Iâ€™m in the Oklahoma City Loony Bin sitting at the bar next to one of my very favorite headliners, James Johann. I like him because heâ€™s a good comic, he works hard, he never complains, and heâ€™s a real person without an inflated ego, without the bitterness that comes with some of the other guys or gals in his position. This is my third time opening for him.
James and I are talking about nothing in particular when out of the blue, he says, â€œIâ€™m a little worried about what I say around you.â€
I laugh. â€œWhat? Why?â€
â€œBecause you might write about it. Iâ€™m just waiting to read my name in one of your blogs.â€
â€œOh, ha, yeah,â€ I say. â€œWhy, do you think Iâ€™d write something bad about you?â€
He takes a sip from his Bud and shrugs.
â€œWell, donâ€™t worry about it,â€ I say. â€œIâ€™m not gonna write about you.â€
He smiles, falsely reassured that my sense of story wouldnâ€™t soon outweigh that halfhearted guarantee.
Recently, triggered by an attack of nostalgia, I listened to The Comedy Underground and the Escape from Open Mic, a CD compilation of Oklahoma City open mic comics my friend James Nghiem put together back in 2008, long before the Robot Saves City label came out. On that album, Danny Marroquin interviews each comic, and during my interview, a very drunk, very naÃ¯ve younger version of me says, not so eloquently, â€œI donâ€™t wanna be famous, but I wanna fuckinâ€™ travel around and tell jokes â€“ that seems like the coolest thing ever. Touring around with my friends.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve found your people,â€ Danny says. Later, he adds, â€œWandering around. Collecting stories and dispersing them.â€
â€œThatâ€™s the ideal life for me,â€ I say. â€œIt just fits.â€
Collecting stories. Dispersing them. My people.
Itâ€™s reassuring to hear my own voice from years ago answering the same question the same way I would answer it now. Iâ€™ve never been the type to keep in contact with all the people Iâ€™ve met in my life. I suck at staying in touch. I hate talking on the phone. So, really, these people I meet on the road and our pre-packaged weeklong friendships are perfect for my personality. These are â€œmy people,â€ and sometimes I forget that, and I betray them by not saying how much our short conversations, our small moments of connection, and the ridiculous adventures we find ourselves getting into mean the entire world to me.
Because this is my ideal life, and Iâ€™m actually starting to live it.
Itâ€™s October of 2010. Iâ€™m hanging out at Zanies in downtown Chicago, and I just so happen to run into Graham Elwood and Doug Benson â€“ Iâ€™d opened for them a few months prior in Oklahoma City, so it seems surreal and random to see them again in a totally different city. I imagine Iâ€™ll get used to that feeling.
I meet Elwood just inside the door, and I think heâ€™s waving at me, but heâ€™s not. Heâ€™s waving at someone behind me, someone heâ€™s probably known for years. I pull my wave-hand back and run it through my hair as though thatâ€™s what I was going to do the whole time.
I realize then that Elwood doesnâ€™t recognize me. In fact, one of the other people in the room introduces us, and instead of telling him that I opened for him, I shake his hand and say, â€œNice to meet youâ€ because Iâ€™m a big scaredy-titty-baby and way too awkward to simply say, â€œActually, weâ€™ve already met.â€
I donâ€™t blame him at all for not recognizing me â€“ heâ€™s touring around the country constantly, he meets thousands of people, and itâ€™s not as though we hung out or even talked for any length of time during his one night in OKC, the magical fairy land that exists theoretically to people in bigger cities like Chicago, New York, and L.A. Using that same logic, I recognize him because opening for Elwood and Benson was a big deal for me, one of the most important shows Iâ€™ve done in my very new, very unimpressive comedy â€œcareer.â€
Fifteen minutes later, Iâ€™m in the room upstairs where all the comics sit and wait to go onstage. The Bears are playing on T.V., and Iâ€™m surrounded by people I donâ€™t know very well: the club owner, three comics getting ready to perform, Graham Elwood, and Doug Benson. Graham sits in the seat next to me and turns to me, I think out of sheer politeness. â€œSo youâ€™re a comic? Where are you from?â€
Oh, Jesus. Let it go, man. â€œOklahoma City,â€ I say.
â€œOh, really?â€ he says. â€œYou know, Doug and I did a show there this summer.â€
â€œYeah,â€ Benson pipes in. â€œOn Doug Benson Day.â€ He then relays the story of how, when he came in to Oklahoma City, the people who put on the show (funnily enough, my friends) greeted him with a certificate signed by Governor Brad Henry naming the 28th of June as official Doug Benson Day in Oklahoma.
â€œWere you at that show?â€ Elwood asks.
