You Gotta Have Heart© by Craig Vetter Published in Playboy, March 1979
Young San Francisco comedian named Bob Barry tells a story about having just begun his act one night when some juicehead near the front of the room yelled, "Fuck you! Get off the stage!" Barry hesitated, the way you do when you're hit in the neck with a cattle prod. Then he found his place and went on with his routine. A minute later, the same voice shouted, "You suck! Get outa here!"
Before Barry could go to pieces or make a comeback, someone in the rear of the room yelled, "Shut up and give the asshole a chance!"
That was a good night. Stand-up comedy is a hard, nervous business. Imagine yourself a young comic: You're looking through a strong, yellow light into an audience filled with stranger, hecklers, drunks and dopers out there in the darkness alongside the grim and the sober. Your hand is sweating onto the microphone. They are waiting. Now---say the funniest thing you can think of.
All right. Are they laughing? Is it polite laughter or rolling-in-the-aisles, falling-down stuff? Or are they groaning or booing? Or are they sitting there with exactly the same expression they had on their faces before you said a word?
You can find out what it's like, because in the past five years, clubs in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have sprung up using what once might have been thought of as an impossible gimmick: They open their stages to anyone who thinks he or she is funny. And the audiences pay to hear them.
This, interestingly enough, follows a good ten years when show-business observers used to worry about where the new comedians were going to come from. The old Borscht Belt (Catskill Mountain resorts such as The Concord and Brown's) no longer booked unknown talent. Little joints that used to feature comedy had all gone rock 'n' roll. Vaudeville was ancient history, like silent movies. TV would accept polished talent-especially on The Tonight Show --- but the problem was in finding a place (or places) to be terrible in.
Now there are The Improvisation and Catch a Rising Star in New York, Improv West and The Comedy Store in L.A., The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco and Sylvester's in Chicago, and there are others opening all over the country almost every month. Perfect little places for someone to be terrible in. But also perfect little places to hone and polish and act, and perfect little places to be discovered.
Last year, PLAYBOY sent me out to attempt some death-defying feats---walking on the wing of a plane, ice climbing, sky diving---and when I got back from peering over the edge of the cliff at Acapulco, I began to hang around The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco. It was supposed to be a change, but I found that it was just a different kind of death and, as I hung around and watched, naturally, I began to get personally involved . . . and interested. But that's jumping ahead.
You can feel the nervous energy, and hear it all along the bar at The Holy City Zoo. The Zoo is a small, dark club of barn wood and brick on Clement Street in San Francisco. Tuesday is open-mike night, and every week 20 or 30 regulars and a handful of first-timers sign up for their five minutes. Most of the regulars know one another because they're there every week, and certain of them arrive early every week. When Tony DePaul gets there at eight, they're waiting. They help him take the stools off the bar and set them onto the floor and they jabber at him as he fills the beer lockers and puts the white wine on ice. Tony is the manager, the bartender, the master of ceremonies and an aspiring comedian himself. He orchestrates the order of appearance Tuesday nights, and that's what they badger him about. "I didn't get on till after midnight last week," says one. "There was nobody left except three winos and a pimp. Gimme a good spot tonight, will ya?"
"Come on," Tony tells him, "I can't put everybody on first. Every week I get this stuff. Guys coming up to me, saying, 'My wife's pregnant, I got to get her to the hospital, please put me on early.' Jesus, there was a woman who used to come in here all the time and she'd get up and start doing this totally incoherent shit, the worst, so I started putting her on around one in the morning. Then one night she comes in here with her goddamn psychiatrist and he starts telling me I have to put her on early because it's such a healthy thing for her to have a good audience." He pauses for the laugh. "Christ, this place is like a halfway house, all-the-way sometimes."
The show starts around nine and by 8:45 the would-be comedians are three-deep along the bar. They stand together in eager little knots, watching the paying customers drift in, telling one another stories, gossiping, trading one-liners, and although now and then one of them will say something worth a laugh, these guys rarely laugh out loud at one another. Instead, they nod their head and say, "Now, that's funny." That's the way the top pros react, after all. The gossip, of course, is about comedy and other comedians.
"What I like is when Bill Cosby does his gut-level stuff, about his wife, you know."
"He ain't funny."
"Well, you may not think he's funny, I may not think he's funny, but he's great, you know."
