Not-so-funny business

Out on the road in the grimy world of stand-up comedy, the audience is mean, the comics are meaner and the guy with the best used-tampon joke wins.

By Cory Busse
September 12, 2000 11:16PM (UTC)
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Barbara Walters once said following an interview that she's "never met a dumb comedian." I disagree. In my seven years as a stand-up comic, I've never met anything but.

Don't think Jerry Seinfeld. Think Rick Rockwell. Think pompous, uneducated and more insecure than Dr. Laura in a lesbian biker bar. These are the performers who make up the majority of the comedy landscape. These are the people Walters has never interviewed.

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These are the people I spent seven years on the road with.

I started my stand-up comedy career in college. I am one of a select group of men who can genuinely start my letters to Penthouse, "I attended a small, Midwestern university ..."

When I was a junior, there was a talent show emceed by a comedian out of Omaha, Neb., who later became my good friend and booking agent. After years of hearing me spout off in class and do bad Sean Connery impressions, my roommates put me up to auditioning. It was easy to be funny, gross and prurient in front of my friends, but now I had to actually write material.

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Five hundred students packed into a gymnasium to see their friends pluck at guitars and cover R.E.M. ballads. And then I walked onstage, a skinny nerd of a kid who came out and started doing a 10-minute nightclub act. I was going for Dennis Miller, but I think I ended up being Dennis Franz -- pasty and foul-mouthed. I may even have shown my butt, I can't be sure.

"I've never been a good student. I used to think that No. 2 pencils were made out of shit."

"I had lunch at Subway this afternoon. As I got up to the counter, I realized that this is the only place in the world where women ask for six inches."

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"I was in a bookstore the other day and I saw this book in the relationships section: 'The One-Hour Orgasm.' Folks, I don't know about you, but I get winded on a five-minute run."

Looking back on it, it was my best show. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't even very funny, but they laughed. Of course they laughed; they were a familiar audience of my peers. I could have come out and done an old Rip Taylor act -- complete with confetti -- and they would have rolled in the aisles. It didn't matter. I mistook it for a sign, and my stand-up career was launched. It was like showing up to the Gold Rush in California -- about a decade too late.

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At the height of the comedy boom in the 1980s, it seemed as though every efficiency apartment in every postage-stamp suburb in America had a comedy club. There were, in fact, more than 300 comedy clubs operating in 1986. The Comedy Channel (which, in 1990, would become known as Comedy Central), VH1's "Stand-Up Spotlight" and A&E's "An Evening at the Improv" fired constant salvos of stand-up into every American living room. As you'd expect, most of those 300 clubs had disappeared by the early '90s. Long about the time I arrived on the scene, the era of stand-up comedy was decidedly over.

Many people blame saturation in the comedy market for stand-up's demise. Stand-up comedy essentially committed suicide. With so many little clubs popping up, the resulting syllogism was inevitable: There weren't enough good comics to go around, so all clubs -- big and little -- started booking any comic with a pulse and a dick joke. Audiences started resenting the fact that most of the pulses and dick jokes they were hearing weren't, in fact, funny. Comedy died.

In the 1980s, the comedy club became a satire of itself.

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Two-drink-minimum clubs played host to a sea of office workers who filed in to watch a comic with a skinny tie and a gallon of Aqua Net in his hair work his formula. Premise, setup, punch line. Premise, setup, punch line:

Premise: "I'm on the road with my act, so I get to see a lot of different places."

Setup: "I visited Mount Rushmore last week, and I started thinking that it's time for them to carve some of the more recent great presidents up there. You know, like Kennedy."

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Punch line: "It'd be cheap ... you'd only have to carve half the head."

Ba-dum-bump. And so on.

Today, some 10 years later, those days are thankfully behind us. But road comedy isn't entirely dead. It's not unusual to find a successful club operating in some podunk backwater that doesn't get cable. This is the essence of road comedy. This is where the majority of stand-up comedy happens today. Forget about your Improvs in New York and your Comedy Stores in L.A. That's imaginary comedy where shiny people still believe in a shot at the "Tonight Show." Real comedy is road comedy. Road comics play awful venues for little or no pay. Road comics pander to mullets and frat boys who make the crowd at Thunderdome look like a church choir.

And road comics are reprehensible people who are pros at dragging each other down.

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Gore Vidal once said, "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." This is the widespread sentiment in bush-league stand-up comedy today. I once watched a half-dozen comics stonewall a newcomer at an open-mike night. They talked through her set. They didn't laugh at her jokes. One of them even broke a cardinal rule of the business -- he heckled her:

"You're not funny," he hollered, face down. Then he hid behind his beer mug. I don't care how good a comic you are; there's no way to combat that single sentence. Worst of all, it came from a bitter comic who'd come back to the Midwest after failing miserably in his attempt at stardom in Los Angeles.

They did it because this woman represented a threat. Not because she wasn't funny, mind you. She was, in fact, funny. That's precisely why they cut her down. Competition for the current stakes in stand-up (which are laughably low to begin with) is ham-handedly Machiavellian.

I've had my own taste of that kind of treatment. The very first time I opened for a comic, it was in River Falls, Wisc.

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I don't want to make it seem as though the material I was doing was timeless. I was 23, nervous and green. I worked with what I had. My last name, Busse, is German, and the "u" is pronounced with the traditional umlaut. You pronounce it to sort of rhyme with "juicy." Joking about never being able to name your children "Harry" or "Anita" was a great icebreaker with the audience.

"I could never join the army because then what would I be? Private Busse? Major Busse? General Busse?"

You get the idea.