I have two choices: I can continue to play this off as though I have no idea what theyâ€™re talking about, or I can come clean. I sigh and look at my shoes. â€œActually, yeah, I opened for you guys.â€
Grahamâ€™s eyes widen. â€œOh. Oh yeah! I remember! Iâ€™m so sorry I didnâ€™t recognize you. How are you?â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s okay, man,â€ I say. â€œItâ€™s my fault. I couldâ€™ve told you downstairs. Plus, my hair is longer now.â€
â€œHey,â€ Benson says, a look of sudden recognition passing over his face, â€œare you the girl that wrote the blog about shitting next to me?â€
Okay, let me explain:
A few months before, I had written a humor article for okc.net about how awkward I felt when opening for Benson. The piece reached its climax in a scene where Iâ€™m forced to pee in a bathroom adjoining the room Benson is in, and the door doesnâ€™t close. So basically, I wrote about how Doug Bensonâ€™s fame made me pee shy. I donâ€™t know where he got the shit thing.
At any rate, I donâ€™t feel the need to correct him. What am I gonna say? â€œUh, actually, Doug, I was scared of peeing in front of you. Not poop. Pee.â€ Instead, I just laugh and say, â€œSure, yeah, letâ€™s go with that. You read that?â€
â€œSomeone posted the link on my Twitter,â€ Benson says. â€œIâ€™m sorry I didnâ€™t remember you at first. I smoke a lot of weed.â€
Thus ends our conversation about my bathroom habits. We all sit there in awkward silence until somebody starts talking about football, and everyone, relieved, jumps into the conversation. Iâ€™m pretty sure thatâ€™s one of the reasons we have sports â€“ to break the heavy silences created by weirdos like me.
Talking to my friend later, I say, â€œI canâ€™t believe Doug Benson read my blog.â€
â€œWhy not?â€ he asks. â€œYou canâ€™t just post shit on the internet and expect that no one will notice.â€
Over the past six months, Iâ€™ve written eight humor articles for okc.net relaying my experiences as a comedian, an Oklahoman, and a woman. In those eight pieces, Iâ€™ve written five of them (including the Benson blog) about my interactions with various headliners Iâ€™ve encountered. And in three of those five, Iâ€™ve mentioned that particular headliner by name.
In my defense, I did this without even considering repercussions of taking real people and tossing them out into the world based on bits of conversations weâ€™ve had, conversations I felt were hilarious or interesting for whatever reason. And truly, I never felt the need to change the names of some of the people I was writing about because, in my eyes, I wasnâ€™t saying anything bad about them. On the contrary, I thought I was painting their characters for the world to show how interesting and fascinating they were to me.
The other two headliners I wrote about were assholes, but I changed their names in order to avoid any toxic reactions that might eventually affect my career. Now, I can see the irony in protecting Johnny Laser and Baldy Pants while haphazardly dropping names of the people I worked with who, over the course of our time together, I grew to admire and respect.
I wish I could say that I came to this realization on my own, but thatâ€™s not true. I came to the realization gradually because, starting with Doug Benson, all the people Iâ€™ve written about have read my blogs and contacted me with some sort of reaction that I didnâ€™t see coming.
Like, for instance, when I wrote an article about working with Kevin Bozeman in Little Rock and about how I had a crush on him, I didnâ€™t consider what that might seem like from his perspective. Kevin told me after reading it that he liked it, that it was â€œfunny and well-written,â€ but then he said some other comedians I work with may not take things lightly like he does.
â€œPeople might be worried about working with you,â€ he patiently explained in his laidback, collected manner, â€œbecause they might feel like they canâ€™t talk to you. Like maybe youâ€™ll write about everything they say.â€
And, in my stubborn, confrontational manner, I said, â€œWell, maybe people shouldnâ€™t say things to me that they wouldnâ€™t want other people to hear.â€
Kevin just laughed and probably said something like, â€œFair enough.â€
Roughly three months later, James Johann told me that he was afraid to talk to me because I might write about it.
Hereâ€™s the metaphorical straw that broke it down for me:
In my last article for okc.net, I started out with a story about a conversation I had with Cowboy Bill Martin when I opened for him in Oklahoma City. I wrote about how Cowboy Bill watched my set and told me that I seemed like a lesbian.
Last week, I received an email from Cowboy Bill Martin. He started the email with an apology for, get this, hurting my feelings. The rest of the email was kindâ€”much kinder than I deservedâ€”and in it, he explained why he had said those things to me. What he really meant, and what I chose not to add in my blog, was that the audience didnâ€™t get a sense of who I was onstage.
And he was 100% right about that.
Perhaps more importantly, I already knew that. I had already talked to him about it. On top of that, the truth is that when Cowboy Bill told me I seemed like a lesbian, it didnâ€™t hurt my feelings or bother me in the slightest.
Why not? you might ask.
Itâ€™s simple. Because heâ€™s a comedian, and because I knew he was joking.
After reading Cowboy Billâ€™s email, it suddenly hit me what Iâ€™d been doing to these people, my people. Iâ€™d been trying to show their character while making my readers laugh, but in doing so, I forgot that not all my readers are comedians. So when I write that Cowboy Bill Martin told me that I seemed like a lesbian, I make him seem like an asshole, when in reality, heâ€™s not an asshole. Not at all. He was joking with me because there are no rules in comedy, because comedians have no tact, no filters, no boundaries, and I, of all people, should know and respect that.
