Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Duck Variations

With the Bowery gig canceled, Ray Combs suggested we hit a new mic in the Drama Bookshop's basement near Times Square. Sure. I've always liked basement stages, the darker and grimier the better. This space lacked leaking pipes and rats scurrying across the stage, but it was intimate, church-like, rows of metal chairs on a cool concrete floor. Most of the comics sat alone, silent, checking notes. No one smiled or laughed, save for me and Ray, trading quiet observations.

The young emcee went through the standard motions, how's everybody, you ready for comedy? etc. The first performer was a thin Black improv actor who ripped through three short scenes where he spoke to invisible antagonists, staring into space as if hearing their replies. A few people nervously chuckled, but I suppressed deep laughter, shoulders heaving. Not that the guy was especially funny -- I still don't know what the fuck he was talking about. I just loved his daring. He tried something different. You don't see much of that on these stages.

After him, a string of the usual suspects, though not as aggressively sad and angry as those I encountered the night before. Their material had some conceptual meaning. One guy, I discovered later, was polishing his set for an upcoming Letterman appearance. Cute bits, nothing terribly edgy or cutting. I suspect he'll do fine. After his nearly-ready for TV set, it was me, introduced by the emcee as Dennis Perry.

How Perrin reads as Perry I don't know, but this has happened before. Perhaps poor penmanship on my part. I grabbed the mic, gestured to the Black actor, telling him how much I liked his set, calling him Coltrane, which he found funny. The stark stage inspired a riff about a children's play I said I once appeared in, Lucky Duck Goes To Guantanamo. I played Colonel Mallard, a sadistic bird with a sentimental streak. All good so far. It flowed and felt great. Then I decided to try a bit conceived two hours before, unwritten, not fully thought out, but stuck in my craw.

The New York Times ran a piece about the Facebook generation at war in Afghanistan. Twentysomething soldiers ordering Predator drone strikes far from the front lines. It was an upbeat report about mechanized murder, however "unfortunate" some stray drone blasts might be. Apart from the casual acceptance of death (well, it is inevitable, so acceptance signifies maturity), what struck me was the Facebook angle. Here's a place where young people cannot spell, use numerals for words, and are incapable of constructing simple declarative sentences. Yet these are the kids launching lethal drones. Another symptom of our dying empire.

The early easy laughter was replaced by stares. Instead of pulling out of this undeveloped premise, I dove deeper in, complaining about the misuse of acronyms. Suddenly, I was less a comic and more a community college English professor facing an unresponsive class. The walls closed in as I sought escape, jumping quickly to a bit about how Don't Drink The Kool-Aid was a marketing injustice, since Jim Jones killed his flock with the Kool-Aid knockoff, Flavor-Aid. It's as if Jonestown perished from poisoned Pepsi, but afterward people said Don't Drink The Coke. The richer competitor receives even more publicity without having snuffed a soul. This the young crowd liked, so I cut my losses and ended the set.

Later on the street, Ray eased my nerves a bit by saying that new unformed bits rarely work on first delivery, and that the basement room was largely unkind to the other comics as well (Ray excepted, who hilariously zeroed in on a woman voicing her disapproval, exposing her smugness, raising in her the briefest of smiles, more than anyone else got from her). I thought I had bombed, which is no big deal, as this is going to happen along the way. But Ray noted that I hit the audience with too many references, trying to explain the ones that didn't click. He was right. Either do them and don't explain, or don't do them at all.

I went back to my hotel, had a drink and watched the tape. It wasn't as bad as I thought, but the dry patch in the middle made me wince, which is why I'm not posting it today. Maybe as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray release of Lucky Duck Goes To Guantanamo II: Colonel Mallard's Bagram Surprise.

NEXT: Fake Bohemians Are Real Assholes.