Monday, November 28, 2005

The First Comedian I Ever Saw...

I grew up in Washington D.C., and when I was about 17, I went to a place I remember being called "This Is It!" at 14th and H or so. This was the red light district and this particular place was noted for the occasional sighting of Mayor Marion Barry. It was an honest-to-God burlesque house, although at the time I wouldn't have known what that meant. It was a bubble suspended in time, like Douglas Adam's Restaurant at the End of the Universe, except instead of temporally rocking back and forth over Armageddon, the End, the Last Bit, it instead gently swayed in and out of Sept. 27th, 1948.

I was drawn forth by the very idea of boobies, something that had recently grabbed my attention away from AppleSoft BASIC programming. Due to our Mayor's indiscretions, I had read in the Washington Post that boobies could be seen for reals, no kidding, at the "This Is It!" and off I went as fast as my 50cc Vespa moped could take me. The drinking age in DC at the time was 18, and honored more in the breach, so entry was straightforward. I took a seat at a table, placed my white Bell bike helmet under my chair, and waited for magic to happen.

The first woman I saw in the place was the point of this ramble, the first comedian I ever saw live. She was a hard 50, peroxide blonde and thick through the middle, wearing a beaded and sequined white floor-length gown, a white feather boa, and a look of exhaustion and disdain that even in my pink and virgin state frightened me more than words can describe. I guess she was the MC, she was telling jokes, setup-punch jokes, and at the end of each one a tuxedo-clad drummer behind her would flail his limbs and hit a rim shot that landed like a balloon full of oatmeal. To call the drummer tuxedo-clad ennobles him in an unwarranted manner; he was moth-eaten in a way that did not end at his clothes. He had the thinness of arm and paunch of belly that suggested his main source of nutrition was juniper berries, and he too wore an expression that betrayed a lifetime of Chesterfields, SRO hotels, and regret.

But back to our star. She would tell a joke, the drummer would drum, and the crowd would respond with equal parts indifference and impatience. This sequence repeated several times, and the crowd tipped harder and harder to genuine antipathy. And then she did the thing that would forever resonate in my understanding of comedy--she turned on us. She snarled a little, and then through a grimace like a nailgun spat out "Aw, you fuckers wouldn't know funny if it bit you!", and turned on her heel and left. Here's what I take from that now, twenty years later and six years into my own stand-up career.

She still cared.

I can make up a story here, she was a showgirl, a real looker, who after ten or fifteen years of late nights and men who never quite came through maybe wasn't so much the looker anymore. She'd been around enough that she could tell a joke, so rather than settle down waitressing at a diner somewhere, she fell into comedy, MC'ing the shows, snapping off a one-liner or two and den-mothering the new girls. And after thirty years of cheap drunks and smoke in her eyes, she still cared whether she got a laugh. I had the need tattooed on my brain at the tender age of 17 with that lady's ink, homemade of whatever bitter salt it is that's left behind when your dreams evaporate into heartache.

And then after that, I saw boobs.

No comments: