Here's the true story of my experiences as an amateur standup comedian back in the Swingin' 1990s. I think the facts (all but one of which are true) will not only prove Steve Martin's assertion that "Comedy is not pretty," but will also show just how ugly standup can be, especially if you're practicing it in the shadowy semi-professional comedy world of Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Although the roots of my career in comedy extend all the way back to grade school, it was in 1992 that I attended the first of my three workshops at Mr. P's Comedy School. Mr. P is a renowned comedy impressario, or something like that. Nice guy, but...well, let me just tell the story.
The '92 workshop was a resounding success for me. Thanks to a real-life incident at a wedding in which I was thrown off the dance floor for incorrectly dancing that form of fascist mind control popularly known as the "Electric Slide," I had some great raw material that I turned into a pretty decent 10 minutes of comedy. The finale of the workshop was a performance at an actual show at Mr. P's comedy club. About 400 people showed up and laughed uproariously at my routines and the routines of my fellow amateur comedians. I have my performance that night on videotape and you can hear the club echoing with laughter. I recently watched the tape for the first time in years and I have to say that I was on fire, comedically speaking, that night.
After the triumph of my "Electric Slide"-inspired routine, I spent two years away from the stage to concentrate on writing what would become my internationally bestselling cookbook, 101 Cool Things to Do With Cheez Whiz. Following this, I returned to Mr. P's Comedy School in the summer of 1994. I had some decent material this time around, but for various reasons, I didn't quite have the cheering section I had in '92. So, I hit the stage with my dry but offbeat humor and faced a crowd of people who were overwhelmingly there to see another comedian whose sense of humor was diametrically opposed to mine. My routine went over like some kind of lead blimp, a fact that was captured on video forever, as I performed to almost no audience reaction. Toward the end of my set, I took a hard left turn into the surreal by saying, "Standing onstage just now, I realized...I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me." This was greeted with morbid silence, aside from the nervous laughter of my tiny posse of family and friends. Incidentally, I erased the video of that sad performance one night a few months later, when a particularly compelling Diagnosis: Murder was scheduled opposite my usual must-see Saturday night television, Walker, Texas Ranger. After all, who needs bad comedy when you can have Diagnosis: Murder?
Fast forwarding to the autumn of 1995, I received an invitation to participate in Mr. P's "master class" of comedians who had already been through the basic workshop. I went for it and again actually had a few good ideas, which led to me doubling the size of my routine to about 20 minutes. The show date was set for November 4. Join me now as I relive the events of that fateful night, the Night the Laughter Died, or at least fell into a really deep sleep:
Although I had invited plenty of people, November 4, 1995 proved to be a pretty busy night for most of them (maybe they'd heard about my performance the previous year). However, I did manage to drag 15 people out to see me. The show was supposed to start at 9:00, but actually began at 9:30, with Mr. P doing bits and pieces of his standard routine for minutes on end. Then he introduced Nick, the first act of the evening.
Now, Mr. P had determined the order in which we were to appear and I think he put Nick on first to get him done early. Nick imagined himself to be a social satirist, but with a routine consisting of jokes about how much he hates senior citizens because they stand in line in front of him at the post office, Nick was no Lenny Bruce. Nick clambered onstage and almost immdiately lost the crowd.
The problem with Nick was that he was painfully unfunny and this is a bad trait for a comedian to possess. However, instead of bailing out gracefully, Nick dealt with the crowd's non-reaction by staying onstage and rambling. And rambling. And rambling. That Led Zeppelin song, "Ramble On," was written with Nick in mind. Mr. P sent various smoke signals and telegrams to Nick to get him the hell offstage but finally had to resort to announcing over the P.A., "Nick, this is God. Get offstage now."
Yes, this would be a night to remember.
Nick was followed by Pepper, an older woman whose raunchy routine actually might make Joan Rivers blush (Pepper had, in fact, sold jokes to Joan Rivers, but apparently anybody can sell jokes to Joan Rivers). Actually, much of Pepper's stuff was pretty funny in a Rusty Warren vein (Rusty Warren was a 1950's era comedienne, most famous for a risque novelty song called, "Bounce Your Boobies"). However, I'm not sure my grandmother or Donna's grandmother appreciated Pepper's remarks about her uterus falling out of her body.
Pepper was followed by a guy named Ed who was genuinely very funny and very manic, although I have to admit that, nearly six years later, I barely remember Ed. Actually, now that I think of it, Pepper was followed by Mr. P goofing around again for minutes on end, as he did before the show and between Nick and Pepper's routines.
This is how the show continued to progress: at the pace of a particularly slow and obnoxious snail, with Mr. P taking up precious time in between each comedian to do his tired old stuff. Then, just before this guy named Jeff hit the stage, Mr. P suddenly became very time-conscious and asked Jeff to cut his act in half. This led to Jeff attempting to edit his material as he was being announced. Jeff's comedy was sort of in a Woody Allenesque vein. Funny stuff, but a little brainy. The crowd wasn't going for brainy (Pauly Shore might have been a bit much for them that night) and Jeff left the stage without having gotten many laughs from his truncated routine.
Jeff was barely offstage before Mr. P was back, this time doing a silly parody of Harry Chapin's ode to dysfunctional fatherhood, "Cats In The Cradle."
Not long after that, I stepped up to face my own standup Waterloo. Of course, right before I walked onstage, Mr. P told me to cut my act, just as he had with Jeff. To tell you the truth, at that point I didn't have any confidence in getting out of this comedy hellhole alive, whether my act was intact or not. If Jeff didn't survive with his dry, smarty-pants stuff, I wasn't going to do any better with my dry, smarty-pants stuff.
So, I hit the stage and dished out my opening lines: "Hi, I'm Rich Wilhelm. I'm happy to be here tonight. I'm taking some time off from the Pro Bowler's Tour. I'm not a professional bowler, I just like following them around."
I did get some laughs from that opening, but as I wound through the rest of my bowling routine, my dumb car story routine, the stupid job routine and the my-life-as-a-record-club-slut routine, the laughter died and so did I, along with any remaining ambition I had to pursue standup comedy. I cut myself off before getting around to the "Electric Slide."
Then Mr. P bounded back onstage and rattled on for 10 minutes about nothing.
I probably sound petulant and bitchy about the whole thing, but by the end of that night, I'd felt used and abused by Mr. P's comedy factory. His whole Comedy School concept was basically the means to create a source of cheap comedy labor with which to put on shows that made Mr. P money. I probably wouldn't have felt so bad if I knew my comedy really wasn't that funny. But I thought (and still think) my routine was pretty good, even if the majority of people who made up Mr. P's audiences during my second and third performances desired a "wetter" style of humor than I could adequately provide. Maybe someday I'll do standup again but I'm in retirement for now. I've got more cookbooks to write.
(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2001 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)