Monday, June 28, 2010

The Great Unifier.

Look. Dicks are funny.

I would argue they’re hilarious and comically vital, but leave it to some dickhead out there to quip gee you really like dicks huh and all of the sudden it’s back to therapy for this guy.  So I’ll just leave it at dicks are funny.    

Spend a few nights at any old open mic and count the number of dick jokes you hear. You’ll be floored. The jokes don’t even require the word dick in them to be considered dick jokes; all sex jokes are in essence, dick jokes.  Lesbian comics doing lesbian sex jokes are doing dick jokes too, it’s just they’re talking lack of dicks. They may not use dicks to get off, but they use dicks to get laughs.

Of course, ole’ Gregory Richard (Dick) Quinn, loves a good ole’ dick joke for what ails ya.  Here is my set from the video in the post “For the Remarkably Wise and Handsome,” (which since being rejected for their contest, I would like to heretofore rename “For the Remarkably Fucking Stupid and I’ve heard Anti-Semitic):

  1. Cell phone porn joke:  Dick Joke.  (About choking yourself while touching your dick.)
  2. Derek Jeter joke: Dick Joke. (About how thoughtful Derek Jeter is while sucking a dick.)
  3. Blood Donation Joke:  Dick joke (About how you can’t give blood if you’re a guy and you like dick.)
  4. Sex Toy Joke: Dick Joke. (About how girls give other girls a personal fake dick.)
  5. Vegetarians Joke: Hey! Not really a Dick Joke! (Although I do make a connection between vegetarians and homosexuals, which is a type of man who likes dick.)

I had a total of 1 joke that wasn’t wholly a dick joke and I threw in a subtle dick reference. It’s like I couldn’t stop myself!   (OK, maybe I’m going back to therapy after all.)

So you can imagine when I was booked to produce a show for the Americorps Alums Pre-Conference party last night and then informed I would need to keep the set PG, I was terrified. NO DICK JOKES?! That’s like watching a baseball game with no bats; it’s like booking the Rolling Stones to perform and asking them not to play any songs with references to drugs or gay sex. 

They asked me to do 15 minutes. If I eliminate all references to sex, dicks, vaginas, porn, breasts, etc, I’m left with maybe 2 and half minutes of material. Clearly I needed to do some writing. I also needed to find three other comics.

This part was easy.  I had my ideal lineup in mind almost immediately, and it went exactly as planned. The show last night at Connolly’s Pub went: Emma Willman, Doug Smith, Julia Bond, and me, and when you throw in the complimentary mozzarella sticks and pizza bagels, I dare say you couldn’t find a better comedy show in New York.

And, for the most part (Emma’s accidental string of f-bombs aside) we did a clean set! And it was still funny! I had not previously known this to be possible. 

For me, getting to this point was difficult.  I had been trying more and more clean material lately, and it’s been a precarious process. Dick jokes are a fallback, a fail safe, they are what we in the comedy business call Hack Jokes. Less creative comics use penis references in their jokes when they aren’t confident enough that their material can work without them. Because we know people are going to laugh when you talk about  your genitals. There is still enough unease in the public mention of sex and reproductive organs to elicit uncomfortable laughter from people. They laugh because they still feel like they’re partaking in something naughty or reproachable. (And in our world, that’s kind of amazing.)

To be sure, there are comics who work sex jokes or blue material into their set in a unique and decidedly not-hacky way, but talking about choking yourself while masturbating to porn on your cell phone is pretty much the textbook definition of hack, blue material.  

In preparation for last night’s show, I spent two weeks at mics working PG material. I riffed on every subject I could think of that made no reference to a dick or what a person may choose to do with a dick. I wrote bits about Hamlet, Dunkin Donuts, baseball, Poison Control, R.L. Stine, my dad, the New Jersey Nets, the WNBA and all sorts of untrue stories about my relationship with Amy and an imaginary pet dog. Some of these worked; some bombed. So it goes, as they say. 

A few of these jokes made it to my set last night. I imagined the jokes that made the cut felt a sort of pride for making it to the big show and constantly ridiculed the failed bits as “strictly open mic material.”  Last night’s show was for Americorps, an organization I know very well, so I was able to throw in a horde of Americorps-related jokes that I (correctly) imagined the audience would just eat up.


