9 HOURS ‘TIL SHOW TIME
The good thing about this flight is it’s only an hour long. The bad thing, it lands in Pittsburgh. What’s wrong with Pittsburgh, you ask? Nothing, but it’s the only way to get to Youngstown, Ohio. Now do you see my point? Well, now you’re asking “What’s wrong with Youngstown?” Well, nothing if you owned a textile factory in 1974 or if you were on the lamb because you murdered a union rep. in Akron. But I’m neither of those things, you see. I’m a stand up comedian playing a club called the Funny Farm located in a strip mall. I think at this moment I’d rather be that union rep. from Akron. At least when he died he didn’t have a group of strangers wearing Steelers T- shirts, trucker caps, and mullets, yelling “You suck, not funny, next!” Of course I’m assuming he wasn’t whacked on stage at ‘Hilarities’.
So here I sit in my hotel room at six p.m. on a cold December night looking out the window at a dumpster behind the back of a Speed Mart gas station. The only thing I can hear is my stomach rumbling like a fifty year old furnace, because it’s trying to digest a Jumbo hot dog I just ate from that very same Speed Mart.
Do you believe I did that? I actually ate one of those hot dogs you see bouncing around on that greasy conveyor belt, looking like a sweaty, naked guy trying to jump off a defective treadmill. Who knows what’s in those things? I’m guessing from the way it tasted, maybe pieces of a union rep. from Akron. Anyways, it’s not like I had a choice, it was either something from the gas station’s meat section or China D’ Lite across the street. And I don’t know about you, but when I think of authentic Oriental cuisine, Youngstown, Ohio doesn’t immediately pop into my head. Youngstown’s Asian population consists of the staff at China D’ Lite and a life size cutout of Jackie Chan at Block Buster.
By the way, China D’ Lite used to be an old gas station and it still looks exactly like one. The only difference being, they replaced the Gulf sign with a neon Peking duck holding a chopstick in each wing, and they threw in a kitchen where the two hydraulic lifts used to be. It’s the weirdest thing! Who wants to eat at a restaurant where a bell goes off every time a car pulls into the parking lot? “Excuse me waiter, how did they get the skin on my duck so crispy and delicious?” “Ancient Chinese secret – Pennzoil and high pressure hose.”
Anyways, I digress and digest at the same time. I guess what I’m trying to say is, whether you’re a musician, salesman or stand up comedian, life on the road can drive you fuckin’ crazy. For me it’ll be eighteen years in March – and don’t get me wrong, I still love being on stage and making people laugh. It’s the other 23 hours of the day that will make you wish your hotel room was made of rubber. Ask any comedian who has done this for a while and they will tell you – and I agree with this – comedy clubs pay us not to make people laugh, but to stand in line at airports, take long miserable flights, eat food they wouldn’t allow on the set of “Fear Factor” and stay in hotel rooms so dingy, the only place you’ll find a “do not disturb” sign is around the maid’s necks. They do not pay us for telling jokes.
I know a few fellow comics, usually young ones, who haven’t grasped this theory yet. They’re like “I can’t believe I get paid to make people laugh!!” You don’t stupid. You get paid to kill five days in Davenport without killing yourself. You get paid to get undressed in public at airport security. You get paid to run the length of O’Hare, carrying a fifty pound suitcase, just to find out your flight has been cancelled. You get paid to listen to the couple in the hotel room next to you bang away until four in the morning, while you sit in the dark watching porn banging away by yourself. You get paid to each lunch alone at some food court in some mall in Livonia. You get paid to stand outside in the cold for a half an hour at baggage claim, waiting for you “limo”, that usually ends up being the club owner’s Mom – a 60 year old woman with a two pack a day cough and a 1983 County Squire station wagon. And oh yeah, you get paid to wake up at six am, on a minus 18 degree morning, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to do the Morning Zoo radio show. Making people laugh? Nah, that’s strictly pro bono.
Ah….morning radio….the angst of every national headliner. I don’t know one comedian, and I know a million, who enjoys doing morning radio. And do you know why that is? We are not morning people. We make our living in bars – at night. To ask a comedian to be funny at 6am is like asking a rooster to crow at dusk. It’s just not natural.
Nonetheless, doing early morning radio comes with the territory of being a touring stand up comedian. How else are the people of Appleton, Wisconsin, Grand Forks, North Dakota and Davie, Florida going to know Nick Di Paolo is at the ‘Laugh Shack’ this Wednesday through Sunday?
