[this is the best. after dumping 300,000 words to describe a ten-minute stand-up routine, i never checked to make sure the link worked. it didn't. it does now.]
I am going to do something I promised myself I'd never do. I'm posting an unedited stand-up comedy set. It was taped during my April 2nd performance at "Sweet Paprika," a weekly comedy show in the West Village. Of course, if I'm going to stick my neck out like this, I reserve the right to annotate the audio recording to my satisfaction. So first, here is the set (warning: it's almost 10 minutes long, and 9.1MB. patience is therefore required.):
April 2nd, 2004: Live at Sweet Paprika
Because the show was in the heart of Manhattan's West Village, it's not my typical audience. I am more accustomed to performing further downtown, in front of semi-drunk 20-somethings in cute t-shirts. While the West Village used to be very bohemian, and nurtured comics like Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, the neighborhood is now the home of Senor Suavé's $5 Godzilla-Rita drink specials and countless bars featuring the Chicago style blues of Ken Morgensen's Blues Satellite. The West Village is lousy with tourists, and this show gets quite a few of them. The audience at last Friday night's show was predominately people who make their weekend plans by TimeOut magazine, gawkers off the street, performers and their closest loved ones, and on this particular evening, a cadre of reformed alcoholics. (long story.)
I used to get very nervous at shows like this, fearing that there was no way I could relate to this kind of audience. However, I've sort of grown to like them. Tourists can be very fickle, but they can also be very generous. As much as I love doing the more alternative rooms – I'm usually much more at ease there, because a kind of shuffling ineptitude is actually considered a positive attribute – the scenester audiences do sometimes suffer from the "appreciative nod" or the "I-am-taking-that-joke-in-stride" indifferent gaze or, worse still, the "this material needs work" extended middle finger. They're less likely to cut loose, unless you've sprinkled them in ecstasy.
You can't hear the beginning, because I started taping late, but the host introduced me and listed a couple of credits that would mean nothing to the audience because, frankly, my credits really do mean nothing to a comedy audience. I wasn't paying attention so I had to dash from the back of the room, where all the comics were hanging out, drinking, and grousing about tepid audience response throughout the evening, and through the crowd to reach the stage. I think my first words are, "running to the stage," and then I make a small joke about this. I think the audience is laughing here because someone farted very loud.
Ahh, yes. The "Jew" material. This is traditionally reserved for comics who have run out of things to say, and are stretching for time. Please note that I use it right up at the top – my A-list material! Lately, I've decided it's a good idea to acknowledge onstage how Jewish I look. It makes the audience comfortable and keeps them from wondering why they hate me before I've even spoken a word.
Honestly, sometimes I'm worried about wearing my glasses onstage because then all bets are off in the "Is He A Jew" betting pool. Without the glasses, audiences can look at my dark, curly hair, olive skin and beard and may be fooled into thinking I'm Greek, or perhaps my great-great-grandmother was raped by Moors. But with the glasses, there is very little left to the imagination. (It should also be noted that starting the set off by directing attention to some of my very obvious physical attributes is a great way to establish a rapport with the audience without the burden of acknowledging them as human beings. It's a nice piece of "crowd work" for comics who are working with that extra touch of dangerous self-absorption. delicious!)
Right on the heels of the "LOOKY-LOOKY I'M ALL JEWED UP" comes the time-tested "Judgmental New Yorker" bit. Please note how, already deep into the laboriously long setup, I test the audience's patience even further by coughing into the microphone. Here's an insider secret: I didn't need to cough. I was just playing to their sympathies by trying to convince them I had tuberculosis. Life-threatening illnesses = warmer audience response. Several minutes further in the set, I spit some lung blood into a cocktail napkin. I learned this comedy trick from Alan King, who used to fake it when he was eating in onstage; now he does it for real all the time.
The audience adores my new "gaylord/jackass" tag! Of course they do. (OK, full disclosure: the audience did not actually laugh at this tag so, in order to win them back, I executed a perfect Chinese split. HUGE response. Even the Chinese lady liked it.)
OK, I confess this entire stretch of material about the Mars Rover was made up while I was waiting to go onstage, and was based on an idea I had a couple months ago but never committed to writing down for stand-up. (or anything else.) I am not bragging, but merely qualifying the high "um" to "material" ratio, which was slightly higher than the rest of my set. I have been making an effort to avoid anything remotely topical, particularly when the topic is as old as the Mars Rover's discovery of water on the planet's surface. However, I think there's a rule that says when a comic treads there earlier in the show, it creates a wrinkle in time that transports us all back to whenever that outdated topic was relevant. From then on in, it's fair game. I only wish he'd mentioned Lorena Bobbitt, because I HAVE A DOOZY ON THAT ONE!!! Ah, but I would have needed my banjo. (Another sure way to tell that I've made this joke up on the spot is that I found an extra tag for the first part of the joke well into telling the second part of the joke, and I slipped it right in, anyway. I save myself some work by leaving a sense of professionalism to the professionals.)