"He buys most of his material, like those cheap lounge comics."
"Everybody buys material if they have the money. I mean, I know you can't help thinking about this thing artistically, but you have to remember it's a business. That's why I can't really get on a guy who sells out. . . you know. . . if they twist their material a little bit to get on TV, that's OK. I mean, you're either serious about comedy or you're not."
They tell each other how difficult it is to set a small audience like this one on fire. "You got---what?---maybe a hundred and twenty people in here, and half of those are other comedians. It's tough."
Tony jumps into the conversation. "This ain't tough," he says. "Not like the old days." By the old days Tony means two or three years ago around here, when he and a few other local comedians were just starting out. One infamous club, now defunct, was then one of the few places to play, "That fucking dump," says Tony. "Bob Sarlatte used to say that every weirdo in the city had a trap door that led right to that place; he was right. There'd be guys in the corner shooting up, fistfights, some woman in the back giving birth. I swear to God, I was up there trying to be funny one night and this woman went into labor. It might have been false labor---she didn't have the kid right there---but they threw her up on a table in the back and she was moaning and screaming, while I was on. One night two lesbians got right up on stage with me and started punching each other out, as if I wasn't there, so I just started narrating the fight. God, it was a mean place. I actually got down off the stage one night and punched a guy myself. To tell you the truth, I think it ruined a lot of good comedians, All night it was 'Ahhh, fuck you,' back and forth, and it made a lot of guys too hostile. They got used to playing to speed freaks and zeros, and when they'd get an audience of real people, they couldn't handle it."
Tony smiles at his enraptured audience. "You guys have it good here at the Zoo," he says. "This is a whole different audience. These people come specifically to see comedy, they want to laugh, and they know that here at the Zoo they'll see some really good comedians along with the beginners. Rafferty, Giovanni, Williams, they all come back here to try out new stuff. They came out of the old days at the Zoo."
He has just named the Golden Alumni around here. Their publicity photos, eight-by-ten glossies, hang around the walls and above the bar, along with a dozen or so others. The producers of the new Laugh-In came up from Hollywood to look over the San Francisco comedians and they took Robin Williams, Bill Rafferty and Jim Giovanni back with them. Laugh-In died a quick death, but it was enough to sling those three into the fast lane, Williams is 27 years old and is working on a new TV series called Mork & Mindy. Rafferty is 33 and is making Bay Area clubs and doing TV commercials. And Giovanni, who is 29, has started showing up on the Merv Griffin show. He was on last May, on a show coming from Las Vegas. Merv introduced him as brilliant young impressionist and Giovanni did six or seven minutes that included George C. Scott as Patton, Redd Foxx as Patton, Tommy Smothers Patton. He did Columbo and he did Bilko. They loved him, and when he finished, Merv came out and summed up the dream all these guys are chasing: "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "13 months ago Jim was driving a 7-Up truck. . . 13 months from a 7-Up truck the main room at Caesars Palace. Only in America."
The others in the wall photos, including Tony himself, are the seniors on this campus. They know they could be next in line for a break, and that it comes with stunning speed when it comes. If it comes. Meanwhile, they work as opening acts for rock-'n'-roll groups, or at conventions, or colleges, or anywhere else they can build an act, polish it, hone it, pay their dues, collect the necessary scars.
About nine, Tony gets up on the little stage under a single yellow spot, takes the mike out of the stand and says, 'Good evening. Tuesday at the Zoo is open mike for comedians, and we have a couple of rules. First, you get five minutes only. We have about 25 comedians signed up already, so we have to limit your time. And the other rule is no heckling. A lot of these people are getting up in front of an audience for the first time. If you think you're funnier than they are, get up here and take a chance yourself. If you want to be an asshole, get out. We'll start the show shortly; the sign-up sheet will be at the end of the bar."
Customers at the Zoo have to pack into the stage end of the little room like stowaways in the hold of all old wooden ship. There are a few large tables in nooks along the back wall and lots of little, gnome-sized tables and chairs around the stage. All together, about 90 people can sit down; none of them is more than about 15 feet from the performer. Most of them are close enough drag him off the stage without standing up, if it came to that.
As Tony pours last-minute beer and wine, he asks the sign-ups for a volunteer to lead off. "Everybody wants to go early," he says as if it were ironic, "but nobody wants to be first."
