On the Road Part Five: I Eat a Dick at Zanies in Chicago, but Get by with a Little Help from My Friends

I met Kevin Bozeman, a comic friend of mine, when we were both in Little Rock at the Loony Bin. One night, over a few drinks, Bozeman announced that he didn’t love stand-up comedy.

“Oh, shut up,” I had said. “You do, too.”

“No, I don’t,” he insisted. “I like it, but I don’t love it.”

I remember this conversation so well because it annoyed the fuck out of me. I mean, there I was, making obscenely less money than Kevin makes, struggling to even get booked, driving myself in a ’92 Toyota Tercel to remote small towns for crappy one-nighters in bars, and there was Kevin, the headliner, someone who actually makes a living doing stand-up, telling me that he doesn’t even love comedy. It was infuriating.

I kept insisting that Kevin was bitter, but he’d just laugh and shake his head. “I’m not bitter,” he’d say. “I just don’t love this. If I could do anything in the world, I wouldn’t do this.”

I sighed. “Why do you do it then?”

“Because I’m good at it, and it’s not a bad job. It works better for me than other jobs.”

After spending a useless half hour trying to argue with him about it, I let it go, but I remember thinking, I will never be like that. I will always love comedy.

***

It’s Tuesday, the day after Valentine’s Day. I stare out the window of my 23rd floor hotel room onto the city below, Lake Michigan visible in the distance. I drink coffee and practice my set right there in that window, looking out over Chicago. I feel like a rock star.

At night, however, when I arrive at Zanies Comedy Club, I feel much less like a rock star and much more like a 10-year-old waiting to perform in her first piano recital, peeking out from the curtain at her dad in the front row with the video camera. Did I mention her dad was once chosen to play in the New York Symphony Orchestra, but the day before his first performance, he lost all the fingers on his right hand in a freak weed-whacker accident? Every night, while he sleeps, he dreams he can feel the ivory keys underneath his fingers, and the only thing that keeps him going is the thought of his daughter following in his footsteps.

There’s a lot of pressure on that fictional little girl, and for some reason, I feel that pressure on me. It’s my first night as a feature act in an actual comedy club, which is indeed a big step up in the comedy hierarchy, but it’s not as though my entire life rides on this one performance.

I can’t quite convince myself of that, though. In the last year, I’ve sacrificed several things for the sake of comedy, and I need this week to go well simply because it might reassure me that I’ve sacrificed those things for an actual reason.

And because the Universe knows when to give me a break, Tuesday night goes well. It’s like my delicious last meal before my execution.

***

The moment I step onstage Wednesday night, I feel off. Five excruciating minutes tick by, and I can’t find the crowd. I start to wonder what the hell I’m doing up onstage. I think that’s what defeats me, the thought that maybe I don’t belong here.

God, I wish they hated me. Dealing with a hostile crowd that just doesn’t like me is easy, in a sense, because my mindset turns into, “Well, fuck these assholes. I want to piss them off.”

The crowd on this particular night bothers me because I can see in their eyes that they want to like me. Every time I tell a joke that falls flat, they feel uncomfortable for me. I imagine they’re all feeling sorry for my parents as I spout off rape jokes, jokes about babies dying, jokes about how my life is a huge failure. I take their concern personally, and I try to convince them that just because my jokes make me sound like an evil, emotionless, dark void of distrust, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.

“Look,” I want to explain after telling a joke in which I theoretically burn the Anti-Christ baby in the eye with a lit cigarette. “I’m not the type of person that would actually burn a baby. But you’re not following the story. See, the baby I’m referencing is an evil baby, not a regular baby. We need people who are willing to kill evil babies for the sake of all of mankind. It’s like when your friend turns into a zombie, and you have to kill him.”

While I suffer through my time, waiting for the mercy of the light to bring me off, I forget all the rules of comedy, and my objective switches from making the crowd laugh to making them believe I’m happy.