Morning radio usually works something like this: the ring of your phone startles you awake in a cold, dark, musty hotel room and you try to figure out where and who you are. You look at the clock, it reads six am, but your body and mind tell you, its three am, because you performed at Chuckles the night before, in Tempe and now you’re in Youngstown. Not to mention, you’re a comedian, and on the days you don’t have to get up, you don’t get out of bed before noon, no matter what city you’re in. You get dressed in the dark and rush down to the lobby, tequila still on your breath from the margarita you finished a couple of hours ago. Your head and heart are pounding like a bass drum at a military funeral. In the lobby you’re greeted by somebody in their early twenties – you know, around the age you were when you got into this racket. Just then it dawns on you ‘Hey – I’m forty-two. I should have made it by now. Why am I heading to Y101, in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma?’
On the way to the radio station the kid driving is picking your brain, or what’s left of it from those margaritas, because he’s thinking about doing do stand up himself. He has seen your three specials on Comedy Central and you’re his third favorite comedian of all time, behind Gallagher II and Pablo Francisco.
After a ride that was so long it took you out of range of any decent radio station’s signal, you finally pull into the parking lot. It’s a tiny brick structure. The antenna on the roof resembles the rabbit ears people used to place on top of their black and white TV sets. You enter the studio, where there are four guys, who have been drinking coffee since four AM, and who are used to keeping “vampire” hours await you with baited breath. They have all seen you on Comedy Central and they all think they’re funnier than you are – and they are about to prove it.
At this point you are so tired you couldn’t spell your last name if somebody spotted you the first three letters. This is really no time to match wits with the retard who works at the city dump, never mind four morning DJ’s, who are jacked up on mocha lattes. Out of the blue one of them hints that you are not being that funny….and that’s when one of the many voices in your head says ‘OK, time to teach these Howard Stern wanna-bees a lesson’. You launch into a five minute diatribe about the hillbilly town they live in and what they do for a living.
“All you guys do is tell people the time and temperature every ten seconds. It must be nice to know you could be replaced by a clock on the top of a bank. And why do you guys have a traffic-copter?? The town has one traffic light. I guess that’s in case more than two moose want cross the road at the same time. The population here is 106. I guess Main Street must turn into a parking lot at rush hour huh? I can hear the traffic guy now “You might want to leave work a little early today. The Thompsons are having company for dinner and that’s sure to create a log jam on route six.”
It usually ends with something like “At least I get to fly out of this hell-hole on Sunday.” Just to drive your point home, that you’re funnier than they are, you throw in a four minute bit about marriage that you’ve been honing for the past three years. It levels the room. If it was a heavy weight fight they would have stopped it. By the time you leave they’re all your best friends again. They all promise to come out and see you at the club but you know they won’t because they never do.
By now the phones at the station are lighting up like a death row inmate who never heard from the Governor. Or so you would think……the truth is, unless you’re a household name nobody gives two shits who’s at ‘Skidmarks’ this week. If you’re lucky, you only have to do two or three of these radio spots for the week. Some clubs make you do more press than a presidential candidate stumping in Iowa two days before the election.
It’s now nine thirty in the morning and you’re back in your hotel room lying in bed. Between the quart of shit they called coffee at the station and the door slamming contest the maids are having in the hallway, you’re so wide awake you try counting the sheep you saw on the ride back from the station. A medically induced coma is your only hope for sleep – and even that is a long shot because the nearest hospital is 85 miles away.
You look at the clock it now reads eleven o’five. Only nine hours ‘til show time! You start running through options in your head on how to kill the day. Well, I could go to the mall…nah…too depressing. The only people at the mall on a weekday afternoon are kids skipping school and old people sitting on wooden benches waiting for their prescriptions to be filled…..or death….whichever comes first. That has to be my worst nightmare, being 82 years and sitting in front of “One Potato Two” waiting for a blood thinner.
Another option is to work up a sweat in the hotel’s “fitness center”. They got a lot of balls calling it a fitness center. It looks like a rape room with a sit up mat. The only equipment they have is a kitchen chair and a broomstick that Jack LaLane donated from his last TV taping in 1969. They always keep these “exercise rooms” at a balmy 42 degrees. You couldn’t work up a sweat in one of those “gyms” if you were wearing three hooded sweatshirts and had malaria. Besides, I’m married. No need for rock hard abs anymore.
