I read about the student who sued his professor over a bad grade, and shrugged it off as an isolated incident.
I heard first-hand from a manager who received a phone call from an employee’s mother, because he gave the Gen-Y employee a less-than-stellar performance review, and laughed at it.
I even rolled my eyes at the tale of a mother accompanying her son to a job interview, and the kid wondering why he didn’t get said job.
But when I heard Chris Rock say, “I won’t work colleges anymore, because they’ve gotten too conservative,” I paused.
In his own words: Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.
This frightened me, because if an icon like Chris Rock had to be worried about offending kids, what hope is there for a comedian of my limited stature?
As it turns out, none.
I recently had a gig at a college, and it was an unmitigated disaster.
Or so I was told.
I thought I was receiving a typical college response; the instant the lights went down, I heard nothing but kids talking over me. When I said my first “Hello!” into the microphone, approximately 3 of 150 people responded. The rest were in their own world, eating, talking, and posting selfies to Instagram.
I shrugged it off and barreled forward the best I could, because I was under contract. I had to sling my jokes for thirty minutes, audience indifference be damned. It was with genuine surprise when, twenty-five minutes later, I was pulled from the stage and told I was offending people.
I’m not dense. I knew I wasn’t killing it. Had the apathy started half way through my set, I would have said, “Oh crap, I’m losing them!” Since disinterest was the norm from the get go, I figured, “This is how it’s going to be.” But I never in a million years did I think I was shocking the audience.
When I was told otherwise, I asked which of my comments were out of line. The opening response was: “Off the top of my head? When you made fun of white people names.”
To be fair, I did make fun of white people names.
After the audience ignored my “Hello,” it was obvious they weren’t going to pay attention to me telling jokes. Given that, I decided to speak with them, to do interactive material. I started working the room, dancing on verbal eggshells the whole time. I am not a stupid man; I knew going in I would have to tread lightly.
For fifteen minutes I spoke with different tables, different students, making light, situational jokes: “You only ate half a baby carrot? You were too full to finish a baby carrot?”
(Groundbreaking? No. Safe? Yes. Hilarious? No. Chuckles from the six kids paying attention? Yes.)
When I got to a table of white girls, I figured I could be slightly more daring. And by slightly, I mean .5 on a scale of 1-10.
“What’s your name?” I asked the first.
“Rachel,” she responded.
“Oh God…” I groaned, over-emphasizing my exasperation to show I was being absurd. “That is the whitest name, ever.”
I heard mild giggles from the peanut gallery, and the girls at the table laughed, so all was well.
Or, as stated, so I thought.
When that moment came back to bite me in the butt, I was floored. I asked for clarification—how it was offensive?—and was told, “The event is multicultural. Our goal is 100% inclusivity.” Pointing out any race, even my own, brought attention to race, which automatically “made things uncomfortable.”
Though I didn’t, I wanted to shout, “FOR WHO?!” I’ve been a comedian long enough to know the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable laughter, and the chuckle I heard at my comment was genuine.
The other “point of offense” is one I should have seen coming. Up front I wondered whether or not I should do a joke in support of gay marriage. After all, I know people hear trigger words and react to them, not context.
Instead of yanking the joke, I instead went crystal clear, adding a preface up front. Speaking slowly and clearly, I started the joke with: “I’ll tell you this; I support marriage equality, and I don’t understand the arguments against marriage equality…”
(Note: I didn’t say “Gay marriage,” I made sure to say “Marriage equality.” Politically correct. Boom.)
The joke itself is at the expense of bigots. During an election year, I saw an advertisement declaring the #1 threat to America (translation: ‘Merica) was GAY MARRIAGE.
Not being able to wrap my head around such obtuse, bigoted, off-putting (and so on) thinking, I wrote a joke mocking that viewpoint.
After performing it, I was told: “The problem is with you, a heterosexual male talking about gay marriage in the first place. You cannot determine how someone who is homosexual will react to your stance on their issue.”
Hearing that, I was at a loss for words.
If my joke had been at the expense of homosexuality, then yes, it would have been out of line. But to say I cannot talk about it? That’s bullshit. Especially because the LGBT community needs me to talk about it. Not as a comedian, but as a straight person. The only way marriage equality will happen in America is by having straight people standing side-by-side with the LGBT community, championing their cause. The majority has to see and understand the plight of the minority in order to create change. If the LGBT community were to stand alone on this, legislation would stagnate, and the issue would be dismissed as “A gay problem.”
