline. Right when they were supposed to. Here was an audience doing exactly what it was supposed to do at exactly the right moment. Joke – Laugh – BAM! After two months, it was the single biggest response I’d ever gotten in my act.
Mike and Dr. Weiss were right. My parents. My parents, my parents, my parents. Smoke Alarm – by accident – became my #1 joke – the first joke that I started to repeat regularly – and the centerpiece of my act. And suddenly my act was all about my parents.
My mom’s a terrible cook. She made steak the other day. I said, ‘Make mine rare.’ To my mother ‘rare’ means ‘unique.’ It came back burnt and covered with glue.
My mother’s an awful driver. She’s into parking by sound.
For my birthday, my dad bought me a Driver’s Ed car – the kind with breaks on the driver and passenger’s side. So now when we’re out, he goes “TOO FAST!” (stomps on the brake)
Sure, I did other stuff – commercials, candy, dogs, school, camp. But starting with Smoke Alarm nothing killed more than bits about my family. How could things get better? Here I was telling strangers how screwed-up my parents were –
No, really – she does burn all the food – I’m not being funny – I haven’t eaten in weeks. Why are you laughing?
– and they were eager to hear about it.
It was liberating. The power – the freedom – unequivocal. Where else could I openly criticize my parents and be encouraged – rewarded even! Stand-up became even greater therapy than Dr. Weiss.
My mom’s cooking is so bad, in our kitchen we don’t have a timer – so she uses the smoke alarm.
And as for the butt of my jokes? My mother was thrilled. People came up to her at parties, at her bookstore. She became a mini-celebrity.
“I am a terrible cook! And I can’t double-park! That’s where he gets it from! He wouldn’t have an act without me!”
And after two years, I started to feel like a real comedy writer.
chapter 19 – new york
You can yell at your mom and throw your dad against a tree, but there are certain things y’just can’t say to your grandparents. “Hey Gramma – pound salt up your ass!” Y’can’t say that.
One time, my father, thinking that my grandmother Alice should’ve minded her business about something, said:
Oh, just tell her to pound salt up her ass
It wasn’t that it was a funny line when he said it – but it was such a strong, clear image and it stuck in my head. I’d never heard the expression before, but it fell out of his mouth so naturally like something he – or friends from his youth? – boy scouts? – had said all the time. And I really wanted to understand, to comprehend it. I imagined this old, bent over, gray-haired woman – possibly the sweetest woman I knew in my life – and this bag of – what – salt? A pound bag? No, the idea was to take the bag – the salt – and pound it – the salt – up her ass. So – so – she would be, I guess, squatting – and – or was it more like bread? Kneading and pounding the bread – but the salt – and –
The other reason I loved the line was because it was one of those rare moments where my Dad was really trying to share something with me, no matter how inappropriate or bizarre.
So I put the line in my act even though, really, I had no idea what I was saying.
And, of course, it got laughs.
The first week of December my father and I traveled east – to Boston and New York – so I could do college admissions interviews. My expectations were mixed: low because of my grades, upbeat because of the radio and stand-up, and a decent return on my SAT scores. I was shooting for artsier schools – Hampshire College, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College – where I imagined the performing would have more weight.
The only close-to-home school I’d interviewed with was Miami University in Oxford, Ohio – a party school with a good writing program. (P.J. O’Rourke, the great Editor-in-Chief of National Lampoon, had gone there.) As an Ohio resident they had to let me in but could still refuse me housing for the first year, and commuting from home every morning seemed a lousy prospect.
University of Cincinnati, on the other hand, couldn’t refuse me housing, but it was a poor last resort and too removed from my long-term goal of getting as far as humanly possible from Cincinnati, Wyoming, and my parent’s house.
The trip east was only my second plane ride ever. Boston was freezing, and New York, in December, was cold, windy, and grimy. Everywhere looked like the seedy, 24-hour 42nd Street I’d read about in the New York magazines in Dr. Weiss’ waiting room: sleepless, run down, itchy, exciting. My father and I stayed in a drafty room at the Gramercy Park Hotel and I took notes constantly. If I paid attention I could probably talk about the trip for weeks.
Dad washes contact lens in tea at Mama Leone’s. Wears it again. Ugh.
Went to Lindy’s. Thought I’d try something other than cheesecake, so I ordered sweetbreads. They served me beef pancreas.
My interview at NYU went poorly. They were snobbier than I’d expected for this famous melting pot school and weren’t that impressed with my extra-curriculars. But whatever. Here I was riding high on my little radio show and back-woods Podunk comedy routine and this great New York school that Woody had flunked out of couldn’t give a shit. Well, maybe I’d go to UC after all.
Outside, Washington Square Park teemed with homeless people and I wondered why they stayed here, with the cold and wind and filth. Why not go to Florida or Hawaii and bask in the sun? We had homeless in Cincinnati, but not like this. Not everywhere you looked. Would it be better to be homeless in Cinti, with its freezing, record snowstorms? At least in New York, I supposed, you could fade into an endless sea of derelicts and lose yourself.
Everything in New York is Jewish. Food, people, the dogs. Have you ever seen a Jewish dog? They go: Roocha Roocha!
Sarah Lawrence went better. The recruiter wasn’t thrilled by my grades either – but at least he wanted to hear the tapes of my act. Also, it was expensive. UC or Miami would only be a fraction of the cost of Sarah Lawrence. But if it was a deciding factor with Dad he wasn’t letting on.
What excited me most about New York, though, were the clubs. Even in Cincinnati, we knew about the world’s most famous comedy clubs: the Improvisation, Dangerfield’s, Catch a Rising Star. Practically every famous, modern-day stand-up had gotten their start, or at least performed, at Catch and the Improv.
Despite being smoke-filled and cramped, the Improv seemed majestic to me. The walls were adorned with eight-by-tens of every name comic in existence and the club permeated with New York street attitude the moment you walked in. Not the casual, comfy, good ole boys of Cinti. The eye comics were bush league next to the NY Yankee comics of these clubs: Mark Schiff, Paul Provenza, Steve Mittleman, and others; tough, hardened Italians and Jews – even the ones who weren’t actually Italian and Jewish. These were no-bullshit young guys in suits with set acts, set shtick. They’d fought for their five-minute, two a.m. spots against hundreds of other New York wannabes to be the next Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Robert Klein. These comics thrived on the naked caffeine in the ether, channeling it into their acts. Hostile, confident, angry, edgy. Funny. And if they came across laid back for even a few seconds it would soon be apparent that this was calculated to disarm the audience, lull them into a false sense of security, then snare them with a payoff. These were comedy survivalists. No wonder I liked them so much.
The audience was different, too. Not the laid back, $5-no-drink-minimum Clifton crowd. These were New Yorkers and international tourists paying $20-35 a head with a two-drink minimum. And the room was packed.
And Dad? He was nonplussed. Sure, he thought they were funny. But comedians were supposed to be funny, right? He wasn’t in awe like I was. Or maybe he was simply more concerned with the cover charge.
Like a rapt foreign exchange student, I watched and studied, inspired. I felt insulated, suddenly, like I lived somewhere on the other side of the planet. I was watching comics who were American, who spoke English and whose jokes I mostly understood, but who otherwise seemed to live on a planet separate from mine, from what I was familiar with.
Mark Schiff, a tough, young guy – mid-20s – with deep sunken eyes and a Huntz Hall attitude, emceed.
One time my mother said to me, ‘Mark, I am not your maid!’ I said, ‘You are my maid. Go make me a sandwich.’ She said, ‘Wait till I tell your father!’ He said, ‘Sounds like a good idea, go make me one, too!’
Steve Mittleman, a tall, laid-back doughboy – but no less aggressive in his own way – played off his own shapelessness.
You may have noticed – I have no chin.
A flawless, self-deprecating performer, he took his time. Talked about his family, dating, did a long baseball routine. Even here, on the other side of the world, the comics were talking about the same things we were talking about in Cinti: drugs, food, sports, family.
I was playing Scrabble the other day with my identical twin sister. Boy is she ugly –
He mimicked his sister, twisting back and forth, in an annoying, nyah-nyah, sing-song. The whole bit was effortless, immaculately constructed, perfectly timed. The crowd ate it out of his hands.
chapter 20 – home
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.
chapter 21 – plrknib
I was playing Scrabble the other day with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly –
I didn’t think about it. Or I did. Thought about it enough to rehearse it, to practice, to nail it. Thought about it a lot. Constantly, even. But I didn’t think about the moral or ethical ramifications. Or I did. But I didn’t care. Or I did care – but it seemed justifiable – rational? Do-able. It seemed – it felt –like I could get away with it. Like the repercussions, if any, would be minimal.
I rationalized: this is a joke by a not-famous comedian hundreds of miles away, on the other side of the world, on an alien planet. If he lived here, in Cinti, then no, forget it. If it seemed like he might ever even come to town – then no. If it could affect him, negatively, in any way – if it could somehow hurt him, hurt his career, impact him at all – in the slightest – then no, no, no. But it wouldn’t. He would never know. He was not a name – not a headliner. He was a young, unknown New York comic. A foreigner, for all intents and purposes, to Cincinnati, to the Midwest. No one here would have heard of him, heard this bit before. And certainly no one there knew me. We were on two different planets completely. Two obscure, young comics on two different worlds, hundreds of miles away from each other.
Telling the same joke.
Of course, no one would know.
And besides, it was only temporary. Just until I had time to work up my own Big Bit. My Big Piece of Meat. It would give me breathing room while I continued to work, work, work on my own act. I would be like a singer – or a rock band – doing a cover. Except that no one would know it. Everyone would think the bit was mine.
And, anyway, really – who would care?! Right?! C’mon. That was the real point. The audience wouldn’t know – wouldn’t care who wrote what. Look at Jack! I could stand there quoting Rodney Dangerfield jokes off albums all night and no one would care! They wanted to be entertained! The New York comic – Mittleman – he could do the bit in New York. I’d do it in Cincinnati. Nobody here wanted to go to New York, anyway – and vice-versa. Just me. That was it.
Yes, yes – it was unethical. I was being unethical. I was. I had no business doing it. It was wrong. Wrong. But this was my life, here! School, college, everything was wrapped up in this. I needed insurance! And most importantly, it would work in my act. I knew it.
I was playing Scrabble with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly –
Laughs. Big big laughs. I did the joke as best I could remember it from memory and the two-to-three word notes I’d taken in New York. Maybe the wording wasn’t exactly my style – whatever that was. Maybe the identical twin sister line didn’t have the same resonance. But I did have a sister off at college. Not a twin, but close enough, right? And, okay, Mittleman’s act revolved around him deprecating his looks – so, he got a much bigger laugh with identical twin sister than I could have.
But still, it worked. I wasn’t looking to improve the joke. Maybe it would have flowed through my act better if I’d changed a few words here or there. But why mess with it? It worked fine without changing a line.
I was playing Scrabble with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly.
She’s pretty stupid, too. She was writing the scores down in purple crayon! Can you believe that? Purple crayon!
Purple crayon was far and away my favorite line in the bit. Doing and saying that one line – purple crayon – taught me more about the process of comedy than anything I’d done in my own act up to that point. Because on its own purple crayon wasn’t funny. It was a set-up line that paid off at the end. But Mittleman had played it – and I played it – as if it was the funniest line in the bit. As if, naively, I simply trusted the line too much.
So, she takes all seven of her tiles and she spells out the word, ‘plrknib.’
I said, ‘Plrknib’ is not a word!’
She said, ‘It’s in the dictionary, look it up, it’s a word, it’s a word, it’s in the dictionary, look it up, it’s a word!’
Like Mittleman, I did it in an annoying nyah-nyah, sing-song – twirling back and forth on my heels for emphasis.
‘It’s a word – it’s a word – it’s in the dictionary – look it up – it’s a word!’
So, I got the dictionary and I looked up the word ‘plrknib.’
‘Plrknib – a word used in the game of Scrabble.’
Deep laughs. But we’re not done yet.
And it’s written in purple crayon.
Laughs. Laughs on Scrabble. Bigger laughs and applause – applause! – on purple crayon. The coup de grace! Oh – ! We were set up! But, ah – the comic knew what he was doing! Points for smart! Points for clever! We’re in the hands of a professional.
Great, great, great, great joke. And like the big game hunter who’d gone to Africa, I’d gone East, and snared this tiger. Without even realizing it at the time! Frodo Bernstein had found his Dark Ring of Power: Plrknib, the Perfect Joke.
Next to Plrknib, every joke in my act – even the ones I’d come to repeat and rely on – felt experimental. Like on any given day they could fail or might not go over. After all, what did I really know about joke writing? Since the start of the Six Pistols I’d been flying by the seat of my pants, my only “training” coming from albums and TV. I thought my bits were funny but they never sounded like Woody’s or Carlin’s or Albert Brooks’.
But Plrknib did. Plrknib was a finished joke. It came fully formed – almost as if it had been from a book or an album. But it was even better because I’d seen it performed, seen Mittleman’s nuanced gestures and how he’d played the audience, watching and patiently waiting for each laugh. It wasn’t just some time-lost, audience-in-a-room-on-an-album-forever-sealed-in-amber. I had been there live when this joke had killed. I knew it was simple and right and would always always kill. And I believed in Plrknib like no other joke in my act.
