My last blog was a wistful travelogue of a 1,500-mile journey across a pretty substantial chunk of America in search of laughs. This past weekend, I was home from both of my shows and in pajama pants before 10:30.
Part of filling up a calendar with work is spackling holes in it. You might have a roadtrip planned, or a stretch of dates that you fly to, but there’ll always be an odd Friday or Saturday with nothing going on. Sometimes you block it out and leave yourself a weekend at home to get other work done or just catch up on some sleep and family time. Other times, shows will pop up that might not have fit into your schedule as you’d planned it… but nothing ever sticks to the plan.
Friday I headlined in Fostoria at a Knights of Columbus hall. I’d never been to one, and it’s basically an Elks or a Moose lodge, only Catholic. There was a forbidding bust of Christopher Columbus himself in the foyer, photos of Popes adorning the wall, and we performed along the back wall under a crucifix. They told us we couldn’t say fuck and had to work clean, but the other two comics went into blowjob and masturbation jokes so I kind of figured the floor was open.
It was an interesting set for me because it didn’t start out well. I wasn’t confident in my opening material choices and fumbled around a little bit trying to ad-lib and riff off the show so far. That’s not my strong suit and it wasn’t working. But what I AM good at is keeping that “we’re havin’ fun” energy up and not giving in when I feel the wheels start to slide off the road. I’d say by the 20-minute mark, we were on track, and it ended strong.
Saturday I was featuring, checking out a new show at a winery booked by Adam Minnick, a Cincinnati comic. It’s an open secret that the feature spot is the sweet spot on any three-person show, and if it wasn’t for the increase in pay, a lot of people would never move up to headliner. You’re in, you’re out, you do 20-30 minutes tops, the show’s overall tone isn’t your responsibility, you can eat dinner while the headliner’s on, you get the crowd before they have one too many drinks and get restless or have to calculate their checks… it’s a good time.
This show, like Friday’s, was full. An unexpected snow squall coming in had me on edge a little bit, but once I got there it was all good. Tyler Shafer, a newer local comic, warmed up the crowd and then I went up and did my abbreviated set before Adam closed it out. I had a couple local beers and hung out talking with a few folks, got back on the road, and got home at a decent hour.
Most of the time, when comedy is far away and the journey to get to it is all-consuming, it starts feeling more like an adventure or a crusade. Leaving the house at six and being back home five hours later, comedy feels like a day job. It’s not my normal to be making lunch or doing laundry at home mid-afternoon and thinking “hey, don’t forget you’re leaving for a gig in two hours.” It’s a different vibe. I’m sure I could get used to it, and it’s nice to be home in your own bed.
I think I need some of both, though – that sense of striking out into the world to conquer a new place, even if the extent of the epic saga is me eating slightly different fast food and waking up in an Econolodge. There’s an immersion in what you’re doing when you’re on the road, even for a short trip, and you’ve uprooted yourself for the cause.
But I’m grateful for all the gigs and each one of them is important to me. One of the benefits of staying in the Midwest is the sheer number of opportunities within a day’s drive, and the chance to ply your trade and still have some kind of home life. Thanks to Kim T for Fostoria, and Adam for Wauseon, and to the folks who made me feel welcome at both. I’ve got a couple more weeks of this kind of schedule, and some family vacation time, and then things get real road-trippy again in April and May.
There’s no such thing as time travel, but you can speed it up and slow it down, stretch it like old chewed gum, and one of the best ways to do that is to go on a really long drive for work. Weeks when I travel a long way to do comedy, then turn around and come home, always end up feeling ten times longer than they actually were. The anxiety and restlessness leading up to them would be comical if they weren’t so distracting, and the re-entry into home life after a short, intense run will scramble your brain.
Last Friday I headed out for my first full weekend headlining for one of the main bookers I deal with. I’d done both of these rooms as a middle act before, learning the ropes, taking gigs no one else in their right mind would drive to because I needed the experience and because seeing your name on those official-looking booker itineraries is intoxicating. Now, after putting in the work for ages, I got the chance to do this run as the top-billed comic, the one getting paid enough to make this a job, and not just an expensive excuse to put miles on my car and strive to break even.
I was away from home for 60 hours. I left Friday around 10am, and got home Sunday at 11pm. I spent about 150 minutes of that time on stage, actually performing, and about 24 hours of it driving. I did my best to live cheap – I took a cooler with some beers and bottled water with me. Normally, I’ll try to make a couple days’ worth of road food to save on restaurants, but I was leaving in a bit of a hurry, so I just grabbed pouches of deli meat and cheese from the fridge – turkey, bologna, some gouda cheese – threw it all on top of the beers, grabbed my clothes and meds, and hit the road.