Of course, another option (and the most popular one amongst comedians) is heading to the movies!! I hardly ever do this – for one simple reason – ten out of ten movies made today suck! Gee, should I catch the one o’clock showing of ‘Van Helsing’, or the three o’clock showing of ‘Welcome to Mooseport’? Maybe I’ll flip a coin in the air and with any luck it will land standing straight up and I’ll have to stay in my room.
Nothing is more depressing than watching a contemporary of yours, like Adam Sandler or Ray Romano up on the big screen, where you thought you would be five years ago, making out with Cameron Diaz or Drew Barrymore and getting paid millions of dollars to do so. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with $2,500 a week and a hand job from the husky coat-check girl who looks like John Barrymore, but still the same, it is a little disheartening.
The last option is sleeping pills, but I don’t want to get into that habit. I don’t want to end up like Elvis – dead and bloated on a toilet. I’m a comedian goddamn it! If I’m going to die, I want an audience there to see it.
For today I choose none of these and do what most red blooded Americans do when confronted with the difficult choice of being productive or a sloth….I turn on the TV. It’s a big mistake, turning on the television in the middle of the day, in the middle of the country. The only things on are infomercials and TV evangelists. On one channel a guy is explaining how to strengthen your stomach muscles and on the other channel a minister is healing a blind woman. I’m asking myself which is the greater miracle, to be given the gift of sight, or rock hard abs in just six minutes? After watching Tony Little and Oral Roberts both work their magic, I decide to try writing jokes. This should have been my first option, but to me the only thing scarier than being alone in a hotel room with Norman Bates, is being alone in a hotel room with my thoughts.
It’s amazing how the thought of writing can turn me into a black belt in procrastination. I find myself willing to do just about anything instead of writing. I have literally sat down, pen in hand and thought ‘hey……did I floss last night?’ and then spent the next 45 in the bathroom, until the mirror has more blood and matter on it than Jackie O’s pink outfit. You know what? Now would be a great time to get that gum off the bottom of my Timberlands! Or hey, I haven’t talked to my friend Dougie in quite a while…..I hope he’s not still pissed at me for breaking his Big Wheel.
I really believe I would rather do ten years in a Turkish prison than do ten minutes of creative writing. Trying to be creative has the same effect on me as those relaxation tapes. You know the ones with the sounds of waves and seagulls. I start to write a sentence and the next thing I know, there is a string of drool stretching from the corner of my mouth to my legal pad. My eyes are rolled up in my head. Everything I look at turns into a giant pillow. I could fall asleep on the ironing board, using a can of spray starch to support my neck. I pull myself away from the desk, to the unmade bed. I start rationalizing my laziness. ‘I can write on the flight home. Doing new material is overrated anyways. Besides, these people tonight paid almost $8.00 to see me. They deserve my greatest hits!’ It’s lights out.
“RING, RING RING, RING!!!” Is this a phone or a fucking sleep detector? I pick it up. It’s the ‘Funny Farm’ manager calling to tell me somebody will be by to pick me up at seven thirty, for an eight o’clock show. I glance at the clock. It’s already seven fifteen. No time for a shower. I start to iron my shirt, but the ironing board turns into a bed right before my eyes. Luckily the phone rings again. It’s the front desk. My ride is here – thank God – I was just about to crash on that thing.
Ten minutes later we’re at the club. We pull into the parking lot, it’s not exactly full. My driver tries to put a positive spin on it. “Thursdays are always kind of slow” he explains, as if it’s my first time to a comedy club. I do some quick math in my head and I come to the conclusion that these better be “clown” cars or this place is going to be emptier than a bookcase at Jessica Simpson’s house. I’m dropped off at a back door, which leads me through a kitchen. The smell of aging fryolator grease and stale beer permeates the room. I say “Hi” to the Hispanic short order cook, who can barely manage a nod, even though he’s not busy. I think to myself ‘maybe he heard me do my illegal immigrant bit this morning on the radio’. I make my way to the service bar, to order my usual – Bacardi and diet Coke, but the bartender has her head down, filling a drink order. After almost five minutes I speak up. “Hey – who am I? Chevy fucking Chase?” The humor is lost on her. She gives me a blank stare. “Bacardi and diet” I say, with a strained smile.
