Two weeks ago, my other big cross-country trek happened. My friends Stu McCallister and DK Hamilton accompanied me to Naples, Florida for a weekend at the Old Naples Comedy Club. On the way, I hit some open mics in Cincinnati, and we did a show at a microbrewery in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was supposed to be a longer tour, but it ended up being fine the way it was.
In Louisville, where I met up with those guys and left my car at Stu's friend's house, I was killing time at a bookstore. I bought John Darnielle's "Wolf In White Van" and read it in a parking lot, drinking coffee from my Thermos like I was on some kind of stakeout. I also bought a postcard on a whim, and sent it to my son. He's 13 and I didn't expect him to give much of a crap about it, but he got really excited to receive an actual piece of physical mail. I'm going to buy a sheet of postcard stamps and just keep them with me from now on, and mail him one from wherever I go.
I'm probably dooming him to premature obsolescence, passing on any attachment to physical anything. But those postcards might be a nice thing for him to have when he's my age. You do what you can, and when it works you repeat it.
Tuscaloosa was a tonic for me. We rolled in Tuesday night, tired and crispy already, and my sister and her husband were waiting for us with beers and food. My dad was there, and in the morning I got to see my nephews. We had a nice day of relaxing around their house, then went to Druid City Brewing for a show in the back room of the brewpub. We were wedged in the empty space around the brewing tanks and giant sacks of malt, and it didn't seem like enough room for anything good to happen, but people crammed in there, most standing, to enjoy the show.
Hanging out that night would have been a lot of fun, but we had a schedule to keep. We hit the road and I drove us through Alabama to Florida, passing shuttered gas stations advertising pecans and boiled peanuts, trundling down the two-lane highway in the dead of the southern night. We ate at a Perkins somewhere near Tampa and rolled into Naples around lunchtime.
I've never seen a town like Naples. I don't think I'm supposed to. There are Bentleys and Aston Martins being driven around on the streets like it's no big deal. The mall has an actual De Beers diamond store and clothing shops I probably wouldn't be allowed in. We pulled up to the dock area and clambered aboard the houseboat where we'd be staying, and then set off to explore "Tin City," the tourist trap enclave by our dock and the home of our shows for the weekend.
Souvenirs, seafood restaurants, overpriced coffee and no free refills to be had anywhere -- I quickly realized we were camping out in the beachfront equivalent to an airport bar. We got back to the boat, caught naps, and then headed to the shows with Brian Corrion, our host and booker.
The shows Thursday and Friday were okay, but lightly attended. We were in a weird dead zone between tourist season and the return of the snowbirds, so we had a small contingent of locals who came out. It was a challenge adapting my set to a much older crowd, but we had fun with it. I met Larry Scott, who's just starting out in comedy but who recognized my Sick Of It All shirt from a Facebook photo and told me about running a hardcore label and putting out vinyl! Not someone I expected to meet in Naples.
The highlight of our trip for tourist-y stuff was a boat ride we got to go on Saturday, thanks to Brian. We went out on a sailboat into the Gulf of Mexico, past multi-million dollar vacation homes and undeveloped, scrubby islands. It was pretty shocking to see the opulence on display, and then to pass all of it, hit the open gulf and realize that even that shit is temporary and meaningless in the grand scope of the earth's evolution.
Also, someone give me $45 million so I can build an obscenely lavish house I only use four weeks out of the year.
Saturday was our final show, and it was a full house, with a fun and enthusiastic crowd. I'd drawn to close the show that night, and all was good until the checks got dropped. You haven't lived until you've seen a room full of senior citizens who were enjoying your comedy seconds before suddenly forget you even exist as they start to quibble at full volume over who ordered what cocktail.
We said our goodbyes to Brian and Janice Rodriguez, the fantastic server who took great care of us all weekend, and packed the car for the 20+ hour drive home. The first leg of the drive, bullshitting with DK in the front while we ate up miles along I-75 north, was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Stu took over and I went to sleep in the back, waking up long enough to wolf down some truly awful Shoney's grub in Kentucky before we got to my car and parted company.
It pissed down rain all afternoon, as if to punish us for skipping out on the season's first polar vortex in sunny Florida. I got to Ohio and the rain changed to snow, everyone slowed down a bit, and I meandered my way the last few hours home. I arrived at my doorstep not much the worse for wear, to hugs and admonitions to go take a shower.
(I stopped in the Cincinnati area to buy some Ale-8-1, a local ginger ale that's my favorite soda, and some goetta, which is a pork-and-steel-cut-oats concoction unique to the area as well. Thumbs up to both of those things, and to "Wolf In White Van," which I read again as soon as I got home, and will probably get lost in again soon.)
