The Article Nobody Wanted
Anyway, since the article seems bafflingly dead and unmourned by the three most likely outlets for its publication, I figure I may as well publish it here now. I'll have other things to write in the future. In the meantime, it's a fun story, and those of you who are new to it may find it of interest:
LAST COMIC STANDING . . . AND STANDING, AND STANDING . . .
A writer reports on the comedy show tryouts
By the time I make it to Caroline’s at 50th and Broadway where NBC is holding the auditions for the fourth season of Last Comic Standing (a competitive-comedy reality show), the line of hopefuls forms a huddled and stamping mass, four humans wide, that stretches around the corner—and then, once you make it there, halfway down the next corner as well. It’s a more diverse crowd than I expected. Although the sidewalk is dominated by the twenty-something male demographic that constitute standup’s unfortunate spine, there are older people as well, and an encouraging number of women. All told, there must be five hundred people here, and I am one of the last to arrive—becoming, temporarily, the last comic standing in line.
Admittedly, I arrived at 10:30, later than I expected. Before I could take the subway from Washington Heights, I had to wander through my neighborhood for over half an hour, looking for a free parking space that wouldn’t be street-cleaned at noon. I found one after making an ever-widening gyre, and then had to walk all the way back to my apartment, change into my usual cowboy outfit, and wait for the next subway train. I actually need the outfit because a few of my jokes depend on it. (E.g., “These boots are so cool I no longer require self-esteem.”) But in all honesty, I don’t really know what I’m going to do. The website said to bring three minutes of TV-friendly material, and that only eliminates two of my bits—one about necrophilia and one about having sex with an ostrich. (An inflatable ostrich. As the bit points out, I’m not a freak.) Three minutes constitutes between nine and fifteen jokes, and I assume I’ll have enough time waiting on line to work out the details.
Seconds later, a young black man in his late twenties or early thirties joins the line right behind me. “Oh, man!” he moans. “Is this the end of the line? I swear, I’m like the last comic standing right here.” His name is Corey Michaels, and unlike many comics I’ve met, where you can never tell if they’re telling you an actual story or trying out material, Corey is honest and easy to chat with. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he tells me. “My wife made me come. I haven’t done stand-up in six years.” He got into it almost by accident, performing first in El Paso on a dare and then spreading to other areas, mostly throughout the West, amazed, he says, that people kept paying him. “I had a great time,” he said. “I hear horror stories about bad crowds or people heckling you or whatever, but I never bombed and I never had a bad night. I did seventy shows and retired undefeated.”
I nod as if I get it, but there I have to differ. I haven’t done stand-up in ten years myself and retired quite defeated indeed. After performing open mikes in my home town of Tucson for four years, developing material five minutes at a time and having middling success, I moved to Kansas City to write humor cards for Hallmark, and was so appalled at the homophobia and sexism of the city’s most popular comics, I retired from that sideline in protest. I’d spent the last six years in Tallahassee, Florida, where there is no comedy scene at all. But old tendencies have grip, and although I’d only been in New York a week, I’d found myself, just last night, observing an open mike night in the Village and thinking, over and over again, “I could do better than that guy . . .just get me up there, dammit!” That’s where I learned that Last Comic Standing was holding auditions today. One of the running jokes was that so-and-so wasn’t here tonight because they were camping outside Caroline’s in twenty-degree weather, waiting to go on. We all laughed at these crazy dreamers. Now, considering the turn-out, they seem flinty-eyed and pragmatic. And I bet, if nothing else, they got on TV. How could any producer resist televising at least one sweep of the camping hopefuls on the sidewalk outside? I hope some of them remembered their props.
