My Standup Comedy Career
Or, The Longest Five Minutes of my Life
Just after college, I began to frequent the Open Mics at a Greenwich Village folk club called The Speakeasy.
The Open Mic experience can be thrilling and humbling, sometimes at the same time. It’s a great place to woodshed, to try out new material. It can also be a good showcase. The evening went like this:
Arrive at the club and wait for the guy with the List to arrive
When the guy with the List arrives and is ready, get in line to sign up
When you get to the List, you put your name next to an open slot/number
Show starts, people play as their number is called
When it’s your turn, you play two songs or eight minutes
Me at The SpeakEasy (NYC) in 1985, with hat
The waiting can be extruciating (because of who you may be forced to listen to) or exhilarating (ditto). If you pull a high number, you might not actually play until 1am, when the only people left are the MC and the one guy with a higher number than you.
After a few months of steady attendance, I was one of “the good ones,” which came with the privilege of getting lower numbers. (low numbers meant going earlier, when the audience was best). My songs and guitar-playing were going over well, and I was playing alongside musicians like Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka, and Richard Julian.
As I worked on my playing and presentation, I was also crafting between-song patter, because I really liked getting laughs on stage. After one set where my patter got laughs and my songs went well, the club booker came up and gave me my first GIG, opening for John Hammond.
Well well, I thought, maybe I should try a full comedy routine?
I constructed a bit in which I get trapped inside a late-nite-TV product called the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed; I even rehearsed it at home. When the next Open Mic arrived, I figured I was ready to try my standup comedy debut.
First mistake: I opened with a song. Since my routine was only five minutes long or so, and it felt weird being on the stage without a guitar, I felt I should do something musical. I had the audience sing and hold a note, and using that as a drone, sang one of my songs on top. It’s a neat effect, and they LOVED it.
Second mistake: I sat down and launched into my routine without any explanation. The audience was totally thrown: Why was I sitting, why was I talking, and why did I keep hammering the phrase Craftmatic Adjustable Bed?
You may think that complete silence is the worst thing that could happen during a comedy routine. It’s not.
What’s far worse is when ONE person laughs REALLY hard. As a performer, realizing it’s not going well, that laugh as a lifeline, you want to reach for it, so you lock eyes with that person, even though you’re not sure if he’s just laughing in embarrassment, and you see the rest of the audience ALSO look at that person, which underlines how NO ONE else is laughing.
The club book walked over to me afterwards and said “Don’t do that.”
When I got to NYU as a freshman, I was in the Acting program in the School of the Arts. My “division” was the Circle in the Square group, and my group consisted of drama kids from around the country, including future star Felicity Huffman. Our various acting, movement, and speech classes introduced us to concepts like “relaxation” and “method.“
I didn’t take acting exercises very seriously, although I was interested by the process. The fact was, my acting gifts amounted to:
Was a ham
Was a quick study
Was a decent mimic
Also, I continued to write monologues and short plays (even completed a two-act “ghost story” play that felt like a Hammer Films period piece). While they weren’t often comedic, they were great practice: I felt comfortable writing dialogue.
When I mentioned to our speech teacher, Rick Erickson, that I was in playwriting class, he nodded and replied, “You reek of playwright.”
In the dorm, meanwhile, many of my friends (and nearly all of my roommates) were musicians. I was obsessively writing songs and practicing guitar, often in the stairwell at the dorm, which had good acoustics. (not everyone was thrilled with my choice of location)
So after coasting through the first year of Acting school, a strain started to show early in my sophomore year, when the teachers began to expect more from us.
In Staufen, Germany (1985)
I often went to acting classes without much preparation. During one scene study class (for which I was woefully unprepared) I had a panic attack and retreated to the bathroom and broke down in tears. Humiliated, I decided “I don’t like acting” and took steps to leave the program.
Thus, I took an amazing opportunity which I never fully appreciated and turned tail. And what’s more, the shame I felt led me to turn my back on writing stage pieces.
Off to one side of the sturm und drang was a pastime I continued from high school: tape letters. These were songs and verbal ramblings on cassette tapes that I sent to friends, and as time went by these ramblings became sketch-like, enhanced with music, bits of dialogue, and minimal sound effects. When I got the chance to use a multi-track recorder, the pieces got even more elaborate, and . . yes, theatrical. While I never actually “wrote” bits for these tape letters, as I did with the plays, they were comical in nature.
