â€œI canâ€™t believe you people are telling stories about Angelo at this fucking open mic,â€ the comic onstage says. â€œShit, I knew him. I was the first one to put that motherfucker on a show, but you guys ainâ€™t gonna laugh at any jokes now, â€˜cause youâ€™re all telling stories about Angelo.â€
Itâ€™s Tuesday night, and Iâ€™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 didnâ€™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. Itâ€™s kinda breaking my heart. Not only did Angelo impress them with his act â€“ anyone you ask will attest to how goddamn funny he was â€“ but Iâ€™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 roomâ€™s full of a tangible shocked sadness, a silence you know to respect, but thereâ€™s still a part of me that wants to go up and get laughs, even though I know itâ€™s not gonna happen.
The comic onstage feels that, too, I guess. He bumped us all down the list because heâ€™s a â€œreal comic,â€ 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 heâ€™s obviously better than us.
â€œIf Angelo was here,â€ he says, â€œheâ€™d be making fun of you guys for wasting your time onstage by talking about him. Heâ€™s dead. Comics are supposed to tell jokes. Why the fuck you guys up here telling stories about Angelo?â€
â€œPeter told us to!â€ somebody in the crowd yells out.
â€œPeter, you told them to do this shit?â€
Peter, standing in the back of the room, shrugs. â€œYeah.â€
â€œThat was fuckinâ€™ stupid,â€ Mr. Iâ€™m-On-TV says. â€œYou should know better than that shit.â€
After Mr. TV tells some jokes and relinquishes the mic, Peter steps back onstage to introduce the next comic. â€œJust to be clear,â€ he says, â€œI still encourage all of you to tell stories about Angelo.â€
The audience erupts in applause and cheers.
â€œNext week we can come here and tell jokes, but today, we can remember Angelo. What better day than the day of his death?â€
Itâ€™s the right thing to say, but Iâ€™m not surprised. This isnâ€™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 isnâ€™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 Iâ€™m worried about whatâ€™s coming up, words that comfort me. A simple magic mantra:
â€œJust be funny,â€ he says.
Iâ€™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 â€œBlackwell Trash Dayâ€ t-shirts to remember such a landmark event in our lives.
Thatâ€™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 thatâ€™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 weâ€™re standing. The passenger window inches down, revealing the charming smile of Mr. Popular. Heâ€™s an athlete. Heâ€™s good-looking. Heâ€™s gesturing for us to come closer.
Once weâ€™re gathered around the window, I see that his older brother, Dr. Popular, is driving. Iâ€™ve never talked to either of them, but I know who they are â€“ the Popular last name gets a lot of attention in Blackwell.
â€œI just wanted to tell you,â€ Mr. Popular says, â€œyou guys look like fucking idiots.â€ He turns to his brother. â€œWhat do you think?â€
His brother nods. â€œYep, fucking idiots.â€
They give each other a high five (well, maybe they donâ€™t, but in my memory, they do), and then they crack up laughing and speed off down the road.
A few years later, Iâ€™m a high school junior. When we come back from Christmas break, everyoneâ€™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 wonâ€™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 Iâ€™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 everyoneâ€™s sadness, so Iâ€™m sure that he was a better guy than that, but I only knew him as a douchebag.
After the Improv mic, Iâ€™m feeling very much like an outsider to L.A. comedy. Iâ€™m standing in front of the Bliss CafÃ© on Vine, talking to Lawrence Epstein. He hosts an open mic there on Thursday nights, but heâ€™s there now to hang out before he goes in for his night shift. â€œWhere else you going tonight?â€ he asks.