Had the joke died the first time I performed it I would’ve been surprised. But if it had died I would have taken it as a comment on me, not the joke.
“Never ever get mad at your audience. Even the hecklers. It’s not their fault. Even when you bomb – they didn’t suck. You sucked. They don’t know you, they just want someone to make ‘em laugh. If it’s not working – it’s you. And you better take it like a man!”
If Plrknib had died, it would’ve signaled that my delivery was abysmal, my timing, sense of comedy, sense of myself, maybe even my judgment of a Cincinnati crowd vs. a tougher New York crowd. But Plrknib didn’t die. It did very, very well.
Smoke Alarm was still there and I loved it the way a parent loves his first child even as a younger sibling’s talent begins to emerge. But more and more Alarm had become just another joke in my act, while Plrknib was taking center stage.
Scrabble joke © Steve Mittleman
chapter 22 – success
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!”
“Sucks! But it’s out of print!”
Nearby, Mike flipped through comedy albums. He held up a Shelly Berman disc, checked for scratches.
“Mike,” I said. “This guy knew me. Has anyone recognized you yet?”
“And they say stuff?”
“That’s pretty cool…”
“It’s real cool.”
By 1980, Saturday Night Live had become a cultural phenomenon. National Lampoon was selling magazines, albums and making movies. Monty Python and Second City – not to mention the Congress of Wonders, Groundlings, Firesign Theatre, Cheech & Chong, the Credibility Gap, etc. – were popping up all over TV and making movies. Comedy albums abounded. Cable TV – still in its infancy – fueled the gold rush. And comedy clubs – once limited to San Francisco, New York, LA and Vegas – were opening across the country.
In Cincinnati, after only two and a half months, the eye was packing in crowds. The club was getting favorable press from every publication in Cincinnati – from Everybody’s News to the Enquirer and Post to a long feature story with pictures in Cincinnati Magazine. The eye was giving people a live, local fix for what they were seeing on SNL every week.
Now, when Roger announced comics, he prefaced almost everyone with
And now let’s welcome another up and coming comedian
and he meant it.
Don raised ticket prices and brought in cheap headliners until he could figure out whether or not all of this was actually going to work. He hadn’t been paying anyone other than Roger and the wait staff more than $5 a night. But headliners – even bottom feeders – might cost $50-$100. Even with drinks flowing and cash coming in he might have to reach into his own pockets for that. He certainly couldn’t afford hotel or airfare, but maybe they could sleep in the eye’s back room – or at Roger’s place – even his place if absolutely necessary.
And with the success of the eye, every bar in town began hosting a comedy night – the Lakewood, the Blue Wisp, the Sandbar, even the crummy Wishing Well up on Reading near Galbraith. Sure, the eye was home. But when the phones started ringing we knew we weren’t under contract.
Mike calling me at home:
“Wanna do five minutes at the Well?”
“It’s 10 o’clock!”
“I’m settled in for the evening!”
“Mike – the Wishing Well’s a dump!”
“It was the Tri-State’s greatest steak house in its day!”
“Its day was forty years ago!”
“C’mon – they got a grand ballroom upstairs. They’re paying double the eye!”
“Never pass up a chance to perform!”
“Which rule is that?”
Tim Stamfield, outside the school cafeteria:
“You do youth groups?”
“My youth group’s doing a retreat in three weeks – and we wanted a band – but I told ‘em you’d be better.”
“Thanks – ”
“And probably less expensive.”
“What kind of youth group?”
“Oh. Oh. Okay. I – ”
“It pays $50.”
“Oh, sure. I can do it. No problem.”
Dave in the hallway:
“Buffy wants you to do Ursuline’s talent show.”
“She said No is not an option.”
After the radio show took off, Dave had become more and more involved with Buffy’s friends – a large clique at Ursuline, the nearby Catholic school she attended. The Ursuline girls were legion – all with names ending in y – Buffy, Bitsy, Mindy, Muffy. And they partied hard, and certainly liked Dave well enough.
“Don’t you have to go to Ursuline to be in the show?”
“I have no idea. But you have to do it. She’s your biggest fan.”
“It’s an all-girl school.”
“Sure. Okay. Fine.”
The Ursuline show was ad hoc, relaxed. Because of Buffy I was a celebrity before I even got on stage. And for once I did the smart thing – I asked what was going on at the school ahead of time and then made references onstage.
And it’s too bad none of the lockers open – !
WAH HA HA HA HA! It’s true! Cheers. Applause.
Even though I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
By the way, on the subject of religion and comedy, I was not only the youngest comic at the eye, I was also the only Jew. Which you’d think might give me some sort of leg up – license to be smart, angry, obnoxious – simply for hereditary reasons. Unfortunately, the audiences in conservative, Germanic, Kentucky-bordering Porkopolis weren’t very Jewish either. And jokes like Scottie’s tissue –
“Scottie’s tissue is no ordinary bathroom tissue, dearie!”
When I take a shit I want ordinary bathroom tissue.
– tended to get a much bigger laugh than
All dogs in NY are Jewish
Paul Adams, Amateur Magician, in Pre-Cal:
“Wanna do a double-bill with me, Sunday?”
“Uhm – ”
“Ten minutes at a kids party?”
“We can do a one-two punch. Hang out!”
“How old are the kids?”
“Six. Seven. But extremely cool. Do ten minutes!”
“No cursing then?”
And then there were kids who didn’t ask about youth groups, because they didn’t belong to any.
“That shit is funny, man! That fuckin’ rips!”
Kids with intense acne, who smoked tremendous amounts of pot, got shitty grades and never got invited to prep parties. They didn’t say too much. But they were there, angry, beaten down. Some resented me –
Who the fuck are you, man?! Asshole. Skipping class! Shut the fuck up!
But others were fans.
That shit is serious! Y’know, you were a real prick once upon a time, man! But that is some serious fuckin’ bizness y’got goin’. You could do anything with that man! Anything! You heard his shit? He’s got the preps – the fuckin’ preps! – on tape! It’s retarded, man! And he played it on live fuckin’ radio! Shit! You gotten laid from any of that, man?! That shit is serious!
Outside, in the school’s smoking lounge:
“That is a great, great fuckin’ scam, man,” said Mickey Blakee. “Think I can get in WHY for selling weed? Shit, I’d sell day or night, man. Doesn’t matter to me!”
“No – no – ” said Keith Farino. “Y’know what? He’s doin’ a public service, man. What he’s doing. Listen. It’s not just funny. It’s fuckin’ important.”
“You’re not just a comedian, man. You’re a representative. A voice of the rejected. Mickey – if it was Brin-fuckin’-Adams would you give a shit what he was sayin’?”
“But it’s Alex-fuckin’-used-to-be-an-asshole-dickweed-like-the-rest-of-us, man.”
“Still a dickweed, man!” said Mickey, laughing proudly.
“Nothin’ wrong with that!” said Keith. “Nothing wrong with that.”
chapter 23 – allies
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.
But not all of the new material was stolen from New York or a result of me bashing my head against the Smith Corona. There was another source: the eye comics, themselves. Success, self-preservation and the threat of new comics had bonded the original eye comics. And we found ourselves working together frequently and sharing material.
“When you do that bit – what are you whispering in class? Why don’t you tell the whole class – we’ll all have a laugh – ?”
“Try: My balls itch!”
“Nice. I can use that?”
“It’s yours. Try it!”
“For the things your parents say – ?”
My mother used to say, ‘I’m not buying you any more milk – all you do is drink it!’
“No – she said that?”
“All the time.”
“Give it a shot.”
“Jailbait – ”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I gotta line for you.”
“Yeah – what? That a shock?”
“D’you write it?”
“Look – I’m giving you a line. Y’gonna be testy about it? What?”
“It’s your joke?”
“It’s my joke! ‘Course it’s my joke!”
“So, why don’t you use it?”
“Maybe I will. I’m loaning it to you. Maybe I’ll use it some other time.”
“So, you’re only temporarily giving it to me?”
“’Zat a problem?”
“No – I – ”
“It’s a heckler line. You don’t have any heckler lines.”
“I – ”
“Look – this is surefire – and I’m giving it to you! Don’t fuck a gift horse up the ass!”
“Is that the line? That’s not bad.”
“No! What? No – okay – so, if someone’s heckling you, right? – I see we got some of Jerry’s kids here!”
“It’ll kill. Trust me.”
“Of course! It’s a great line. Universal!”
“No problem. You’ll get me back.”
“I know you will. Try it out. Give it a shot.”
And I offered one to Rico:
“What if Superman didn’t get his powers until after his rocket crashed on Earth?”
“Okay…uh…wouldn’t he be dead?”
“No – he’d be like this super invulnerable little oozy puddle.”
“Oh. O-kay. Hnh. Lemme think about that!”
“It’d be like – Superman – in his alter ego as mild-mannered third base – ”
“Right. Let me think about that.”
“Okay! It’s yours if you want it!”
Mike’s and Bob’s lines fit nicely into my act, and when I performed them, killed. Jack’s Jerry’s kids seemed too familiar and I skipped it.
Rico graciously did the Superman bit and it died horribly. He tied it to another bit about a super-hero he created, Stickman. It wasn’t a great piece – but my lame Superman joke probably dragged it down even farther.
Meanwhile, Challis, Riggi and Roger – the hippest, smartest, long-hairedest comics the eye had to offer – had formed a triumvirate of eye coolness and there was nothing you could do about it. Were they all really sleeping with the eye waitresses? Were they really partying till exhaustion and collapsing in a stupor on Roger’s apartment floor every night?
God, I wanted a piece of that.
all bits © their respective owners
(especially the Bob Lambert bit)
chapter 25 – ann
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.
The eye. Thursday night in late January.
Plrknib did well, and I had been building in some new camp and school bits.
Mary DeAngela waited for me at the bar. A tiny, hot, Italian woman in her 50’s, and a regular at the club, she was dating one of the newer comics, Rodney, a friendly, big, black guy. I’d seen her eyeing me the last few weeks, even when I wasn’t onstage – grinning, hungry, excited.
“You’re so funny,” she said waving a bottle of Heineken like a magic wand. “You know that? You are so funny. Do you even know how funny you are?!”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No, I mean it!”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think you know. You’ve got something.”
She took a long swig and stared at me, eyes half-glazed.
“Your jokes are okay. They’re okay. They’re fine.”
“But you – could do anything.”
Rodney sidled up next to her with more drinks.
“Am I right?” she asked him.
“You’re right,” he said.
“Of course I’m right!” she said. “I’m having a party Saturday. You have to come. You absolutely have to meet my daughter, Ann.”
“She’d just love you. She’s an absolute doll! You have to come.”
“Okay. Can I bring – ”
“Bring whoever you want. The more the merrier!”
Saturday night in richy-rich Indian Hill. There had been a blizzard the last couple of days, and massive snow banks enveloped the neighborhood. Ms. DeAngela’s house was still decked out with Christmas and holiday lights. Dave had come with me. Ms. D greeted us at the door.
Rodney and a bunch of eye comics were already there, as well as a mix of Indian Hill housewives, bearded Mt. Adams artists, and various men and women in sheer black dresses, turtlenecks and African kufis. The booze was flowing but my newfound d.w. eye instincts were on alert, yelling don’t do it, don’t drink, don’t drink. But as Ms. DeAngela reminded me, I wasn’t at the eye.
“For God sakes! It’s the holidays!”
Dave, beer in hand, was already prowling.
“Look at this place,” he said.
It was something: huge, posh, artsy, unkempt. And then, casually, Ms. D nudged forward the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
“This is Ann,” she announced. “Isn’t she a doll?!”
She was a doll. Sixteen going on twenty-one. Blonde, blue-eyed, giant white teeth; a teenage Jessica Lange. I’d never seen a girl like her in Wyoming. And if her mother was embarrassing her you’d never know it. She wasn’t running away or telling Mom to stop. She seemed to like the prompting. She smiled intimately at me, almost the same way her mother had at the eye. And even though she’d never seen my act, she looked like she’d been in the audience since day one. At least for the good shows.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Your mom’s told me a lot about you.”
Oy – how lame was that?
“She’s told me about you, too,” she said. And her mother beamed.
I should say – I had given up any conceit of ever being cool – or approaching anything even starkly resembling coolness – long ago, probably around 8th or 9th grade. I’d been resigned to the fact that I’d never be a Prep or an even middling athlete, if that was your definition of cool. I wasn’t going to be in a rock band like Jay Anderson, who, at 15, could actually play an electric guitar behind his head, or Dale Snow, who played drums and smoked pot and just was cool.
I never had the heart or stomach to achieve 24-hour pothead cool. I wasn’t savvy or intellectual enough to reach the subgenius, nerd-hipster cool of Mike Rosenberg or Frank Troller. And I certainly didn’t join the Poker-on-Fridays-Risk-the-Rest-of-the-Weekend-Dweeb-Club with any aspirations of it ever leading to the remote nether regions of cool. Even after we got an actual, live radio show and became the Six Pistols, it didn’t quite seem cool to me. It was a goof, a diversion, a means of surviving the painful, post-middle school experience.
And stand-up, initially, had been no different. I was aware that – okay – when I did this thing and it worked – there would be some per se impressiveness to the sheer act of doing. But I had never considered myself the transformed cool man because of it. I didn’t view Jack or Mike as cool – and they were performing stand-up, too. If anything, comedy had simply brought me to a more consistent level of “okay, so now I don’t have to worry about everything so much” in my life. Sure, things had picked up. But inside, I still felt like shy little me.
