The life and times of an ethnically ambiguous little lady.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Caught Between a Joke and a Hard Place

This piece is based on a true story. While some of the characters have been tweaked for extra amusement, my general embarrassment and the lose of my pride is one hundred percent true.

I love doing comedy. I absolutely, flonking love it. Whenever I do a joke and the audience likes it, I just want to do a happy dance complete with the running man. And if it doesn’t go well, I can go home, cry a little and gently rock myself to sleep in the fetal position. No big deal.

So when I booked a show in Springfield, Massachusetts, doing 45 minutes of material for a Jewish benefit, I was thrilled. I had even properly schmoozed the booker, Larry. When I warned him that I didn’t have forty-five minutes of material solely on “being a Heeb” he said, “that’s okay, just do your thing.”

“Great! I have about 45 minutes of bestiality and pedophilia jokes that always do well!” I said sarcastically.

“I like you, kid. You’re gonna go places,” he said.

And the deal was sealed.

I had three months to prepare myself for the show. I wrote jokes, rewrote jokes, got onstage as much as I could and prayed that I wouldn’t forget all of my material halfway through the performance and have to fill the remaining amount of time by stripping.

I also learned as much as I could about Springfield, Massachusetts, because when in Rome, you should write jokes about the place so the audience feels like you’re connecting. Did you know, for instance, that basketball was invented in Springfield by Canadian James Naismith? (What are you going to tell me next, the Japanese invented baseball?!). Or that it’s the home of Theodore Geisel, aka Doctor Seuss? Or that there’s a picture book museum in the area, because apparently libraries don’t do the job? And it’s even the home of the Titanic Museum. (I know, I didn’t think there were any icebergs in them there parts either.)

Every couple of weeks, Larry the booker would check on me, to see how things were going: did I get my deposit, had I booked my hotel? And I began to learn more and more about the event. Like the fact they’d never had a comedian before, but last year they had a hypnotist and the group just ate it up. Comedy is kind of like hypnotism, right? [laugh nervously]. And that I was actually performing because the benefit was an auction and they needed some entertainment during dinner so they could tally all the bids. So, okay, maybe I’m not the main draw but I can be the E Street Band to their Bruce Springsteen.

Finally the day arrived. And I was ready to create comedy magic. I got to the subway station, giving myself plenty of time to make my train to Massachusetts. And I waited. And waited. And waited. And then I started to panic. And then I tried to calm myself down. And then I waited some more. And then the subway finally came, and I made my way to Penn Station and I arrived…exactly one minute after my train to Massachusetts had departed.

And as I cursed the MTA demons, I began to wonder, is this God’s way of telling me, “eh, shayna punim, it was a good try, but not to be.” (Yes, I imagine that God would sound like Mel Brooks). But I managed to catch another train that got me to Springfield thirty minutes before the performance.

Larry (who is a delightful bear of a man) pulled up to the station in his long black Cadillac, and after we greeted each other like old friends, he dropped me off at the hotel, which ended up being kind of, how shall we say, minimalist. I get to my room, change while trying not to be irked by the smell of stale cigarettes in my nonsmoking room and the hole in the comforter.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m heading with Larry, his wife, and his Cadillac to the benefit. We enter what looks like a banquet hall with gaudy chandeliers, elaborate Persian well-tread carpets, and lots of lots of Jews. And I soon find out that I have three hours to kill before I’m on and nowhere to go. I was in a room full of strangers in the middle of a silent auction, where the best prizes I could possibly win was a week of soccer camp for my kids or some precious contemporary Jewish artwork.

“Go ahead,” Larry said. “Go work the room, try to win something.”

I then spent the next few hours hiding from the guy who ran the JCC sports camp who took a fancy to me (nice guy mind you, but there’s something about a fella who wears a sport jacket, jeans, bolo tie, and sandals with socks that doesn’t do it for me), and being introduced to other strangers, one of whom invented some kind of newfangled teapot and thought I would be a good person to explain it’s workings to in detail. I also refrained from drinking myself under the table at the bar.

