Portrait of the Artist as a Road Comic
Long Drives, Low Pay, and Drunks -- What a Life!
By J. C. Shakespeare, Fri., March 28, 1997
photograph by Minh Carrico
wide, setting up our tents wherever there's
a microphone, a spotlight, and a sign that says "Comedy Night." I rather fancy myself a roving court jester, traveling to the outposts of Texas
civilization and bringing laughter and good cheer, hoping not to be lynched by a militia if the NRA jokes don't go over too well. Hey, it's a crap shoot.
There is a certain degree of madness in this nomadic lifestyle. Here's the job description: You drive hundreds of miles for a 30-minute chance to make a barroom full of drunken strangers laugh. You get a place to stay and a hundred bucks if you can pull it off. Terrifying, right?
But consider the alternative. I used to wait tables -- job description: Anyone who walks through the door sits down, tells you what to do, you do it, then you hope they pay you!
I'll take the former, thank you. So now you're thinking, "Okay, sounds like good work, J.C. How do I get it?"
The first trial by fire for a comic is "open mike" night where a club invites anyone (and I do mean anyone) who signs up to perform onstage for five minutes. You'll be one in a long freight train of would-be comics; a typical open mike will have 20-30 performers. If you're new, you'll be put at the end of the show. If anyone's left in the audience by the time you get on, they'll be drunk, laughed-out, barely conscious, and usually rude. Be ready for deafening silence, blank stares, and complete apathy -- if you're lucky. On the worst nights, there will be heckling and loud, oblivious table conversation to overcome.
When you're getting stage time in five-minute chunks, it can take months, even years, to develop a 30-minute set. But when your fragile ego has been slapped so hard for so long that it's as leathery as elephant hide, you're ready for the next level.
You have your 30-minute set (which means a punchline about every 15 seconds, or 120 jokes). Now you must capture your sizzling comedic magic on tape so you have a product to sell. Finding a place to do 30 minutes in front of a loud, appreciative crowd is a topic for another day, but when the gods finally smile on you and you get a good set on film, you're ready for the road.
The comedy market today is a little different than it used to be. Ten years ago, comedy was king -- or at least a dashing young prince (yeah, yeah, yeah... or princess) -- of the entertainment world. Just about every little town that had a bar spawned a comedy club, and the clubs made money. Lots of money. Supply struggled to meet demand, and a lot of people who should never have had access to a microphone were making a living on the comedy circuit. The best comics (or those with the best agents) made it to television, where a spate of cable shows -- A & E's Evening at the Improv, Caroline's Comedy Hour, and Showtime, to name a few -- made comedy available around the clock.
Naturally, this comedy glut couldn't last forever, and when the pendulum reversed itself, clubs started closing as quickly as they had popped up. Which brings us to the present. There are still a lot of major clubs in major cities, but the circuit is cliquish and plenty hard to crack. The alternative is a network of small, independent booking agents who manage to keep a string of "one-nighters" or weekend rooms open in the smaller towns, usually cities that are so bereft of culture that when a smartass stranger comes to town and sets up a soapbox in the neighborhood saloon, the locals flock in from the fields to drink, spend money, and dare the outsider to make 'em laugh. This means that I get to head out to bizarre spots like Waco, College Station, and most recently, Midland -- cities ideally suited to welcome my particular brand of wacky, left-of-center, anti-corporate comedy with open arms. Yikes!
Midland is a weekend gig in the bar of the downtown Hilton. As I leave Austin at 7am Friday morning, the I-35 rat race is in full swing. I cut across Cesar Chavez with the first sunbeams dancing across Town Lake and hit Mopac, where I'm finally free and going against the grain of traffic, which is flowing like a butter-clogged artery into the workaday world.
As soon as I'm past Oak Hill and out on the open road, I light a joint. The soothing wake 'n' bake buzz brings a radiant clarity to the golden green lushness of the Hill Country. I settle into the rolling highway rhythms and my thoughts unfold, pushing out to the edges of the receding horizon. I was born to ride the Texas highways, across this land once trampled by the hoofbeats of primitive tribes and bullet-spewing badmen toting sacks of pilfered gold... whoa! Watch out for the skunk!
Clearly, the Hill Country teems with varied fauna, as I can see by the flattened specimens of wildlife in its unnatural habitat -- the highway.
I've had to give up one of my favorite vices on this trip: speeding. Imagine a 500-mile commute over rural Texas highways, and you can see how one might be tempted to haul ass. With three tickets in the last six months, however, I've been financially coerced into obeying the law. As I approach Fredericksburg, I make an interesting discovery: It's a lot more dangerous not to speed. Nothing pisses off one's fellow motorists more than strict adherence to the speed limits. As I manhandle the brakes to comply with the 70 to 55 to 45mph zones, the line of vehicles behind me nearly piles into the bed of my truck.
"Back off, folks, I'm trying to obey the law here!"
An angry one-fingered salute. "Up yours, hippie boy!"
"Gee, sorry, sheriff!"
