It's funny that when comics send their open dates to bookers, they're called "avails," short for "availability." Most of the time, you send them to no avail. That's what's hilarious about it. It's extra funny when you're staring at a calendar full of white space, you have no money in the bank, and you fancied yourself a working comic at one point. A real stitch, right?
Like every comic and every room, each booker is a unique situation. The ones you want are the ones who reply to your emails, give you a chance in their rooms, treat you fairly, rate your work honestly, and bring you back on a regular basis. Once a year is good. I can build on that. No one gets sick of me, but I can develop a rapport with your town, make friends among the staff, and feel like that's one weekend a year where I know I'll have a place to do what I do.
On the opposite end of the scale, there's the ones who just never reply. You get new video, you post new open dates, you mention how someone who works there likes you, and those emails drop off into the ether like messages in bottles off a waterfall. You're pretty sure they're getting dumped into a spam folder, but you keep trying. Not too much -- you don't want to be a bother or anything, while you're starving at home and gritting your teeth when people you know get stuff you don't get.
There's the ones who you think have soured on you, who don't reply for a reeeeeally long time after you worked there before. You're convinced they groan in disgust every time your name pops up in their inbox, and you wonder what unremembered transgression crosses their mind. You rack your brain. Didn't you have a good set or two there? Didn't you handle the drunk heckler pretty well? Weren't you getting along well with the headliner? You waited till you got back to the hotel to get drunk and eat all that Taco Bell, right?
Meanwhile, that booker glances at your name, thinks 'eh, nothin' this month, pal' and deletes your email without sparing you another nanosecond's thought.
There's a few that you know aren't gonna book you. You send them messages more out of spite than anything. You resolve to kill them with kindness. You plot elaborate putdowns for when you're super famous and they beg you to grace their stage with your presence one last time. You secretly hope they change their mind and book you, every time you hit send.
You know - you rationally know - that none of this is the agonizing gladiatorial thumbs-up-and-down that you think it is. Bookers are just harried, tired human beings who get asked for work literally constantly. You don't stand out to them because you can't stand out to them. They don't hate you because they don't have the energy to give that much of a shit about you, and if they can get you in, they probably will at some point.
(Unless you're awful. Maybe you're awful. Would anyone tell you if you were? Oh God.)
Sometimes a crumb falls from God's table. I just booked a great weekend at a club I've been petitioning for over two years. I'd all but given up ever working there, I had no hope of getting booked, and now I'm on a special-engagement weekend with no idea why.
Sometimes the crumb goes away. I got work at one of my favorite places last year, and they didn't bring me back this year. I thought I was established there for good, and now I'm back to square one with no idea why.
It's a constant push and pull, and from what I've seen of headliners and more well known performers, it never ends. The stakes change and the numbers increase, but there's still the same anxiety, self-doubt, jealousy and agonizing twisting in the wind when you don't get what you want, or at least get answers.
It's all about the journey, and being grateful for what you do get. It's hard to remember that when you get blown off by the club that would rather give the busboy ten more weekends of stage time, or when the perfectly constructed run of shows you were so proud of falls out because the z-list celeb headliner insists his sponsor-slash-minder has to be the opening act. It's tough when your social media timeline is full of pictures of a showroom you killed in three years ago whose people no longer answer your messages. It's awful and unfair and no one cares because it's a super first-worldy problem and other people have real shit to worry about.
The only way to win is to not quit, so you don't quit, and every few Mondays you fire up Gmail, suck down some coffee, crack your knuckles like a sad piano player and play that song again. "Hi there - Keith Bergman is a feature from Toledo, he'd love to work your room, and here's a list of all the days he'd rather be telling jokes in your establishment than writing this blog."
Last week I went on a short run of shows, which I dubbed "The Pittin' Out Tour." I named it that because my car's air conditioning did not work, and I didn't expect to fix it before I left. I was heading to the Deep South for a week of shows. My wife is smarter than me, and took the car in for a tuneup a week before we left. We spent a good bit of the tour not "pittin' out" our shirts, as I expected, but driving in refrigerated comfort.
I picked Dustin Meadows up on Sunday, with my son in tow. We drove to Nashville, and I dropped the kid off with my sister to spend time with family. We did the Spiffy Squirrel Comedy Night at The East Room in Nashville, then stayed with friends of Dustin. I watched "Django Unchained" and slept on a concrete floor. I didn't realize until well into the next morning that I had enough blankets to make a nest of sorts, and actually get comfortable.
