Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kicking Shadows




Save for a moment, when visions of writing for Fridays in LA briefly enticed me (its cancellation closed that door), Jim Buck and I had our minds set on New York. We knew no one in the scene, had no clue what awaited us, but desire outweighed reason, and in September 1982 we settled into a shitty heroin building on the Lower East Side. Those early days were frightening yet inspiring. Jim and I enjoyed some success in the clubs, the politics of that scene a mystery to us. That quickly changed. Still, we never second-guessed our move. We felt we'd found nirvana.

At the same time, Barry Crimmins was running comedy shows at the Ding Ho, the now-legendary Boston club that eschewed traditional approaches to stand-up. The Ding featured such acts as Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Lenny Clarke, Paula Poundstone, Jimmy Tingle, Kevin Meaney, Ken Ober, Brian Kiley (who writes for Conan), Dana Gould (The Simpsons), among many notable others. But it was Barry's comic-friendly approach that truly distinguished the Ding. So far as I can tell, the Ding Ho was perhaps the closest thing to socialized comedy that's ever existed in the States. The workers owned the means of production, much to the consternation of competing Boston clubs. That was Barry's vision. It still is.

Barry has told me that if Jim and I chose Boston back then, we would've inevitably drifted into the Ding. How I wish we had. While my disillusionment with 80's comedy may have surfaced anyway, exposure to Barry's room would've provided added comedy depth and perception. Who knows -- I might have stuck with it instead of going fully political. But this would alter the time-space continuum, and we might now have gills instead of lungs, battling giant iguana bats for basic survival. We have enough problems as it is.

This past weekend, Barry and I finally shared the same stage. For Barry it was a financial decision, and naturally Boston was the perfect venue. For me it was the next step in The Project. No open mic bullshit, no cattle call comics doing the same tired bits. I'd be able to see just how far I've developed in the last seven months. And the more I thought about it, the more anxious I felt.

Barry's confidence in me helped tremendously. I have confidence in much of my material, despite the indifference and incomprehension some of my NYC sets received. But I wasn't sure if there was a paying audience for it. Barry wanted me to breathe some of the oxygen he's used to. It was time to kick it up a few notches.

Barry picked Mottley's Comedy Club for his his return to stand up. Joining us was Erin Judge, a New York comic who's a Mottley's regular. Erin would open and emcee the show, with me in the middle doing 10-12 minutes. While Friday night's audience filed in, I sat in the back of the room, running the set through my head. As showtime approached, my material faded, replaced with jangling nerves. I hadn't been this anxiety-ridden since The Project began. All I could hear was my accelerated heartbeat, the audience muffled, distant. I sipped a pint and stared at the stage. I wondered if I really wanted this, and why.

Despite my seemingly gregarious nature, I've long had some measure of stage fright. I have several theories why this exists, but the chief goal is to fight through it. For once I'm on stage, either for comedy or in a debate (these have occasionally merged), my adrenaline shifts, and a different part of my mind takes over. Mottley's was the biggest challenge to date. I would need everything I've learned this year to make it really work.

Erin's opening routine was sharp, smooth, funny. Her timing was precise, her smile infectious. Friday's crowd was slow to warm up, but Erin gradually pulled them from their end-of-week stupors. Watching Erin work, I realized again that I don't speak comedy club language, that my material is perhaps more suited to performance spaces. Erin understands that language and speaks it perfectly. After ten or so minutes, the audience now responsive, Erin introduced me, and through the fear wall I went.

I opened with a bit conceived on the walk to the club. My hotel room could not receive Wi-Fi. Two tech support guys spent over three hours trying to hook me up, but failed, scratching their balding heads. While they worked, I had CNN on mute, and saw that Haiti was about to be hit by Hurricane Tomas, further plunging that country into disease, death, and despair. I felt stupid for being pissed about my lack of internet access, and confessed this to the crowd.

"Here I am, worrying about not having internet in a First World city like Boston (pause) -- and these poor people in Haiti probably aren't gonna have internet either. I'm so selfish sometimes. Americans can be such pigs."

This got a very nice laugh, which immediately relaxed me. The rest of the set flowed beautifully. I did a couple of Army bits, including the Black Muslims on acid story that many NYC comics found bizarre and unfunny. At Mottley's, the routine soared. They understood it, laughing at lines that I instinctively knew were good. Barry was correct: I simply needed the right audience to see its full potential.

A few lulls existed here and there, and some editing was needed for the next show. But overall I was ecstatic with the set. It felt good to connect with a crowd open to different takes. Then again, they were there to see Barry. I doubt that Dane Cook's audience would find me amusing.

Erin introduced Barry to passionate applause. Barry, wearing a wireless lapel mike, slowly walked on stage, sizing up the crowd. He carried a folder filled with pages. "I want to read something to you." He dropped the folder on the table in front of him, opened it and said, "My act."

Big laugh. The first of many. While the folder did contain new material, Barry glanced at it occasionally. He'd peek at a line, look up and riff. And Barry is a master of the long-form riff. Political, social and personal observations hit you from every angle. Barry paces the stage like an intense professor, a pitchman for intellectual evolution and political clarity. He expects you to listen and you do. And he's so fucking funny. That's how he gets away with it. He makes you laugh hard at madness and deceit while making rational points between the punch lines.

I stood in the back with Barry's close friend Thomas Duffy and marveled at his act. There is much to learn from Barry, and I studied him closely. I had never seen him live before Mottley's, and imagined how riveting his Ding Ho sets must have been. He's older, but still throws high heat. The sheer amount of references, critiques, jokes, throwaways, and appeals in a 45 minute span makes your head spin -- not from confusion, but from appreciation. He shows how the bread gets baked, slices it up and feeds you. There's more than just comedy happening here.

Barry, Duffy, me and a couple of other people hit a nearby hotel bar after the show. Warmed by an Absolut martini, listening to everyone talk and joke, I felt complete for the first time in a very long time. Walking back to my hotel, I thought about the next show. Nerves began burning through the buzz.

NEXT: Satire closes Saturday night.