Old desires, like old wounds, are difficult to mend. In my case, impossible. I'm locked in until whatever or whoever kills me.
My return to the NY stage revealed much of this sorry condition, which is good. Clears the air, clarifies reality. Several friends and well-wishers remain puzzled by this latest life turn, some urging me to reconsider. I feel them. Their warnings are probably accurate. But I'm doing this anyway. No turning back now.
As I've reported, I hit two stages on this scouting trip, the third place putting me on standby. Had I waited until the end of the show, I'm sure I would've gotten on. But after eight or so comics, my energy and desire ebbed. The idea of hammering them with my set, while enticing, seemed meaningless since I was leaving town in the morning. The next round won't be so passive.
It's amazing how competitive you get around comics. I hadn't felt this in over 20 years, and the vibe remains the same, if a bit more jangled. What camaraderie exists seems situational, based on mood, moment, place in the food chain. One's material is almost irrelevant. It's a weird hive where pissed off bees sting themselves. Anything for a laugh.
My first stop was the Village Lantern on Bleecker Street. Ray Combs hosted the night I arrived, which was karmically perfect and right. One of the last times I performed stand up was when I wrote for Ray Sr. Made sense that his son introduce my return.
Ray warned me to not mention my credits as this might ruffle the younger comics who have yet to professionally achieve anything. I agreed in theory, but didn't know how long such deceit would last. The whole point to this exercise is to be as open as psychically possible, to share what twists me inside and attack what fucks us collectively. I'm not looking for a Jimmy Fallon guest shot, nor to join any comedy clique or posse. Honesty is the key here.
Still, when introducing me to a fellow comic and emcee, Ray let slip that I wrote O'Donoghue's bio. "The man who made comedy dangerous?" he replied, eyebrows raised. "That was you?"
"I've read that book. That's a great book. Wow man."
It was here I decided that hiding my past would be pointless.
Ray led me downstairs to the club. It's a tiny space, stage framed by bricks and scratched walls. The early show was ending, my first taste of the downtown scene. Anger. Despair. Hatred of self and whatever else floats by. Sure it's an act, but deep down it isn't. Comics have always played on the edge of anguish, but these guys nearly obliterate all distinctions. I've never experienced such steady depression. Some of them make Kinison look like Seinfeld.
A couple of comics stood out, primarily a tall bearded guy who confessed his emotional fragility and how everything made him cry. His gentleness was a sweet contrast to the ranting pain parade. Yet amid the steady negative beat was a creative energy that, if pushed in a more inspired direction, might yield some positive or at least interesting results.
Ray managed the room smoothly and beautifully. He's a much better comic than his father -- his honesty and directness a refreshing antidote to Ray Senior's glad-hand showbiz style. Clearly, his father's career implosion and suicide had a profound effect on Ray, who resists making comedy his primary goal. He's probably wise to avoid the laugh abattoir, but Ray has the gift. He's quick, funny, savage when necessary (don't even try heckling him), supportive when it counts. He cares about the other comics, offering off-stage advice to those who appear lost, as a few certainly did.
The Lantern reminded me of the punk clubs of my youth, where no fourth wall existed, the audience and talent essentially sharing the same stage. (Public Image Ltd. tried this approach with disastrous results.) That the Lantern's audience were largely other comics made this inevitable, but no less entertaining, at times compelling. If the material had more weight than "My life sucks, I wanna kill myself," who knows where it might lead.
When my turn came, I'd decided to throw out my prepared set and riff on the room's energy. Ray asked how I wanted to be introduced, and I told him to simply say my name. I would take care of the rest.
"I had some written material that was pretty good," I announced after taking the stage, waving my notes overhead. "There's a bit about dropping acid with Black Muslims in the Army, and another about my early erotic obsession with Eva Braun, but given how this evening's gone, and to honor Ray's honesty, I'm just gonna tell you what I think about all this."
Out it came. Who I was. What I was doing there. Where I planned to go. Frankly, I don't remember a lot of what I said after the beginning. I was in an improv zone, riding the flow. I did play the age card, telling the comics that when most of them were children, I performed in that very neighborhood with people who displayed a wider range of influences. "Now, all you fuckers sound exactly alike!" To illustrate this, I yelled at my dick, which yelled back at me. "What is that?!" I asked them. "Don't you know we're all connected? That history matters? Why not deal with that?" I closed on some mystical note that I barely recall, then warned that they hadn't seen the last of me.
Ray followed and confirmed what I said, that I'd written for his father and the rest of it. Later off-stage, Ray whispered that he wouldn't have revealed that much of his past, but that it was my decision. I think it was the way to go. I have enough to deal with in this new phase without trying to conceal where I've been. Acknowledge it and move on. There's enough bullshit as it is.
Afterward, Ray and I shared a drink and talked about his father, his present life, and the current scene. I felt good about my rant. I was loose, funny, and above all sincere. A nice first step on what'll be a dark twisted path.
NEXT: Performing for the Kewl Kids at Upright Citizens Brigade.