Monday we drove to Huntsville, to Maggie Meyers' Irish Pub, where we got the chance to do our full sets for the first time. The crowd was small but appreciative, and the place was great. There was an open mic afterward, and we each got back up and did some material we hadn't done in the main show, then we drove to Birmingham to sleep at my sister's house.
Tuesday had the potential to be a disaster -- we had a gig at Seasick Records, right down the street from where we were staying, but their power got knocked out. At the last second, friends got us moved to Saturn, an amazing new venue with a retro outer-space theme owned by one of the members of Man... Or Astro-man? After delaying the show for an hour, and panicking because no one was coming, we wound up with a really receptive crowd and overall the best night of performances of the week. Closed it out with beers on the back porch with my dad and some good talk.
Wednesday we zipped down to Tuscaloosa for the show at Druid City Brewing Co. It was us and a slew of local comics, and we were treated well and enjoyed the room despite being the least interesting part of the night to many of the patrons. Despite that, and the friendliest heckler I've seen in a long time, we had fun. Drove back, stayed with family one more night.
We saddled up and drove to Athens, Georgia on Thursday. I've had bad luck with this town and gigs since my band days, and tonight was no exception. We got double-booked with four bands, told we had to start on time and end early, and then we wound up with zero customers for the comedy show. It's a college town in summer, sure, but it still stung a little. But we were staying with great friends, and we found some amazing sandwiches while walking the nearly-deserted downtown, so it wasn't a total wash. Got the best sleep of the tour and saddled up the next afternoon for Knoxville.
Friday was the blockbuster show of the trip. We were opening for Jasper Redd, a local comic who's got a Netflix special and is now based in LA. We pulled up to the Saw Works Brewery, only to find the room so packed you couldn't make it to the bathroom. We had to stash our merch in the employees-only brewery area just to avoid it getting stepped on. It was wall-to-wall people, great local beer, a food truck outside, and a really fun vibe. I mixed up some older material into my set and had a lot of fun with the crowd. The bar staff in particular was cool as hell, and took good care of us. We went out with some comics for a while, then crashed at the house of one of Dustin's friends, whose cat and I nearly got into a fistfight.
Saturday morning was when the marathon home stretch began. We got up, hit a kickass little diner, then drove over 500 miles to Mobile, some of it through a blinding thunderstorm. We got to town around 8, finding tree limbs down in the streets, and made our way to the Blind Mule. The attic, where the comedy shows happen, was a delightful spot, a little hot and gritty, but just the place for some road comedy. We had a small turnout here too, and a couple chatty ladies who wanted to make the show about them. My approach to this is usually to just bowl them over and not let them get a word in edgewise, and it seemed to work for me on this night. Talked to some of the locals for a bit, debated sticking around, but we had more driving to do.
250 miles back the way we came, and we were back in Birmingham about 4am. My son was back at my sister's house, having spent some time with her and some with my old man. A few hours of fitful sleep later, we were packing the car and saying goodbyes, and then we were off. The drive up to Columbus was pretty wonderful in its lack of excitement. We ate some Popeye's, listened to Motorhead, got through Nashville and Louisville without traffic jams, and dropped Dustin off at home around 9pm.
By the time my son and I got back to Toledo, it was midnight, and I was so tired my face hurt, but of course I couldn't sleep. I wound up on the couch drinking beer and getting a couple episodes into the newest season of Doctor Who before I could finally drift off.
Was it worth it? Financially, of course not. I appreciate anyone who'd let strangers with no draw come to their town and do comedy. That said, there's just not enough money at an off-night show to pay comedians from 800 miles away what it cost them to be there. We knew that going in. We more or less broke even on our travel costs, and we made enough money to eat and live by selling our merch. We didn't stay in a hotel once, and we didn't spend much outside of survival and caffeine, but we made it work.
As a life experience, it was a blast. It was summer camp for aging nerds, a rock and roll tour minus the van and the loading in of drums in the southern heat. And as a creative exercise, it was invaluable. I recorded my CD over a year ago, and I want to start thinking of my "next hour." Most of these shows provided a fantastic opportunity to work on just that. I can't speak for Dustin, but for me, the Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile shows in particular gave me insights on my headline set that a year's worth of open mic spots at home would not have taught me.
There's also the general skill set you pick up in road mode. What to eat, and when. How to budget time. How to keep the energy up for 45 minutes in a hot room when you're deliriously low on sleep. How not to be too drunk, or spend too much money on records, or otherwise ruin your own party.