And while I’ve never done “comedy music,” I did fashion a musical routine for a dorm talent show, in which I claimed heavy metal is descended from French folk music. As proof, I began to strum quietly, singing the lyrics to “Cum on Feel the Noiz” in French.
It never occurred to me to try performing comedy at any of the comedy clubs in New York, just before graduating I started going to Open Mics at folk music clubs.
So I left NYU with a degree in German language (which many people agree is the least funny language on the planet) and went out into the working world, where I was hired as an editor at a reference publishing company (which many people agree is the least funny area of publishing).
Comedy had gone into a long dormancy, only really flashing into view in the patter between songs I performed in Open Mikes at the Speakeasy folk club, which I made my home after college…
We take a penetrating look at vacationfun and visit a bodacious hair salon for men, with the help of the awe-inspiring hosts of Pop My Culture & Cool People/All that Chazz podcasts! Kick back and enjoy…with or without brewski!
This podcast–my entree into the world of sketch-comedy–debuted three years ago. Before that I toiled as a semi-professional musician for over 20 years.
Why, you may ask, did this songwriter start a sketch-comedy podcast, anyway?
What a wonderful question. You’re obviously a very discerning reader, listener.
In looking back, I can pick out a thread of intended funniness which runs through my life alongside the vivid ribbon that was my music. This funniness took the form of writings and onstage patter, mostly, but there was a period in my early days where I was doing sketch-comedy.
By early days, I mean high school, and by sketch-comedy, I mean bits that I thought up and performed with my friend Rob.
The school had a couple of video cameras, a reel-to-reel (b+w) video recorder, and a simple Special Effects Generator (SEG) to switch back and forth between cameras. Within weeks of arrival we claimed them as our own, recording dozens of bits over a couple of years. They were mostly short ripoffs of Monty Python and SCTV bits, although I can also remember creating a carbon copy of the ”It’s the Mind” Python sketch.
We would generally have an idea, hit record, and then ad-lib until the idea ran out, so you could call it improv, or riffing.
But it wasn’t long before I was writing actual scripts, thinking up ways to string individual gags together. And because I was a fan of audio comedy (old radio shows and album comedy), I also recorded gags on a reel-to-reel recorder that had 4 tracks, so I could play different parts, and adjust the recording speed to alter the pitch of voices and sounds.
Me in a high school play done up with dark hair and ‘stache (no, this was not taken in the 1940s)
I also performed skits during school meetings, a mandatory weekly gathering of the students and teachers for announcements and upcoming events. In one case, we shamelessly ripped off the “3-D House of Horrors” sight gag (John Candy leaning into the camera) from SCTV, which got a huge laugh. In others, I would wait my turn, and stand up as if I had an announcement and, instead, deliver a silly little monologue.
In my senior year, I saw a flyer for a Young Playwrights Contest held by the Circle Theatre in New York, and I wrote a short scene to see if I could. The scene broke NO new ground: shy guy meets pretty girl, fumbles trying to say something, she assumes he’s mute, he nods and agrees, and away we go! The dialogue felt (to me) very sit-com, very jokey, but I sent it anyway. Months later, I was told that I was a semi-finalist in the contest.
Ironically, even though I matriculated into an acting program at NYU and went on to write a few plays, scenes, and monologues, those high-school meetings were the last time I performed live sketch-comedy.
The latest critter to fall into our Animal Update Inbox is the Peacock Mantis Shrimp, a small crustacean that carries the nickname “thumb splitter.” The Amazing Betty stumbled across an article about it, and declared it her favorite shrimp!
The Peacock Mantis Shrimp displays dazzling coloration and is monogamous, remaining with partners up to 20 years. It also has:
Incredibly complex eyes able to see circularly polarized light! Whatever that means!!
Two club-life claws that, when sprung, strike with the force of a .22 caliber bullet!
Obviously, some scientist along the way made this comparison to a .22 caliber bullet, and it stuck. Everywhere you look, they repeat this talking point.
But seriously, these critters can break through the glass on small aquariums with a single smash of their mighty smasher. Unlike many crustaceans, they’re agressive hunters, and although they’re popular as pets, their habit of eating everything they come across (fish, snails) makes it necessary that they remain alone.
Also, one aquarium site warns that “no matter how you aquascape, the Mantis Shrimp will re-aquascape for you.”
It’s such a fascinating little critter that you should really see a video about it.