|A Tough Room
I was terrified. I rested my head against the wooden door that separated me from a room full of people howling with laughter at the worst jokes I had ever heard. I was up next.
I had been unofficially “passed” at the comedy club a few weeks earlier. After failing an audition they called me back anyway and gave me paid spots every Wednesday night. The crowds were light and any heckling was good natured. One evening I got a call to do the late Friday night spot. I agreed. Simply being asked to perform was reward enough, but a weekend late show? Absolutely.
When I got there I noticed that I was the only white comic on the bill. I had learned that being Irish had rendered me neutral in such affairs but I then noticed that I was still the only white guy among the entire crowd waiting to enter. The host was a polite skinny comic with wild hair. He seemed confused that I was on the bill and said he would put me up first. Something wasn’t right so I hit the bar and immediately began double fisting Indian Pale Ales, as they have the highest alcohol content and tend to render even the toughest gigs smooth as a sad Lincoln car ride home.
When the MC hit the stage he morphed into an furious street thug and screamed up into a microphone that he held upside down just above his face.
Where my Puerto Ricans at? A small table clapped. Oh yeah, there you are! Hey ladies watch your handbags and cover yo’ assholes! Boom! The room erupted. Dominicans were next. What kind of show was this? Why was I booked? I thought of my set and how whimsical and nice it all was. Maybe I should write more edgy material or perhaps I should just check the shows i’m booked on in future. Christ, i’m opening with a bit about my Irish mother. I’m so fucked.
To my growing horror I listened to the MC talk at length about a recent event that had happened in New York in which a black man was pulled over driving home by two white cops and shot over fifty times because he reached for his driver’s license too quickly. The room vibrated with anger, and oddly enough, laughter. I seriously thought of running away. Every time the MC acted out the gruesome killing, more people slapped their hands on the tables and shouted out with incredulity.
“The first comic tonight is a real good friend of mine” he said as he fumbled for a piece of paper before turning it around in his hands a few times. Please welcome to the stage…Mr Collins Dempsey.
As I walked to the stage through the crowd I got an applause so loud I presumed it was sarcastic. Grabbing the microphone I looked into the crowd and was met with a mix of confused, disinterested and genuinely concerned facial expressions. I started into my material immediately.
Three minutes in and barely getting a chuckle someone shouted out, “Hey, do you work for UPS?” I looked down and realized I was wearing a brown shirt, brown trousers and brown shoes. My lack of fashion sense often means I leave the apartment in a less than aesthetic coordination of color, but this was a major oversight. I did indeed look like I worked for UPS. The crowd erupted for the first time and I turned to address the heckler only to see her texting.
A large man sitting in front of the stage shouted out something I couldn’t understand. I turned to address the new heckler by asking his name. “Flip” he said. All I could do was ask the obvious “Why are you called Flip?”. “Oh you know, because I like to F to the L to the I to the P,” he responded.
This sounded more like subway directions than an answer.
He continued talking but his accent was so strong I couldn’t understand a word of it. As I tried to have a conversation with him in order to mine some jokes, a table at the back of the room began talking amongst themselves. This is the worst. Another stream of heckles came from Flip but the more I tried to hit him with a comeback the more I realized I had no fucking idea what the hell he was talking about.
Normally you get the crowd on your side in order to shut the heckler up. Unfortunately, in this case, I learned he had brought the crowd. In just a few short minutes I had lost the whole room except for three girls in the front row who grimaced through it all, wanting me to do well.
I tried to move on to other material but it was all story-based jokes with no real zingers. I struggled to remember my earlier stuff that had actual jokes but it seemed pointless. After an attempt at recalling a funny anecdote at a recent concert of The Shins, someone in the crowd cried out “Will somebody please bounce this motherfucker from the stage!” The room cheered. The MC appeared at the side of the room as my lifetime of fifteen minutes was up.
As I walked out through the crowd, Flip called me over in a manner that told me I had no choice. He squeezed my hand and pulled me close, “You passed the test, you’re an American now. Well done bro, you’re alright”. I thanked him and left confused for the stairs. Outside the room I heard the MC explain to the crowd that it was my first time on that particular show and that I deserved a round of applause. He could have shit on me but didn’t, and I got the applause.
My embarrassment exploded to new levels when I remembered that the show was being shown live in the lounge upstairs on giant flat screen TVs, a lounge I had to go through to leave the building. I tip-toed to the top of the stairs and peaked around the corner. The manager and other performers had their backs to me at the bar. There was no way I was going to collect my $20 and when I was sure they weren’t looking I ran out the door to the street outside. I made my way to the subway and tried to evaluate what had just happened all the way home.
It was late when I got back to the apartment, I opened the fridge and found my roommate’s bottle of vodka. I poured myself a stiff drink, crashed on the couch and turned on the TV. Comedy Central came on and a comedienne was shouting at an audience similar to the one I had just died in front of. It was a lot of noise about nothing. She seemed as disconnected from them as I had been, but she was winning. She was awful, the absolute worst. In a strange way it made me feel a whole lot better.
– June 2009
* New York Shots are those small moments that happen while living in New York. They’re so small that they are rarely mentioned yet take up considerable space in various notebooks I carry around with me at any given time. This blog was started as a writing exercise and I thought this would be a nice way to write shorter snippets of life in NYC. They won’t always be interesting but I don’t want them forgotten either.