Once upon a time, in a strange land called Southeast San Diego, a young lady lived with her two cats, several tomato plants, and four cases of empty Coca Cola bottles. Though her life was relatively pleasant, particularly since the day she lost her evil stepmother in a skateboarding accident, the lady dreamed of finer things, like yachts, Beverly Hills mansions, and her income tax refund. One day, while she picked the bugs off her tomato plants, a fairy godmother appeared in the form of a newspaper advertisement announcing the arrival in town of a great circus called the Comedy Store. The lady was elated, so much so that she immediately hocked one of her cats for carfare to the circus, where she hoped to find a Prince Charming or even an old and ugly talent scout who would hear her sweet songs and carry her away to Hollywood Squares. Dressed in her finest bluejeans and wool kneesocks, she sprang onstage and smiled her widest. But her teeth looked rotten and her act looked likewise, and the crowd booed her offstage. When she got home she returned her Coca Cola empties, got her cat out of hock, and had enough money left over for bug spray. Moral: If you decide to follow your dreams, first make sure your brakes are working.
It all started on a typically balmy Thursday evening, the first time I went to the Comedy Store. While the others in attendance had probably shown up out of relief that something funny was finally about to happen in San Diego, I had gone with a studious intent as well. Other people ponder the works of Plato, Dostoevsky, and Camus for their intellectual kicks, but my mentors are Woody Allen, Lily Tomlin, Mel Brooks ....
The Store had been easy to find, on Grand Avenue at the beach. From the outside it resembles any other oceanfront night-club/restaurant (it’s below T.D. Hays restaurant): rough wooden walls, tall one-way mirrors facing the ocean, heavy carved door. But inside, past a spacious, well-lit front room through a black-curtained doorway to the main quarters in back, the distinct feeling arises of being trapped inside the dark bowels of an overgrown camera: black walls, black ceiling, black floor, with only a tiny peephole of illumination shining from an overhead spotlight to a microphone at the front of the stage.
Tables and chairs for about 150 are packed tightly together around the stage on the far wall. When filled, the room gives the illusion that a crowd of thousands has shown up, for in few situations, not even encounter groups, are people in San Diego so close to one another. Only the skinniest of waitresses can serve drinks without being jostled and bruised by the countless elbows, ankles and feet jutting into the makeshift aisles. But the rather oppressive density of bodies seems almost intentional. As anyone who has tried to keep a straight face while everyone else is giggling knows, laughter is contagious; and the germs circulate all the faster when your neighbor has his knee planted firmly in your back.
Like a blind person following a seeing-eye dog through a field of mines, I was led to a table in front by a gracious hostess who promptly tripped over my table-mate’s foot on the way out. My tablemates, strangers to me only a moment before, welcomed me with smiling eyes to their already-giddy conversation. In fact, everyone in the place seemed to be having giddy conversations, which hushed when Dick Van Dyke walked in with hair visibly whiter than on his most recent television performance, and with a blond womanfriend visibly not Mary Tyler Moore, and then rose to a higher pitch. It seemed the perfect atmosphere for an evening of humor, and it was. At 9 p.m. the show began, and for four solid hours the audience laughed, screamed, clapped, and fell off their platform heels to the jokes, songs, funny faces and voices of three professional performers.
Stanley Myron Handelman was first, a Woody Allen-ish character with slumped shoulders, a stiff-new denim jacket that no San Diego male would be seen in before 20 washings, tiny pinspeck eyes magnified by thick-lensed glasses, and a wide mouth reminiscent of a Walt Disney cartoon fish. A young women in the audience hollered, not one minute after his coming onstage, “What a fox!” to the ironic appreciation of all, including Handelman. who broke into an uncharacteristic guffaw. Handelman’s act was slow, measured, his humor lying more in the pauses between than the jokes themselves. At one point he spoke solemnly of the death of his favorite uncle. It seems he and his uncle had been mountain-climbing together, when suddenly his uncle fell off a cliff. “I'll never forget his last words,” Handelman sighed, peering off toward the restrooms as if pondering their special significance. “ ‘Look out for the insurance company, Myron.’ ” Pause. “ ‘ Take good care of your mother.’ ” A longer pause. “And then, something about his car, but I couldn’t make out the rest of it.” Pause. “He was pretty far down there by then, you know.”
