Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Faces Look The Same

The noise in the back grew louder. Several new audience members had arrived, young, chatty, oblivious to the comics onstage. Two female comics on either side of me told them to shut up, which turned heads to the rear but did little to quell the talking. Ray Combs then approached them, quieting them momentarily as another comedian struggled to regain the room's attention.

Problem was, Ray used humor as crowd control, and soon they were laughing at Ray's quips instead of watching the main show up front. This threw the Lantern off balance, angering Kara Buller, the comic to my left, who kept turning and demanding that Ray and his private audience immediately zip it. They did, then didn't, then did. I wasn't sure what was going on or why, but Ray's peers, while pissed, seemed to expect it from him.

In recent weeks, Ray had tested when not trashed accepted stage behavior (including a set in the nude), which given the profane looseness of NYC's stand up scene is saying something. Now he was tweaking off-stage boundaries, part of an overall performance piece devoted to personal implosion. On one level I appreciated it, since I share Ray's disdain for the scene's provincialism. But the conservative show biz elder in me, which defers to professional demeanor and respect for other performers, however awful, was disturbed by Ray's conduct.

I wasn't alone. Several comics sarcastically "thanked" Ray for keeping the audience alert, if distracted. Kara seemed the angriest, but was easily the funniest, ripping Ray and pretty much everything else in her set (like the original SNL -- "too many Kissinger jokes" for a generation born after Vietnam and Watergate). But these animated riffs were all negatively aimed at Ray, who appeared to take each slam as his due. Clearly, this was what Ray wanted: an angry break before his self-imposed exile. It would be anti-climatic to silently walk away; anti-comedic, too. What stand up simply walks off stage without an exit line?

Upstairs at the bar, I finished my Absolut as Ray entered, two comics alongside him. Unlike many stand ups, Ray is very social and willing to talk about anything. His energetic talent attracts those incapable or unwilling to match it. They just want to share Ray's vibe.

"We need to talk," I said.

Ray nodded, polished off his pint and followed me outside. It was a beautiful Fall night, people spilling across Bleecker Street, laughing, shouting, kissing. Ray and I walked to the curb and leaned on a mailbox.

"So," I asked, "what the fuck's going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"Talking through the sets. Pissing off the other comics. If you were emceeing, you would've ripped someone like that in half."

"Yeah. But I wasn't."

True. Emcee Steve lacks Ray's killer instinct, wearily enduring the disturbance. Though he tested Ray's mood with a Family Feud quip, Steve declined to push harder, which was wise. He's not on Ray's level, especially when it comes to retorts. And given Ray's mood and mandate that night, I doubt it would have ended well.

Ray smiled. "I'm so tired of this scene. It's the same thing every night. Same comics, same material, same bullshit. What's the point to it all?"

I had no ready answer, since only the comics know their own agendas. But considering the present environment, there really isn't much beyond approved corporate outlets.

"What's your end game?" Ray asked.

Certainly not stand up, not as it's understood. The more I perform, the further from the form I get. I suppose that's the plan, but where it ultimately takes me I've no definitive clue. There's the multi-volume book that augments the stage work, but again, the final destination is nowhere in sight. Perhaps that's all I'm meant to know at the moment.

"I'm gonna take some time off, think about things away from these mics," Ray mused. "Then I'll come back with an all-new approach, something that's mine and not connected to my name."

Ray hit it. His father's showbiz shadow has darkened much of Ray's act. In order to evolve, Ray must banish the ghost, or at least keep it off stage. He'll never get over Ray Senior's suicide, but maybe now he can create confessional humor that flows directly from his heart. Ray has a lot to say. He simply needs quiet to find the right voice.

"I might change my name to Pat Sajak Jr.," said Ray as we hailed an uptown cab. I later learned that there's already a Pat Sajak Jr. No matter. When it comes to game show offspring, names are not important. It's how you survive the lightning round.

NEXT: Smooth sets over rocky emotions.