Let me just start by saying comedy is the worst and people who do it are stupid.
Let me also start by saying I love comedy and I am very stupid.
The worst show I’ve ever done occurred during the best weekend I’ve ever had in comedy in my life and I still think about it to this day even though it was only in January and also I am insane.
In September 2011, my friend Matt Bergman, who is the first Buffalo comedian I knew existed after seeing him at a competition and who was very hilarious and who I then saw open for Dave Attell and Mike Birbiglia and Bill Burr so when I became friends with him I thought I had made it in comedy. Quickly, I started to hate him and learned he is a terrible human being. I’m completely joking, I don’t hate him at all although he is a terrible human being. So Matt calls me and asks if I’d like to perform with him at the US Coast Guard academy in Connecticut with him and Jamie Lissow who is terribly hilarious and who did a stand up show at Canisius College when I was a sophomore there and who gave me a free CD and who is hilarious.
I said yes ENTHUSIASTICALLY.
When it was time to go, Matt and I drove out to Connecticut, where he said “Hey good news, Saturday night we have a show near Albany, if Jamie can’t headline, I’m going to headline, and you can do time. No pay, but at least you get stage time.” I was so in. You have no idea how in I was.
We got to the hotel in Connecticut, it was awesome, huge, and filled with military personnel. Matt and I were the weakest people in the hotel, both mentally and physically. Jamie is very strong, so he is not included in the weakness Olympics in which Matt and I were gold medalists.
To perform at the US Coast Guard Academy, there are certain rules a comedian must follow. You must not swear, discuss sex, religion, race,US government policy, or criticize the US military. An artist and performer is not bound by restrictions and would never bow to the whim of some man in a stuffy office sitting in a cubicle going over maps and thinking he has the power to influence a performance, but I happily accepted their terms.
The show was absolutely awesome, over 300 US Coast Guard cadets attended, and laughed heartily.
The content restrictions they told us about? Following their rules forced me to re-envision a few of my jokes and I believe made them better, funnier, stronger. After the show, Matt, Jamie and I drank wine in the hotel and watched comedy until the morning. It was awesome in every way.
Plus, the US military certainly paid us well.
ON TO THE NEXT SHOW! Or The Eagle On The Breeze
It turned out Jamie was unable to headline the show after all, and I was to take Matt’s spot as he moved up to the headliner spot. We arrived at the hotel, which was a drive up motel, and that smelled like cleaning supplies which had been used to cover up the scent of several hookers corpses and that was doing a terrible job.
The show was at an Elk’s Lodge, and I had a funny feeling about it all day. There were no content restrictions. Still, I had trouble napping, and stared at my set until it was burned into my mind. Matt and I ate terrible food from a local grocery store which was short-staffed, probably because the cashiers had recently been murdered at our hotel doing their “side job.” I felt sick, but it wasn’t food related.
We arrived at the show, the parking lot was full of trucks. There wasn’t a single car. I started to feel worse.
We met the person who hired us. She was very nice and seemed very excited to do the show with us. I felt better.
She got on stage, the house was packed. I felt better.
She was crushing. Huge laughs, the crowd was hot. I felt the best.
She brought me up. I was nervous but felt confident that if she had done well, so could I.
I am an eagle, soaring on the height of the strongest breeze, a fattened vole in my beak, a tree lined valley beneath me. I let out a proud squeal, ready for anything.
I greeted the crowd, said I hoped their fundraiser raised a lot of funds, and started into my first joke. It didn’t get a very big laugh. I felt bad.
I then did my second joke, something I thought was strong. It didn’t get a laugh. In fact, it got LESS of a laugh than the first one. I felt myself starting to panic.
The fattened vole I had deftly plucked from the ground somehow slipped from my beak. My keen eyes watched it fall to the ground. I knew I wouldn’t find it.
I did my third joke, but by now, my voice wasn’t as strong, my mouth dry, I had begun to sweat. I felt sick. I knew there was no going back. People had begun to get up to head to the bar. A lone man in a wrestling t shirt was smiling and laughing at my jokes. This made me feel worse.
I am hungry. I search the forest floor for another meal. Nothing to be found. My keen eyes catch a flicker near the horizon. Smoke is filling the sky. I understand that the forest is on fire. Panicked, I head towards my nest, frightened for my offspring.