I've specifically avoided mentioning names so far in this post. But I'm gonna attempt to thank everyone who helped us, who performed with us, or who otherwise made last week awesome. I'm certain to forget someone and I apologize. But these people all rule and made the trip a blast for us:
Chad Riden, Brad Edwards, Jordan Jensen, Dustin's military friend whose name I've forgotten, Matthew C. Tate, Blair Scott, Nichole Adams, Scott Eason, Lisa and Ham Bagby (and Milo and Jack), Tom Bagby, Liz Buckingham, Daniel Drinkard, Michael McCall, David Hagans, Andy Birdwell, John Bergman, Bo Hicks, Bob Baker, Richard Lockhart, everyone at Druid City Brewing Co, Chris and Suzy Holcombe, Shaunak Godkhindi, Caroline Schmitt, Jasper Redd, Shane Rhyne, Matt Ward, Sean Simoneau, Victor Agreda Jr, the bartenders at SawWoarks Brewery, Jeff Blank, everyone at Sam's Diner in Knoxville, Ryan Jetten, the Gov'na and everyone at the Blind Mule, Mark Phillip, and my road dogs themselves -- Dustin Meadows and my son Rocco for hanging in and eating up the miles with me.
Next year I wanna do it again, and film it. See you guys then, I hope.
The other day, and I don't remember which day, my right leg started to hurt. Just randomly shooting pain from somewhere in my hip or thigh area, I guess. It didn't seem like a big deal at first -- I'd been driving a lot, and sleeping erratically, so I assumed I'd passed out on the couch at an inopportune angle and twisted myself up a little.
Then it got worse. I couldn't lift my leg up to put pants on, I had to sit down and hoist my leg into the pantleg with my hands. I walked with a limp. I started to really worry. I couldn't get comfortable when I laid down to sleep, so I slept even worse, so I felt fuzzy and out of sorts. Then at some point yesterday my brain dolloped a cherry on the shit sundae by whispering "maybe it's a blood clot." And I spent the rest of the day trying to function as a human being with a clanging railroad crossing warning bell in my skull going MAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOTMAYBEITSABLOODCLOT
I was gonna get up this morning and call my doctor. Then last night, I had to put the cat in the basement, because my mother-in-law's visiting with her goofy, cat-food-eating dog. As I lunged under my bed to get the justifiably freaked-out cat, and stretched my body, I felt what I can only describe as a socketing. Something went "pop" and was back where it was supposed to be. Some piece of skeletal furniture came up off a live wire and let it breathe. Almost instantly, I felt better.
I didn't say a word about it, because I didn't believe it. I have a tour in two weeks. I have a lot of driving to do. I routinely pick up a forty-pound kid and perambulate around the house (and up stairs) with her in my arms. Things are not allowed to break right now. They're just not. But I woke up this morning, put weight on it, and hey, shit works.
My aorta dissected in 2004, and I almost died. They had to replace one of my heart valves with one from a pig, which lasted till 2013. Now I have a mechanical valve that ticks like a turn signal and never stops. I didn't really process until much later that I shouldn't have survived the 2004 dissection at all. When I somehow did, I had no right to expect to be ambulatory, able to pick up forty-pound kids, and cleared to drive off on hellish all-night highway runs to ridiculous comedy shows in the hinterlands.
Since 2013 I've tried to run at 150%. I set up a DVD taping (a really poorly-advised DVD taping, but a nicely-set-up show, if I may say so) while still recovering and just out of ICU. I chafed the day of release when they delayed my paperwork a few hours. I was back on stage a week later, still wearing my "heart hugger" vest to clutch my incision together when I sat down, stood up, or sneezed.
Now I work ten times harder than you, I raise my kids better than you, I love better, I drive further, I drink harder, I write in big loopy confessional swirls like this one. That's the panic in the back of my mind telling me to move, to go, to stop wasting daylight. I spent 40 years not feeling like my life had even started and now I'm wrapping my head around the fact that I've aged out of things I really wanted to do. Or have I? Don't know. Can't talk. Running.
What I have not done is, like, actually run. Or take better physical care of myself. Or drink enough water or get enough sleep. Part of the last two years of revving the engine and screaming down the mountain has revolved around a lot of denial and a weird streak of half-assed dirtbag macho that I didn't know I possessed and am not very proud of. I didn't hear much from that particular voice in my head yesterday, when I had to lift my right leg into the car with my hands because my muscles wouldn't do it.