We sat down to dinner two hours later, as Larry or Larr Bear, as I called him to myself at this point, had made sure I was well fed, bless his heart. I sat down at a table with him and his friends. All the women were so painstakingly made up that you could see the line around their jaw where their makeup ended. All the men seemed to have stopped caring about their appearance several years ago, as exemplified by their rumpled bellies and receding hairlines that were combed to mask the effects of time.

“So, Emily, it must be so exciting to be a comedian,” one of the women said. “Have you been on any television shows I might know?”

“I’m working on it,” I said, sighing, as my ego headed south for the winter.

“And are you married,” one of the men at the table asked.

“No, but I have a boyfriend,” I said.

“Is it true, you know, what you wrote on your blog? You know, about him being black,” Larr Bear almost whispered.

“Yes,” I said, smiling, as the table tried their best not to collectively gasp in horror. It was just like a family dinner. All I needed was for my grandmother to show up and ask me, why “if my boyfriend isn’t Jewish, why can't he at least be white?” to really complete the picture. The conversation then turned to everyone’s kids, when each couple’s pool was opening, and how much they had gambled away the weekend before at the casino. As I have no kids, no pool, and no money, I smiled, picked at my food, and continued to go through my set list in my head.

Dinner was finally finished and I thought I was finally up, but no. Now there was a live auction. And then there was the tallying of the silent auction bids. And then they were all announced. And then roughly 220 of the 250 people in the audience got up to get their coats and head home.
And then I heard “And now for your entertainment. She has been trapped in a self-cleaning toilet…” And my heart sank. Because now I had to try and entertain thirty people, spread out all over a banquet hall that fit 300, most of whom were talking, and all of whom had no interest in watching comedy.

I walked to the stage, which was actually just a podium, and asked,” So who here is single, in her twenties, and lives in New York? No one? Fantastic.” And the few people left looked up at me and smiled and continued their conversations with whoever was nearby.

I’d get a chuckle from the audience here and there and when I told a joke that indirectly dealt with sex I got an “ooooohh,” from one of the audience members. (I guess the woman had never had sex before.) And it was exactly that unpleasant for the next thirty minutes, until Larry signaled I could wrap it up. I walked offstage amazed that I hadn’t fled and hitchhiked back to NYC, as my brain had compelled me to.

“I am SO sorry, Emily,” Larr Bear said, rushing over. “I don’t know why they put you up after they were done everything else. You never had a chance. And you’re really funny, we were laughing the whole time,” he said, gesturing to our table of sympathetic smiling faces.

“Thanks,” I said, feeling like I just had one of those nightmares where you’re naked and telling jokes, except in this case, everyone could actually see me. “I’m just going to be over at the bar.” And I had just gotten a drink when Larr Bear grabbed me to drop me off at my hotel. And I figured, no big deal, I’d just hit up the hotel bar, like a good lounge lizard.

Larr Bear dropped me off, with another sympathetic look and my check, which helped a little. “Really, Em, don’t worry about it. Maybe I’ll have you as the entertainment when I open up my pool this summer.” Ah, yes, any reason to drag myself back to Springfield. I half expected him to cuff me on the shoulder like some kind of movie pep talk as a single tear made its way down my face and the credits began to roll.

I walked into the hotel and realized there was no hotel bar. No, that would be in a classy hotel. And I was in the middle of nowhere, did I mention that? I’ll just hit my minibar, I figured. I shuffled over to the fridge, opened the door, and sighed once again. The fridge was completely empty. Eh, next best option, I’ll just watch the Lifetime Network and cry. It has the same effect, after all.

And at that moment, I realized two things: I was never coming back to Springfield, Massachusetts and Billie Holiday was right when she said, “there’s no damn business like show business—you just have to smile to keep from throwing up.”

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Blogger Johnston said...

This is priceless. It's happened to so many folks so many times, but very rarely is it ever written about with such vulnerability and honesty.


4:15 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

til this day i still think your funny and you are going places!!

Lar Bear

12:48 PM


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