It was sometime near the beginning of 1967 that I first fell in love with the idea of becoming a standup comedian. For some people, just the thought of standing all alone on a stage in front of a big group of people and saying things that you hope will make them laugh would be the worst nightmare imaginable. To me, it seemed like my dream job.
How did this love affair begin? It was a conversation I fell into with a couple of guys in the University of Wyoming Student Union. They’d sat down to talk to a mutual friend and happened to mention an audition they were preparing for.
“What sort of audition?” I asked.
“Every year the University sends a sort of variety talent show called “Wyo Days” out on tour around the state. They stop at High Schools and do shows,” one of them said. “The purpose is to get kids excited about enrolling at dear old Yewdub.”
“Bill and I play guitars and sing folk songs, like The Brothers Four minus Two, or the Kingston Duo.” the other added.
I laughed appreciatively, then asked, “What kind of acts are they looking for?”
“Just about everything but Contortionists and Clog Dancers. There’s a poster out in the lobby. Check it out.”
I quickly found the poster in question and looked it over carefully. There on the list of acceptable acts, in between “Singers” and “Musicians of every kind” was the word “Comedians.” Fifteen minutes later I had booked an audition time for myself.
Now you’re probably wondering what a person who’d never done standup comedy before was going to use for material. First, I should say I had done it before – at parties and in front of small groups of friends – and what I had used for material then was what I planned to use again. And that was Brother Dave Gardner.
When my older brother Chuck was in the Air Force and stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi he went once to a club to see a comedian called Brother Dave Gardner. The guy made him laugh, so he bought his album and eventually brought it back home to Laramie. Brother Dave was a Southern comedian. Very Southern. He had a thick Southern accent and told jokes and stories about the South. Consequently, nobody in the North had ever heard of him. So I shamelessly stole from him everything I could. I rewrote some of his Southern vernacular into “Northernese.” “Stewed tomato and okra sammiches” became “Deviled egg and mashed potato sammitches.” And his statement, “The other day I was in Hot Springs Arkansas where I saw them stupid, ignorant Southerners sellin’ water… to them brilliant Yankees” became “The other day I was in Thermopolis where I saw those stupid, ignorant Thermopolians sellin’ water… to those brilliant tourists.”
I did ten minutes of Brother Dave’s material at the audition and was invited to join the tour.
The auditions were held a couple of weeks before Winter Finals and rehearsals began a few days after the beginning of the new term. One of the requirements for being included on the tour was that everyone had to have at least a 2.0 Grade Point Average. When grades for the previous semester were released, two people had lost their places. The Tour Managers asked me to stay behind after the next rehearsal. It seemed that one of the losses was the Master of Ceremonies and the other was the bass player. They asked me if I would be interested in taking over the MC’s job as well as keeping my own standup slot.
“Sure,” I said. I have always felt that the best way of determining whether or not the water was over my head was to jump in first.
“By the way,” I added. “I was the bass player in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll bands in High School. I have a bass. If you can find me an amplifier, I can probably fill in for you there as well.”
Full disclosure: I wasn’t very good at playing the bass and I had no idea how to be an MC. I just thought, “I’ve been watching Ed Sullivan every Sunday night for years, how hard could it be?” What I found out was that it isn’t hard to be adequate, but it’s very difficult to be good. And as for my bass playing, they really only needed a bass player for the Herb Alpert song “Tijuana Taxi.” They had me wear a big, bouncy sombrero and dance around. When it came time for my solo – the five notes at the end of every verse that are followed by an Ooga Horn – if I flubbed it up I could just pull a funny face and let it become part of the act.
At the end of our little two-week tour, I came back with stars not just in my eyes but running out over the tops of my socks. Of course, I was not taking into account that I had been working in front of some of the easiest audiences on the planet – once I’d poked a few insults at the school that was their biggest rival, they loved me. No, I only heard the raucous laughter as it had washed back at me from those crowds. I was ready to go out, grab the world by the lapels and say, “I got some jokes you’re gonna love!” I only lacked one thing: the courage to try.
Perhaps in the quiet caverns in the back of my brain, I was waiting for a little group of sycophants to come along who would help me, buck me up, write material for me, and be my biggest fans. What I didn’t realize was that when you have done all those things for yourself and no longer need anyone to do them for you, that’s the time when all those people will show up.
It was in the spring of 1989, more than twenty years later, that I packed up the Blue Goose – my old Dodge Van – and headed for Southern California. I had been regularly appearing at a small club in Denver that was trying out Comedy Night one night a week and I felt I was ready. I had vowed to stop cribbing from Brother Dave and had written about 10 minutes of original material. These jokes had not gone over particularly well in Denver but I convinced myself that they were just too “cutting-edge” for the Denver bumpkins and would “kill” in Los Angeles.
So I began a two-year journey through the grim and terrifying Pits of Hell that were the Los Angeles comedy clubs’ open-mic nights. Most LA comedy clubs give the slowest night of the week over to amateur comedians looking for a break. Whether it was The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, The Hollywood Improv, or the Icehouse in Pasadena, the routine was the same. The amateurs line up and take a number, then wait. First come professional comics who want to try out new material, and then newly-minted professionals hoping to impress the management of the club enough to consider taking them on as a regular. Finally, around 10:30, the beginning comedians are introduced and take the stage one-by-one. By that time the audience has mostly gone home leaving seven or eight people who are either too drunk to leave or who enjoy heckling nervous amateurs.
I was told it was helpful to record all your performances, even the ones that bombed, for there might be a few good nuggets that worked and that you could use again. I found one of those old tapes years later and it was painful just to listen to it. First would be my voice telling a joke, then a period of absolute silence broken only by the sound of a chair being scooted out. Then a nervous giggle from me, then another joke told with a quavery voice. And on from there.
I absorbed nearly three years of this punishment, all the while telling myself that I just had to stick it out a little bit longer and learn a little bit more. Eventually, I had to admit that this was another one of those things – like learning to play the piano – that I would never be able to do. What finally began the process of pushing me out the door was a comedian named Danny Mora, trying to be helpful, who told me the secret to stand-up comedy.
“The secret,” he said, “is your Comic Attitude. You have to find out what is the Point of View that makes you funny. What is the attitude toward the world that makes people laugh with you? Once you find that, strip everything else away and build your material around it. Look at Rodney Dangerfield. For years he banged around the LA clubs doing his one-liners and getting nowhere. Then one day he came up with “I don’t get no respect!” and suddenly his voice, his gestures, his jokes all fell together and he took off like a Roman Candle. To put it another way, you have to have such an obvious Comic Attitude that a skilled mimic can see your act 2 or 3 times and be able to do a spot-on impression of you.”
And I couldn’t do it. I could tell jokes, pull silly faces, and do crazy characters in funny stories. But as far as my own special point-of-view I was clueless. I lurched about town for a few months, trying different things out, until I finally realized that all these efforts were little more than Cheez-Whiz – something inauthentic concocted from mostly non-organic ingredients.
So with a heart much lighter than you would expect, I finally bid goodbye to the dream of spending my nights in smoke-filled bars telling smutty jokes to drunks. And I moved to Iowa.