Posts Tagged ‘The Punch Line’

Distinguished Pedigree

October 23, 2013

Wednesday October 16th, 2013 – Chicago, IL

I’m back headlining at Zanies in Chicago this week, and it never gets old. That stage has a long and distinguished pedigree since 1978, and everyone who is anyone in comedy from Jay Leno to Jerry Seinfeld to Richard Lewis to Robert Klein to Sam Kinison and countless others have stood on the very stage I am privileged to stand on eight more times this week. This place is legendary.

It’s like an athlete getting to play in a storied structure like Yankee Stadium or Lambeau Field. One can feel the aura of history just walking in the place, and that’s what I feel whenever I walk into Zanies – even though I’ve done it hundreds of times. There’s still a magic vibe in the place.

The walls are covered with 8×10 signed photos of acts that have performed there over all these years, and it’s a virtual history of the comedy industry. Most every big star one can think of is up there, and they all look unbelievably young with pictures most of the public hasn’t seen before.

Jay Leno’s picture looks like it’s from his high school graduation, as do several others. A lot of the acts are dead now, and there are also a lot of others that most people have never heard of. I’m on the wall too, and it’s one of my earliest promo shots in a tuxedo of all things. I’m embarrassed whenever anyone sees it, but Zanies refuses to take it down. They say they’ll replace it if I try.

Part of the charm of a long running comedy club is to see the pictures of the comedians who’ve been around a while and look at how they’ve progressed. The Punch Line in Atlanta has some of the oldest promo pictures I’ve ever seen, and there are quite a few that I had never seen before.

For reasons of which I am still unsure, I am one of the Zanies family. I sure didn’t plan on that when I started, and I’m sure they didn’t either. It just kind of grew unexpectedly over decades of working together, and now I’m ingrained in the DNA. I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.

That doesn’t mean I’m bullet proof and I could easily get booted tomorrow, but I’d have to do something pretty bad to make that happen. We’ve got enough history with each other that we’re like an old married couple. We’ve learned to live with one another and there’s a comfort level.

Is it good or bad? It just “is”. There’s an Improv Comedy Club in Schaumburg, IL and I’d love to work there and every other Improv in America. What comedian wouldn’t? They have some of the most gorgeous comedy rooms ever built, and have a nationally recognized name. I might get a chance to work some of the others someday, but not in Chicago. I’m a loyal Zanies act. Period.

I just received word I was bestowed a huge honor by being chosen to be one of three comics on Zanies’ 35th anniversary show November 5th along with Larry Reeb and Tim Walkoe. That made my year, and I’m thrilled to be included in such distinguished company. Those guys are as funny as it gets, and are classic Chicago acts. To be part of that show is like being “made” in the Mafia.

True fans of Chicago standup comedy will get to see a show nobody has ever seen before. I’ve worked with both those guys many times before, but the three of us have never performed on one show on the same night. That’s a rock solid lineup, and I’m looking forward to us all knocking it out of the park for Zanies’ anniversary. I’m SO excited! Get your tickets early.

Zanies Comedy Club on Wells Street in Old Town Chicago. It's a cathedral of comedy.

Zanies Comedy Club on Wells Street in Old Town Chicago. It’s a cathedral of comedy.

Who's this idiot? I have NO idea.

Who’s this idiot? I have NO idea.


The Dice Of Destiny

March 28, 2013

Wednesday March 27th, 2013 – Chicago, IL/Atlanta, GA

   Here I go with yet another random roll of the dubious dice of destiny. I am in Atlanta this week to be a part of a prestigious comedy event called ‘Laughing Skull Festival’ and I am excited to be included in it. A huge number of comedians apply to be accepted, and a scarce few make the cut.

It’s designed to be a gathering place for industry people to find the next big thing. I guess it’s a comedy equivalent of the NFL Draft Combine. The powers that be all gather in one place to kick a few tires and compare notes on who the next big stars may or may not be. Eyes are a watching.

All I need is the correct pair to see me and it can open some serious doors. I’ve paid my dues to get here, and I’m not nervous in the least – not now anyway. I doubt if I will be when it’s time to go on stage either. I’ve put my time in and I’ve ripened. I’m ready to be plucked from the vine.

I’m one of the oldest participants here, and that gives me a distinct advantage. I’ve played the role of hotshot young punk, and a lot of mistakes can be made in situations like this. I won’t get intimidated by anything or anybody, and that’s a plus. I know exactly what needs to be done.

