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.
Every group of comedians talking into a mic at a public place is called a "show," whether it's fourteen terrible noobs in the corner of a bar interrupting the TV's, or a sold-out theater excited to see their standup hero. It's easy to get confused. I'm going to try to break down what the different kinds of "shows" are, for the benefit of new comics who frequently get asked to be on one kind or another and sometimes feel misused as a result.
OPEN MIC: this is where it starts. For most of us, this is where it ends. It's a showcase for literally anyone to stand up and talk into an amplified sound system to other adults. No one's getting paid, unless the show organizer is getting a nominal fee from the bar to organize the show or provide sound. No cover is being charged. These shows are free, on slow nights, to get someone in the bar, even if it's just the comedians running up a tab.
The quality and type of open mics vary widely. There are the notorious free-for-alls in places like Chicago where 45-50 comics do three minutes each to a wall of surly indifference. Other places offer somewhat-more-curated lineups (often booked in advance) with slightly longer time slots. These are the boxing gyms of comedy. This is where you do new jokes, learn how to speak on stage, and make friends in your scene.
New comics at this level are ripe for abuse. In the midwest, it's rare to see people asked to pay for the privilege of stage time, but it happens elsewhere. There are also unscrupulous folks who'll charge a cover and expect open-mic level talent to entertain paying customers. Even if more experienced comics do a mic, they're generally doing brand-new, untested jokes. This is a formula for exploitation and unhappy patrons who paid money to see what is, by definition, a hit-or-miss show. Don't participate in this bullshit.
SHOWCASE: This is the vast gray area between open mic and a traditional, ticketed, paid "comedy show" at a club or theater. These are generally a comic's first paid gigs -- someone charges $5 at the door or gets a budget from a bar, a lineup of comics is put together, and the proceeds get split in some way.
The term "showcase" used to have a more rigid meaning, and still does in some situations, as an event highlighting new comics to bookers or industry scouts. Trust me, if there's anyone even remotely connected to the industry at a show, the people running it will let you know, repeatedly (see: every comedy festival that's popped up in the last few years).
This type of showcase is a more collective affair. Usually no one's making real money, but anything's nice after doing dozens of unpaid open mics. The lineup is generally vetted and the comics get do longer sets. Everyone might get $10-50, or a headliner might do a longer closing set and get the lion's share of the proceeds.
Older and more experienced comics often complain about these kinds of shows, and not without reason. With the decline of comedy clubs, there are far more shows like this than "paid shows" in the traditional sense. The bar of entry is so low that almost anyone can "produce" shows like this, and many are fraught with problems. Lots of venues have hosted one or two poorly-organized, badly promoted shows full of unready talent and decided comedy is not for them based on that experience.
However, that genie's pretty much out of the bottle at this point. There simply aren't enough comedy clubs left to accommodate every aspiring comedian and there's no longer a "farm team" system with club open mics providing a path to becoming a working comic. Some of the best-known alt-comics of the last decade have made their bones outside the club system, touring bars and headlining these showcases, often on the backs of local comics and would-be promoters who'll willingly take a financial hit to work with their up-and-coming podcast heroes.
"SHOW" SHOWS: If a venue has a regularly scheduled show with a cover charge, featuring a headliner and an opening act, you can expect that's a show with at least some professional pedigree. A number of bookers specialize in this type of show, where a headliner with a strong 45-60 minutes can make $200-500 and a 25-35 minute opening set will earn you $75-200. Sometimes hotels are provided. Hopefully there's an MC to warm up the crowd and get them to face the front and pretend they turned off their phones.
These shows are the most like traditional comedy club shows, structurally, but they still take place in bars, typically in smaller towns, and they demand a skill set beyond just having written some jokes. Dealing with hecklers, doing crowd work, rolling with a raucous crowd that may have been drunk since 2009 -- it's not for the faint of heart.
Typically, bookers of shows like this are willing to give you a shot as an MC, or let you do an unpaid guest spot before the feature, if you reach out to them. This is an easy way for them to scout new talent and a chance to see if those hot takes that make your 23-year-old open mic buddies laugh have any traction in front of middle-aged partiers in the heartland.
(Spoiler alert: they don't. But if that was gonna stop you, you wouldn't be this far into this article, would you?)
So what do you do?
If you're new, you do all the open mics. You write. You edit. You talk slower. You learn how to spend a night out without getting shitfaced and driving home. You make friends. You start asking those friends about showcases, probably before you're ready to. Sometimes you move up the ladder. Sometimes you become an open-mic lifer. Sometimes you wash out a year in and tell your friends comedy was bullshit anyway.
Most importantly, set a floor early. Decide what you will and won't do. Adjust accordingly as you go. Learn to say no to things. If someone offers you an unpaid spot on a sold-out show, question why it's an unpaid spot. If someone's vague about the money, realize there's generally a reason. If a gig 500 miles from home offers no lodging, decide if there are other benefits to that much driving, or if a night off is a better idea.
Work smarter. Bleed for your goals, but have a plan too. Don't get so blinded by your dream that you let other people, through incompetence or avarice, take advantage of your excitement. That's the surest way to let those dreams curdle and make this shit no fun.
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.
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.