I'm not saying this is some road-to-Damascus moment and that next year I'll be a gym rat with an inspiring fitness journey to yell at you about. I'm just... gonna try to get some sleep. And go for more walks. And do better. I love most of the things in my life. I've gone through a lot and been spared much of the emotional pain that my friends suffer. I'm loved, I'm reasonably well-adjusted, I enjoy what I do, and I 've been luckier than any hundred people deserve.
I want to do all this, more, forever. And I can't if I'm sick or in pain. I definitely can't if I'm dead. So hi. I'm 43 years old and I'm gonna start acting like it, at least in the preventative maintenance department. Hopefully that idea socketed back into place when my leg decided to start working right again, and it'll keep transmitting merrily alongside all the other ones that tell me to chase dreams, drink coffee and tell dirty jokes.
Love you dopes, see you on the road.
It takes so long to find the good people. It takes forever, really. You're never done. You spend years being the new kid, then you make mistakes and lose friends, then you're too old almost before you get started. But sometimes you get where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to be.
I'm setting up a tour for this summer. It's nothing special, a week or so of dates that will give me a chance to scorch my way through the deep south in the hottest part of August, swilling beers and eating up miles with my friends in the crannies of cool people who thrive like bathtub mildew in the hotbox of the south's worst excesses.
Tonight I talked to a new friend who owns a record store in Birmingham, where we're doing one of the dates. It was nice to go in as someone to be listened to, someone with a record out and posters on the way and good friends who'll vouch that I'll show up when I say I will and get the job done. I found another good person. The skein of kindness and camaraderie stretched across the map has one more stick-pin, one more oasis against the gray foam of indifference that swells when you wanna go do shit.
This weekend I do a contest where I try to convince bookers of more traditional venues that I'm someone they should work with. I hope that works too. I'm confident it will. I'm not the best and I have a long way to go, but I work hard, I travel hard and I can make sense of the world in 30-45 minute intervals while talking into a microphone. I can do it when the show is ideal and I can throw down from an unlit corner next to the gumball machine. I have worked, and I keep working, to make sure that's the case.
I have to try the hardest because I want so much. I want the road, and the friends, and the diners and bars, and the experiences. I want the hotel rooms and half-assed itineraries and the lobby waffles and the gas station coffee. I want to write and I want you to hear it. This sounds silly and grandiose but I love doing this so much, and I'm gonna flow like water into where I can go, until I wear down the gates barring the places I can't go.
Keeping watch at night. Sitting vigil over a sick kid while she honks and wheezes and occasionally cries and pees or pukes on the couch. We did this last night, and then all day, and I was so tired there were pains shooting through my head, each one a little zinger of a stroke-to-be for a jaded hypochondriac, each one worthy of squinting and cussing. Finally my wife relieved me and I took a shift of sleep at 9pm. Got back up at 2:30 and here we are.
She's sleeping now, more or less, snurfling herself awake now and then and drifting back off with a mutter. So I clean my desk in the next room, excavating a year's worth of set lists, receipts and the business cards of other people who are all as certain they're gonna make it as I am. I pack lunches, wash dishes. I make ham salad, for chrissakes, assembling a meat grinder I bought at a flea market, heavy iron from an era when kitchen appliances could double as lethal cudgels.
This is the anti-road. This is where self-doubt and overthinking swirl in with the to-do lists and the laundry piles. You spend too much time creeping along your Facebook timeline. You wonder if you'd hit that no-hope Monday night mic tonight, if that woulda been the breakthrough, the moment of clarity or the magical connection made, or maybe just another twenty dollar tab and a questionable drive home with another one of these set lists crammed in your pocket, to fall like another leaf in the pile on your desk and then get raked up the next time you have a few days off in a row.
Hurry up and wait. Itch at the sound of the semis droning down the expressway a mile from your house. Watch your daughter sleep and wonder why you ever leave the premises. Have the audacity to look at these bottle-ringed, half-assed set lists and imagine them whirling around like a blizzard of thoughts to assemble into a new hour of something other people want to listen to and laugh at. Eat your stupid ham salad on crackers and drink cold coffee as the sun bruises up the horizon and wonder how anyone ever figures out anything.
So tired when I got to the restaurant today. It's been a long week, and the night before ended in way too much drinking and some weird rotten dreams that were hard to shake off. I emerged from a weird single-guy crash pad, fifteen years too old for that kind of morning, and ended up at the restaurant.
