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?
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.