Later, I pass one of those old dudes in his cowboy hat and muddy pickup, puttering along in the right lane. I glance over and wave, and an epiphany strikes -- that man's face! Not a trace of stress, tension, or worry! Not like the psychotic, screwed-up faces in the mad rush to work. This is the key to life! These old codgers are content because they know it is pointless, dangerous, and harmful to the health to rush everywhere. Slow down. Enjoy the ride. That's why we're here.
The back roads of Texas offer all sorts of little surprises, like the tiny town of Brady that pulls you off the highway and makes you do-si-do around the town square. I hit San Angelo around lunchtime and stop at a Mexican joint called Hidalgo's for a steaming plate of steak, eggs, and warm tor-tillas washed down with a pot of cowboy coffee. Fortified for the last leg of the journey, I head back to the main road, watching the river mosey through the center of this quaint, quiet town.
When Highway 87 gives way to 158, it's a straight shot across the vast plains to Midland. After 90 miles or so, the city suddenly appears like some metallic Oz in the desert. Four miles out of town, my nose picks up a distinct and different smell... sniff, sniff... hmm, is that methane? Must be the smell of money.
By 1:30pm, I'm settled into the Hilton downtown, and I have eight hours until showtime. Though it's cool and breezy, I don my trunks and head outside to boil myself in the hot chlorine vats they call jacuzzis. After, it's a leisurely hour-long shower; god, how I love big hotels where the hot water never runs out! I could pull a chair and a few pillows into the tub and build a little steam nest! I'm sure the maids would love that.
After an afternoon nap, I call room service and order the grilled red snapper (Midland being a mecca for fresh seafood!) and a glass of chardonnay. I open the curtains and look out over the vast panorama of lights coming on across the plains. Feeling expansive, I charge my meal, banking on that future stardom I'm counting on to pay today's bills. I know that's not very prudent, but let's face it, you have to be a little cocky to make it in this business.
photograph by Minh Carrico
The set goes well, helped along by a table of large, jolly women who cackle hysterically at damn near everything that comes out of my mouth. The pot material is just slaying them.
"What's with you guys?" I ask. "Got a big tank of nitrous oxide under your table or something? Man, I wish we could pump that stuff through the vents. It'd make comedy a lot easier."
I slip seamlessly into my Marlboro television commercial (sorry, you'll have to see the act for that one), which finishes up with a segue into my Limbaugh routine. "Don't worry about the environ-ment, though. The great genius Rush Limbaugh has pronounced, `It is the height of human vanity to believe that man can harm the planet.' Oh really, Rush? I believe it's the height of human vanity to think you're right all the time!"
Dead silence. Gee, what a surprise. Time to go to plan B.
"By the way, folks, say hello to Newt Gingrich up at the bar there."
Everyone turns to look and they have to laugh; the guy's a dead ringer for Gingrich.
"What's the matter, `Newt'? Didn't like that one?"
"Newt" looks up from his 10th scotch. "Nope."
"Hey, is that a Rush tie you're wearing?"
"I could tell because the tie's just like Rush... loud and wide!"
That wins them back enough to return to my material. I wind up the set, baffling them with bits on the V-chip and the Internet. Apparently, technology hasn't branched out to Midland yet. But I make fun of Clinton for his inability to decide if he wanted to get high or not -- big points from the decidedly right-of-center crowd -- and then the big "government out of our lives" closer.
"See, folks, if we really want to get the government out of our lives, we have to take responsibility for the way we live. If you don't like dirty pictures on the Internet, don't look at them. If you don't like sex and violence in the movies, don't go to them. You want to pray in school, that should be fine. You don't want to pray in school, that should be fine, too. See how this works, folks?
"You don't like pot, don't smoke it. Bake it into brownies and eat it!" Brownies get them every time! "Thank you, Midland. Good-night!"
While the headliner rails on women and relationships ("I don't really have an act; it's more of a confession"), "Newt" is buying me drinks at the bar. I graciously soak up this supply-side largesse while watching him degenerate into complete sloppy drunkenness, groping sexual harassment, obnoxious small penis references, and whining pleading for cocaine. With a mixture of horror and rapt fascination, I egg him on.
"What about the war on drugs, `Newt'?"
"Fuck the war on drugs. Got any cocaine?" Cindy the bartender comes over and refills "Newt"'s scotch glass. "Ooh, c'mere, honey," he slurs, "you shore got pretty tits. I bet that little fag boyfriend uh yerszh got a tiny dick. Know why. Got tiny fingers."
I look at "Newt"'s own digits. Amazingly childlike. Oh dear, the debasing self-revelation phase has begun.
"So, `Newt,' how'd you make your money?"
"I married it. Then the bitch left me."
"Shocking! So what do you do now?"
"I don't do shit! I own oilfields. Got more money 'n I know what to do with. Got any cocaine?"
How refreshing to find a Republican so staunchly defending the traditional-values party line.
At the end of the show, I post myself by the door, hoping my fellow stoners will stop by on the way out with a wink and a bud-laden handshake. No one's giving it up tonight. Oh well.
"Newt" stumbles out to drive home. Good luck, you fat bastard.
The next morning I wake up without the aid of an alarm clock. This is the beauty of life on the road -- aside from that 30 minutes on stage, my time is completely mine. No boss, no deadlines, just pure unadulterated freedom. That's the real pay.
