Friday, October 1, 2010

Air Triggers

Greg Giraldo's death hung over the Village Lantern, disbelief and resignation the main reactions. Giraldo was a comedian with a history of substance abuse, so checking out at 44 due to pills (albeit accidentally) shouldn't seem shocking. Still, Giraldo's early exit served as a reminder not only of mortality, but of the ephemeral intensity of comedy life.

I never met Giraldo, wasn't crazy about his roast gigs (insult trains bore me), but enjoyed many of his stand up bits, even if his manic delivery unnerved me on occasion. It seemed there were raging storms in Giraldo's head, common for many comics, but not so poetic riffs, which Giraldo produced when ignited. He was a comic's comic who defied the cliché. He railed against idiocy, complacency, and American madness, ending in a New Jersey hotel room, much like Mitch Hedberg. Maybe comics should cede that swamp to Snooki and The Situation, and seek lesser jinxed states in which to do hotel drugs.

Ray Combs and I discussed the limitations of comedy careers in the corporate state. Comics either serve the machine or get trampled, though one's service is no guarantee of survival. Greg Giraldo made a mark, but how long will this last? And to what end? Ray and I chewed over this and related topics at length, but well after yet another chaotic Lantern late show. There's something about that room on Wednesdays that stirs a comedian's deepest anxiety. This bears Ray's mark, which shows no sign of fading soon.

Ray ceased being an emcee months ago, but the Lantern remains very much his turf, recognized but not seriously challenged by the other regulars. This reality was in full force Wednesday night. When I arrived Ray was well into a pint, nervous smile and energy flashing. He performed in the early show and was fueling up for his late set. We chatted briefly before Ray started working the room, joking around in an oddly aggressive way. He'd been telling me that he's contemplating quitting comedy, that the New York scene is stagnant, dull, uninspired. I agree, at least the parts I've seen and experienced. But I didn't take Ray seriously. His talent is too ingrained to simply toss aside and forget.

As the room filled up, the emcee Steve opened by reading half-formed jokes from a large notebook. I haven't gotten used to this, and consider it lazy or a sign of weakness. If you can't memorize jokes or riff sans text for five to ten minutes, then you're probably in the wrong profession. Yet a fair number of comics I see have no shame in reading their bits. Like texting during another performer's set, reading material onstage is largely treated as standard practice.

Steve yelled to Ray in the audience, asking him what he thought about Steve Harvey becoming Family Feud's new host. This is delicate ground for Ray. For all the jokes about his late father Ray makes, he stiffens if anyone else takes a shot, however glancing. Ray immediately defended his father's Feud reign, noting that no subsequent host ever enjoyed the same ratings as Ray Senior, which is true. In the larger scheme, caring about which game show host captured the most eyes is superfluous, but this isn't about ratings and market share. It's about Ray's father, whose suicide continues to haunt his namesake.

I don't think that Steve meant to be mean about Ray's dad, but a dig was there, supposedly all in good fun. Ray didn't see it that way, ordered another pint, and began talking to other comics while the show commenced. It was a low murmur in the back, nothing too distracting, but evident. Then Steve called my name and I took the stage.

I was a bit nervous about my newest material, knowing that it's bound to offend certain sensibilities. I go after comedians who perform for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, how many of them act as if they've seen combat or somehow "helped" the war effort, congratulating themselves for their patriotic service. Some of these comics affect tough guy poses at home, making queer-baiting, sexist, racist jokes, talking trash, being politically "incorrect" (the white comic's ultimate dodge). But when faced with a kid in uniform, these tough guys melt, fall to their knees and suck endless camo pipe. They eagerly become court jesters for drone strikes and chemical warfare.

The reason for this, apart from résumé padding and stroking nationalist conceits, is that most if not all of these comics have never served in the armed forces. They turn soldiers and Marines into action figures they can emulate and worship. The military becomes mystical, a place to project their masculine fantasies. That the majority of them would never enlist, much less survive boot camp, is beside the point. Performing for the troops feeds their illusions without serious physical risk. They get to play soldier and live to brag about it.

Having served in the Army, I know that the reality is much different. In boot camp, they not only break down your civilian identity to forge an obedient militarist mindset, they study you while training, looking to see where you fit in the machine. And though intelligent recruits do exist, so do a fair number of sociopaths and seriously maladjusted youths. Clearly, this hasn't changed, as reports of torture and dismemberment by US`troops filter back home. Indeed, it's probably worse now, as the military, faced with recruitment challenges, loosened its requirements, inducting gangbangers and kids with violent criminal records. Severed fingers and bleached skulls are no doubt the least of it.

The material went over well -- very well, in fact, at one point eliciting applause. I went on stage with a few bullet points in mind and improvised off them. I didn't get to the routine's real meat; that will come with longer sets. But what I did touch on connected, not only because it was so different from the other comics, but because I played around with it, turned horror into comedy without missing the larger point. It was an energizing, instructive set that made me hungry for more.

NEXT: Ray and I get serious; comic scenes from a marriage.