" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Thursday, May 14, 2009

APROPOS OF NOTHING: COMEDY @ 7800 FEET


Winter in Colorado's San Juan Mountains is a magical time. The jagged snow-clad peaks look down upon picturesque villages clad in white and evergreen.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the town is choked with tourists. The couple-hundred families that call it home own and/or manage the hotels and motels, jeep rental outfits, gift shops, candy kitchens and restaurants. It’s like a Brigadoon that takes American Express.
When the tourists leave, the storms come and shut down the roads . . .and insanity starts to leak out of the locals.
I thought about this one December night as I dashed down Ouray’s Main Street, pursued by a bar-full of angry, drunken patrons intent on killing me.
I had moved to that hamlet for the express purpose of getting on the ground floor of a career in radio. I was already a fledgling comic, but I figured I could make the trek back to Denver when I needed to, for gigs (this led to many harrowing 300-mile commutes in the dead of winter).
Seven months after I started, the station went under. Abruptly. So abruptly that I was stopped halfway up the steep staircase I ascended to start my shift and sent home.
Thanks to friends, I was soon waiting tables and tending bar at places that all seem to have hosted John Wayne while he was filming “True Grit.”
Meanwhile, the comedy boom of the ‘80s was rolling along so forcefully that even the lamest local shithole was staging a ha-ha night. The owner would wire a 100-watt bulb inside a punched-out coffee can, point it at a stack of pallets in the corner, buy a Mr. Microphone and watch the proceeds rrrrrrrroll in!
So some of my friends from the comedy circuit started coming through town, to better and worse effect (hint: smut worked well). All along, my townie friends would encourage me to join them.
I held back. Scared? Hell, yes. Scared that I would bomb so utterly that I would have to move. A small town is as devoid of cover as the Kansas prairie.
At last, one winter I was so broke that I consented to inaugurate another comedy night at a new bar we’ll call the Purple Weasel. The unscrupulous owner promised me $50 cash to emcee and open the night for another, vastly more renowned comic whose name I’d never heard of. We’ll call him Jeff.
Try as I might to find out more about the headliner, I couldn’t. I called all the clubs in Denver; no one had heard of him. I shrugged and went back to combing through my pile of tried-and-true dick jokes to come up with the best 20 minutes of material I could muster.
The night was at hand. I paced nervously in the back of the room as everyone I knew, and all the tourists in town, crowded into the joint. Even though I was used to sucking down Camels at altitude, I was having trouble breathing. Then the owner introduced me to the headliner.
Jeff was a sawed-off, beer-bellied, rat-tailed plumber from Nucla (later home of the infamous Top Dog World Championship Prairie Dog Shoot). Jeff had done a couple of new-talent nights here and there. Jeff was drunk. Jeff was high. Jeff had brought two dozen of his closest friends, and they had all chosen to sit together down front.
I gamely started off, moving slowly but surely into a position of command with the crowd. By the time I wound up my set, I had the audience with me.
Beyond the light, silhouetted against the backlit glow of bottles behind the bar, I could Jeff’s profile as he continued to down shots. Coke, I thought, he’s gotta be doing coke – it’s the only way he’s still standing.
I introduced him, and Jeff lurched unsteadily to the mic stand.
Now, most folks don’t mind some dirty jokes in a comedy routine – the genre is supposed to be transgressive. However, what followed was the longest string of incoherent schoolyard-level sex jokes ever told.
The women left first, after about five minutes. Then Jeff segued into his race-oriented material.
Now, don’t get me wrong – the mountain town is a haven of racism, misogyny, and all-around intolerance. Still, there are limits, and Jeff plowed through them like Kowalski in “Vanishing Point.”
Unfortunately, that night, for one of the few times in my experience, a black person was in town. And there he sat. Listening to this spew. I saw him blanch, stiffen as Jeff went on and on. Finally, one of Jeff’s friends leaned forward and whispered to him.
“What?” he gurgled, and swung around to his right. “There’s a nigger here? Oop. I’m sorry,” he concluded, and nimbly segued back into the little-boy-goes-to-a-whorehouse tales.
The black man left. With him went the rest of the locals, even the most hardened ranch hands. Jeff had been on for 20 minutes; he had 40 to go. The owner sidled up to me.
“What do you know about getting a guy off stage?” he whispered.
I thought for a second.
“Give me my money now,” I demanded.
“Can’t I write you a check tomorrow?” he whined.
“NOW,” I said, asserting myself as I so rarely did.
He knocked open the till and peeled the bills out of the drawer, handed them over to me. I marched to the stage.
I hit Jeff in the chest with the palm of my hand, pulling the mic out of his hand as he went down.
“Am I done?” he sang out as he hit the floor. I turned to the crowd.
“Thanks, Jeff! Jeff, ladies and gentlemen!” I crowed.
Then I made my final mistake of the night. I decided to woo the crowd back with some more humor. My addled attempt to be professional overlooked one vital fact: the only people left in the bar were friends of Jeff’s.
The mumbled threats began. “We’re gonna kill you, faggot!” a voice cried. The rest of the gang rumbled their approval.
“Ha-ha-ha!” I ad-libbed/stuttered.
“Yeah, we’re gonna fuck you up, motherfucker!” another voice sang out. “You’re dead!”
I wrapped it up, dropped the mic to the floor, and strode up the improvised aisle among them, through them, past them, then past the bar, the toilets, out the back door and into the frigid night.
I started jogging up the alley so I could cut over and make it to the bar where my friends were waiting . . . to congratulate me. Just as I emerged under the harsh street light, I glanced downhill half a block.
There were Jeff’s friends, milling up toward their cars and straight at me.
“THERE HE IS! GET HIM!”
It helped that I was acclimatized and familiar with the territory. I cut through yards, doubled back, happy only to feel the 50 bucks in my left front pants pocket. Dammit, if they dismembered me, at least I got paid.
For dramatic purposes, I would like to report that they killed me. However, the truth is that, after a few blocks, I shook them, and then hid out in the courthouse stairwell for a half-hour or so until I was sure they were gone. then I tiptoed gingerly to safety.
Still, I keep that memory as a badge of courage. Not only have audiences heckled me – once, one damn near killed me.