I spend the last fading moments of a typical Friday night sipping a French Connection at a bar in the basement of the Hollywood Hotel. The midnight hour is at hand and the second open mic of the evening is about start. Been here since 10:30. A mix up got me on the list of this show instead of the earlier one. No big deal. I take this extra time to soak in the scene. The room is set up for comedy, which is always a good thing. Long and compact with low ceilings. Small tables spread thought the area on both sides with a modest bar in the back. Needless to say, the crowd is sparse. 8 at the most. Made up of comedians who anxiously eye their notepads, but are generous enough to offer the performer small snippets of attention. Nowhere else I'd rather be.
My boy D stares at me from his seat across the bar. He's pissed and isn't afraid to show it. I can't help but chuckle. After listening to half formed rants and one liners for an hour and a half, he has had enough. I apologize for the mix up (and for laughing in his face), then try to explain the beauty of this situation. Even though he came to tape my set, he's still privileged to witness comedy in it's rawest form. This room and rooms like it are croc pots of creativity. And few are able to see the process of slow cooked comedy greatness being conceived. D ain't buying it. He holds his stare and throws in a middle finger to make sure I get the point. I do. To top it all off, I'm low on the list of people to perform at this show also. A detail I have yet to share with D. It doesn't take a physic to know I got another middle finger coming my way in the near future.
I turn my attention from D and to the guy on stage. Bad idea. He ain't doing so hot. A young, cocky 20 something year old sporting tight jeans, glasses, wrinkled button up shirt and purposefully messed up hair is practically yelling onstage. He is throwing jokes a us and angry that we're are not sharp enough to appreciate his absolute brilliance. His nonchalant "I'm better than the audience" attitude is creating a thick cloud of silence in the room, causing the few that were watching to dive deeper into their prospective notepads. Even though he brought this on himself, I still feel for the guy. It's painful and lonely up there when the crowd isn't feeling anything that you are saying. A situation no comic ever looks forward to, but has to experience. The sting of discomfort causes me to reach for my drink for some soothing. To my complete and utter shock, its gone! The no nonsense bartender/ slash open mic host must have snatched it up, thinking I was done. I give him a not so subtle but still respectful look to signal what happened and he immediately fills my glass back almost to the top. Good dude. I'm guessing form the East Coast. He carries with him the kind of attitude that lets you know he could look you in the eye and say that you were either the salt of the earth, or a piece of shit without giving a damn which one left his mouth.
After setting my drink down, he scurries out of the bar to mercifully shine the light on the genius, letting him know he has a minute left to bless us with comedy gold. Little did I know, his awkward performance was foreshadowing for what would happen when I took the stage.
He introduces the next comic then tells me I'll be up after her on his way back. Just as he says that, another group of people enter the bar. About six more twenty something year old's. Three girls and two guys all satelliting one young blond. As soon as I see this configuration, I know the blonde is the comic. And her hipster friends have come out to support. My good spirits are lifted even higher. I'm glad that there are people here who might watch a set and actually give a shit.
I know my time to come up next is soon, so I glance at my set list and feel good about it. I'm excited about the new stuff i'm going to test out and have made a silent vow to just have fun. No matter what. Soon the realization hits that I'm actually not nervous at all. In fact, dare say it, I'm a little cocky. So much so, that the group that walked in before have now begun to annoy me. Well not so much the whole group, just one member. He shares the same self assured smugness as the guy that just crashed and burned on stage. Only more understated. As if he was saying directly to me, " Yeah, we both know how cool I am. I don't have to mention it."+
One last detail tips me over the edge. He's wearing sunglasses. As if that wasn't enough to win the gold medal in douchiness, one of the lenses is missing! That's it. He's going down. My comedic radar zero's in on him. Secretly collecting data to use against him when I go up. It's not hard. A small pattering of applause breaks me from my trance as a shy, petite brunette finishes her set and takes a seat. The bartender grabs the mike, squints at the piece of paper he is holding, then proceeds to stumble over my name. Even after this, I take the stage with no fear in sight.
From my vantage point, I can't see the group that just came in. For some reason, even though they're plenty of seats up front, they have all chosen to sit behind a pillar and the DJ booth. A spot that completely prevents the performer from getting feedback from them. I go in immediately " Is there some kind of quarantine over there the rest of us don't know about?". Not a great joke, but it shows I'm in the moment so I gt a few generous chuckles. That's when I decide to talk about Mr. Sunglasses. I mention how bad a decision it is to go out dressed like that, and at some point I call him an "Emo Pirate." That gets a more generous laugh from the scattered members of the crowd. And even from a couple of the kids sitting at the table with the pirate. Thanks to my teasing of Mr. Halfglasses, I'm sailing. I'm in that perfect nirvana that comes when you are living 100% in the moment. It is delicious. That's when I hear her voice. A shrill, anger tinged voice from somewhere behind the pillar yells out " He has Cancer!"
Time stood still. Three words have yanked me from comedy Shangri La and have sent me rapidly plummeting to hell. Every comic in the place lets out a collective "oohhhh", as if they were trying to verbalize the dread that just entered room. A second goes by but it feels as if it has been stretched out to and hour. I'm still breathing, even though all the air has been sucked from the room. My mouth goes dry. Panic has entered the building as is setting up shop in my mind. I'm in a room with a handful of people. Half of which I can't even see, but I feel as if i'm performing the National Anthem at the Super bowl and have forgotten the words.
Then, a strange thing happens. Repetition kicks in. The main advantage of performing on a regular basis ( and bombing a few times) is that you learn to stay cool under pressure. My sense of panic fades. My decent to the underworld of humiliation is halted by good old fashioned experience. In other words, I go into "fuck it" mode. I breath deep, compose myself, remember my promise to have fun, then decide to say the first thing that pops into my head. After allowing a smile, I say, "Oooh shit!"
The comics in the room laugh. They understand. It's stream of consciousness time. I take the focus away from the Pirate and onto how much of an asshole I am for calling him a pirate in the first place. I tell him that I'm not expecting his Facebook freind request anytime soon. I then suggest that he actually should friend me, write on my wall, "You're a fat asshole", then un-friend me, and that should make us even. After that gets a good response, I know that I have now officially won back the room.
I use the moment of goodwill I have earned to drop a couple of the jokes that I had planned to say, then get my ass off stage. To my surprise, I am met with applause. Even from the Pirate and his group. I take a moment to shake his hand, go to the bar, down my drink, pay for it, and signal to D that it is now officially time to leave.
As the cool night air hits my face outside of the Hotel, a wave of peace and relaxation sweeps over me. I can't help but to feel proud. A storm hit me tonight and I weathered it. I didn't panic. I dug in, and survived.
I also choose to ignore the fact that, I'm the one who caused the storm in the first place.