Monday, November 27, 2006

Standing Up.

Stand up comedy is hard. It's beyond hard. It's awful. It's a soul-crushing machine designed to drive you into madness.

It's also intoxicatingly wonderful beyond words.

And it can be both in the same night.

My stand-up career ended thirteen years ago. It wasn't much of a career to begin with, so it didn't much matter to anyone.

The trajectory of the stand-up comedy career is almost always the same: open mike nights, often times with a 'funniest person in [YOUR TOWN'S NAME HERE]' contest thrown in for good measure. This separates the idiots who can actually be funny from the idiots who do a good imitation of Aunt Martha getting drunk at Thanksgiving and think that everyone will think it's funny.

The next stage is 'guesting', where you get to do your five minutes at a midnight show on Saturdays with a bunch of other hacks in front of the folks too drunk to get out of their seats from the 10 o'clock show. If you're lucky, you might also be able to get five at the top of the Thursday show as well.* A lot of hanging around, buying drinks, complimenting more established comics on their 'sets,' and begging is often involved in this stage.

If you're good enough (at both standup and ego massaging), you can start getting a few out-of-town gigs at this point. Around here, they're called the Ports: Gasport, Weedsport, Brockport, Portageville, et c. Those are real names of real towns where I've worked. These places don't have comedy clubs; they're just bars that have the occasional comedy nights. Usually it's in a motel bar; sometimes it's in a bowling alley. You get the gigs because one of the comics you've become friends with is also a booker, and he brings you along. At this stage, you've gotten to know quite a few comics; mostly local, all of whom are in some way, shape or form, bottom-feeding just like you. You share stories, drinks and hotel rooms, sometimes write together, are supportive of each other, and insanely jealous of their successes.

Once you've shown you can handle these situations, you might get to emcee at your 'home' club. This gives you a guaranteed five minutes for five or more shows in a row (One on Thursday, and two each on Friday and Saturday is usual; some clubs will throw in a Sunday show as well). Besides 'warming up' the crowd, you also introduce the featured performer (aka, the 'middler'), who does twenty minutes, and then the headliner, who does forty-five. You also get to say "Tip your waitress; try the veal!" These gigs are usually few and far between: At a lot of the clubs the emcee is usually the house manager. At a lot of the clubs the house manager is simply a stand up act who never made it big, and now does this to keep his hand in.** Sometimes, he has a gig at a different club, or the middler or headliner cancels and he moves up and needs someone to fill in for him. You get the call for this gig usually on Thursday afternoon, but if you're good enough and lucky enough, you might get it as early as Tuesday night. The better you are, the earlier you get the call.

By this point, if you've worked really hard, and been really lucky, you have at least fifteen minutes of comedy that will get you laughs. Some of it gets chuckles. Some of it gets laughs. Some of it---omygod--some of it works so well that you can feel the curtain behind you shaking with the force of the laughter. You are a comedy god! You have this audience exactly where you want them. You are slayer of dragons, you can satisfy any woman sexually.

And the exact same material lies there like a big stinky cat turd the next show.

But you keep coming back. You have a book. Maybe two. Maybe a laptop. Someplace where you've got your funny categorized. You have your 'A' material. Your 'B' material. The stuff you use when the crowd's loud and drunk. The stuff you use when you're in a certain town. The stuff you use at certain times of the year (Well, Lent's just begun. Anyone giving anything up this year? You? What are you giving up? Chocolate? Wow, lady...good luck. Me? I'm giving up the same thing I give up every year. I'm giving up abstinence. Hey, it's not as easy as you might think. You don't know how many times I've wanted to say 'No, thanks!'). And you've got your ideas. The stuff you want to develop (Start act by falling flat onto my back. 'Unlike the rest of the people you'll see tonight, I'm not a standup comedian.').

If you've made it this far, and been successful at not pissing off managers and bookers, you'll get a call like this: "I need someone to middle this weekend. You available?"

Hopefully it will happen early enough in the week that, with the proper application of ice packs, you can get your erection to go down.

And then you get to work. You bring all your stuff together. You need to start strong and finish strong. I need to segue from the bit about taking communion to the bit about family vacations. Or should I do my bit about exercise videos first? I have to end with the bit about baby seals. That's a killer. Can I get to there from having sex with goats?

And so on. This is where you first have to really deal with hecklers. When you're just doing five minutes, you're not up there long enough for someone to give you shit. But when it's twenty, and there's one drunk who's there to see Michael Winslow, dammit, get the fuck off stage where the fuck's Michael Winslow you're not fucking funny you SUCK get off! this is where you learn how to deal with it.

You're not doing much for my ego, Mom.

Heh. Yeah. I remember when I had my first beer.