I’d stayed up too late Thursday, hanging out with a friend and fellow comic who’d come up to do my open mic, and then trying to get some work done in the middle of the night. I was tired when I got in the car, and I had over eight hours to drive. The weather had just been bad in Wisconsin, where I was going, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be driving into snow or not. It was cold and raining in Ohio, and I got rerouted from the turnpike to some winding two-late state routes before I even made it to Indiana.
From Chicago to Madison, I encountered choking fog in the middle of the day, so thick it blocked out the sun. At another point in the drive I was taken onto two-lane highway, and I got to spend thirty miles or so watching semis roar out of the opaque wall of mist ahead of me, before I was mercifully sent back to an interstate.
By that point, my eyes were heavy, but I didn’t have much time to stop and take a catnap. I tried for about fifteen minutes, in a 7-11 parking lot at one of the service plazas west of Chicago, but once I wasn’t driving, my brain started going a mile a minute and I finally just started the car back up.
I got to La Crosse, Wisconsin about 5:30 central time. The show is in the bar inside the hotel, so I at least had the comfort of knowing I was done driving for the day. I checked in, got to my room, and tried to crawl into bed for a power nap, but the leftover adrenaline from the drive wasn’t going to let that happen. I rested for a few, jumped in the shower, and headed down to Moxie’s, where Scott (the local contact point and emcee of the show) and Trevor Anderson, the feature, were waiting.
Last time I’d been here, the show was sold out and the entire crowd was drinking like it was their day job. This time wasn’t much different. We had a packed room, and they were already well on their way to inebriation. They wanted to have fun and hear some comedy, but they weren’t gonna be the easiest to communicate with. I started picking and choosing stuff from my set, out of its usual order, because some of the jokes touched on things Trevor had talked about in his set, so I wanted to get that out of the way and acknowledge it.
From there, it was this scary, but delightful, mishmash of old and new jokes. I ad-libbed some stuff, did bits out of order, and closed with a bit I believe in but that doesn’t always hit hard. The show went great, though, I felt like I was walking on a tightrope the whole time but also kinda killing it, and the audience seemed to agree.
I got done, and the first of several rounds of congratulatory shots made their way to me and Trevor. I actually had planned to just go up to my room, maybe do some writing, drink a few of my cooler beers, but people kept talking to us, buying us drinks, and the night was pleasant, so I ended up more or less closing the bar down with Trevor and having more shots than I’ve probably ingested in at least a year. I never did eat dinner.
I don’t sleep great in hotels, but I finally got comfortable, slept off the booze, and got up and out. I found a Taco John’s, a regional chain I hadn’t had in years, and wolfed down some lunch before I headed to Duluth. It was four more hours through some hills and winding roads, not all of it interstate – I drove through a tiny town and suddenly remembered stopping at its diner the last time I was through here, hung over, melancholy, hoping their home fries would cure me. This time around I felt better, although the weather was continuing to give me mild anxiety, and I was more interested in getting to my room for a nap.
There’s an amazing scenic overlook on that route (I’m already blanking on the road – route 53?). You crest this hill and pull off and there’s this panoramic view of what feels like the entire Midwest, a patchwork of fields and trees, houses and valleys, all blanketed on this day with snow. I didn’t stop – it was cold and I was out of coffee and so enamored of the idea of that nap – but almost as soon as I started down the hill, I wished I had.
A little further along, I saw the first eagle I’ve ever seen in person, just chilling on the side of the road. He looked up at me as I passed, and I yelled out loud. Eagles are symbols where I live, not actual birds that just hang out and scavenge and look vaguely righteous when they gawk at your passing car. But here we were! I guess I was getting scenery whether I stopped for it or not.
I made it to Superior, Wisconsin, the town before Duluth, and I stopped to fill my thermos with coffee and get some snacks. Then it was across the water, up the steep hills on the other side, and finally to my hotel, an overpriced, shabby box near a mall. Last time I’d been here, both comics got put up at the Holiday Inn downtown, and we could walk to the show through an enclosed skyway and not go back outside at all. The deal always changes, though.
After all that, there wasn’t as much time to nap as I’d hoped for – Dubh Linn Irish Pub runs two shows on Saturdays, the first at 6:30, and I knew I’d need time to park in downtown Duluth. It seemed like I’d just gotten there and I was back in the car, trying to get out of the hotel parking lot – the roads were clear, but every flat surface that hadn’t been cleared had been used to dump snow onto. Yards were buried under ten-foot piles. The lot hadn’t been plowed, so I skidded and slalomed through what seemed like a dangerous amount of leftover slush before I made it back to the highway.
Comedy’s always a small world, usually delightfully so. Tonight my MC was Danielle Thralow, a comic I’d met in Fort Myers, Florida, many years ago on a weekend run there. She’s based out of Duluth now and is hosting these shows most Saturdays to get solid stage time close to home – a good strategy that keeps you writing. The feature was another Minneapolis comic, Courtney Baka, who made it up from the Twin Cities just in time for the show.
