I had the honor this year of being selected for the Limestone Comedy Festival. This was the festival's fifth year bringing comics from all over the country to Bloomington, Indiana (home of The Comedy Attic and Indiana University). Headliners this year included Colin Quinn, Hari Kondabolu, Fortune Feimster, Mary Mack, Janelle James, Billy Wayne Davis, W. Kamau Bell and more. Somewhere at the bottom of the roster was me.
The day before Limestone, I had to put my cat, Moxie, down. We'd spent $600 on tests and shots trying to keep her going, but she stopped eating or drinking, her pancreas was inflamed, and her liver had started to go. She had a great run with us -- thirteen years. My son and I found her (or were found by her, I should say) while on a walk in Toledo's Old West End in 2004. Moxie saw us, decided we should pet her, and walked across the street, in front of traffic, to get to us. I texted home and said "this cat is too dumb to live outside. I'm bringing her back with me."
She became part of the family, even winning over my cat-ambivalent wife, and in the last couple years of her life she'd become inseparable from my daughter. Now she's gone, and I felt like a monster even though euthanasia was the only humane option left for her. On top of that, her vet bills wiped out any cash I had for this festival, plus money I owed other people. I went into this weekend feeling pretty low and anxious, and not sure I was ready for this much social interaction and potential disappointment.
But Limestone turned out to be exactly what I needed. It's curated with care and love, run impeccably and set up from the top down as an artist-friendly place. All the shows are within walking distance of each other. Attendees get free food, a hospitality station with coffee and snacks and a place to chill, free headshots and caricature portraits, and multiple after-parties.
The shows themselves were remarkable. The people of Bloomington come out in force to support this thing -- both of my shows were in front of full houses of smart, engaged, gracious comedy fans. I opened for Hari Kondabolu on one show, and he gave me some much-appreciated praise for my new closer I'm working on. The second show, the next night at the Comedy Attic, was just as fun, with a full room giving us a chance to do our thing.
The other comics were of such an impressive caliber -- I don't recall seeing one single set that I didn't like. The festival spotlights local comedians with "The Blooming10," a homegrown show at the beautiful Buskirk-Chumley Theater downtown, scheduled apart from the other events so everyone can attend. It's the perfect mix of bringing in rising stars from around the country and giving the local community a boost, and a chance to be seen as equals with the bigger names.
There were still some moments of melancholy. A lot of that came from just plain not taking care of myself -- being hung over and bone-weary on a bright sunny day in a picturesque downtown is an affliction one brings upon oneself. But I made so many new friends, saw so many people I care about, and had so much fun that Limestone was as much of a spiritual reset as it was a networking or performance opportunity. It gave me a sense of community and positivity that had been lacking for me in comedy for a while now.
I could write all day about each event, each person, hell, each meal. But I think you get the idea. Limestone was an amazing experience and it gave me more hope than I've had in a while. No matter what else happens on my trip, comedy has given me a second family, a chance to use my voice, and a conduit for adventures, and that's more than a lot of people get out of one life. I've got it on the calendar for next year already, and if I can't perform again, I'll buy a ticket and sit up front and laugh like hell.
A year or so ago, I decided I was going to record another hour of material at the end of 2016. I was going to film it, and then I was going to try to sell it to someone.
I'd recorded my first hour of comedy in 2014, and released it in physical format in 2015. The "Disheveled" CD was a learning experience, the show that birthed it was a helluva a lot of fun, and having a CD out gave me a little legitimacy (not much, but a little) in a few places.
More importantly, it caused me to immediately think of all the jokes on that CD - even the ones that really worked - as "my old stuff." It spurred me to write, and write a lot. By last Christmas I had what I thought was a pretty solid new hour, and I wanted to give myself a deadline to get it on tape and out to the world.
It's hard to know how your hour works when you're not a regular headliner. I feature in clubs most of the time, which means I get to perform for 25-30 minutes on stage. I tend to write in stories, in long interconnected chunks, and that means I usually only get to a couple of my main points in a feature set. I do a lot of switching around and changing up my sets when I'm fortunate enough to work a whole weekend in the same place, basically trying to piece together a seamless hour while only seeing half the canvas at a time.
On top of the writing and honing of the material, 2016 was spent planning logistics for the biggest event I've ever organized. My wife was an immeasurable help - she has a head for numbers and handled ticket sales and seating charts like a champ. We had to line up some kind of alcohol service, because the theater we rented doesn't have a liquor license. I had to find a camera crew and a director, hire security people, print posters, promote and do advertising, and make all this happen while preparing to deliver the most important comedy set I've done so far.
Some of the elements came together perfectly. My friends Laura Sanders and Joe Williams handled various graphic design duties with speed and finesse. Friends like Sam Rager stepped in to help with the ticket window and merchandise sales. Through a chain of friends I was introduced to Dave Ayling, whose video expertise and ability to pull a camera crew together made the whole thing possible. We even got a couple sponsors - Fleetwood's Tap Room helped us defray promotional costs, while Maumee Bay Brewing Company donated scads of beer to us so that people could have a couple cold ones, on the house, while watching the show!
A few other aspects of the show didn't work out the way I wanted them to. I planned the show as a benefit concert for Toledo School for the Arts, the charter school my son attends. It sounded simple to me -- a bunch of parents, most around my age, buy tickets to the show, and enjoy a night of comedy before the holidays kick in. The net proceeds benefit the school, I get a full house, everyone wins. I had a hard time conveying what the event was all about to the parents at large, though, and we didn't get nearly as many folks from that group as I'd hoped.