Because Iâ€™m the worst of all of them.
Not only have I been showing the others out of context, but Iâ€™m also making myself look like an innocent bystander, a victim. Make no mistake here, readers, Iâ€™m about as innocent as (insert pop culture reference here) is (insert appropriate adjective here). A lot of times, I instigate the very conversations and awkward moments that I relay in these blogs, and I have never come across a comedian, man or woman, that I couldnâ€™t out-vulgar, out-insult, out-shock, or out-argue when my heart was really in it.
I have no tact. I have no filter. And because Iâ€™ve been making myself out to be a little angel, I am the asshole here.
I know what youâ€™re all thinking: â€œOh great, Leahâ€™s gone soft on us.â€
Rest assured, thatâ€™s not the case. For one thing, I have no intentions whatsoever of stopping my namedropping habit (which should be evident in this article, as Iâ€™ve re-dropped all my previous namedrops). For another thing, I donâ€™t believe in holding back. I never have, and I never will. I mean, hell, my last article concerned my editor due to its unnecessary misogynistic overtones, and I ended up arguing for every last â€œvulgar slut,â€ â€œpainted whore,â€ and â€œcuntâ€ that I felt the need to put in print.
I do, however, hope to set the record straight about why I write the things I write. I recognize now that my failure doesnâ€™t stem from dropping names like Kanye West drops beats (Sorry, going through a Kanye phase, and Iâ€™m terrible at metaphors). Really, if I fail to show the merit or hilarity in these people Iâ€™ve been gently mocking, itâ€™s because of all the strange interactions and all the fascinating people I choose to leave out.
For example, I wrote about Doug Benson smoking pot backstage, but I never wrote about how he walked straight into a door. When I asked if he was okay, he turned around, very genuinely embarrassed and said, â€œMan, I walk into a lot of doors.â€
I wrote about Kevin Bozeman teasing me for having a crush on him, but I never wrote about how I made him laugh in the Clinton Presidential Library when we stood outside the heavily guarded replica of Clintonâ€™s Oval Office, and I dared him to walk in and answer the phone. I never wrote about how he got onstage the last night in Little Rock and told the audience they just werenâ€™t ready for me yet.
I wrote about Cowboy Bill asking me my sexual preference, but I never wrote about how he held his hand up in the air for a good minute or so while I attempted over and over again to jump up and give him a high five in order to prove I had a fine vertical leap. And I never wrote about how he gave me the best advice any headliner has ever given me: â€œDonâ€™t take all the advice you hear,â€ he said. â€œBe true to yourself.â€
I never wrote about how Steven McFarlin, a self-described â€œtechnotard,â€ cracked me up with his childlike wonder at the dashboard in my Prius, or how, out of pure innocence and awe, he giggled like an excited schoolboy when I showed him how I streamed Netflix on my Wii.
I never wrote about how Janet Williams, the Tennessee Tramp, told me she thought I could be a star one day. On our last night working together, she handed me one of the â€œPussy Powerâ€ bumper stickers that she sells after her show and said, â€œItâ€™s just for laughs. What kind of person would actually buy that and put it on their car?â€ Meanwhile, ten people were standing in line, cash in hand, ready to buy her â€œPussy Powerâ€ branded merchandise.
I never wrote about how I played Grand Theft Auto with Mike Merryfield and Jason Brown for a total of 30 seconds, when I ran the virtual car off the road at least four times, and they made fun of me for being possibly the worst player ever.
I never wrote about walking through the mall with Michael Malone and pausing in Dillardâ€™s to play a very loud, very obnoxious plastic arm wrestling game as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do.
I never wrote about sitting on the couch in Little Rock for two days straight watching judge shows with Mark Poolos while the headliner diligently exercised.
I never wrote about Tony Tone, Michael Brown, and Daryl Felsberg rushing around the kitchen attempting to put out a fire that I started while I stood by helplessly, saying things like, â€œShould we get, like, a fire extinguisher or something?â€
And I never wrote about how James Johann called the Loony Bin in Oklahoma City on my behalf and personally asked them if I could feature for him, which would have moved me for the first time, up above the status of â€œopener,â€ one of the nicest things any comic Iâ€™ve worked with has ever done for me.
James sits next to me Sunday night after our last show. Weâ€™re at the bar drinking beer and talking about comedy. â€œYou know what Iâ€™ve noticed?â€ he asks.
He pauses. â€œMaybe Iâ€™m drinking a little too much. Iâ€™m talking your ear off.â€
â€œI like it,â€ I say.
â€œYou like it because Iâ€™m giving you more material to write about in your blog.â€
I laugh. â€œJames, I wonâ€™t write it. Promise.â€
So he talks to me. He talks to me about his career, about how he feels about his act, about comedy in general. James is a private guy, but after three times working with him, Iâ€™ve finally gained his trust enough for him to open up to me, even though Iâ€™m just the kind of tactless asshole who might exploit that trust.
(c) Leah Kayajanian All rights reserved.