She was pregnant. Not dangerously so, but there was a baby bump. She had a black shirt on with some cool artwork. The place was an old-man diner with a patina of neighborhood hipster cred, a fresh coat of paint over decades of grease spatter, the same c-grade home fries on the same griddle from back when there were working poor people and they lived above and around buildings like this, before it was all record stores and tattoo places and vegan cupcake bistros, before it was crumbling husks and crime, before before.
She looked tired, she wasn't all that friendly. But she had dark hair and dark eyes, and the kind of face that looked like she played in a bad ass band around 1994 or so. She was a type, and it was a type I forgot was on file in my head, but I fell in love with her in two seconds flat.
I asked about the breakfast special. She said "it's only good till 11." "But the sign says it's good all day Saturday," I protested. "It's Thursday, hon," she fired back, and it was. I felt dumb. I have to know what day of the week it is. If it had been Saturday, I would have been in the wrong city entirely. I knew it wasn't Saturday. But it felt like a Saturday. The 2pm breakfast run, the slight hangover, the weird sense of playing hooky from life. Every day's a Saturday when you're fucking off hemorrhaging money on the road to comedy.
I had eggs and homefries and toast. I had goetta, Cincinnati's weird breakfast meat that's kind of oatmeal-y and that I think to myself "well, goetta, you're no scrapple" even as I wish I had seconds and thirds. I drank more coffee than I needed, even though I had a thermos full in the car. And I watched the waitress, the love of my life, the one I was really waiting for all this time. She deftly got a beat-up homeless man to pay up, cleaned out the pie cooler, small talked with the cook.
I pictured her telling me all these stories when she got home and kicked her shoes off while making a "phoo!" noise like a worn-down steam engine. I would rub her shoulders and listen to her talk about work and embellish her stories a little bit, and I'd try to get a little handsy and get something going, and she'd smack the back of my hand and tell me I was crazy, don't you see how tired I am, and I look like a whale, but she doesn't and she knows I know she doesn't, and we get all naked and re-enact what got us into this mess in the first place.
And our kid is a totally average kid but we do really amazing things that no other dumb hipster parents have ever thought of, like play it Replacements records and teach it that TV is dumb before we give up and let it watch all the Yo Gabba Gabba it wants if it just shuts up. She gets the band back together and they practice, like, once a month and they're definitely gonna book another show really soon now even though they don't know who anyone that works at the bars even are any more.
And I don't give up comedy, not really, I just quit going on the road or doing shows or writing any new material and I start getting really long-winded and repeat my stories a lot at the bar after open mic, when I still go. Eventually we move to the suburbs because we didn't really want to, I mean, look at all these white people, am I right, but our dads told us that the amount of house for the money, we'd be stupid to pass that up, and we swear we're gonna keep shopping local and going to the northside and keep our privilege in check check check check
check comes to $9.71. I blink. She gets me more coffee. I go to tip her $5, then make it $4. I don't wanna come off weird. I leave the love of my life behind as I emerge into the afternoon sun. I hope she can come to terms with my departure.
I realize that I'm in a zone where there's no parking from 3 to 6, and that it's 3:20, and that I should have gotten a ticket. I look on my windshield. No ticket. Today is my day for dodging bullets, I think, and I go record shopping to help heal my broken heart.
Tonight at 9:00, I will raise a glass and toast Eddie Werner. I will be timing it to coincide with an open mic in Kent, Ohio, where some people who knew Eddie will be briefly remembering him. I've got an alarm set to remind me.
Eddie Werner committed suicide. He was nearing middle age, rode a motorcycle, and he was a small part of the open mic comedy scene in northeast Ohio. By all accounts, he wasn't very good at it. Most of us aren't, ever. That's nothing to be ashamed of. A lot of people enjoy fishing, or golf, or square dancing, and look like fools to everyone else while they have their fun. I have an unreasonable love of old video games, and I'm awful at nearly all of them.
I met Eddie once. I doubt it made an impression on him. It was at an open mic Mandi Leigh put on, in Akron, at a dive bar called Old Haunts. That place is my kind of septic tank, from the punk rock and death metal show flyers stapled blithely to the wall, to the gaptoothed drywall and cheap leaky plumbing in the horrific bathrooms. There was a tiny stage, an unattainable roller derby bartender, and I don't think the air conditioning worked.