Some things were no-brainers. My friends Mike Szar, Rob Jenkins and Pat Sievert were my opening acts, and there was no doubt in my mind they would kill it. And right at the beginning, I decided to make the show on Thanksgiving Eve -- a Wednesday night. While it's the biggest bar night of the year, it's also early in the season for winter weather, so the chances of a cancellation were low. And it also helped me convince a bunch of my family members to come in from far away. We planned Thanksgiving at my house for the next day, and I put everyone on notice a year out, that this one year, we needed them to come here and make this a thing. Most were able to make it out, and their presence was appreciated more than I can express.
There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that didn't seem like big deals until they were. I had a staff, if only for one evening, and I made plans to feed them. I bought a bunch of meat and cheese, veggies and chips and crackers, hummus and dips, and I had little plates and toothpicks and a cooler full of water and sodas. I spent the afternoon of the show in an adrenaline-fueled stupor, trying to zen out by chopping up food for a deli tray. Did it matter? Every person on the crew lit up like a Christmas tree when they came backstage and saw there was food.
I had to hire and pay security. I needed ushers, and I needed there to be someone on the floor to handle extracting someone if they were being an asshole. I didn't think anyone would come to a theater, pay twenty dollars for a ticket, and then be a disruptive prick while four cameras were rolling -- but I wouldn't expect anyone to do that at a comedy club, either, and they do. A lot. So I had to be ready. I scored a crew of burly looking dudes in black t-shirts who had the easiest night of their professional lives -- they normally work at strip joints and dance clubs, so a mildly-buzzed comedy audience was a cake walk for them. Having them was a huge helping of peace of mind, though.
I bought a red LED alarm clock with huge numbers. I had to have something visible from the stage for me, and the opening acts, to see what time it was. I bought my own stool to put on stage. I printed a "show bible" with timelines, staff rosters, lists of crap to load back out of the theater at the end of the night, merch inventory. I overplanned and panicked. I made a mix CD of background music to play while the doors were open but before the show.
November 23, 2016, I woke up early and spent most of the day in a daze. I took an early nap. I had lunch with Jeff de Hart, a long-distance friend from the band days who'd come to town early on a planned trip to see the show. I went home and chopped meat cubes and whispered jokes to myself. It poured down rain outside - I mean, it pissed down. Family members arrived, one carload at a time, and I barely talked to any of them. Finally, I picked up Steve Wherry, my bartender, and we headed to the theater.
Once I got there the nerves were mostly gone. My team assembled and did their jobs. We soundchecked. We briefed the ushers, iced the beers. People ate deli meat and snacks. I took a lot of deep breaths. Mike and Rob and Pat got there and I felt even better. We opened the doors and people showed up, and then we did the show.
All three of my openers killed it. There's video to prove it. I hope they all put it up on their YouTube channels for you to see. Mike went first, and when that first laugh hit us back stage, the rest of my fear went out the window. I can say without hyperbole or argument that the crowd in that theater was the best crowd I've performed for to date -- generous, uproarious, ready to throw down and have a great time.
I did 70 minutes on stage. I was shocked at how fast the time went, and how comfortable it all felt. I was buoyed by the laughs and the support. I got to ad-lib a little. I flubbed a line and somehow, in the moment, remembered to pause and start the sentence over, so the mistake could get cut out later.
I had the time of my life.
The mood post-show was euphoric. I hugged so many people, I signed stuff, I drank more beers and talked and high-fived and I hope I thanked every single person who took time out of their Thanksgiving to come to the show. A few of us went to Fleetwood's. We'd been planning some kind of big after party, but the show was exhausting, man. I still can't get my head around the fact that the audience held on for that long. I've seen comedy club crowds give up on a headliner before the 45-minute mark. I didn't feel like my group was ready for the show to be over when it ended. I think everyone left satisfied, but ready for something else -- at least one attendee reported having a laughter-induced headache by the end of the night.
So what were the downsides? The obvious one was that we didn't fill up the room. I didn't get the promotion done that I wanted to. Ironically, I put too much out on social media, for too long, and I think I bored some people of the idea long before the show actually happened. A lot of my "real world" promotions were stymied for various reasons -- an appearance on a big radio show got pulled with no explanation. A cover story in a local alt-weekly turned into an online-only piece the paper never linked to their home page. Some other contacts just turned out to be duds.
If I'm being honest, we got the room about half full. It wasn't an embarrassing showing, but it wasn't what we wanted to show the world. Empty seats don't raise money, and they don't make for good footage. I didn't get any big sweeping shots of a full crowd as the show was beginning. But like I said, the people we did get were the best bunch I could have asked for. They made it work and they didn't have to. The credit is as much theirs as mine, if not more.
Any other drawbacks to the experience were the result of my own inexperience. I didn't get some camera shots I wanted, because I didn't think to ask for them. I forgot a couple tags on a couple jokes. I didn't lose 50 pounds and become photogenic before having to look at myself in HD for multiple hourslong editing sessions.
We're almost to the point of showing this special to some folks. I honestly don't know what people will think of it. I hope we captured the exuberance in the room that night. I know the jokes are the best ones I have. If you don't like what's on this hour, you're not into me as a comedian.
