Comedy Stories – Job Hazards

I remember smoke, lots of smoke. Smoking, I guess I should say, lots of smoking.

Looking out into the audience from the stage, the stage lights blinding me like high-beams from an on-coming truck on a lonely two lane highway, I remember billows of smoke; they would pillow up, fade, and wisp toward the ceiling. The front row, seated lower than than me, would have a straight shot at blowing their carcinogenic commentary right at me. If they liked me, they aimed away.

After a night performing, I came home smelling not just like smoke, but the burnt, acrid, black stench of a heavy smoker. Heavy smoke. Growing up on a Navy base in the 60’s and 70’s I knew smoke. My Mormon family spared me at home, but the minute I walked out the door, I was in a smoking world. There were people who I knew who lit the new cigarette with the short ember of the old cigarette while driving in a car with the windows rolled up. I smelled like that.

Some clubs flirted with non-smoking night during the week which comics generally disdained as being the stiffest crowds and hardest show of the week. When Vegas went smoke-free, the argument was over and smoking was out. Did every crowd become stiffer and we just got used to it? Could be. Comedy is about saying the wrong thing, but today if you say the wrong wrong thing people get very angry, even Christians. Maybe they need a cigarette.

After years of performing in smoke-free rooms, when somehow I did find myself performing in a smoking environment I noticed it immediately. It cut my wind, made my clothes smell again. I didn’t miss it.

The faint smell of a cigarette does make me a little homesick from time to time, remembering childhood days on the Base while I watched real men work on manly things. I am glad to be free of the villainous monster-sized cigarette smoke of the yesteryears of comedy. Couldn’t imagine it without then, can’t imagine it with it now. Life’s funny.

Getting Started in Comedy Clubs

I started getting into comedy in the early 80’s and it was wide-open, alive and on fire. Comedy got white-hot in the late 80’s and stand-up shows where suddenly everywhere on television. The first open-mic contest I entered was on a Tuesday night and you couldn’t get a seat, open-mic night sold out! Fledgling comics where getting paid. Many great comedy careers where shifting into the profitable gear; Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno and others where starting to take their place on the national stage.

Comedy clubs were popping up all over. People you had never heard of were headlining and not only that, they were being paid enough to make it their career. My first foray into clubs outside of Salt Lake City were the venerable Comedy Works in Colorado. At the time they had clubs in Ft. Collins and Denver. I remember local headliners then getting paid more than local headliners today, nearly 30 years later.

I still remember a few of the acts that caught my attention like Denver-based Michael Floorwax and Steve “Mudflap”McGrew. Todd Collard moved to Utah from Colorado to manage a comedy club and took up a radio career. There was so much going on in comedy and there were so many opportunities for people like me who were just starting out to be mentored and have a place to perform and grow. The headliners of that time were exploring all kinds of ideas. Guys like Sam Kinison burned my ears off. It was the freedom of speech, good and bad, the way that comedy was meant to be.

In 1990 I opened Johnny B’s Comedy Club in Provo, Utah and it took off like a rocket. We brought in acts mainly from the LA, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Nevada. We didn’t use local headliners for many years, but we always used local openers, so many Utah comedians got the chance to take the stage with nationally touring acts. The great time for comedians is between shows and after, when the comedians hang out and talk to each other.

I learned so much from the other comedians I worked with. They taught me the theories and practices of being a comedian, not from a manual but from the telling of their stories and experiences. There were some acts that were horrible people and treated me terribly as an opener, I remember them as well as the comedians who treated me wonderfully.

Comedy is a lonely profession. Comedians are very independent. Hard to make friends at work like a regular profession because it was all so competitive and ego driven. That’s one of the things that disappointed me about it all, the lack of connection. There was no team in comedy.

I worry about comedy today. I see clubs headlining fading television stars and acts that put butts in seat regardless of the craft. People will pay more to see someone they’ve seen on TV than to see a good comedian, and frankly many audiences can’t tell the difference. I’m not blameless, we booked Ron Gallagher, the brother of the actual Gallagher doing his brother’s act, at our club a couple of times a year and made good money. But we didn’t do it every week like I see clubs doing now.

Where is the “farm league” of comedy today if not in the comedy clubs? YouTube? And worse yet, comedians are being sued for their performances now, for the words they use. Dangerous times.¬†We need places where people are free to say whatever stupid thing they want to say, to practice on stage, and audiences smart enough not to believe everything they hear or so sensitive that they can’t blow off what they don’t connect with. We need comedy because comedy is our pressure relief valve, and we need it at all levels.

 

Joke — Back on Your Heads

A guy dies and is sent to Hell. Satan meets him, shows him doors to three rooms, and says he must choose one to spend eternity in. In the first room, people are standing in shiat up to their necks. The guy says “No, let me see the next room.” In the second room, people are standing with shiat up to their noses. Guy says no again. Finally, Satan opens the door to the third room. People are standing with shiat up to their knees, drinking coffee and eating danish pastries. The guy says, “I pick this room.” Satan says okay and starts to leave, and the guy wades in and starts pouring some coffee. On the way out Satan yells, “O.K., coffee break’s over. Everyone back on your heads!”

Comedy Stories — Popcorn, Candy and Sodas

When I started comedy I was in college and I had several jobs. One job was rather unique. I worked at a movie theater complex that had four screens (which at the time was considered a complex). Before the movies I would go in with a box full of popcorn, candy and sodas and sell them by talking to the crowd. More like yelling over the crowd. Kind of like a hot dog vendor at the ball game.

My friend Eric Kepo’o had started the idea and I came in as his helper. Eric really had a way with people and he would go in and talk and do his comedy and sell stuff. Then he invited me and we both did it. It was a great training in “street” comedy. Just going with the flow.

One interesting aspect of the job was going from theater to theater, audience to audience, one right after the other. One screen had a Disney movie, the next had a slasher movie. It was very interesting to see what kind of crowd came to what kind of movie. You had to be able to switch comedy gears immediately.

It was effective. I saw the sales numbers without us and with us, and they made more even after paying us. It was so scary. It is amazing the tough things young performers have to do.