But here was this girl – who’d never seen me before, never seen my act – and she’d already decided: I was cool. Cool cool. I didn’t have to move or speak or do anything! I was simply and unmistakably cool. And nothing was cooler.
And she was a knockout.
“Refill?” she asked.
I followed her to the kitchen, a mess of bottles, ice, glasses.
“What are you having?” I asked.
“Rum and Coke.”
“You have Pepsi?”
She went right to the rum, knew where everything was.
“Your mom’s okay with that?”
“She taught me how to mix everything. She’s cool.”
Mom’s cool. Yeah, she hangs out, smokes pot. Sells pot. Yeah, she’s doing thirty in Leavenworth. That’s how cool she is…
We sat out on Ann’s back deck with our drinks, freezing, watching the light snow falling, our breath frosting in the air. Our conversation was meaningless. How do you like school? Thinking about college? What do you want to be? How much do you hate this town? The night was perfect and deep and surreal. Breathlessly simple. She liked me. And if the gibberish coming out of my mouth was even slightly clever, she smirked and smiled. It was a new world after all.
“Y’hit the jackpot, my friend!” said Jack.
“What’s up with the mother?” asked Mike.
“Forget the mother,” said Jack.
“C’mon – fixin’ him up with her daughter?! What’s that about?”
“She likes me,” I said. “She thinks I’m cute.”
“You ask me,” said Jack, “the mom wants to date you. You could be workin’ a twofer here!”
“Oh no – ”
“If I had a daughter?” said Mike, “I’d keep her as far away as possible from guys like us – ”
“And she’s practically givin’ her to you!” said Jack. “That’s crazy shit! Coupla superfreaks! Hey – she got another daughter?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Where’s the dad?” asked Mike.
“Dead,” said Jack. “In the backyard, pushin’ up daisies. Maybe that’s what they go for!? Mom picks ‘em out – brings ‘em home – BLAMMO!”
“Maybe Dad was a comic? She’s got a thing for comics – ”
“It’s curious!” said Jack.
“So, what’s next?” asked Mike.
“We’re going out,” I said. “Saturday.”
“The three of you?”
Zantigo’s. Mike and me.
“You think I’m funny?” I asked.
“Here we go.”
“Serious – !”
“I mean – do you think I’m funny? Or do you think my bits are funny?”
He shrugged, big beef burrito half in his mouth.
“I mean – anybody could do my jokes – ”
“You’ve got parents. You could do my parents jokes.”
“They’re not my jokes. My jokes are me. Your jokes are you.”
“I know. I know. But – look – if I’m really funny – then I can do any joke, right? I could read the phone book and it would be funny, right?”
“But if a joke is good – if a joke is so good that anybody could do it – ”
“So, stop doing jokes. Do the phone book, and you can test your theory.”
“Yeah – I don’t wanna test my theory.”
“Or play off the audience more. Ad-lib. I’m trying to do that more. You should do it anyway.”
“Yeah. I know. I know. I try. Sometimes.”
“I don’t know what you’re worried about. You’ve got great material. Your act is solid. Yeah, you gotta keep working and writing. But your material is good. You’re a good writer! So, what’s it matter?”
“Listen – a lot of good people have a hard time writing bits. I have a hard time writing bits – and I work at it. Bill, Rico, Jack – these guys aren’t writers like you and me. They have a really hard time at it. But Driving, Smoke Alarm – those are good bits.”
“Yeah – ”
“And Scrabble is killer. A home run!” He looked at me, sincerely. “You crank stuff like that out, you got nothin’ to worry about.”
chapter 26 – dates
I had a faux-romanticized idea of what my date with Ann would be like: dinner, dancing, a movie, charming repartee and, if I was lucky, a light peck on the cheek at the end – a sign of better things to come. I continued to have Ann pegged as a nice, normal, high school girl because up until then that was my experience of high school girls. So I was not at all prepared for our first evening.
We went to Zino’s, the upscale pizza joint on Little Vine, with the intention of going to a movie afterwards. But half an hour later we were in the back parking lot literally steaming up the windows.
The steam, in and of itself, impressed me. Outside the car it was the middle of freezing winter. But inside, even with the engine turned off, we were a living biochemistry experiment, generating actual heat. Hey, condensation happens! Here was this beautiful girl all over me and I was marveling at the science of it. But then I let go and was in nirvana. A rock star. In just a few months I had transformed from dweeb loser to übermensch and the living proof was pressed up right next to me.
Whatever movie we intended was forgotten. All plans were tossed. And as it got late we left the parking lot and drove aimlessly through dark, empty Cincinnati. After awhile we realized that we were completely lost. But it didn’t matter. We were quiet and pleasant and cozy. We had each other with no one waiting for us. We drove through suburb after suburb – the only light from the occasional nursing home or apartment complex popping out of the darkness like some luminescent, all-night carnival. Steadily, steadily, we headed somewhere. Sooner or later we’d get there.
Math lab. Monday morning.
Bob, Dave, Bucky and I lounged. Doug Borges and Charlie Martins, nerds, came in.
“Al – !” said Doug. “What’s that joke!? The good one!?”
“Naw – not that one – the good one – ”
Doug and Charlie hovered over our table. Bob threw annoyed looks at Bucky.
“Guys,” I said. “We’re trying to work here – ”
“Yeah! Do the Scrabble bit!”
“It’s not the same unless I’m at the – ”
“C’mon! Do the joke!”
“He gets five bucks at the bar,” said Bucky.
Doug reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet.
“Five,” he said, thrusting a bill at me.
The Pistols looked at me, amazed, a little pissed. I sighed and stood up.
I was playing Scrabble the other day with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly…
Doug and Charlie guffawed. Bob slammed his books on the table.
“It’s not his joke.”
“Let it go, Bob,” said Dave.
“It’s funny. It’s too funny. It can’t be his. Who’s is it? Woody’s?”
“Please,” I said. “I’d never steal from an album.”
Doug and Charlie elbowed each other, thrilled. That line wasn’t bad either –
“Don’t bullshit me!” yelled Bob. “There’s no way you wrote that!! No way!”
“Who the fuck cares, Bob?!” said Dave. “Who cares?!”
“Then let him answer!” said Bob. “Let him answer?! Did you steal the bit?”
“Bob!” yelled Dave. “Who the fuck are you? The SS?! Why should he answer to you?”
Doug and Charlie stared, speechless. Nice show for five bucks.
“And why are you defending him all the time?!” Bob barked at Dave.
“Al, do you steal all your bits?” asked Bucky, faciously.
“Not all of them,” I said.
“See?” said Bucky. “He just stole yours, Bob.”
The math boys turned to Bob, impressed.
“Did you write Scrabble?” Charlie asked Bob.
“No! No!” yelled Bob, beet red, ready to hit me, someone, anyone.
“Different joke,” said Bucky.
Doug and Charlie were confused.
“Will you do the joke for five bucks?” Doug asked Bob.
“I’ll do it for two bucks,” said Bucky.
“Bob – !” I said. “I used your bit once. Once! I admitted it! I said I was sorry! I am sorry!”
“Bullshit!” said Bob.
“And y’know what, Bob. It doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll never let me forget it!”
“And why should I?!”
“I only used it – ”
“Stole it – Yes! I stole it! I stole it! Once! And y’know why?! Because it was a great fuckin’ piece, Bob! And you did nothing with it! Nothing! Whose fault is that, huh?! Christ – you think you’d be fuckin’ flattered – you should’ve thanked me when I used the Navy – ”
“– instead of being such a perpetual asshole about it!”
“You’re the asshole!”
“Yeah? If I asked you, would you have ever let me use it?!”
“He would’ve,” said Bucky.
“Al would’ve never asked,” said Dave.
“Fuck you all!” said Bob. “You all side with him! All the time!”
And he stormed out of the math lab.
Hallway. A few minutes later with Dave.
“Dave,” I started.
“Forget it,” he said. “He’s jealous. If he wants to do stand-up, he should do it, instead of taking it out on you.”
“I’d help him.” I said. “Honestly, I would. Any time he wants to come down – ”
“I know you would. Forget about it.”
“Dave,” I said. I looked at him, seriously. “That joke – Scrabble – ”
He held up his hands.
“I don’t wanna know.”
“I – ”
“It’s your thing. Your business. I know you know what you’re doing. Okay?”
Jack fumbled through his act. I was conscious, suddenly, that he was getting sloppier onstage. Being loose was always part of his charm But now, more often than not, he was dropping lines, forgetting his place – maybe not even caring where exactly he was supposed to be. Sometimes he’d just stare, grinning at the people in the audience with that glazed, glassy look. And folks tolerated it, thinking maybe it’s just part of his act? Maybe he’s actually building to something.
It’s was almost frightening when Jack dropped material. He looked naked onstage, hovering, waiting for – what? Roger to pull him off? Hecklers to throw things? His toxicity to render him unconscious?
The high from standing in front of people, hearing their laughter, engagement, approval – was stunning. Pure love washing over you – even from drunk frat boys. Intense. Emotional. And a bad performance was incredibly depressing. The only way to protect yourself was to stay reserved, wear a two-inch thick emotional raincoat. Everyone died, but if you could balance the bad with the good – keep some small objectivity – then surviving less-than-stellar performances wasn’t so awful.
For some, the comedy high was so intense that they never wanted to come down. They’d bring their shtick with them, everywhere, wearing it like a new bomber jacket. No matter how obnoxious or inappropriate their behavior might seem. Keep it going, keep it going, just a little bit more. Everyone was an audience. The guy in the elevator. The cab driver. The cashier. The female cashier. The cute, female cashier. Without a ring. There’s the perfect audience. Holes were filled onstage but the yearning to keep them filled could be consuming.
“Roger,” I said. “I’m free this weekend! If you need an opener – ”
“Not yet,” said Roger. “Not ready. Keep working.”
“Durst is back next week,” Mike whispered to me. “Gotta see him! He’s unbelievable!”
Ann and I spent what felt like hours – but was more likely 45 minutes or so – parked in an empty lot behind Xavier University. Another movie we’d never made it to. Another concert or party we’d missed.
She kept a flask in her purse and took sips and offered it to me. She never asked about my act, never even mentioned it. Although she talked a lot about how much her mother enjoyed the eye.
And in the parking lot I realized that I had reached the ceiling of my experience with girls. And I had no reference for whatever I – or she – was supposed to do next. In only a couple dates I’d gotten further with Ann than anyone ever before, and was completely out of clues. Here was this very great, intense thing happening. I hadn’t read enough magazines – enough of the right ones, anyway. And I didn’t want to screw it up. So I slowed and she slowed. And seemingly, hours passed.
And I thought to myself: y’know, she probably wouldn’t even care about the stolen jokes. With Ann it might actually be a positive.
You stole jokes? Cool.
Sunday. The eye with Jack and Mike. I nursed a Coke.
“We don’t talk that much,” I said.
“That’s a good thing! The best thing! Something you may never have again in your lifetime! Trust me!” said Jack.
“Yeah – but still – ”
“What?! What could you possibly have to complain about?!”
“Well, y’know – she likes me – because – ”
“You do stand-up?”
“So, she’s a groupie.”
“Well, yes and no. She’s – ”
“Don’t say it – ”
“She’s never seen my act.”
“So, it feels – I dunno – disingenuous. Like I’m lying or something.”
“So who cares?! She doesn’t care! Why should you?! Look – listen to me,” said Jack. “You have this perfect, perfect thing, here! Don’t ruin it by getting all honest! Jesus! That’s the worst!”
“Well – what if she saw me and – ”
“Did she say, I want to see your act?”
“Has she ever even mentioned it?!”
“So, who cares?!”
“Well – ”
“God gives you this gift – which is what this is, okay? – let’s call it what it is: a gift from God. You don’t get a gift from the Great One every day. I certainly don’t get that! But you got it! So, don’t ask questions! Take this gift – and run – run with it! Don’t look back!”
“You’re right. You’re right.”
“Course I’m right!”
“But – ”
“I feel like I’m cheating!”
“It’s not me she likes. It’s this romanticized, idealized me that her mom told her about! That I’m some – some – I don’t know – ”
“Who cares?! Who the fuck cares?!”
“ – great comic!”
“You are a great comic,” said Mike.
“I’m not. I’m not. It just doesn’t feel real.”
“You are completely crazy. Y’know? Yer a crazy, crazy, crazy motherfucker.”
“You actually want her to see your act?”
“I dunno. Maybe.”
“Of course not! If she sees you on a bad night – you are completely fucked.”
“I’m tellin’ you, man. Leave it alone. Leave it a-lone.”
“For whatever reason – she likes you. She’s into you. Y’gotta think about that. And we’re living through you, Jailbait.”
“Absolutely,” said Mike.
“So, don’t fuck this up!”
“I won’t,” I said.
Jack looked at Mike.
“He’s gonna fuck it up.”
“Absolutely,” Mike nodded and they downed their beers.
