As many of you know, I used to be – once upon a time – a full-time stand up comedian. The end of that is summarized briefly on my Let’s Meet The Author page (perhaps a more detailed recollection will be here one of these days). But for some reason I was just thinking about the first paid gig I ever had. Maybe it’s my birthday; got me all reflective.
The thing to understand about comedy when you start out is the depths to which it sucks. You are not at comedy clubs. You are not blowing them away. You are not hanging out in clubs afterward, adored by strangers. It’s bars where you’re the opener for the comedian who’s been hired to kill time until dancing can start. The audience hates you. They hate you because you are awful. And even if you aren’t awful (but you are), they hate you because you’re the opener and we’re conditioned to hate the opener. But you’re paying your dues. And the amazing thing, is if you’re the kind of person who loves stand-up, you’re having a great time.
Now my first paid gig was actually my second paid gig. The first first time I ever got paid to do comedy was when another guy was going to be an opening act and decided that A) he’d rather someone else was the cold-opener and B) he needed a ride. (Note to aspiring comedians – get a car).
It turns out I was to be the opening act for a Diversity Festival. Not a Diversity Humor Festival – just… a festival. Poetry. Interpretive Dance. Confessional speeches. Apparently, we were going to start things off with “White Male.” “Hi everyone, thanks for coming, let’s get things started with some comedy; please welcome to the stage: The Reason We’re All So Angry!” clap clap clap. “Hey, thanks, what a great crowd! It’s terrific to be here! I just flew in from oppressing minorities, and boy are my arms tired!” Ba-bump, tsh!
I was not a huge hit.
But the first time I really, officially got paid was for a loop through Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington. First stop: Winnemucca, Nevada. If you’ve never been there? Good for you. You know how there’s Las Vegas, and then there’s Reno, sort of the grimy, low-budget, poorly constructed version of Vegas? Winnemucca plays that role to Reno. It’s the gambling town for people overwhelmed by the glitz and big-city flash of Reno, as well as perhaps Off-Track Betting establishments.
So it was a 2-night gig at Winners Casino. The audience the first night was maybe 20 people. 20 people united in hatred for me. The low was when I was doing some jokes about store check out lines, specifically my inability to find the one moving fastest, and my desire to purchase (get ready for hilarity!) one of those police radar guns to determine which one’s moving fastest. About half the audience, it turned out, were checkers at a Wal-Mart (I’d also done some material about Wal-Mart). Now, you’d think this would be perfect – clicking with my audience. Turned out these were ferociously loyal checkers, who found NOTHING funny about the notion of slow lines. NOTHING. And Wal-Mart provides TERRIFIC PRICES on EVERYTHING A PERSON NEEDS.
The club owner also hated me. Upon meeting me immediately remarked on the way I was dressed. He suggested I looked a little… urban… for the area. If you know what I mean.
The bartender also hated me. To be fair, I did ask what was on draft. I know. What an ass. “Well,” she snarled, “we sure don’t have any mai-kro-brooz.” Okay. No problem, my good lady. Prithee, I’ll just have a sazerac then. Made with Peychoud’s bitters and served in a tumbler. Organic lemon rind, obviously.
The other comic was hugely abrasive. Talented, but liked to antagonize his audiences. If I’d had more experience I’d have take the Wal-Mart Militia’s heckling as fuel to really go for them, but I was new, and tried to back-pedal. Certain death, that path. He tended to go the opposite extreme, intentionally goading them. Shortly after we went separate ways he would end up getting attacked on stage by some audience members. I think it’s on YouTube. So I guess my pummeling was only metaphoric, at least. Weird how clear that first show is, yet how long ago.
But those first shows… they’re like the boxers just have people punch them in the stomach to get tough. I’d almost (almost) like to play that room again, just to see how it’d be this time.
Afterward, a guy from the casino took the other comic and I out to show us Winnemucca’s nightlife. One of the most surreal experiences I’ve had…
But a story for another time.