Friday, April 23, 2010

We Died Easily

Bombing comes down to perspective. Depends on your belief in the material, type of audience and venue, personal expectations and objective conditions. Every comic has eaten it, and I've done my share of choking. The trick is gazing into that abyss without having the abyss throw something at your head.

For my second set, I'd planned to hit Penny's Open Mic, an East Village free-for-all Ray Combs recommended. Penny features not just comics, but singers, poets, jugglers, tap dancers, ventriloquists, and sword swallowers for all I know. A nice if exhausting change of pace. Then another comic-emcee emailed and invited me to appear on his stage the same night. He knows Ray, who talked me up, and was willing to try my act. While Penny's was appealing, this other gig might mean more work. So I put away my tuba and roller skates and reviewed possible bits.

The gig was at an international youth hostel in Chelsea, a weekly parade of stand-ups killing the kids' boredom. There was no stage -- just a cleared corner of a small dining area, like playing someone's kitchen. The sound system was a portable mic set-up attached to a little speaker, the lighting harsh florescent. No place to hide. The audience was right in your face, reminiscent of a Scared Straight prison setting. And man, was this crowd young.

The emcee and his partner greeted me with smiles. They had no idea what I did or had planned, but Ray's endorsement clearly carried weight. Still, they placed me near the end of the show, just in case. Didn't matter to me. A few minutes warning and a pleasant intro was all I needed. The only question was, which bit do I perform?

Originally I wanted to talk about my weird sexual fascination with right wing women, the nuttier the hotter. This began in my childhood when I got erections looking at pictures and film of Eva Braun, whose flowing peasant dress concealed a smoldering Aryan sex drive. The utter wrongness of it was of course part of the appeal, but there was something deeper, uncompromising, strange. I've never been able to define it. When I debated or mixed with right wing women in my political days, this attraction remained. Lefty women were obvious and familiar. But reactionary babes revved a hidden motor. I wanted to fuck those who worshipped Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. The more I hated their politics, the stronger my desire.

As I watched the first few comics spar with the crowd, I decided that this bit was too arcane for the room. I toyed with an evolving premise about power relationships based on extreme porn categories, but again thought it not right. So I returned to the Black Muslim Acid set. Drugs, racism, hallucinatory revelations -- surely the kids would be hip to that. Right?

The comics before me performed more or less the same material. Different energy levels, some sharper and funnier than others, but not an eclectic range of topics. And again, nothing really political or social. There was also a lot of talking to the audience, making fun of each person's country and stereotyped culture (the Germans as Nazis, the British having bad teeth). The kids seemed to like it, yet this was not what I had in mind. When I was introduced, I improvised a few opening lines, then went directly into the bit.

Silence. Stares. When I got to the Blacks giving me acid and their features morphing into Disney crows, the lone Black audience member got up and went outside. The guy was from the Bronx, so there wasn't a cultural divide. He simply had no interest in my story. When you're confessing your inner-racist core and a Black guy walks out, you know you're fucked. And I was decidedly that. The energy shifted from giddy and silly to weirdly tense.

In earlier days, this would have derailed me. I would've panicked, gone rogue, sprayed the room with anger and expletives. But this is a different mindset. A certain calm embraced me, and I smiled at the kids who found nothing I said funny. I commented on their silence, not in a hostile way, but trying to gauge where their heads were at. I riffed about this being the sociological part of the evening, and the guys from Argentina smiled and chuckled. I turned to two long-haired boys from Berkeley and joked that I was upset with their lack of support.

"Come on, Berkeley. Racism? Drugs? White guilt? This shit's right up your alley! What's wrong with you?"

I got smiles and nods out of them. I finished the bit, thanked the crowd, walked over to the emcee, smiled, shrugged, shook his hand. I went outside for air and immediate reflection.

Obviously, my act was all wrong for this room. I'm not an insult comic, so I wasn't going to drop everything and start hammering global clich├ęs. The Berkeley barb was more appeal than put down. But I should have improvised more, trusted my gut. My belief in this material blinded me to that truth. Keep the spine, lose the fat. Leap and the net will appear, to quote a refrigerator magnet.

One of the Berkeley boys approached me outside. "I thought your material was great."

"Really? You could've fooled me."

"That thing about being whitey on the moon was funny."

"So why didn't you laugh?"

"I was laughing on the inside."

"Well, if I ever perform inside of you, I expect to kill."

He laughed. "That's good! You should use that!"

I've heard worse suggestions.

NEXT: Fun and confrontation at the Lantern.