“I can’t believe you people are telling stories about Angelo at this fucking open mic,” the comic onstage says. “Shit, I knew him. I was the first one to put that motherfucker on a show, but you guys ain’t gonna laugh at any jokes now, ‘cause you’re all telling stories about Angelo.”
It’s Tuesday night, and I’m waiting to get on at the Hollywood Improv. Angelo Bowers, a much-loved and respected L.A. comic, died this morning in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. The host of the Improv mic, Peter Banachowski, started the show by telling stories about Angelo and then inviting all the rest of us to do the same.
I didn’t know Angelo. I only met him once, for a second, but I can see and feel his impact on the room full of comics around me. It’s kinda breaking my heart. Not only did Angelo impress them with his act – anyone you ask will attest to how goddamn funny he was – but I’m finding out that he was also one of those people who said things that stick with you, the positive things you need to hear, the things that make an impact.
Tonight, Angelo is the voice playing in the back of their minds.
The entire room’s full of a tangible shocked sadness, a silence you know to respect, but there’s still a part of me that wants to go up and get laughs, even though I know it’s not gonna happen.
The comic onstage feels that, too, I guess. He bumped us all down the list because he’s a “real comic,” not an open mic-er like the rest of us. You can tell because of his air of confidence, his nonchalance at the mic, and because he keeps reminding us over and over again that he gets to perform on TV, so he’s obviously better than us.
“If Angelo was here,” he says, “he’d be making fun of you guys for wasting your time onstage by talking about him. He’s dead. Comics are supposed to tell jokes. Why the fuck you guys up here telling stories about Angelo?”
“Peter told us to!” somebody in the crowd yells out.
“Peter, you told them to do this shit?”
Peter, standing in the back of the room, shrugs. “Yeah.”
“That was fuckin’ stupid,” Mr. I’m-On-TV says. “You should know better than that shit.”
After Mr. TV tells some jokes and relinquishes the mic, Peter steps back onstage to introduce the next comic. “Just to be clear,” he says, “I still encourage all of you to tell stories about Angelo.”
The audience erupts in applause and cheers.
“Next week we can come here and tell jokes, but today, we can remember Angelo. What better day than the day of his death?”
It’s the right thing to say, but I’m not surprised. This isn’t the first time Peter has impressed me with his integrity.
I wait for the comics in front of me to take their turns, resigned to the fact that this isn’t gonna be a good set. Right before I get onstage, though, the man that lives in the back of my mind speaks, saying the words that I always think when I’m worried about what’s coming up, words that comfort me. A simple magic mantra:
“Just be funny,” he says.
I’m in eighth grade, walking around small town Blackwell, Oklahoma with two of my best friends. We had spent the morning picking up trash, extra credit for some science class, and as part of the incentive, we got these awesome “Blackwell Trash Day” t-shirts to remember such a landmark event in our lives.
That’s not why I remember it. This is why I remember it:
After the three of us receive our shirts, we put them on, and we walk around town wearing matching t-shirts. Fair enough. But on top of that, we decide to tie matching bandannas on our heads because that’s the type of thing really awesome people do, and we all know it.
On 6th Street, a red car drives past, stops a block ahead of us, and then reverses back to where we’re standing. The passenger window inches down, revealing the charming smile of Mr. Popular. He’s an athlete. He’s good-looking. He’s gesturing for us to come closer.
Once we’re gathered around the window, I see that his older brother, Dr. Popular, is driving. I’ve never talked to either of them, but I know who they are – the Popular last name gets a lot of attention in Blackwell.
“I just wanted to tell you,” Mr. Popular says, “you guys look like fucking idiots.” He turns to his brother. “What do you think?”
His brother nods. “Yep, fucking idiots.”
They give each other a high five (well, maybe they don’t, but in my memory, they do), and then they crack up laughing and speed off down the road.
A few years later, I’m a high school junior. When we come back from Christmas break, everyone’s talking about the terrible car accident the two brothers got into. The younger brother made it out okay, but the older brother is in a wheelchair. He won’t ever walk again, and he has some severe medical problems. I see him at basketball games sometimes, completely broken.
He dies months later. They announce it over the intercom at school, and I hear a shocked gasp ripple through the cafeteria.
I feel for the family, but I’m also disconnected from the grief. The only time I had ever talked to the guy, he had gone out of his way to call me a fucking idiot. This is all I know of him. I can see everyone’s sadness, so I’m sure that he was a better guy than that, but I only knew him as a douchebag.
After the Improv mic, I’m feeling very much like an outsider to L.A. comedy. I’m standing in front of the Bliss Café on Vine, talking to Lawrence Epstein. He hosts an open mic there on Thursday nights, but he’s there now to hang out before he goes in for his night shift. “Where else you going tonight?” he asks.
