The Carnival Story - Part 3. Scroll down for the first two parts.
Sometimes, if they’re lucky, retarded six-year-olds get to run around and play flag football on the field before a real NFL game. Many of them have earned this opportunity by selling the most beef jerky or chocolaty-almond candy bars to their well-meaning relatives in order to raise money for new shoulder pads. They already have helmets and instead of numbers, their jerseys are adorned with various doctor’s notes giving them permission to play. It’s an inspirational message for disillusioned retarded four-year-olds who may be feeling cynical about their prospects. The crowd is instructed to clap as the kids giddily run around in circles, providing minor pregame entertainment to the befuddled masses. It’s something for people to gawk at, condescendingly, while they’re waiting for the real game to start. Everybody’s a winner.
This is the same feeling you get when you go up first at a comedy show.
When I took the stage, nobody in the crowd gave a shit about me, and why should they? They were barely aware that the show had even started. Some guy had just droned on about various contest rules and made sure to thank all the gracious sponsors, then next thing you know, I’m on stage trying to get some chuckles. I thought the wise move would be to just stick to the script and perform as I always do. I figured the guy from Letterman was experienced enough to understand the situation and fairly assess my set. I had six minutes of material planned. I was purposely naïve. I was already a winner. This was going to be great!
I started off by asking the crowd how they were doing. They gave me a faint murmur, just as expected. It was actually an honest answer on their part. I mean, how many people are whipped into a frenzy just by hearing instructions?
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be used against you.”
“Fuck yeah dude, it’s time to par-tay! Let’s go to Bangkok and nail some 8th graders!”
My set was completely unremarkable. Polite, muted chuckles throughout. The flamingo came on and I ended things before the light even hit the crowd’s eyes. “Thanks, that’s my time!” I placed the mic back into the stand and turned to the judges. I knew the judges were supposed to critique my set American Idol style, but the host was supposed to come up first, then throw it over to the judges. At this point, THERE WAS NO HOST. Everything paused for a few seconds. One of the judges gestured for me to stay on stage while the confusion was being straightened out. So here I was, having just bombed, furious about the entire event, just standing on stage while the shows “organizers” decided it would be a good time to finally do some organizing. In retrospect, I should have just grabbed the mic and demanded a refund.
After what felt like an eternity, Al Ernst, my hero, began bumbling through the crowd with a purpose. He stopped in the middle of the room behind the first row of tables, screamed for everybody’s attention, and began introducing the host. That’s right, Al, with no microphone and no spotlight - from off stage, mind you - started yelling:
“Alright, are you guys ready for your host? From All My Children, give it up for Walt Wiley!”
I can’t stress this enough. I was languishing on stage like a stain while the event organizer turned the entire crowds attention to the middle of the room so he could yell out an intro. It was as if Al had never seen a comedy show before. He certainly hadn’t seen one in the last six minutes.
If you’ve never seen a soap opera star up close, you’re not missing much. It’s just a disgusting mixture of hair gel, fake tan, body spray, bleach, and chest hair. The whole combination seems toxic. Walt probably spits acid rain. In fact, when Walt is finally dead and buried, I’m guessing no grass will grow above his casket.
Walt and his cheekbones sauntered onto the stage to a big round of applause. Suddenly, the crowd was alive. This was a real celebrity. He’s a really serious actor on the TV, so you know he’s funny! Walt took the mic and began going into banter with the crowd. You know, the usual host banter: how’s everyone doing, where’s everyone from, anybody celebrating anything, etc. Keep in mind, he’s doing all this with me standing three feet away from him on the corner of the stage. Just standing there. Waiting to be judged. Putting on a fake smile. It was as this point that I started to feel used. I paid $25 to be Walt Wiley’s fluff girl. I was the warm-up guy for the entire show, including the host. I was the retarded six-year-old. I was not a winner.
After a painful minute of “get to know Walt Wiley” nonsense, it was time to be judged. Walt turned to the judges and gave them the go ahead. Here’s what they had to say:
Joel thought I had a solid set. Not great, not terrible, not memorable. Just solid. He was very polite about the whole thing.
The Carnival Guy
About the same as Joel. Nothing much to say. Courteous.
This is where things got weird. Les didn’t mention my set at all. Instead, he decided to just critique my clothing.
“Well…looks like you went with a pressed shirt for this thing..nice…but you wore jeans? You could have dressed up a little bit more for something this important.”
In the ten seconds it took him to say that, I repeated the phrase “What the fuck?” about fifty-seven times in my head. I mean, what does clothing have to do with comedy? This is bullshit! What an asshole! I can’t believe this is happening! Even the crowd felt awkward. There was a palpable discomfort in the room.