I’m not, but that’s beside the point.

***

After my first show Friday night goes bad, I walk upstairs to the comic’s room, plop down on the couch, and stare at the T.V. The opener looks at me. “How’s it going?”

“Oh, you know,” I say without even looking at him. “Gotta love eating a dick on a Friday night.”

“Uh, what?”

I turn to him, notice the severity of his facial expression, and crack up laughing. “Oh, no! No! Because I said eating a dick, right? No, that’s just something we say in Oklahoma City when we don’t do well. You guys don’t say that in Chicago?”

He shakes his head, gives me his best fake smile and turns to the T.V.

Shit, I’m a long way from Oklahoma.

After my two Friday shows, the late one mediocre at best, I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep because I have a terrible feeling inside me. It starts in the pit of my stomach and then spreads through the rest of me, a horrible gut-wrenching realization. In this moment, I really don’t love stand-up comedy. That one fleeting thought makes everything I’ve sacrificed and everything I’ve worked for totally meaningless.

***

Kevin Bozeman lives in Chicago. He helped me get booked at Zanies, and since we worked together in May, he periodically checks in on me. He’s actually been a pretty good friend to have in the comedy world, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what he gets out of our friendship. I’ve been bouncing around life with no direction and loudly complaining about it ever since we met, and as a result, most of our conversations consist of me being needlessly sarcastic or flying off the handle about something stupid. I have no explanation of why he would subject himself to my insanity – my current theory is that he finds me and my drama amusing.

On Saturday, he asks me how my week’s been going at Zanies.

“It’s going bad,” I say. “They don’t like me here.”

“Well,” he says. “Maybe Zanies just isn’t your room. That place is packed with old rich white people.”

“Still. I should be able to make everyone laugh.”

Kevin stares at me. “Uh, you have three rape jokes, Leah.”

“I only have two rape jokes.”

“Okay. But what I mean is, you’re not the type of comic that the Zanies audience usually likes. They’re much more mainstream.”

I roll my eyes.

“You know who you remind me of?” he says. “Sarah Silverman.”

I cringe. “Oh, God.”

“What’s wrong? You don’t like her?”

“No, she’s fine.” I’ve always liked Sarah, but the comment hits a nerve. When I started doing open mics, people used to come up to me all the time to tell me I reminded them of Sarah Silverman. I never liked hearing that because I didn’t want to be compared to someone else, so I gradually pulled my act away from the Silverman-ripoff one. Hearing myself compared to her all over again four years later is almost unbearable.

“I don’t want to be like her,” I say. “I just want people to think I’m funny. I’m not trying to shock or offend anyone.”

“But you have to know that your act is going to offend some people. Talking about smoking pot and gang bangs and burning babies.”

“Ugh,” I say. “I don’t even want to tell those jokes. I don’t even like those jokes.”

It’s true. Over the past year, I’ve developed two distinct acts, one suited more for comedy clubs, and one suited for other audiences: rock shows, bar shows, colleges. If I could choose between the two acts I’ve come up with, I definitely would not choose the comedy club act. I’d like to use a much more laidback delivery style, where I can take my time, ease into some longer stories. In a club, you have to get them right away, so it’s better to tell shorter, quicker jokes, but I’m just not great at that, mainly because all the short jokes I come up with are weird and off-putting to decent people.

“I thought I was going to do better here,” I say. “I don’t get it. They like me in Oklahoma.”

“Yeah,” he says. “That’s why you should leave Oklahoma. You’re not going to get any better if you keep doing shows for people that already like you.”

Huh. I’ve never thought of it like that. “I do want to move,” I say. “But I don’t have any money.”

“You don’t need money to move.”

“Well, also, my mom is moving to Oklahoma,” I say. “So I don’t know what’s going on with that…and I need to find some sort of job. And I have to figure out my living situation.”

“Hmm,” he says. “I think you’re scared.”

“I’m not scared.” But even as I say it, I know he’s right.

