1909 well traveled words
First published in Drama-Logue, April 1998
Generation X-Files: My All-Time Worst College Shows
Based on my years as class clown at colleges all over America, one could conclude that, at an audience level, I’ve seen the future. And I’m here to holler, run for your life.
You can call that age discrimination, or call me an old fart, but in my ten years on the college circuit I’ve witnessed some real special stupid. (And, yes, it could well be that that’s just my road weary opinion, or that’s just who turns out for these events, or scarier yet; that’s who I draw.)
On one particular night as I drove in circles through the campus maze (the typical college campus isn’t designed for nighttime navigation — poor lighting, unmarked buildings, phallic sculptures), I finally stopped and rolled down a window to ask a student for directions. “Can you tell me where Doohickey Hall is?”
I got Forrest Gump. “Uh, yeah. That’s this building right here. But, uh, this is the back. The front is around the other side.” I’ve found that if I tagged that with, “wait, lemme get a pen..”, it makes a great opening line. That would seem to confirm that I’m not alone in this opinion.
My first college run was a real wake-up call. I’d gotten spoiled in the comedy clubs, where I was always a big playful hit in front of two-hundred paying comedy fans — a delight to drunks everywhere.
My first college agent had found me in a club, taken me under wing, and groomed all of the smut and imperfections from my show. In essence, we set out to create the perfect college act.
And she knew her business, having married a popular campus “Entertainer of the Year” award winner, and having worked two long years touring with him. She had been all over the states, seen every college, every motel, every great show, and every bad show too.
And they’d made a ton of money. Now it was my turn.
It was three days into my first college tour, as I phoned her from my snow smothered motel in Gunnisson, Colorado, that I started ranting about all the details she’d left out of her college sales pitch: The poor introductions, amateur stagehands, bad directions, hundred mile drives through blizzards, and the deathly noon-time shows in the cafeteria.
My agent had been through all of it, and as her laughter crackled through the weak phone line, the whole damn thing started feeling like one big practical joke. Every night I called, she’d ask, “How did it go?”
“How did it go?” I’d say. “The show was in the student lounge while a reggae band did their sound check. My ‘stage’ was right next to the elevator. I’d be in the middle of a bit, get interrupted by the bell and the elevator would open, some poor unsuspecting student would walk out, everyone staring at them, and I’d say things like, ‘now let’s meet our next contestant…’ or ‘sector five!, intruder! Security to sector five!’ OR, I’d just drop the mic and escort them over to the band.”
“…Which should have gotten laughs, except there were only eighteen kids there, and half of them were on an excursion from ‘special ed’. Every time I started a song parody, they’d chime in, all singing along off-key, having a great time. I finished the show as Barney. They want me back.”
Real Men Don’t Need an Intro
There is so much that you take for granted in the comedy clubs, like a simple intro and outro. At one school I forgot to tell the MC to jump back up and close the show, you know, take me off and thank everyone for coming out, or at least play some music while I exit. So I finish, and everybody in the room thinks I’m joking, so I go back up and do a little more, then tell ‘em to go home, dammit. They’re still clapping and wanting more, so I ended up doing two hours that night.
So I get wise to the situation. At the next show, I tell the MC to be sure and remember to take me off stage at the end of the show. Now, as I finish my act, the MC comes up to the edge of the four-inch high stage, and she gingerly takes my hand as I step down — literally “takes me off stage”, like we’re going to minuet or something — and then doesn’t close the show.
Funny? Open With It
One time at a NACA convention show in Peoria (and this would be a performance with a lot of potential money riding on it), I decided to try and kick a little life into things with a last minute change in my opener. I thought it would be cool if I just came out with the guitar, hammering away at the old classic rock thing, “Gloria”, you know, “G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloooria?” Only I’d sing P-E-O-R-I-A, and stick some funny stuff in about the convention,… killer, right?
Do you remember the scene in “The Blues Brothers” where they finished that big opening number after making the audience wait all night? Nothing. Gum cracking. Crickets.
OK, so not only did everyone at the convention drive in from other cities, and therefore not give a shit about Peoria, but no one was old enough to know the song.
SUNY Long Island sits at the end of a beautiful winding wooded road, but the scenery turns sour as you veer into the campus parking lot: Spray paint graffiti and garbage. My show was in the men’s dorm. That spells trouble already. As I neared the area, loud rap music pumped out of the building.