I stood in the audience last night waiting for the show to begin, engaging in my typical pre-show ritual of pacing and near-vomiting.  As the other comics went on I felt almost as nervous for them as myself, because if they bombed, I'd look like an idiot for thinking they were funny. Fortunately, they were great.

  1. I met Emma in Boston last summer in a comedy class and we became instant friends. I think she is great. She has a delivery like she’s been doing it for years and works harder to make it in comedy then anyone I know. I speak highly enough of her that one day Amy remarked: “I’m really glad Emma is a lesbian or otherwise I would be really jealous.”  Emma did, however, let a few of the f-bombs fly, but everyone laughed and the booker said that it was totally fine. (It’s seems hypocritical anyway to say “Hey, have some free beer everyone! But don’t expect any swear words!”)

  1. Doug I had only seen a few times before at open mics.  When I brought Doug on stage last night, I told the crowd that when I heard I needed to book other comics, Doug was the first one that came to mind. And I meant it.  I remember being scared for a moment; I had only seen him 2 or 3 times and it had been a while. What if I had a skewed memory? But I didn’t. He went on second and killed, and I remembered why I wanted him specifically. Because my favorite joke of his – one of the better jokes I’ve heard since moving here – is totally devoid of a dick reference.

  1.  Julia has become what I call my comedy sponsor. When an alcoholic fears relapse he gets a sponsor to call at all hours of the night and remind him that no drink tastes as good as being sober feels. That’s what Julia is for me. When she’s not performing, she’s starting all-woman comedy shows and performing with actually-good improv troupes. And when I feel like I want to quit, Julia tells me to stop being a whiny little bitch and keep going. She’s also a great comic, because let’s face it; being a good friend alone wouldn’t have made me choose her as the penultimate performer.

  1. Then there was me. I went on in the end and  - despite a few tiny references to a certain phallic body part - delivered a predominantly clean set. And people laughed. And afterwards they bought me drinks and asked me to get everyone together for a picture, and offered me lines of coke and their daughter’s virginity. (Please note: I have begun to lie about a few of these.) I am much more prone to self-loathing than gloating, but I think I did pretty good.

No one is asking me for PG material anymore. I’m free to go R baby, watch out Derek Jeter! 

Will I?

Not as much as before, because I feel good when clean jokes work. But I’ll still go dirty some of the time. I have to. Dicks are too funny to abandon them completely, and truth be told? Everyone loves them. Perhaps only in a comedy sense, they are the great unifier.   

Monday, June 21, 2010

With Apologies to Gregory Quail.

I did a booked mic at the Village Lantern not so many days ago, and the waitress (a dark haired, ethnically indeterminable woman) greeted me in the basement room where the mic was held and immediately asked what I'd like to drink. Seeing as I was early and a first-timer in this room, I asked her if I was in the right place, and she hadn’t the slightest idea what I was talking about, forcing me to head outside in a panic and phone the booker, who informed me that yes, I was just where I was supposed to be.  This story is apropos of nothing. I just thought it was a classic indication of the relative ramshackleness of even the most established of open mics.

The Village Lantern is down on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village, only a few blocks from both the Bitter End and The Grisly Pear, two subjects of past blogs which I’m sure you all remember. The top floor was a typically classy Lower Manhattan bar, but it was in the basement where the Wednesday Motel open mic was held and the basement was a different story; a dark, squalid room.  I was the first comic there and waited in loneliness for any signs of other human life. I explored the basement room a little.  

The dingy bathrooms were at the terminus of an even dingier hallway that began just to the right of the stage.  Each stall was their own independent room; a small chamber with only a toilet and a mirror-less sink flanking in to the left.  The inside was actually quite pleasant, as a quiet and isolated room is a rare commodity in this part of Manhattan. The walls were covered in rapidly crumbling, presumably decade-old red paint, and years of pornography consumption had me instinctively searching for a waist-high hole in the wall, perhaps with a stalwart penis poking thru in search of gratification. 

After twenty minutes or so, other comics finally arrived and I took a seat  in the back of the room in my favorite open-mic location; right near a door in order to facilitate a swift exit should the need arise. The host of the show was comedian Ray Combs, son of the late Ray Combs Senior, the iconic host of Family Fued who hanged himself with his hospital bedsheets only a few years after his version of the Fued was cancelled. 