Trips like this one are not practical. They make no sense from a financial standpoint, but they are not frivolously undertaken. They are more elective classes in this weird apprenticeship to standup comedy that I'm putting myself through. They are an excuse to see more of the world, to ply my trade in front of people I'd never otherwise encounter, to make contacts and test my mettle and figure out what kind of comic I am, what kind of traveler I am. I learn from all of it, or I try to, and I come home hopefully wiser, better, more confident and ready for anything when I hit stages in my own back yard.
I already want the next trip on the books. I have to make that happen. The only question is, where next?
Shows are as different as snowflakes. These are a few of the kinds of shows I did this month:
- I did a weekend at a 'comedy club' that was a curtained-off area of a large bar in a strip mall. I'm guessing it used to be one of those second-tier department stores, an Ames or a Hills or a TG&Y, back when those were around. We did two shows, one Friday (decent) and one Saturday (great).
- I did two shows in old-man lodges. One was a showcase in a VFW hall in Michigan, with eight or nine comics. I was one of the more experienced people on the bill - for a few of the others, it may have been their first non-open-mic show. I closed the show with 15 minutes and could not have been more surprised at how great the crowd was. The next night, I did a benefit show in an Eagles lodge, for a recently-divorced woman who needs a double lung transplant. Her ex-husband told people not to attend, and hardly anyone did. I did my best before indifferent elderly relatives, ate some spaghetti and salad, and wished her well.
- I did three nights as the MC at one of the best clubs in the country. It was my first time working there, and I was intimidated the first night. I forgot to act like I belonged there. The other two shows went better. Being new to the place, I hosted the Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday shows -- which boasted crowds that would make most other midwestern showroom managers weep with joy on a Saturday. I get to go back in December, and I'm grateful for that.
- I went to a bar in a tiny Indiana town where a hard rock band was playing, and they wanted comedians between their sets, while they took a break. We walked in thinking it was going to be a total disaster, but they were very cool and we ended up having a great time. It was a contact sport keeping their attention, but if you got 'em on board, they stayed.
- I dressed up as Redd Foxx and performed a set of his jokes as a tribute, at two different "Dead Comics Shows." At one, the audience seemed to have no idea what was going on. At the second, in Indianapolis, a full house greeted us, and went along on our weird trips. It was a unique night, and it felt more like being backstage at a play than a comedy show -- everyone was getting into costumes, nervously going over lines and worrying how their character would be received. But the show was amazing, to watch and to be a part of.
- I did a weekend MCing for a national celebrity who's trying his hand at standup. Four packed shows, long lines for photos and autographs after, trying to maintain a manic level of energy to play to the back of the room and keep the raucous crowd from overpowering the show. It was more like game show hosting in a soccer riot than performing comedy, but it was kinda fun and it was a good learning experience.
- I did a couple open mics to work on new stuff. One, in Kalamazoo, has become one of my favorite places to perform. It's always a great place to unfurl a new idea in front of receptive people. I had to do a little crowd control even there, and luckily it went in my favor - I'm still not great at that aspect of this job, but I'm learning as I go and there seems to be no shortage of loud people willing to provide the training. But my set felt great and that material is well on its way to my main set.
I did another open mic, a local one, and I did something I don't like to see other comics doing. I blew in an hour late, waited through two or three other comics, did my set, then split. I was legitimately in the middle of doing other things, and no one seemed to care much, but I dislike being that person. I prefer being there for the whole show whenever possible, especially when a crowd is small. I learn as much from watching other people on stage as I do during my own time, and I feel it's a gesture of respect to the other comics and to the room to be engaged in the entire show. I didn't like how I felt after dropping in like some kind of bogus asshole. Lesson learned.
- Last Saturday I got to feature at the club nearest my house, opening for Todd Yohn, who's been in the game for over 30 years. He's a master on stage, and he killed 'em. After my set, and later after the show over beers, he had some very complimentary things to say about my act, which I appreciated. He expressed regret that we just had the one night of shows, and wouldn't get to hang out and get to know each other over a weekend, and I agreed. I hope to run into him again on the road -- he's semi-retired but I wouldn't be surprised to see him hitting the asphalt full time again soon. I don't think you can be that good for that long and be able to turn off the urge to perform.
The next two nights, I do a showcase and a contest, in Chicago and Columbus respectively. Then it's off to Alabama and Florida. Then it's a show at the art museum. Then it's my first weekend at the Comedy Castle in Royal Oak. The point is, it's never a typical night, or weekend. The utter lack of normal is the only normal. Even the drives, the gas stations, the diners, the hotels are unique and pungent experiences all their own.
I can't tell you what'll be around the next bend, but I bet it'll be a good weird.
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.