Handelman was followed by a young Los Angeles comedian named Rick Podell. Since he was also the evening’s emcee, responsible for introducing the other two, he requested a volunteer from the audience to introduce him. Unfortunately, he chose an obviously drunk woman sitting near the stage. Instructing her carefully in a hushed voice (“Just say, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the wonderful humor of Rick Podell!"), he hander her the microphone and ran offstage, She smiled, looked out toward the audience and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the wonderful humor of Rick Hodell!" Podell came onstage, shaking his head in disappointment, then decided to give her another chance, repeating his last name to her more clearly. By then she had finished another drink, and, on cue, she announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the wonderful humor of Rick Kodell!” He gave up. Podell’s act consisted mostly of one-liners, descriptions of the trials and tribulations of breaking up with his girlfriend, and one especially memorable piece, an imitation of a wise Indian guru, "You ask me, what iss peace? Peace iss one hundred dohlahs. What iss happiness? Happiness iss one hundred dohlahs. Or peace and happiness both for one-fifty.”
Charlie Fleischer a bushy-haired actor and humorist, brought the most versatile act to the stage: meaningless abstract-existentialist prose sung in the form of a Moody Blues song; mumbles issued with his back to the audience (“You might wonder why I’m doing this ... I do this until the audience gets so irritated it begs me to stop”); cloth bags full of strange contraptions and gimmicks (a series of rusty plumbing joints connected to an old-fashioned camera flashpan—“a Martian telephone;” foam rubber puppets that answered questions while poised on his shoulder, a U.S. Government Printing House publication on the subject of ladders); all interrupted at inappropriate moments by Star Trek “bleep-bleep” ’s and improvisations (picking up a glass of water, he peered inside through a pair of invisible binoculars, and in a Scotland Yard accent said, “She’s in there all right, swimming around. Wait! She’s not alone . . . She’s with a man . . . No, by god, it’s two men ... no, more! Looks like we’re going to have to report this”).
In all, it was a good evening, and I left feeling my $6 investment (S3 admission plus two drinks) was well spent. Unfortunately, I left with the naive notion that making people laugh is easy: a few jokes about sex and mothers, a funny face or two, an occasional insult thrown at the audience, and the crowd is in stitches. I decided my time had come for joining the ranks of hilarity. I returned to the Store the following week to study up once more, and then, one Monday night, amateur night, I made my debut.
I rehearsed my material one last time during my drive to the Store. I though it was pretty funny when I wrote and rehearsed it at home, and my audience there issued no opinions to the contrary (thanks to the fact that I rehearsed it alone in front of the bathroom mirror). I arrived at the Store in high spirits, carrying my guitar case and tambourine. The man at the black-curtained doorway pointed across the room to the emcee, who held a yellow legal pad, sign-up sheet for the evening’s guinea pigs. Familiar by now with the Store’s passageways, I made my way to him without a single stumble. “I’d like to sign up,” I announced. He eyed me incredulously. What it was about me that prompted that expression I’ll never know. Maybe it was the red star painted on my right knee, but I doubt he could see it in the dark, even though he was pretty short.
“Write down your name and anything else you want to say about yourself,” he instructed.
I signed my name only (what else would I want to add? 5’6”? Types 80 words per minute?), and as I did, leaning over a table to catch a glimmer of light from a tiny candle, two men sitting there queried, “Hey, are you gonna do a striptease?” in drunken breaths, while peering lasciviously into my shirtfront. I stood up quickly and found a table in back, assuring myself that those two were just a couple of goofs, rather than a depressing premonition of things to come.
When I told my tablemates, strangers again like those on previous visits, that I planned to perform, they cheered me on. “You'll be great,” they told me, and when the emcee announced my name along with the others, they clapped loudly. Three hours later, following my performance, they didn’t speak to me.
