Friday, August 13, 2010

The Past Is Plastics

Tim and I sat at the Tile Bar, surrounded by loud twentysomethings, two ghosts lost in time.

"Man, this place has changed."

"Just the crowd, not the decor."

True. Tile's interior is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago. Same photos on the wall. Same Stranger Than Paradise movie poster near the door. Same neon clock over the same jukebox playing many of the same songs. Only the mounted flat-screen TV reveals the actual date. Take away the kids, and it could be 1992. And Tim and I would be there.

I've said before how much the East Village has changed. But of all my old stomping grounds, the EV retains elements that refuse to yield to time. Tile is one of them, though the patrons are more white collar than back in the day. Tim reminded me of a fight between two drunk women, punching, clawing, rolling on the floor. No one lifted a finger or called the cops. The bartender sighed, grabbed a baseball bat, came around and confronted the women, pushing them out the door. Drinking and chatting resumed.

Hard to see that happening with this manicured crowd, though I'm sure a few would capture the fight on their phones and post it to YouTube.

Tim is one of my oldest friends. He used to illustrate my column in New York Perspectives. He has taken me into areas of the city I never knew existed nor would ever visit alone. Like me, Tim's a Midwestern transplant with deep redneck roots. To us, NYC was and has remained Mecca. We've never lost our sense of awe. We float through the crowds, aging stardust in our eyes.

That's the general feeling. The stage gigs yank you into the immediate present, a different world that takes time to navigate. I'm getting better at this, picking up on cues that months ago perplexed me. When Tim and I walked into the club for my set, I instantly knew that my material would not connect, at least not on the level I'm attempting to reach.

It was a very young gathering, large framed glasses on narrow faces, stovepipe jeans, bored expressions. The emcee, quite nice and welcoming, looked to be around 18. The three comics before me did pretty much the same material: I hate my job, don't like my life, watch too much porn, jerk off a lot, and aren't blowjobs funny? No mention of the wider, violent, insane world. That's my trip.

I pointed out how cultural distractions short circuit attempts to oppose war and corporate theft. I mentioned a blue collar acquaintance of mine who was swayed to question the Terror Wars on class grounds (he and his buddies serving as imperial fodder), until he realized that part of these campaigns is based on control of oil reserves. "Fuck those ragheads!" he blurted out. "No oil? That would fuck up NASCAR!" A sacred cause worth killing for. The same goes for the Drug War. Eliminate that, and goodbye cop and prison shows.

"Have you seen that show about prison riots?" I asked.

Indifferent stares. A few near the back were busy texting.

"Well, there's a weekly show that highlights inmate violence. But I think this corrupts the whole prison riot experience. I mean, how many inmates are genuinely engaged in reprisal killing, and how many are just playing to the camera?"

I then became a British TV director admonishing the inmates for their lack of realism. "Pit Bull, when you stab Crazy Rape in the neck, don't hold back. Let us really feel the hatred!"

A few chuckles, several smiles, but mostly stares. What is this old man doing? What the fuck is he talking about? Doesn't he know that blowjobs are funny?

To be fair, my set was too short to fully explore the premise. That's the problem with what I'm working toward, which is more long-form, satirical and confessional. These brief sets make this nearly impossible to develop. Part of me says to throw it all out and go back to writing jokes. A tall, thin comic with a shaved head who followed me did just that. He was good, the best of the lot. Later, outside, I shook his hand and said how strong his material was, that he's a fine joke writer.

"Uh, thanks man," he replied, avoiding eye contact.

I smiled back, then took off with Tim to the Tile Bar.

"You're really smooth on stage," Tim observed over drinks. "You look the audience in the eyes, stay loose with the mic, and don't get rattled when they don't laugh."

"I'm getting used to that."

The problem, said Tim, is that I'm speaking a foreign language to people half my age.

"Maybe I'm just not funny."

Tim laughed. "No, you're funny. Hell, the fact that you're doing this at your age shows how funny you are. Maybe these comedy mics are the wrong venue."

I've thought of that. On the one hand, playing to stares has seasoned me. But maybe I should be working in poetry spaces, where free-form confessions are welcome. There, humor is a plus, whereas in the clubs, social awareness is a decided demerit. Another item to consider.

The bartender refreshed our drinks. Tim and I stared at our reflections behind the bar. Two old timers on once familiar ground shifting under tired feet.

NEXT: More Lantern chaos.