It’s August of 2008. I’m in Tulsa for my first road gig, sweating a little from dragging all my luggage into the comedian’s condo. I close myself in the fortress of my designated space, but when I check out my surroundings, I encounter my first taste of the Box of Depression that is the MC’s room. There’s a mattress in the middle of the floor, but no frame or box spring. There’s an empty walk-in closet, its contents two items: a button-down white shirt with an iron burn on it and a condom. There’s no mirror, no dresser, no television, but in the corner I can see one wooden chair, I guess in case I’m in one of those crazy “sit-down” moods I’ve heard so much about.
Outside the door, I hear muffled voices. I know it’s the other two comics I’ll be working with. My heart pounds with the anticipation of having to introduce myself, that first moment when I’ll be meeting two guys that I’ll live with for the next five days. The voices become clearer; the two comics are now talking just outside the door to my bedroom.
“Don’t we have an opener?”
“Yeah, I haven’t met him,” Comic #2 says.
That’s my cue. I open the door, plaster a winning smile on my face, and take my position in the Triangle of Awkward created by our first encounter. Comic #1 is tall. He reaches his hand out to me without hesitation. “Scott White.”
“I’m Leah,” I say. “Your opener.”
I look to Comic # 2, and by the expression on his face, it’s obvious he didn’t expect me to have a vagina.
“Johnny Laser,” he says. (That’s not his real name, but rest assured, his real name is just as ridiculous.)
We shake hands, a tentative first step in what will eventually become our troubled relationship.
Ten minutes later, I decide to leave for the club. On my way out to my car, I notice Laser pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the house, having what seems to be an intense conversation on his cell phone. I try to sneak by him, but he hangs up just as I’m opening my car door.
“Where you going?”
“To the club. I get nervous, so I like to go early.”
He nods and looks me up and down. “That’s what you’re going to wear?”
I look down at my outfit – pair of jeans with some Converse sneakers, a tank top, and a zip-up sleeveless hoodie, an outfit that once prompted a friend of mine to comment, “You look like you’re going to a lake to skip rocks.”
“Yeah,” I say. “This is it.”
He walks off.
I get in my car, start the ignition, and say out loud to no one, “What the fuck was that about?”
After the first show, Laser proposes that us comics go hit up the Denny’s across the street to get to know each other. During our meal, Laser starts opening up, and he fields much of the conversation, Scott and I just nodding or mumbling in response every now and then. He talks and talks and talks loosely around one main point that he wants to make: stand-up comedy peaked in the 1980s, and it’s all downhill from there.
As any comic knows, the 80s comedy scene isn’t exactly known for its groundbreaking material. It’s known for having comedy clubs and comedians everywhere, the decade in which comedy enjoyed its most skyrocketing attendance numbers, and people came in droves to see any stand-up, anywhere, any time. The thing is, the more stand-up comedians there are in the mainstream, the less there are of the truly original talents, the ones who change the way people think about comedy. In Laser’s 80s, he seems to wax nostalgic about the suit-wearing comics, the ones that rolled up the sleeves of their Miami Vice blazers and made everyday observations, while enjoying the success heaped onto them by the work of all the people who fought for stand-up as a legitimate American form of storytelling in the decades before. Listening to Johnny Laser spout off reason after reason why the 1980s were the glory days struck me the same way as would listening to an insane person recite a list of the top ten ways to sharpen your mind while simultaneously trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube.
As I’m shoving a forkful of hashbrowns into my face, Laser says, “You know what I miss most about the 80s comedy scene?”
Neon socks, I think. Or cocaine.
“The comedians dressed up,” he says. “I try to dress up for all my shows because it presents an air of professionalism. It shows the people that I take my job very seriously.”
This would be much easier to take if Laser wasn’t wearing a button-down black silk shirt tucked into a pair of starched jeans, a shiny vest that looks like it may be a piece from a wedding tuxedo, and a pair of what can only be described as saddle shoes. Yes, like the ones little girls on T.V. wear to private school.
“I have some advice for you.” Laser nods in my direction. “Take a little pride in your appearance. Wear a dress on stage. Wear some makeup and fix your hair. Women comics in the 80s used to go up looking good.”
“I did fix my hair,” I mumble. “And I wouldn’t be very comfortable wearing a dress. I’m not that kind of person.”
“All I’m saying is that there’s nothing better than a beautiful, well-dressed woman.”
I turn to Scott, but he just takes a sip from his water and shrugs.
Once we pay our tabs, I tell the others I need to run by Walmart, and Laser invites himself along, so I am officially stuck in my car with the person who I’m growing to hate at the speed of 9 units per second. (My hatred is measured in how many units of my heart have become black and cold during any encounter.)
In Walmart, Laser’s nicer to me. Still, he’s not talking to me like a normal person – he’s talking to me like a creepy uncle inviting me to a sleepover. Somehow, while I walk around the aisles in search of cereal and milk, Laser gets the idea in his head that when we get back to the condo, he and I are going to have a pajama party. He even makes me help him pick out a pair of pajamas, the button-down kind that old people wear. Back in my car, Laser asks me why I want to be a comedian.
“Because I love comedy,” I say. “It’s my favorite thing in the world.”
“But you’re so young. You don’t want to do this.”
I sigh. “Why not?”
“Because you’re gonna get on the road, and the guys you’re working with are going to hit on you and try to sleep with you. And you don’t want to sleep with comics,” he says. “Do you?”
“No.” I wonder if this whole night is just his elaborate way of demonstrating to me the kind of asshole pricks I will encounter when I’m a real traveling comedian. “I have a boyfriend anyway.”