Eddie sat next to Jerry Jaffe. I don't remember if he even went up, and if he did, I don't remember his set. Mike Szar and I drove to Akron, did the mic, Matt Brady gave me some Atari games for my collection, we took a picture with Yusuf Ali, got great hugs from Mandi, and drove home. We probably ate shitty turnpike food. Eddie barely registered. It didn't seem like his kind of bar, but then again, I didn't know a thing about him.
I still don't. But I'm upset at his passing. I didn't lose a friend, but I feel that everyone who goes up, who gives it a try, and keeps coming back, is a part of the same tapestry. Comedy gave me a sense of community, as well as a creative outlet, almost as soon as I started pursuing it. It's a shock to me that someone could come into the fold, be present enough to be mourned by so many of our mutual friends, and find nothing in that association worth living for.
I nearly died in 2004, and I now live with an aortic dissection that's almost certain to shorten my existence. I've also gone through bleak periods of life when it seemed impossible that anything good was going to come along. I had bad luck, made terrible stupid mistakes, and dealt with depression and self-doubt. But there's always been a desire for more. Nothing has snuffed out, at the very least, a curiosity to see what happens next. It's frightening enough to imagine someone living without that -- actually experiencing that void is something I can't comprehend.
So toasting a dead man I didn't know at an arbitrary time is a dumb, empty gesture. But so is getting on a stage and making people listen to shit you wrote. So is collecting records or superhero toys or guitars. So is making friends with a bunch of people who are gonna die anyway, and making new finite broken people that are gonna grow up and die too. Where do you draw the line?
The toast is for Eddie. I hope his time with the beautiful finite broken people who do comedy in Akron and Kent and Cleveland made him feel better. I hope it helped a little. But it's a toast for me, too, and for those people. It's a toast to the fact that when I feel anchorless, a night like Old Haunts happens -- a random, unremarkable night -- and I can think of a dozen tiny, gleaming points where I interacted with my friends and was glad to be on this side of the dirt, laughing and drinking and gossiping and writing and taking dumb pictures and making enough dumb, empty gestures to fill up another colorful day. And then I'm fortunate enough to go to a home, and be loved and missed, and chided like a dirty pet raccoon that wandered off for a bit, and sent to bed content.
Please, reach out to someone if you feel as empty and wound down as all that. We'll try our best to help. There's so much good and light, and so many reasons to see what comes next.
[This is not an exact depiction of one night. It is an amalgam of experiences from the past several years. Any resemblance to people or places in real life is, of course, completely coincidental.]
You get to the club an hour early. You're really excited to meet the other comics, be part of the team, and take this next important step in your comedy career. You've prepared your set list and you have it down cold.
The club manager says hello, and gets your name wrong. He gives you a list of announcements that are very, very important to get right. He tells you to be energetic. Really whip up that crowd!
As he wanders away, he tells you the first show tonight is "pretty light" and the second show is known for attracting unruly drunks. He reminds you that you get one half-price drink and no discounts on food.
"Are you ready?" he asks.
"Yeah. Shit, yeah," you reply.
You find the other two comics. They look tired. The headliner asks how long you've been doing comedy. You can see the mental calculations going on behind his eyes as he decides he's not going to bother hitting it off with you this weekend. The feature asks you to bring him up in a certain oddly-specific way that is very, very important to get right.
Three minutes before you go on, a floor manager accosts you. She gets your name wrong. She tells you about a birthday celebration up front and a bachelorette party in the back. You have to give these people a shout-out from the stage, and it's very, very important to get this right. As she walks away, she snaps "don't get drunk before second show."
The music comes on, the lights dim. The crowd does not stop talking. The floor manager reads a list of rules over the PA. She tells the crowd to keep their table talk to a minimum, and their laughter to a maximum, and then she announces you. She gets your name wrong.
You get on stage. People are eating, chewing open-mouthed and staring at you. Others are engrossed in their phones, or in their conversations with each other. The room sounds like a junior high cafeteria.
You try to wedge the announcements in quickly. You get them wrong. You do some of your material, and it feels weird, like these words have never worked right before. You're not quite sure exactly when you started so you don't know how much time you have left. You're aware you're talking too fast. You can't stop talking too fast. You say "fuck" once and wince and hope no one noticed. You're not sure if you're bombing or not.
The light comes on and you're secretly relieved. You bail midway through one of your favorite bits and bring the feature up. You try to rouse the crowd like you're a cheerleader. You get his credits wrong. He mumbles something at you through clenched teeth as he shakes your hand, but you can't make it out.
As you walk off stage, you make eye contact with the birthday guy. You realize you forgot to say anything to him, or about him, or the bachelorette party.
