Monday, January 24, 2011

Return Deposit

Barry Crimmins warned that I could never go back, that once I'd worked a better room, open stages would repulse on sight. I didn't doubt him, but had to see for myself. Barry's right -- it was like watching bum fights in some cluttered vacant lot.

The Village Lantern is as close to a home stage as there was for me in the past year. Much of this was tied to Ray Combs, who helped me navigate unknown stages across the city, tipping me off to emcees and the moods of various rooms. But Ray's hosted shows at the Lantern weren't like any of the others. I've written extensively about them. They remain among the most cherished if crazed moments I've had since The Project began.

Ray took a break from stand up to work on a documentary about his father; but when I came into town, we decided to hit the Lantern's Wednesday late show. Like old times. In theory anyway. Upon walking in, I felt nothing but dread. Ray kept asking me, "Doesn't the room feel weird?" I nodded while looking around. The packed place had a distinct insect vibe, a deleted scene from Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. We grabbed some drinks and sat in the back.

I'd seen many of these comics before, and none seemed to have evolved at all. Same dick/cunt/cum material. Same ragged delivery. One young guy with McCartney hair delivered a fevered rant about children as Big Pharma sheep and the lack of real political options. "Hurry up, 2012! Why the delay?" This naturally silenced the room, yet I liked it. He wasn't funny, but he pelted us with open contempt. It's a start.

A couple of ringers slid through, including an Upright Citizens Brigade regular who emceed and mocked my Muslims-on-acid set when I performed there. He read from a notebook and stumbled over a few punch lines. After him, more Lantern regulars, more my-life-is-garbage musings. Then came Ray's turn. He polished off his drink, flashed me a smile, took the stage.

Ray is so fucking at home up there. I think it comes too easily for him, which is why he disdains much of it. Where's the challenge? This pushes him into darker areas than he already occupies. This night Ray went right for the sore spot: the Arizona shootings. "How can you shoot someone point blank in the head," he shouted, eyes blazing, "and not kill them? Does competence matter anymore?" This sent a series of shocked gasps all the way to my table, something I'd never felt before at the Lantern. Ray surged on, observing that today's would-be assassins are rank amateurs compared to pros like Charles Manson. "Think Manson would've fucked up that shooting? Quality meant something back then."

It takes a lot to put off self-hating stand ups, but Ray did it within seconds. I loved it. Only thing is, Ray's set was nearly identical to what I had planned. As Ray tore up the stage, my mouth dropped. Fuck! I thought. There goes my bit. Mine wasn't as angry or intentionally tasteless as Ray's. It was more a parody of American nostalgia, in this case for assassins. Whereas Ray winged his material, mine was written with a definitive close.

"How was that?" Ray asked afterward.

"You did my set, dude."


"Close enough. But I can work around it."

While I thought of a new opening, the show steadily declined, the comics grinding out crap as the audience thinned. I waited in vain for my name to be called. Finally, I asked the emcee what was up. "Oh, you're on near the end," he casually replied. By now the Lantern had moved into Weimar cabaret territory, masked midgets whipping obese transvestites. Not for me. I told the emcee fuck it, I was leaving. I put on my coat and walked.

Ray asked me to reconsider. "I can get you on right now," he said. No doubt, but after playing to full, paying houses in Boston, I had zero interest in closing to a handful of bored, drunk stragglers.

Barry nailed it.

Ray and I went to the Olive Tree Cafe above the Comedy Cellar. He spoke of his film project, asking if I would be interested in writing a book about his Dad. I informed Ray of publishing's woes, how there would be little to no money to finance a book. Ray Senior's story has plenty of ripe angles -- small town kid who scored big in Hollywood, the lure and lies of celebrity, the emotional and financial beatings he took, the scramble to recover, the private hell, his suicide. Ray Senior lived a strange showbiz life. I was there near his peak. I could turn it into a fascinating book, but not for free.

Later, Ray and I walked up Sixth Avenue. The weather had warmed, the wind's teeth not as sharp. When we came to 16th Street, I asked Ray if he wanted to see where Michael O'Donoghue lived.


We strolled down the block to Michael's old brownstone, the site of his glory years with the Lampoon and SNL, as well as his career slide and early death. I spoke about the countless hours I spent in that place, hanging with Michael and poring over his voluminous files after his passing. I can still see his many dioramas enclosed behind glass. His masked dolls. The paintings and pencil sketches by John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck.

"You miss it, don't you?"

At one time I did, especially during those early Michigan years when anger and regret stomped my spirit into the mud. Now, in the midst of another shift, I see that time for what it was and how it nourished me. I'm happy to have lived it, but that period is long gone. Another life awaits.

Congrats to IOZ and his Steelers. My Jets fell short yet again, something we fans are used to.

The Jets' defense shut down the Steelers for most of the second half as the offense slowly came back, scoring 19 unanswered points. But some dodgy play calling at the Steelers' one yard line and Ben Roethlisberger's late game improvisation sealed the Jets' doom, five points shy. And yet I still love the Jets. Rex Ryan has changed the team's culture for the better, madness and stupidity included, but I wonder if they'll have the same fire next season, assuming there is a season. Until then, Joe Namath remains the Jet king.