The last time I’d been here was opening for Marc Yaffee, and I remembered the crowd being friendly enough, but easily distracted and kind of difficult to keep engaged. Not this time, though. The first show, at least was all you could ask for – full room, loose and friendly, paying attention, fun but not obnoxious. We had a great time. The second show was a bit drunker, with some real “I’m helping the show!” heckler types.
(I can’t imagine you’ve read this far if you’re a casual comedy fan, but just in case – you’re not helping. You never are. Please stop. The people at your table are embarrassed for you and wish they had better friends. If no one’s told you this before, no harm no foul, and I appreciate that you came, but stop doing that.)
I had one guy up front telling me I didn’t know anything about trucks during my big about a guy in a big truck. That one was friendly enough, I could smooth him over. Toward the end, I got confident and tried that bit from Friday, the one that I don’t always get to work right. It’s about my son never catching my wife and I having sex when he was little. A guy in the back yelled “BULLSHIT!” I tried to keep going. “MAYBE YOU’RE JUST NOT HAVING SEX!” the guy continued.
“I dunno, after I leave your mom’s place I’m usually good for one more go,” I replied. I won’t pretend this is even remotely clever or original, but it brought the fucking house down, and I ended on a wave of applause.
I got my check and headed back to the hotel, stopping for my second Taco John’s experience of the day. My verdict – it’s fine. It’s not a must-have when you’re in that town, like a Del Taco is for me, but the nachos were pretty kickass. The regular tacos were serviceable, and the tater tot things are a nice side. There are probably much better places to eat in La Crosse and Duluth, but a trip with this much driving leaves me kind of twitchy and craving solitude, eating in the car like a raccoon. A warm, friendly diner and human conversation might have broken my brain.
Remember how I told you time gets goopy and stretchy? This whole story is less than 48 hours of my life. It dawned on me as I pulled back into my crappy hotel parking lot that I’d woken up in my house the day before, kissed my daughter and put her on the school bus. I felt like I’d been wandering the tundra for a year. The bleak winter surroundings didn’t help, but most of it’s just the weird space capsule car life and re-entry into alien terrain.
The best thing to do in this situation would be to go right to sleep, get up before sunrise and start clocking miles toward home. The second best would be to sleep in a little, get up for the free breakfast, and then hit the road. So of course, I did neither. I ate, sat up trying to write, laid down and tried to will myself to sleep, had a couple cooler beers and enjoyed my occasional road tryst with basic cable. I watched some OG Green Hornet an Police Story episodes till at least four in the morning.
Don’t let anyone tell you the road isn’t glamorous.
I finally passed out for a while, long enough to miss the free food, but I got out of the hotel on time and hit the road. The drive back is about 720 miles. You lose an hour coming back into the eastern time zone from central, so basically, this drive was the only thing I was doing on this day. But the drive home is always shorter, mentally, for some reason – you know where you’re going, you don’t have the uncertainty of the shows looming, you’re not on a strict time schedule. If eleven hours in the car could ever be described as “not a big deal,” it’s then.
(When I did this run before, I didn’t have a transponder yet, and I was obsessed with skipping every toll I possibly could, no matter how many hours it added to the drive. It’s taken me a couple near-misses almost nodding off on the road to realize what a dumb idea this was. If you’ve ever tried to get through the Chicago metro area with “no tolls” set on your GPS, you know what a harrowing clusterfuck that can be. Doing that, getting through it, and then realizing you still have four more hours of hills and Amish buggies on Route 20 to go, was some of the most “working harder, not smarter” shit I’ve ever done.)
Two tanks of gas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, an hour of Ohio, a shitload of podcasts and the last of my road snacks later, I pulled into my driveway. I’d put over 1500 miles on my car, rocked three shows, met some new road buds, seen some sights, and worn myself out to a level I felt in my bones for three or four days afterward. I’d been away from home less than 72 hours. I got up Monday and put my daughter on the bus again.
As my friend Kass said, a week into her share of our tour last fall, “this seems like a pretty miserable way to live.” And I can’t tell you it’s not. If you’ve been here for a while, you’re probably thinking “this is what you wanted. You knew what it was and you’ve kept trying to get it.” And that’s also true.
And this is true too – I love it. It’s exhausting and ridiculous and I could make about as much money managing a gas station. But those shows hit right in your soul when you long-haul it across a third of a nation to tell your stories, and the beer you toast your new comrades with tastes that much better, and the sunset in your rear view as you’re screaming along with Slayer to stay awake and get back home will bring a tear to your damn eye.
That first sleep in your own bed when you get home from a run is just the best, too. You know you have so much to do when you wake up, but you crawl under your own covers and you don’t have anywhere you gotta be for a day or two… I wouldn’t trade it. See you next time.
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.