(Just like AIDS was “A gay problem” in the 1980s, before whoops! Straights started dying from it, too.)
Anyway, logical failings aside, if there was any viewpoint I thought would be safe on a college campus, it would be pro-marriage equality. But no. Even the topic is verboten, meaning the line was crossed when I opened my mouth. What came out of it didn’t matter.
What’s “funny,” and by that I mean “not funny at all,” is that when I was removed from the stage, I had been doing material involving my kids for about ten minutes. It’s probably the safest material I have, with nothing remotely controversial contained within. In fact, not only is it not controversial, it’s deeply personal material, and at times empathetic. How often do you see a comedian tell an audience he and his wife are donating their embryos to an infertile couple? I’m guessing never. I do, and it generally gets a nice pop of laughter at the end, too. I mean, not at this show, with all the texting and ignoring… but when an audience is engaged, yeah, they laugh.
Unfortunately, no one had the wits about them to realize, “OK, he’s transitioned. No more hot topics like ‘gay marriage’ or ‘white people names.'” Likewise, no one had the decency or common sense to think, “You know what, he only has five minutes left, let him finish.” Because when you’re not paying attention to content and you’re simply trying to indulge the delicate sensibilities of a society waiting to be outraged, you’ve already lost.
I will admit: in some teeny-tiny way, I understand where the ‘fear of offending’ comes from at a university. Many are taxpayer-funded institutions, and when someone gets upset it might up in the newspaper. Then donors get angry, and the governor gets involved, and blahblahblah…
I get that.
But you cannot cater to everyone, and everyone is offended by something.
That’s simply life.
My hope is that my experience was an isolated incident.
My fear is that this is the future, with over-the-top sensitivity a new normal that uses good intentions as a weapon to destroy society. After all, we all know good intentions are exactly what the road to hell is paved with.
I worked in the restaurant industry, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during his ascension, and was “lucky” enough to hear all the stories of his drug use and constant womanizing before they made their way to the general public. Not that there’s anything wrong with either vice, but the philandering left me a little cold. Brett was in a long-term relationship, then engaged, and then married. All the while he was publicly monogamous, you’d hear from waitresses in his steakhouse about his behavior.
(You’ll note that after the 2010 scandal where he allegedly *cough* texted graphic shots of his genitalia to a woman, no reporter seemed surprised; this behavior may not have been public, but it was well known in certain circles.)
But I could have forgiven him all that, if not for one thing.
The Green Bay Packers won the 1996 Super Bowl, and immediately following every Super Bowl the winning quarterback appears on The Late Show with David Letterman. In a pre-show interview, Brett quipped something terse along the lines of, “I’m not going to let Dave pull anything on me.”
Brett said his guard would be up for Letterman, and lived up to that promise by giving a lifeless interview.
Several months or years later, I forget which, Favre went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was relaxed, happy, smiling…
…and like that, I knew why I never embraced him: Favre was a Leno guy.
I have been a Letterman guy since episode one on NBC. I heard Bill Murray was the main guest, and if there’s one thing I’ve loved ever since SNL, it’s Bill Murray.
I fired up the television, staying up well past my bedtime, and discovered an unintended bait and switch: I had tuned in to see Bill Murray; I turned the television off wondering who David Letterman was. Being a kid meant I had no idea a talk show could be interesting; I only knew of serious interviews, such as those on The Phil Donahue Show. David Letterman was different.
Turning on the TV at 11:30pm became a regular occurrence for me. In the days before DVR and TiVo—and with the programmable VCR being slipshod at best—going to school exhausted (or sleeping until noon in summer) was the only way to get my nightly fix. During the school year, it was worth the sleep deprivation. In summer, it was worth missing the sunrise. David Letterman was doing things any teen would find compelling, and only years later would I read that he was given a show specifically to target “young males.” The network suits may have been after the expendable income of my demographic, but Dave was simply relating to us. He did so by being hilariously immature, whether it was by throwing a flaming bag of flour off a 5-story building, smooshing hot dogs in a hydraulic press, or running items over with a steamroller. Dave would put on a Velcro suit and bounce off a trampoline, sticking himself to a Velcro wall. He’d yell out a window—using a bullhorn—at the Today show, which was taping live on the street below. It was incredible.