The show will start in five minutes and the rumble among the comedians is rising. There's a crazy chicano at the bar a couple of stools down, leaning over his beer, playing a harmonica and saying, "Good night, John-boy. . . good night, Grampa," then, shaking his head, apologizing to no one, "I'm sorry, I don't know why I do that, it's rotten." A collegiate-looking black kid behind me is saying to a young, long-haired white guy, "You actually wrote that? I can't believe it. That is so great, I laughed my ass off when I saw that." He's talking about a piece of graffiti in the foul-smelling men's room at the rear of the place. On the wall over the toilet, someone has scrawled a rhyme that was popular during California's big drought: "If it's yellow, let it mello / If it's brown, flush it down." The kid with the long hair is taking credit for the tag line written just below that: "If it's blue, whadda ya do?" The black guy can't get over it. "You actually wrote that?" he keeps saying.
Tony goes onstage. "Let's have a nice Zoo welcome for. . ." There's a deathly silence after the initial applause. The kid onstage is thin, mid-20s, with a light beard, and he is talking in a Gabby Hayes voice, which isn't working. He abandons it and says he was taking a shit and the recoil blew him off the toilet. Makes the sound of exploding bowels with his mouth and jumps to one corner of the stage as if he had been blown there. But it's too soon for do-do humor. The silence from the audience is broken only by the low, steady roar of conversation from the comics along the bar. You have only a certain amount of time to get your first laugh up there, and if you don't, nothing after that can save you. He finishes with a mental-hospital joke and exits mercifully to something less than polite applause.
The rock'n'-roll club next door has just started rolling and the drum and the bass are coming through the wall. The next guy has dark hair, a big upper body and an almost baby face. "So how are all you people tonight?. . . working the early set. . . nobody drunk yet." The audience hasn't recovered from the last act, but at least this guy is going after them. He's talking about a new California religion called Frisbeeism: "When you die, your soul goes on top of a roof." It's a great line, but it gets only scattered chuckles---not much against the steady chatter coming from the bar. It's making him a little angry that his best stuff isn't getting the laughs he thinks it should, and it's put a small belligerent spark into his eyes that's destroying all pretense of ease or casualness. Now a graphic description of holding a fart in on a date. . . he's getting laughs, but they just aren't big enough for him, and he finishes by saying, "Thanks for keeping quiet during the dramatic portions of my act," and gets his best laugh, followed by appreciative applause. The mood of the room has slowly begun to rise.
Now the young black guy who loved the graffiti goes on. "I'm a little nervous, how 'bout some applause to make me feel at home?" There is mild clapping. He has a bright look about him and has carried a lot of energy onto the stage. "And let's have a big hand for Tony DePaul for giving us young comedians a chance." More mild applause (this guy will open his act this way for five weeks in a row until Tony asks him to stop with the can for gratitude). He does a Wild Kingdom parody, pretty good material, but now he has spun toward the bar end of the room and told them to shut up---a quick undisguised flash of anger has leapt out of him and blown his comic persona to rags. He follows with some funny lines about taking whippings as a kid, but he's lost control. Whatever small energy was beginning to build in the room is gone again. The crowd is restless. Two pretty good comedians have been unable to dissipate whatever that first kid left in the air.
Here comes a man who is wearing a Greek sailor's cap and has a saxophone around his neck, He starts by talking about "handling" his instrument. He's waiting for laughs that aren't coming; it's making him slow. A heckler---out of nowhere, the evening's first--- yells something and the guy on the stage loses his place, "Shut up or sign up," yells Tony from behind the bar. Now this guy is referring to his sax as "the lovely Giselle." Does a medley of Star Wars, Fly Me to the Moon and 2001. He doesn't play at all well. Now he's reached into the bell of the horn and pulled out a telephone receiver, says into it, "Oh, so now I'm a saxist pig, huh? Well who brought you to San Francisco for your sax-change operation?" Tony moves through the crowd and squats in front of the stage. It means, "Times up."