I think we took one helluva swing at it and I'm hoping it connects. I'd dearly love to be telling you in a couple months that it's gonna be on a streaming service, and that you can check it out, and that its presence has led me to representation on the coasts and a lot more headliner bookings here in the midwest. That's what I hope happens.
And I'm already writing the next hour. I can't wait for "The Goldfish" to be old news and to get just this insanely immersed in another production. I hope to get that opportunity and I hope what I've laid down so far does somethin' for ya. The whole ride has been a blast so far.
Comedy has a lot of weird ground rules as a job.
Everyone you meet thinks they can do what you do, and if you don't humor every last one of them, hear out their jokes at the merch table after the show, patiently dispense advice to someone you know will never sign up for an open mic, or otherwise indulge this insulting fantasy, you're a jerk. I can't go to an X-ray lab, ask to borrow someone's white coat, pepper the technician with questions, and drunkenly insinuate that I should be the one getting paid to just take a bunch of bone pictures, because how hard can that be? But I'm to be a good sport when it's done at a comedy club every single night.
If I get a weekend of shows booked, and then cancelled, through a booking agency, I am supposed to be sanguine about it. These things happen. The business is in a rough patch right now. If the club, instead of going under, starts booking their own calendar instead, and books other people instead of honoring the schedule of comics who'd already planned to be there? If a room run by supposed fellow comics leaves a bunch of people out in the cold? And then I find out that "my" weekend now features a headliner I've always wanted to work with? Not only am I not supposed to let it get to me, but there is no way to even bring it up without being accused of whining.
(And God help you if you're the one who has to cancel that weekend on them. No one's cool about it.)
If you try to take a stand and not work with someone because you know they're a creep or a vile person, that has repercussions. If you try to be a blank slate and stay neutral, other people's drama splashes up from the shit pipe and gets all over you. If you stay in your lane, you get ignored. If you try to break out, you get mocked. None of this is unique to pursuing comedy as a job, but it can be a dash of cold water to realize you turned your back on safer, more traditional work only to get caught up in a drunker, poverty-stricken version of the same old office politics and small-time snarkery everyone else has to go through.
This IS whining. It's a small vent, on a blog no one reads, so it's probably fine, but it's still indulgent. And let me tell you this: the good stuff always makes the bad stuff worth it. Hitting it off with a new comic on the road and having lunch and talking shop, taking a crowd of skeptical folks outside of their own boxes and showing them why their lives and yours are funny, writing in hotel rooms at four in the morning, driving through swaths of this country you'd never have seen in person if you hadn't hit the road... it all negates the hard stuff.
But once in a while you gotta bitch a little, right?
I am on a balcony in Boise, Idaho, drinking coffee and watching cars zip by on an expressway. Under the bridge is a skate park where local kids land tricks well into the night. Across the street from the skate park, homeless people convene. Even the destitute of Boise are beautiful in their own craggy way. This is a town of pretty people. I had no idea. Anyone in Boise having a bad day should immediately fly to the Rust Belt and spend an afternoon as a solid 9 and the envy of the sack-faced peasants of aisle 12. A sunburnt Boise homeless woman with a dog would pass as an eccentric lesbian millionaire in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I've been on the road for ten days now. I left home and drove to Rochester, Minnesota for a great weekend at Goonie's, the club there. I stayed in a nice hotel and I was plied with free drinks and food. Coffee was right there when I wanted it. Saturday night, after the shows, I was fed shots of whiskey and taken to a bonfire. I woke up in my clothes, in my room, reeking of smoke and sheepishly calling the front desk to ask for a late checkout.
The next couple days were question marks on the calendar. I was going to Minneapolis, then to Fargo, and then driving to Boise (another 17 hours from Fargo) for my next club weekend. At both of my stops, I was scheduled by comic brethren to close out an open mic while the show runner passed a hat for donations.
Sunday I found myself crashing at the house of some old friends from Toledo, who live in Minneapolis now but who weren't home. I had an awkward bit of small talk with one of their roommates, then got a fitful nap on their bed in their room, feeling a little out of sorts from the night before and a lot disconnected from the world around me. I made it out to Coon Rapids, about 25 minutes away, to do the mic at a place called Willy's. The show is apparently notorious as where comedy goes to die, but I wound up having a great time, I made some money, and I started feeling like the world was properly on its axis after all. I made it back to the house, found the spare key under a brick, and let myself in for more weird sleep.
I got up Monday and headed to Fargo. Interstate 94 is so weird and bumpy that at one point I pulled off the highway, certain something was wrong with my car, but it was just bad pavement. You'd think with all the driving in Michigan I've done, I'd know the difference by now. I got to Fargo and my friend's place, and we hit Romo's for some of the best tacos I've ever eaten, then a brewpub to kill time and do trivia before the open mic.
The show started late and ran long, but people were enthusiastic and stayed till I closed it out at the end. Again, the hat was passed and my nomadic weirdness was rewarded. I met some cool people, and another comic who lived down the street agreed to let me sleep on his couch.
Tuesday was where I found myself at loose ends. While Joe's black cat nuzzled my face and got hair all over my laptop, I sat at his kitchen counter, soaking up stolen wifi, and watching a heat wave course across the weather map toward me. It was gonna be 101 in Boise on Wednesday. Did I want to drive into that in my old car? The bumpy road noises rattled my confidence in my trusty Maxima. I started poking around on Priceline looking for cheap flights, the thought of a 17-hour drive (each way) looming over my shoulder.