The crowd on that night seemed different from those I had seen there before. It was noisier, more excitable, and, I think, younger. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that amateur night is free, though there was no cutback on spending for beer. Whatever the reason, the atmosphere was one I would imagine existed at the Christians vs. Lions rallies. At 8:55, one intoxicated young man began yelling loudly for a chair (all 150 of them being occupied). “I’ll give any one of you S10 for a chair!” he screamed, a plea not so much out of a need for basic physical comfort, but because, as was apparent by his leaning against a pole in the room’s center, if he didn’t sit down soon, he would fall down. Someone found him a chair.
The emcee bounced onstage like a jack-in-the-box, dressed in red pants, blue-and-white striped t-shirt, and squashed corduroy hat, assuring us all we were going to have “fun.” Following our name-reading (“Mark Wenzel, mime and artiste,” said with a dramatic twist of his moustache; “Something Elsa,” the only other woman volunteer, proclaimed with widening “ga-ga over that lady” eyes), he launched into his own warm-up performance. I can’t remember anything about it, possibly because I was busy at the time, trying to get my guitar out of its case without knocking the table over. I had no idea when I’d be called onstage, and the emcee reinforced the suspense: “These names are not in order of appearance.”
Fortunately, I was not first, because although I had managed to get my guitar out, I was still trying to untangle a strange necklace I had concocted (consisting of a chain, an embroidery hoop, and a tape cassette) when the first amateur came on. Actually, he was not an amateur at all, but Mark Wenzel, a professional mime who has been working in San Diego for at least a couple of years. Sporting a Sea World t-shirt to plug his upcoming gig, he went through several silent improvisations: a flushing toilet, a man sitting on top of a flushing toilet, two frogs making love, Randy Jones pitching a no-hitter. He was at-ease on stage, no reassurance to me, who had last been on a stage to sweep off litter before my high school graduation.
Next was Larry “Cruiser” Himmel, former KGB disc jockey. Sitting on a tall stool, Himmel’s act consisted of bachelor jokes and descriptions of ten-ways-to-masturbate-when-you’re-a-horny-high-school-kid. I savored my margarita. If the audience could go crazy over Himmel, I had nothing to worry about.
Next came a man introduced as India’s most famous comedian. Black-haired but clearly more Italian than Indian, he smiled innocently, held the microphone up to his delicately pursed lips, and issued the recognizable dialect but intelligible words of a Calcutta Indian, telling all his best ethnic jokes in none other than Bengali (or a close approximation for American audiences). The audience swooned at the absurdity. “Thank you very much, please,” he responded in a crisp British India accent, a phrase we were to hear 40 times within the next few minutes. After more “Indian jokes,” he offered, “I’ve ‘been working on my English very much. So far I’ve learned these: How you say? Bull-sheet? And Sonafa-beetch?” The audience roared. He answered, “Thank you very much, please.”
The emcee took a quick turn before the next amateur. “Call out your signs,” he ordered, “and I’ll tell you all about yourselves!” Immediately a voice from the crowd yelled, “Pisces,” and immediately the emcee declared, “Pisces. Sign of the loudmouth.” Time was running out, 10:30 already and he was only halfway through the list. “Should we bring on one of the girls?” he asked. The men approved with whistles and table-pounding hurrahs. I stiffened and moved to the edge of my chair. “All right. Ladies and gentlemen, Something Elsa!” I fell back in relief.
The “girl” named “Something Elsa” turned out to be a 40-ish woman with a huge, flashy accordiance inscribed “Elsa” and strapped to her front. Delivering a few short songs in Yiddish and Irish dialects, she then went into an epic poem about a boy who was swallowed by a lion during a visit to the zoo. In cockney accent this time, the poem lasted at least 15 minutes and, due to the accent, was for the most part incomprehensible. The crowd stirred uncomfortably and, I confess, after ten minutes I got up to go to the bathroom. Two margaritas and all the excitement had finally gotten to me. When I returned to my table, Elsa was still at it, and when she finished, she received hearty applause for her remarkable memory.