Dave was ahead of his time. Yes, that phrase is used too often when showering praise upon someone, but it’s true. Before YouTube existed as an outlet to become famous for doing something dumb, Dave had both Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks. Did you have the ability to shoot milk out of your eye, or two dachshunds able to run their impossibly tiny legs off on a treadmill? Dave wanted you on the show.
(He also, and you didn’t have to watch closely to catch this, often enjoyed interacting with the people in these segments more than he did interviewing pampered millionaires offering their mediocre films.)
Dave was also the first entertainer to shatter my innocent naïveté regarding the way show business works.
(I shall explain.)
A few years deep into existence, Late Night with David Letterman aired what was to become one of the few bits to carry from NBC to CBS: Dave’s signature Top Ten List. What perked my ears upon hearing it’s announcement was not the Top Ten List itself, but the prelude sentence; “And now, from our home office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin…”
Not knowing any better, when Dave spoke those words, I believed him. I believed there was a staff of writers in a city I had once lived in, and that was still a mere 30 miles away. They were relatively close to me, creating hilarious lists weekly, and I wanted to meet them. New York might as well have been on the other side of the world. But Milwaukee? That was quick drive; you could go and return home within an afternoon.
It was a dream of mine to look up the Late Night Home Office and visit. Maybe take a tour, in the same way people tour Universal Studios or meander their way through a zoo. I just wanted to go see where the magic happened.
Then, without warning, one day Dave spoke ominous words: “And now, from our home office in Omaha…”
I was shocked; what happened to Milwaukee? What caused the move? I had never made my way to the home office, and now it seemed I never would.
It was eventually explained to me Dave was simply being a goof, and that neither Milwaukee nor Omaha ever contained a home office. Picking a random Midwestern city and declaring it the base of operations was just part of Dave’s character. Something he would find amusing, even if no one else did.
Which was a huge part of his charm, the quirks.
Dave was a rare brand of performer, someone who didn’t pander, but instead did things he found amusing. His belief was that if you put honesty behind your art, people would be interested.
And they were.
For a while.
The problem with America—or maybe most people in the world—is that if given the option of being challenged, or catered to, the majority will choose “catered to.”
People don’t always appreciate unique, original, or even enlightening. America likes safe, vanilla, and easy-to-understand. When Leno took over The Tonight Show, there was a short period where Letterman bested him in the ratings, but simple soon overtook challenging, just like it always does. For most of the Letterman/Leno run, Leno won in the ratings. Letterman was John Coltrane, Leno Kenny G.
Which isn’t always a bad thing. Coltrane is a legend, Kenny G. a punchline; the same is true of Letterman vs. Leno. Letterman is widely respected. Leno, not so much.
As he aged and matured, Dave entered a new role: the elder statesman. He turned intelligently political, adding a gravitas to his interviews with those able to rise to the challenge. He could still goof around with a movie star, but throw a senator or newsman in the guest chair and Dave spoke from a depth of knowledge unparalleled by your average citizen.
After 9/11, every TV show host gave a return-to-air speech. I watched as many as possible, and none were as powerful as Dave’s. Though every speech was sincere, and many had emotion behind them, only Dave’s carried weight. True weight.
Without meaning to, he became Generation X’s Johnny Carson. The Frank Sinatra of the talk show world. Keith Olbermann compared him honorably to Babe Ruth.
Dave deserved all of those comparisons, but above and beyond, he was David Letterman. Unique, original, and at times enlightening.
Brett Favre appeared on The Late Show again many years later, in 2008. This time he was more relaxed, because he had an agenda. Brett was on his “Twin Middle Fingers to Ted Thompson” tour, playing to nothing but his ego and ignoring 16-years of dedication by Green Bay fans.
He was selling his “Aw, shucks, I’m just a country boy” persona the best he could, but I wasn’t buying it. I still looked at him as the philandering, nudity-texting, “Dig me” guy.
Dave will retire with more grace and power than Favre—or Leno—attempted to.
And I will miss him.
Hey, it’s Monday, time to start thinking about the weekend…
What are you going to do with your days and nights?
Go see live stand up comedy, of course.
As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine.
Unless you have a broken bone.
Then seek a doctor.
(Are people still making Ebola jokes? Seems dated.)
Wherever you are, wherever you is, wherever you may be, somewhere out there someone is slinging jokes into a microphone.
Go find them.
