Comedy Stories — Meet The Voices in Your Head

I thought I had made it when I started working in Las Vegas. I went out and took a picture of my name in lights. Vegas baby! After three or so years of the grind, of really working Vegas, I was done, burned out. The realities of living in a casino, eating at a buffet, and 3 shows a night with audiences that really weren’t into comedy but were into seeing a comedian in Vegas had taken their toll.

Las Vegas is a different place  to live in than visit. There are many things I love about Las Vegas, I still go there and have been there recently.  The people who work in the casinos have lives outside the casino, and I think it’s those people that hold the meaning for me. You share a bond with people working day-in and day-out in the service and entertainment industry.

So anyway…

There where always 50 or so comedians working every night in Las Vegas while I was there. After three shows we would be all wound up, and rather than go back to the room and watch television and fruitlessly try to fall asleep, invariably a few comedians would get together and go out to hit the late night lounge shows. One of the steady performers was Cook E. Jarr and the Crumbs. Cook E. played from 10:30 PM to 3:30 AM Wednesday through Sunday.

Cook E. and the Crumbs were a trio; keyboard player laid down the beat with a drum machine and provided the background with an occasional solo, while a guitar player did rhythm and solo work. Out front was Cook E. Cook E., an experienced Italian singer from the East Coast, with the heart and voice of Dean Martin/Rod Stewart, and the outfit of the ultimate lounge singer; spandex singlet body suit, hip boots, no shirt, open jacket, heavy tan, long black wig, sunglasses, multiple necklaces and around 20 gigantic gold rings. He sang party songs for people to dance to, and they, and I, did and had a great time. He sprinkled in some of the classic Frank/Sammy/Dean music he loved.  Cook E. always talked in between his songs, sometimes telling stories, sometimes working the room, sometimes selling Cook E. chips, recordings and pictures. I have nothing but respect for Cook E. and he and I have become friends over the years.  He has never been anything but kind and gracious to me. I respect his ability to work, and that fact that he did what he did so many times.

One time sticks in my mind particularly. Cook E. was at one of the worst/best places I ever saw him, the since demolished Continental. The Continental was a rat hole by this point in time, I don’t know what it was before, it might have been great. Located off the strip on Maryland Parkway, the tan stucco exterior was lit with lots of tiny white lights that blinked on and off inside of red neon letters. As you walked in the front door you where met with slots. Behind the slots was the bar, which was long and stretched the length of the slots. The stage was directly to the right side of the bar and at the same height, set back enough to allow a seating area in front. The bar curved around and merged into the stage. To the right of the stage was a small dance floor bordered by a carpeted wall. On the other side of that was was the hallway to the restrooms. Behind the lounge area were more slot machines.

Late at night Cook E. attracted and eclectic crowd. There were plenty of comedians, musicians, waitresses, dealers (of both kinds), hookers and tourists. Occasionally I big name would stumble in, everyone knew Cook E.He would always point performers out in the crowd, listing their many accomplishments before finally saying their name and welcoming them. He was good.

This night was no different. In the waning hours of a long night, the crowd thinning and Cook E. pushing himself to perform for an underwhelming audience, he started talking to someone in the audience in between songs.  A guy sitting at the bar, obviously drunk, stood up and yelled, “Cook E.! What happened to you?! You used to be somebody!”

“What happened to you? You used to BE somebody!” he yelled again.

Then they started arguing, Cook E. from the stage and the guy from the bar. Cook E. had a mic and the guy had a voice. They argued about what Cook E. was doing at a place like this. What was Cook E. doing with his talent? This?! They guy was actually on Cook E.’s side as he destroyed him. He saw Cook E. as magnificent and this was not magnificent.

But it was. Cook E. was doing honest performing work. I saw the blame be the audience’s. What were we doing letting Cook E. perform in a place like this? He deserved better, not we deserved better. We were getting everything he had.  It’s not his fault the crowd sucked. Trust me, it’s a lot harder to play for a few tough people in a tough environment than a large packed, adoring theater. Trust me. The honesty in performing comes when you are not appreciated. Rock that mic. Cook E. was good.

But here was a guy yelling out loud what the voices in many performers head say: What are you doing? Are you any good? You are better than this, or maybe this is exactly what you deserve. Someone was screaming these thoughts out loud to his face. Cook E. brushed it off and kept going, he was a professional. It was like batter taking a fastball to the head. But he got up and kept playing. I respect that.

I will never forget that moment.

I have had my own Meet the Voices in Your Head moment. That story for another time.



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.


We’re Finally in Italian Vogue

Copyright Wol189

Behind the scenes Brooks Ayola Nevada Ballet shoot

One of Wolf189’s (@wolfphoto) photos chosen by @francasozzani the Editor-In-Chief of @vogue_italia for their online exhibition.

Got a surprise the other day when I checked out a photo posted on Facebook by our friend and talented photographer Brooks Ayola. When I followed the links, I found a photo taken by another talented photographer Wolf189. It was taken behind the scenes at a shoot where we shot video of Brooks shoot of the Nevada Ballet Theatre. There is a wide shot and if you look real close you can see us.

Here’s the link the the Italian Vogue posting, check it out.

Check out all the talented artists who we worked with on this shoot. It was a great experience.

Brooks Ayola

Kendra Kocher

Brian Swanson

Nevada Ballet Theatre