In a nutshell, need to get in front of someone who can open some new doors. Exactly who that is I’m not sure, but allegedly they’re going to be here this week. I need to go up and show what I can do, and also show why I’m different than any other idiot trying to get seen. It’s an audition.

They’re running a contest format, and my first round appearance isn’t until tomorrow night but I wanted to make sure I got to town a night early to avoid possible travel hassles, etc. I’m sharing a rental car and a room with a funny kid out of Louisville, KY named Jacob Williams. He’s now living in Chicago, and he’s been getting some attention in the clubs around town and on TV too.

Jacob is 24, and has been on ‘America’s Got Talent’ several times. I like him, and see a bright future for him if he stays with it. He’s already been doing it six years, and that’s even earlier than I started. A lot of kids are getting started younger and younger these days, and I don’t know what to think about it. It’s fine as far as stage experience goes but comedy comes from life experience.

I feel like I’m traveling with my comedy son. Jacob is hungry to learn, but he’s also very green as far as road experience. He’ll learn a lot from me on this trip, and we had fun on the drive from Chicago talking about comedy from all angles. The game has changed a lot since I was his age.

We stopped at The Punch Line on our way down, a legendary comedy club that’s been around since the beginning like a Zanies in Chicago or Comedy Castle in Detroit. I haven’t been inside that place in years, and it brought memories flooding back as I looked at the 8×10’s on the wall.

There were early promo shots I’d never seen before of big stars, and others I hadn’t heard of in years. Many of the comics pictured have died, and that was a wakeup call too. We made it to our hotel in downtown Atlanta, and of course they were sold out and we got stuck in the handicapped room. There’s also a $15 a day parking fee nobody mentioned. That’s how it goes in the big city.

The Silver Fox

February 1, 2013

Tuesday January 29th, 2013 – Fox Lake, IL

   I was saddened today to learn of the passing of a comedian I worked with many years ago from New Orleans named John Schnauder. We only worked together a couple of times, but he remains one of my all time favorite human beings I’ve ever crossed paths with. He was a wonderful soul.

We first worked together in Jacksonville, FL in the mid ‘80s at a club called The Punch Line. It was part of a chain that started from of the original Punch Line in Atlanta, and there were about a dozen clubs throughout the Southeast during the heyday. It was a great run of well paying work.

I was booked as the opening act with John being the feature. Shirley Hemphill from the sitcom “What’s Happening” was the headliner, and the first real celebrity I had ever worked with for an entire week. She was kept in a nice hotel, and John and I shared a week in the ‘comedy condo’.

There could and should be a book written about what goes on in comedy condos, but that’s not the focus right now. All it is is an apartment where comedians stay when they’re in town to work a comedy club. It’s an investment for the club rather than spending money to keep us in hotels.

Anyway, I got to spend that whole week getting to know John and I liked him more by the day. He was in his 50s then, MUCH older than the average comedian of that day – especially one that wasn’t a headliner. He had raised a family of seven children, and decided he wanted to live out a dream and be a comedian. He was very humble, and absolutely loved everything about comedy.

Most comedians – me included – get into comedy to fill an ugly void we never were able to fill at home with our families or lack thereof. John was completely different. He was no dented can, and that’s probably what I liked about him. He was warm and friendly, and it was contagious not only to me but to audiences too. He was extremely likeable, and loaded with charisma to boot.

He billed himself as ‘The Silver Fox’ of comedy, and his New Orleans accent was up front and a big part of who he was. I’ve often said how much I can’t stand that smelly hell hole personally, but that doesn’t mean I can’t like the people who come from there. They’re extremely friendly.

John Schnauder falls into this category, and we really hit it off that week. We were able to stay in touch for a few years, but this was before the internet when that was a lot more difficult to do. I hadn’t seen him in years, but I thought of him when his beloved New Orleans Saints made it to the Super Bowl. That alone caused me to cheer for them, and when they won I smiled for John.

John’s granddaughter Rhiannon Schnauder Perry informed me of his passing, and I posted my condolences to the family via the guest book. There was a large album of photographs from his life that really touched me, as most of them were him next to his kids or grandchildren and there were smiles on everyone’s faces. His love and radiance just shined through. He was a mensch of epic proportions, and just because he never hit the big time in show business doesn’t mean he is anything less than an outstanding success and winner in the game of life. He lived his dream, but also had a loving family. To me, that’s true success. Much respect to The Silver Fox. I miss him.

