Thursday, November 11, 2010

Through The Picture Windows

As a teen, I romanticized Boston. Its elite colleges, colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and sweaters in the Cambridge Fall fascinated a young autodidact stuck in rural Indiana. As late as 1980, when NYC was my main focus, the Boston fixation remained, primarily through A Small Circle of Friends, a mediocre film about three Harvard students in the turbulent Sixties. Karen Allen, fresh from Animal House, was the lure, but the city behind her sold it. I saw Small Circle countless times, balm for the Hoosier grind.

Walking through downtown Boston last Saturday raised none of those old feelings. True, I was concentrating on that night's show, but you'd think some emotion would surface while touring scenic spots. I'd last been in Boston over 20 years ago and loved it. Now, nothing.

Perhaps it's age, or the current sea change in my life. I can't really say. Gazing at the harbor, strolling down narrow alleys, fried fish scent in the crisp New England air -- it all seemed antiseptic. I bought a large turkey sub and returned to my hotel room, eating, dozing, watching college football until it was time to leave for Mottley's.

Unlike the night before, the club was bustling when I arrived. People streamed in much more quickly, the audience larger than the last. There was a hotter energy, louder voices, a tangible anticipation. Barry told me that Saturday night audiences were generally more responsive than Friday crowds. This boosted me, since Friday's show went so well. This should be a slam dunk, I thought, took a long swig of ale and waited for my set.

Erin's opening received an enthusiastic response. She didn't have to coax the crowd into laughing; they were ready to go. Erin's likable persona and fluid delivery opened them up, so much so that three young women felt free to talk to each other after nearly every joke. Erin showed no sign of being distracted. Her material scored well, setting the table for my spot.

I strode on stage feeling confident, but as I grabbed the mike, the crowd's energy overwhelmed me. The place was packed; several people sat inches from my feet, staring up with smiles and expectations. This was the first time in ages that I encountered such conditions. I'd gotten used to scattered people in smaller rooms, people who didn't care, texting, emailing, Web surfing. Now I had their total attention.

I performed the same set as before, trimming as I went to give Barry his complete time. This fucked with my timing a bit, but not too badly, scoring strong laughs in certain areas, mild amusement or silence in others. Friday's crowd flowed with the comics, creating a wave that ran through each set. This audience laughed, then went silent. Laughed, then went silent. There was no carryover, no rhythm. Barry compared it to repeatedly inflating a leaking beach ball. A lot of effort for a concentrated response, then back to square one.

Later watching the tape, my set went far better than it seemed on stage. But in the moment it felt jagged, off. Black Muslims on acid again did well, and the punch line to a bit about psychos in the Army got a bigger laugh than the night before. My jerking off as a kid to Eva Braun received more shocked expressions than laughter, whereas the previous audience found it funny. I closed that routine, and the set, by ad libbing: "Children masturbating to Nazis. You should think about that. Or maybe I should think about that, especially before ever publicly confessing it again." This they liked, so I thanked them and ended my spot.

I felt like shit coming off stage. Barry sensed this and whispered to me that the set was fine. I'd gotten laughs and handled the silences without rancor. This definitely helped. I went outside, smoked part of a small joint, paced, reflected, drifted back inside, ordered a drink, stood against the bar as Barry took the stage.

It soon became clear that Barry faced the same on/off/on/off energy from the crowd. But this didn't faze him. He adjusted to their tempo and played around with it, carrying them through whatever reticence they showed. Again, I watched and learned. Barry fused social observations with personal stories about living in upstate New York, where the thriving businesses are prisons and Walmarts. He wondered how the Chileans dug so deep to save the trapped miners, yet didn't run across Pinochet's mass graves. He improvised a song about Reagan sucking cocks in Hell, to which the audience clapped along in time.

Another fine performance. Watching Barry work taught me many things, primarily how to move with an audience, find its handle, then steer it in a favorable direction. That he did this after three years off heightened the lesson. And Barry's just embarking on a fresh career path. It's only going to get better, sharper, funnier.

Barry is already looking to book new venues. He graciously asked me to join him, which I cannot pass up. We want to present something that's not necessarily "comedy" as it's currently understood, but something with more texture (and music). Ideally, the first stop will be a space in NYC, then some campus towns around the country. All of this is in flux. But Boston showed us what is satirically possible in an atmosphere of reactionary howling and liberal handwringing. When the joke's on all of us, it's time to change the premise.