I was going to knock them dead. For years, I had been doing comedy shticks to SRO crowds in some of the top living-rooms on the East Coast. From my high school days in fabled Great Neck, Long Island, to my current marginal existence as a free-lance writer, I'd been cracking up friends and colleagues with my fantastic sense of humor. The only problem was my total, craven fear of rejection.
With morbid interest, I'd read all sorts of articles about the trauma of comedians bombing before hostile audiences. I always shivered over the juicy details: flop sweat . . . dressing-room crack-ups . . . the tumble into oblivion. I know it all, and I was convinced that only my neurotic fears kept me from my rightful place on the Johnny Carson Show.
In gathering material for my poignant look at amateur performers, I kept looking for the right place to make my debut. In the course of every interview, I'd casually inquire, "Oh, by the way, do you have any comedians who play here?"
"Well," Gong Show host Barry Richards told me one night, "we had one guy who did a kind of hip Mort Sahl act, but the crowd just didn't dig him." He shook his head in memory of the blood-letting. "He was good, too."
Thin, nervous, with a New York Jew accent, I imagined the reaction my monologues would get from this crowed in rural Maryland, across the road from a genuine Air Force base.
"Hey, have any of you guys ever been bar-mitzvahed? It's unbelievable, right? Kind of like a Mafia wedding, you know, but without Italians . . ."
Finally, after weeks of visiting different clubs, I found the ideal spot: the Singer's Studio in Georgetown. It was a small, muted, carpeted room, perfect for a coward like myself. With only a few people sitting around, it seemed hardly more challenging than telling stories at a party. After triumphing here, I figured, I'd play a few other clubs, audition at the Cellar Door, fly to New York with my new manager, take the Improv by storm and become the new comic sensation after my shot on the Carson show. All within a year, of course.
After watching the Thursday night show at the Singer's Studio, I interviewed owner Bill Flanders about his club. "Oh, incidentally, do comedians ever play here?" I asked near the end. "I'm just curious."
"Not many," he said. "But we had one fellow who performed here a few weeks ago. He did very well, and I invited him back. We're open to all sorts of talent."
"Oh really?" I said, panting slightly with excitement. "Well, frankly, I was kind of thinking of doing maybe a little routine myself." I shrugged my shoulders and smiled with self-deprecating modesty. I looked over at him to check his reaction. I continued, "You know, as part of the article, I might see how a performer feels on stage. It's kind of . . . participatory journalism. But I'm not sure yet, it's just something I've been toying with." I laughed nervously.
"That's fine," he said. "Just get in touch with me when you want." A silver-haired, handsome man, he smiled with the calming assurance he had practiced on dozens of other anxious performers.
The next week passed much too quickly. I had made a secret vow to myself that if I wasn't stricken with some arcane disease on the day of the show, I would have to go on. I sipped herb teas and downed Vitamin C to ward off the germs that wanted to thwart my rendezvous with destiny. In the meantime, I practiced.
In the still hours of the morning, while my roommates slept, I paced around the house, whispering jokes to phantom audiences. Pausing before a mirror in my pajamas, I would grab an imaginary microphone and say with endearing charm, "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, it's certainly great to be here. I just flew in from Chicago, and, boy, are my arms tired!" Then I would shake my head with embarrassment. This wasn't going to be easy.
I had actually given some vague thought to the routine I was going to do. I'd have a few opening gags, and then dissolve somehow into a bit about dope-smoking in the Sixties, a pastiche of stories and jokes I'd been using for years at parties. The centerpiece of the routine was a story about a teen-age pot bust. I had been getting laughs with this story for so long that there was no need to even rehearse it. It would be perfect for a young, hip audience. The whole thing would take no more than ten minutes.
I awoke late on Thursday. As my eyes slowly opened, I tested myself for signs of sickness. I swallowed expectantly, hoping for a sore throat. I shook my limbs, searching for signs of incurable paralysis. No luck. I got out of bed warily. After desperately checking my face in the mirror for tell-tale hints of leprosy, I realized my fate was sealed. I called Bill Flanders and asked to go on the night's bill. I was told to be there at eight.
There were a few young folk singers there when I arrived. I paid my $2 performance fee and waited apart from the others. Only one woman seemed even remotely as tense as I was. Every few minutes, I got up to go to the bathroom.
Bill Flanders came over to me. "What do you plan to do?" he asked in a friendly manner. The five other performers would start with one song each, then return with two more. "It shouldn't be more than five minutes."
"Sure," I said, "no problem. I'm going to open with a few gags, and then do one shtick. It shouldn't take too long." I tried to sound like a Borscht Belt veteran. I was scheduled to go on third, he said.
Then I crouched down in front of the singers, playing reporter with my notebook and pen. The singer before me did Steve Goodman's train song, "The City of New Orleans." The song went on a long time.
"And now . . . Art Levine," Flanders said, reading from a card. "He's going to do a little comedy for us."
I leaped up and briefly assumed a fake swagger. Putting my tape recorder on the piano, I turned to the audience. There were ten people there, smiling up at me expectantly. It was, in some ways, a familiar situation for a veteran story-teller like myself.