Next is a thin, weak-looking, soft-spoken. don't-hit-me sort of guy in glasses. Does an impression of wind, which is so straight and so unfunny that the audience laughs. Now he does rain. Same reaction but a little better. He's building something. His timing is bold: takes long pauses without losing anybody. Now his impression of a comedian eating a pear. Pulls one out and begins to eat it. Big bites. Chews them completely. Audience tittering. A minute later, he holds up one finger, indicating"last bite," then he shoves what's left into his mouth, chews it, swallows, wipes his lips with the back of his hand and says, "Thank you." Huge laugh, the biggest so far---applause, even.
Somehow, he's pulled it off. I saw this same guy about two years ago at another one of these little clubs and he couldn't pull anything off. His timing is the only thing that's changed and it's made him funny. The crowd has loosened a notch. He does a line about a new toy to teach kids about death: "Call it What's the Matter with Granddad?" A good hand as he leaves the stage. Tony has given him several more than his five minutes because he bas drawn first blood.
This next guy has been introduced as a regular from The Comedy Store. A slight young man using a tennis racket as if it were a guitar, doing a Johnny Cash impersonation. This guy has stage presence. Seems to know where he's going. "My girl is so tough she uses a Black & Decker vibrator." Pat Boone in a Mexican restaurant: "Leche, por favor." One laugh after another; he's got them going. Walter Brennan as the adoptive parent of a Vietnamese orphan: "Damn it, Gook." Now Bob Dylan. . . parody lyrics to Like a Rolling Stone. Dylan about Hurricane Carter: "I was only kidding." Sustained laughter. Nixon at Disneyland: "I could get on the Matterhorn with an A ticket, but that would be wrong." George C. Scott driving a car: "I merge with no one; I yield to nothing." He does about 15 minutes and the audience is his. The material is strong and his delivery falters and slows only now and then. And although I never heard his name till tonight, I know I'm going to hear it again. He leaves the stage to huge applause and gets his back slapped moving through the crowd. The other comedians shake his hand as he goes by.
A short break. There's a two-drink minimum per set here, loosely enforced by one badly overworked waitress. Two comedians next to me at the bar have been watching me write like fury and they've started talking about thieves. Theft, or borrowing, as they sometimes call it, is a way of life among comics. Berle joked about it. The young ones worry about it. They've caught Tony at the beer spigot and they're asking him what you can do to protect your material. "Nothing," he says. "You can't do a thing. Some nights there're guys in here with notebooks all up and down the bar. Whadda ya gonna do? Police every little hole-in-the-wall club to see who's using your stuff? And, look---Richard Pryor, for instance, he doesn't have to steal jokes, he's beyond that; but there're writers everywhere stealing for him. He don't know it's not original material they send him. And once he's used a line or a bit, people identify it with him. Then you can't use it anymore, even though you wrote it, It's worse in L.A. and New York." Tony shot a look over at me. I had my notebook open on the bar and my pen in my hand. I smiled. He didn't.
Tony takes the stage to do a few minutes. He uses big Italian-style gestures. He's comfortable up there: Mike in one hand, leans against the stand with the other. "Anybody stoned?" Some chuckling. "People on marijuana don't laugh. They giggle. At the wrong things. You think you bombed and then you go in the bathroom and here's this stoner pissing on his foot, telling his buddy, 'That guy was great'" The crowd relaxes, laughing easily. Tony is doing the work. He lets them laugh when they want to. He lets them not laugh and keeps going without hesitation. "I played Vegas not long ago. . . Nevada is the Indian word for slot machine. Slot machine is the English word for stupid. You might as well go down to the corner and play the Chronicle rack." Most of this is oneliners. He doesn't do routines or set pieces. Now a line he says he heard from another comedian in Vegas: "An old man saying to his wife, 'You have no breasts, you have no navel,' and she says to him, 'Get off my back!' " There's big applause when he's finished. Then he introduces the next act: "This guy's not funny, but he has cancer, so give him a nice warm welcome. . ."
It's another of the senior comedians around here, Lorenzo. He helps tend bar, and onstage he has finesse, energy, direction. Talking about a mythical comedian named Joey Keno and how he handled hecklers: "Some guy yelled out from the audience, 'Hey, Joey, put an egg in your shoe and beat it.' Without missing a beat, Joey jumped off the stage and stabbed him." The guy does a strong 15 minutes and leaves them wanting more.
