The First Time
The First Time
My nerve synapses never fail to depress me. I can’t remember birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or most major holidays. Sometimes it takes me months before I connect a name to a face. Numbers? Forget about it. And if I don’t have a to do list, all day long I will float around as aimlessly as a rubber duck in a hot tub. That being said, there is one event I can clearly recall: it happened on May 19, 1988. I remember almost every moment; what I said, how I felt, even what I wore. Because a comedian may forget a lot of things, but he never, never forgets the first time he sets foot on stage.
My appetite for comedy had been whetted by a recent business trip to Los Angeles. While I was there I visited my first comedy club, taking in “Open Mike Night” at the famous Comedy Store. It was a two hour show with some big time comics like Richard Lewis, Louie Anderson, and Dom Irrera. But the 8 people that preceded the pros were horrible, even by open mike standards. These “comedians” were long on profanity, and short on comedy. All the f-bombs in the world couldn’t keep them from bombing. I begin to think, “ I can do that. I can be that bad. Why not give it a shot?” If I could muster the courage, I could at least say I tried something most sane people would never do. The intrigue grew. So at the end of the night, as I bought the obligatory t shirt, I asked the big red headed guy who sold it to me how to get on stage. “Just be here at 6 o clock on Monday, and be first in line. They’ll give you ‘bout 2 minutes if you’re funny, and ‘bout 30 seconds if you’re not.” It would be months later before I discovered the shirt salesman was Sam Kinnison.
Unfortunately, there were no trips to LA scheduled for a while. But the seed had been planted. So, when my car radio told me the Comedy Club in Birmingham was having an open mike show that night, there was no hesitation. I began to jot down notes – ideas for jokes. Despite the knot in my stomach, I was finally going to take action on my thoughts.
The old Birmingham Comedy Club was actually located in the nearby suburb of Homewood, tucked in the corner of a strip center. It was a “classic” comedy club – black and white tiles, low ceilings and small tables — very intimate and very loud. I showed up at the club with my wife and mother, which would guarantee some laughs, even if they were out of pity.
The owner of the club, Bruce Ayers, sat down with all 6 of us and gave us the ground rules: we each got 3 minutes if things were going bad, and no more than 6 minutes if things were going good. Go easy on the profanity, and don’t do other people’s jokes. He also mentioned stuff I had never considered, like how to hold the mike, how to move the mike stand out of the way, and how to watch the light when it was time to go. And then we drew lots – all of us praying not to get the dreaded first spot. Thank God, I was going up fourth.
My fellow comedy virgins were quite an eclectic mixture. A black guy who waited tables at the club, an older guy with salt and pepper hair who looked better suited to a pulpit, a couple of guys I really don’t remember, and a girl who was — gasp– the cousin of Birmingham entertainment icon Country Boy Eddie. For those of you not steeped in Birmingham TV history, Country Boy Eddie was a redneck institution. He had an early morning show with a country band and a never ending array of amateur talent. His show stared about 4:30 in the morning. So he was very popular with deer hunters, fishermen, and guys strung out on PCP. Local entertainment at it’s finest, he sang songs with a nasal twang that sounded like he needed a couple of shots of Afrin. And she was his cousin! I remember thinking, “Oh great, a professional! What chance do the rest of us have?”
We weren’t going to have to wait long to find out how good the “professional” was because she drew the first number. I grabbed a spot in the back of the showroom with a clear view, near the glass door that lead to the bar. After the big build up from the emcee (who was the opening act for the regular show) she made her way on stage, resplendent in her straw cowboy hat. Then she opened her mouth, began to speak, and got….. silence. To this day, I remember that silence. It was surreal, as if she were speaking in the vaccum of outer space. Total silence. No coughs, no glasses clanking, no feet shuffling. Nothing but bone jarring, confidence wrecking silence. She was dying a three minute death. And I was going to do that?
No way. No way am I going to subject myself to that kind of humiliation in public. I don’t get my self esteem damaged that badly when I’m arguing with my wife. So I eased thru the glass door and skulked out of the club. I headed to the other end of the strip mall, telling myself it was no sin if I didn’t go on stage.
But as I walked, I started feeling better. Kinda like how Superman feels stronger the further he gets from Kryptonite. So, I fought thru my fear, got my courage up, then turned and headed back to the club. (Of course, the fact that my wife had my car keys had nothing to do with it). By then the second guy was about halfway thru his set. Hmmmm. Not total silence — his recycled material even got a few muffled chuckles. I flashed back to LA. I kept thinking, “ I can be that bad – if I do it for no other reason that to say I did it.” I went to the bar and quickly ordered a bottle of Coors Light and taped my crib notes over the label. Now the third guy is about two minutes in to his routine. Knowing I’m next, I began to pace back and forth in short choppy steps. I can feel my heart beat in my temples, my palms get sweaty….and Oh No! My wet palms have made the notes on my beer bottle almost illegible. Too late now, #3 is putting the mike back on the stand to officially finish his set. I position myself in front of the narrow aisle between the tables that leads to the small stage. No turning back now. The emcee calls out my name, and my time has come.
My first thought is, “ Boy, it’s dark up here. I can’t see anything but bright lights.” My second thought, “ Don’t trip, you idiot! Third thought, grab the mike stand and get it out of the way. Then as I squinted into the darkness, I asked the audience that one question, that clever bit of banter that every club comic on earth has opened his act with before. “How ya doin”? Like I care how they’re doing. At this point all I want to do is breathe normally, not pee my pants, and avoid spitting on the people on the front row. First joke: “ Well, I hope you’ll bear with me for 5 minutes ‘til I finish – which is same thing I say to my wife.” And then….. laughter. They laughed! It wasn’t a killer laugh by any means, but I said something that made them laugh. Emboldened, I continued thru my material – that is, the stuff I could still read from my blurry Coors Crib Notes. I talked about flavored condoms, JIm Jones, Smurfs, and my father as a K Mart manager, closing the set with a Pee Wee Herman impersonation that I still consider pretty good. I managed to get the mike back on the stand, and left to a smattering of applause – probably from my wife and mother.
Back in the lobby area, I felt a lot like a guy who just bungee jumped for the first time. A combination of elation and relief. And no urine stain!
Jay Leno describes his first Tonight Show like the first time he had sex: It was over in a few minutes, and he wasn’t very good at it, but he knew he wanted to do it again. And that night in Birmingham, Alabama I had that same feeling. As a reminder of the first time I performed, I still have that beer bottle with the smudged notes in my office, signed and dated by all my fellow “comedians”.
What’s so amazing is that twenty one years later, I still get that same rush after a good set . Excited, my pulse pounding, ready to do it again as soon as possible. I AM Jay Leno, by God! But, even as I celebrate, a nagging voice reminds me that the next time I could bomb like that first girl on that first night That’s what makes it so special.
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