Obviously, flying was going to wipe out what little I make as a feature comic, but the difference between the flight and the gas money wasn't as big as you'd think. I didn't factor parking and taxis and things like that into the equation, but it's been a good while since I've flown, and this was my first time flying to a gig. It was a learning experience, if nothing else. And it was nice to drive back to Minneapolis, park a car, navigate their terminal, fly to O'Hare, wait an hour, board a connecting flight, and fly to Boise... and still get into town six or seven hours before I otherwise would have.
Tuesday during the day was interesting. Once I left Joe's place, I couldn't go back in, and I was basically homeless (though lucky enough to have a car) till I met my friend JD at a concert we'd decided to attend. I spent time at a coffee shop, ordering refills when I felt too conspicuously like a loiterer to use their wifi and restroom. I drove over to a park and sat at a picnic table reading a book for a couple hours. I got more Romo's and enjoyed that. I went back to the coffee shop. It was the longest day of my life.
After the concert, I slept on JD's floor in my sleeping bag, then woke up all kinked up and fuzzy to drive back to Minneapolis and the airport. It was quite a culture shock after my day of travel Wednesday to arrive in Boise, call a cab, and end up at the comedy club's condo. It was nicer than my house. There was food in the fridge, snacks, coffee, a washer and dryer, clean towels, toiletries... I arrived with my bag of dirty laundry and a sleep deprivation twitch in my eye and I found an oasis of peace.
The next morning, I made coffee that was already in the cabinet. When I poured my first cup, it was hot as hell, so I got an ice cube out of the freezer. I didn't even really think about it. But that's the beauty of changing circumstance. The day before, I bought coffee at a gas station, got down the road, took my first sip and realized it was scalding. No way to fix it. Such a trivial thing, not having ice, or a coffee pot, or a place to take your shoes off, or somewhere to wash your clothes. Trivial until you don't have what you want. Trivial until you get it back again and feel like the king of the world over ice cubes and a bed.
Way back in the day, I ran my life into the ground. I wasn't ever homeless, exactly, but I did some time in some places where the water was shut off, or where bats flew in through a hole in the roof, or where my rent went to someone else's bag of weed and the utilities were a day-to-day gamble. It's easy to forget how close you are to that life. This particular kind of weird nomadic broke-ass traveling is a good reminder. You start to be thankful again.
The last few days in Boise have been neat. It's summer so the attendance at the shows has been light, but the room itself is amazing and takes great care of the comics. The condo, as I've already stated ad nauseam, is beautiful. I could sit here and look at the mountains and listen to the skaters' wheels roll all day, in my shade and comfort. There's a Trader Joe's and a bunch of nice restaurants about a ten-minute walk away. I'm a lucky fool and I hope my antics on the stage somehow justify the largesse that the world has given me.
All that said, I can't wait to be home. I'm tired and I need a haircut and even in these luxurious circumstances, you start to feel grimy and out of sorts. As I finish this, it's Sunday afternoon. There's been a horrific mass shooting in Florida and violence at home in Ohio, and it feels like I'm sitting in Rivendell soaking up the R&R before I venture out into an inferno. I know that's not true. But I also know I want to be home, in my house, with my kids.
This was a good trip. I hope to make it again. I won't forget how tiny the mountains in the distance make this big city feel, or how surreal it is to drink a beer in a metal tube 35,000 feet above the Rockies, or how comedy is a day pass into the lives of so many people. I will try to remember when some other traveler asks for a haven in my town, on my show, to open my arms to them, as so many other people have done for me. And I'll do what I can to make this all meaningful and part of a life lived as best I can.
Tonight was my first night off from comedy in a week. I'd picked up a bunch of small-town shows, a benefit to raise money for the Flint water crisis, and a couple open mics to hone some new material and tags on jokes for my recording in November. By last night, I was toast.
Today, I cooked up two pounds of chicken into a ton of stir fry. I made a spinach and ground beef casserole that turned out pretty great. I already had broken down a couple pounds of leftover pork roast and made it into taco meat. Those three things will be dinners for the next few days, and packed lunches for my wife, and what I eat in that weird time between when I wake up from day sleeping and go get the kids and when I head out to my next shows.
There's a break in the mayhem coming up -- a family vacation down south to see my dad, and sister and her family. Until then, there's a lot of juggling. My daughter's got several medical procedures coming up, my son's working the tech crew for a play and dealing with high school homework, and there's a ton of work to do laying the groundwork for the DVD taping. I'm trying to plan several road trips and fill empty weekends for spring and summer.
It was nice to spend some time in the kitchen today, unplugged for the most part. Brady chilled out with me after a long day (she had to go to the dentist, and she handled it well, but it was stressful) and we listened to Pink Floyd while I cooked like Thanksgiving was coming. I even prepped some bacon and eggs to make breakfast quesadillas tomorrow, since our mornings are usually chaotic. Brady's had her bath, homework is done, everyone's in bed, and soon I will be too.
None of this is particularly exciting, I know. But it's important as hell. Every day is a wrestling match between duties to family and self, between chasing a dumb muse and being a decent father. I still haven't figured out if what I want from life, and if all I ask of it, is even possible, but I'm starting to think I can at least run out the clock before a final decision has to be made.