So it went into the small hours. I went back for six straight weeks, and some evenings the bad acts outnumbered the good ones. Some nights the comedians damn near outnumbered the audience. Now and then, a particularly mean crowd would resist all efforts to make it laugh and send the comics down off the stage looking as if they might go into the bathroom and shoot themselves. And the hecklers, of course, pretty much coincide with the phases of the moon.
Most of the comics' material runs from silly to filthy to stupid. Television and television commercials are whipped like old dead horses, although when the comics ask how many in the audience watch TV, hardly a hand ever goes up. Dope jokes are big; stories about acid trips, 'Ludes, cocaine and speed usually get at least a giggle, and the sound of someone sucking on a reefer (made by getting your mouth right down on the mike) always gets an easy laugh. Topical and political humor is rare. Real wit is even more rare, and never gets anything but scattered laughs. There are always too many one-liners about Billy Carter and Roman Polanski. Most of the humor is soft, and the comedians who do have a cutting edge struggle for whatever laughs they get. Most things that bring the house down tend to the goofy.
Over the weeks I was there, some of the regulars got noticeably better. Several of them did the same material over and you could watch their timing sharpen. Others added new things every week, and a few of them graduated from, open-mike night to the Saturday and Sunday shows that featured half a dozen of the best local comics doing 20- or 30-minute routines. Usually, about the time they made that jump, you'd hear them start to talk about going down to the exact center of the universe for comedians on the make: to L.A., to The Comedy Store, where the scouts for Merv and Johnny and the rest are said to swarm, where the thieves use fancy German tape recorders, where the competition has bused, or flown, or driven in from all over the country to get its five minutes onstage in Hollywood, the Big Avocado.
About 7:30 on the night I was there, one of the people in charge of the sign-ups at The Comedy Store, Danny Mora, came out the front door, stood on a bench and yelled so he could be heard over the traffic on Sunset Boulevard. He was wearing a fatigue jacket and a beret, and although there was nothing mean in his voice, there was the unmistakable tone of a drill sergeant who is used to being misunderstood by at least half of the callow horde he faces once a week: 50 or 60 of them on a slow Monday, 100 or more other times.
"The first thing I have to say," he told them, "is that not all of you will get on tonight. I'm sorry, that's just the way it is. You only get five minutes, and when your time is up, a yellow spot will light up a portrait of Eddie Cantor. When you see the light, say good night."
By 8:30, the comedians have been herded into an alcove in the back of the club and, like the crowd long the bar at the Zoo, they set up a babble and jabber that won't stop for anything all night long. The Comedy Store seats over 200 people, and by showtime, nine o'clock, all the little tables are full. There's a chain across the doorway to the room, and the seating is supervised by two big, tough bouncers. They look like Big Ten linebackers.
The m.c. is in his 50's, balding, horn rims, plaid sports coat. "Direct from the Purple Canker Sore in Reseda," he says, "let's welcome. . ." Polite applause gives way to the background rumble of the other comedians as a very young black guy takes the mike. He's about 17 or 18 and outside I heard him tell somebody, "You ought to try it. If you're good they'll tell ya. If you're not, you'll know it." Slow start, weak material; he's not doing too well. Stumbling one-liners. Painfully long pauses. Painfully short pauses. A few small laughs but no bursts. He has energy, but the jokes are weak. The timing is terrible.
Next is an all-American boy, suit and tie, short dark hair that falls perfectly to the left side of his head he's having trouble with the mike, trouble with his nerves. Doing short bits that aren't getting any laughs. None. From the comedians' corner, someone yells, "Check, please." That gets a laugh. The yellow spot illuminates Eddie Cantor's prissy little smile. He doesn't see it. "Next," yells someone else from the back and the kid hurries off the stage. He joins his young wife and some friends at a table and they tell him he was great, although they look embarrassed and so does he.
Now a ventriloquist with a huge stuffed dog for a puppet. He's polished. Moves his lips, but his technique and material are good enough that it doesn't matter. Gets a big hand as he leaves.
Then a black kid who has lost his place and is actually saying: "I read a great book called Yellow River, by I.P. Daily." Then Revenge of the Tiger, by Claude Balls. The audience is moaning, grumbling. One of the bouncers yells "What time does your bus leave?" Jesus! The bouncers heckle around here! "Stepping off into oblivion," says the m.c. as the kid leaves.
