Sunday, November 30, 2008


People always ask me why I do comedy. Obviously it's for the fame, fortune and wall to wall babes. There are other reasons however. Like a lot of comics, there's a need in me to be at the center of things, to have all the eyes and ears in a room. People always tell me how scared they'd be getting up there and, at times, it's scary as hell, but I think for me, the alternative is far more frightening.

So a big part is this need. A need to be heard, a need to be seen, but there are moments of transcendence, where I get to step out of my skin and right back into it only this time it fits a bit better. Sure it's not all the time, but those moments last which is a strange tendency in a moment.

The San Francisco Comedy Competition had us playing at some college north of the city. It was a Friday night, maybe 600 seats and they were turning kids away. It's an amphitheater and one of the biggest stages I ever worked. Having that much space can be overwhelming, but in the zone, I owned it.

It's hard to explain exactly what I was feeling, but I was on fire. From my first joke to my last I didn't miss. Some kid yelled out a heckle and my mouth started moving before my brain knew what was going on, bam, hilarious, another kid chimes in, bam, hilarious then a third and I brought the three together, got a huge laugh and shut the audience up without a shred of dickery. Each bit I was there, every shred of me was in each line. At the same time, there's this uber brain that's in another place three jokes down the line. I imagine it's what Joe Montana felt like in the last two minutes, this feeling of total control, being completely invested in the now and the next.

For those seven minutes the audience was one organism and I was its central nervous system. I could feel myself almost literally spreading out through the room, feeling the connectedness of that whole place and all those people. You know when you're having just incredible sex? When you can't tell where you stop and it feels like the two of you are using every inch of space in your room in your head and in your heart? It's a lot like that but less sweaty.

That's why I do comedy.

Currently listening:
Lovesick Broke & Driftin'
By Hank Williams III

Harmonica or Montana. Montanica.

I found a harmonica I'd forgotten about in my basement the other day. I've carried this thing across the continent with a plan to learn to play it. I never learned a lick.

Years ago, I was on a shitty tour of Montana. For those of you who have never been on a David Tribble comedy run, which I would assume is nearly all of you, his tours make about as much logistical sense as, as, well, honestly, I have no good metaphor or simile for this one. There is nothing in nature save maybe a platypus making out with a unicorn that makes as little sense as a Tribble run. No two shows in the same town or even the same side of what is a rather large state. 1500 miles a week performing for drug addled cowboys as an opening act to karaoke all the while fearing a last minute gig cancellation that would leave you in Bozeman short a hotel room and long on time.

The gigs were ridiculous and made all the more absurd by the amateurish contract we were forced to sign, a contract where we agreed to "perform your act to 110% of your ability." As insane as it often was, there was something that kissed liberating about being contractually obligated to the impossible. There's a certain lack of pressure that builds in times like these. I imagine it was much like what the crew of Apollo 13 must have felt.

The second show of the run was in Billings. It was a sprawling hotel, really nice which was a shock. I think it was a Red Lion. We had a few hours to kill so I went to lounge in my room. My aunt back in Baltimore had had a stroke earlier that week. I'd spoken with her from my hotel room the night before. She kept telling me I was her best friend like my dad had been.

My aunt Ann was batshit crazy. When I was a little kid she kept taking me to meet Captain Chesapeake. We couldn't get channel 45 so I had no idea who he was. There are a dozen pictures of me on this middle aged sailors lap looking confused, a pattern that continues in my life to this day. The weirdest one is that I was terrified of Land of the Lost. The first nightmare I remember was a combination of Land of the Lost, The Wizard of Oz, the elderly and familial estrangement. She insisted I loved the show and would make me watch it through weeping eyes. When I was 19 she deduced that I was gay (which I wasn't) and confronted me about it in the checkout line of the Price Club.

The point is we were really close but that could be tough. Kindness always came with strings. That night though, we had the best conversation we'd ever had. It was a good feeling. So back in Billings, I've got a few hours, I call home to check in on my aunt. I make 40 minutes of small talk with my cousin Anthony before he hands me off to someone else to tell me Aunt Ann had died. Hit me like a brick in the gut, I must say. I thought about trying to get to the funeral, but there was no way.

So I made my way down to the show and it was packed, maybe 250 people. Weird layout, sports bar set up for comedy. I'm sailing through my act which, at this point had some holes. I had 15 minutes of good stuff and filled the rest of the time hoping for the best. I did this crappy joke about Skaggsville Maryland and Intercourse PA. Oh so geographically topical on the ass end of the continent. Anyway, I do the joke and some beef fueled Labatt's lubed bloke shouts through his walrusian mustache, "Don't fuck with PA!"

"Are you from PA, Sir?" He was. "Why are you here?" Well it turns out he was a professional bowler and I think maybe I've struck comedy gold until the mood turns dark and I realize that of the 250 people in the crowd, about 120 are professional bowlers.

Until this day, I had never met a professional bowler. Since that day, I have not met another. That day I filled my quota and probably yours, of professional bowlers. It turns out the American Bowling Congress (ABC) was having their big year long tournament in Billings. They had built a 100 lane bowling alley, 99 lanes for bowling, one just for photo ops, that would stand for a year then be destroyed. I don't know if it's true, but I'd also like to think the Earth would be salted and drenched in the blood of virginal pin monkeys but I have no evidence of that, just a beautiful dream.