Car Trek

October 2, 2012

Sunday September 30th, 2012 – Columbia, SC/Kenosha, WI

   There’s nothing like an 832 mile seven state epic trek in a rental car to blow the cobwebs out of one’s brain pan. I knew I was in for this drive today, so I tried my best to prepare for it. In the old days I used to make drives like this all the time, but those days are over. Now, I’m just plain old.

I tried to take as long of a nap as I could this afternoon, but it wasn’t that long as I rediscovered Columbia, SC after being away for so many years. I tried to find where The Punch Line club was located, but I couldn’t. I did manage to run across a delicatessen called ‘Groucho’s’ that has been open since 1941 and I remember eating several meals there with comedians when I worked here.

It was a favorite hangout for comedians because it was loaded with gorgeous college girls who worked there as servers. The food was mediocre at best, but the women were incredible and we’d eat there frequently. Hooters has made billions with the same formula, but Groucho’s did it first.

There was a new crop of scorchers working who may well have been the daughters of the ones I flirted with in my 20s, but now all I wanted to do was get a meal. My waitress was smoking hot in the looks department but ice cold everywhere else. She knew she didn’t have to work at being a good waitress and she didn’t. I’m sure she thinks cuteness will get her by forever. Don’t we all.

The opener last night was a nice kid out of Washington D.C. named Jimmy Meritt. He handled himself quite well, and totally reminded me of myself when I was starting out. There are a whole other set of circumstances to deal with from the opener’s standpoint, and he’s cutting his teeth as we all have to do. I wish him well, as I do the other guys who opened for me the rest of the week.

I tried to make it a point to spend at least a few quality minutes talking with all the openers this week, as I recall how good it felt when headliners would talk to me when I was in coming up the ranks. Not all of them did, and I totally see why now. But back then it made me feel like an ass.

I didn’t realize back then all that goes into being a comedian, and sometimes it’s just nice to be left alone to one’s thoughts. I’m sure a lot of those headliners who ignored me then didn’t do it to be mean, but now that I’m in that position I always try to find time to at least say a sincere hello.

Funny itself has surprisingly little to do with the comedy business in those early years. It comes with time, but the early years are about getting used to everything else. There’s a lot to learn, and I look at kids like Jimmy and wonder if I’d do it all over again if I had to. I can’t say I would, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t either. I’d do a lot of things differently, but that lure of stage is strong.

Being on that stage when it’s going well is quite simply the most thrilling feeling I’ve ever felt. People say the same thing about sex, and I guess there are a lot of similarities. A lot of effort gets put forth making circumstances just right so it can take place – but then it’s over way too quickly.

At least with comedy a lot more people feel good, and I’m glad I chose to make it a part of my life for this long. I’ve taken it from total beginner status to now being one people go to for help.

I don’t mind that role at all, and in fact I relish it. I love being the big brother figure to as many young comics as I can, because I totally get their mindset. Most of them are dented cans like me, and I can talk to them on a level few others can reach. I’ve done exactly what they’re aspiring to.

What I didn’t aspire to was making 832 mile drives, but that comes with the territory. I needed to get back to Kenosha, WI by 8pm today to host The Mothership Connection radio show on AM 1050 WLIP. I had a jam packed lineup of guests ready to go, and it was too late to back out now.

I was packed and ready to leave right after the show, and thankfully the club manager squared up with me quickly. Once in a while they fart around and make us wait, and there’s nothing to do but sit around and stew. They’ve got the power, and we don’t. Tonight it worked out perfectly.

I’d already gassed up earlier in the day – another lesson I learned the hard way. Columbia isn’t a small town, but sometimes it’s hard to find a gas station open late and more than once I’ve had to sleep over in a town when I wanted to get on the road and start driving. But that was long ago. It’s been years since that’s been an issue because I always gas up as soon as I arrive in a town.

I did allow myself a treat and stopped for a quick bite at Waffle House on my way out of town. Any northerner who misses a chance to experience the Waffle House misses a lot. It’s a Southern institution, and I’ve loved them for years. My diabetes diagnosis makes it a lot tougher to choose acceptable menu items, but since I hadn’t been there in a long time I knew it wouldn’t kill me.