“Oh, honey, you have a boyfriend? Trust me, you don’t want to do stand-up. Just go back to Oklahoma and teach English.”
I don’t know what took me so long, but I finally feel moved to defend myself. “You know, just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t handle the road. Plus, if some dick tries to sleep with me, why is that my fault?”
We sit in silence the rest of the drive home, and as soon as we get in the condo, I scamper off to bed, trying to sleep, but scared shitless because of the vision that keeps cropping up in my head: Johnny Laser outside my door in his new Walmart p.j.s, ready to braid my hair and perhaps have a pillow fight.
Thursday night at the club, and Laser watches my set. I’m unaware of it until I walk out of the showroom to the lobby. Laser’s sitting at the bar with one of the club owners – a sweet guy named Dave who is also a comic – and they gesture for me to come over.
Once I’m there, I notice Laser glaring at me. “Cock in my no-no place,” he says, his arms crossed.
“Cock in my no-no place,” he repeats, slower.
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s one of my punchlines.”
Laser sighs and runs his hands through his hair like a frustrated professor trying to explain the Theory of Relativity to a fourth-grader who has to pee. “You can’t do that.” He nudges Dave. “You’re the opener. You can’t say things like that.”
“But…that’s just my act.”
“Listen, you’re never gonna get gigs if you keep working dirty like that. Because if you start off with ‘Cock in my no-no place,’” he says, his face scrunched in repulsion, “the audience gets ready for a dirty show right off the bat. Then you know what happens?”
I shake my head, the humility creeping up into my cheeks, burning my face with shame. “What?” I squeak.
“Then by the time I get onstage, I have to be in the gutter. You can’t start off dirty.”
He continues with his tirade, lecturing me about how my act is all wrong and just plain bad, and I stand there and take it, each of his words piercing my practiced invincibility, the guise of toughness I try to project to make up for the fact that I’m a girl. I’m on the verge of giving in to my biggest weakness, my sensitivity. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not made of stone. It’s easy to hurt me, really. You just have to know where to hit me.
And for some reason, Laser’s lecture feels like a sucker punch to the abdomen. Before I can run off, one tear, hanging on for dear life, can’t hold it anymore and falls down my cheek, shiny and brilliant for Laser and Dave to see.
I can’t believe it. Johnny Laser made me cry. I’m crying at a comedy club. Like a girl.
I manage to break away, to make it outside before I break down for reals, but I catch the two guys exchanging a look, and I can only imagine what they’re both thinking. Probably something like, “That’s why comedy ain’t no place for the women folk.”
Fuck, I totally blew it. My first gig on the road, and I blew it for women everywhere. For the rest of my career, I’m going to be known as the girl that cries when you tell her things.
I gain control of myself, and when I walk back into the club, I’m calm, holding my head up, but the damage is done. Beth, the other owner of the club, pulls me back into her office. “Dave told me what happened,” she says. “You don’t have to listen to Johnny, you know. He’s a jerk.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m really more embarrassed than anything. I can’t believe I cried in front of him.”
She smiles a truly kind smile. “You have to be tough,” she says. “That’s what’s gonna happen if you want to do this. You’re gonna meet people like Johnny who only want to make you miserable. If you want to be a comedian, you have to learn to deal with stuff like that.”
And I know she’s right.
I get the feeling Laser feels bad about making me cry because after Thursday, he’s a whole lot nicer to me. On Saturday, he even takes me out for lunch, and while we eat, he asks me advice on how to raise little girls – he has two of them.
I do my best to answer him, but really, I don’t know the first thing about little girls. I was never a little girl. Despite whatever girly-ness I betrayed with my crying extravaganza, I grew up like a boy. In fifth grade, I used to race the boys at recess. And win. In middle school, I was the only girl on the boy’s baseball team. I got dirty and burped out loud and tried to get attention by making people laugh, not by batting my eyelashes. In fact, I’ve spent my entire life doing things that boys do, and I can see now that stand-up comedy is no different, just another boys club that I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with. I’m starting to realize that if I want to play this game, I have to be tougher and better than the boys, even when it’s not fair.
Thus is the life I have chosen.
During our last show, Laser and I sit in the back of the room and watch Scott perform. At some point, I ask Laser when he started doing comedy.
“In the 80s,” he says. Then he starts telling me about how he misses the good old days, the kind of fun he used to have doing stand-up, the optimism for the future. He tells me then that he was up for a role on a very famous NBC sitcom – it was between him and the actor that made it on the show, and he lost out in the final audition.
“Wow,” I say. “Imagine if you got on that show. You’d probably be too cool to talk to me right now.”
He looks at me seriously. “Leah, if I got on that show, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
I’m suddenly aware that I’m young with my entire career in front of me. It’s sad to hear this headliner’s stories, tainted with the resentment of someone who believes that he peaked 20 years ago. I want to tell him he can change with the time, that he can peak again, but I’m not so sure he has it in him.
After the show, the three of us comics make one final Denny’s trip, a last hoorah to celebrate the end of our week. Laser is completely different than that first night. Now, he’s talking about Steve Martin, and it’s hard to miss the passion in his voice as he relays his favorite Martin bits, the way Steve owned the crowd, how when he was young, he used to watch Steve Martin and think, “I want to make people laugh like that.” His eyes light up while we discuss Pryor and Carlin. He asks me about the “new guys.” He listens to me. He listens to Scott. And we bond here on this night, just three comedians excited to talk about comedy, the thing we love more than anything in the world, to the only other people who can possibly understand.
This moment, I become a comic. A real one.
(c) Leah Kayajanian All rights reserved.