Dressed as the Unknown Comic from 'The Gong Show.' You remember 'The Gong Show."
You really only have two choices growing up in a dysfunctional family full of every kind abuse and neglect known to mankind: You can grow up to mistake giving hand jobs with getting hugs, or you can grow up to make money cracking inappropriate jokes about French-kissing your grandpa. I chose the latter. (With a just a smidge of undeserving handies.)
Humility aside, people have always told me I'm funny. Now, when you’re supposedly funny, people are also constantly saying you should be paid for it, like, say, as a stand-up comedian.
“Maaaaybe…” I always said. If only I wasn't so scared shitless at the mere thought of it, I thought to myself. But then one day I decided to not to be so scared shitless. I found a world-renowned stand-up comedy workshop that promised to make ANYONE a stand-up comedian in six weeks. Seemed legit.
I was excited to get my first comedy workshop email, which told me to bring a pen and paper to the first class, and gave the address for a place called Magicopolis.
SAY WHAT? Magic-fucking-opolis? I checked out the Magicopo-website, which contained lots of photos of the owner (who looked like a less-intriguing Salvador Dali) with various celebrities like Carson Daly, Ray Liotta and Kimberly from "Melrose Place," which, sadly, did impress me.
But even with a signed-photo testimonial from David Bowie ("I love this place!" wrote the Thin White Duke), it took all my strength not to cancel my credit card transaction at that very moment. But I forged ahead, ignoring all doubts. After all, this class had launched the careers of several comedy superstars, including Sherri Shepherd. Like I said, ignoring ALL doubts.
The first day of my workshop finally arrived. I walked into Magicopolis and entered the small auditorium where the workshop was being held. I sat down in the front row as other people who have been told they were funny their whole lives surrounded me trying to out yuk yuk each other.
Then the comedy guru entered the room, looking like a short Tony Robbins. She immediately barked out instructions for us to write down our life story, which really gave us a sense of the urgency of the class. After all, she had only had six weeks to turn us into the next "Seinfelds." I was, of course, paralyzed with panic and only managed to write down: born to a teen mom, grew up in Florida and moved to NY when I was 10, before she yelled "PENS DOWN!"
Wasting no time, she then proceeded to show us how easy it was to find topics for our act. She snatched my mini-bio from my hand and barked out "FLORIDA!" And then verbally machine-gunned, "THE 2000 ELECTION! CHADS! HURRICANES! OLD PEOPLE!"
I would like to point out that I did not take this class close enough to the year 2000 for these topics to be vaguely relevant. While I was no stand-up expert at this point, I was pretty sure all the chad jokes had been made at least five years earlier. She went on grabbing other people’s lists and yelling out what might as well have been "AIRPLANE FOOD! AIRPLANE FOOD! AIRPLANE FOOD!"
I was still in my dumbfounded stupor about the Florida jokes I assumed I was expected to write, jokes that were older than the residents of Florida ba-dum-dum, when I was paired up with my comedy buddy, a term that literally almost sent me screaming and running out of Magicopolis like I was a victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
I only stayed when I was assigned as a partner an eleven-year-old boy, who was adorably chubby with glasses and kind of looked like a character from the "Far Side" comics. He immediately instructed me to abandon Florida and focus on "Teen Mom." He helpfully suggested several more topical subjects to mine for humor, all of which were extremely awkward to discuss with a child. “That's a keeper!” he snorted after hearing the story about watching my mom porn-star ride a dude on a lawn chair at a party once.
I guess hearing about it at eleven is less traumatizing than seeing it happen at eleven. Then it was my turn to help him. He quickly cut me off by saying that he didn't think he'd be returning because the class just wasn't for him. I tried not to be too discouraged by the fact that an eleven- year-old unintentionally made me feel like a chump.
In the week before our next class we were supposed to come up with five jokes on our chosen topic and meet with our comedy buddy. I was reassigned a new comedy buddy, Carl, who never returned my calls. Fuck it, I thought. Writing jokes was easy using the world-famous comedy workshop joke-writing rules. Set-up (Must start with “You know what's scary/hard/weird or stupid?”) Punchline! Act out! I spent hours coming up with material and drinking Patron, as I sadly belly-laughed at all my jokes. “Fuck Carl,” I thought-slurred. Fuck all of them! I couldn't wait to go to the next class! I looked forward to showing all the coffee-breathed accountants and recent divorcees who had just re-entered the dating world how it was done!