After I finished my 30-minute set, the headliner lit into me. He chastised me at the bar even as he was being introduced for his set, saying that my material was "too dirty." He threatened to call my booking agent to make sure that a) I never worked with him again and b) I never worked again, period. By the time the emcee was finished, I was convinced that my stand-up career was over, all because I was too dirty.

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The headliner took the stage. His first shtick went on for 15 minutes. In it, he described -- in painstaking detail -- how he was sodomized by a grizzly bear on a camping trip.

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Where comics are bad, clubs are worse. A comedy club in 2000 is a lot like a Red Lobster restaurant. You forget it exists until someone forces you to go. And while you're there, that sick feeling in your gut reminds you of why you didn't frequent the joint in the first place.

In May 1999, I worked a club in San Antonio. It is in a shopping mall, of all places. Right on the River Walk. You can visit the site where they lit Daniel Boone's funeral pyre, cross the street and catch a wannabe Carrot Top begging the booker for a 10-minute slot. Shopping malls are one of the few remaining places that can sustain a comedy club. Marketing 101 professors will tell you that they succeed because they get a large amount of walk-up traffic that a stand-alone club just can't produce.

It's the same principle that keeps businesses like Orange Julius and caricature kiosks afloat. Rarely do these establishments exist by themselves. But put them in a mall, and suddenly everyone needs to sip a citrus smoothie while they get a grotesque depiction of their girlfriend's dimples drawn.

Unfortunately, the day I was playing this particular club, the manager felt that we weren't drawing the requisite number of tourists, conventioneers and young military bucks. That's the other ugly element of comedy in the modern era; the audiences who still attend are the same people who keep "South Park" on the air and make Adam Sandler a fucking billionaire.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm as guilty as the mouth-breather. When 'America's Wackiest Disasters' runs video of 75 drunken World Cup fans falling three stories and landing on the drunken World Cup fans below them, I'm all over the Fox network like monkey shit on a zookeeper."

While I was performing, the manager had the emcee and a rookie comic go outside of the club and shout at passersby. Like midway carnies, they barked things like, "Live stand-up comedy!" and "Free show!" and most enticingly of all, "It's air-conditioned!" I've seen this same marketing strategy employed by proprietors of strip clubs in Tijuana, Mexico -- and more successfully, at that.

"My girlfriend's a waitress. She insists that it's the toughest job in the world. I'm sure the guys at NASA who were trying to get Apollo 13 back to Earth were saying, 'You know, this is tough, but that summer I waited tables at Chi Chi's ... whew!'"

I didn't even get a glimmer. Apparently these folks weren't big Tom Hanks fans. Either that, or it's a bad idea to dis Chi Chi's in San Antonio.

Perhaps my favorite was a small club in Bemidji, Minn., in 1996. My 8-by-10 glossy headshot didn't make it in the mail. My booking agent swears he sent it, but there was the glass case outside the club moments before show time -- and no photo. Disappointed, I asked the club manager if he'd check again. When he came up empty, he hastily drew a stick figure on a sheet of notebook paper, wrote my name beneath it and hung it in the case.

Classy.

To add insult to injury, the club was empty. Mind you, this was the dead of winter in northern Minnesota. In that part of the world, during that time of year, there's not much to do but drink and watch your hairline recede. One may as well go to see live stand-up comedy at the Holiday Inn. My trustworthy booking agent swore that this was an active club that was known for decent-sized audiences, so why the small crowd?

The bartender summed it up in two words: Eelpout Festival.

We'd been upstaged by an ice-fishing contest where participants competed to see who could reel in the largest eelpout. For the ichthyologically challenged, an eelpout is an ugly, smelly, inedible, bottom-feeding fish that has a slimy body like an eel's and a head like a catfish's.

Eelpout. Comedians. Rest assured that the irony is not lost on me.

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There is a way to make a living as a stand-up comedian. It's known as "whoring," or, more technically, "corporate comedy."

I've played the 3:30 p.m. holiday party for the 63 employees of Computechtronic Automation (the name is changed to protect the now-defunct IPO) in Omaha, Neb. I immediately preceded (and had to introduce) the Elvis-impersonating emcee of the company-sponsored karaoke contest.

"My choir director always told me that it was best to sing from the diaphragm. But the latex always clogged my windpipe. Besides, I'm Catholic, so I'm not allowed to use one."

I've been asked to write a customized set based upon a company composed entirely of actuaries. Thank God these guys drink, because there are only so many jokes you can write about FAS-106.

"So what do FAS-106 and Hugh Hefner's new wife have in common? They both screw sick retirees."

That's OK, it's an actuary thing.

And I've used the walkie-talkie PA system to work a tour bus full of octogenarians on their way to the Indian casino.

"I don't eat angel-hair pasta because I don't believe in killing an angel just for its hair. You know, the Native Americans used to use every part of the angel."

Vernon the bus driver made a hard stop, and I ended up with 11 stitches in my chin.

Most self-actualized comics will tell you that the only reason to do stand-up nowadays is for the love of doing it.

It's sort of like community theater. Your colleagues generally aren't very talented. (I once watched a featured comic do 30 minutes of used-tampon jokes.) You'll never get rich or famous. (I've worked with a comic who stays on the road specifically to avoid his student-loan creditors. The club owner refused to pay us because we didn't draw well enough for the bar tabs to cover expenses.) But it's fun so long as you go at it with the right attitude.

"The pope came out recently and denounced World Pride 2000, a gay pride parade in Rome. I guess what bothers me most is the weight the pope's words carry. This is no blather from the Jerry Falwells and Pat Buchanans of the world. He's like E.F. Hutton in a beanie; people listen to the pope."

Like the pontiff, it's time to put stand-up comedy away until somebody comes up with something original again. Then we can all copy that person and laugh and get rich.


Cory Busse

Cory Busse is a freelance writer and comedian living in Minneapolis.

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