Inside the Improv Green Room: Billy Gardell

March 23, 2009

This past Saturday I had the chance to open for Pittsburgh native and TV star Billy Gardell.  If Billy’s name sounds familiar it’s because you’ve probably heard him on the WDVE Morning Show with Jim and Randy, where he’s a regular guest.  If you recognize his face it’s because he’s been on TV shows like My Name is Earl and Yes, Dear.  Billy is a favorite at the Pittsburgh Improv and always draws a huge crowd.

Saturday night was no different.  Both the 7 and 9 o’clock shows were completely sold out.  I was pumped for these shows.  I had been doing some nice meaty gigs for the past month or so, usually bar shows that ranged from 50-100 people and usually let me do at least 20 minutes of stand-up.  Still though, a great show at some bar in Butler simply can’t compare to the energy of the Improv when it is sold out.  People were scalping tickets outside the doors for God’s Sake!!

Gene Collier, Senior Sports Columnist for the Post-Gazette was the feature act for the night.  I think Gene’s career as a writer has made him an immensely interesting stand-up comic.  He has such a clear persona and voice that the audience loves, developed over years of writing award-winning columns.  Gene’s style of comedy is a little bit more of story telling than jokes, but the audience always loves it.

At 6:58, I was literally fiending to get on stage.  Although at 7:00, when the lights dimmed and Dom, the sound guy, started the show, I noticed the Billy was not there yet.  This phenomenon has happened to me a lot over the years.  I’ll have a killer set and the headlining comedian isn’t there to see it.  It’s a tree falling in the woods.  A lot of times, comedians don’t want to arrive at a club while the audience is still getting seated.  It takes some of the allure away from their initial introduction.  A lot of them like to sneak in about half way through the middle act’s set and hang out before they get brought on stage.  Bill Burr, Aries Spears, and a gaggle of other comedians have all missed the Jeff Konkle “Look What I Can Do” set at one point or another.  Add Billy Gardell to the list.

I had a great opening set, mixing in a touch of crowd work, which is tough for me, with my newer material.  I got off stage extremely pleased with myself but knowing that my own sense satisfaction was only going to go as far as the reaches of my own big head.  Billy still wasn’t there; he hadn’t seen anything.

I sat back in the sound booth with Dom when Billy Gardell came over and introduced himself and congratulated me on a good set.  I thought he was just being nice.  He probably heard second-hand from a waitress that I did well, but it turns out he and his brothers were hanging out by the fire exit with the door cracked, so they heard everything.

The 7:00 show was awesome and the 9:00 show promised to be even better.  We had another sell out, even more people than the first show.  I learned a valuable lesson before the show got started.

ADVICE TO YOUNGER COMEDIANS: Don’t mention the head-count or ticket sales on stage!!  Sometimes clubs will overbook the room. The Improv didn’t in this case, but I’ve learned that this happens at clubs all over the country.  They’ll have 230 people in a room that is only allowed by the fire code to have 200.  So if you go on stage and say, “Oh man!  We’ve got 230 people here tonight!!” be prepared to never get work again because chances are you just caused that club to get a hefty fine from the Fire Marshall.

“You’ll never work in this town again, Konkle!”

Predictably, the second show audience was a bit more rambunctious (read: drunk).  There was also a huge bachelorette party there, which comedians know is never a good sign.  Sure, some funny ad-libs might come out of it, but it will always be a distraction.

I had another great opening set (this is getting pretty damn boastful, ain’t it?) and I went to my typical perch inside the sound booth when I was done.  One of the girls from the bachelorette party came up to me and asked if I would be the sole male judge in a huge French Kissing contest that they were having later that night.

Psych.

“My girlfriend Candice is getting married.  Can you have all the comedians, like, talk about that?” slurred the girl.

“Uh…sure.  I can mess with her a little bit if you want,” I acquiesced.

I agreed to what she said because initially because, well…she was a girl.  I had done similar things for people celebrating birthdays and whatnot.  That’s what a good host is supposed to do.   But my MC’ing skills have become somewhat refined.  I came to the realization that if I shook that hornet’s nest of single women sitting near the front, they would literally devour me and ruin the rest of the show.  A drunken bachelorette’s mouth at a comedy club is a lot like Pandora’s Box: immensely destructive and nearly impossible to shut.

When Gene Collier was finished I went back up to do a few more jokes and bring Gardell up.  And just like middle school, I completely ignored the women.  I wanted to keep the audience focused.  They were there to see Gardell do his thing, not back and forth ad-libbing with a small section of the audience.

What I didn’t factor in was the “Just Get It Out of the Way” syndrome.  When Gardell went up, the hens started clucking softly.  I hadn’t appeased them before with marriage jokes so they were just sitting there brooding, waiting for a chance to lash out.  Gardell was a few minutes into his set when he started a bit about, UH-OH, marriage!

Gardell: “And that’s one thing you learn when you’re married…”

Lady: “Whooooo!  Candice is getting MARRIED!!!!!”

Gardell: (pause) “I don’t give a shit…”

Audience:  (prolonged uproarious laughter)

(Laughter dies and it grows quiet again)

Lady: “…sorry…”

This heckler actually got burned so bad that she meekly apologized afterwards.

Anyway, the whole night was fantastic.  Even Randy Bauman from the WDVE Morning Show was in attendance and complimented me on a great set.

It felt really good to get back in the Improv.  I hope to do it again soon.

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