Following Elsa was an El Cajon cowboy in pointy-toed boots and a ten-gallon hat who, as the main gimmick of his act, kept falling off the stool like a city-slicker trying to mount a greased horse. By this time, the audience was ready to laugh at anything, and the cowboy’s act, which lasted no longer than five minutes, was applauded loudly.
Again the emcee appeared onstage to announce the next amateur. A wild-haired young man standing against a wall raised his hand and responded, “It’s 11:00. I wanted to go on at 10:30. I wrote that down.” The emcee asked, “Why 10:30?” “Because now I have to go to the bathroom!” The man was visibly in an altered state of consciousness, barely making it onstage without assistance. His opening line was not funny, considering his condition: “I am an asshole.” The spell had been broken.
Half the audience yelled for the hook while the other half yelled, “Let him go on, you creeps!” “Yeah, let me go on,” the man pleaded. Admittedly, his act was not very good, but in the meantime the emcee, out of frustration or panic, began to entertain the audience from behind him, blowing up balloons, donning crazy hats, sneaking up behind the performer to make faces over his head. Finally, the amateur stood up and screamed at the emcee, then dragged himself offstage to the hoots of those who wanted him off anyway and the boos of those who thought it was the emcee, and not the amateur, who was an asshole.
A no-jokes confrontation arose between the emcee and the audience. “You’re getting what you ask for,” he cautioned like a father informing his children of the consequences of misbehavior. “If you wanted this guy to go on, you’re just losing that much more time. We have to quit at midnight, you know.” Several people yelled back that the amateur should have been allowed his ten minutes in peace. The dispute was never resolved, and shrugging his shoulders the emcee announced the next amateur: me.
By then entire sections of the audience were on their way out, disgusted by the preceding scene. I wonder to this day whether anyone could have made them laugh at that point. Not once sentence was out of my mouth when they began to holler, “Get her out of here! Get the hook!” I made believe I didn’t hear them, but the silence was worse. I told jokes (poor ones, perhaps, but no worse, I think, than Himmel’s masturbation melodrama) to a hush. I sang a song to wailing boos. And then, a wonderful feeling came over me. Standing on-stage, elevated over everyone, a spotlight and all attention upon me, I experienced a great surge of tyrannical power, the same feeling, I would surmise, that turns plain-old Jerry Ford into The President of The United States when he stands at the Presidential pulpit.
I looked straight ahead into the darkness and spoke: “I can’t see you out there, I can hear you yelling and booing, but I’ll tell you, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay right here and finish my act.”
Several women in the front row applauded, while the hooters hooted all the louder. Actually, I didn’t deliver my full act, because by this time traumatic amnesia had erased most of it from my mind. But I did remember a song, one I had been rehearsing to myself in hysterics for a week, a parody of Janis Ian’s much-overplayed “At Seventeen.” At last the audience laughed, which allowed me to leave the stage with some semblance of pride.
Offstage, I stopped at a nearby chair, suddenly feeling too shaky to maneuver any further. The emcee finally got to do his own act: a fast-talking-salesman-type demonstration of a new kitchen device called “Sledgomatic,” which turned out to be a huge prehistoric sledgehammer for smashing fruits and vegetables to a disgusting, inedible pulp. The audience loved it.
I returned to my table to retrieve my guitar case. On the way, “Something Elsa” patted my back, told me my song was great, and encouraged, “Keep it up.” My tablemates were either too embarrassed at my behavior or too involved in “Sledgomatic” to speak to me. I returned my guitar to its case and sneaked toward the door.
As I did, a young blond-haired man stopped me. “Well,” he entreated, “did you have fun?” His expression was that of a child at a circus, where even the accidental plunge of a tightrope walker might naively be considered part of the entertainment. I felt I shouldn’t disappoint him. “Yes,” I answered, a fake smile crossing my twitching lips. “I had a great time.”
I haven’t been back to the Comedy Store since then. I heard that they’ve changed things around, that amateur night is only one hour long now, after the regular paid performance. The crowd, it seems, was too rowdy under the old set-up. Things should be better now, the manager assures. I wonder. You see, I have this new song I’m working on. I’ve really quit the business, of course, but didn’t you hear that Woody Allen is looking for a new co-star?