1st Night in New York City Comedy
It was my third or fourth time doing comedy in Philly when another comic told me about a club in New York that was making room for new showcase spots. A showcase was 3-5 minutes of stage time given to a new comic to try stuff out in between the 3 professional acts. Nowadays there’s no such thing because the public is paying for a comedy show and getting 12 guys doin 6 minutes each, most of them sucking.
For the record, the meat grinder format is disrespectful to the audience, the comic, but most importantly to the craft. 6 minutes is not enough time to create a beginning, middle and end of anything an audience could be truly invested in. Especially if a comic’s piece is different than the last 7 guys. It’s whiplash and the audience can’t switch gears fast enough.
I drive up to New York on a Saturday night in my Nissan Sentra (a.k.a. the juice can on wheels) to the address I was given, 78th & Broadway, home to Stand-Up New York.
The club was dark and there were lots of people pacing by the bar. Comics. I couldn’t find the guy that tipped me off on the place. But I put my name on the list to get stage time. While I was waiting, I watched a short, Jewish, tomboy type of girl on stage … really calm and understated. After my set we talked for a bit and year later, I saw her on Saturday Night Live. Almost eighteen years later Janeane Garofalo and I acted together in “The Ten”.
But after the set at Stand Up New York, I hung around tryin to figure out what people were doing next. One of the New Jersey comics invited me to jump in their car to go do a late night set at Dangerfield’s, then still owned by Rodney. I wondered if I’d see him. I was told he never came to the club.
Lots of comics hung out at the back bar. Some were performing and some were there just to shoot the shit. Bob Saget, Richard Jeni, Richard Belzer, Dennis Wolfberg and a crowd of others. Clearly they had all been doing this a while. I could feel the grit in their souls.
The show began and I was the 3rd to go up when Rodney Dangerfield, his wife and another couple entered the club and sat down. The manager comes up to me, “Rodney is gonna do a few minutes, then you.” I was sure this wasn’t happening. Somewhere between blacking out and shitting my pants, I decided I must have heard him wrong.
The man who never comes to his own club is called to the stage. The place goes nuts and I’m ready to puke. I turn to the bar with flop sweat. I was tryin to act cool as all the comics were hooting and teasing me because no one wants to follow animals, children or Rodney Dangerfield.
Richard Jeni put a hand on my shoulder and gave me this advice. “When ya get up there, don’t try to be slick. Listen to what you’re feeling and just say it. Be honest and give it up to the audience. They’ll love you for it. And if they don’t love you for it, they’ll at least pity ya for it.”
Rodney does 10 minutes, kills, then goes and sits down. I’m introduced as a new comic and receive a nice, polite applause. Notes in hand, I walked up on stage, lights in my face, hands shaking, holding onto the mic stand for dear life.
The comics are laughing and enjoying the spectacle crash-n-burn of another comic until I hear Jeni yell to me, “Tell the truth!” when I clear my throat and say, “It’s my third night in comedy and I have to go on after Rodney-Fucking-Dangerfield.” Everyone laughs and claps at my predicament. I then proceed to do a few Rodney riffs. I tug on my invisible tie and collar, “Hey hey! My wife is a terrible cook. How can toast have bones in it?” I’m impersonating and mocking Rodney right in front of him. Everyone laughs then he shouts, “OK ya little bastard! Do your own stuff!”
I don’t really remember the rest. I did 4 more minutes off my notes which I’m sure was fuk’n weak, got some applause, then went to the bar and got drunk.
Years later I wrote a script as a vehicle for Richard Jeni within months of him killing himself. Terrible.
I had gone to the clubs in Philly a few times on open mic night and even then I thought it was a shitty deal. Your audience was made up of a bunch of wanna-be comics. As you’d perform they’d either be working on their own stuff or stealing yours. Either way, you were never going to get an accurate assessment of your work because they weren’t a paying audience.
Meanwhile, my family was falling on hard times and I thought this would be my most immediate way out of the darkness. Who had the time or money for four (or twelve) years of college? Not me.
I already knew how to promote. So I gave some thought as to the style and persona I wanted to create as a comic stage personality and created press releases and a bio around it. I finally got a five minute slot at Philly’s The Comedy Works on 2nd and Chestnut. The club was a major stop for the big touring comics. The problem was, I didn’t really have an act yet.
But I did have a list I had been compiling of every booker and stage producer in the country. And now, I was going to finally have a tape of my set on a legitimate stage to send to them.
It was a good set … for a beginner, or a child … or someone who was selected by the Make a Wish Foundation, but definitely not good enough to show professionals. Who the hell knows that at the time though, right? It was mostly dick jokes with a puppet that barely moved, almost like it had a stroke and the voice sounded like … uhhh, my own. Sending out those demos probably kept me from working for another two years!
This was also the beginning of a very bad habit, the need for security and getting ahead in life causing me to panic and rush things before putting in the full time to my craft. The cake is not finished and in turn, cannot sustain. It took nearly fifteen years to figure that out.