Sleep sometimes takes a backseat when living the comedy life.
Tuesday I had a spot on a bar show in Winston-Salem, N.C., a town that’s an hour and fifteen minute drive away. I found out Tuesday morning that the show started at 10 p.m. This seemed odd to me for a Tuesday, but I decided to roll with it even though I had to leave the house at 6:30 the next morning to substitute teach.
Bar shows can be a nightmare. Often there are patrons who have come to the bar just to drink, watch sports, play pool, or try to sit in peace with no idea that a comedy show is scheduled to happen. I’ve done bar shows where people completely ignore the show and continue their conversation at full drunken volume. Other times, a riot will nearly break out after the TVs are all shut off for showtime.
Imagine walking into any bar on a given weeknight, unplugging the jukebox, and saying: “Attention! Unsuspecting drunks! The owner has decided to put on a comedy show. So instead of enjoying yourselves in your own preferred way as you had planned - sit still, be quiet, and give your attention to these comics you’ve never heard of who may or may not be funny.” It’s usually a recipe for disaster.
I got to the bar a little before 10 that night and the place was mostly empty.
“This should be fun,” I thought.
It was a dive bar that reminded me a lot of The Pink on Allen Street, except about one-third the size. The guy running the show introduced himself and casually slipped into the conversation that even though the flyer says 10 p.m., these shows usually don’t start until 11ish. Perfect. At this point it looks like I’ll be performing to no one and get home around 2 a.m., if I’m lucky. He then added that since the space is so small, there is no room for a stage, so we perform by standing on the bar.
I was running out of reasons to stay.
Slowly, something magical started to happen. People began to trickle in. There seemed to be a buzz building about the show. People weren’t showing up at the bar just to drink; they were showing up to drink AND watch comedy.
At 11 p.m., the host climbed up on the bar, right on schedule. This maybe took years of training, but everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. The bartender stopped washing glasses. Phones went away. Even though there were only a few stools in the place, the rest of the people stood, watched, and laughed when they were supposed to.
No one drunkenly heckled. I was astonished. As I watched the first couple of comics, I began to realize that this was possibly the best bar show in the country.
When it was my turn, I successfully climbed up on the bar without falling on my face or blowing out a knee. It’s funny. After all the times I’ve been told to get down from standing on a bar in my life, there is something very intimidating about being expected to stand on one. I closed the show that night with a 20-minute set. The crowd was still with me and I had a lot of fun.
There were a couple of times where they were laughing so much I broke stage character and laughed a little myself. Somehow a bar comedy show with no stage that went past midnight on a Tuesday was a huge success. I pulled into my parking spot a few minutes before 2 a.m. but it was well worth it.
That was only Tuesday. On Thursday, my whole weekend changed. I got a text around dinner time from Mitch Fatel, a headliner who has me open for him on the road quite a bit. I’m not sure what the confusion was, but he needed an opener last-minute for the next two nights in Long Island.
The pay was good, but I heard something about blizzard-like conditions in the Northeast earlier that day. I checked the weather for Long Island. “Blizzard Warning in effect for another 30 minutes.” “That’s it?” I thought. It would take me much longer than 30 minutes to get there, so I figured I’d be fine. “I’m in,” I replied, and started the nine hour drive early the next morning.
The drive turned out to not be that bad. The region had gotten hit with some snow, but it was mostly cleaned up by the time I got there. We had shows at two different clubs on Long Island - one in Nassau County on Friday and two in Suffolk County on Saturday. I’ve been lucky enough to perform at these clubs a couple of times before. Being so close to Manhattan, there is no shortage of comics, and stage time is hard to come by. Even though these are great clubs, the Long Island crowds can sometimes be a bit unruly, to say the least.
I’ve been reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. Some of these Long Islanders who come out to the shows remind me of the Jersey characters Springsteen writes and sings about in some of his early albums - working class Baby Boomers. The backbone of 20th Century America. They take pride in their contribution. It is part of their identity.
Many of them even work it in when introducing themselves. “How ya doing, I’m John. I come to this club every week … Yeah, I’m the doorman at the Grand Hyatt right by Grand Central. I have stories you wouldn’t believe” or “Hey, real sorry I was late to your show. I just got off work plowing the parking lots at JFK.”
They’re a loyal bunch. If they don’t like you, you’re in for a rough night, but if they do like you, they love you. With some prior experience and maybe a little luck, they loved us. Talking to some of them after each show, I felt as if they were a moment away from inviting me into their home for family dinner. I was thankful that I ended up getting asked to do the shows and glad that I said yes.
Our three shotgun shows were over, but I still had a nine-hour ride home. I didn’t really feel like going to bed, and I also didn’t feel like driving all day Sunday, so I just got in my car and left.
My fiance didn’t love the idea, but there was no stopping me once I kept telling myself the earlier I left, the earlier I’d be home. At one point I stopped and took a one-hour power nap. After that I caught a second wind when the sun started to come up. I made it home with a coffee in my hand and a check in my pocket, just in time for brunch. It felt good to have a busy stretch of days.
Maybe next week I’ll have a chance to get some sleep.
*Look back at Brian's stand-up journal:
- Part I: A funny guy from Buffalo tries to make it in stand-up
- Part II: Bad waffles, too much laughter and other tales from Albany
- Part III: Starting over every day and getting laughs from the Pledge
- Part IV: When life becomes a distraction from comedy
- Part V: Cats, burps, a fiancee and other comedy material
Brian will be writing about his stand-up life for the next two months, culminating in his March 25 appearance at Shea's. Visit buffalonews.com each week to follow along.