I head through a pair of swinging doors that lead to the darkened showroom. Bad news – those weren’t clown cars in the parking lot. There are roughly 60 people in a room that holds 250. Well I can see that morning radio paid off. I could have reached more people sitting in a tree with a megaphone. If this keeps up they’ll be changing the name of the club to “Chapter 11” before I leave. The size of the crowd doesn’t bother me because for some unknown reason people like to horde their laughs until eight pm on Friday. I can picture the receptionist at IBM getting the giggles on Thursday afternoon and her boss saying “Katie – you mustn’t waste those – I have passes for ‘Uncle Funnies’ tomorrow!”
I notice a bachelorette party sitting right up front. You don’t have to be a detective to spot them because they have more penises on their table than Jeffrey Dahmer at Thanksgiving. When did bachelorette parties stop going to male strip clubs and start coming to comedy clubs? I’ve performed for more drunken girls than a Chippendale dancer. What is going through their heads?? “Mary-jo, we have to get you to the Chuckle-Hut – it’s your last chance to fuck an unknown comic!!” This is something you should know – if you have something to celebrate – Don’t go to a comedy club! See, the audience isn’t supposed to talk at a comedy club. Don’t you think a girl who is about to get married, and fifteen of her best friends might have something to chat about? So, why go to place that frowns on chatter?
I make my way to the manager and ask him how long the feature act has been on stage. He tells me he has about ten more minutes. Good, there’s enough time for me to relax in the greenroom with my drink. This is when I sit by myself and start second guessing my career choice. I hear a voice in my head saying things like ‘three half-hour specials on Comedy Central, three Conan O’Brien’s and a regular on Howard Stern, so where are the fucking people? Then I realize the voice I’m hearing isn’t coming from inside my head it’s coming from the club manager’s mouth. “Just bustin’ your balls” he adds, but deep down you know he means every word.
A waitress enters the room just in time to break the awkward silence between me and the manager. “Can I get you anything?” she asks. My first instinct is to say no but then I remember the bachelorette party, so I order another Bacardi and diet. I start to look over my old cocktail napkin with potential new material. It reads like this:
Reading vs. Television
Out of the showroom comes a burst of laughter, then another one and another one. I say to myself, out of typical comedian insecurity, ‘what the fuck is going on out there?’ I peek out at the stage, where I see the feature act with his zipper down and his thumb protruding out of it. He’s imitating a drunk urinating on himself. The crowd goes wild – especially the bachelorette party. They are laughing so hard the plastic penises are falling off their table. It’s literally raining men. Is that all comedy clubs have become – one big dick joke? I ask myself. The feature act finally says goodnight, to deafening applause. I tear up my cocktail napkins. This is clearly no time to try new stuff. Wait a minute. Maybe I can make a paper- mache cock out of the napkins.
The emcee takes the stage, does three minutes of material on what else – his dog’s dick! He finally gets to my introduction “Are you guys ready for your headliner this evening?” The crowd applauds politely, like somebody just made a bogey putt at The Masters. The emcee has to persuade them into a more enthusiastic welcome. I make my way through the crowd and smoke towards the hot pink neon sign that hangs in front of a stained red curtain. What – no fake brick? As I turn to face the audience I can’t help but notice the giant caricatures of famous comedians painted on the back wall. Adam Sandler to my left and Ray Romano to my right. Well, at least they’re alone this time. I place my drink on the stool next to me and bum a cigarette from one of the bridesmaids. I take a drag and exhale and everything is right with the world again.
“How are you doing tonight Youngstown?” I ask. “That’s right, from the Tonight Show, Comedy Central, Howard Stern……….a strip mall in Youngstown. It’s all coming together, just the way I planned. Anyway, I saw Dick Cheney on the news today celebrating his third week without a heart attack. He’s got to be the only vice president you could assassinate with the word ‘boo’.”
The joke gets one tenth the laugh it usually gets. I think to myself ‘Well, this is going to be a long fuckin’ night!’ Suddenly a voice rings out from a table in the back. “Say something funny!!!” I cup my hands over my eyes, to cut down on the glare, so I can seek out the first asshole of the night – otherwise known as a heckler. After a few moments he comes into my crosshairs. A young guy, with a Budweiser in each hand, wearing a Steelers t-shirt, greasy trucker cap and the most perfect mullet you’ve ever seen.
Oh, to be a union rep from Akron.