"I'm dedicating this set to the survivors of the Sixties and the Tomb of the Unknown Virgin," I blurted out, "those brave men and women who went to Woodstock and, unfortunately, didn't get laid." It was my first joke of the evening, combining a few surefire elements: nostalgia, sex, the Sixties. It got a few mild smirks. I sucked in my breath and plowed forward.
"Stand-up material is very new to me," I went on, "and it's important, I've learned, to establish a rapport with the audience." I reached into my wallet and took out a dollar bill. A few flickerings of laughter were starting to emerge and I moved quickly to fan them. "For those people who are good enough to laugh the loudest at my material, the winner at the end will be able to pick up this dollar bill." I waved it around. A genuine laugh came from one singer, and I flushed with grateful warmth. This wasn't so bad, I thought to myself. I started to elaborate on the joke, and the laughter died away. A chilled sense of foreboding rose inside me.
Then I groped my way towards my next joke, eating up the time as I went. Although I knew it wasn't very good, I was still shaken by the stony silence that greeted it.
The audience smiled politely, shifting uneasily on the carpeted bleachers. This guy is awful, they seemed to say, but only our sympathy for your position prevents us from stoning you to death. I was still confident, though. I had my string of "Roots" jokes ready to go.
"They're doing a lot of adventure and comedy spinoffs, because they figure that slave motifs go over really well," I said, my voice thickening with a tough New York accent. "One of the big ones they're working on is . . . Charlie's Slaves."
They kept staring at me with that zombie-like glaze. I began to fear that I was playing to extras from "Night of the Living Dead." I was also starting to get angry at their refusal to laugh. I moved towards the next punch line, the one that always got a laugh with my friends. This would be the turning point, when the crowd would finally accept me. I elaborated on the Charlie's Slaves gag and approached the killer line with confidence.
"And the star of the show is, and this is a real casting coup, the star for this is . . . FARRAH FAWCETT-SHABAZZ."
Silence. A few of them smiled at me with patient, quizzical encouragement. They seemed to ask, but where are the jokes? I sensed that I was in trouble.
"Another one they're working on is called the Bionic Slave." There was a brief surge of laughter, and my hopes revived. There was a weak chuckle or two as I added to the gag, then more silence.
This kind of cold response was completely alien to me, but I kept expecting the audience to come alive. I was already over the time limit, but I wasn't aware of time as I moved into the heart of the routine, my long story about dope.Over in the corner, I noticed Bill Flanders smiling at me with a watch cupped in his palm. Beneath the supportive appearance, I detected a cold rage. The smile said: Listen, you jerk, it's only my good manners and professional role that keeps me from dragging you off the stage.
I was not about to give up. I would still prove that I was the rightful heir to the mantle of Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby and Jean Shepherd. I launched into my reminiscences about drug paranoia in the Sixties. I threw in different voices, mugged wildly, waved my arms, and the audience never moved. I did everything but pull down my pants and roll around on the floor. As the minutes passed, even the friendly smiles faded.
For them, it was turning into a bizarre version of Sartre's "No Exit," trapped for eternity in the Singer's Studio with a boor who never shuts up. Now and then, they looked over to Flanders for relief. It seemed possible that someone would loss control, and the eerie silence might be punctuated by a deranged folksinger sobbing wildly as he smashed his guitar over my head.
". . . so he reaches into the glove compartment and takes out around a fifteen-foot glow-in-the-dark hookah . . ."
I kept telling my story. At times, I grew excited as the cadences fell into place and I knew I was being funny, but these ten people never once responded. I had never spoken for so long without getting a laugh. It was like granite out there. Mount Rushmore. An oil painting. Coffins. It went on for fifteen minutes without a sound.
I felt resentful, and near the end I started editing in my head, discarding whole scenes with a frantic haste. But I was surprised by how much I was enjoying myself, and that crushed sense of total panic never consumed me. I finished to some mild, polite applause. I took back my dollar bill because no one laughed loud enough to earn it.
I then sat down, my face flushed with embarrassment.
They went on with the show as if nothing had happened. It was like I was a guest who had thrown up on their carpet, and they were doing their best to ignore it.
But I felt no bitterness towards them, just because they robbed me of my chance to become a great comedian and make millions of dollars in Las Vegas and go on national television. As I said, I felt no bitterness whatsoever towards those bastards.
Afterwards, I tried to recoup my pride by playing reporter with these performers. They acted like polite liberals dealing with someone with an obvious mental handicap. They wondered, no doubt, how a psychopath like myself could do such a passable job of impersonating a reporter. Maybe, if they answered my questions, I would return quickly to whatever institution had mistakenly released me for the evening.
Outside on the street, I waited for my girl friend to pick me up in her car. We were scheduled to celebrate my triumphant opening. I stood listening to the tape of my performance, chuckling to myself over some of the lines. As she approached, I made a thumbs-down gesture.
"I bombed," I said, getting into the car. I was smiling, strangely pround of myself for having done it at all. I played the tape for ther and she laughed freely at some of the bits. I was already planning to do it again at some other club, but it would be tighter material, rehearsed, pre-tested, guranteed. This time I was going to knock them dead.