I showed up to the second class prepared to kill. We were no longer meeting at Magicopolis and our coach was no longer the comedic Tony Robbins, as she had apparently been booked for some lucrative corporate gigs during the rest of our sessions. We were now in a claustrophobic black box theatre, our comedy success in the hands of Fran, a woman who was wearing a navy and white sweater adorned with gold anchors and who greeted us by saying, “You might remember me from my appearance on the Tonight Show.” I never thought I'd be longing for the woman who instructed me to make jokes about chads.
I patiently bided my time as my fellow aspiring stand-ups went up. I even joined the others with encouraging, forced laughter. Then it was my turn. I have to admit, I was looking forward to my "A Star is Born" moment.
(SIDENOTE: These are the actual jokes written for the class, jokes that I once thought were funny.)
It's hard growing up with a young mom, especially when you surpass her emotional maturity at the age of five. I mean, you see her mistakes coming a mile away!
Tom Selleck wannabe with a hairy chest and no job? Please, mom. Use a condom this time. And don’t let him live here for free if he promises to babysit.
Here, I paused for laughter. I actually had written this on my set. I should've written, pause for sad faces, “Awwws” and one “Poor thing” from Fran.There are some good things about having a young mom, though. I mean, you do have a lot of the same interests. “Can I have a sip of your margarita?” “Yes, but shut up. The Muppet Show is about to start.”
Silence. WTF!?! Where was my encouraging forced laughter? Were these not the same people who ten minutes ago were guffawing at a sweatpants-clad divorcee telling jokes about how she couldn't afford to go on the Atkins diet?
I persevered. My best was yet to come.
The weird thing is, you grow up with no guidance and then your mom starts feeling guilty and all of a sudden decides to be a parent when you’re a teen.“Punkin'? do you know how babies are made?” “After two daquiris?”
“That's all I have,” I said, quickly editing out the jokes about meeting my real dad for the first time and having him tell me he was proud I had a handful of tit.
Clearly this group would not see the humor in that classic rite of passage.
I left class feeling deflated, and was depressed about bombing for the whole week. The only thing that remotely cheered me up was when I finally met my comedy buddy, Carl, a depressed overweight gay guy with anger issues. We were a match made in comedy buddy heaven! I cried, he made me laugh so hard. Plus I was happy to have a partner who the class would find just as sad and unfunny as me. With setups like “It's really hard when you're sexually molested as a child…” and a bit where he threatened his homophobic grandma with anal sex, he never elicited a single chuckle. Except from me.
The rest of the workshop went pretty much the same: me (and now Carl) creeping the shit out of everyone with our "shocking" and "edgy" jokes, comedy coach Fran continuing to dress like she had just left a seniors’ singles cruise, and my constant inner monologue scolding me for ever thinking I was funny in the first place.
Finally our graduation show was upon us! Everyone was excited because the show was to be held at the Improv in Hollywood. I was mostly looking forward to watching Carl perform. I couldn't wait to see how an audience would respond to his Dahmer-esque comedy bits. I looked at the piece of paper on the wall to see where I was placed in the line-up. I was number thirty-three on the bill. I'm not even exaggerating for comic effect. I was third from the last to go up.
“I'm almost the closer,” I thought in a desperate attempt to put a positive spin on it. And then I waited.
I watched as comic after comic went up and got the feeblest of laughter from an audience that clearly wasn’t enjoying the show. Somewhere around comic number fifteen I received some shocking news. Carl had been kicked out of the club after he got into a physical altercation with the manager of the Improv. “He was banned for life,” an exasperated housewife/comic told me. “Why didn't I think of that,” I thought.
And still I stayed. I stood there waiting my turn, only moving to allow huge chunks of the audience out after the person they came to see had performed. By the time it was my turn, the club was nearly empty. I quickly rushed through my jokes. My friends, who had always told me how funny I was, of course, "loved it." I started reveling in the discomfort I caused the remaining audience.
"Thanks so much," I said, with strong undertones of "I fucking hate most of you" implied.
But in the end, I did it. For my friends, for my first comedy buddy the Far Side kid, and for Carl, who is probably taking his frustrations out on his poor grandma at this very moment.
In just six weeks I had become a stand-up comedian, bitter and ready to give up the biz.
Despite the complete failure of my stand up career, I still decided to pursue comedy writing. I knew I had to make it work somehow, I had too -- it was way too late in life for me to start dealing with my childhood trauma through sex while holding down a real job.
As the old saying goes: Comedy is hard. But hand jobs are harder. Or something like that.