This is exactly why I like Kevin. Because he calls me on my bullshit and makes me think of things in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

***

Saturday afternoon, I’m sitting in the Bucktown Beanery, one of my very favorite places in Chi-town, drinking coffee and stalking people I barely know on facebook. (Not full blown stalking—let’s just say if you’re my friend, there’s a good chance I’ve looked at all of your photos, even the ones you took at your family reunion in Portland, and I don’t know any of those bitches.) This is my favorite way to waste time.

My phone rings. It’s Dan Skaggs, one of the founders of OKC Comedy. “What up?”

“Hey,” he says. “I was just calling because Brad told me that you were having a weird week up there, and I thought, uh, maybe we could go get some dinner before your shows tonight.”

“Ha, that’s funny.”

“What’s funny? You should come to dinner.”

“What are you talking about? I’m in Chicago, idiot.”

He laughs. “So are we.”

What? Who?”

“Me, Crystal, Brad, and Zach.”

“What? Shut up, you guys are not in Chicago.”

“We are, I swear,” he says.

“You really are here? You’re not just fucking with me? Because I have trust issues, and I think you’re fucking with me. Why would you be here?”

“We came to see your show tonight,” he says. “We reserved our tickets already.”

“So you’re telling me,” I say, standing to gather all my stuff, “that you guys drove from Oklahoma to Chicago to watch me do standup.”

“Yeah, and we can see that terrible shit any day of the week.”

“Oh my God, that’s crazy!” We make plans to meet up at the Sears Tower, and I hang up, grinning like a dumbfuck while I shove my computer in my backpack.

My phone rings again. It’s BradChad Porter, Oklahoma City comedian and my arch-nemesis.

“Hay-ey!” I sing. “You guys are awesome!”

“Oh, shit.” He exhales like he’s about to drop a truth bomb on me. “Did Dan just call you and tell you that we were in Chicago?”

“Yeah.”

“Aw, that’s just mean,” he says. “Listen, don’t, uh, don’t get all ready to come out and meet us. We’re not really in Chicago.”

I’m sure the people in the coffee shop around me can see my face fall, my shoulders slump. “Goddamn it! He was fucking with me, huh? Well, I knew he was fucking with me the whole time. I mean, why would you guys actually drive all the way to Chicago?”

“Yeah, that would be ridiculous,” Brad says. “Well, sorry man, but still do awesome tonight.”

“Sure.”

He hangs up.

I continue to pack my stuff in my bag, this time much slower, sluggish as though affected by the weight of my heavy heart. (Note: the previous sentence was this year’s winner for The Edward P. Jacobs Cheesiest Sentence Award.) As I walk out of the café, annoyed by getting tricked by a bunch of asshole comics, I get a text from a third OKC comedian, Zach Smith. I open it.

It’s a picture of Brad in downtown Chicago.

I can’t believe it. They’re really here.

I’m overwhelmed by their support, but I also know what’s coming. Tonight, they will have to endure the awkwardness of watching me eat a dick onstage in a club a thousand miles away from Oklahoma, far away from that magical place where everyone knows what I mean when I say “eat a dick,” and where, for some reason, people think I’m funny.

***

Sunday night is my last night at Zanies. My OKC comedy friends have all headed back to Oklahoma, but one of my old college friends, Lindsey, just flew in from Seattle. The plan is for her to watch the show tonight, and in the morning, we’ll drive out to her hometown in Ames, Iowa and stay with her parents for a few days. Lindsey has never seen my act.

I do my final set as a feature, and, sweet relief, it goes well. The crowd likes me, which gives me license to be sort of weird. At the very least, they don’t seem worried for my well being, so I figure that’s something.

After the show, Lindsey and I decide to hit up a close-by karaoke bar that my GPS suggests to us. Upon arrival, we request some songs, order some drinks, and choose a table near the front of the bar.

