Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Spoiler: Part 2 -- How I became a comedian

I hate the term “comic.” And “comedian.” You think of baggy pants, seltzer-spritzing, watermelon-smashing, musical ventriloquist, “didja ever notice?”-ing, dick-joking, black-jacketed, overgelled, semi-literate, class clowns-gone-to-seed lamebrains. Open-mic knuckle-draggers lugging sour dreams of landing on Dave’s couch or yakking it up with Conan or having a permanent seat in Jay’s green room. Rupert Pupkin wannabees. You know, the kind that’s so pathetic they get hissed at kiddy birthday parties?

I know this. Because I used to be one of them. I stood out on the street corners in the rain and snow flicking invites to people who looked at me in my crummy peacoat, hardly better than a panhandling bum, knowing I had to recruit five strangers to win five minutes to work out – a time span that can seem like five light-years when you’re facing a roomful of drunken Yuppies whose water is smarter than they are and who feel their ten-dollar cover charge entitles them to shout obscenities, make cell phone calls to their Friendsters, paw their dates sloshed from Jell-O shots, moon you, and generally act as if they’d been hired to act in your worst nightmare. At Yuksters. Benny O’Hoolihan’s House O’ Hoots. And We’re All Smiles, the outsized logo of which – plastered on the marquee, painted on every wall – was a pair of grinning lips and a set of perfectly white teeth that looked like an alien creature that was all smile, or a dental ad you’d see on a panel on the F train.

And having to schmooze the club owners, who judged your act on how many drinks customers ordered during it, or their henchmen who booked the room, usually some rat-like creature who took bribes from comics to bump them up in the order, but who wouldn’t blink at breaking his word and pocketing the cash.

And if you could survive this, well eventually, maybe after six months or a year, you’d win a spot on the weekend, when the out-of-towners would show up, but even then you’d start out getting the last slot, around 1:30 a.m., when the only people left looked like they’d tunneled their way into the club from somewhere deep inside the earth’s crust. Smelled like they’d just come from a wine tasting at the Manishevitz factory. Looked like they tried a sex change, thought better of it, and went back again. The people you found after you scraped off the pond scum.

Some of the comics were good eggs – likable, thoughtful, encouraging Almost all of them were smarter than their acts. Which was demoralizing. And more and more even the better ones just chucked their professionalism – they spelled out jokes, ripped the audience for not responding to flat or misfired gags (at times veering close to the kind of pathetic begging you’d expect from a homeless guy or a torture victim), resorted at the drop of a hat to the “Anybody here from Jersey?” line that you knew was leading to a cheap insult and, worst of all, didn’t bother memorizing their act, making the audience wait as they flipped through index cards and notebooks. One guy even tried booting up his laptop on stage, which took five minutes and seemed like some sad kind of performance art. But not quite.

My act? I started out doing regular standup: comments on current events and trends, what they call observational humor. My problem was I couldn’t stand to tell the same joke twice, while most comics spent years polishing the same five minutes until it was bland and inoffensive enough to attract the network scouts. If a joke bombed, I lost all respect for it. And if it worked – even when I got some chick to spit-take her saketine – well, that was it. It had lost its comedy cherry.

You see, I always needed things fresh. It’s one of the reasons why I became a “spoiler.” Being a spoiler is a special one-time-only experience. Not just for me, but for the host and the audience. And especially for the “victim.”

But let me backtrack: I ditched the “Didja ever read the labels on the bottom of a mattress?” act and started doing characters. Built up an entirely new act. But not the standard “street people” all the other character comics did – your cliched panhandling outpatients, cardboard Latinos, “um-be-lel-la”-chanting generic Africans, and swishy fairies, with a junky thrown in to make it “edgy” and fill out the multicultural minstrel show they knew the white, middle-class audience would dig.

Nope. I did a one-eighty. First, with Professor Pfelding, a pompous, hopelessly out-of-touch, left-wing film history teacher who would try to shoehorn references to obscure films and phrases such as “mise-en-scene” and “transgressive” into every other sentence, always at the wrong time, such as while trying to seduce young students in his office. I’d have him looking down a girl’s dress and saying, “Exquisite mise-en-scene, my dear. Not since Max Ophuls have I seen such glorious mise-en-scene. Andre Bazin would faint.” Of course, nobody knew who the fuck Max Ophuls and Andre Bazin were. To them it read: “lecherous, full-of-himself professor.” It’s comedy short-hand.

Pfelding was based on one of the profs I had at N.Y.U. who gave me a B- just because I submitted my oral final on tape. This was before I dropped out during my junior year. But more about that later. Possibly.

Another character was Guy, based on a French-Canadian guy who collected newspapers in my neighborhood with this kind of manic intensity that made you think that by saving the papers he was saving humanity. Why, he never explained. He wore a thin leather jacket and Birkenstock sandals even in mid-winter, claimed to be a millionaire up in Montreal and spoke in this almost unintelligible, marble-mouthed patois. The way I played him, it was half-Quebec, half-Professor Irwin Corey. I’d do a conversation between myself and Guy, me asking directions and trying to figure out what the hell he was saying and him just spouting vaguely French-sounding gibberish, with English words like “millionaire” and “McDonald’s” thrown in. I guess you could call him a “street person.” But French-Canadian homeless? It just wasn’t being done.

Then there was Bob Burdette, vice president of corporate communications, who hid everything – his emotions, his motives – behind a torrent of corporate gobbledygook. He was the kind of guy who was always coming up with what he thought were absolutely brilliant “new ideas” to please his boss. “Find the Meeting,” a character-building exercise in which senior management would make their subordinates search the building to find where an important meeting was taking place. Group calisthenics, like the kind Japanese companies used, and which he led dressed as a gym teacher. Clothes-optional Fridays. To “help loosen up the corporate atmosphere.”

Ironically, while I thought Bob was my weakest character, he was my most popular – or should I say my least unpopular, especially with the same corporate types I was mocking. Once in a while, after a show, one of these suits would come up to me at the bar, buy me a drink, and tell me Bob was “just like my boss.” Sometimes they’d ask me if I played corporate events. You know, sales force retreats, company picnics. At the time, I blew them off. Didn’t take them seriously. Felt insulted. Ultimately, though, that’s how I became a “spoiler.” But that came later.

1 comment:

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