They were right, but still – if Ann came to the club and I killed – if I was on and the audience was with me – what would a night be like after that? But if I tanked – God, I didn’t even want to think about it. No, no. It was too much of a risk. Even on a good night, the idea of me performing was probably much cooler than anything I was actually doing onstage. And besides, it was impossible, right? Ann was 16 and I had made my promise to Don. She was too young to get into the club – even though she could probably drink half the crowd under the table.
Mike and Jack were right. As much as it frustrated me, they made sense.
And I resolved never to let Ann see me perform.
chapter 27 – durst
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
chapter 28 – confession
“My entire act is stolen.”
“Please?” Dr. Weiss sat up.
“Okay, not the entire act – but the best bits. They’re stolen.”
“From comics I saw in New York – at the Improv and Catch a Rising Star.”
“I stole bits! I’m a thief! I’m no better than the first day I walked in here!”
“How many bits?”
“I don’t know. Like – three – or four – or five. A lot. But this one bit – it’s far and away my biggest bit. The centerpiece of my act. People expect me to do it! Even when my regular jokes aren’t working – this bit works. Y’know what it’s like having a bit that’s foolproof? That you can absolutely rely on? This bit works even on even the worst audience!”
“Okay – ”
“I don’t know what I’d do without this bit!”
“Yes – okay – this is – which bit – ?”
“I didn’t plan to do this. Or – not for so long. But now, it’s like I’m stuck with these jokes! I can’t not do these jokes! But they’re not mine!”
“They’re not mine – ”
“Well, let’s stop for a second and think about it.”
“What does stolen mean, exactly?”
“It means I stole them. I hijacked them. I robbed them from other comics.”
“You didn’t write them?”
“But you’ve said that other comedians – ”
“That’s not – it’s different.”
“Because they don’t care. They don’t care that they’re stealing jokes. No comic who steals jokes amounts to anything. They’re not original. They’re losers. Which is what I am, right now.”
“But – who’s telling these jokes? They aren’t famous, right? These are local New York comics? I mean – has anyone around here ever even heard these jokes before?”
“It doesn’t matter. I know. Sooner or later, they’ll know. Bob knows. Challis knows, I think. He looks at me like he knows – and then – when that happens – it’s all over.
“Yes. The world of comics is a very very small community.”
“I think you’re overreacting. Does it really matter that much?”
“It does matter?”
“Yes. It matters.”
“I mean – musicians cover each other’s songs.”
“It’s not the same. These bits are people’s lifeblood. My jokes are my lifeblood. If someone stole Smoke Alarm – I’d want to kill them!”
“So, this is an ethical question?”
“I mean – it’s not illegal. I suppose there are copyright laws. Can jokes be copyrighted?”
“I – ”
“I’m guessing – ”
“It doesn’t matter!”
“Unless they’re published – or recorded – if they’re randomly spoken – and one person simply overhears – how many unique fat jokes can there be – ?”
“Look – ”
“My point is that – I think we can safely say – it’s not a crime, per se.”
“I guess not. I dunno.”
“So, then, it’s just a code among comics?”
“Which a lot of them break – ?”
“I – look – I don’t want to rationalize this. I don’t want to make this an okay thing. It’s not okay!”
“What I’m trying to do is establish a context. As far as I can see you have these jokes and nobody but you knows they’re not yours. So, on one level – no one cares but you.”
“Until I get caught.”
“The biggest problem I can see at the moment is how you feel about it.”
I stared at him.
“Shitty. That’s how I feel. Super shitty. Perpetually shitty. A fake. A fraud. A big, big shitty loser. A bad person. A cheat. Someone who was trying to do something respectable and I pissed all over it. Because – because – ”
“Alex – ”
“And the worst thing – if people start to think these are my jokes and that the real comedians stole them from me. How fucked up is that?! The guy that came up with Plrknib worked on that joke. He thought of it, constructed it, defined it – worked it till it was solid. I didn’t. I didn’t do shit! And if people think I did – if they think he stole it from me – he’s completely screwed. It should be illegal.”
“Has anyone ever stolen your jokes?”
“They’re not worth stealing.”
“But – aren’t you bringing something to the table? Interpreting the material in your own way?”
“No. I’m doing it exactly the way he did it. My inflections are the same, my beats, my timing. I move – when I do the sister’s part – exactly the way he moves. I’m not interpreting anything. I’m ripping off his joke, his style of telling the joke – verbatim.”
“And anyone could do this?”
“Anyone. A monkey could do it.”
“If he practiced, yes.”
“I could do this?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Look – let’s say, okay – even if you are completely imitating him – you’ve made this joke your own. You don’t just go onstage and play a tape of him doing it. You’re doing it. In fact – because you didn’t write it, it’s probably gotten you out of your head. It’s probably why your act improved so much.”
“I dunno. All I know is that I have to stop doing these jokes.”
“And when I do – my act will plummet.”
He took a deep breath, released.
“Can you wean yourself off of them slowly? Cut one a week until they’re out of your act?”
“I have to. I don’t have a choice. But it’s going to be a long time before I have anything in my act that can replace Plrknib.”
And he stared at me, at a loss.
“Or maybe you’ll come up with something better,” he finally said.
But the conviction in his voice was gone.
chapter 29 – chemistry
Bob ate lunch with Doug Borges and Charlie Martins. At the entrance to the gym area, a list had been posted. I read the list, and infuriated, tore it off the door, walked over to Bob’s table, and thrust it at him.
“What the hell is this?” I said.
“What?” said Bob.
“She’s a Witch?”
“You signed up to do a Monty Python sketch?”
“Yeah. Is that okay, your highness?”
“No. It’s not okay.”
“Now, what did he do?” Bucky hovered nearby with his tray.
“He’s doing a Monty Python sketch – without us – without the Pistols – in The Corral Show.”
“Bastard,” said Bucky, nonplussed.
The Corral Show was Wyoming’s annual talent show put on by the juniors and seniors of the high school. The show ran three nights at the Wyoming Civic Center. For a local talent show, it was fairly high end.
At last year’s show the Six Pistols had became local heroes after performing The Preppie Song – a simple sing-a-long that trashed all things prep. We were especially heroes to the Preps themselves, all of whom disavowed actually being Preps.
About the Preps.
After exhausting mutants, monsters, westerns and game shows, the Pistols began making fun of the people we knew at school. We all had rages and resentments against the more popular kids. Some, like Bucky and Dave S., simply ignored them and got on with their lives. But Bob hated the Preps – detested them – which was interesting because, in a parallel universe Bob could have probably been one. Bob was better looking than most of the Pistols, and nowhere near, say, Ron’s level of social ineptness. The Preps themselves had fringe members – hangers on – that were less athletic, more acne-ridden, and much more socially awkward than Bob. So compared to the rest of us, Bob was ahead of the game. If the lights were dim, he might’ve passed for a Prep. But despite that, he loathed them. Maybe he had no sense of self? Or maybe he’d had a run-in that none of us knew about? Whatever. We were the Good Guys and they were the Enemy – smarmy, elite bastards, repressing us purely by virtue of their existence. Stick ‘em on a bus and off a cliff. Really, the Preps probably didn’t even know who we were. Bob had only transferred in during freshman year. But maybe that was the point? Maybe the rest of us had grown used to being kept down.
While there were certainly lots of groups to not like, we went right to the top of the school’s caste system hierarchy and attacked the Preps. And, surprisingly, the Preps joined us. For the radio show, wewent around with tape recorders interviewing everyone at school who would talk to us. And we asked a simple question: “What is a Prep?” But no matter who we asked, everyone hated the Preps. Preps included. Not one single person acknowledged themselves as a Prep – even though more half the folks we interviewed seemed to be exactly that. Preps were someone else – some other. Certainly not them. Overnight, Preps had become the school equivalent of the Masons. They existed, but no one would admit they were actually a member. Everyone was an Us. No one was a Them.
At that first Corral Show, when the Pistols performed The Preppie Song, Bob tunelessly sang lead. But charm won out and the piece was a hit. After that, in Wyoming, the Pistols were on the map.
“Ron’s doing She’s a Witch, too!” barked Bob.
“Ron?! Ron, too?” Bucky looked over at me. “Is that bad, Al?”
“Yes, it’s bad! Anybody can do that sketch! You do that bit, Bob, and you’re the same as everyone else! Jesus! Do one of our bits! Do The Navy! It’s a great bit!”
“So, we’re doing a Monty Python sketch?” asked Bucky.
“We’re not. He is. With them!” I gestured to Doug and Charlie, who were beginning to look pissed.
“I like this bit,” said Bob. “I like doing this bit – with these guys!”
“Wanna be in it, Bucky?” asked Charlie.
“Uhh…” said Bucky.
“It’s not original!” I shouted.
“So what?” said Bob. “Who cares? No one cares but you. You don’t have to be so fucking righteous all the time!”
“Righteous!? Who’s calling who righteous?! At least I’m doing a bit with the Six Pistols! These guys – no offense guys – are in band! For Chrissakes, Bob! My respect for you just dropped, like, ten notches!”
“You’re doing stand-up, y’fuckin’ hypocrite!”
It was true. For this year’s Corral Show, I had signed up both the Pistols and myself – as a solo act. It seemed obvious that after last year’s performance and more than a year on the radio, the PIstols would dominate. But I also decided to sign myself up as a separate act – alone.
For months now I’d been performing stand-up for complete strangers. People who didn’t know me, who had no knowledge of my past, my pathetic history. Performing stand up at Corral meant exposing myself to people who had, over the years, fought me, teased me, bullied me. Teachers who had given me failing marks. Girls who had rejected me. Dozens – dozens – of kids who called me Greasy. People who didn’t like me, who were disappointed in me, who had not invited me to parties, who had seen me with earth shoes and zits, who knew I read too many comic books. People who had thought – at one time or another, no matter how briefly – I was a geek, a nerd, a wimp, a Jew, a nobody, a loser.
All of them would be there.
Corral seemed like my one opportunity to show all of these people what I had been doing for almost a year now; the night world that I’d been living in; that my WHY job had not been a complete and utter scam.
It would be my chance to give something back. And not out of anger, but out of, I don’t know, mutual respect? Understanding? Affection?
I was ready.
Corral would give me a chance to perform, finally, en masse, for all the people who couldn’t see me at the eye: family, friends, neighbors, students.
Maybe I’d even invite Ann.
“I’m doing stand-up and the Six Pistols!” I said. “Are you doing the Six Pistols?”
“I’m doing what I want,” said Bob.
“At least do something original! Show some fuckin’ backbone, Bob!”
And Bob was on his feet. And nerd shoving commenced.
“No – ”
And Ken Miller, the laconic WHY counselor was there.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Fine.” Bob settled into his seat.
“Walk with me, please,” Ken said to me. And we headed to the exit. But I yelled back at Bob.
“We’ve got a show Saturday! You owe me a bit! Unless you’ve got a show with the band guys! No offense, guys!”
“Things alright?” asked Ken.
“Great. Things are great,” I said.
“I think it’s terrific that you signed up for the Corral Show. Let ‘em see what you’re up to.”
He stopped in the middle of the hallway, looked at me seriously.
“I heard from NYU,” he said. “They’re taking a pass.”
“They said there was always the possibility that you could transfer in later – maybe Sophomore year if you can get your Freshman college grades up.”
“Have you heard from Hampshire?”
“No, I’ll give them a call later.” And he whispered, “But I’m a little concerned about your chemistry – ”
He waited as a gaggle of students passed by.
“Mr. Haas says you failed a couple tests?”
“Uhm. Yeah – I think I did. Is that a problem?”
“Well, WHY requires participants to have a passing grade in all of their remaining classes. So, if you can’t pick this up – ”
“I’ll have to pull you.”
“Out of WHY.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re out. Done.”
“But I’ve been doing WHY for months now. I’ve been doing exactly what I said I’d do – ”
“I know. But no one in WHY ever failed any of their remaining classes before.”
“No one. Ever. You’d be the first.”
“Oh great – well, at least there’s that – ”
“And if you leave WHY – you don’t get the credits.”
I stared at him, speechless.
“It’d be like you didn’t take three classes. You might not have enough credits to graduate.”
“I’m not. That’s just what the policy is.”
“But – I did the work!”
“I know you did.”
“But I didn’t know any of this! I mean – if I’d know it could all get screwed up – I would’ve worked harder at chemistry!”
“Jeez – is there anything – what can I do?!”
“Talk to Haas. Maybe you can get tutoring?”
“I – ”
“Just see if you can get that grade up, okay? See what you can do.”
Ken moved down the hall. And then Dave was beside me, a comforting face.
“That’s messed up,” he said.
“We’re seniors! This was supposed to be a blow-off year!”
“Maybe you blew off too much – ”
“I didn’t blow off anything! I’ve been working my ass off! I only missed like seven, eight classes – tops!”
“Look – all you need is a D. Do whatever it takes to get a D and you’re golden.”
“Right. You’re right.”
“This is do-able.”
“Hey – after the show Saturday, right? Maybe we can – ”
“Show?” said Dave, blankly.
“This weekend. It’s the fourth Saturday,” I said. “We’ve got a show.”
“Oh. Shit – I can’t go – I’ve got some Ursuline thing Buffy roped me into. I totally blanked. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s fine. Really.”
“Yeah. ’S’okay. How are they all, anyway?”
“Good. Good. Mindy broke her leg. Katy got accepted to Yale. Oh – Bitsy’s having a party next week if you’re – ”
“Sure. Let me know.”