Against my better judgment, I turn to Lindsey. “So,” I say. “Do you think I’m funny?”

“Sure, yeah.”

I detect a note of insincerity in her voice. “Hmm. That doesn’t sound like you really mean it.”

“Well,” she says, “you’re definitely not the funniest person in our group of friends.” This is the second one of my college friends who has made it a point to tell me that.

“Fine,” I say. “But I never said I was funnier than our friends. And for the record, you ain’t the funniest one, either, bitch. What I meant was, did you think I was funny tonight?”

“Oh, like onstage?”

I sigh. “Yes, onstage.”

She looks at her drink, stirs it. “It was…good. I thought you did, uh, good.”

“Come on,” I say. “Tell me what you really think.”

“It’s nothing,” she says. “Never mind.”

“No, just tell me. It’s cool.”

“Okay.” She leans over and sips her gin and tonic. “Well, I think you’re funny, but you’re kind of hard to relate to. I mean, a lot of the stuff you say is funny to me because I know you, but I can see 100 percent why the crowds haven’t responded to you this week. They don’t relate to you.”

“That’s actually a really good note,” I say, proud of myself for not getting upset. I’ve been working on taking criticism better.

Lindsey continues, “Plus—”

“No, don’t talk anymore. You’re gonna ruin it.”

“I was just gonna explain what I mean,” she says. “You know that joke when you talk about how you look like a lesbian?”

“I can’t wait to hear where this goes.”

She ignores me. “Well, it doesn’t make sense because you don’t look like a lesbian anymore.”

“Wow, thanks.” That’s good to know. All these years of seeming like a lesbian, and I’ve finally crossed over into the realm of, “She definitely likes the cock.” I, for one, am relieved.

“No, listen,” Lindsey says. “I don’t mean it in a bad way. I just think that you should definitely try to write more jokes about everyday things that people can relate to. Like you know that guy that went on and talked about the shake weight exercise thing? That was hysterical!”

“Aw, see, you’re ruining it!”

“No, Leah, listen to me. I’ve always seen that shake weight commercial and thought, ‘That is ridiculous. Somebody needs to write a joke about that!’ But I never heard one until today.”

I glare at her while I chew on my straw.

“You look pissed,” she says.

“No, I just get frustrated when people say things like that.”

“Why?”

“Well, for one thing, do you know how many jokes I’ve heard about the shake weight?”

She shrugs. “A lot?”

“Yeah, I’d say like a thousand million. Because everybody writes jokes about the shake weight, and you know what? It’s unnecessary. The shake weight itself is the joke. That’s all we need to know about it.” Fuck, shit, cock. I’m really starting to lose my inner peace here.

“God, sorry,” she says.

I cross my arms over my chest and attempt to be breezy. “Well, so what? It’s not like you thought I was the worst one that went on tonight, right?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Oh, come on! I was the worst? You think I’m the worst, don’t you?”

“Well, I guess everyone else had jokes that I related to more.”

“The guest spot guy that followed me?” Now, I’m screaming over a couple of drunk guys butchering a Nirvana song in the background. “You thought I was worse than the guy that followed me? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I’m just trying to be honest!”

“Well, then I guess I’ll be honest with you. I really want to punch you in the face right now.”

“Look,” she says. “I’m sorry I said it that way, but—”

“It’s fine.” I shake my head. “It just makes me better. Because when people say shit like that to me, it only makes me wanna prove them wrong. You’re only give me more incentive to do what I want to do and shove it in your stupid face.”

I stand up. “You’re like my dad, you know. You’re never impressed with anything I do.” With that, I storm off to the bathroom.

Note: you know your karaoke night has officially gone bad when the daddy issues come out.

Tonight’s little dramatic scene is actually pretty tame considering some of the epic battles Lindsey and I have endured over the course of our friendship. We’ve known each other going on ten years now, but no matter how much we may think we’ve grown up in the intervals between our visits, we always find a way to piss each other off. When we went to Vegas, every single night ended in us drunk, stumbling down a city street, screaming at each other at the top of our lungs, me sobbing hysterically. This night, like any night Lindsey and I go drinking alone, has potential for disaster.

