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March 16, 2015
My modest “career” high points kinda run together, even with the access to diaries and notes and a not-so-faded memory of the past that I can call upon whenever needed. Yes, there are probably discrepancies. But this is MY story, so (for now) I get to call it the way I see it. Or the way I see it in the movie that’s on a non-stop reel in my head.
1986. Or ’87. Maybe ’88, ’89 and ’90. Whatever. I have secured a job as the emcee at Catch A Rising Star on the east side of Manhattan, and I’m performing on that once-famous stage for an hour a night. Emo Phillips, fellow Chicagoan and very popular act at the time, had given me a recommendation. The booker (I think her name was Cynthia Coe) hired me as part of the emcee rotation after my first audition, and there I was, working the most prestigious room in New York, breaking up my “sets” because I’m introducing comics and the occasional singer throughout the evening.
Shows start at 8:00 pm when I hit the stage with a fanfare from the house band: bass, drum and piano. They’re a really tight outfit; they’ve been jamming as the audience files in for the show, and I use them for comedy fodder when I walk on stage. The bassist, a tall man with an easy smile and a beret, allowed me to get away with this line: “Look, everyone, it’s celebrity night here at Catch A Rising Star! That’s Morley Safer on bass!” He was a dead ringer for the 60 Minutes icon at the time, and the line always got a nice laugh and got the evening started.
My job was fun, challenging and it was something I could do: keep the evening flowing. If an act went on stage and struggled through his/her set, I would go up and bring the audience back, doing set material from my act that I knew would work. I’d regain focus, subtly reminding the crowd it’s a comedy show, and then bring the next act up.
If the comic had a particularly strong performance, I’d keep my time on stage short. Why not let the next act ride the crest of the positive vibe?
Sometimes I had to deal with obnoxious drunks, or hecklers, which was never the nightmare it could have been. I had to learn to deal with the jerks in my own way – and that has served me well over the years. My basic tenet? Be bigger-than-life, be funnier and be a lot nicer person than they are – essentially winning the audience to my side. I learned to deal with each situation differently, not using “stock lines” like “I don’t push the grocery cart into the parking lot when you’re trying to work,” etc. Being in the moment and personal always worked best for me.
The comedians at the time were amazing. One of my favorites was a man named Ronnie Shakes, son of a pizzeria owner, who would prepare 6-10 minute routines over the course of a few months, then he’d call The Tonight Show booker in Los Angeles, who would fly to New York, watch Ronnie’s set, then book him for a spot with Carson. He was inspiring and terrific. I only knew him as an introduction:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome 5-time Tonight Show veteran, Ronnie Shakes!” He died suddenly, unexpectedly, sometime in the late 1980s, and I’ve always been sorry I didn’t make an effort to know him better. He was brilliant.
The job had its pitfalls. I was in charge of the schedule. When a “star” or “celebrity” would drop in to do a “guest set,” it threw the entire night off. Robin Williams would walk in the door and want to go on right away. “WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?” he’d ask, in a funny I-am-only-joking-but-I-want-to-go-on-RIGHT-NOW way. Or Rodney Dangerfield would blow through the door and demand immediate stage time. So I’d have to go to a comic and tell him/her they had been “bumped.” This led to some bad feelings and animosity that will probably last a lifetime. Brett Butler, the very funny comic who had a seminal television sitcom years ago, was one of the casualties: “Brett, I’m putting Gilbert Gottfried on next. I’m bumping you.” Unforgivable. Sorry, Brett….
It was just the way it sounds: crazy and dramatic and wild and fun. Chris Rock was just starting out and he was devastatingly hilarious. A man named Richard Jenni once did a 90-minute “set.” He is another comic who died way too young, but was always at the top of his game, a genius at work every time he hit the stage. Jenni came to me one night and said, “I want to go on last.” Odd because nobody wanted to go on last at Catch A Rising Star. The audience was “burned out” by the end of the evening. I usually put Gilbert Gottfried in the final spot because he was so bizarre and different that even a laughed-out, please-we-can’t-take-any-more crowd would still enjoy his offbeat style and punchlines. Jenni went on one night in front of a smallish crowd – maybe 20 people who had stayed for 12-15 acts – and he did a 90-minute monologue that had everyone spellbound.
There were great acts you’ve never heard of who rocked every set. Mario Joyner. Anita Wise. Rhonda Hansome. Bill Schefft. Adrienne Tolsch. Gary Lazer. The list is endless. Then there were the “rising stars” – the people you know by name. David Spade. Norm McDonald. The afore-mentioned Brett Butler. Seinfeld and Leno and Richard Lewis and Jimmy “JJ” Walker and Roseanne and Rosie and so on. I got to watch them all. Sometimes they walked on to standing ovations, and every one of them delivered every time. It was breathtaking.
Dennis Miller was holding court on Saturday Night Live at the time. He had taken “Weekend Update” from the buffoonish, cartoonish, over-the-top campy style that Chevy Chase had used and made it a politically-astute and cutting-edge part of the program that continues to this day. He used Catch A Rising Star as the place to keep his live comedy chops sharp. I looked forward to his performances and always put him on as soon as he entered the building.
Sometime in the late 80’s, I had written a parody of a Talking Heads song that was popular on the radio. It was a Christmas song using the title “Landing On Your House” instead of “Burning Down The House.” It was a huge crowd-pleaser and a big part of my holiday performances. One night, after doing it to win back a “dead” crowd at Catch A Rising Star, Miller came over to me and said, “That has to be the hottest bit in the country right now!”
I still remember him grabbing my arm and shouting over all the comics and people in the bar outside the showroom there in New York City. He’s smiling and he’s energetic and he’s complimenting me, so time has stopped and the soundtrack of my life has gone silent to accentuate the moment and I have no words to describe how that compliment, that positive reinforcement from FREAKING DENNIS MILLER has made me feel. I didn’t know what to say, so I just say “Thanks, Dennis” in my usual Taylor-is-a-fish-outta-water-but-appreciates-your-kind-words style.
That night I wrote the line I’ve used for some 25+ years hence, which is, “Thanks. I can live on a good compliment for about 3 months. Can I call you then?”
I bring all this up because The Dennis Miller Show on radio finished its 6-year-run last week. I was a fan. I’m sorry to see it go. Thank you, Dennis Miller, wherever you are.