And Dave went off, down the hall. And then Bucky was there.
“I can make the show, Al,” he said “I can always make the show.”
Mr. Haas’ office.
I poked my head in. Haas, the sandy-haired chemistry teacher in his Mr. Rogers sweater, sat looking through class papers.
Even with the worst student he was always pleasantly chipper.
“I guess I’m not doing too well in class, huh?”
“Oh, not really. No.”
“It’s a great class. I mean – you do a terrific job. It’s not you. It’s me. My problem!”
“I guess – I guess the thing is – I’m in WHY, see – and I didn’t realize that my grade in this class could – all by itself – well – mess up my graduating.”
“So, it’s a credit problem?”
“Right. Yes. So – if there’s anything I can do. I mean I really enjoy the class!”
“When you’re there?”
“Yes. Right. I guess I’ve been distracted. Hey – hey – you don’t have any groups or clubs you belong to? Y’know – church, temple, Kiwanis, choir, men’s group, rotary club, glee club? Anything?”
“Uh – ”
“Mensa? AA? Bowling league? Tipplers?”
“No. No, Tipplers – ”
“No communions, or bar mitzvahs, or weddings coming up?”
“Actually – ”
“No – nothing?”
“Because I – I – I – ”
“You’re doing stand-up comedy?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“I don’t have anything you could perform at. If that’s what you’re getting at.”
“But it wouldn’t help your grade, you know. I mean it might be fun – ”
“But it wouldn’t help your grade.”
“Uh huh. So, then – any suggestions? I mean – what would I have to do, exactly, to pass?”
“Well – ”
“Study like your life depended on it.”
“Mm. Which it does.”
“So, there’s a chance?”
“Oh sure. There’s always a chance. You put the time – and I mean a lot of time – significant time – in you might, hypothetically, conceptually, not-quite-completely-impossibly swing a low passing grade.”
“Maybe. Possibly.” he said. “Crazier things have happened. But not recently.”
“Perfect! Thank you!”
I shook his hand, vigorously, and ran out.
“Good luck!” he called after.
And so I studied. I crammed. I spent nights – non-eye nights – poring over chemistry, desperately trying to learn everything I’d missed for the first four to five months in a few weeks. Thank God pre-cal, English and typing weren’t equally in the toilet.
The other Six Pistols excelled at science – physics, biology, anatomy. They loved this stuff. What was I thinking? I was completely underwater with moles and structures and periodic charts and – Christ, chemistry was difficult! Reading the same paragraphs over and over, absorbing nothing. Never had I been more mindful of my limited capacity for studying.
Of course, I probably had had other options in the beginning. I could’ve taken a no-brainer “piano lab,” or some bonehead history course. Both would’ve likely been easier. But no, I had been looking forward to chemistry; to making acids and ink bombs and things that combusted. After years of scrutinizing comic books, chemistry seemed like a fun place to be. Ray Palmer – the Atom – he was a chemist, right? Actually, he was a physics professor. But the Flash – he was a police scientist that got doused with chemicals during a freak lightning storm! That was kind of like chemistry. Sure! A lot of the super heroes were scientists! So, thank you, effin’ Flash!
I had to pass. The idea of not graduating – or even graduating at a different time than my class – was unfathomable, humiliating, shameful. Here I was writing and performing alongside adults. I had my own radio show and I might not graduate?
God was still punishing me. For what? Stealing jokes? Years of bad grades? For being an asshole in general? All the things I’d done to shore up the architecture of my new life seemed as fragile as that first night that Don had kicked me out. What were all the other seniors doing these nights? Not writing radio shows. Not panicking that they might get left behind. What a schmuck I was.
But it wasn’t God. It was me. I’d made my choices. And now was no different. I’d just have to work through it. I reallocated my days – my free time – to studying, to doing whatever it took to eke by. I spent days memorizing chemical combinations, the periodic chart, listening to Tom Lehrer’s Elements over and over.
There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium
I had to bear down, prioritize. Even with the Corral Show, and competition for Saturday nights, and my commitment to weed out the stolen jokes and replace them – even with the Six Pistols and Saturday shows – and Ann – Ann! – staying behind was not an option.
I knew I couldn’t stop performing. I had promised myself that if offered a spot I would take it. But there was no time now for rewriting. I’d have to use the stolen jokes a bit longer – just until I could get through chemistry. Then – then – I’d cut them. If I could just bear down – do my act, head home and get right back to work – then everything would be alright.
chapter 30 – rule of threes
Thursday night. The eye
In a dark, back corner of the bar, Roger, pissed, reprimanded Jack. Jack grinned, embarrassed, a schoolboy talking to the principal. He hid a bottle of Corona behind his back and nodded sheepishly at everything Roger said.
Mike and I watched from a table.
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
“He’s telling Jack he’s getting too sloppy on stage. He’s gotta cut back.”
I was burnt out and performed third. It was okay, not great. But the crowd had been generous considering the lackluster shape I was in.
Will Durst was alone at a table, having a beer. Earlier, he’d riffed some stuff out on living with a mongoloid roommate. I wanted to get home, get back to studying. But instead I plopped down at his table, uninvited, and started gushing.
“Jesus – your act is good,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said, politely.
“There’s just something kinetic – something really happening with it.”
“Thanks. Thank you.”
“Jeez – I could watch you for hours. Swear to God.”
“Thanks. Yeah, don’t do that.”
“Just – with all the other comics – I’m so conscious of jokes and jokes and bits – and I mean – I know you’re telling jokes, too – but I forget that. Y’know? I mean – I get so into what you’re doing I forget it’s stand-up. It was like – I dunno – watching music.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that. What’d you think of the roommate stuff? That was new.”
“It was great. Great. Wasn’t, y’know, as polished as the rest – ”
“Nope – ”
“But it worked. It fit. You didn’t miss a beat.”
“So – so, I don’t know if you ever – I dunno – noticed my act – ?”
“I mean, it’s nothing like yours. It’s not even on the same planet – ”
“It’s fine. It’s good. It’s fine.”
“It’s not that good.”
“Well, you just started, y’know? It’s raw. You’re still in that wet clay phase. Good place to be. Everyone starts. ‘Cept for those who don’t.”
“Any – any – thoughts? Comments?”
“Nope. Keep at it.”
“Uh. Uh huh. Any – any – do this – don’t do that – more physical? Less physical? Rule of threes?”
“Y’know, I feel like I just finally got Rule of Threes – “
“And now – and now – I dunno. I don’t know what I know and what I don’t know anymore. Y’know?”
“I hear ya.”
“So, so, so, so – anything? Anything at all?”
“Nothing. Keep going. Keep at it.”
“You’re fine. Really. I have absolutely nothing to say.”
Uncomfortable pause. Durst looked around the bar, back at me.
“How long you been at it?” he asked.
“Four or five months.”
“That’s great. Really. You’re in good shape.”
“Yeah. Just hang in there. You’ll figure it out.”
“Trust me. You don’t want advice. It’s the last thing you need.”
“Uh – okay.”
He stared at me, pitifully.
“Look,” he said, “if I told you – if I said – use more K words – K words are funny – take out VW bug and put in Chrysler – ”
“I like that – !”
“Let me finish.”
“If I told you to do that – ”
“I’d do it.”
“I bet you would.”
“You’d obsess, right? You’d take out every word in your act – every word – and replace it with a K word. Your act would be nothing but Ks!”
“Would that be funny?”
I thought about it.
“It would be – different.”
“Would it be funny?”
“Would it be engaging? Would it involve people on any kind of a personal or emotional level?”
“I think – it would freak them out.”
“There you go.”
“So – no advice. And really, you should ignore everyone. My advice: take no advice.”
“Uhh…uhm – ”
“Look – something has kept you going here for four or five months. Right? Other guys have come and gone. Dropped out. You didn’t. Roger likes you enough to keep giving you spots. And you take ‘em. Yer a sustainer. Y’know? It’s working. So, just do it. You’re in high school?”
“Straight As, huh?”
“Didn’t think so. Not failing or anything?”
“Uhm. I think I can make it work.”
“Well, do that. Get that off your plate, man. This isn’t going anywhere.”
“So, you’re giving me advice, then?”
“That’s life advice. Not comedy advice. Look, my point is, you know how to do your act. If someone had told me how to do my act – and Jesus, people have tried, man – I wouldn’t be doing my act! I wouldn’t be here – and you wouldn’t be fawning over me like a twelve-year-old girl.”
“I wouldn’t say fawning – ”
“I’d’ve quit when I was your age. But I did what I liked, y’know? What I thought was funny. A lot of people didn’t think what I thought was funny was funny. But y’know what?”
“No – well that, too, yeah – but I kept at it. And guess what? They came around. I just did my thing. End of story. And here I am today, playing this shithole for $100 bucks on a Saturday. So, there’s your success story.”
“Yeah. Don’t listen to anybody. Especially me.”
“Except for K words?”
“No. Is that a joke? Seriously. K words suck, royally. Trust me. Nothing is less – no – now, see – let’s just forget the whole K-word thing.”
“But clean up the school thing. Y’don’t want to fuck that up, man. Trust me. Trust me. Jesus. What is it? French? Chemistry?”
“It is. It’s chemistry.”
“Why’d you even take it? Thought it’d be cool? Make ink? Blow stuff up?”
“They should put a disclaimer on that class, man. No ink. No explosives. No fertilizer necessary.”
“A lot less kids would take it. I’m telling you. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
“Or we’d be having it in French.”
“True. But bite the bullet, man. Look – a little panic is good, right? Good motivator. And everyone’s suffering in that class. Not just you. Just do what you need to do, man. Don’t fuck yourself up. Comedy will wait.”
chapter 31 – love and like
I had decided to tell Ann about the Corral Show, and maybe even the WAIF shows. The Six Pistols had a show coming up Saturday night which I hadn’t even written yet. Maybe I’d bring Ann to WAIF and show her off? But no, that’d be a mistake. The studio itself would skeev her out, if the Pistols themselves didn’t. And all I needed was to get into a fight with Bob in front of her. Wouldn’t that be perfect?
Friday was a heady evening and moving in the same direction as our previous two dates. We went to dinner, then found ourselves making out in some abandoned parking lot somewhere. She had wanted to go home early. But not to get rid of me. Her mom was out for the evening and she thought we could relax at her place for a change.
While I couldn’t get far enough away from my own home, and would have never brought any girl there, Ann was eminently comfortable in her own home. Was it the security of the nest? Access to a full bar? Who knows. Chemistry and cutting jokes and a looming Six Pistol show were making me anxious. But anywhere with Ann, I felt I could relax.
Outside, the house glowed from Christmas lights still lit up several weeks into March. We came inside, leaving the interior of the house dark. The living room was chilly and I slumped onto the couch. Ann went to the kitchen, then returned a minute later with drinks.
“You’re nervous,” she said.
“No. Not at all. I love it here. It’s great.”
She climbed over and kissed me. And she was ravenous, suddenly, a wild look in her eyes.
“I wanted tonight to be special,” she said.
“So, I’m speeding.”
I stared at her.
“I’m speeding. I took speed. I’m totally wired right now.”
She kissed me again, and had her blouse off and was fumbling with her bra. And my mind rocketed forward.
Speed? She took speed. I’m 17. She’s 16. And she took speed. Not even “amphetamines.” She actually took speed!
Years of half-ignored health ed classes washed over me like angry, punishing waves.
Pills. Uppers. Like caffeine. But lasts longer. I think. Right? So, she’s wired – hyper – and she’s drinking – she’s drinking one of her everything-she-could-find-in-the-kitchen concoctions – mixing booze – a downer – with uppers – so so so so – what if she O.D.s? And her mom comes home and –
My eyes went wide. Her mom was upstairs.
“I thought she wasn’t – ”
Ann covered my mouth, rolled her eyes, annoyed.
“Ann!? Are you home?!”
“Is that Glen?”
“It’s Alex, Mom. We just came in!”
“Wonderful! I’ll be right down!”
“Mom! Please! We’re fine!”
“No bother! I’m getting a robe on.”
“Shit!” Ann knocked her glass off the table, pissed. “Goddammit!”
Imagine how cute and surreal it would have been if a large sheepdog had suddenly barreled into the room, leapt onto the couch and started licking Ann’s face. But of course, there was no dog. No timely interruption. No comic relief.
“Ann, dear, fix me a drink?”
“Whadda you want?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
“Glen?” I mouthed.
Ann shook her head: Not now. She got up, casually, bra half-off, and went to the kitchen. I sat upright, and arranged myself.
Ms. DeAngela came down in a robe, sleepy, but enthused.
“Hel-lo, Alex. How are you?”
“Great. Fine. Great.”
And certainly not raping your daughter.
“Ann!” she shivered. “It’s so cold! Let’s heat something up! How ‘bout spiced cider?”
“I was – actually – just heading out,” I stammered.
“Already? It’s early!”
“Yeah. Late night. Big show coming up!”
“Oh, well, that’s too bad.”
“Yes. Yes. It is too bad. It is.”
And Ann came back – clothed, thank God – with more drinks.
“I think – I’ll just be heading out, then,” I said, inching to the door.
“Jesus,” said Ann, glaring at her mom.
“Yeah. Yes. Well. Good night. G’night, Ann.”
“Don’t leave,” they both said.
“G’night,” I said.