You sit through the feature's set. You're pretty sure your jokes are funnier. You're pretty sure you're looking at this situation objectively.
You get out your phone and 'check in' to the club on social media. Your comic friends from open mic give you shit about how you're big-timing them. Your family members post about how famous you are, and repeat promises to "get out and see one of your skits some time."
The headliner comes over and makes a last-second change to his intro, meticulously stressing some particular credit, then assures you that it doesn't matter either way. Just as the feature thanks the crowd and prepares to walk off, the headliner leans in and mumbles "don't bring me up with that rah-rah, high-energy shit, okay?"
You go back up, and cram in a half-assed shout-out to the birthday party and the bachelorette. Her party stops talking for the first time in the entire show and emits a chorus of "woo" noises, which continue randomly throughout the rest of the show. You get the bachelorette's name wrong.
The headliner's set goes on for roughly six days. You have a couple more drinks, assuring yourself that you're not tipsy. The headliner is doing well among those members of the crowd paying attention. From the back, you see and hear mostly the ones who aren't.
The show finally ends. You go back up. You get the closing announcements wrong. You forget to mention the club's upcoming shows. Your eyes feel heavy and your stomach's roiling a little, and you realize you have to do all of this again before you can go home.
You walk out to the lobby. People are lining up to shake hands with the other two comics. A few of them make the effort to shake your hand, as you awkwardly stand a little ways away from the pros. Other people make weird, baleful eye contact for a second before turning to buy merch or take pictures with the other two. A few of them ask you to hold their purse while they get a photo, or give you their phone and instruct you to take the picture for them.
The second show is more of the same, only drunker. The crowd is half the size, twice as loud, and the headliner winds up in a verbal scuffle with a heckler or two. No one throws the hecklers out.
At the end of the second show, after your awkward hover near the receiving line, you duck into the bathroom and take a shit that seems like a metaphor for the whole evening. When you're done, you open the stall door and make eye contact with a patron who's waiting to use it next.
"Good show tonight," he says, frowning.
"Sorry, man," you reply.
When you come out, the other two comics have left without saying goodbye.
A surly server hands you your tab without a word. It comes out to at least half of what you got paid for tonight's shows. You drive home, borderline impaired, stopping only for gas and Taco Bell to make the night a legitimate financial loss. You replay your sets in your head, over and over, cringing and wondering why you ever thought you could do comedy in the first place.
You come back the next day and do it all again, and then once more on Sunday. When it's all over, the manager hands you a check. They got your name wrong on it. "Good work," he says. "You wanna host again next month?"
"Yeah," you reply. "Shit yeah."
You finally did it -- screwed up your courage, signed up on the list, and took the stage at your local weeknight open mic. Congratulations! Wasn't that fun? You're still coming down off the adrenaline rush, you're proud of yourself, you're replaying that moment where the host said "hey, good job" in your head like it was a scene in your favorite movie.
And you're sure you've found your calling. You wanna do this! More of this! A lot more!
Allow me to welcome you to the standup comedy community. Some of us are doing it for a living, or trying to. Others are simply enjoying open mic as a place to be creative, socialize in the real world and have an excuse to hit the bar on a weeknight. Everyone's at a different skill level and comfort zone. We all have our own goals and reasons for being here.
Here's a few tips, offered in the spirit of friendship and with best wishes. It's easy to make early mistakes out of excitement, and not even realize they're mistakes until later. And if you stick around, some of these could come back to bite you in the ass later on, when you know better.
So here are some suggestions:
1. Don't lose your perspective
Your first time on stage was a life-altering experience - for you. For everyone else on the planet, it was Tuesday. Being thrilled about your set is fine, but wearing everyone you know out retelling the jokes, recounting the story and being annoying will tire them all out quickly. If you keep at this, you'll eventually need spouses, relatives, co-workers and friends to come see you perform. Don't make them all sick of you on Day Two of your journey.
2. Don't post your video on YouTube
Again -- you're proud. You should be. But your first set will never be your best set. A year from now, if you've done a hundred more sets and you're getting serious, that debut is going to look like crap compared to your current work. And anyone who sees that video will have that perception of you stuck in their head forever.
On a related note, if someone else offers to record your set and put it up, gently but firmly say no. Even if you lack self-restraint and put your own early vids up, you can take them down later once you know better. If someone else has them on their account, you're at their mercy. They could forget their password, decide they don't feel like honoring your request, or just never check their email, and you're left with that first awkward, stuttering, fast-talking, sweat-drenched performance out there for everyone to see.