“Well, I just came from the Improv.”
“How was that?”
I shrug. “Sad. Everyone was telling stories about Angelo.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a rough night.”
“I know this is stupid,” I say, “but I had a bad set, and it’s bothering me.”
He laughs. “What did you expect? You went up and told jokes on the night a comic died. That’s a hard situation for anyone.”
“I know,” I say, looking down at my hands. “I’m insensitive for even thinking about that. I mean, I’m alive. A good guy died, and I’m alive.”
He shrugs. “You’re a comic.”
I nod. “Yeah. I’m just stressed out.”
“Haven’t found a job?”
“Well, you know, when I moved here, I had to go through a lot through bad situations. I was homeless for a while.”
“Damn. Sounds like you were much worse off than me.” I sigh. “God, I’m being stupid. Sorry I’m talking to you about all this shit.”
“No, it’s okay,” he says. “You look like you need someone to talk to.”
I sigh. “It’s just that…” I fight back tears like the big titty baby I am. “It’s just that I can take all the other stuff, the jobs, the personal stuff. But when comedy goes bad, everything else feels pointless.”
It’s early December, and I’m back home for the first time since moving to L.A. Well, close enough to home—I’m in Tulsa, actually, opening at the Loony Bin for the week.
Friday night, and I’m outside getting some air before the late show. I walk in five minutes before start time, and the club’s manager rushes over to me.
“Thank God I found you!” she says, stopping me just inside the door. She has a look of severe urgency on her face. “Don’t tell your dead baby joke this set.”
I don’t know what to say. I just stand there and blink.
“There’s a lady here tonight who lost her grandbaby.”
“Like today? Her grandbaby died today?”
“Yeah. The baby just died, and they don’t know why. So absolutely no dead baby joke.”
I try to process this information. “Oh my God, that’s terrible.”
“Yeah, so definitely no dead baby joke.”
“Okay, okay. I get it. I won’t tell the joke. But for the record, it’s not a dead baby joke. It’s not like the joke is, ‘Hahaha, a baby died.’”
“Well, I know,” she says. “But still…”
“I mean, I don’t think it’s funny when babies die.” I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve taken the censorship personally. “Jesus,” I say. “I’m a human being.”
“Leah, I get it,” she says. “It’s more for your protection. If you tell that joke, and she gets upset, then you and the other comics might have to deal with her for the rest of the show.”
“I’m not gonna tell the joke,” I say. “I just feel like you think I’m a mean person based on what I say onstage, and that’s not fair.” I walk away and march right into the showroom, where I brood for a minute about how I have to drop a solid bit from my set. But then, seconds before I go on, the voice in the back of my mind pipes in.
“Just be funny,” he says.
And “whoosh,” the bitterness passes, and I’m clearheaded. I step onstage, where I tell a dead-baby-less set to spare the feelings of the drunk lady in the front row.
I do a fine job, but all I can think when I get offstage is, These people don’t like the real me.
And then, If I don’t belong home, then where do I belong?
I’m in my real home, Oklahoma City, at the Loony Bin Christmas party. I’m whiskey-drunk and mingling in the lobby, haunted with poster-sized headshots of all the headliners that come through the club. I know a lot of these guys. They glare at me from their place on the wall, 20 years younger than they are now because mid-America comedy clubs are time capsules.
Nothing’s changed since I moved to L.A. Not that I expected anything to change.
My friend, comic James Draper, walks up to me, my tiny blue backpack on his shoulder. “Look at me, I’m Leah,” he says in his dry, sarcastic tone. “I carry around a bag full of bouncy balls.”
I laugh. He’s right. My bag is full of a few things I need and roughly 50 bouncy balls.
“Hey, you guys!” He turns to the other comics in the circle. “Look at me and my tiny backpack! I’m Leah, and I walk around everywhere with a heavy bag full of stuff I don’t need.”
“So what?” I say. “They’re magic.”
James positions the bag on his hip. “I don’t think you understand. You’re literally carrying around excess baggage. This is like a metaphor for your life.”
“Huh,” I say. “I never thought of it like that.”
Next Wednesday night, and I’m driving to yet another Loony Bin, this one in Wichita, Kansas. I’m in a dark place. It’s one of those days I spend thinking about all the people that I’ve hurt and all the people who’ve hurt me. I can’t really explain what brought me to this head space—I only know that sometimes I get nostalgic for things that I can’t quite identify.
Back in September, this very same feeling had prompted me to write, “LK loves CP” on a bouncy ball and drop it out into the world, my bizarre way of saying goodbye to a dead-before-it-started one-sided romance.