“Drive safe,” called Ms. DeAngela.
I drove aimlessly for an hour before finally pulling into my driveway. The house was quiet, but Dad had left me a note: Call Ann.
“That was so stupid,” she said. “She’s so clingy. Honestly, I really didn’t know she was there.”
“I know,” I said. “Sorry I left. I panicked.”
There was dead air on the line for a second.
“Didn’t I tell you about him?”
“I don’t think so.”
“He’s a – he’s just some guy at school. A normal guy. He wrestles. He’s really quiet.”
“And – are you seeing him?”
“No. No. I mean – a couple times. That’s all. Nothing serious.”
“He’s not like you. He’s not at all like you. But – ” she trailed off. Her voice was shaky.
“He told me he loves me.”
“Huh,” I said. “Huh. Wow.”
“After two dates?”
“Huh. Do you – love him?”
“He’s very nice.”
“What about you?” she said.
“Do you love me?”
And. And there was nothing then. Nothing but still air in the still night.
“I – I like you, Ann. I really like you. I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“But – ?”
And we were quiet and awkward. Till now, this may have been the longest unbroken conversation we’d ever had. Followed by the longest silence.
I did like Ann. A lot. I can’t imagine that she liked this Glen guy remotely as much as she liked me. Or as much as she believed she liked me. But I had nothing to trump I love you with. Something about I love you was exactly what Ann wasn’t getting from me, maybe wasn’t getting from anybody. She needed I love you from someone within reach, the same way I needed it from a roomful of strangers week after week.
But I couldn’t lie to her. I liked her too much for that. And I honestly don’t think I had I love you in me for anyone or anything at that point. And it would’ve been cruel to pretend I did.
Living room. Two a.m.
I sat at the typewriter, working. Dad came in, bleary-eyed.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Writing Saturday’s show.”
“The whole show?”
“Can’t someone else write the show?”
“Bucky gave me a page – it’s here somewhere. Dave gave me this.” I held up a half-torn scrap of loose-leaf notebook paper.
“God. You have to do the whole thing yourself?”
“If I don’t write it, it doesn’t happen. Y’know? They’ll just play records. That’s the way it is. It’s my show.”
“How longer you gonna be up?”
“I dunno. Half an hour.”
“Heard from any of the schools?”
“I – no…not yet. I’m working on it.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“No. No. I’ll go to bed soon, Dad. I promise.”
He stood over me as I typed.
“Y’know,” he said, letting out a long, deep breath, “UC or Miami – they’re okay schools. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
I looked up at him.
He nodded, emphatically, and shuffled off to bed.
But now, more than ever, I wanted to get out of Cincinnati.
chapter 32 – censored
Wednesday night. Corral Show dress rehearsal.
I hadn’t heard from Ann in days, but decided to stay in the Corral Show, anyway.
I was a senior. It would be my last year at Wyoming, and I wanted to give the performance as a going away present to the class, the town, the school, and myself. I would do my act, exposing myself – for better and worse – to the people I’d grown up with for the past ten years. Performing for people who had driven me to do comedy as a matter of survival. It would be a rite of passage.
I had been rehearsing my act for a couple weeks now, and felt good about it. As I came backstage Sara McCloskey, a Prep, former class president, and one of the student producers of the show, trotted over, smiling.
“Hey there,” said Sara. “We’d like you to cut one of the jokes from your act.”
“We’d like you to cut one of your jokes. We’d prefer you didn’t do it.”
“The DC-10 joke.”
“Because of Brad Cole.”
Brad Cole had died over a year ago in a plane crash. His father, a licensed pilot, had a private plane and occasionally took friends and family up on little jaunts. It was a hobby of his. One weekend he decided to take the family up on an outing, and something went wrong. He lost control and the plane crashed. It was unbelievably tragic.
“The joke doesn’t have anything to do with Brad.”
“Some people are still very sensitive about it.”
“It was a – it was a completely different situation. DC-10s are commercial jets. Brad was in a tiny, private plane.”
“The joke is about a plane crash. It makes fun of a plane crash. There are a lot of families here who knew the Coles and would be offended.”
“It’s a very insensitive joke.”
“Planes crash all the time! And the bit doesn’t have anything to do with him!”
“I think it’s insensitive. And the parents agree with me.”
“Whose parents? My parents? Bucky’s?”
“The coalition of parents running Corral have come to the conclusion that it’s insensitive.”
“Brad would’ve liked this bit. This is his kind of bit.”
“We would prefer that you don’t do the joke.”
“So then I can’t say fuck in the show either? Is that right?”
“Is that – is that supposed to be funny?”
“Are you asking me or telling me not to do it?”
“We are strongly suggesting that you don’t do that joke.”
I had been a classmate of Brad’s since third grade, but until high school we barely knew each other. The two experiences I eventually did have with him now seemed surreal, in light of what would happen to him and his family.
Three years earlier, as high school freshmen, we were in the gym playing dodge ball – boys against girls – and the two sides had come down to Brad and tiny little Kim Braxton. The coach called “sudden death” which meant there were no boundaries anymore, and Brad, ball in hand, started chasing Kim all over the gym like a maniac. The boys on the sidelines were wildly cheering him on. And as the two of them came tearing past us, I stuck my foot out in front of Brad and tripped him. He went flying. Everyone was shocked. And Kim turned around, gently picked up the ball, tagged Brad with it, and won the game for the girls.
Brad, enraged, chased me into the boys locker room to execute me. He would cut off my head and shit down my neck, as was his legal right according to the Code of High School Teenagers. Brad was only slightly bigger than me, but his rage was all-consuming. And running into the locker room was a particularly bad idea on my part, since there was no way out except back through the front entrance. Brad would have completely kicked my ass, had not an even bigger kid, Mike Dunn, gotten between us and yelled that it was an accident – which annoyed the hell out of me but better that than the alternative. Brad cooled off, but only after throwing me a look of – one of these days, one of these days, you’ll get yours, Bernstein!
But I never did get mine. Not from Brad, anyway. Life went on. And I forgot about him, until a year later, when he cornered me one afternoon in the math lab. We were alone in that little boxy room with no windows and a single exit. Anything could have happened. And once again, he had that hungry, obsessive look in his eye. He looked at me directly, and said,
“Want to play chess?”
Was it a ploy? Was he lulling me into a sense of complacency so he could lock us in the lab and then chop off my head? Or was he sincere? Did he really want to play chess? And what choice did I have, anyway? We sat down and played.
Brad played okay. Better than I expected, actually. But at that time, as a Sophomore, I was fourth board on the Wyoming Chess Team and had him at a disadvantage. (I should’ve been fifth board – but at the tryouts Bob – a better player than me in the long run – kept making blunder moves in the clinch and caved. So, I got fourth board. Were the seeds of our rivalry planted that day?)
Anyway, Brad seemed sincere and made no mention of dodge ball. He wanted a solid game, so that’s what I gave him. I let him be white and open, and didn’t take it too easy on him. It was a simple, quiet, transcendent moment between us – like we were meeting on some ethereal plane apart from school – two guys who maybe weren’t so different after all.
And we finished. And he got up, thanked me for a good game, shook my hand, and left.
And then he died in that horrific plane crash a year later.
And I honestly believed Brad would have liked the DC-10 joke.
DC-10, as I mentioned earlier, was another joke I’d stolen from New York. But the guilt I now felt about co-opting New York material at the eye wasn’t bothering me so much with the Corral Show. Corral was, ultimately, a high school talent show. Furthermore, most of the act was still my own material. And if I was going to perform solo for my peers I was certainly going to use proven material. (It also occurred to me that I had publicly berated Bob for performing unoriginal material – and here, of course, I was doing the same thing myself.
Nevertheless, being strongly urged to not do DC-10 was controversy that I hadn’t expected. I loved the joke, but it wasn’t the centerpiece of my act, nor did I have the same commitment to it that I had with Plrknib. But the censorship – being asked not to do it – especially by a former class president – and a major Prep – made me really want to do it. Already I had whittled down my material to a “clean act.” I wasn’t that out of touch with reality. I wanted to impress my family and neighbors not alienate them further. But this was different. This was a matter of Sara’s – and some parent’s – personal judgment. They didn’t like the joke.
If she’d asked nicely I probably would have cut it without thinking twice. But she was so snotty – I imagined that I ought to do the joke simply as an affront to censorship of any kind, anywhere. First amendment! First amendment! I heard in my head. Yes, I had a responsibility to do the joke! And dammit, Brad would’ve liked it!
At least I was pretty sure he would’ve liked it.
Oh hell – of course he’d have liked it!
My mind raced, and then doubt and paranoia crept in. Had anyone in the history of the freakin’ Corral Show ever been censored? Could anybody really, actually be offended by this thing? Was I a threat to society? To decency?! Jeez. It was a good joke, but –
Oh, the hell with it.
Wyoming was a small town. It wasn’t worth fighting over, and I didn’t need the bit to get through my 10 minute act. I decided: Fine. I would capitulate. Cave in to the establishment. The man. There you had it. I would not do the joke. Sorry, fans. Sorry, Brad.
And I made the changes, and reset the act – sans DC-10.
I didn’t tell Sara that I’d decided not to do the joke.
And I continued rehearsing the revised act and forgot all about it.
chapter 33 – parents
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.
I watched her cook. It had occurred to me – several days into rehearsing – that my parents had still never seen me perform. I was exposing myself to all of Wyoming, but this would be their first time seeing me, too. And I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Clearly, there was no honorable way of preventing them from coming to the show. After the gift of the typewriter, the constant borrowing of their car, and the overall support they’d given, how could I not to let them come along with their neighbors?
“You don’t have to go, y’know,” I said. “I mean if you’ve got something else to do.”
“Are you kidding?! I’m so excited I can’t even tell you! We wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
“This’ll be the first time you’ve seen me. I mean, besides wandering around the house, rehearsing.”
“Do you not want us to go?” she asked, bittersweetly.
“No – ”
“Will we throw you off? Make you nervous?”
“You can’t make me any more nervous than everyone else who’s gonna be there,” I lied.
“So, we can go?”
“Of course you can go.”
And the thought came to me: would my father recognize the New York jokes? Would he remember? Would he notice that I’d lifted them straight from the clubs, verbatim? Well, there was nothing to do about it, now. I’d already cut out all the blue material and cursing. I wasn’t going to cut the New York jokes just because he’d be there. Putting them into my act might have been unethical, but I wasn’t going to start lying to my folks about it.
chapter 34 – corral
The Corral Show went great until they physically pulled me off stage.
The house was packed. It was a cool spring evening, and it seemed as if everyone – every man, woman and child in Wyoming – had come to the Civic Center to see this little variety show. Maybe they’d come to see Paul Adam’s magic act, or the senior girls perform the Bunny Hop, or Bob and the band boys perform She’s a Witch! Who knows? But there were hundreds of people there. Standing room only.
I was scheduled to close the first hour, and then come back in the second half with Bucky and the Pistols to do a new bit we’d written for the show How to Write an Opera. I was nervous, but enthusiastic.
For my stand-up, I decided to be “larger than life” and had actually worn a blue suit, imagining the Civic Center my personal Sands Casino. I was the consummate professional, eager to please the crowd. And they were likewise eager to be pleased.
Almost every bit was hit. I did my best stuff – smoke alarm, mom’s cooking and driving, some commercials and dating and New York material, Plrknib, of course – which killed – and started to close on Things I Learned at Camp. I could’ve closed on Plrknib, and often did, especially if it was a tough crowd. But Camp was a reliable closer. And the crowd, with all the kids and families, seemed ripe for it.
And as I started to close with camp jokes, there were arms on me, suddenly, pulling me backwards, offstage into the dark. The stage lights went black. And the crowd murmured, confused. What happened? What’s going on? Was the building on fire?
And I saw them: Sara and a Corral parent.
“What’s going on?!” I asked, fervently.
But they said nothing, and disappeared backstage. A moment later, the stage lights were back on. The next act had started. The audience and Corral had already given up on me and moved on.
I came into the basement dressing room disoriented and furious. Bucky and Ron sat waiting for Opera to start.
“What’s up?” asked Bucky.
“They pulled me offstage!” I said. “You didn’t see it?”
“We’ve been down here,” said Ron.
“They pulled me off!”
“I don’t know why!”
“Did you accidentally say ‘cocksucker’?” asked Ron.
“Did you do the Brad joke?” asked Bucky.
“No! No, I didn’t! I wasn’t even going to! And it’s not the Brad joke!”
“Maybe they thought you were gonna do it?” said Bucky.
And I realized, shit, I never told them I’d cut the joke.
“Jesus – so what?” I raged. “Who the fuck are they to pull me off stage?! They could’ve asked! The could’ve double-checked! Finishing is everything!”
“Bastards,” said Bucky.
“Jerks,” said Ron.
“Y’know what it is?” said Bucky.
“What?” said Ron.
“Prep Revenge for last year’s show.”
Bob, Ron and the band boys opened the second hour with the She’s a Witch scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They aped Monty Python down to the letter, and clearly savored the piece – more, I thought, even than the audience did. But they got laughs and did fine.