â€œWell, I just came from the Improv.â€
â€œHow was that?â€
I shrug. â€œSad. Everyone was telling stories about Angelo.â€
â€œYeah,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s a rough night.â€
â€œI know this is stupid,â€ I say, â€œbut I had a bad set, and itâ€™s bothering me.â€
He laughs. â€œWhat did you expect? You went up and told jokes on the night a comic died. Thatâ€™s a hard situation for anyone.â€
â€œI know,â€ I say, looking down at my hands. â€œIâ€™m insensitive for even thinking about that. I mean, Iâ€™m alive. A good guy died, and Iâ€™m alive.â€
He shrugs. â€œYouâ€™re a comic.â€
I nod. â€œYeah. Iâ€™m just stressed out.â€
â€œHavenâ€™t found a job?â€
â€œWell, you know, when I moved here, I had to go through a lot through bad situations. I was homeless for a while.â€
â€œDamn. Sounds like you were much worse off than me.â€ I sigh. â€œGod, Iâ€™m being stupid. Sorry Iâ€™m talking to you about all this shit.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s okay,â€ he says. â€œYou look like you need someone to talk to.â€
I sigh. â€œItâ€™s just thatâ€¦â€ I fight back tears like the big titty baby I am. â€œItâ€™s just that I can take all the other stuff, the jobs, the personal stuff. But when comedy goes bad, everything else feels pointless.â€
Itâ€™s early December, and Iâ€™m back home for the first time since moving to L.A. Well, close enough to homeâ€”Iâ€™m in Tulsa, actually, opening at the Loony Bin for the week.
Friday night, and Iâ€™m outside getting some air before the late show. I walk in five minutes before start time, and the clubâ€™s manager rushes over to me.
â€œThank God I found you!â€ she says, stopping me just inside the door. She has a look of severe urgency on her face. â€œDonâ€™t tell your dead baby joke this set.â€
I donâ€™t know what to say. I just stand there and blink.
â€œThereâ€™s a lady here tonight who lost her grandbaby.â€
â€œLike today? Her grandbaby died today?â€
â€œYeah. The baby just died, and they donâ€™t know why. So absolutely no dead baby joke.â€
I try to process this information. â€œOh my God, thatâ€™s terrible.â€
â€œYeah, so definitely no dead baby joke.â€
â€œOkay, okay. I get it. I wonâ€™t tell the joke. But for the record, itâ€™s not a dead baby joke. Itâ€™s not like the joke is, â€˜Hahaha, a baby died.â€™â€
â€œWell, I know,â€ she says. â€œBut stillâ€¦â€
â€œI mean, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s funny when babies die.â€ Iâ€™m not exactly sure why, but Iâ€™ve taken the censorship personally. â€œJesus,â€ I say. â€œIâ€™m a human being.â€
â€œLeah, I get it,â€ she says. â€œItâ€™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.â€
â€œIâ€™m not gonna tell the joke,â€ I say. â€œI just feel like you think Iâ€™m a mean person based on what I say onstage, and thatâ€™s not fair.â€ 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.
â€œJust be funny,â€ he says.
And â€œwhoosh,â€ the bitterness passes, and Iâ€™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 donâ€™t like the real me.
And then, If I donâ€™t belong home, then where do I belong?
Iâ€™m in my real home, Oklahoma City, at the Loony Bin Christmas party. Iâ€™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.
Nothingâ€™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. â€œLook at me, Iâ€™m Leah,â€ he says in his dry, sarcastic tone. â€œI carry around a bag full of bouncy balls.â€
I laugh. Heâ€™s right. My bag is full of a few things I need and roughly 50 bouncy balls.
â€œHey, you guys!â€ He turns to the other comics in the circle. â€œLook at me and my tiny backpack! Iâ€™m Leah, and I walk around everywhere with a heavy bag full of stuff I donâ€™t need.â€
â€œSo what?â€ I say. â€œTheyâ€™re magic.â€
James positions the bag on his hip. â€œI donâ€™t think you understand. Youâ€™re literally carrying around excess baggage. This is like a metaphor for your life.â€
â€œHuh,â€ I say. â€œI never thought of it like that.â€
Next Wednesday night, and Iâ€™m driving to yet another Loony Bin, this one in Wichita, Kansas. Iâ€™m in a dark place. Itâ€™s one of those days I spend thinking about all the people that Iâ€™ve hurt and all the people whoâ€™ve hurt me. I canâ€™t really explain what brought me to this head spaceâ€”I only know that sometimes I get nostalgic for things that I canâ€™t quite identify.