Matt is in the back of the room, he holds up his cell phone, waving it frantically. I know that this means I should get off stage, abandon ship, accept that my losses, retreat to the green room, give up on this show, it ain’t workin out kid. If it was gonna happen for you it would have happened by now, that sort of thing.
I finished up, thanked them as politely as possible, and accepted a depressing smattering of applause that was more ceremonial than sincere. The worst part was, it was Matt’s turn to go up on stage, I’d have to wait to discuss my failure with him. Our host skillfully go the crowd laughing again.
I sat in the green room, which was more of a side room meant for Elk club meetings, and sat in a chair staring straight ahead. Our host’s husband sat in the room with me, not saying anything, knowing there was nothing he could say, knowing I simply needed to marinade in my failure, that this was something that happens to comedians and that no mater how painful it was, I just needed to be alone. No consolation necessary.
I find the nest, my recently hatched offspring frantically searching the sky for me; The Protector. I gently use my talons to lift the pair from the nest. We fly high above the forest, searching for a place to land, somewhere safe.
I was unable to think straight or sit still. I walked around the room, dialing friends, needing to get the poison from the awfulness I had shot into myself out of me. I called my cousin Andrew who is a comic in New York City, and Matt Wayne, also in New York. They both told me the same thing; “Fuck those people, you’ll laugh about this someday.” I felt better.
Matt was on stage. He was killing. Huge laughs, crowd completely on his side. It simultaneously made me happy and sad. I was glad the show was going well, but sad that I somehow couldn’t get laughs out of a clearly hot comedy crowd.
What had I done wrong? How could I be such a bad comedian tonight when the night before I had a room of US Coast Guard Cadets howling? I had gone from superhuman to super piece of dog shit in 24 hours.
The sky is black, I am frantically searching for a spot that isn’t on fire, a branch, anything. In the distance, I see blue sky, but it is far. I beat my wings faster.
The host got off stage and told me I needed to be “ready to follow anyone.” It wasn’t that she had buried me, I had followed people who crushed before. I usually prefer that as it allows you to ride a wave of comedy laughter that can often make your set better, easier. For some reason, the crowd didn’t like me. Didn’t think I was funny, and had decided not to laugh.
After Matt got off stage, I walked to his car and waited. There was no need for me to hang out in there, the members of the audience’s hateful eye on me. It was kind of late, 11 PM ish. Matt got to the car and we drove to the hotel. A car with tinted windows sat in the parking lot.
“I don’t want to stay the night here man,” I said. Matt agreed and we decided to drive across the state back to Buffalo in one night.
We discussed my set and settled on the possibility that I had waited too long to get into my jokes, and that maybe my first joke sounded mean. I think part of it was that our host felt the need to emphasize the importance of “credits.” She told the crowd that I had been on Comedy Central and Conan, and neither of these things are true. Why do that, I still wonder to myself. Why lie to a crowd? I don’t have any television credits, but why does that matter? I’ve still entertained crowds, gotten big laughs, felt good about myself and my jokes. I think her telling the crowd that I had been on TV several times put expectations on me that I couldn’t live up to because I HAVE NEVER BEEN ON TV (for stand up). And then for some reason they didn’t like me. I wonder if I had been given a truthful introduction if I would maybe have had a better set. But who knows?
Matt was cool enough to give me an honest interpretation of what he believe happened during my set, told me to quickly forget it, move forward, use this night as a gauge, inspiration to be better.
I find a lake. We land, a cleansing rain begins to fall. Behind me, the fires die down. My offspring peck at a few mealworms on the beach. We will be anew here. I will construct another nest. A stronger one. It will be higher than the old one. We will be ok. I walk into the lake, allow its waters to wash my dirty wings. It is a new day.
My cousin was right, I am laughing about it today. I’m glad it happened. I mean that. It was the most painful non-girlfriend-cheating-on-me non-death related event of my young life, but it made me work harder. I wrote better jokes, I make it my goal to get a strong laugh as soon as I hit the stage, I keep my focus on stage, I let less things shake me.
And at least I know a few US Coast Guardsmen who have my back.