Next, a guy who has launched into a bit about someone he calls Minimum Audience Jones. He's been heckled by a tableful of four drunks who are just warming up. He's lost his place. Panic. Says to himself, "Minimum Audience Jones," now asks the crowd, "Do you remember where I was going with that?" Laugh he didn't expect. Deeper panic. "Regarding that Minimum Audience Jones," he says to himself, as if the whole thing might unjam and flow out of him any second. This is the moment of horror. "Do you want me to do some impressions?" he asks. One of the bouncers yells, "Yeah! Do Houndini!" Big laugh; big brutal laugh. Kid leaves the stage before Cantor lights up.
The m.c. says. "Let's have a big hand for the Madman from Braille," and a blind chicano in his mid-20s is led to the microphone by a friend. He has a white cane but no dark glasses. His head rocks and bobs and his gaze goes off no-where. He is really blind. "I just love daylight-savings time," he says, and the place comes apart. Biggest laugh of the night. Even from the competition in the back. He's not new at this. His timing is good. The jokes are all about his blindness, and they're funny. "A lot or you think blind people are harmless," he says. "Not anymore. We have blind gangs now...called Knights of Inner Darkness. We're trained in Maka Lu: the ancient Korean art of fighting with power tools. . . He makes the sound of a chain saw, slashes it around. Does a few more than live minutes (he can't see Eddie Cantor) and no one makes a move or a sound to hurry him off the stage. He has better control and gets more laughs than anyone else all night and he leaves to thunder and whistling.
I remember Lenny Bruce in the early Sixties, at his obscenity trial in San Francisco, going absolutely crazy when his act was read out of a notebook, from the witness stand, by the Irish vice cop who had busted him. They had arrested him for saying cocksucker. I was at the early show the night they dragged him off, and when he let loose with what the newspapers were calling "a ten-letter word," he brought the house down. It was the context and the timing that made it funny. I was at the trial, too, and when the cop read it from the stand, it sounded absolutely obscene. The defense finally insisted that a tape of the whole act be played for the jury and it was. They laughed all the way through it. Then acquitted him.
Looking over the notes I'd made from the audiences at the Zoo and The Comedy Store made me feel a little like that cop. It's pretty easy work to sit out there and criticize the fool onstage who's trying everything he knows to make you laugh. It'd be a different story altogether if you got up there yourself; got right down into the smoking muzzle of the thing, so to speak. And why the hell not? What's the worst they could do to you if you were terrible? Take away your tongue?
I've performed in front of audiences before, more than a few times, though it was years ago, In high school, I was a speech contestant, was in plays and musicals, wrote skits for the rallies. I used to like to think of myself as a triple-threat man, and though all three threats turned out to be idle, the one thing I still believe, the one thing I have in common with every comic I've ever seen is, God help me, I think I'm pretty funny. Still, the thought of standing up in front of a bunch of strangers made me feel like I had a grease fire in my chest. I liked it.
I needed some material; five minutes. I rummaged over some old humor pieces I'd done for magazines, but they were hopelessly dated and finally I knew I'd have to write something new. That left me searching back over my life for what has been funny about it. I settled on my sexual education at the hands of Jesuit priests.
For a week, I wrote. I got up in the middle of the night to make notes. I found an opening, I salted some sure-fire knee slappers in with the subtler stuff. I practiced a big clerical voice for the villain of the piece, a perverse old Jesuit named Father Boxer. When I had what I thought was five minutes, I went down to the creek behind my house and, with a microphone-shaped stick in my hand, I began to memorize it, word for word. I did it out loud over and over again for the jays and the juncos in a bay tree, then into a tape recorder. I practiced pauses where I thought the laughs would come, I worked on switching the mike from hand to hand casually, professionally. Then, about two days before I was supposed to go on, I listened to the tape and had a horrible attack of nerves. What if there wasn't one laugh in the whole goddamn routine? It could happen. I'd seen it happen to other people, and it's pitiful: the kind of humiliation that has to ride around with you for years afterward.
I arrived at the Zoo about 8:15 that Tuesday night and the usual regulars were making their usual entreaties of Tony. I put my name on the sign-up sheet, which already had ten names on it. There would be 30 before the night was over. Tony knew it was my first time and he asked me if I wanted any warning, any notice before I got up.
"Just long enough to go into the bathroom and vomit," I said. Then I told him to surprise me. I figured that if I had time, I might vomit.