"My parents are not Amish"??? That really paid off. At this point, a family of Lancaster Amish left the room, disgusted. They didn't even finish making their tapers.
This section should be included in a stand-up comedy textbook, under the chapter, "STICK TO YOUR NOTES." Please notice how long it took me to spontaneously come up with "Bryan Adams" vs. how much it paid off. The math is not in my favor.
Yes, that faint rusting sound is me taking a stage fall. Is there anything I won't do for a cheap laugh? (You can't tell from this audio recording, but I also performed the entire set by placing the mic stand in front of a clown face painted on my naked ass.) I had to undergo total spinal reconstructive surgery because of that joke, and it was worth it for the smattering of giggles.
Incidentally, the reformed alcoholics did not enjoy watching me fall down onstage. A little close to home, perhaps.
This is the first time I say "grab a pole." Can you count how many more times I say it in the next several seconds? Yes, three. Did I write the joke that way? No. However, when you spend very little time rehearsing your material, you find magical moments like that right onstage, in front of a paying audience.
The astronaut tag does not work, though I still stand by it. I just said it wrong. Please note that I follow this depressing moment of silence – this is the first moment in the set that I am sure the audience has revealed me as the phony I truly am – by coughing again. DESPERATE! At this point, a table full of nurse practitioners leaves the room, but not before one of them throws a half-full glass of plasma at me.
This joke has been told twice, and has received the same uncomfortable silence twice. Should I cut it from the act, or pretend it's still just a fluke? You guess what happens next.
Truthfully, this might be one of those jokes (like many of the ones I've told recently) that appeals to an audience of one. It might be improved with better language and setup, but I doubt it. I don't know. There's something funny to me about accusing my ancestors of deliberately fleeing from Ireland to Poland during World War II, to encourage Nazi persecution. In fact, there's something so funny about it that, even after letting you listen to it bomb onstage, I still went to the trouble to write it in this space, praying you would find something good in it so's I don't have to take it behind the shed and shoot it in the face.
Also, were I a more experienced comic, I would have a "bomb line" prepared for this occasion. A bomb line is something funny you say to save face when a joke dies in front of an audience. When faced with indifferent silence, my friend, Christian, often says, "Let us pray," which often immediately wins back favor with the audience. One of my favorite bomb lines of recent memory, however, came from my friend, Chris. I saw him tell a joke that received a response one might politely call "confused and silent." He took a beat, looked out over the audience, and said, "Thanks for your notes on the new stuff."
I think my bomb line would be, "Don't hit!" And then I would shield my face with my arms.
Perhaps the sour taste left by that joke lingered into the following joke, about my sister's early suicide attempt. I have evidence that this joke has been favorably received in the past, though during this set I would describe its audience response as somewhere between "tepid" and "lynch mob." If I were a bigger failure, I would have chastised the audience at this point by saying, "fuck you, that joke always kills." But I have not known that level of personal failure...yet. YET.
Did I just mention the weather? If you stopped listening right now, I would not blame you. If you continue listening, you might hate yourself enough for me to love you.
The gentleman was not writing, "this guy fucking blows" on his pad of paper. He was writing, "business idea: discount brothel for irregular pussy." And then he drew a picture of a Mexican riding a bicycle.
The extra-loud laughter is coming from the giant mouth of an overweight black man who is a total stranger to me. I am huge with morbidly obese minorities. (wait till you hear him when I use the word "cock".)
This is notable only for the fact that I turned off the tape recorder just as the crowd was applauding me. My therapist would have a lot to say about that action, as it relates to my self-esteem issues.
When I walked back to my drink, I thought I'd had a pretty lame set, and I said as much. I was told I was wrong, but listening to it on tape it's only "eh." I was consciously trying to do less perverse stuff, because I feel like I use creepy material as a crutch. (my web site just clucked its teeth and said, "mmm-hmmm. You're telling me, sister!") But it's funny: when I do the perverse stuff in front of an audience of my peers, I feel like I'm pandering to them, and when I don't do that material in front of a more mainstream audience, I feel like I'm pandering again.
OK. The set-ups were a bit sloppy, and I wish I were quicker when a couple jokes received a cold (but deservedly cold) response. And, as I just mentioned, it would have been nice to incorporate some of the creepier material. However, certain things worked well, and I was pleased with how nicely the Mars Rover material was received. Not the best night, not the worst. I give it Two and a Half Erect Penises. Zing.