Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Spoiler: Part 3 -- My "manager"

I worked hard on my characters. I researched them, read books, grilled friends and acquaintances – I mean I Stanislavskied the mothers. Thought about their favorite foods, what kind of underwear they liked, what they dreamed. I wrote long back stories, sometimes going back generations. I had this obsession with authenticity. Insane.

But my career was going nowhere. I had been making the rounds for almost three years and was still a nobody, still fighting for stage time and playing the modern version of vaudeville. I thought of turning to acting – just when all the actors were turning to standup.

Things didn’t improve much when I went with this agent named Lenny Weinstock. Lenny dredged the ocean floor of comedy, emerging with a wide variety of non-talent that he would book in totally obscure venues – magic shows, historical re-enactment societies and clubs where Goth kids who weren’t old enough to get into real heavy metal clubs hung out. Light metal clubs.

One of Lenny’s acts was his wife, a brassy Jewish girl with flaming red hair who went by the name Imelda, the Weird Fairy. She would come onstage in a white, fluffy chiffon dress, white chiffon “wings,” white pumps and red socks. Her act was asking the audience to shout out “wishes” that she would grant if they would agree to perform ridiculous tasks such as wearing their underwear outside of their suit or barking like “a baby seal being clubbed to death.”

Lenny was an ex-comic himself and really believed in his “clientele.” He had an office in an all-but-abandoned office building next to a Croatian Orthodox church so close to the Lincoln Tunnel that instead of passing the collection plate they could’ve collected tolls.

You’d walk in and the fluorescent light in the vestibule would be shattered and the stairs littered with discarded bags of half-eaten fast food. You’d pass other comics – drawn, pimply-faced, beer-bellied guys who looked desperate enough to scavenge from the bags of semi-eaten Tacos Bell, E.coli or not.

And then – the office, a long, open space with mismatched, abandoned chairs, grungy- sofas, unruly piles of papers and notebooks, teetering pyramids of videotapes, chopsticks, OTB slips, old Metrocards, candy wrappers. It was a like a collection from a crime scene. A board behind Lenny’s desk scrawled with magic-markered schedules that listed which of his comics was booked where. Lenny was in his thirties but was balding in front with long, stringy hair in the back that crawled out from under a New York Rangers cap. He often wore a matching, grimy, food-stained Rangers sweatshirt and jeans which weren’t just “distressed” – more like “traumatized.”

Lenny sat at a plastic fold-out desk that looked like dollhouse furniture and spat into multiple phones simultaneously, trying to drum up work for his comics. His side of things would sound like this:

“Two shows, Saturday night, Atlantic City? Sure. The Trump? ... The Dew Drop Inn? Where the fuck is that – nineteen fifty-eight? ... Camden? Camden is not Atlantic City…You need somebody who can work dirty? ... Filthy? Disgusting? Hey, what do you want, my guy to jerk off on stage? … If necessary. Ha, ha, ha…O.K., we’ll take it.”

Or like this:

“Lou, Lou, Lou. Louie. Comeannn … You’re always bitching how come I don’t get you any gigs and now I got you a gig and you’re bitching about the gig that I got you … Offshore casino. … No, not Bermuda. … The Caymans? Hey, if it was the Caymans I’d take it. … It’s offshore … Somewhere in the Atlantic, that’s all I know. … Whattya mean, how do you get there? Public transportation.”

Eventually, he’d be conducting a kind of opera of showbiz sleaze, shouting into all four phones:

“Fred? Len. Two shows, fifty each. Plus all-you-can-eat bratwurst. You in?”

“Whattya mean, you ain’t a prop act? Get a watermelon and an ax – bingo, you’re a prop act.”

“I’m sorry about Farley. Peeing on the audience, I mean, that crosses the line. But he’s got a chemical imbalance…”

Lenny had his eccentricities, too. Like he always wanted you to stop in personally to see about work. All the comics hated it. Besides being out of the way and time-consuming, he’d make you wait. And the place reeked of exhaust fumes from the backed-up tunnel traffic outside.

On the other hand, I owe it to Lenny that I decided to abandon the standup life. It happened one day when I walked into his office just after one of his regulars backed out of a bar mitzvah out on the Island. Would I fill in for him? It paid a couple hundred, plus a car service. I certainly needed the money, as the only income I had at the time came from filling out online surveys or, when I got really desperate, volunteering as a guinea pig for drug trials. (I mean, I always tried to get the placebos.) Besides, to get paid at all was rare and made me feel like a professional – so much so that I jumped at the offer before considering all the ramifications. Like how I would tailor my act for a bunch of Orthodox Jews. In a hotel room.

(Afterward, I would return to Lenny’s office and sound him out about what kind of material the Jews might like. His response? “Nothing anti-Semitic.”)

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