I went through the metal detector at the door and entered an unpainted cement room with folding chairs strewn everywhere, kinda looked like a good place for a cockfight — or human sacrifice. No one had really noticed me up to that point. It was the only show I ever considered totally blowing off — asking myself, “How badly do I need this thousand bucks?”
I opened with a white-boy rap, and managed to do twenty minutes over the roar of conversation, a guy shouting, “you not funny mothafucka”, and smattering of laughter that was probably more at me than with me. Whatever works.
On the drive back out, I figured that buried somewhere alongside that beautiful road was last week’s comic.
Nothing is more dangerous than a comic that gets pushed into survival mode — that state that begins when all the “A” stuff is fizzling. That’s when a comic starts reaching for the audience, the waitress, …old jokes… “well, ..what do you guys wanna talk about?”
The community colleges are notorious for noontime shows (because they are usually commuter campuses that would be hard pressed to find an audience after five PM), and nooners will almost always push one into survival mode.
The poor students are just trying to get lunch, and the poor performer is trying to get a laugh. It’s a desperate crossroads.
So there I am on stage, doing a running commentary of anything that moves — because that’s what works — when this kid with long blond hair enters my cross hairs. I said something about hermaphrodite day and keeping the sixties alive, and when he walked back through the room, he flipped me off on his way out. “Oh, he says I’m number ONE!”, I covered.
Ten minutes later, he came back with three big friends who proceeded to stand, arms crossed and glaring, in the center of the room. Now I was starting to have fun.
“Uh oh,” I said in a gravelly western narration, “Fabio’s back, and he’s brought a POSSE. Stick around folks, there’s comedy, a fight,…it’s a whole entertainment package.”
But the audience, sensing trouble, was starting to squeeze up. I said something about how the big guys were just protecting their she-man, and some other emasculating homo stuff. I wish to hell I’d taped that show, because at some point I broke through. The heavies realized how ludicrous the whole thing was, and actually started to crack a smile.
It was too late though; the audience was booing them out of the room. I finished up and was escorted to my car by security.
The Fordham University thing was a one night isolated gig; LA to the Bronx, out and back. Two grand. Yeah!
Expenses though, were coming out of my pocket, so as I left the ninety dollar a night Holiday Inn after being there barely an hour, I started thinking, ‘Geez, there’re hookers cheaper than that.” I came up with a scheme.
I went to the front desk and (borrowing from an experience with our first son a few months before — I’m not completely deviant) told them that my wife had just called and was going into labor and that I was cutting my trip short and the room was clean (well it was), and could they charge back my credit card. They were very nice, and said yeah, sure, and good luck with the baby. “uh, yeah, right. Thanks.”
I pulled out of the Holiday Inn laughing out loud that I’d just saved ninety dollars, “Yeah, ..having a baby, hoo hoo hee hee, have a cigar,…I’m a genius”, and proceeded to get on the freeway in the wrong direction.
I finally get turned around and find myself lost and stuck in traffic, downtown Bronx, Friday night. The place is all decked out with bullet holes, spit, barbed wire, and the mega-bass rap-cars going ‘boomboom kill the white boy’.
I’m feeling a bit out of place in my aloha shirt. Every time I reach an intersection, the guys with the squeegees jump out and start scrubbing my windows. I’ve got the shiniest fuckin windows in the world. I don’t know where I am, but I sure can see it.
Now I’m really late and panic is setting in as I screech down back roads running over chickens, fruit carts, and the two guys carrying the big plate glass.
I find the campus. It’s two minutes to show time. During all of this, it never occurs to me that the college might get nervous and call the hotel looking for me. I pull up to the theater, and up on the marquee, across my name, is a big banner reading, “SHOW CANCELED, HIS WIFE IS HAVING A BABY”.
“Oh, god, oh, shit.” I start laughing at the predicament I’d created. “I’m not giving up two thousand bucks that easy!” I bolt for the theater, guitar in hand, running upstream like a salmon against the river of people leaving the auditorium. I’m shouting to them, “No, I’m here, Come on inside!”
Between breaths I tell the staff we’ll work out this stuff later, just start the show. I get on stage and come clean with the whole story, and really unload a tirade about the lady who gave me the stupid directions. She’s pissed, the crowd’s loving it. My agent ended up giving them a break on the price, and I went home and tried to forget the whole thing.
A week later I get a little package in the mail. It’s a baby gift from my friends at the Bronx Holiday Inn.