Monday, March 22, 2010

Dharma's Soiled Tux

"If you ever get a chance to drop acid with Muslims -- do it. It's exciting, a little terrifying, but you learn something about yourself, which is always good."

I reached Ico Gallery in hard driving rain. Outskirts of Chelsea near 12th Ave. Ico's area reminded me of galleries on the Lower East Side, when heroin was openly sold in doorways and vacant lots, and you literally looked over your shoulder until you were a few blocks north of Houston.

Art amid decay. I've always liked that combo.

Ico isn't as downtrodden as those old spaces, especially once you brush against the genre characters who attend most NYC openings. From kids with elevated uncombed hair and clashing patterns, to the graying men surrounded by younger women, listening to Pop's take on paintings or photos, these galleries resemble tourist theme parks, complete with derivative art that you've seen a hundred thousand times. At least there's free booze.

I did like Karima Williams' work. The Algerian-born artist depicts Muslim women trapped between imperialists and jihadists, caged, gagged, owned, looking for openings and breathing room. Williams borrows liberally from Basquiat, so her images are not startling or even new, but do speak to underheard if not repressed desire, anguish, and passion.

The bar offered an infidel response to these paintings: bacon-flavored vodka. It is without doubt one of the vilest combinations I've ever tasted. The aroma alone is nauseating, but I took a sip anyway, immediately regretting it. What dreadful poseurs would drink this swill? (Looks around.) Oh yeah.

Fortunately, there was clean cheap vodka too, and honoring William Burroughs, I mixed mine with Coke. A friend connected to the opening introduced me around, and there was some amusing, light conversations, nothing terribly heavy. As I mingled, more vodka Cokes were consumed, and the nice strong buzz made the event a lot more tolerable. My friend mentioned an after-party in Battery Park. I was interested, but he said, "Aren't you doing UCB tonight?"

"Yeah. But I'm told it's fixed. I won't get on."

"You should go anyway."

I thought his suggestion had more to do with the hot young woman on his arm than concern for my emerging project. But he was right. I needed to go.

"The Muslims I did acid with weren't the jihadist variety that's all the rage right now. No, these were Black Nationalist Muslims I knew in the Army. They were more eclectic in their philosophy and theology, but they shared one abiding passion: a deep hatred for white people."

Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is several blocks east of Ico, so the walk wasn't too far, and the rain had let up. The possibility of performing dampened my vodka buzz as I ran lines in my head. When I arrived at UCB, a crowd of young white kids were streaming in to see a sketch show at 11. I followed them downstairs to the box office. I asked a woman at the door about signing up for Gutbucket, UCB's monthly open mic. "Oh sure!" she said, handing me a small piece of paper. I scribbled my name, handed it back, and was told that the performing list would be posted in 45 minutes.

Thinking I had no shot, since I was told UCB usually puts on those they know and like, I hung around to talk to other comics hoping to make the cut. There was another open mic in the East Village at 1, so I figured I'd get to know some of these guys, see that I wasn't chosen, then grab a cab to hit that other show.

The comics I conversed with were much younger than me, their confidence barely masking insecurity and fear. A couple of them had yet to score at UCB after nearly a year of trying. But they kept coming back, because UCB is the hip space where SNL cast members and notable up-and-comers jam to sold out, enthusiastic audiences. If you get in here, you're on the right career track -- according to these guys, anyway. It stokes what hope they have.

As I waited for the list, I could hear the actors inside yelling lines over steady laughter. I snuck inside the theater door to watch some of the show. It took me back to Kamakaze Radio, weekend jams at Folk City, and various other stages of my early days. I felt a momentary chill, a flash of excitement. A long-suppressed vibe emerged that exhilarated me. I missed this world more than I ever admitted to myself. I was 22 again in spirit.

A staffer told me to wait outside the theater for the list. It was no longer raining, but the damp cold cut deep. I bounced a bit to keep warm as a cute young woman emerged, lighting a cigarette. We locked eyes and smiled.

"Hey Pierre!" she said, noting my flattened beret.

"Pierre?! It's Francois! Pierre. Please."

She laughed and asked if I was a comic. "I'm an old man with a dying dream." She chuckled, shook her head, took a drag.