Well, it turns out Les was actually trying to be a nice guy. He didn’t really critique anybody’s material. Instead, throughout the show, he playfully made fun of people’s clothing to add some levity to the whole thing. Of course, with me being the first comic, the crowd didn’t realize he was joking, and neither did I. People didn’t pick up on the joke until probably three comics in. See, in order to laugh at a running joke, you have to first know it’s a running joke. The first time you hear it, it's not funny. So, basically, I was also Les McCurdy’s fluff girl. I was the setup to all of his other punchlines. Once again, I felt used.
Finally, the guy from Letterman. I actually felt optimistic for a moment, but that didn’t last.
Eddie began talking to me like I had just fucked his sister with a rusty syringe. He had nothing good to say whatsoever. He told me I lacked confidence. He even criticized me for asking the crowd how they were doing.
“If every comic asks the crowd how they’re doing, it gets redundant. Don’t ask the crowd how they’re doing. That’s what the host is for.”
I felt like strangling him. Listen dumbass, THERE WAS NO FUCKING HOST. Some guy with a mullet took a break from writing song parodies long enough to explain the rules, then I was on stage. Nobody had asked the crowd how they were doing. Did anybody else notice that?
Eddie went way overboard with me. I don’t remember everything he said, but I remember it being incredibly gratuitous and lasting way too long. I kept waiting for the flamingo to light up and tell him to get it over with. This is the problem with American Idol style judging. There’s always that one judge who thinks he’s going to steal the show by being Simon Cowell. It's almost expected. That show has given repressed assholes the big chance to come out of the closet and act like dicks without repercussion. I had no microphone. I couldn’t counter any of Eddie’s points. I just had to stand there and take it.
Eddie was the same with almost every comedian. Negative, heavy-handed and just flat out wrong. He told several comics that they lacked vulnerability on stage. Crowds won’t relate to you unless you are the vulnerable one in your jokes. If you make fun of your girlfriend, make fun of yourself first. Be vulnerable. Be a pussy. He told an equal amount of comics that his favorite comedian of all time was George Carlin – perhaps the least vulnerable comedian ever – and that they should study him. Nothing was consistent. It was just all out bashing.
I was finally dismissed from the stage, but I stayed and watched most of the remaining comics perform. Mike Payne took the stage second and had a decent set. The judges were no less critical of him. He did exact a small amount of revenge, though, by not acknowledging the judges at all. As they spoke to him from the left of the stage, he stared straight ahead – never once giving them any kind of personal response. He treated them as though they didn’t exist. I wish I had thought of that.
The winner of the contest was Jessica Delfino. She went up last (so much for my theory that going up last sucks) with a guitar and sang dirty songs. The crowd loved her. There’s something about having a guitar and saying the word fuck that whips crowds into a frenzy. Even when real musicians say fuck on stage, the crowd goes nuts. Have you ever heard the crowd at a concert when the lead singer curses? They can't control themselves.
“Wow, Bono said ‘fuck poverty.’ That’s so awesome. He sings and plays guitar and he says fuck. I'm gonna blow him later!!!”
The judges told Jessica that her dirty songs would never work on a cruise ship, but it didn’t matter. The crowd chose the winner and she outshined everyone.
After the show, everybody went upstairs to mingle, glad-hand and pass out business cards. Eddie Brill actually sort of apologized to me for being so negative. He was caught off guard because he didn’t realize he would be given a microphone and asked to critique people’s sets out loud. Apparently, his natural reaction to being surprised is to tell people how much they suck. Don’t ever throw a surprise party for Eddie Brill. He’ll call your mother a whore and shit all over the cake.
And that's how it ends. No fame, no fortune, no Letterman spot, no cruise ships, no Playboy Mansion. Nothing but anger and frustration. Basically a microcosm of my entire comedy career.
Comedy isn’t fair. Comedy competitions aren’t fair. You can’t give each contestant on the show the exact same opportunity. Crowds are cold, then they get hot and peak, then they get tired. Sometimes, you have to follow a comic who just destroyed or bombed awkwardly. It’s hard to give everyone an even starting point. That’s just the way it is. I wasn’t too angry at going up first or having a cold crowd. I was angry at the hosting debacle and the overall tone of the event.
The organizers had been selling us on the incredible opportunities available in this competition. Cruise ship work, club work, INDUSTRY JUDGES, etc. That was their way of justifying the $25 charge to enter. But, when you pay to perform, you don’t only pay for opportunity. You also pay for professionalism. There was none at this show. This was the third Carnival Comedy Challenge and they were still working out the kinks. The sad part about it is that Al Ernst and company positioned themselves as the road-hardened pro’s coming into the city to show the cocky New Yorkers how a real comedy show is done. They were the real comics who performed in real clubs and had more than seven minutes of material. There were a lot of allusions to that point of view given by the organizers.
I’m not one to prop up New York as some kind of bastion of tastemaking and originality, but if you’re going to show us how the real folks do it, you should at least understand the basic fundamentals of organizing a show. Ultimately, the whole thing was a failure.