Food is only part of the Waffle House experience. Watching the array of unusual humanoid life forms continuously wander in and out is endlessly fascinating. These are definitely not the pretty people in life as a rule, and it sort of reminds me of an indoor carnival or bus station with meals.

I’m not saying they’re bad people, they’re just interesting to observe. For example, my waitress this evening was a lady named Rainbow who had a Mohawk. No joke. She was a very sharp lady actually, and my order was perfect in every way. It was a dinner/show combo, and I enjoyed it.

I would have loved to go back to the hotel and relax, but I knew I needed to cut mud and drive. I didn’t need any GPS because I knew the route from my years on the road. I-26 to I-40 through Asheville, NC and into Knoxville, TN. Then I-75 north to Cincinnati and I-74 up to Indianapolis.

I wish I didn’t have to miss the scenery around Asheville and Knoxville by driving at night, but I had no choice. I listened to some country music on the radio, and let my thoughts wind through my brain like my rental car wound through the mountain roads. I got lost in thought and kept the car moving until I couldn’t stay awake anymore which was about an hour north of Cincinnati.

This trip really put a lot of closure on many things in my life. I was able to get a good measure of how far I’ve come in comedy and life, and know that I’m not going to be pounding it like this much longer. The shows are still fun, but what it takes to get there is just not worth it. I’ve had a hell of a run, but now I need to prepare for whatever is next. This was fun, but it was also work. I like working, but this isn’t very efficient. If I’m going to drive like this, I should be a trucker.

Southern Comfort

October 2, 2012

Saturday September 29th, 2012 – Columbia, SC

   As I pulled into town this afternoon, it occurred to me I haven’t been to Columbia, SC in about twenty five years. That was a bit scary to think about, but it also brought back fun memories that are getting sweeter with time. There used to be a full time club in town called ‘The Punch Line’.

It was part of a chain of comedy clubs in the Southeast in the ‘80s with the same name. Atlanta was the home base, and that club launched some big people like Jeff Foxworthy, Pam Stone from “Coach”, James Gregory and quite a few others. That was one of the hottest rooms in the country for years, and during the big boom of the ‘80s they kept on opening clubs. I cut my teeth in them.

There was eventually three locations in Atlanta and also one each in Birmingham, Jacksonville, Mobile, Savannah, Charlotte, Greenville, Columbia and a few others that came and went before I could work there. They ran six nights a week, and I could earn a living while learning my craft.

Gary Kern and Kyle Nape invited me to work with them as an opening act. We’d often work as a three man team for several weeks in a row, and I had some of my most fun times on the road in those days. I don’t see newbies coming up today getting chances like that, and I really was lucky.

That’s a good thing too, because I sure wasn’t funny then. I had to do fifteen minutes a night as the opening act/host/emcee, and many nights I wondered if I’d be able to make it. I was far away from home for the first time, and that can be very intimidating. Gary and Kyle were very kind to show me the ropes, and that’s why I try to be so helpful with new comics today. I’ve been there.

I was SO stealing money back then. I was painfully inexperienced, and I wish I had a chance to personally apologize to all those paying customers who had to sit through my pathetic act during that period. It’s something every comedian has to endure, but it’s never pleasant as it happens.

The guy who performed tonight was a far cry from that kid who was here at The Punch Line all those years ago. I’m usually quite hard on myself, but I thought tonight’s show was one of a few I’ve ever done that I would consider to be five stars. It wasn’t a particularly great situation, but I thought I was able to handle myself exactly how I always dreamed I would. I have really grown.

There was of course a table of three drunken women close to the front, and I had to work them into the mix because they wouldn’t be quiet. I wasn’t angry, and I surely was not intimidated as I have been dealing with babbling boozers for decades now. I have finally reached maturity status.

But like all ripe fruit, there is a limited time of ripeness before it starts to rot. I don’t know how long that will be, but I do know that it’s inevitable. For now, I’m at my performing peak and I’m enjoying every second of it. This was a solid show tonight, and it took a lot of years to polish it.

It was the exact right mix of old and new material, pacing, crowd work and every other facet of the comedy craft I’ve been working on for so many years. I’ve got a horribly long drive ahead of me, but thinking of how far I’ve come as both a comedian and a person will help make it shorter.