Corey and I are joined by Linda Meris (sometimes Linda Skwer) and Leela “Momma Z” Zapetti, two women I placed in their forties. “Oh, my god!” says Linda, in perfectly accented Manhattanese. “Is this the end of the line? We’re like, literally, the last comics standing out here!” Momma Z is a working comic who’s traveled all over. She and Linda commiserate for a while about the difficulty of being women in the biz. “The shit they try to pull, I bet they’d never try it on a man,” says Linda, and Momma backs her up with stories of two-hundred-dollar purses that turn into hundreds, club owners who try to get extra work out of their talent by making them unpaid hosts, et cetera. Standard bottom-feeder showbiz sleaze, and they’ve been slogging away at it for years. Linda also sings and acts, and she had an audition yesterday and has another tomorrow, and it sounds like the proudest moment for her, after all this work, has been a role in a highly-regarded off-off-Broadway production of Annie. Really? I think. I look at this line—a thousand people clawing for a chance to make it to the middle. For a second I feel like I’m a minor character in Broadway Danny Rose.
Linda begins complaining about the mistreatment we’re all receiving. “If they really cared about us, they’d have the auditions in spring, you know, and they’d have called us up and assigned numbers. We’d be waiting inside right now, instead of out here in the cold.” She speaks truth. It’s about forty degrees out, but it drops like a death sentence every time a wind slices past, which is often. And a grumpy old guy nearby grouses about how, on the website, they promised that if you sent in a video of your work, or some kind of proof that you were a real working comic with actual representation, they’d give you a personal phone call and more time to perform. Instead, he’s gotten bupkes.
And yet, despite agreeing with all this in principle, I actually expected no less. Unlike singing, which everyone thinks they can do (and which has inspired the karaoke bar and this show’s obvious antecedent, American Idol), comedy is a niche occupation. And perhaps because so few people actually do it seriously, no one really respects the challenges involved. When I was writing at Hallmark, the only sure way to advance was to stop writing humor and move to the serious writing staff. When I wrote my first novel, it was rejected by one agent who said, “The problem is that it’s funny, and that makes it a tough sell. You’re almost better off making people cry than you are trying to make them laugh.” Comedians go last on the late-night talk shows . . . until they become actors, and then they move to the front of the bill. So inviting us to stand outside in the weather like so many unloved dogs just feels like par for the profession. We get no respect. I’m just glad this didn’t happen two weeks ago, when there was actual snow in the air, and two feet of accumulation in Central Park.
Linda seems to know everyone, and keeps craning to catch the eyes of contacts further up the line. She turns out to be extremely useful in keeping us abreast of rumors. “They say that they’ve got so many people already that they’re only letting people do a minute of material instead of three,” says one guy, announcing it back toward us stragglers. (“Well, I’m glad for that,” says Michael Ramin, a tall handsome comedian who says he can do a hundred different voices and sounds. “At least that means we get in.”) Another says that they’re going to send us all chips and drinks to thank us for waiting. (No one believes it, and it’s not true.) A pissed-looking thirtyish man in a very nice suit passes us, hands balled tightly in his pockets, and calls out, “You’d better all go home. They’re all full up, and they can’t possibly get to you.” Then he heads for the subway. This causes a moment of somber doubt, but Linda adds wisdom. “They can’t be full up,” she says. “I’ve been up there. The line hasn’t moved yet. They obviously haven’t even started auditioning.”
“He was probably just trying to psych us out,” says Corey, who, in a line full of hopefuls, is the most optimistic guy I meet all day.
A tedious hour passes, and I’ve just started to wish I’d chosen a different set of boots, when an excited muttering aerates the crowd: here comes a camera crew, along with someone who looks like a host! (“I should know who that guy is,” says Corey. “He’s on that one show about his wife and kids.” I suggest “My Wife and Kids,” but that’s not it. Turns out it’s “Yes, Dear”’s Anthony Clark.) This is Plan B. If we can’t win the contest, maybe we can get exposure on TV anyway! Sure enough, the camera crew wends to the very back—maybe thirty more people have joined by now—and the host interviews some old guy that no one seems to recognize. The intra-comic sniping starts immediately. “Why’d they pick that guy?” mutters a woman near me. “Just because he’s old?” “I’ve been to every club in the Village and I’ve never seen him,” adds a young man. “Maybe he performs at Rascal’s,” sniffs a third comic. Rascal’s is in Jersey, and seems to be unspeakably downmarket. I feel very new here.
