Poco’s

March 28, 2017


Poco'sTonight I gigged at the Comedy Cabaret in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It’s kind of my “home club” for the past x-number of years since moving to New Jersey, even though it’s 35 miles and at least an hour away. I’m here 4-to-8 times a year, depending, and the staff are – at least for the couple of nights we work together – my “friends.” I know many of them by name. Pete and Lisa have become more than acquaintances. So have many of the wait staff. I look forward to seeing them.

It’s an idiosyncrasy of show business. Maybe it’s true in other industries, like insurance or construction or health care, I don’t know. But here in the world of performance art, the people you work with on any given project, or in any venue, become your friends. Since work takes you all over the place – for me that’s all over the world – lasting friendships are hard to come by. Practically impossible. I’m traveling. A lot. So the folks who work the gig with me are, by happenstance, my friends.

With a TV program, commercial shoot or film, the techs, actors, producers and staff are your “pals.” At least for the duration of the taping. In a theater, it’s the stage hands and manager. And for a weekend run at a comedy club you befriend the bartender, the wait staff, and the whomever. These events put you together for a period of time, and then it’s a new job, a different situation and a fresh set of connections. For me it’s a new place to work; for them it’s a new face on the stage. NEXT!

I leave Moorestown, NJ, after dinner with Marsia. We ate downtown at a glorified pizza joint we’ve been frequenting forever, talking about the kids and the house and the trivia that makes up our days. The neighbor wants to sell us a bicycle. I got rejected by NBC after my interview last week. Mick, our dog, needs to see the vet.¬† We’re comfortable with all of it.

The kids once asked how I knew Marsia was “the one.” I don’t have a good answer. I don’t have a story of romantic courtship. I married her because I’d have followed her wherever she went, regardless. It was just easier to be with her than not. Life was better with her than not. Some would call it a choice, but it really wasn’t a choice then, and it isn’t now. We are together. So after dinner we come home, I take a shower and dress. We kiss goodbye.

I drive thru Philadelphia, barely cognizant of the Saturday evening traffic, going over the lines I want to try out (North Korea says they have an ICBM that can reach Los Angeles. So? I know that town, and it’s not easy to be “the bomb.” Sure, anyone can get to Hollywood. But you need a hip PR firm, a good agent and some clout before Universal or Warner Bros will even take your call! Sure, the missile might have a unique headshot but come on). It’s a pre-performance preparation routine – the meal with Marsia; the shower; the drive.

Just past the city start the tony suburbs of Bucks County, and I follow the steady traffic north on Easton Road. The mom-and-pop diners, the franchise restaurants and the occasional 4- and 5-star eatery parking lots are full. So are the strip malls and movie complexes. I take this as a good sign. There is a certain vibe on this late-winter Saturday, some snow from the previous week’s storm still on the ground. Maybe winter is over. I take it all to be a good sign.

It is.

I get to Doylestown about 40 minutes before show time, driving right up the main drag, past the chic boutiques of designer clothing, just now closing up shop. Past the bistros and bars where upscale hipsters mill around on the sidewalk and jog across the street in front of me. Past the county courthouse and the centuries-old homes. The club itself, on the northern edge of town, takes up the second floor of Poco’s, a Mexican/American restaurant. I’ve only eaten there once in all these years. It was very good. You get the feeling that they’re always busy. They attained “local attraction” status long ago. Everyone is a “regular.”

Poco’s and The Comedy Cabaret are part of a complex, actually. There is a Days Inn Hotel connected around the back, and I park in front of a “HOTEL GUEST PARKING ONLY – VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED” sign. I have spent a lot of years parking right here, in front of that warning, past the restaurant kitchen door by some steps that lead to a long row of hotel rooms. Those steps also lead to the back door of the comedy club, which I brace open with a broom and carry my keyboard to the stage.

The room is really an attic, with a postage stamp for a stage, a red curtain beginning to fade after decades of theatrical lighting and a long bar in the back. It can seat up to 225, maybe 250 people, and tonight feels like about 500 human beings are packed into the chairs and stools that surround small tabletops. There is a video playing on a pull-down screen on stage, the soundtrack blaring thru the speakers. But the crowd is competing quite well, thank you, talking and laughing and shouting to one another. Pre-show positivity. If it sounds tight, cramped and small, it is.

It’s perfect. The room is usually pretty full when I’m here (I’m not bragging – I’m guessing it’s always like this), and the closeness of everything: the walls, the people, the ceiling, means that laughter pinballs thru the space and doubles back on the performer. It’s electric. Terrific. Dramatic.

I snake my way through the people who have paid to see me, taking care not to nail someone with the sharp edge of my Roland piano. As I’m placing it on the stand, a man comes over and grabs my arm: “We were here last time you were, and I brought 15 people to see you!”

He’s got a wild look in his eye. He’s so up for the evening that it’s hard not to laugh. “Thanks for coming!” I shout, trying to plug the keys in and set the cables, “We’ll have a blast!” He nods and waves and pats me on the back and disappears into the mayhem of waiters and audience.

The man that books the club, Andy, is there, and sitting on stools at a tall table are his wife and one of his 20-something kids and a friend. We all say hi. We briefly talk over the surrounding sounds. “How’s business?” “How is the family?” “Have a great show!”

I head for the green room and close the door. It’s tiny: a couch, a bookcase and a mirror. A small table with a notebook on it; notes for one of the other acts. I’m just setting my bag down when Pete, the manager, comes in. “Do whatever you want,” he says, referring to my time on stage. I’m scheduled for 40-45 minutes, and I tell him I’ll do all of that. I end up doing closer to 55, which was too long, but no excuses.