(I say iconic because I mean it. For people my age, Ray Combs is the Bob Barker of Family Fued, the host we identify with as inseparable from the show. Ray Combs was the host of the show while we stayed home sick at Grandma’s, the host who hosted weekdays after school. Ray Combs was the voice emulated on the Sega Genesis version of Fued and made a celeb appearance at Wrestlemania VIII for goodness sakes.) 

I sat in the rear of the Lantern basement, aware of who Ray Combs Jr. was and aware that if I were to write a blog about this mic, I would like to make mention of his father's suicide. But I felt distinctly guilty, like I had no right.  I don’t know Combs Jr. personally, this isn't my place. I made up mind to make no allusions to the tragic Fued host and his demise, planning to skirt around the issue by giving Combs Jr. a fake blog name as I am prone to do.

This was all until Ray Combs Jr. got into the flow of his act and made not one, but several jokes about his famous father and the way in which he perished.  Ray Combs Jr.  reveled that his grandfather also committed suicide and if things stayed the same, maybe he would tighten the ole’ hospital bed-sheet himself.  After all that, I felt at least permitted to make mention of the fact here. Not that I am offended that he would joke about such a tragedy, I’m actually quite impressed and inspired by his candor, (see the quote at the top of this page) but I do get the impression from his set that the subject is an acceptable one to broach. 

Combs Jr. was an aggressive, offensive but altogether entertaining and funny host. The main subject of his material, his downtrodden existence and his near-misses at celebrity (my favorite story: how he impregnated Miss San Diego 2005) was constantly hilarious, and while he made fun of nearly every comic who went on stage, he seemed to have a legitimate affinity for them, as if he considered his fellow comics a  brotherhood. Ray Combs Jr. spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince one woman comic to partake in a Byzantine I’ll-expose-my-testicles-if-you-expose-your-vagina deal that was to commence on stage and to pretty much everyone’s chagrin, he failed.

All of this left me fairly excited to see what comments Combs Jr. would have for my set. But I never got the opportunity. Despite being the first comic at the Wednesday Motel, I was one of the very last to go on stage. The mic was a lottery sign-up. After all the comics were present and accounted for, their names were put in a bowl and the order was drawn. It seemed early on that luck was not on my side.

By the time I went on, Combs Jr. had left for another set and was replaced by an affable, but not as exciting  host. I did my set and kind of bombed. I had clearly picked the wrong set to try some new “clean” material I’d been working on, but was too stubborn to change my jokes once I arrived at the show.   After my set I contemplated leaving, but seeing as there were only 2 or 3 comics yet to go, I decided to stick around.

It was lucky I did.  A Wednesday Motel Mic tradition dictates that at the end of each show, a name is drawn from the sign-up bowl, and that person receives half of the door back; last Wednesday that equaled 40 dollars, hard cash.   I heard the new host tell us this and sat up in anticipation because I had the distinct feeling that fate had kept me at that mic, fate had wanted me to have those 40 dollars.

And I was almost right. Fate actually wanted Gregory Quail to have that money, at least that’s how the random dude who was chosen to draw read the name on the slip of white-lined paper. I rationalized that this was close enough to Gregory Quinn, and that if there were an actual Gregory Quail, he was probably taking a leak in those frightening bathrooms anyway. I raised my hand, said right over here, and made off 40 large like a bandit.   My second paid gig.  

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

At the Bitter End.

I’m standing in the catacombs of the Bitter End, listening to girls pee.   We thought we arrived early enough; storytelling wasn’t set to begin for another 45 minutes. We were under the impression this was plenty of time to ensure us comfortable seats, feet from the stage.  We were wrong.

Amy and I were on the corner of Bleeker and Laguardia when we spotted the line of fans snaking down the block. I was certain this was not meant for us; I mean I know I like the idea of hearing amateurs telling awkward stories from their childhood on a Monday afternoon, but all these hip youngsters? Not a chance. 