What horrifies me, however, is the few lines I can hear. “So,” says Host Clark. “Which member of your family would you kill to be on Last Comic Standing?” A question which clearly has no funny answer, since the last mother-in-law joke died in a museum in 1959. (“My uncle” would arguably be the best of the bad options, since it has that funny k sound.)
“Oh, goodness! Nobody,” says the old man, obviously disturbed by the question. “For me, comedy is about sharing laughter and . . .” I don’t hear the rest because I actually put my fingers in my ears and hum, waiting for the pain to stop. But it doesn’t stop. The old man apparently rates a second wacky question, viz. “And if you were a vegetable, what kind of food would you eat?”
I don’t even bother to listen. My professional pride is deeply insulted by this. Why, for the love of god, would you try to generate humor with such awful, joy-killing set-ups? “Oh, wow!” says Momma Z beside me. “I wish he’d asked me that question. I know exactly what I’d have said. Kumquat!” See, there’s your problem right there. This is supposed to be comedy, not Scrabble. In an ideal world, I imagine myself dressing down Anthony Clark and saying, “That’s a stupid question and I bridle at this entire depressing exercise in artificial wackiness.” But of course, I know that in the heat of action and the pressure of nascent fame I would have just knuckled under and said, “Um . . .my wife, Mrs. Carrot.”
As it turns out, I’m the next target. I assume it’s because I’m wearing a cowboy suit, which is sort of what I was counting on. (Note to the grousers behind me: if you want to get on TV, stay on the outside of the line where the cameras are!) We have to wait a moment while they switch camera batteries, and Mr. Clark stands near me, mike poised, and looks down at a scrawl-covered sheet of paper with questions on it. From my angle, I can see his thumb partially obscuring a line that reads “If u were veg., what kind . . .” Please, god, not a repeat of that one. Because we have a few moments of downtime, I’m tempted to say, “Dude, if you tell me what question you’re going to ask, I’ll have a few extra seconds to think of something funny. That’ll be good for you, good for me—and since this is televised, it’s basically good for the whole country, plus parts of Canada.” But of course, that would be cheating. I keep forgetting this is a competition.
We’re on. “So,” says Anthony Clark, “Do you think being on Last Comic Standing will help fulfill your dreams?” Or something like that. I barely remember the question, except that it led to me rambling about how, if I make it here, I intend to go on to become a pop icon, survive, dance with one or more stars, and eventually do commentary on ESPN3. “It sounds like you’ve got a lot of big plans,” says the host. “Yeah,” I say. “Lots of irons in the fire.” I can’t stop talking in cliches. I suck. This is why I prefer writing.
“So,” says Anthony Clark, “are you a fan of the insurgency?”
The hell? “No,” I manage. “But I do hate America.” The camera crew laughs. Score! My on-camera reputation is saved! But Clark just stands there, and the mike doesn’t waver. Apparently the bit isn’t over. I want to say, “That was the punchline. It was funny. We can stop now.” But, with the pressure on, I keep trying. Insurgency. Young men dying in a war we shouldn’t be fighting. No body armor. What’s funny about IEDs? Think, man! I fumfer and mumble and blank out, and finally say, “You know, I’ve got nothing. You’ll just have to edit this part out. Frankly, I’m not sure I even understand the premise.”
Undaunted, he asks me, “What’s your favorite color—yellow or coconut?” That wacky k sound again! Won’t someone please kill it?
“Actually, I’m colorblind,” I say. “And thanks so much for reminding me, you heartless bastard.” More laughs. Yes! Dave sticks the dismount! And the host, sensing closure, moves on. To give him his due, it occurs to me later that he gave me four whole questions because he evidently sensed I had potential to give him workable material. And I like to think he was right. But you know what would make his job even easier? Helpful fucking questions. If this fly-by was supposed to set the tone, I smell a pretty depressing season of comedy.