Yeah, okay, that’s weird. I’ll give you that. But this is even weirder; that night, CP, who I hadn’t talked to in six months, texted me because he was in L.A.
Ever since then, I’ve operated under the assumption that I’m magic, and I can summon people by releasing bouncy balls into the world. Today, it suddenly occurs to me, a 29-year-old fully functioning adult, that maybe there’s no such thing as magic, that what I’ve been calling “magic” really might just be a way to explain something that hurts me.
Only one way to test that theory. Outside the Wichita Loony Bin, I write “LK loves CP” on another bouncy ball. If I’m magic, then he’ll appear. I toss the ball over my shoulder and make my way into the club.
Once inside, I head to the back of the room, where I plop down on a stool like I didn’t just do the weirdest thing ever. Mark Payne, the club owner, is sitting on the stool next to me, his boots propped up on the chair in front of him.
“Hey, Mark,” I say.
“Where you been, girl?”
“Uh, I moved to L.A. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Well then what in God’s name you doing here?”
“Came home for Christmas, and I wanted to get a few weeks in.”
“How are things going out there for you?” Mark asks. “You getting any work?”
“Work? Ha!” I shake my head. “It’s just open mics and stuff like that. But I haven’t blown anybody yet.”
“What did you just say?”
“The last time I was here, you told me not to blow anybody for stage time.”
“Oh, come on, I did not,” he says. “I told you to watch out for producers who try to get you on the casting couch.”
“Uh, no, you didn’t. You said, ‘Don’t go out there and blow people for stage time.’ Those were your exact words. Remember?”
Thursday night after I do a good, solid set, and Mark’s perched on his usual stool in the back of the room. “I got some notes for you.” He hands me a piece of paper, his handwriting scrawled in unreadable pencil marks.
“Never follow…uh…Poke? Jome star at…punchline…orgy…twitch? What the fuck does this say, Mark?”
He snatches the paper out of my hand, exasperated. He points at the words as he reads. “Never follow a question with a long story.”
“You brought up an orgy at the end, but then you didn’t tie it into your earlier orgy joke.”
“What are you talking about? I called back to it.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Uh, yeah, I did.”
“I didn’t hear it.”
“Well, I ended on it.”
“Well, it doesn’t work. Stop doing it.”
He sighs. “Your problem is, you’re almost too educated for this room.”
“What does that even mean? Look, man, I can’t change who I am.”
“No, I didn’t say that. These people are just different than you.”
I roll my eyes. “Goddamnit, Mark. I grew up an hour away from here. I’m fucking from here.”
I haven’t heard from CP after trying to summon him with the bouncy ball, go figure. This is a good thing. If I had heard from him, then maybe I’d be lost forever to a world of unreality. Or worse, I’d be once again stuck wondering when I’d hear from him next. Trying to get him to pay attention to me is no easy task – I know this because I’ve spent way too much of the last year doing it.
I decide it’s time to let him go, along with a few other people and things from back home. I figure if I’m gonna start a new year of working my way out of Oklahoma comedy and into the L.A. scene, where most people don’t mind so much if I tell a joke that’s indirectly about dead babies, I need to get rid of some of the excess baggage I carry around. (*Note: I still intend to carry around my bag of magic bouncy balls, so my literal excess baggage remains intact.)
You may be wondering why I’ve wasted so much of my time on someone that doesn’t know I exist. Believe me, I’ve often wondered that myself. Because maybe my best friend is right – maybe CP is just a mean jerk. Maybe he’s a bad guy. But during the short time I’ve known him, so many of the things he’s said have stuck with me for one reason or another, and they help me adjust to lots of different situations here in L.A., or anywhere. For that, I can’t not love him.
Even after he’s gone from my life, I still hear him. The insightful things he said stay with me, just like the funny and kind things that Angelo said stick with all the L.A. comics around him. It makes me think that comedians should treat life like we treat our few minutes onstage: we know we have a limited time to make an impression on people, so we go on as though that impression is the only thing they’ll remember about us. And it just might be.
Because the things we say, they outlive us.
It’s September 2010, I’m four years into standup, and I’m in the back of an unfamiliar comedy club in a new city, cracking my knuckles and swaying back and forth, trying to get a hold of my nervous energy. I’m about to do a guest spot in front of a packed room, and if I do well, I can book a week in the club. As the host starts my intro, a sweeping panic runs through me.
I turn to CP. “Oh my God,” I say. “Is it okay if I’m a little dirty? Shit, am I supposed to be clean?”
He laughs, shaking his head at my amateurish behavior, and in that casual way he has, that way that I love, he brushes away my worries with a shrug.
“Just be funny,” he says.