Here are 5 shows happening around ‘Merica that you could check out, should you live close enough to any of the highlighted locations.
Well, get out and get your giggle on anyway.
Support. Live. Comedy.
“Just give them a good show, sweetie. You never know who’ll be in the audience.”
Those words are sounding inside me as I stare uncomfortably at the doe-eyed woman I have been conversing with. A petite 5-foot-nothing, she is charmingly pretty, and starting to tear up as she struggles to express herself. Unfortunately, everything has grown awkward quickly, mainly due to my inability to take a hint, be even marginally aware of my surroundings, or have any grace whatsoever when it comes to the verbal ballet necessary when emotions are involved.
I hate being so dense.
* * *
July 21, 2011.
I am in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Sault Saint Marie. It’s the tippity-top of America and a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. I am performing at a casino, which is always a crapshoot; when people go out to gamble a comedy show isn’t always on their radar.
REO Speedwagon is playing in the main theater, making me realize I went my whole life without knowing that Northern Michigan is where rock goes to die. I am telling my wife of the competition and she shoots the quote that opened this blurb at me. I smile into the phone and tell her that no matter what happens, I’m OK with it. Hell, the night prior only fourteen people showed up, but they were fourteen attentive, laughter-filled folks who were there to have a good time. Truth be told, I’d much rather have fourteen happy people at my show than 200 in attendance who are pissed off.
As it turns out, the Casino has scheduled the two events back-to-back; comedy is to begin just after the dying echo of Keep on Loving You fades into the summer air. Somewhere in the hotel I picture a clever manager giving himself a shoulder-chuck a la Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.
That manager deserves one, because he knew what he was doing; a healthy throng of people migrates directly from the theater to the bar, and as the first comic goes up it is standing room only. The crowd is large; they are drinking, relaxing, and most importantly, laughing.
Soon it is my turn upon the stage, and without going into details it’s just one of those nights. Everything works, everything hits. Laughter, applause, more laughter, more applause… When I hit my contracted time I’m tempted to linger and extend the show. I admit my ego is weak and screams for more attention on nights like this. I consider basking in the sun of my personal Sally Field moment a bit longer—I’ve got the material; I could fire off stories for over 90 minutes if I wanted—but decide against doing so. As much fun as I’m having, the major drawback to the world of slot machines and poker-bluffs is: you can still consume cigarettes within their walls. Plumes of blue-gray smoke have been exhaled forth all evening, and over the course of the previous hour I’ve bathed in it. I can feel it infesting my pores and laying cancerous eggs. I want a shower more than anything else.
“Fuck it,” I decide. Better to leave them wanting more than giving too much. With a goodnight wave I leave the stage. In the back of my mind is the niggling little fact that many casinos don’t like shows to run long. Every minute a person isn’t on the gaming floor is, well, another minute they’re not on the gaming floor. The logic behind that should be beyond self-evident even to the most Sarah Palin of people.
I stand behind the table I’ve set my wares upon, and happily enough, folks are coming by with cash in hand. They’re a little intoxicated, they’ve laughed, it’s a perfect combination for me to help them part with a portion of their paycheck.
I begin singing The Banana Splits song to myself; because for some reason my brain registers each sale as a fruit: “One banana, two banana, three banana, four…” Each banana a T-Shirt, walking out the door.
Customers come, customers go; smiles, handshakes, transactions. This is repeated until only one woman remains. She has been waiting patiently at the back of the line, and I turn to acknowledge her.
“Hi,” I smile. “Did you have fun tonight?”
“Yes,” she responds with a sad smile, giving me pause.
She extends her left hand.
I quickly realize my phone is in my right hand, set it down, and extend a “proper” greeting her way.
She extends her right hand, but leaves her left forward.
As I am an idiot, I now take both hands, and shake them heartily. In my mind, I am imagining Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx; this is exactly what they would do in such a situation. I’m being playful, thinking it’s somehow appropriate to the situation.
After a moment, I return her appendages to her and she looks at me, slightly frustrated.
“No…” she explains, and offers her left hand yet again.
Within a span of seconds I say the word “Oh” twice. First, an upbeat, “Oh, I get it now! You’re offering me your left hand for a reason!” exits my mouth. Almost immediately following is an “Oh” of realization. It is the release of air, one combined with a sinking feeling and often accompanied by the words “Shit” or “My God.”
On her wrist is a small, black metallic band; etched upon it is a name.
A name, and a date.