So why Billings, you ask? Well, I asked as well. It's always a large small town with a good airport and legal gambling. Turns out Pro Bowlers know how to party and they like to do it where no one else is watching.

So yeah, the towns were crappy and it was lonely being away from my girl and my dog, even with another dude in the passenger seat, but the country was beautiful. If you haven't seen The West, Idaho, Montana, skirting Yellowstone, it'll take your breath away. I saw my first moose leap a 6 foot fence and dart off through the snow on the way into Missoula.

I'd heard good things about the Missoula room. A college room and a good crowd. Well, normally. Turns out the bar the show used to be in was being renovated. We'd been moved to the lounge of a bowling alley in the seedy part of Missoula, a phrase I can't believe I just typed. In times like those I'd ask myself, "Do you believe in magic?" because at the moment there was absolutely no evidence for it. Eleven glazed loners sat forlornly staring into their beer. There was no stage, just a karaoke mike.

Comedy can be like prison at points like these. Your just doin time. I got through the show and decided to join the dejected for a beer. I sat next to a grizzled logger about sixty. We got to talking and he had some great stories. He'd been on the crew blasting through the mountains building highways all through the west. He'd been the first white man to see valleys and mountains that are now rest stops and thruways. He loved the land and apparently Pabst Blue Ribbon.

We hit it off. I reminded him of a son he'd lost track of. I don't have my dad so that stuff always strikes a chord. Long story short, we go back to his shitty monthly motel room to smoke weed and drink some more. He pulls out the harmonica and we start to play. There is no doubt that sitting there in a rundown motel with an ancient logger was one of the sketchiest moments of my life but it was fun as fuck and I was learning to play that thing. The guy, I have no idea what his name was, starts to cry, tells me again his son would be my age. He tells me to take the harmonica. He's got more, just wanted me to have it.

Then he kinda snapped. Shook off the tears and offered me crystal meth. I said no thanks and everything changed. He started talking about spotted owls, how there's so much land out there and if those damned owls can't find a place in it then it's their time to go. People like me don't know shit about the world and I thought maybe it was my time to go as well.

The last show of the run was the farthest from home in Miles City Montana, almost to which ever Dakota that is. The night ended with me nearly going to jail for smoking rope in a dance club where people showed up on horseback. The show was in a pizzeria bar on a ten by ten stage in the middle of a twenty foot wide room. The backdrop was a painting of the New York skyline that was showing its age. It had been about a year, but there was still a tiny memorial beneath the now blacked out twin towers. I know most of you reading this aren't comedians, but nothing sets the stage for laughter like a tribute to the fallen dead. This is why stand-up comedy is so popular at funerals.

The crowd was fun though, of course, there was a heckler. She was about 55, a whipped mess of grey hair and a patchy grin. I like to think if Los Angeles were a woman, she'd be Pam Anderson circa 1999, Baltimore would be the girl I'm in love with at the moment and Paris would be some French chick. Well, this chick was Miles City. She said her peace, I played along and we all had a reasonably good time. When Floyd, the headliner got on stage, Ms. Miles was a little drunker and things got a little uglier, which is saying something.

As much as I hate hecklers, there's an art to it. Sure, it's an easy art, kinda the equivalent of spay paining your initials over a Basquiat but there's a way to do it, to be funny and not kill the show. This chick did not know the art. I don't remember just how it got to this point, but the line I remember most was, "Get off the stage nigger or I'm gonna shoot you."

I've had a lot of hecklers, Floyd's had a lot more, but if you gave the two of us a week in a quiet room, I don't think we'd come close to a good answer to that one. As far as I can see it, you've got to routes at this point, you can go funny or you can beg for your life. There are obvious problems with either tack. Of course, there's a phenomena that often develops in your drunker audiences where the audience begins to heckle itself like a drunken redneck snake eating its own tail, this show took that phenomena to an extreme I doubt has been seen outside of comedy clubs built in Afghan caves.

Some big burly cowboy retorts, "Shut the fuck up, he's funny and we all got guns to." The audience formed a shouting anti-lynch mob and Ms. Miles stormed out claiming she was going to her truck to get a rifle. Floyd is a pro, no doubt about it, but an event like this, well, it shakes the script a bit.

Now it's a conversation, "Is she coming back? Should I get outa here?" The burly cowboy showed his gun, said we don't worry we got you and the show went on. It actually turned into a pretty great show from that point, though every time the door opened, Floyd jumped off the stage.

After some pizza and the aforementioned near trip to jail, I packed it in and headed for the hotel. Floyd doesn't drive and it's a 1500 mile trip back to Portland and I wanted to work on playing that harmonica.

Old people say the darndest things

I was walking down Keswick today and an elderly couple was coming out of the little church there. The woman made it to the sidewalk and the man tripped and fell. They looked to be about 80, I ran over to see if they needed anything, helped him up and, after finding out he was OK, was on my way.

As I walked off I overheard the woman say, "Curly, you're always looking up, you've got to learn to look down on the stairs."

"I couldn't take my eyes off of you," was Crurly's answer.