Andy, who owns the Comedy Cabaret franchise and books the comics, actually has his own act, and tonight he serves as emcee. He warms up the crowd, reads them very well and brings up the first act.

Marsia and I have always been impressed by the number of talented people there are in this world. We’ve met and worked with a lot of them. Writers. Actors. Musicians. Singers and painters and dancers and comedians. It is astounding. Especially young people. They all seem so gifted, so innate, so far ahead of where we were at the same age.

The “opening act” this night is a Middle Eastern man who is in his 20s. He plays off his look, his heritage and the socio-political ramifications of being who he is in the USA in 2017. The Cabaret crowd, mostly upscale and white, is responsive, attentive and giving. “My uncle is Egyptian; he lived through 2 civil wars and all kinds of violent upheaval. But he says he’s scared to death to drive through Kensington,” a tough neighborhood of Philadelphia, and the audience erupts. The comic’s name is Fady. Pronounced “Fay-Dee.” He does 12 minutes and he could have done 30. Easy.

He’s followed by Tracy Locke whose edgy energy and frenetic pace syncs in time with the general vibe in the room. She works the crowd, kind of like a musician vamping with a band, only the microphone is her instrument and the laughter is the beat. She becomes everyone’s bestie in the first 30 seconds she’s on stage, and for a half-an-hour she holds court. She’s what my dad would have called “a personality kid” – impossible not to like. Her takes on dating, sex, the melting pot of east coast cultures, men and sports play right to the heart of the crowd. Her observational humor and one-liners have women shrieking and applauding. The men are shrieking and applauding. Hell, I am shrieking and applauding.

Andy comes back to the green room. “Selfie!” We talk for a few minutes while Ms. Locke is blowing the roof off the building. He gets an introduction from me (I’m performing on Pureflix Comedy All-Stars with Sinbad) and then it’s time for me.

The first show of the weekend, on Friday night, was rowdy and more than a little crazy, even for a comedy club. It was the usual big crowd, but boozy and unruly, cheering and pounding the tables and shouting out comments during everyone’s performances. Don’t get the wrong impression: they weren’t angry or mean. They were “happy drinkers,” people out to forget their troubles and have a good time. Just before I went on I got insightful data from Lisa at the bar: “Welcome to hillbilly heaven!” she shouted over the din.

I had a blast.

I spent much of that evening’s stage time acting like an agitated school teacher, or better yet, a camp counselor. Someone given a position of authority over a group that cannot be contained. It was raucous and wild and fun. And funny. Some friends came – Bev and Lou – and I know they enjoyed the different kind of presentation they got from me. They have been following me for years, and we’ve met in places all over the world. Wait. Maybe I’ve been following them.

This Saturday night crowd was just as energized, but more attentive, more in tune with the proceedings. There wasn’t a specific age group, just a broad range from early 20s to early 60s. So I did kind of a “greatest hits” of my comedy career, the way a popular 1980s band might do all the top-40 songs from their best-selling albums. I have a wealth of material to fall back on, plus the ever-growing catalog of new stuff, so there’s never an issue about what to do.

Brian Dorfmann, my friend who runs Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville, TN, once told me my act is like a jam band show: there isn’t a “set list,” the band just picks a song and they riff until they don’t want to riff it any more. I throw in a couple of new lines (“I love Disney, and tried to do a HOME VERSION of Disney World at our house. It starts with a scary ride I took with my wife. I call it MARRIAGE“) and it felt like a condensed version of my life in show biz. I was put in the right place at the right time, given an opportunity, and if things weren’t absolutely perfect, at least things were good. I did just under an hour, probably a little too long, but that fits the narrative, huh? “Always leave ‘em wanting more … unless they’ve already left.”

Pete hands me a check as I’m packing up. Lots of congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back from this group of strangers and club regulars and fans who came out. “You did a completely different show than last time!” shouts the man who brought 15 people. His wife says, “We love you!”

I can live on a good compliment for about three months, so this pretty much has me covered until next year. I pack up the gear: the puppets and bag, the Roland and the cords and foot pedal. I say my goodbyes – I try to be as cordial and sincere as I can. “Great working with you,” is my comment to the wait staff, because I feel as if we are all in this service business together. They serve food and drink. I serve the entertainment. It’s symbiotic, at least to me.

There was a time where the “high” from a successful performance would stick with me for hours. I’d replay the evening over and over until morning. But things have evened out over time. The high is more intense while I’m on stage now, the moments of explosive laughter and applause more acute. More precious. I don’t take anything for granted.

But now, when it’s over, it’s over. I am happy to shake hands and talk with folks after a job, but I’m also happy to get everything in the car and head home. My bank has a location right next to Poco’s, so I go to the ATM and cash some of my check. Marsia’s money for the week. I drive home on a different route, through a forgotten part of industrial Philadelphia along the river. Traffic is sparse. There are few streetlights here. It’s quiet and dark, and I maneuver around the endless potholes listening to blues on the car stereo. I take the Tacony-Palmyra bridge over to Jersey and I quietly roll into our driveway.

Home. Marsia left a light on in the family room. I climb the stairs, Mick comes out of the bedroom to greet me with a tail wag and I give him a scratch behind the ears. I take off the t-shirt and jeans I wore for “work,” and slip into bed. Marsia rolls over. “How was the show?” she mumbles in her sleep.

“Great.”

I give her a kiss. She rolls over and pulls the covers up tight.

I’ll be there in the morning when she wakes up.