Back in September, this very same feeling had prompted me to write, â€œLK loves CPâ€ 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, thatâ€™s weird. Iâ€™ll give you that. But this is even weirder; that night, CP, who I hadnâ€™t talked to in six months, texted me because he was in L.A.
Ever since then, Iâ€™ve operated under the assumption that Iâ€™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 thereâ€™s no such thing as magic, that what Iâ€™ve been calling â€œmagicâ€ 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 â€œLK loves CPâ€ on another bouncy ball. If Iâ€™m magic, then heâ€™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 didnâ€™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.
â€œHey, Mark,â€ I say.
â€œWhere you been, girl?â€
â€œUh, I moved to L.A. Remember?â€
â€œOh, yeah. Well then what in Godâ€™s name you doing here?â€
â€œCame home for Christmas, and I wanted to get a few weeks in.â€
â€œHow are things going out there for you?â€ Mark asks. â€œYou getting any work?â€
â€œWork? Ha!â€ I shake my head. â€œItâ€™s just open mics and stuff like that. But I havenâ€™t blown anybody yet.â€
â€œWhat did you just say?â€
â€œThe last time I was here, you told me not to blow anybody for stage time.â€
â€œOh, come on, I did not,â€ he says. â€œI told you to watch out for producers who try to get you on the casting couch.â€
â€œUh, no, you didnâ€™t. You said, â€˜Donâ€™t go out there and blow people for stage time.â€™ Those were your exact words. Remember?â€
Thursday night after I do a good, solid set, and Markâ€™s perched on his usual stool in the back of the room. â€œI got some notes for you.â€ He hands me a piece of paper, his handwriting scrawled in unreadable pencil marks.
â€œNever followâ€¦uhâ€¦Poke? Jome star atâ€¦punchlineâ€¦orgyâ€¦twitch? What the fuck does this say, Mark?â€
He snatches the paper out of my hand, exasperated. He points at the words as he reads. â€œNever follow a question with a long story.â€
â€œYou brought up an orgy at the end, but then you didnâ€™t tie it into your earlier orgy joke.â€
â€œWhat are you talking about? I called back to it.â€
â€œNo, you didnâ€™t.â€
â€œUh, yeah, I did.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t hear it.â€
â€œWell, I ended on it.â€
â€œWell, it doesnâ€™t work. Stop doing it.â€
He sighs. â€œYour problem is, youâ€™re almost too educated for this room.â€
â€œWhat does that even mean? Look, man, I canâ€™t change who I am.â€
â€œNo, I didnâ€™t say that. These people are just different than you.â€
I roll my eyes. â€œGoddamnit, Mark. I grew up an hour away from here. Iâ€™m fucking from here.â€
I havenâ€™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 Iâ€™d be lost forever to a world of unreality. Or worse, Iâ€™d be once again stuck wondering when Iâ€™d hear from him next. Trying to get him to pay attention to me is no easy task â€“ I know this because Iâ€™ve spent way too much of the last year doing it.
I decide itâ€™s time to let him go, along with a few other people and things from back home. I figure if Iâ€™m gonna start a new year of working my way out of Oklahoma comedy and into the L.A. scene, where most people donâ€™t mind so much if I tell a joke thatâ€™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 Iâ€™ve wasted so much of my time on someone that doesnâ€™t know I exist. Believe me, Iâ€™ve often wondered that myself. Because maybe my best friend is right â€“ maybe CP is just a mean jerk. Maybe heâ€™s a bad guy. But during the short time Iâ€™ve known him, so many of the things heâ€™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 canâ€™t not love him.
Even after heâ€™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 theyâ€™ll remember about us. And it just might be.
Because the things we say, they outlive us.
Itâ€™s September 2010, Iâ€™m four years into standup, and Iâ€™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. Iâ€™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. â€œOh my God,â€ I say. â€œIs it okay if Iâ€™m a little dirty? Shit, am I supposed to be clean?â€
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.
â€œJust be funny,â€ he says.