Even if you're single and committed to no one, having some time to just clean the house, listen to music and make a meal may ultimately serve you better than that umpteenth night out at another mic or that 500th redundant band practice. You can't achieve perfect balance in a creative life in the real world, I'm convinced of that. But sometimes you can give that pendulum a hard shove in the direction of having your shit together at home so you have a strong base to work from.
I dunno, your mileage may vary, but if you're burnt out and so tired your face hurts, come over. Have some casserole. I'll probably have switched to the Dead Kennedys by the time you get here, but the invitation stands. Get some provisions when the sun's out and the schedule allows it because there'll be days when the light never finds you.
My show Friday was at a record store in Columbus. The weather was bad -- nothing to complain about, and nowhere near as bad as the stuff I drove through last year. But it kept people away, so my friends and I performed for each other and a handful of diehards. It was one of those classic "you shoulda been here last week" moments that we all have. We commisserated, did the show and told our jokes, and got back on the (thankfully clear) road for home.
Saturday was a different animal in every way. I performed at a social club in a small town that offered a Valentine's Day dinner-and-show special. The room was sold out, the food was disappearing faster than the cooks could make it, and the 200+ people were loud, raucous and ready - not just for comedy, but to heckle, add unsolicited tags to jokes, and generally act like people who'd never been allowed out in public before.
There are a million ways to look at this. One is to say that they paid their money, it's their hall, so they can act however they want. In practical terms, that's the only interpretation that matters. You take the check, you do the best you can and you try not to get too high-minded about your "art" when the comic before you has a senior citizen standing up and threatening to expose her boobs, or when one guy up front latches on to random words and repeats them at inopportune times ("Foghat! FOGHAT!!!") throughout the rest of your set.
There's a line to walk with shows like this, too. I want to be able to wrestle a crowd like this into submission. I feel like I did that on this show. There are points in my closer when I'm building up to a punchline and there are a couple dramatic pauses, and when I hit those, I always want to hear silence from the room -- not bar chatter, not heckling, but an attentive pause to know they're on board. And I got that, even from this zoo.
But I also don't want to only be the guy that shouts rowdy crowds down. There is a distinction between bar comedy and club comedy, the type of stuff that plays in the sticks and the polished sets you see on TV. I have always thought it was possible to straddle that line. I'm not even sure the line is as distinct as it used to be, given the behavior of some club crowds. But I don't ever want to start using big ham-fisted gestures to subdue drunken mobs and have that overshadow the material I actually write and give a shit about presenting to the world.
I worry in the larger sense that we're getting so coarse as a society that there won't be a place for comedy the way it's ideally presented. I know that sounds ludicrous coming from someone who dresses like a slob and talks about crude subject matter on stage, and I don't think we're ever gonna get back to the point where we dressed up for the movies or to get on an airplane.
But my social media full of fellow comics is a litany of heckler stories every weekend -- drunken oafs ruining shows, threatening violence, being escorted out by police. It's not hard to imagine a future where the only comedy that survives in the live arena is the loudest, dumbest, brashest verbal whack-a-mole to pacify drunks long enough to soak them for a two-drink minimum.
All that aside, I had fun and I enjoyed rising to the challenge. A year or two ago that crowd would have bested me. I feel like I'm getting the chops to deal with more and more situations, mainly because I go out and do shows like this. I got paid well, got fed, and was home at a decent hour.
Sunday night I attended a roast of Zach Martina, a friend of mine in the Michigan comedy scene. It was great to see so many other comics, many of whom I don't know as well as I'd like to, and impressive to see so many friends of Zach and his wife come out to celebrate his birthday despite not knowing any of the other comics. There was a lot of "inside baseball" as the roasters made fun of each other, but everyone was on board and we generally had a great old time.
It was a hectic weekend, not even including the photo shoot I did Sunday afternoon for new headshots. And it made me think about the nature of what comedy means to each person who performs it, and what we want out of it.
Entertaining strangers is hard. Shit, just getting them to shut up for 90 minutes is hard. Making them pay attention and actually getting inside their heads is Herculean. Hanging out with friends and doing the open mic scene is fun. It's a sociable way to make each other laugh and beats sitting at home, for sure. If that's what you want out of comedy - a real-life social network and a hobby with some ego boosting and creativity - you're all set.
If you want to be a paid, working, touring comedian, though, you can't always talk to the back of the room. You have to have things to say to the people who don't look like you, who aren't your age, who don't like the comic book characters or sports teams or bands on your t-shirts, who worked all day and paid cash money to sit in front of you and more or less listen. They might be skeptical of you and they might not meet you halfway, and they don't have to. They're not being paid to be your ideal audience. You're being paid to entertain them and bring the room up as best you can.
I don't want to be all things to all people, but I don't want to be a hothouse comic, either. I don't want to have an "ideal environment" without which I can't work. The cost of this is that I can't be at the open mic with my friends as often. The reward, other than the obvious benefit of getting paid work, is more time spent outside my comfort zone, an education that can't be had anywhere else if you're pursuing this uniquely baffling skill set.
In less than 24 hours, my friend Brad will have performed on the Conan o'Brien show on late night national television. He used to come to open mic in a blazer and sit by himself in a cocoon of shyness until he got to know people. Now he's got management in Los Angeles and is probably going to be a household name pretty soon.
Yesterday, my friend Dave, a pro for many years, announced that he's headlining Brad Garrett's room in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve. Dave's enough of an aficionado of the old school that this is a special honor, up there with his TV appearances and sold-out club gigs.
Earlier tonight, my friend Jon headlined an open mic in Bowling Green for the first time, doing a 15 minute set. By all reports he did great and he left the stage exhilarated and ready for more. He's been at it for a year or so, started out endearingly, weirdly terrible, and has become a funny voice on stage who's learning how to make a crowd laugh and get the job done.
There are so many levels, stumbling blocks, stepping stones, in any creative endeavor. There are people who will actively thwart your progress, usually with their glad hand out and a smile on their face. There are people who will snark and sneer if you don't choose a path that meets their approval.
But resonating over all that are the friends and the people you admire, who do good work and whose successes are a pleasure to see. I don't know if 'love' is too suffocating a term in this cynical age, but I love my friends and it's like a shot of pure oxygen to see when they hit a milestone, level up and get a piece of that mad thing we chase.
Where am I? What's my level? It's good, man. I'm working. I regularly lose my shit and go into several days of depression when I don't get what I want, but that's my failing. I get to perform and get paid for it. I get to drive to open mics with my friends in the car, dissecting the woes of the world and cutting up like hell while we eat up the miles and make new friends in other towns. I have an album, I'm making a DVD. I'm broke and aging and exhausted all the time and I'm doing as close to exactly what I want as I've ever gotten.
Remind me when I forget: all of us are climbing up on those stumbling blocks and giving the Reaper the finger every day, wherever and however we do it. Help me to clear out the underbrush of bullshit and spend more time on the joy. Smack me in the face and tell me for the ten thousandth time how lucky I am to have lungs full of air and a mouth full of dirty words to tell you. Raise a toast, gas up the car and let's get to the show, because it's gonna be a stitch.
It's funny that when comics send their open dates to bookers, they're called "avails," short for "availability." Most of the time, you send them to no avail. That's what's hilarious about it. It's extra funny when you're staring at a calendar full of white space, you have no money in the bank, and you fancied yourself a working comic at one point. A real stitch, right?
Like every comic and every room, each booker is a unique situation. The ones you want are the ones who reply to your emails, give you a chance in their rooms, treat you fairly, rate your work honestly, and bring you back on a regular basis. Once a year is good. I can build on that. No one gets sick of me, but I can develop a rapport with your town, make friends among the staff, and feel like that's one weekend a year where I know I'll have a place to do what I do.
On the opposite end of the scale, there's the ones who just never reply. You get new video, you post new open dates, you mention how someone who works there likes you, and those emails drop off into the ether like messages in bottles off a waterfall. You're pretty sure they're getting dumped into a spam folder, but you keep trying. Not too much -- you don't want to be a bother or anything, while you're starving at home and gritting your teeth when people you know get stuff you don't get.
There's the ones who you think have soured on you, who don't reply for a reeeeeally long time after you worked there before. You're convinced they groan in disgust every time your name pops up in their inbox, and you wonder what unremembered transgression crosses their mind. You rack your brain. Didn't you have a good set or two there? Didn't you handle the drunk heckler pretty well? Weren't you getting along well with the headliner? You waited till you got back to the hotel to get drunk and eat all that Taco Bell, right?
Meanwhile, that booker glances at your name, thinks 'eh, nothin' this month, pal' and deletes your email without sparing you another nanosecond's thought.
There's a few that you know aren't gonna book you. You send them messages more out of spite than anything. You resolve to kill them with kindness. You plot elaborate putdowns for when you're super famous and they beg you to grace their stage with your presence one last time. You secretly hope they change their mind and book you, every time you hit send.
You know - you rationally know - that none of this is the agonizing gladiatorial thumbs-up-and-down that you think it is. Bookers are just harried, tired human beings who get asked for work literally constantly. You don't stand out to them because you can't stand out to them. They don't hate you because they don't have the energy to give that much of a shit about you, and if they can get you in, they probably will at some point.
(Unless you're awful. Maybe you're awful. Would anyone tell you if you were? Oh God.)
Sometimes a crumb falls from God's table. I just booked a great weekend at a club I've been petitioning for over two years. I'd all but given up ever working there, I had no hope of getting booked, and now I'm on a special-engagement weekend with no idea why.
Sometimes the crumb goes away. I got work at one of my favorite places last year, and they didn't bring me back this year. I thought I was established there for good, and now I'm back to square one with no idea why.
It's a constant push and pull, and from what I've seen of headliners and more well known performers, it never ends. The stakes change and the numbers increase, but there's still the same anxiety, self-doubt, jealousy and agonizing twisting in the wind when you don't get what you want, or at least get answers.
It's all about the journey, and being grateful for what you do get. It's hard to remember that when you get blown off by the club that would rather give the busboy ten more weekends of stage time, or when the perfectly constructed run of shows you were so proud of falls out because the z-list celeb headliner insists his sponsor-slash-minder has to be the opening act. It's tough when your social media timeline is full of pictures of a showroom you killed in three years ago whose people no longer answer your messages. It's awful and unfair and no one cares because it's a super first-worldy problem and other people have real shit to worry about.
