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April 18, 2016
Start here: I’m booked at the Hilton in New York City, the one in mid-town, the convention hotel with the high prices and endless hallways and conference rooms that stretch for a couple of blocks. My client is a lobby, an on-the-way-to-extinction energy industry group (guess which one!) and I can safely use the word “depressed” to describe them. It’s a room made up of 75% white males, and for the first 2 minutes I’m not so much performing for them as I am talking at them.
I’m not worried. I’m not in a panic. I’m not stressed in any way. This is “corporate gig routine,” and I’ve done enough of these that I can already tell what’s going to happen. They come around at about the 4-minute mark (yes, I know, that’s an eternity in comedy time, but these industrial shows are different – trust me) and I end up getting a standing ovation.
I had done my research. I knew the history of these people, I knew about the facility closings and the government’s constant regulating and the wave of technology that is fast making them obsolete. I did a lot of banter with the crowd, I made fun of politics and they loved it. The president of the organization comes over right afterward: “I don’t know if you could tell, but we really needed the laughs,” he says, “we are pretty depressed these days.” With good reason, I want to say, but I thank him and collect my check.
One night later I’m on a cruise ship somewhere in the Caribbean. I fly to an island, take a taxi to the boat and walk on board with my hockey bag filled with puppets. I’m in a theater called “The Toulouse Lautrec Lounge,” and I’m fairly certain the only person here who has any concept of Mr. Lautrec’s personal history is probably me. So jokes regarding his height, his colorful persona or the fact that a theater named for him has some merit, will not be told.
Instead, I’m on schedule for a rehearsal some 3 hours before show time and prep. The tech crew is first class: they fix me up with a Roland RD-800 keyboard, which has some really cool sounds I can take advantage of during the show (the “scat voice” is particularly hot, and I use it for my closing song). I do two shows for full houses (not a big deal – where else can the people go? THEY’RE ON A FLOATING MALL!), I get big laughs and the next morning I’m flying to Iowa.
Actually, the weather destroys my plans, and I fly to Chicago, rent a car and drive 3-and-a-half hours to a small theater in northwest Iowa. Well, it’s a theater, but also a middle school gymnasium. Where earlier I played a Baldwin baby grand (perfectly tuned!) at the Hilton, and rocked the Roland on the cruise ship, tonight’s piano is an old toy Casio SA-1 with the funny little drum machine and the weird piano sound that does a nice imitation of a sick bird. No matter. I do a lot of ventriloquism for the smallish (100 people?) crowd. It’s a fundraiser, and they’re in a great mood so I go for a long set, close out, get my check and drive for 3-and-half-hours back to O’Hare Airport.
My flight is at 5: 45 am, so I can be home for a few hours before driving on the New Jersey Turnpike Speedway up to a church in The Garden State. The woman who booked me for this is very nice. Her husband actually comes on stage to “help” during the act, and the jam-packed sanctuary at the Preakness Reformed Church (named for a horse race!?) is responsive and as loud as any comedy club crowd.
The nights, the shows, the venues, the people, all kind of run together and form a consistent picture in my mind: I am introduced, I walk on, I do a couple of jokes that I call “tells” giving me insight as to what the base of reference is for this audience; who they are and who they are not and what they are hoping to see and hear. How I can best match up what I can do with their expectations. Then I pour my heart and soul into a unique, one-of-a-kind presentation for the people I have in front of me this engagement. What am I? Ventriloquist? Comic? Comedian? Musician? Magician? Entertainer?
The word “audience” doesn’t scale for me the way it does for most people in the “creative arts.” Because there truly is no one “audience.” I’m performing for families and children; jaded corporate executives; teenagers and senior citizens; atheists and Christians and Jews and every religious follower you can name; women, men, hipsters and freaks; right-wing and left-wing and straight and LGBT and all ethnic backgrounds you can name; married, divorced, single and widowed, rich and poor and all demographics; we are a nation of subcultures and no live performer is more keenly aware of that than I. Not by choice – this is who I work for. The rooms are alwa
ys full. The response is always positive. The people are heavenly, the road is hell, and I’m good with that.
The following morning I am up and off again, this time to Texas. My show is at a theater in Fredericksburg, which can best be described as a “boom town.” It’s a Friday night and there is a traffic jam (!?!) as every trendy little restaurant and bistro is full; all the shops and stores on the main drag are hopping and there is a long line in front of The Rock Box Theater as I pull around to the back stage entrance. It’s a gorgeous 390-seat performance space, with state-of-the-art sound and lights. The crowd, some of whom have driven all the way down from Dallas (“just to see you!” says one lady) is electric from the start. I give them a 2-hour set with an intermission, get my check and drive to Austin. I’m flying back to Jersey 5 hours later.
There are 2-3 nights every 18 months where I get to do my show, the one I have been preparing for a couple of decades, the one I really want to do, and this night was that night. Usually I let the audience lead me by the nose, guiding me to the content in my comedy arsenal that will appeal to them. But this night is my show, and I’m thrilled to play it for all it’s worth. I’m flying to Chicago in a day or so, then driving down to Pekin, IL, for a show in a church. I know that I won’t get to do the act the way I want to again for a while, so I take this night to spread my wings and fly.
If you’re thinking this is an odd way to live, that my schedule should see a therapist (“it’s insane!”) or that I must be crazy to travel and work for these disparate subgroups of people across the world, I can only say this is what I do. I’m comfortable. None of this seems strange to me. None of this is overwhelming, or frustrating or taxing in any way. I chose to do the job that I have, and I’m glad to have the bookings. Hope I get to your area next!