I got a white wine and sat at the bar while the club filled with audience and comedians. I took two slugs and had to stop. It was making my saliva thicker than it already was, and it wasn't doing my ravaged stomach any good, either. Somebody next to me asked if I was nervous and I said, "What in the hell do you think?" When I heard it coming out, I knew for sure how nervous I really was.
Tony introduced the evening, then the first comedian, a guy who got up and did a David Steinberg routine word for word. The crowd seemed to know he'd lifted the piece and they didn't pay much attention. The other comics knew for sure that he was doing and their babble all but drowned him. Somebody calling himself the king of punk comedy got up and did 15 very abusive and pretty funny minutes. Then there was a black girl who started so badly that she abandoned the stage after two minutes. Then half a dozen others, some funny, some not, then Tony was up again, saying, "This next guy has never been up here before, as far as I know," then he paused. "No," he said, "we're going to take a break now. I just wanted to make a couple of guys out there real nervous."
I stewed for ten minutes. People tried to talk to me, but I couldn't concentrate on what they said. I overheard someone near me saying, "You know, finally it's a matter of whether or not the audience likes you. It's not how funny your stuff is. It all comes down to whether they like you or not." The next thing I remember is Tony saying, "A big welcome for Craig Vetter!"
You have to muscle your way through the talking comedians and walk in front of the audience to get onstage. I took the two steps up, got the microphone out of the stand and looked at the crowd. All I could see at first were the eyes, then as I adjusted to the shine of the spotlight, a few faces below me at the apron. I delivered my first line. It got a small laugh, which I stepped on with my second line, which got a laugh, which I also stepped on. Whenever I paused, I could hear the rumble of voices and laughter unconnected to my act coming from the bar. It was disconcerting as hell. But the faces I could see in the audience looked mildly amused by this long hair and beard up there telling them that sex and religion were all mixed together in his life. I had a little trouble with the mike at first, but when I got it figured out, I walked them back with me into the garden of agony Father Boxer had taken me though, just before he asked me if I knew what part of my body was going to rot first when I died. I didn't need to hear any questions like that back then, but now, well, now I need to laugh at those time. Over the years, I've spun tales for my friends about Father Boxer and the three days I spent as his prisoner at a retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, I about the sexual horror stories, the garbage he loaded into my tender mind, and I usually leave them choking and weeping with laughter. I'm always stoned when I do this, always in friendly circumstances so the stories just sort of rollout of me before the editor in my head can mess around with them.
But I was straight when I took the stage at the Zoo, and when I took that highly written, memorized script up there, the spirit of the thing didn't go with me. The audience laughed, some pretty good laughs, too, but I never quite had them. The closest I came was a mistake. I mispronounced Brazil. It was one of those nervous tics that make you lose motor control of your tongue for one beat and I said "Baril." When I heard it, I backed up and said, .'That's just south of Brazil." And they roared; not because it was a brilliant ad lib but because the timing of it was accidentally perfect. It winked at the script. It was the most unexpected thing that happened in the whole five minutes and the laugh it got was more spontaneous than any of the others.
There were, however, a couple of long stretches without any laughing that raised a small, quick sweat on the back of my neck. Worse than that, there were several times when I expected a big laugh that didn't come, and that will blow the crap out of your heart and get some of that electricity down out of your brain and into the spine. Because performing is an adrenaline sport. Fear pretty much runs the show then you're up there. Failure onstage is a horrible thing. Performers call it dying for a very good reason.
I didn't die up there, but neither did I kill them, and I think what I found out is that the two go together. For me to reach the place where my timing was right and my material strong would take 100 hours onstage, maybe more. I'd have to suffer hecklers and thieves, and other comedians, and myself saying the same lines over and over, for years, maybe, till I either hit or went crazy. Or both. When I wonder why anyone would put himself through it, I remember the one real laugh I did get. There's a feeling of power there, and we've all had a taste of it, usually with friends. You get somebody laughing so hard he hurts, he begs you to stop, and then, just about the time he's calmed down, you hit him with another line, roll him on the ground as if you were beating him with a slick. Imagine what it would be like to do that to an auditorium full of people. Imagine what it would be like to be paid thousands of dollars for doing it.
If only you had the heart for the work.