The only way to win is to not quit, so you don't quit, and every few Mondays you fire up Gmail, suck down some coffee, crack your knuckles like a sad piano player and play that song again. "Hi there - Keith Bergman is a feature from Toledo, he'd love to work your room, and here's a list of all the days he'd rather be telling jokes in your establishment than writing this blog."
Last week I went on a short run of shows, which I dubbed "The Pittin' Out Tour." I named it that because my car's air conditioning did not work, and I didn't expect to fix it before I left. I was heading to the Deep South for a week of shows. My wife is smarter than me, and took the car in for a tuneup a week before we left. We spent a good bit of the tour not "pittin' out" our shirts, as I expected, but driving in refrigerated comfort.
I picked Dustin Meadows up on Sunday, with my son in tow. We drove to Nashville, and I dropped the kid off with my sister to spend time with family. We did the Spiffy Squirrel Comedy Night at The East Room in Nashville, then stayed with friends of Dustin. I watched "Django Unchained" and slept on a concrete floor. I didn't realize until well into the next morning that I had enough blankets to make a nest of sorts, and actually get comfortable.
Monday we drove to Huntsville, to Maggie Meyers' Irish Pub, where we got the chance to do our full sets for the first time. The crowd was small but appreciative, and the place was great. There was an open mic afterward, and we each got back up and did some material we hadn't done in the main show, then we drove to Birmingham to sleep at my sister's house.
Tuesday had the potential to be a disaster -- we had a gig at Seasick Records, right down the street from where we were staying, but their power got knocked out. At the last second, friends got us moved to Saturn, an amazing new venue with a retro outer-space theme owned by one of the members of Man... Or Astro-man? After delaying the show for an hour, and panicking because no one was coming, we wound up with a really receptive crowd and overall the best night of performances of the week. Closed it out with beers on the back porch with my dad and some good talk.
Wednesday we zipped down to Tuscaloosa for the show at Druid City Brewing Co. It was us and a slew of local comics, and we were treated well and enjoyed the room despite being the least interesting part of the night to many of the patrons. Despite that, and the friendliest heckler I've seen in a long time, we had fun. Drove back, stayed with family one more night.
We saddled up and drove to Athens, Georgia on Thursday. I've had bad luck with this town and gigs since my band days, and tonight was no exception. We got double-booked with four bands, told we had to start on time and end early, and then we wound up with zero customers for the comedy show. It's a college town in summer, sure, but it still stung a little. But we were staying with great friends, and we found some amazing sandwiches while walking the nearly-deserted downtown, so it wasn't a total wash. Got the best sleep of the tour and saddled up the next afternoon for Knoxville.
Friday was the blockbuster show of the trip. We were opening for Jasper Redd, a local comic who's got a Netflix special and is now based in LA. We pulled up to the Saw Works Brewery, only to find the room so packed you couldn't make it to the bathroom. We had to stash our merch in the employees-only brewery area just to avoid it getting stepped on. It was wall-to-wall people, great local beer, a food truck outside, and a really fun vibe. I mixed up some older material into my set and had a lot of fun with the crowd. The bar staff in particular was cool as hell, and took good care of us. We went out with some comics for a while, then crashed at the house of one of Dustin's friends, whose cat and I nearly got into a fistfight.
Saturday morning was when the marathon home stretch began. We got up, hit a kickass little diner, then drove over 500 miles to Mobile, some of it through a blinding thunderstorm. We got to town around 8, finding tree limbs down in the streets, and made our way to the Blind Mule. The attic, where the comedy shows happen, was a delightful spot, a little hot and gritty, but just the place for some road comedy. We had a small turnout here too, and a couple chatty ladies who wanted to make the show about them. My approach to this is usually to just bowl them over and not let them get a word in edgewise, and it seemed to work for me on this night. Talked to some of the locals for a bit, debated sticking around, but we had more driving to do.
250 miles back the way we came, and we were back in Birmingham about 4am. My son was back at my sister's house, having spent some time with her and some with my old man. A few hours of fitful sleep later, we were packing the car and saying goodbyes, and then we were off. The drive up to Columbus was pretty wonderful in its lack of excitement. We ate some Popeye's, listened to Motorhead, got through Nashville and Louisville without traffic jams, and dropped Dustin off at home around 9pm.
By the time my son and I got back to Toledo, it was midnight, and I was so tired my face hurt, but of course I couldn't sleep. I wound up on the couch drinking beer and getting a couple episodes into the newest season of Doctor Who before I could finally drift off.
Was it worth it? Financially, of course not. I appreciate anyone who'd let strangers with no draw come to their town and do comedy. That said, there's just not enough money at an off-night show to pay comedians from 800 miles away what it cost them to be there. We knew that going in. We more or less broke even on our travel costs, and we made enough money to eat and live by selling our merch. We didn't stay in a hotel once, and we didn't spend much outside of survival and caffeine, but we made it work.
As a life experience, it was a blast. It was summer camp for aging nerds, a rock and roll tour minus the van and the loading in of drums in the southern heat. And as a creative exercise, it was invaluable. I recorded my CD over a year ago, and I want to start thinking of my "next hour." Most of these shows provided a fantastic opportunity to work on just that. I can't speak for Dustin, but for me, the Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile shows in particular gave me insights on my headline set that a year's worth of open mic spots at home would not have taught me.
