Friday, September 5, 2008

Chapter 00 : Rubber Chicken


The Heroes’ long blond hair whipped furiously in the cross winds of the Cajon Pass as he rode an open topped ‘68 Land Cruiser down the massive roller coaster of Interstate 15. The engine was red- lining at 70 miles an hour as he cruised down the slow lane of the six lanes headed west. The Hero hits ‘play’ on his Walkman and nods a grinning head to the opening bass line of “Mountain Song” by Jane’s’ Addiction.

The script was unwritten; the story was an idea, and the hero’s arc undetermined. I was living the dream, the movie, the life of a human on the verge of…


I was reared as a good Christian boy, in a good, ultra conservative, Christian family. I spent most of my life living in a stretched out notch beneath the buckle of the Bible Belt. I had a well balanced childhood. I was caged in the iron fist of the fundamentalist paradigm, but was allowed ample doses of the saccharine sweet liberty and freedom seen on network television. Between the age of four and nine I lived in a suburb of Atlanta. Ted Turner was just beginning to crank up the wattage on the Television tower for WTCG (soon to become WTBS, then TBS). Unlike the big three networks, Turner was actively digging up the best of television history and making it available to a new generation.

I watched Mr. Ed, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, :The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Bewitched,

To live in mental bondage, to have the Master bind the mind with threats of pain and suffering, and allusions of heavenly bliss. But that trip had a Santa factor that I couldn’t deny. It wasn’t the same kick once the theatrics ceased to pull me in emotionally. I realized that there were options of how to be in this life. I decided to seek them out.

I moved to Los Angeles on Halloween 1989. I sensed optimism in the zeitgeist of the West. “What happens in the 90’s will make the 60’s look like the 50’s “ was a catch phrase I heard at the time, and it stuck with me. I was a young American moving into the World, excited to be there.

I was 20 years old and I thought I was funny. I decided that I would become a stand up comic, then comedic actor, then movie star, then a reclusive eccentric. My optimism was partnered with my narcissism and my expectations were painfully cliché, but I carried the protective shield of naiveté as I enlisted in the army of wannabees training for action in the arena of pop culture.

I saw the L.A. Caberet sign on Ventura Boulevard and turned into the parking lot on impulse. I opened the door and entered into darkness. Cigarette smoke varnished bar lights skulked into my vision as my eyes adjusted to the room. There was no one there. I stood for a few moments, buffeted with a freon tainted air conditioning heavily fragranced by eau de bar smell.

A stocky bald guy emerges through a heavy velvet curtain, then stops in his tracks when he notices me.

“Can I help you?” he asks with tone. I asked if they had an audition night. He walks behind the bar a pulls out a piece of paper and attaches it to a clip board. Then he looks at his watch. “Sign up isn’t ‘till 6:00.”

“What time is it now” I asked.
“Have you never been here before?”
I shook my head no. “First time I’ve seen the place.”
“sign up is at 6:00. We make a line-up from the list and post it outside at 8pm. You come back then to find out if you have a spot.”
“A spot tonight?” I balked. I was looking for info on auditioning, not an audition, not yet.
“No, last night. “ the crabby dude said. “How long have you done standup?”
“Um, not long” I winced at the idea of clarifying furthur. He thrust the clipboard at me and said “Go ahead, but next time you sign at 6.” I lettered my name and handed it back. He turned and threw the list on the bar and walked through the curtain into the showroom.

I had thought about doing comedy, but that was about it. I had no act, no jokes, no real stage experience, no clue as to what to do with a spot if I got one. I stood in the quiet blackness of the bar and looked at the list. I thought about scratching my name off, but it was too late. I showed my face. I asked and I received.

I turned and walked out into the harsh San Fernando Valley sun with my head racing. I spent the next three of hours pacing and scribbling notes. I thought of things I had said at parties that made people laugh, a few tall jokes, and odd bits that were just weird.

I returned at 8:00 to check the list. There were a half dozen people gandering the line up, many more that had looked, and more that were waiting to look. I used my abnormal height to peer over the tops of their heads. There were thirty people listed for the main room. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw I wasn’t one. Then I noticed the bar stage list. I was on it. First position. I panicked a bit and started walking in circles around the vast parking lot the club shared with a strip mall.

At 9:00pm I entered the bar and introduced myself to the Emcee. I told him it was my first time and asked who I was auditioning for. “This will be your first time?” he asked incredulously.
“Yeah” I exhaled.
“Uh, you don’t want to audition for anyone or anything your first time buddy. You’re on the bar stage for a reason. No one knows you and know one cares, which is good, trust me. Just get up there and have a good time.”

