Don’t Talk to Shaq

July 28, 2009

It’s 10:45 on a calm Wednesday night.  My ceiling fan softly buzzes as I try to catch up on some reading.  The white noise seems to help me focus on my book, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  There is another buzzing though, one that breaks my concentration.  My cell phone is ringing.  I examine the phone number and realize the call is from an unfamiliar area code.  Even though I’m not a drug-dealer or a fugitive, I’m still unreasonably paranoid.  I’m walking in the spider webs.  Leave a message and I’ll call you back.

Yes, I screen my calls.  Who knows?  It’s probably the government.  I can’t let those bastards catch me off-guard lest they install radio transmitters in my teeth.

There is a fresh voicemail waiting for me.  It’s some lady from the TV show “Shaq Versus,” a new reality show on ABC where Shaquille O’Neal competes against the World’s top sports stars.  She wants me to be involved in the show.  Immediately, I assume that Shaq will be challenging me to a stand-up comedy contest.  Not only am I paranoid but also I’m extremely fanciful in an unhealthy way.

She is unclear in the message about exactly what she wants me to do.  I call her back to discuss.  “Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about doing some stuff in between takes while we’re shooting on Friday.  Like comedy and crowd work and stuff.  But I want to make sure that we have the right person because there will be a lot of people there.  Around 7,500.  You’d probably have to work for about 5 hours, but we obviously can’t pay you anything because our budget is really tight.  You’d have to be completely clean, because there will be some families there.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll get to meet Shaq either.”

Wow.  This lady knows how to sell.  So I guess she wants me to be a comedian?  Or does she want me to be a hype-man?  It sounds like I’d be pretty hindered in terms of what I could do.  I’d have water-down my material to make it family friendly for the audience at this ABC event.  I keep in mind that this is the same company that broadcasts “Wife-Swap” in prime time.  And last time I saw Shaq, he was rapping on stage at a nightclub asking Kobe Bryant “How my ass taste?”

Also, ABC has no budget for a reality show?  Is that why they all suck?

Either way, it sounds like a terrible gig but this lady is a casting director and it might be a good thing to make some connections.  Plus the Improv was the one who recommended me and I don’t want to let them down.  At this point, I’m 50-50 so I give her the names and phone numbers of some other comedians in Pittsburgh just in case I don’t want to do it.

I sleep on it.  The more I marinate, the less I like it.

I get a call on Thursday afternoon.  She wants me to come down and meet her and the set-supervisor.  “We think that you are the right person for this job,” she tells me.  But she’s never seen my act, never met me in person, and knows nothing about me.

OK. Why not?  I don’t think I want to do it, but who knows?  These people might be really cool and might sell me on it anyway.  Tim Dimond calls me.  He’s been contacted as well so we carpool to the downtown Westin for the meeting.  We’re supposed to valet the car and charge it to her room.

The Westin is surprisingly busy for a Thursday night.  We enter the lobby and wait on a dusty loveseat.  The lady comes down and starts to make small talk.  “I’m so beat, I’ve just been running around with Shaq and Ben all day.  Shaq is just like a big kid and Ben is a lot funnier in person than he seems.”  Immediately, I begin to realize that all of my stereotypes of shallow Hollywood people are about to be confirmed.  I open Pandora’s Box and ask her a little bit about herself.  I didn’t properly prepare myself for the onslaught of light-condescension that was about to cascade over Tim and I like a cold thunderstorm.

“Did you move to Hollywood or are you from there,” I ask.

“I’m originally from Texas, but I’ve even lived in Philadelphia for a bit.”  She emphasizes “Philadelphia” like I’m supposed to be impressed that she lived somewhere so uncivilized.  Now on any given day, I would support putting down the city of Philadelphia.  Not today though.  She said that sentence to me as though it was supposed to give her street cred, like she had made it through a gang initiation.  She made it through living in Pennsylvania.

She proceeds to tell me for the next 7 minutes that if I do this gig, I am absolutely not allowed to speak to Shaq.  I can’t approach Shaq; I can’t take a picture with Shaq; I can’t look at Shaq.  OK I get it already.  I’m not dense.  One warning would have been sufficient to me, but 7 minutes worth is insulting.  I’m not going to hide myself in Shaq’s locker and steal his jock strap because I think it has magical powers.  I’m not going to rush through his entourage just to touch the hem of Shaq’s garment, hoping that it will cure my leprosy.

“It’s comes down to you guys being professional about it,” she says while cocking her head sideways, as if to indicate that she believes basic human interaction is a new concept to me.

Funny, I think to myself.  I was under the impression that one was a professional when one was paid for services rendered. In this situation, I’m an intern at best and a sucker at worst.

“You guys kind of look disappointed,” she said taking a breath from her anti-Shaq contact diatribe.

“Well, I’ll be honest,” I start.  “You guys want me to work for 5 hours on a Friday night without pay and now you’re telling me that the only other incentive is impossible.  What’s the motivation here for me to do this?”

“You have to think about it this way: you’ll be on the sidelines with Shaq and Ben.  You’ll be the envy of all other Pittsburgh…residents or citizens or whatever you guys are called.”

So we Pittsburghers have yet again been downgraded in her warped caste system.  We’re so alien and backwards to Hollywood types, they can’t even classify us.  We’re about on par with the villagers of the Hindu Kush Mountains.  Can you believe it?  We have electricity here!  What is that???  A mashed potato?  That’s so weird!

I’m getting sick of being talked down to at this point. But there is still more to come.  Her boss enters the lobby.

The set-supervisor walks into the lobby.

The phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” is foolish. The cover of a book contains a lot of important information: title, author, a brief synopsis.  How else are you supposed to choose a book?  I like judging immediately, because I think I’m pretty good at it.  I size this guy up in one glance and I’m sure he does the same to me.  He looks like a set-supervisor should, if that even makes sense: khaki camping-type attire with cargo pockets everywhere.

“So where are we with the talks guys?  Has Aleesha talked to you about everything?” he says with his attention fully diverted to his glimmering Blackberry.

“It’s pronounced Alisha,” she replies timidly.  I almost feel embarrassed for her.  Almost.

“Oh yeah, it’s Alisha like in ‘delicious.’  I should call you ‘Delicia,'” he says.

My rolling eyes nearly fall into my open jaw after that comment.

The guy sits down and starts to give me a job interview, staring at me with an uncomfortable amount of eye-contact.  He’s an alpha, no doubt.  The air of importance wafting off of his body is pungent and offensive to me.  What people like him don’t understand is that most comedians have other life experiences.  We’re not just couch potatoes who roll out of bed and onto a stage.  A lot of us have jobs.  I know comedians who are accountants, IT administrators, and patent lawyers.  I work in Human Resources, so interviewing people is something that not only I have experience in, I think I’m pretty damn good at it.  In short, I’m not the one to try to intimidate in an interview.   His bargaining position up to this point is weak.  I’m completely fine with walking away from whatever it is he’s offering to me.  No skin off of my back.  Comedian-Jeff takes a back seat and Day-Job-Jeff takes over.

He starts asking me questions about stand-up; where I perform, do I have a “tight 15”, who would I compare myself to?  These questions are standard for comedians.  This guy is in television, so he might be pretty knowledgeable about the stand-up circuit.

“I’d compare my style a little bit to Nick Swardson, or a more energetic Dmitri Martin or Mike Birbiglia.” I answer the question succinctly and confidently without breaking eye contact.  Anyone who knows anything about stand-up will understand that answer.

“OK.  I don’t know who any of those people are,” he says with his thumb stroking the nub of his Blackberry.

I officially don’t understand why I’m here.  This isn’t for me.

“I guess I’m kind of confused as to why you guys are looking for comedians,” I finally say, exasperated but still holding on to the cloak of amiable politeness.  “You don’t want us to tell jokes or anything; I’m surprised you don’t try to find a radio DJ or something.”  Then it dawns on me.  A radio DJ would require payment.  Comedians are the only ones desperate enough to work a 5-hour shift for free.

‘Delicia’ finally chimes in. “Well, I know comedians do a good job at this type of thing.  I’ve taken a few improv classes, so I kind of get what it’s all about.”

I glance at Tim.  His eyes are wide with disbelief.  We can’t fathom that there would be two people so clueless, yet with so much responsibility.

“So how confident are you about this job?” the set-supervisor says while making sweet finger love to his Blackberry.  It’s the height of rudeness.  I don’t care about the Hollywood B.S. or the situation at hand.  You don’t do that to someone.  It’s dismissive, condescending and infuriating all at once.

“Honestly, I have to say ‘not very.’  I’m still not exactly sure what I would be doing, I’d be in front of more people than I’ve ever performed for in my life, and most of my act is pre-written jokes, not crowd work.  I think I could do it, but I know a lot of people who would be better at it than me.”  I genuinely mean that.  I think my boy Terry Jones would do really well in that situation.  It’s high pressure, the crowd has to like you immediately and you have to be able to react quickly.  He’s got all of the tools to make that a success.  I offer his name up as a replacement.

Tim basically says something along the similar lines as me; this isn’t his thing.  The set-supervisor wraps it up.  I’d like to tell him that he should check into the Betty Ford clinic for his Crackberry addiction, but someone at the Improv gave them my name, and I don’t want to burn any bridges.

“Let me know if I can help you guys out in any other way,” I say cordially.

“You know how you can help?” he asks.  I brace for another shallow gem to fall out of his mouth.  “Come out to the event and bring a lot of friends.  We want there to be a big crowd so it looks good for television.  Shaq and Ben will be there, you know?  So it should be a good time.”

“Are you guys gonna give out free hot dogs or anything?”  God, that feels good.  I’m hoping I can jag this guy around a little bit more, but surprisingly, he picks up on the insult and ends the interview.

We all shake hands and go our separate ways.  I try to get the valet to charge some candy to “Delicia’s” room.

“Can you put a few Snickers on that room tab?”

“It’s my first day, man,” he says through laughter.

The moral of the story took me a bit to figure out.  Tim and I talked the whole way home about the meaning of that interaction.  I remembered hearing a Mitch Hedberg joke that I thought was really applicable to the situation:

As a comedian, I always get into situations where I’m auditioning for movies and sitcoms, you know? As a comedian, they want you to do other things besides comedy. They say, “Alright you’re a comedian, can you write? Write us a script. Act in this sitcom.” They want me to do shit that’s related to comedy, but it’s not comedy, man. It’s not fair, you know? It’s as though if I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to become a really good cook, and they said “alright you’re a cook… can you farm?”

I realized that these people from “Shaq Versus” want me to farm.  And I don’t want to be a farmer.

I come to an epiphany that gave me a lot of comfort: I just like doing stand-up comedy.  I don’t want to do things that are comedy-related like MC a dog show or be the lead role as “Hungry Customer” in a Ponderosa commercial.

I talk with Bill Crawford a few days later and he says it best:

“Yeah, I want to make it big.  Everyone does.  But if I don’t, I can at least appreciate that what I’m doing now is pretty cool in and of itself.”

Preach on.

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