On stage, I am very vocal about my support for the men and women of the United States military. No matter anyone’s feelings on war, government or any political affiliations, behind the uniform is a person. A mother. Father. Wife.
In the case of this woman, husband.
My embarrassed eyes looked away too quickly to remember the name, but I believe the day this woman lost her loved one was in 2009.
She begins thanking me for my tours overseas, telling me how much it means to her they are remembered and supported.
That humans are selfish is no secret; I was in Iraq in 2009. As she speaks I think back to my time there and wonder if against-all-odds I had stumbled across the man. I have shaken thousands of hands while on military bases; was his one of them?
The most difficult part of any war-zone comedy tour is honoring gratitude. I have had shows cancelled due to incoming mortars. I have flown over mountaintops in open-door helicopters, the air so frigid I began to turn numb. I have waited countless hours in airports and on planes, done shows in awkward, improvised locations, and slept in the worst of beds with the most-stinky of sleeping bags. It’s what I sign up for, and is to be expected. But when a man or woman whose life is on the line every single day, who has been stationed far from home for months or years takes hold of my hand, looks me dead in the eye and thanks me for my little dog and pony show, that’s where I stumble.
I do my best to listen to the woman reminding me how important it is to the men and women serving that they are remembered, but am torn. I understand I have to respect her words, but part of me wants to scream at the top of my lungs: “DON’T THANK ME, I DO NOTHING! I FLY IN, STRUT AND FRET MY HOUR UPON THE STAGE AND AM HEARD NO MORE! YOU HAVE SUFFERED! YOU HAVE SACRIFICED!”
I remain silent and feel guilty for feeling guilty. Emotions of self-disgust swirl inside me, making me wish I could accept simple thanks without my mind wandering down a path of world injustices and karmic failure.
Maybe she has been drinking, maybe she is truly overcome with emotions too troubling to hold in, but soon she is reduced to a refrain of “Thank you… your words about supporting our troops meant so much. Thank you… thank you…”
A large part of me wants to give her a hug, draw her tightly to me as if my embrace could somehow give her a moment’s respite from the pain. I refrain for two reasons: one, I don’t know this woman. It would be unfair of me to impose my will upon her in response to the current situation. And therein lay my second reason for not reaching out: when I am overcome with emotion I absolutely do not want to be touched. I prefer being left to my own devices to deal with whatever I’m going through, and physical contact repulses me in the moment. What if she harbors a somewhat similar disposition?
As I do not know her specific kinks, I do not invade her personal space. In the end, all I can do is place a CD in her hands, telling her the material she enjoyed is on the disc.
She leaves me by backing away, repeating over and over how much my words meant. Her eyes are watery, but no actual tears flow.
You never know who will be in your audience.
You know the story by now… getting out of the house and supporting live comedy is 1,000x more fun than staying in the house and picking Doritos out of your belly-button.
Laughter is medically proven to make you feel better, so if you’re still upset Floyd Mayweather proved there’s no such thing as karma, go laugh!
(Just like the picture says.)
Here’s a few of who’s playing across the country.
If you’re not near them, go see who’s near you.
(That’s good writin’ right there.)
Sitting at home, on line, watching comedy without the full experience of seeing it live.
First of all, it’s fantastic you’re supporting comedy. Kudos to you for that. Now it’s time to take it one step further. Dust those Cheetos off your crotch (that’s where all the crumbs congregate), stand up tall, and march out the door.
Get to your local comedy venue and witness joke-telling the way it was supposed to be seen: live, in person.
Here are some options, but if you don’t live close to any of these, see what’s near you.
Hump day, when everyone sees the horizon and it somehow looks a little closer than it should.
Either way, the week is half-way over, so enjoy this giggle.
Follow some new comedians.
Unknowns, those who are immensely popular…
See you next week.
— Stand Up Comedy (@Stand_Up_Shots) April 22, 2015
I wonder what’s going on with Palestine [types “p”] Google (instantly): PORNHUB[dot]COM Well, if you insist [Middle East remains a mystery]
— Nat Baimel (@NatBaimel) April 13, 2015
Pretending to look very busy and important and hard at work to alleviate my housekeeper guilt. Can’t tell if she’s buying it.
— Riki Lindhome (@rikilindhome) April 21, 2015
How can my nostrils be so big and yet it be so hard to get mother fucking oxygen up them??
— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) April 27, 2015