I wasn’t legally old enough to be in the bar. I ordered a whisky in the hopes I would be kicked out, but I just got a very small and expensive drink, as the emcee took the mic. He had a face for comedy. Premature wrinkles and extreme features. He specialized in groaners. He didn’t seem to be there for the laughs. Wiry and kenetic, the funny was implied. He seemed to consciously elicit groans and heckles. That was his gig. Then he stops his small-stage pacing and straightens up. He announces a first timer with a modicum of ceremony and I shoot my whisky.

After I took the stage I quickly realized that the context of making a funny with friends is far removed from performing in front of a room full of strangers. My face flushed and my heart pounded as I tried to decipher the notes scribbled on my hand. I pushed through it and got the light none too soon. I didn’t bring the house down. I walked off the stage and headed for the door when Bobby Pollack stopped me. He asked me if that was really my first time. I winced and said yep. He told me I was great and encouraged me to keep it up, then asked if I wanted to go with him to an open mic off Fairfax and Beverly. He said the audience was nice. I was certain that if I didn’t go I would never try it again.

If Richard Lewis dressed like a poor disco dancer from the 70’s and only told one-liners, you would have Bobby Pollack. Long black hair, shirt tucked in and unbuttoned to his belly, a black leather vest, and jeans with a package crushing tightness. The week before I had agreed to get into a Maseratti with a real life California Ken and Barbie and only managed to get away from them after three days of high weirdness. So, I told Bobby I’d follow him in my car.

The Mad Hatters coffee house was an art space run by a few enterprising optimists in their early twenties. It was conceived as an alternative to the bars, a place where the kids (many of whom were already in treatment before their 18th birthday) could socialize sans alcohol. I think it was the only coffee house in LA at the time. This was before Highland Grounds, Grounds Zero, The Bourgeois Pig, Stir Crazy’s, Insomnia, and long before Starbucks franchised itself. It was a hodge podge of curb furniture and spontaneous art. It was the first place I ever saw the little white Christmas lights used out of season.

Bobby and I walked in and signed up on the list. The room was full of thrift store hipsters and the consciously uncool. They had no name at the time. The labels of Hipster, Grunge, and Generation X were yet to be. Most didn’t dress down of necessity. Many were kids of ex-hippies. It was a den of the new rebellion, the anti fashionists, the trust funded gone feral.

Futons and floor pillows cushioned the audience. I took the stage still feeling the adrenal surge of my last set. I used the few things that received polite chuckles and improvised some this and that. This time I was not looking through a blinding stage light at smoke veiled, hard lined faces. This time I was faced with beaming enthusiasm from open minds and I was comfortable on stage. I naturally fell into the techniques of timing and facial mugging and extend the laughs. I found myself performing and I loved it. I was high and I was hooked.

Chapter 00 : Modern Stand-Up; A brief history:

We’ll start with Vaudeville. The Vaudeville style of theatre dominated public entertainment for twenty years each side of 1900. It was a grab-bag show of the sublime and sacreligous. The term Vaudeville may come from "voix de ville", which means "voice of the city". It was the entertainment of an emerging middle class. The bar of acceptance for the performers was largely set by the audience; entertain them or be jeered and pelted with garbage.

Vaudeville was knocked out of the large theatre venues by the one-two punch of Film and Radio. The spectacle of film was cheaper and easier for the venue owners, and radio did home delivery. The peoples entertainment was no longer interactive, and the variety was homogenized for mass appeal. *A few notable comedians that made the jump to the new Media are W.C. Fields, The Marx Bros., Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, and Bob Hope.

The “Borscht Belt” circuit of the Catskill Mountains emerged as an entertainers hot house after Vaudeville. It attracted displaced Vaudevillians, especially the comedians, and fostered emerging talent for radio, screen and eventually Television. The list of prominent names of this school of Comedy include Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruice, and Woody Allen.

Long before, along side, and after the Vaudeville era, there was what became known as the “Chitlin’ Belt”. Segregation fostered the emergence of a black entertainment road circuit throughout the eastern states and the South. This artistic vascular system of venues and theatres included the Cotton Club in New York City, The Apollo Theatre in Harlem, The Regal Theatre in Chicago, and the Ritz in Jacksonville. Comedic luminaries Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, and Richard Pryor cut their teeth on what the PC now refer to as the “urban theatre” circuit.

These early circuits were all about variety, Comics shared the stage with burlesque, dog and pony shows, musical acts, raconteurs, magicians, activists, polititions, and then some. The formats were wide and inclusive.

The alchemical roll of the comedian in the Vaudville mélange of entertainment seemed to be that of unifier, barrier breaker. Sharing a convulsive laugh unifies people undeniably, and uncontrollably. The comedians were like social lubricators for circuit shows. They we’re emcees, in betweeners, warm up acts, and facilitators.
A laughing audience is a relaxed audience. Laughter makes us high and music is fun to listen to when were high.