Bucky and I performed How to Write an Opera – basically, Opera Writing for Dummies to the tune of Carmen – and it went well. An idiot Corral parent had been assigned to direct us, and thought the bit’s yuk yuk potential would be amped if Bucky and I wore strait jackets and Groucho glasses. A year earlier, I would’ve been deeply offended, but this year I was much more focused on my own act. So I relinquished control of Opera and we wore white shirts backwards with our arms tied. It could have been worse. Another director had tried to put us in tutus, one time.
As we came off the stage from Opera, Sara and the Corral parent were waiting for me, and waving frantically.
“Go back!” they called in whispers. “Go back! Get out there! Go!”
“Your act! Finish your act!”
My act? From 20 minutes ago? And I realized the audience – this crowd of students, teachers, neighbors, community folk, shopkeepers, PTA members, dog walkers, bank tellers, grocery clerks, and family and friends – were all chanting
DC-10, DC-10, DC-10
Or maybe not all of them, but enough that you could hear a thumping throng. They wanted what? Me to finish my act? Confusded, I went back onstage and they cheered. My mind was racing. What did they want me back for?
DC-10, DC-10 –
They wanted me to do the plane joke.
Somehow, they knew about it. Sara had asked me to cut it – but they wanted me to do the bit, to be offensive. Well – alright then.
I read the other day that the DC-10 plane crash was the worst plane crash in history. I wonder what the best plane crash in history was? I can see these guys flying into a mountain:
‘We’re number one! We’re number one!’
Wild cheers, applause. Maybe a scattered boo from an actual, offended audience member. But the meter was definitely tipping towards positive.
“That’s for Brad,” I said. “Good night.”
Dressing room. After the show.
“You were wonderful!” my mother gushed. “And you got up in front of all those assholes and – God! You’re too good for that school!”
Ken Miller came over.
“Very impressive,” he said. “You know, he’s in the WHY program!”
“Good to see what you do with your time, Alex.”
Ken headed off. My mother fumed.
“You see that?! It’s like he’s taking credit for your work!”
Mr. Haas wandered over.
“Funny,” he said, sincerely.
“I’m still available for Tipplers,” I said.
“And Kiwanis!” he said.
“You bet!” I said.
“Bernstein,” said Mickey Blakee. “Fuckin’ funny!”
“He was fuckin’ funny, wasn’t he?” agreed my mother. “Very fuckin’ funny!”
And Mickey and my mom went through the backstage crowd congratulating the other Pistols and performers and telling everyone how wonderful they were.
And my father came over and lingered.
“So?” I asked.
“I thought it was good.”
“I thought it was very good.”
“Thanks. Did any of the bits seem…familiar to you?”
He stared at me, confused.
“DC-10?” I said. “The Scrabble joke?”
He shrugged. “Are those – ”
“From New York.”
“The clubs we went to?”
“We heard those there?”
“Yes. Okay. Yes. Yeah. I do remember now.”
“Well. They’re pretty good jokes.
“I know. I didn’t write them.”
“Okay. Was everything from New York? The one about the smoke alarm – I remember that time we came home and – ”
“That’s right. That was mine. Most of the bits. Just not the best ones.”
“They were all good.”
“Yeah. But – you understand what I’m saying?”
“I – ”
“You did some bits we saw in New York?”
“Yeah. Yes. That’s right. And I – I do them – not just here. I do them at the eye. I mean – this was my act.”
“Except for the suit?”
“Yes – plus I curse a lot more. At the club I say shit a lot. Saying shit is fairly de rigueur at the eye.”
“Well. Sounds like you’ve got a great act.”
“I know. But – ”
“I – those bits – I stole those bits. I stole them, Dad. I’m doing stolen material – ”
And I realized I was practically yelling. And Bucky, Mickey, Bob and other folks began shying away from us.
“I see,” said Dad.
Springfield Pike. Late. Mom took the car and Dad and I walked home. The weather was cool and the streets were dimly lit with traffic headlights flickering up and down the street.
“How many were stolen?”
“Tonight? Just – two – DC-10 and Plrknib.”
“Out of how many?”
“Ten or twelve bits.”
“So, at least 80% was yours?”
“So, you got an 80% success rate with your own material?”
“I guess so. Yes.”
A police car sped by, lights flashing, siren blaring.
“Frankly,” he said, “I spent the whole time, thinking – Jesus – how’d he learn to do all that? To get up there and – ”
“Anybody could do it. All you have to do is get on stage and talk.”
He stopped and looked at me.
“No, they couldn’t.”
“Dad – ”
“Don’t – don’t minimalize it. Not anyone can do this. It takes guts to get up there like that. You have a fine act. You should be very proud of your act. I am.”
And people drove by, staring at us. Was something wrong? Should they stop? Why were these two men standing by the side of the road, so late at night, so serious? What could possibly be that important?
We kept walking.
“These jokes – these New York jokes – it really bothers you?”
“Then, cut ‘em out. Get rid of ‘em.”
“I know – I just – ”
“You don’t need them. You just said – 80% of your act is solid.”
“I know. But – ”
“No buts. Just get rid of them. You think your act will fall apart?”
“I – ”
“It won’t. Trust me.”
DC-10 joke © Fred Stoller
chapter 35 – D
I hadn’t heard from Ann for weeks. Was she blissfully involved with that Glen guy? Was she miserable? I didn’t know. And I couldn’t ask Ms. DeAngela, because she’d stopped coming to the eye.
At school, Mr. Haas confirmed it: I was going to pass chemistry. I had crammed and gotten my barely passing grades on the last few tests, a series of excruciating, tense things. I had proven myself, risen in the ranks from “failing” to simply “poor.” I was getting my “D” and elated. I could stay in WHY, keep my credits, and graduate with the rest of my class.
The following week I heard from Hampshire College. They regretted to inform me they were passing on my application. Forget the radio and the clubs. It was too little, too late. So, maybe I wouldn’t go to school at all. Maybe I’d take a year off. Work during the day. Do stand-up at night. Get an apartment with Mike. Maybe he could get me a job at UC’s bowling alley. In secret, I had actually prepared an application to UC but was saving it for that moment when I’d have absolutely no other options. But I figured why jinx myself by actually sending it in?
Everything I had done up to now was focused on a single goal: to escape. Escape Cincinnati. Escape Wyoming, my family. Prove I could go somewhere else and live and survive and start over. And when I started over – wherever it was – I would get it right this time. I’d have a good attitude and be a good student and athletic and be an enthusiastic, all-hands-on-deck, not-so-obnoxious joiner right from the get go. I would go to New York or Boston and no one would know me. And I would work hard and get A’s right off the bat. And no one would ever, ever know what a loser I had been in this previous life.
But I couldn’t do it here. There was too much history, too many people who knew me. And maybe it still wouldn’t work out. Maybe I’d still be a poor student, and end up homeless, no matter where I went. I just wanted a chance to try.
chapter 36 – jack to open
By late April, 1981, I had performed 40 times.
After the Corral Show I tried to drop Plrknib and DC-10 and Make me a sandwich and toss in newer bits – a VD joke, a Neediest Kids of All joke, more commercials. But if a show was going south I found myself jumping back into Plrknib, automatically.
I was playing Scrabble with my identical twin sister
It was still a life raft. The laughs were too big.
And meanwhile, Drew had gotten a Saturday opening spot. And now, on Wednesday night, Roger announced that Jack Previty had gotten one, too.
“He’s got a local following. There are people – believe it or not – that come just to see Jack on a regular basis. He’s a favorite.”
“Yeah, but c’mon – ! C’mon! I mean – what’s the criteria, now?! Are you telling me my act isn’t as good as his?!”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well, say it. Say it to me and I’ll shut up. I’ll leave you alone! I’ll shut up about the whole thing.”
“He has a following. There’s a certain crowd – ”
“Is my act – at least – as good as Jack’s? Have I not been working on my act?”
“You have been. Things have been going well.”
“Look – ”
“Tell me my act is as good as Jack’s! Please! Give me that little bit – ”
“Your act is as good as Jack’s.”
“But he has a following that – ”
“Look – I’ve got Saturday’s booked for a month. Maybe in a month.”
“Maybe. Maybe more than – ”
“Okay – in a month – you’ll give me a Saturday?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“It’s a lot more work.”
“You’ve got to fill half an hour!”
“Half an hour!”
“I’m just telling you. I want to be clear. I can’t promise you a certain date. But you should start thinking about it, now. Half an hour is a long, long time. A long time.”
“I know. I know how long half an hour is.”
“Whatever you think it is, it’s longer than that. I honestly don’t know that I’ve seen half an hour in your act. I’m being frank with you.”
“Oh, come on. I was writing a new act every week for the first three months!”
“I promise you – I can fill half an hour.”
“Well, you’ll have to. That’s how it works.”
“I will. I can.”
It would’ve been easier to simply not care about Saturdays; to not let it get to me. In truth, I probably couldn’t put a whole kick-ass half hour together – certainly not without Plrknib and the others. But I hated the thought of being left behind.
At the bar, with Jack.
“Congratulations on Saturday,” I said.
“Should’ve gotten one weeks ago,” said Jack. “How y’think I should spend my $25?”
“Well, at least you can say you opened.”
“Yeah, well, that’s somethin’, huh?”
“You’re not excited?”
“I did Saturdays six months ago! Remember? We did plenty of Saturdays back then.”
“We didn’t have headliners then. It was just another ordinary night.”
“Wasn’t ordinary to me.”
“Are you pissed you’re opening?”
“I’m thrilled,” he said, swigging his seltzer. He hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in three weeks.
I folded a bar napkin into a cootie catcher.
“It’s a day,” said Jack. “Saturday, Thursday. Makes fuck-all to me. Now, I’ve gotta fill 25-30 minutes? Shit.”
“You don’t have to do it.”
“I’ll do it – but it’s a lotta fuckin’ work for 25 bucks.”
Jack looked at me sideways.
“Hasn’t asked you yet? What’s he want you to do? Pay him for the spot? Jeez.”
“He said he’s workin’ out a night for me.”
“In a month.”
“I dunno,” I said. “I think I’m ready.”
chapter 37 – thursday
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.
Hey – I’m so fat, when I sit around the house – well, I’m not that fat. You’re a great crowd and hey, I’m a great crowd, too.
He darted a glance at Mike, at a table in the back.
These jokes don’t work so good for me, Mike!
“Shit,” murmured Mike.
Roger, in the back, glared, his brows tense. He had already gotten the red light on, but Jack could not have cared less.
There it is! There it is!
He pointed everyone towards the stop light.
See – you all miss the light show! It’s wild! Wild! Red light. Red light. Hey! Hey – Chinese restaurants! What – there’s like 30,000 of them?
“Don’t do it,” muttered Drew through gritted teeth. “Don’t fuckin’ do it – ”
’Zat right, Drew? the Cheshire Cat grinned.
“That’s right, Jack. 30,000.”
I love that. Love it! I don’t even remember the fuckin’ joke! I just love that there’s 30,000 Chinese restaurants! Is that just Cincinnati? Or the whole fuckin’ country?
“Where the fuck would we fit 30,000 Chinese restaurants in Cincinnati, Jack?” called Drew.
Uhm – up your mother’s asshole?
“Oh Christ,” said Mike looking at Drew. Drew, shaky, clenched and unclenched a fist, while coffee spurted out of the cup in his other hand. Roger flicked the red light on and off, frantically. And now Don had come out of his office and was throwing panicky looks at everyone.
Red light, Green light, Stop!! Red light, Green light, Stop!!
Jack pranced onstage.
Roger – yer getting’ me car sick up here! I gotta close! I gotta finish!
“Finish up, Jack,” said Roger, calmly.
How many acts have I ruined up here? Anyone keeping count?
“All of ‘em!” yelled Mike.
Who didn’t I hit yet? I get you in, Hollifield?
“Right at the beginning,” called Bill.
Hey! Hey! I got it – I was playin’ scrabble the other day with Bernstein’s ugly sister? Boy, is she fuckin’ ugly?!
Jack shaded his eyes from the spotlight and found me.
All eyes turned to me in the back. Jailbait! got a minor, tense laugh.
That’s my pal, Jailbait, over there!
“Shit,” I mumbled.
Little Fun Fact: He can’t drink, but he can buy drinks! Put that in yer freakin’ Rolodex! So – where were I? Oh yeah – ! Scrabble –
“Oh man,” said Mike looking at me.
Hey! Hey! Let’s see if I do it better!? Boy, is she ugly! Ugly, ugly, ugly! So, I looked up the word in the dictionary! And there it is – ! There’s the word – whatever the fuck it is! What is it?
“Plrknib,” I said.
Whatever – in purple crayon! Purple fuckin’ crayon! Yeah! That the end of it?
“You missed the middle part – but basically, yeah.”
Oh! said Jack, eyes wide. Oh! Oh!
Jack was having an epiphany. Roger and Don had given up on the lights and positioned themselves near the stage, ready to physically pull him off.
The line! The line! I got it! C’mon! Everybody! One – two – three – !
The Bible! The Bible! Oh shit!
And Jack stumbled, dropped the mic, and fell off the stage onto Don, who, calmly but aggressively ushered him to the back. Roger, smiling and perspiring, brought up a shell-shocked Bob Lambert, who looked unsure what to do next. But it didn’t matter. The audience was relieved just to have anyone else onstage.
“Well,” said Bob, “I’m not sure I’ve got any jokes left.”