(And that is what it looks like. We're sorry. You'll laugh with us about it in a couple years, I promise.)
3. Don't change your Facebook profile name
Yesterday you were mild-mannered Xerxes Muldoon. Today you're COMEDIAN XERXES MULDOON! You're XERXES FUNNYMAN BRINGINTHEHOUSEDOWN MULDOON! Don't do this. Ever. Your friends will roll their eyes and legitimate industry people will avoid you like you have a rash. Comics make fun of the "Comedian Facebook Name" thing all the time. The only exception: when you're trying to differentiate yourself from another person, with the same name, who's also doing high-profile public work. And even then, you're nowhere near ready to do that yet. Settle down.
4. Don't make merchandise
You've seen working comics selling t-shirts or hawking stickers. You want in on THAT gravy train. Absolutely don't. I'm trying to take a friendly tone here, but you need to know this: nothing you write in your first year of comedy is worth putting on a t-shirt. And you aren't performing anywhere where you selling merch is acceptable. Even when you start hosting shows at a legit comedy club, it's a huge no-no. You'll look like a desperate asshole if you try to sell wares during a nine-minute set, or at an open mic. You'll guilt a few friends into buying your crap, sure. But people you don't even know will think you're a chump for years to come. It's not worth it.
5. Don't start a show yet
You got bumped at an open mic, or you didn't like how the guy before you swore too much or used his notes, and you're mad! And you know EXACTLY how to make an open mic better! So you're going to approach a venue about running your own show. This makes as much sense as opening a restaurant after the third time you've assembled a sandwich at home. Stick around, keep your head down, learn more about comedy and comics, before you waste money on sound equipment, burn up your credibility with fellow comedians, and potentially ruin a venue for everyone else by putting on a show ineptly.
6. Don't start asking for real gigs yet
You're not ready. 99 out of 100 times, the booker will know this and you'll look like a fool for asking for paid work, feature gigs, etc. when you're clearly still mastering your first five minute set. And they'll remember you as a fool long after you ARE ready. Even worse, 1 out of 100 times, you'll sneak past the gatekeepers, get yourself on a show, crash and burn, and make yourself look even worse. This will hurt you later on. Accept that this is a process, it takes a while, and focus on short-term goals like perfecting those first five minutes, or writing the next five.
7. Don't write a whole new set for your next mic
Many people don't realize that comics do the same material, show after show. They get so excited that they write more than they need, and don't hone their existing material. The 100th time you tell a joke, it's a much different animal than the first or second time. Constantly diving off a cliff with all-new material robs you of a chance to get truly comfortable with a joke, tweak it, get the cadence just right, and develop it into something you can rely on to get laughs in any situation. You're not only learning to make jokes, you're learning stage presence, diction, mic technique, crowd interaction and projection. You have to be familiar with your material before you can focus on those equally important aspects.
8. Don't spam social media
Think of the world's patience as a bank account. There's a finite amount. If you've put everyone on Instagram on blast about how you're the next Katt Williams or Jim Gaffigan, day after day, they're eventually gonna tune you out. When you actually have something worthy to share with them, they'll be sick of hearing from you. Ideally, by the time people come out specifically to see you perform, you should have been on stage many times and really worked on what you're presenting. Which reminds me...
9. Don't forget that this is work
The job of a great standup comic is to make it look like anyone can do it. It's conversational, it's casual, it's relaxed or animated, but it looks like the most natural thing in the world. It takes years to get that good at it. You wouldn't watch half a football game in the stands, scoff "I can run plays better than THESE jerks," and jog out onto the field in the third quarter, would you?
Almost no one is a natural at standup. And even people predisoposed to be great at it need years of constant writing, performing, and honest self-analysis to get up there and look like they're just winging it. If you assume you'll be amazing on Day One, you're not only delusional, you're not respecting the sacrifice and hard work put in by those before you. And speaking of that...
10. Don't be an asshole
Be nice to the other people you meet. Be civil. Learn that rejection is not a personal affront. Treat venues with respect. Tip the waitstaff and don't hit on them. Don't get blackout drunk at the club. Chip in gas money. Don't become known as an argumentative douche in comedy groups online. Just be a decent person, keep your notebook on you at all times, get all the stage time you can, and approach comedy with a little bit of joy and humility, and it will be one of the coolest things you ever do with your life.
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?
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.