An Entertainment Industry had emerged with the new media. Television needed comedians. Big stage names entered the television world through hosting their own talk shows, reprising their Vaudevillian role as the grease between the wheels. Pioneers of the genre, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson defined the art of late night talk show hosting. They brought in their fellow stage cronies as guests and made them household names.

Television spurred the need of a place for young comedians to showcase themselves for the medium. The vacuum would be filled by Bud and Silver Friedman with the invention the comedy club; The Improvisation in New York City. The space serves as a base for a new generation of comedians to work out their act. It became a portal for the new talent to move from obscurity to celebrity. The club launches numerous careers, feeding acts into the opening maw of Television.

A decade later, Silver wins the club from Bud in a divorce. Forbidden to open another “Improv” brand club within 100 miles of the original, Bud fills the tank and heads for Hollywood.

In ’72, Sammy Shore and Rudy De Luca open The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Sammy’s wife Mitzi wins the club in divorce soon after.

As LA’s only full time comedy showcase, it attracted the top Bananas from the Big Apple, young corn from the Bread Basket, and helped shift the capitol of comedy to Los Angeles. The Store became the new home for comedy veterans and the launch pad for future icons. It served as the front gate to TV and Film for close to ten years.

But Johnny was the Star Maker. Johnny Carson moved the Tonight Show from New York to Burbank around the same time The Comedy Store opened. Having done stand up for years, Carson was picky about the acts he endorsed with an appearance on his show, but once a comedian had a Tonight Show credit, they had a career, unless they worked overtime to screw it up. During the 70’s, The Comedy Store was the place to be seen by Carson and the rest of the Industry headhunters looking for the new funny.

These “Showcase” clubs charged a healthy cover and drink minimums, but the performers saw none of it. Performing at the Improv or the Comedy Store didn’t get you a check. It got you exposure to the Industry, especially the Store.

Comics and prostitutes were (and still are) two major aspects of the entertainment industry not organized in a union. The LA Comedians decided to strike anyway in ’79. The Comedy Store was picketed and the strike received media attention. Bud Friedman pleaded with strike leader, Tom Dressen to not strike at the Improv too. Instead, it sustained heavy damage from a Molotov cocktail and was temporarily closed. The comics heckled Mitzi from the picket line. Mitzi makes a small concession to pay a few weekend performers gas money. The Comedians then heckled each other. Some returned to the stage, some were black listed, and one threw himself off the roof of the hotel next door. The strike resulted in the practice of giving some of the talent some respect, which became a trend in clubs and theatres across the country.

The Improvisation launches “A&E’s Evening at the Improv in 1981. Cable Television was weaving across the country and taking the Improv brand of Comedy with it. The Comedy store had produced just a few yearly HBO specials in comparison; Mitzi was too buisy franchising the Comedy Store to nearby cities. Bud capitalizes on the national name brand recognition afforded by A&E and franchises coast to coast.

By 1990, The Comedy Store and the Improv had become the Hatfields and McCoys, entrenched in a fierce competition for the loyalty of new talent, and market domination. As a new comedian, we could audition for both clubs, but getting a spot at one would get you blacklisted at the other. New performers had to make a choice of which club they would not get paid at.

The Comedy Store became the black hat comedy club. Having enjoyed being the only full time comedy club in town, it was the reef on which the last big comedy wave broke, but the new swell was rising at the Improv. Improv comedians were family friendly. Comedy Store comics were more gritty and raw. This was the Regan /Bush era and political correctness was in. The national audience was being trained to just say no to anything they didn’t know.

Bud Friedman, and his partner Mark Lonow, capitalized on the conservative climate by feeding it . A&E’s Evening at the Improv, having been on the air for ten years, set the bar for most all the new cable comedy showcases. The stand up acts on MTV, VH1, and Fox, were all interchangeable with those of Evening at the Improv. They were mostly self described losers with no lovers and apolitical. There was little edge, little risk, and no guts. The standard became tight, polished, seven minuite sets of quirky banality. Comedy had been formatted to fit your screen.

The Improv became the main industry showcase and the Comedy Store receded into club status. Once a gusher of up and comers, the Store spewed Keenan Ivory Wayans, Jim Carrey, then began sputtering an embarrassment of Wayans brothers, Carlos Mencia, and eventually, Mitzi’s own spawn; Pauly Shore.

Just before the bust it had been the home of The Outlaw Comics like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison. When they took to the road in lieu of the commercial waiting room of Los Angeles, a level of professionalism and stage integrity went with them and the black walls of the club seemed even darker.