Her boyfriend co-wrote the sketch show, so she's used to this kind of exchange. I don't remember much of what I said, but we had a snappy rapport going, and I made her consistently laugh. As she tossed away her butt, she shook my hand. "Good luck, Francois. You're funny. I know you're gonna kill tonight."

She went back inside just as the list was posted. Out of numerous comics, only 15 make the cut. I was number 11.

I couldn't believe it. First time out. My adrenaline kicked into higher gear as I mentally prepped for the set.

The house remained full after the sketch show, a tangible electricity in the air. Tonight's Gutbucket was emceed by two comics, one slim guy who doled out casual sarcasm between sips of beer, the other heftier, longhaired and bearded, resembling Zach Galifianakis. They knew the first several comedians well enough to give bios in the introductions. Clearly these were favored performers who were climbing UCB's ladder.

While they were smoother than most of the comics at the Village Lantern, the material was largely observational, nothing that would startle an average audience. There was one kid with glasses who tried something interesting: a series of fevered sound effects that suggested violence and mayhem, then a calm explanation of what each sound represented. In this bit, Popeye entered a room and whaled on a bunch of cops. The crowd appreciated it, which was nice.

Standing in the back, watching the acts with me was another kid who made tart observations along the way. He then nudged me and asked, "What's your name?"

"Dennis Perrin."

"Right! I recognize you!"

"You do?"

"Yes! I've seen your act around town. I like it."

I nodded and thanked him. Far be it from me to correct the kid. In comedy, any recognition is good, even the fictional kind.

Just over an hour later, my time approached. About a third of the audience had gone, but it was still a decent crowd. The slim emcee asked if I had anything for my intro. I told him I once wrote for Bill Maher. He stared at me incredulously.

"Bill Maher."


Another stare. "Okay."

The guy adjusted the mike stand and said, "This next comic was a writer for Bill Maher. And Jonathan Winters. And Bob Newhart. And . . ." He paused.

"And Slappy White!" I yelled out.

Complete silence.

"Umm, anyway here's . . . I'm trying to remember his name. Oh yeah -- Dennis Perrin."

Hell of an intro, no?

I took the stage, stared at the young smiling faces gazing at me. I paused a beat, then said, "If you ever get a chance to drop acid with Muslims -- do it." This got a decent laugh, and I was off.

Though this was the first time I'd performed this material, it flowed naturally out of me. One of the bigger laughs came when I mentioned the Army. Like the emcee before me, the audience didn't believe what I was saying. There's much of my life that seems unbelievable even to me, so I know I'm gonna get this reaction again. But being in the fucking Army? What's so bizarre about that?

Unlike some of the other comics, I didn't elicit howls and applause. My material had a different tone and rhythm, something you can't immediately plug into. Not yet. But the audience paid attention, followed my story, and laughed pretty much where I wanted them to. At times they laughed hesitantly, especially when I talked about how much the Black Muslims hated white people.

"And I thought, hey, what a coincidence! I hate white people too! Every asshole jock bully, every religious prick, every authoritarian wannabe who beat me, lied to me, ripped my soul out by the roots -- was white! [pause] FUCK WHITEY!"

I explained how despite my attempts to be non-racist, the acid stirred up years of racist conditioning, and as I peaked the Black Muslims morphed into the crows from Dumbo, only they talked like Miles Davis. "What's the matter, white boy? Shit too strong for you? That's what you get for taking a Black man's acid!"

Needless to say, this wasn't going to get me an SNL writing gig. But it felt great. A solid early stage.

I tried to squeeze in a bit about my attraction to right wing women, which began with me jerking off to Eva Braun in Hitler's home movies. But masturbating to Nazi chicks would have to wait. The lights went out, the music came up, and I was done.

The bearded emcee followed me with "Dennis Perrin dropping truth bombs!", then sarcastically reviewed my set. The parts I heard, anyway. I was deep inside my head, reviewing the mental tape. I went backstage, grabbed my coat, made friendly small talk with a couple of comics, then left. On my way out, I noticed a framed photo of Del Close, the Second City legend who is UCB's spiritual godfather. I smiled thinking about the time I sat with Close, listening to his creative advice. I was 19, years before most of these comics were born.

Del Close was crazy old school. So, it seems, am I.