From a side table, Mike and I watched as Don and Roger tore into Jack at the back of the bar. Neither cared that he had mesmerized the crowd, and that it may have been the best theatre the eye had ever seen. All they knew was that they trusted him and he had completely screwed up.
“I thought he was doing better?” I said.
“He was,” said Mike. “He was.”
Jack, like a shamed five-year-old, swayed back and forth, nodded apologetically and tried desperately not to burst out laughing. Suddenly off-balance, he grabbed at Don for support, pulling them both over. Roger tried to help. But Don threw them off, waving his hands, cursing, and repeatedly pointing Jack to the door.
In tableau, Don and Jack looked like one of those old Daffy Duck cartoons where Porky kicks Daffy out in the middle of frozen winter. Out! Out!
Jack, head hung low, glanced at Mike and me, grinned, and left. And I realized, six months ago, that was me. I wondered if Jack would stand on the street, kicking parking meters, perplexed as to how he could have fucked things up so badly. I wondered if he’d curse God, howling what the hell had happened to him? What led to all of this? I wondered if he’d bang on the door and beg Don to let him back in. He’s sorry. He’s sorry. He promises he’ll be good, really. He’ll never drink again!
“C’mon,” said Mike, getting up to go after Jack.
But Roger stopped me at the bar.
“That was messed up,” I said. “Poor Jack.”
“Yeah,” said Roger. “Poor fuckin’ Jack. He’s good for a few days and then – pfft! So what about Saturday?”
“Saturday? This Saturday?”
“In two days? You want me to – to – ”
“I – sure! Absolutely! Absolutely!”
“You think you can handle 30 minutes? Because – ”
“Okay. Okay. Great. And let’s see your best stuff, okay? Your A-game.”
“You got it.”
“Great. And thanks for being available last minute.”
Mike came back in.
“He’s gone,” he said.
“Dunno. To get even more shit-faced.”
“And you didn’t – ”
“He told me to leave him alone, so I left him alone. What can I do? I’m not his mother. He knows he can’t do this. He’s been good for weeks now. All he had to do was go another two days. And he pisses it away. What a load of horse shit.”
“Mike,” I said. “I got the spot.”
“Well, good! Good for you! Congratulations! You deserve it! You really do.”
“Thanks. Now, I’ve actually gotta do it.”
“You’ll be great.”
“Absolutely. Just don’t fuck it up.”
“Listen – if you’re worried – y’know – I mean – if you think you’re not ready–”
“I mean I’ve done it before – ”
“I know. Thank you.”
“You’ll be great. You are ready. It’s your time!”
chapter 38 – friday
I was third, as usual, and pumped. Jack, of course, wasn’t there. And I tried not to feel guilty about getting the opening spot at his expense. Would Roger really have put me up in another month? Was he just throwing me a bone for all of my begging? It didn’t matter. The fact was if he didn’t think I was ready he wouldn’t have given me the spot.
My ten minutes that night went fine. Three-and-a-half stars, maybe three-and-three-quarters, even. I was excited for Saturday, and playing to Roger as much as anyone else. My bits were tight and I was full of energy. He wanted my A-game, and here was ten pure minutes of it. And, of course, all of the New York bits were in there: CETA, DC-10, Make Me a Sandwich, and Plrknib. Now, I needed to be as tight and strong as possible. Ethical or not, it was no time to back off of bits that worked.
Roger introduced me as Saturday’s opener. No one booed or yelled what about Jack? Mike and Drew were happy for me. Even Challis and Riggi seemed pleased to see another comic stepping up.
Saturday’s headliner – my headliner – was also there: a comedy-magician from Toronto. He did 15 minutes, giving a taste of what he would do on Saturday. He wasn’t Durst, wasn’t even Tony Williams from Xenia, Ohio. But he was fine. His act was tight, and he’d definitely be able to hold a crowd for an hour or so. I didn’t know how many people would fill a club to see me and some no-name Canadian magician. But it didn’t matter. It was my weekend. I was thrilled.
I left a little after midnight, anxious for Saturday. As I left, Roger, pressed a firm, confident hand on my shoulder.
“Get some rest,” he said.
I left the eye and came out into the cool Clifton spring air. I was graduating, leaving high school behind, and opening the eye on Saturday. Life was good.
“Alex – hey – hey – wait up a sec.”
It was my headliner, the magician from Canada.
“You’re opening tomorrow night?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I saw your act. Good stuff. Tomorrow should be great.”
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he said, soberly.
“Excuse me?” I said, taken aback.
“I know Steve Mittleman,” he said.
And with that my world unraveled.
For the first time ever someone knew. This guy who I’d never seen, never met before, who I knew nothing about up until a couple hours earlier, brought my life to a halt with just four words.
I know Steve Mittleman.
“You do?” I said, stupidly.
“And that bit – Scrabble – that’s his bit, right? Am I right?” he said, staring at me, no-bullshit serious.
“I – ”
“And maybe a couple other bits? Right?”
“You – what you mean – ”
“Everyone knows Mittleman. He’s great. What are you – fuckin’ crazy? C’mon – ”
“Uhm – ”
“No one’s said anything? No one’s caught on?”
“I – “
“Maybe they’re being polite?”
“Uhm – uh – ”
“Mittleman, Schiff, Sayh. All friends of mine. I’m not sure exactly what else you got – you’ve got some Schiff, right? It’s all from New York?”
My heart was beating like a triphammer. I stammered. But it was useless. This was inevitable. Of course. Of course! It was only a matter of time. For months now, I’d almost wanted someone to say this to me – just so I could stop. I didn’t want to use the jokes. I didn’t. It was almost a relief – but – God, the fucking timing!
I stared at him. He was right. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t out and out lie. Not any longer. I was too tired. I had to get out of this hole.
“I went there with my father,” I admitted. “We were looking at colleges.”
“And you went where – to Catch?”
“And the Improv.”
“Mm-hm. Is any of it yours?”
“Yes!” I said. “Absolutely. Most of it. Like 80-plus percent! Okay – a lot of what I did tonight – maybe three or four bits were from New York. But everything else was mine.”
“Smoke alarm? That seemed familiar – ”
“That’s totally mine! My mom burned the chicken once and – ”
He held up his hands.
“You know you’re not doing those jokes anymore. Right? You undestand that? That’s over, now.”
“I’ve been trying to cut them out,” I said. “Honestly! I mean – it’s just – I was failing chemistry – and – and – ”
“No one ever said anything?”
“I’ve only used them since December.”
“You were fuckin’ lucky. If Mittleman had come by – you’d be fucked.”
“I’ll tell you something. If I’d heard you in there doing my material – “ he looked at me, squarely. “I’d’ve fuckin’ killed you!”
I swallowed, tightly. And the thought came into my head to say: That’s no problem. I don’t do magic. But I repressed it.
“I understand,” I said.
“Same with Schiff, Sayh – all of them.”
Sayh? Who was Sayh? Did I see a comic named Sayh? Christ. I’d lost complete track of all my miserable bullshit. I’d have to go back and check my notes.
“Listen,” he said. “This community is small. Smaller than you think.”
“But if the rest of that act is really yours – ”
“What are you – 15?”
“Stick with it – four or five years – you’ll probably really be opening.”
“Years?” I said. “Years?”
“That’s about how long it takes to get a solid ten minutes. Four to five years – playing everywhere – not just shit holes like this. You’ve got some rhythm. But you better look past those high school bits. They won’t last forever.”
He started back inside, then turned to me, coldly.
“You want me to tell Roger you can’t open tomorrow?”
“No!” I said. “I can open!”
“Not with those bits you can’t.”
“I know that,” I said. “ I can open. Even without those bits. I can. I can open.”
We stared at each other, grimly. He took a long breath, then turned, and disappeared back into the eye.
And I went next door and threw up in the back of Zantigo’s parking lot.
And then I was up all night, panicking and sweating.
On a night when I would’ve been anxious anyway I was now shivering with fear and self-doubt. Should I cancel? Let Mike jump in? Sure, sure, it was the obvious thing to do. No. No. Stolen jokes or not – I earned this. Paid my dues. But 30 minutes?! I could barely do 20 with the stolen bits. No – okay – maybe it’d be a little unpolished – but I had the material. I just had to pace it out – pace out the good bits – with – what? My A-game? What effin’ A-game?! Plrknib, DC-10, Make me a sandwich – they were my A-game! No. No, I told myself – it wasn’t about the material. It was about me – me – who I was. And I was – a thief!
No – I should just call Mike and Roger and tell them the truth – I’ve got a fever. A fever. Except I’d performed sick before! I performed with the flu! Fuck. Fuck. No – they were counting on me. This was my shot. I probably wasn’t going to see another Saturday night for who knows how long. Someone else’s star would go up, and mine would sink, sink, sink.
C’mon! Everyone said my material was solid. Well, here was the acid test. I didn’t need Plrknib. I never needed Plrknib. I fought back at this club – week after week – proving I could keep up for six months now! I wasn’t going to bail ‘cause I couldn’t do 30 minutes without telling those jokes! Bullshit! I could do 30 of my own minutes. I could.
All through the night my mind raced. Five years! I didn’t have five years! And if he knew – who else knew? Mittleman? Schiff? Did he really know those guys? Maybe he just caught their acts once? He doesn’t look or act New York at all! He’s completely Canadian! Challis, Riggi, Roger, Don, Mike, Jack. Maybe they all knew? No. No – Mike would have said something. Still – maybe that’s why I’d never gotten a Saturday spot. But then why tell me to bring my A-game?! Roger knew Plrknib was as A as I got! And what would he say if I didn’t do Plrknib? Jesus!
No. Fuck this guy! Who the hell was he? I didn’t even know him. I should just do the jokes and that’d be it. I’d never ever ever do them again. I’d retire them all. But shit – he warned me! He specifically told me not to. Don’t do those jokes. Don’t. Shit!
And why tonight? Why this Saturday? Why couldn’t he be next week’s headliner? It was God punishing me again. That’s what it was! Again! Why?! For what? Ten years of bad grades? Stealing from camp? Not washing my hair? Greasy! Greasejob! Reethe Cupth! Couldn’t he just let me get through my one fucking opening night?!
No. No. It wasn’t God. It was my fault. I should’ve gotten rid of the jokes weeks ago. Weeks ago. There was no God, here. I had made my own choices from the beginning. It was the exact course I’d laid out for myself. This was inevitable.
chapter 39 – saturday afternoon
Dr. Weiss’ office.
“So, what’s the plan?” he asked.
“Perform like my life depended on it.”
“Do you have enough material to – ”
“I think so. I dunno. Maybe – ”
“Maybe you could tell the guy that for this one last show – ”
“No. I can’t do that. He was very clear.”
“Hmm. Well – y’know what? I think you’re gonna do just fine.”
“Really? You believe that?”
“I do. I believe it. Or – ”
“Or…well…hmm… Honestly? You might be screwed.”
Home. For the first time in years, I skipped Clifton, skipped the comics and the arcade. I went straight home and spent the day chugging two-liter bottles of Pepsi and poring through everything – every bit I’d ever written, for stand-up, for the Six Pistols, for English classes at school. I probably had over an hour or two of raw material, but of all the bits I’d performed on stage, at least half never worked. Maybe they were interesting or vaguely amusing on some level. But they weren’t ha ha funny. And ha ha funny was exactly what I needed tonight.
By late afternoon, I had assembled my 30 minutes.
By eight p.m., I was nervously waiting in the back of the eye as the crowd ushered in and began pickling themselves.
Rock muzak – Eagles, Allman Brothers – blared from the house speakers and were drowned out by people talking, bustling, ordering food. It seemed like a more upscale crowd than usual: Men in suits, women in dresses. Were they on their way to more formal events? Or had they specifically dressed for us? Had the eye on Saturday become an evening’s entertainment – an actual destination – instead of the drop-in joint it had once been on Thursdays and Fridays? Were men actually bringing dates here to impress them, paying $15 a person plus a two drink minimum? Could a good show by me and my magician actually help lubricate a guy’s date for the evening?
The pressure was on.
Open, close, open, close. That was my mantra. If I had a solid open and close I could pace things out – interweave reliable bits – parents, commercials, camp – with lesser bits – Farrell’s, Pound Salt. If the crowd was with me – the weaker stuff might go over just as well. Cutting Plrknib was not a big deal. It only took up what – ? A minute? Forty seconds? Okay, an important forty seconds, but still it shouldn’t make or break the act. I shouldn’t have to completely reinvent myself. I was delirious, shuffling bits based on nothing, on what people were wearing, how close a certain couple was to the stage. But the resistant counter-thought emerged: no, no, stick to the plan, stick to the plan.
My magician was at the bar, relaxed, wearing a nerdy tuxedo with black bow tie. He schmoozed up the waitresses that I could never get anywhere with. He looked comfortable, as if any bar on any given night was home for him.
And I was disappointed to see no big turnout of comics. No Drew, no Rico, no Bill Hollifield. Even Mike was absent. No one had come to see my gala opening. It felt like the eye was short-staffed, like only the emergency weather team had shown up.
But Roger was there at the bar, laid-back, having a beer, playing the cheerful host and maintaining his composure. One of his boys was opening and he was pulling for me.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“They’re still filing in. Let’s give ‘em a few more minutes.”
He gave me a warm smile.
“Knock ‘em dead,” he said, sincerely.
chapter 40 – saturday night
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.