I don't bother you at your job, why are you bothering me at mine? Seriously, I don't go to the bus station and slap the dicks out of your mouth, do I?

I was not far past this this point in my comedy career when my day job changed, and with it my hours changed to three to midnight. My new boss said that I could still do standup. I just needed to give him a week's notice to find a replacement for the days I missed. Unfortunately, I was never given a week's notice by the nightclubs, and the first time I said no to them was the last time I was asked.

But I knew what the next steps would be: continue working on the material. Middle more and more. Try to even get a headliner gig on slow weekends, or when a huge National Act would be in town (for two nights only!) on the nights when he or she wasn't there.

For most, if not all of the standups, it's a low paying, thankless job, at the mercy of the bookers and owners (often the same person). You were lucky if you made seventy-five bucks a night.

But some broke free. Some went on. The few who had just the right combination of luck and skill could achieve bigger dreams:

Getting accepted by NACA. You could get thirty gigs a year--maybe more!--through NACA. Remember Ed? He did 'Popeye on Meth?' He got on the NACA tour. He bought a Mustang.

And cruise ships. Donna--remember her? With the guitar? She sang 'My period's more like a comma'? She got on a cruise ship. Twelve days in the caribbean, all expenses paid. Had to do two shows. Made fifteen grand.

And the holy grail: Getting an agent. Having someone do the booking for you. Guest shots on TV. Flights paid for. Rooms paid for--and not the owners 'condo,' with a funky mattress and a fridge that smelled of month-old fish. A real room at a decent place.

Quitting your day job.

Then quitting standup altogether. Because, let's face it--once the world hears your act, which you spent all this time painstakingly putting together--you have to start all over again. If you're Gordon Lightfoot, you can sing 'If You Can Read My Mind' and every other song you wrote back in 1968, at every gig you play, and the audience applauds. If you're Robert Klein, those jokes about Spiro Agnew fall sort of flat. For a good idea of what this is like, watch Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian. In it, he decides to start all over again--he's 'retired' everything he'd ever written, from the time he started, to the end of his Series. It's both painful and funny. And remember, he did this right after the show ended, and he was one of the most popular and beloved figures in American pop culture. (Also, you have to see the trailer. One of the funniest things ever made.)

Having written this, I must now tell you that I've described a world that, in many ways, no longer exists. Standup today is infinitely more difficult than it was when I was starting out. In fact, I can't imagine how anyone does it anymore. And it plays right into the whole Michael Richards fiasco.

But that's another post.


*This depends on who the emcee is.
**When it's the house manager that's the emcee, you usually have a better shot at 'guesting.' He's usually drunk and/or morose over how his career is going, and just doesn't want to get up there. This is the prime time to beg for stage time.


Blogger ell said...

one of my friends is trying to break into standup now, and boy does your post sound familiar. i give anyone who trys it ALOT of credit.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Madame X said...

See it's the EGO STROKING that gets me everytime!
Every area of show business has the EGO STROKING and I am just not good at it, I can't do it and therefore don't get cast...I get my revenge by not casting the ass kissers when I'm on the other side!

12:07 PM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

This sounds so much like a gigging band. I booked a metal band for almost two years and it was a tough go. They played covers and originals; the clubs wanted tribute acts. They wanted a set rate, which I tried to negotiate as high as possible; the clubs wanted a cover fee (which meant they'd each get about $20).

I'll never forget the grey haired drunk who sat at the bar and yelled between every song, "PLAY SOME KURT COBAIN! PLAY SOME F****IN KURT COBAIN!"

Good times.

Maybe you're not doing stand up anymore, Pirate, but you're still making me chuckle!

2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you have more chutzpah than I do! I can deliver technical briefs, engage in verbal debate, (Lincoln/Douglas and Team) and teach grade schoolers.

The thought of doing Stand Up gives me the heebie jeebies

8:58 PM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

I've toyed with the idea, I'll admit it! A local radio station ran a contest years ago where you had to come up with 5 minutes of standup and perform it to qualify for the prize.

I got to three minutes with extra words, long pauses and talking reeeeal slow. I just ran out of funny!

8:14 AM  
Blogger Colleen said...

so why don't you give it a go again?

i'm on the fence about the whole kramer thing. i mean, i understand getting so mad at someone that you just go for the jugular, but i also understand that he may feel that way deep inside and didn't realize it until now.

of course, this will all blow over once the next celeb does something stupid

9:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an actor but I've dabbled in stand-up and I agree, it's one of the toughest gigs there is, funny is funny but being funny is very hard.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Reminds me a bit of the end of Raging Bull.

Do comedians watch a lot of other comedians? Does it get old/formulaic to see so much standup?

11:23 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home