My favorite thing to do on the road is read. Holed up in a comfy hotel room, none of the distractions of home to tempt my attention, I devour huge chunks of reading material. Today I plow through a couple hundred pages of Frank Zappa's autobiography (not only was he a musical genius, but Mr. Zappa possessed one of the great comic minds of our time). I believe that the only way to view our society in an objective fashion is to turn off the mainstream media and delve below the surface. For starters, purchase Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire CD. Open the liner notes and you'll see a pile of books ranging from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist to The Anarchist Cookbook to Ben Bagdikian's Media Monopoly. Read these books, and anything by Noam Chomsky, and you'll soon come to the conclusion that government is a puppet show and big business pulls the strings. Once you become aware of the presence of the corporate fascist state... oops, I forgot, this is a comedy article! Heh heh. Yeah, now my job is to try and make this stuff funny to crowds of overweight drinking conservatives who paid to hear a few dick jokes. Phew! Better work on the dick jokes.
Later, I hook the camcorder up to the TV and watch my set from the night before. This is an invaluable exercise, for one's perception of how a set went is often very different from the recorded reality. Lately I've been working on the opening segment of my act because the opener is the key to winning the crowd. A good opener establishes who you are and where you're coming from, and I've always struggled with this part of the act. This is the spot where most comics who look like someone famous come out and make a joke about it. I have a slight resemblance to Brad Pitt, but what's funny about that? (Please send ideas to me in care of this paper.)
photograph by Minh Carrico
The room is packed on Saturday night. I fire off my first three jokes... absolutely nothing. Okay, so it's not the delivery, it's the material. The crowd stares uncomfortably, looking at me like they think I'm going to fold. Wrong. I give them a hard 10-second stare. I can wait all night, folks. My home club is the Velveeta Room. I thrive on deafening silences and dumb stares.
"You know, folks, I practice these jokes by myself back at the house. I'd like to thank you guys for making me feel right at home."
That breaks the uncomfortable silence. Then I rear back and throw the old fastball -- the kd lang joke -- right down the middle of the plate. They love that one! "Okay, so it's country music and lesbians you people want, huh? I think I've found your level."
I loosen up onstage and the crowd loosens up as well. Things go smoothly until a bunch of guys from the Bridgestone tire convention show up drunk and start their own show in the back of the room. If I want them to shut up, I'll have to confront them. "I see we've got the tire guys in the back, huh? The rubber barons."
"Yup. That's us."
"Great to have you. How about shutting the fuck up? I didn't barge into your sales meeting this afternoon and holler, `The Michelin Man's better than you!'"
"That's pretty funny," one of them yells.
"Thank you, sir. Here's a guy so dedicated to the tire business, he has treadmarks in his trousers."
The rest of the crowd hoots and applauds at that one and, victorious, I return to my material and finish the set. Not a great one but certainly fun. It's like my buddy Howard Beecher says, "When you're the opener, you're comedy Jesus. You sacrifice your set so that others may kill."
Which is precisely what happened. The opener's job is to establish a tone and whip the crowd into shape. Essentially, I'm getting them ready to laugh at the headliner. I set 'em up, the headliner knocks 'em outta the park. All part of paying one's dues, I suppose.
Normally after the final weekend show, I sit around and knock down a few cold ones, but I have to be back in Austin for a play rehearsal Sunday afternoon, so I check out of the hotel after the show and hit the highway at midnight. A startlingly bright full moon lights up the plains as I cruise down the silver ribbon of empty highway unfurling before me. There is an inexplicable mystique to the West Texas plains, something vast and untamed that draws the soul out of its usual confines and shows it the splendor of the wide open world. This is my time for quiet reflection, a realization that I have an infinite amount of learning still ahead of me so I might as well enjoy the ride. A long, long night of driving lies ahead and the country music on the radio is the perfect accompaniment.
After a stop in San Angelo for coffee and gas, I tune in to a radio station playing some great music. Each song is thematically connected to the next, and the music plays on and on without a commercial break -- Little Feat, Joe Ely, Johnny Cash, Dylan, Patsy Cline, and a bunch of great songs I'd never heard in between. I think to myself, "Man, I'm going to have to call someone in San Angelo and find out what station this is! It's dynamite!"
Then, just before the station fades out, a familiar voice crackles out of the stereo: It's Larry Monroe doing his Up All Night show. I wind my way back through the Hill Country, rolling down Highway 71 with a sharp eye on the speed limit signs. Herds of deer mill on the edges of the road; missing moving targets keeps me wide awake.
As I come around a turn on the Southwest Parkway, the Austin skyline pops into view. What a wonderful feeling. I can visualize my wife in bed, curled up with the dogs, keeping my spot nice and toasty warm. I tune in KUT and catch the end of Larry's show as I coast through the quiet city I love. Ah, Austin, where the Rush jokes always get applause, the Pentecostal "speaking-in-tongues" bit won't get me crucified, and the V-chip and the Internet are household words.
Wake, up honey! I'm home!
J.C. Shakespeare is a comic and actor.