But the line was for the Bitter End, indeed was for the Moth’s quarter-monthly storytelling show, the StorySlam.  Amy and I took our place at the end of the line, feeling what little Ralphie must have felt as he desperately waited at Macy’s for his chance to speak to Santa.   It looked as if we would never get inside, but we found our way in thanks to the Bitter End’s desire to ignore every conceivable fire code. 

The Bitter End was a long, thin bar, with a stage on the right wall and a bar to the left. The wall above the shelves of liquor was covered with a staple of the hipster bar: oil paintings of musicians just old and un-cool enough to be trendy, the type of wall I look at blankly before declaring Hey, Isn’t that Frank Sinatra?

I fought my way to the bar and ordered myself another staple of Manhattan haunts, the 9-dollar beer.  Equipped with our drinks, Amy and I began our fruitless search for seats. Inching around the bearded and bespectacled crowd, careful not to step on shoes or spill a splash on somebody’s lovely cardigan, it became clear we would have to stand.  Not just anywhere, but right in the only unclaimed territory in the Bitter End, the hallway to the ladies bathroom.  We stood nestled together, in an almost standing-spoon, borne not out of affection but out of sheer necessity.  Whatever romantic implications this position may have yielded were overshadowed by the sound of the toilet flushing.

The Moth StorySlam works like this:

Every week a different storytelling event is held in bars all over New York (or more realistically, all over downtown.)  Each event is open to amateurs, and each night has a theme. Usually one word, ambiguous themes like Earth, Scars, or Dues.  The theme last Monday at the Bitter End was “Fakes.”   Upon entering the event and forking over seven dollars, anyone who wishes to tell a story may enter their name in a hat, and ten names are drawn.  The ten flannel-clad storytellers each have 6 minutes to story tell and when they finish, they’re summarily judged by three pre-determined groups of “story experts,” as I call them.  (On the night of “Fakes,” one group of judges was deemed The Flying Hellfish, and that semi-obscure Simpsons reference was not lost on this guy.)   The storyteller with the highest aggregate score is declared winner and moves on to the GrandSlam, for a chance to be crowned champion of the world and enjoy a lifetime of lucrative endorsements and unsolicited blowjobs.

The StorySlam method sucks for the following reason:

.It does not guarantee you a spot ahead of time, which means a couple of terrible things. A. You spend your time writing a story for a specific theme, you feel great about it, you find a wonderfully funny, unique perspective to share and then you’re name isn’t called. Heartbreaking. And B. All the same stuff as A, but you also brought a ton of friends and family to watch you perform, and they are excited and proud and totally missing Glee, and then your name isn’t called. Sucks.  Look: I understand, the Moth is very popular. As such they probably have dozens of people every week who want to perform, but I don’t understand why they don’t have you sign up online and then email you a week in advance if you’re chosen.  Actually, I do understand why they don’t have that option. Because they want you and your wonderful story and your Glee-missing friends to show up and buy your tickets and beer before you realize you’re not going on stage. I’m sorry if I sound bitter. New York does that to a person. 

Some more thoughts from the Moth StorySlam, presented with helpful bullets.

  • Storytelling does not mean what I thought it meant.  I figured you wrote a short-story and read it aloud. Not really. It’s more recounting a personal anecdote in a wistful, nose-wrinkling funny kind of way, like an extended stand-up bit. It’s more of a one man show, like the type performed by Christopher Titus. On that note…
  • Why were they all funny anyway? All the storytellers went for funny, which just makes you wonder why they don’t just go for stand-up comedy.  Why couldn’t there be serious or sad or yearning? Surely there was someone who could have mined something from their past.  On that note…
  • Do they have to be true? Do they all have to be in the first person? The MC, a boisterously unfunny fat guy, stated at the onset that the stories were all true. But I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. The theme was “Fakes.” Perhaps that was his point. On that note…
  • Why didn’t anyone expand on the night's theme “Fakes?” Amy pointed out after the show that everyone used the theme to recount a time when they pretended to be someone else or pretended to be good at something they weren’t. No one took it in a different direction; there are plenty of other ways to take the concept of “Fakes.” Amy’s first suggestion was faking an orgasm. Great.

I may sound a little under whelmed by the Moth, and I guess the truth is I was.  It was not as wonderful as my daydreams. But I still want in.   I’ll keep you posted.