There's also the general skill set you pick up in road mode. What to eat, and when. How to budget time. How to keep the energy up for 45 minutes in a hot room when you're deliriously low on sleep. How not to be too drunk, or spend too much money on records, or otherwise ruin your own party.
I've specifically avoided mentioning names so far in this post. But I'm gonna attempt to thank everyone who helped us, who performed with us, or who otherwise made last week awesome. I'm certain to forget someone and I apologize. But these people all rule and made the trip a blast for us:
Chad Riden, Brad Edwards, Jordan Jensen, Dustin's military friend whose name I've forgotten, Matthew C. Tate, Blair Scott, Nichole Adams, Scott Eason, Lisa and Ham Bagby (and Milo and Jack), Tom Bagby, Liz Buckingham, Daniel Drinkard, Michael McCall, David Hagans, Andy Birdwell, John Bergman, Bo Hicks, Bob Baker, Richard Lockhart, everyone at Druid City Brewing Co, Chris and Suzy Holcombe, Shaunak Godkhindi, Caroline Schmitt, Jasper Redd, Shane Rhyne, Matt Ward, Sean Simoneau, Victor Agreda Jr, the bartenders at SawWoarks Brewery, Jeff Blank, everyone at Sam's Diner in Knoxville, Ryan Jetten, the Gov'na and everyone at the Blind Mule, Mark Phillip, and my road dogs themselves -- Dustin Meadows and my son Rocco for hanging in and eating up the miles with me.
Next year I wanna do it again, and film it. See you guys then, I hope.
The other day, and I don't remember which day, my right leg started to hurt. Just randomly shooting pain from somewhere in my hip or thigh area, I guess. It didn't seem like a big deal at first -- I'd been driving a lot, and sleeping erratically, so I assumed I'd passed out on the couch at an inopportune angle and twisted myself up a little.
Then it got worse. I couldn't lift my leg up to put pants on, I had to sit down and hoist my leg into the pantleg with my hands. I walked with a limp. I started to really worry. I couldn't get comfortable when I laid down to sleep, so I slept even worse, so I felt fuzzy and out of sorts. Then at some point yesterday my brain dolloped a cherry on the shit sundae by whispering "maybe it's a blood clot." And I spent the rest of the day trying to function as a human being with a clanging railroad crossing warning bell in my skull going MAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOT
I was gonna get up this morning and call my doctor. Then last night, I had to put the cat in the basement, because my mother-in-law's visiting with her goofy, cat-food-eating dog. As I lunged under my bed to get the justifiably freaked-out cat, and stretched my body, I felt what I can only describe as a socketing. Something went "pop" and was back where it was supposed to be. Some piece of skeletal furniture came up off a live wire and let it breathe. Almost instantly, I felt better.
I didn't say a word about it, because I didn't believe it. I have a tour in two weeks. I have a lot of driving to do. I routinely pick up a forty-pound kid and perambulate around the house (and up stairs) with her in my arms. Things are not allowed to break right now. They're just not. But I woke up this morning, put weight on it, and hey, shit works.
My aorta dissected in 2004, and I almost died. They had to replace one of my heart valves with one from a pig, which lasted till 2013. Now I have a mechanical valve that ticks like a turn signal and never stops. I didn't really process until much later that I shouldn't have survived the 2004 dissection at all. When I somehow did, I had no right to expect to be ambulatory, able to pick up forty-pound kids, and cleared to drive off on hellish all-night highway runs to ridiculous comedy shows in the hinterlands.
Since 2013 I've tried to run at 150%. I set up a DVD taping (a really poorly-advised DVD taping, but a nicely-set-up show, if I may say so) while still recovering and just out of ICU. I chafed the day of release when they delayed my paperwork a few hours. I was back on stage a week later, still wearing my "heart hugger" vest to clutch my incision together when I sat down, stood up, or sneezed.
Now I work ten times harder than you, I raise my kids better than you, I love better, I drive further, I drink harder, I write in big loopy confessional swirls like this one. That's the panic in the back of my mind telling me to move, to go, to stop wasting daylight. I spent 40 years not feeling like my life had even started and now I'm wrapping my head around the fact that I've aged out of things I really wanted to do. Or have I? Don't know. Can't talk. Running.
What I have not done is, like, actually run. Or take better physical care of myself. Or drink enough water or get enough sleep. Part of the last two years of revving the engine and screaming down the mountain has revolved around a lot of denial and a weird streak of half-assed dirtbag macho that I didn't know I possessed and am not very proud of. I didn't hear much from that particular voice in my head yesterday, when I had to lift my right leg into the car with my hands because my muscles wouldn't do it.
I'm not saying this is some road-to-Damascus moment and that next year I'll be a gym rat with an inspiring fitness journey to yell at you about. I'm just... gonna try to get some sleep. And go for more walks. And do better. I love most of the things in my life. I've gone through a lot and been spared much of the emotional pain that my friends suffer. I'm loved, I'm reasonably well-adjusted, I enjoy what I do, and I 've been luckier than any hundred people deserve.
I want to do all this, more, forever. And I can't if I'm sick or in pain. I definitely can't if I'm dead. So hi. I'm 43 years old and I'm gonna start acting like it, at least in the preventative maintenance department. Hopefully that idea socketed back into place when my leg decided to start working right again, and it'll keep transmitting merrily alongside all the other ones that tell me to chase dreams, drink coffee and tell dirty jokes.
Love you dopes, see you on the road.
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.