Which, come to think of it, may be another reason comedy gets no respect. Unlike singing or dancing or the other arts, comedy, by its very structure, sets up expectations and promises to fulfill them in a surprising way: a perfectly elegant marriage of premise and punchline. Which means that comedy, more than any other art form, is vulnerable to the anger of disappointment. You can listen to a mediocre song and it’s okay. You can watch a clumsy dancer and not feel ripped off. But a bad joke is actively irritating, and creating a show full of bad jokes is like televising an hour-long headache. Everyone wants to laugh, but after you’ve been burned once or twice, you start to let the invitations pile up on the table. Small wonder that Last Comic Standing has suffered in the ratings. It’s competing with a bunch of other shows that might be called Actually Good Comics Consistently Performing to Spec.
Speaking of which, although comics can be a snarky bunch, everyone here loves Jon Stewart and thinks he did a great job at the Oscars. I know this because after the camera crew leaves to go further up the line, nothing else happens. We wiggle forward in a few glacial steps, but mostly we have lots of time to stand around and talk. One of the people has actually met Jon Stewart and says, “No one has any idea how crazy he is in real life.” Everyone seems to hate Robin Williams. We pass a head shot of John Witherspoon (the dad from “Friday”) and in a moment borrowed from every music discussion I’ve ever had, the onlookers agree that “he used to be good, but lately he’s starting to suck.”
And then, shockingly, the line moves forward in a large all-at-once clump. (I check my watch; it’s just shy of noon.) We find ourselves literally turning a corner, and here there is sunlight and warmth, and the whole thing seems like a metaphor for our own hopes of recognition and fame, now a little closer and in reach. Sure, we stop dead again, but something is at least happening! People begin to form chatty clusters of four or five, comparing histories and anecdotes. Everyone seems to have been doing comedy for several years, performing at big-name places like Caroline’s and The Laugh Factory—places that seem hopelessly out of reach to me.
We stand and wait and inch forward and stand and wait some more. If this were a comedy, right here would be a good cue for a tumbleweed. Time passes—and the sun, meanwhile, hides behind a cloud like it knows what’s coming—and eventually, just as we’re about to turn the second corner and actually see the Caroline’s entrance, a police officer comes toward us with both his hands raised, followed by two quiet men in official-looking corporate outfits, and I know we’re sunk.
“I’m going to tell you people what I told those people behind you,” says the cop, who is so direct from Central Casting he could have been played by Danny Aiello. The resemblance is so striking I can’t look away. “This is what’s happened. The show is full up and they’re not taking any more. So you might as well all go home.” The time is 2:30.
And what’s amazing is that about a fifth of the people stay. Even when this meme has spread, no one seems willing to actually give up. Perhaps it was the opportunity cost—I’ve been standing here for hours, what more can I lose—but I think it was also the reaction to rejection that characterizes any comic who survives. For a comedian, rejection is always an option. (This is especially true for joke writers; even after I’d gotten the job, about eighty percent of what I wrote for Hallmark was killed within twenty-four hours.) But comedians—more so than even actors and singers—have to perform in hostile environments, with crowds that not only ignore them but sometimes actively take up hostile arms. And yet this next joke might win them over, and the whole environment could change in twenty seconds. So a comedian is sustained by a form of hope that’s the same sort of random reinforcement that keeps lab rats obsessively pushing the lever. Once there was cheese, and there may be more any second now; if I stopped pushing the lever once too soon, I’d have only myself to blame. And I need it so much.
Me, I leave the ship. But if you watch the first episode of Last Comic Standing, you may see me: I’m the guy in the boots and the cowboy hat and long black duster. And though they may play it deceptively on TV, know that I never got a chance to actually compete, because I apparently got there too late after re-parking my car. Boy, I tell ya—parking in New York City! Someone ought to write a joke about it.