No, I decide in the sanctity of my bathroom stall. Not tonight. I am, after all, 28, which I believe is old enough to act like a big girl. I walk back to the table with two shots of Jager and hold one up to cheers her. “Hey, we’re cool, right?”

“Yeah,” she says.

We clink glasses and take the shot.

Lindsey gags. “Gross! I hate Jager.”

I grin. “Yeah, I know.”

***

The next day, we’re about an hour into our five-hour drive to Iowa when I bring up our karaoke conversation. “Hey,” I say. “I’m sorry I got all upset when you told me what you thought of my act.”

“No,” she says. “I’m sorry I said it that way. I could’ve been nicer about it.”

“Well, I did ask you what you thought. If I didn’t want to know the truth, I shouldn’t have asked.”

This is a very mature moment for us.

For the rest of our drive, Lindsey and I retell old drinking stories that we’ve told a million times. We talk about our sophomore year, apartment 5202, about the time I dressed up like Courtney Love for Halloween and got so hammered, I turned into Courtney, a walking drunk tragedy captured forever on my friend Trevor’s home video camera. We talk about the time Lindsey drove drunk into the apartment parking lot blaring Big Pimpin’ and rammed into the side of my boyfriend’s car as he watched from the balcony.

Even though we both know how the stories end, we’re cracking up, and I realize that this is what I want to translate onto the stage. I want to tell funny stories about real people, stories like the ones I might tell after a night of heavy drinking, stories about the people I interact with everyday, stories about the hindsight I’ve gained in the years since I moved away from tiny Blackwell, Oklahoma to become a real person. Mostly, I want to encapsulate this feeling in my act, the feeling like I’m sitting in a room talking to my friends.

It occurs to me that I’ve been looking on the year leading up to my week at Zanies as a downward spiral, but it’s not really all that bad. I mean, sure, I’ve deconstructed the life I had built around me for years. Sure, everything I know is changing, and I’ve sacrificed my old life, my relationship, my comfort, my financial stability, and possibly my sanity for the sake of comedy. But even at my lowest point, I never sacrificed my greatest resource: the people around me who help me see a way out of my own mind. Over the course the week, I found, as I’ve found during every other low point, that the people who look in at my life from the outside sometimes have the best view. When you’re trapped in your own darkness, they can see what you don’t. They can help guide you out.

When I got to Chicago, I thought the week would turn out better for me. I thought I was going to make everyone cry from laughing so hard, that people were going to leave the showroom raving about, “That hilarious girl from where? Oklahoma City? Why, I can hardly believe it!”

The truth is, I needed to have a rough week. For one thing, I needed to learn how to suck gracefully, to fill my time and tell my jokes like I’m excited about them, even when I hate the way they taste as I spit them out. But I also believe that things happen for a reason, and if I wouldn’t have had a bad week, I never would’ve been able to step back and see what I had been doing so horribly wrong to my act: selling myself as someone I’m not.

If I want to be happy doing standup, I have to do what I want to do instead of obsessively trying to figure out what the audience wants. All week, I’d been trying to correct my act, to make it more likable for the Chicago crowd, for Lindsey. But that’s all kinds of backwards. When I think of all the people I admire in this profession, I realize that all of them have something of their own, unique perspectives. These people took what made them different and figured out how to use it to their advantage. They found a way to make it work on their terms, and then the crowd came around to them.

What I am that’s unique to me, and what I have always been, is a storyteller. My favorite part of being onstage isn’t getting the huge laugh. It’s the moment before the laugh, when they’re all straining, listening as hard as they can to hear what you’re going to say next. It’s the moment you know you have them, when you can take them anywhere.

(c) Leah Kayajanian All rights reserved.

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