Eastbound And Down

Wednesday May 16th, 2012 – Fox Lake, IL/Mansfield, OH

   My only work this week is one show tomorrow night just outside of Lancaster, PA in a suburb with the goofy name of ‘Bird In Hand’. There are a few odd town names out that way like ‘Blue Balls’ and ‘Intercourse’, but everyone out there has heard the jokes so there’s no point in trying.

I’d guessed it was roughly a 750 mile drive each way, but I was wrong. It’s longer. 813 miles door to door is what MapQuest says, but what do they know? I’ve been screwed by them before.  Whatever the case, that’s way too long of a drive for one night of work at this time in my life.

I took this gig because it came from an associate of my friend Marc Schultz. Marc was asked to find a comedian to entertain a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, and he thought of me. Apparently they’ve been booking comedians for years at this annual event, and they needed some new meat.

The pay is fairly decent, but not quite decent enough for me to fly in. Plus, I thought I might be able to rustle up a weekend somewhere in the region and make it worth the drive. I wasn’t able to find one, and that’s a red flag. Gigs just aren’t that easy to come by these days as they once were.

There’s a weekend room right in Lancaster, and I’ve worked there before. That’s the place that would’ve made the most sense, plus the guy that owns it owes me a favor – or so I thought. Last time I was there was the weekend my father died. He ended up booking Jim Norton on very short notice, and was going to cancel me altogether until I told him I’d be willing to work as a feature.

What were my choices? I’d have lost all money for that week, and I had another gig to get to in Pittsburgh the following week. I would have had to sleep in my car and have zero income, so the smart thing to do was just shut up and take it. Jim Norton was actually a very nice guy, and came up to me and apologized at the end of the weekend. But it wasn’t his fault. I see why it happened.

I don’t have a problem with anyone being able to make a buck, but there’s no excuse to cut my pay for a gig we’d already booked months before. I ended up eating several hundred dollars I had already spent, but that’s how it can go. Many owners couldn’t care less, and he was one of them.

That guy was notorious for bringing plates of food from the restaurant attached to the comedy club and telling comedians to ‘try this’ – and then giving us a bill at the end of the week. I had it happen to me, and found out I wasn’t alone. The only thing that cheers me up even a little is that he’s a big Steelers fan and I know it killed him when they lost to my Packers in the Super Bowl.

I asked him nicely months ago to help me out this weekend, but he sent back a short curt email saying ‘Booked already.’ That’s it. Not ‘Hey, let me see if I can make some calls.’ Nothing. I felt like an ass, but I shut my mouth because I’m already in enough trouble with others for running it.

I always said it’s time to quit when it’s not fun anymore, and I’m really to that point. I haven’t got the patience to deal with this kind of abuse anymore. That guy couldn’t care less about me or any other comic. I’ve had enough. I got a hotel room after driving 400 miles on the dot. I’ll give them all I have tomorrow, but I’ve really got some serious choices to make. This isn’t my future.

On the way through Northwest Indiana I stopped off for a fun lunch meeting with the members of Jerry’s Kidders, Ken Sevara and Tim Slagle. Those guys can relate all too well with what I am dealing with, as they’re in the exact same boat. There is an entire generation of nightclub comics between 45 and 60 that are really struggling right now, and none of us expected to be part of it.

Like rock stars and professional athletes, I think we all thought the comedy gravy train would last forever. How naïve and short sighted that was, bordering on flat out stupid. We’re all used to working regularly, and we came up at a time when it wasn’t out of the question to expect to work every week if so desired. Most of us never thought about an exit strategy…and now it’s too late.

Now there’s a group of younger generation comics who all used to open for us that are taking a giant bite out of the work pie, and it’s becoming a real struggle. Part of it is the natural process of aging. If patrons of comedy clubs are of a certain age, they want to see comedians that age also.

Another part is, there are fewer and fewer places to work that pay a living wage. There’s such a glut of supply that there isn’t a need to pay a premium for it. There’s always somebody who’ll do a gig for $50 less and drive twice as far. I guess that used to be me, and now it’s passing me by.

I’m sure athletes go through this process on a lot crueler level. They fight their way up the line to sign the big contract, and then the team unceremoniously cuts them at some point to bring in a younger player for a lot less money. Its economics 101, but it’s a lot harsher to live it in real life.

Ken and Tim and I are all in that boat and we know it. Believe me – every one of us in that boat is well aware we are there. There are no stowaways. We might not want to be there, but that’s an unfortunate reality. It doesn’t mean our lives are over, but if we’re smart we’ll start preparing for exactly that. The comedy dream doesn’t come with a retirement plan, but that’s kept very quiet.

It’s a different game altogether now, and there are two choices – play it or get out. Comedy is a craft, but there’s a business side of it too. It’s a process of evolution, and like it or not we all need to change our strategy. As much as all of us long time comics hate to admit, it’s no longer 1986.

Still, that doesn’t have to mean gloom and doom. I’ve had quite a few people call me bitter, but I don’t tend to sugar coat any situation. Bookers and club owners have always been difficult. Not all of course, but quite a few. One tends to take it a lot more at the beginning, thinking there’ll be a payoff at the end that will make up for the abuse. But rarely does that happen. It stays the same.

Jim Bouton was called bitter too when he wrote ‘Ball Four’, but it was true. He wrote about the way baseball was, and many didn’t like that. Comedy is the same way. I may be a pariah in a few circles, but at least I’m honest with myself and tell it like it is. This has never been an easy career path, but I knew that going in. It would be nice to receive a little respect from those who book us.

Maybe my expectations are too high, but I always thought it was important to be nice to people along the way. This just isn’t a business of ‘nice’, and I’m not able to let it go unsaid. I had better start, or start looking for something else to do. That’s a strong possibility. I still enjoy performing but the off stage insanity is getting tougher and tougher to swallow. I’m not equipped to handle it well, and I know it. Some people like to play the game, but I never did. All I want is to be funny.


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