Inside the Improv Green Room: Ben Bailey

October 3, 2010

I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Ben Bailey’s body of work as a comedian.  I only knew him, as most people do, from Discovery Channel’s Cash Cab.  I love Cash Cab.  I desperately want to host Cash Cab one day. So working with the incumbent host of that program was a path to that goal.  Except at 6’5”, Ben Bailey would be hard to depose from atop his Cash Cab throne.

Ben’s material is generally clean.  He swears and whatnot, but it’s not overkill.  His topics tend to stay within the boundaries of mainstream conversation.  Both the opener, Danny Palumbo, and I were told to stay away from dirty material throughout the weekend.  I have new material that is pretty clean for the most part so I wasn’t too concerned.

Friday night’s shows were lightly attended.  I could tell that the audiences were tired and beaten from 40 hours of work throughout the week.  They laughed but it was like they were falling asleep at a good movie.  They knew it was good, but they couldn’t help but yawn.  During Ben’s second set, he was getting visibly frustrated with this lack of response.  A few times, he was interrupted in the middle of his jokes by well-meaning hecklers.  Right in the middle of a setup, someone yelled out, “Were you on 30 Rock last night?”

Ben: “Yes I was.  I didn’t see it though.  Was it funny?

Heckler: “Yeah.”

Ben: “Great…so…anything else?”

Heckler: “No.”

Ben: “Why did you ask me if I was on 30 Rock last night?  You obviously watched it if you knew that.  So really you were just saying, ‘Ben – you were on 30 Rock last night.’”

Despite the de-railing of the show with a heckler and the low energy of those in attendance, Ben got a standing ovation after both shows.  “Jesus,” he said to me afterwards.  “I don’t know what’s going on.  I felt like I was bombing and then people break out a standing O?  Pittsburgh is a weird place.”

“I call it the Gravel Pit of comedy,” I responded.  “It’s really tough to grow here.”

“Actually, I’m trying to imagine starting out here.  It’s probably a good thing starting out with these audiences.  You guys go to a live comedy market like San Francisco or Philadelphia, you’ll probably shred any room you go to.”

Saturday night’s shows were the exact opposite of Friday’s.  Crazy energy, packed from wall to wall, with the sweet smell of liquor wafting in the air.  First show was great.  I felt the momentum building as the second show audience filtered in. I knew all three comedians were going to kill.  They were ready.  We were ready.

Then I noticed a group of about 7 dudes all in the same homemade T-shirt saunter in and sit down.  Bachelor party.  I like to really scan the audience before I go onstage just to prepare.  There were 2 bachelor parties and 4 bachelorette parties in attendance that night.  From the way these guys were speaking to the waitress, yelling and high-fiving, I could tell they were going to be a huge problem.  Dom, the sound guy / impromptu doorman, told me that he had already warned them 3 times to settle down before the show even started.

The lights dimmed and Danny took the stage.  Sure enough, voices rang out after every one of his jokes.  It wasn’t anything involved, it was just “Yeah!!!!” after each setup.  So much of comedy is timing.  Pregnant pauses allow the audience to process and digest what has been said, only to have it flipped with the delivery of a punchline.  If that focus is interrupted, the laughter becomes extremely diluted.  People are no longer focused on the joke.  They’re diverted to thinking about the heckler.  Danny told them to shut up once before I got on stage.  Unfortunately, that comment was enough to shake the hornet’s nest and get them buzzing.

I went up with as much confidence as I could muster.  I was loud and energetic, stalking the stage making direct eye contact with the dark area where the voices were coming from.  The first quarter of my set, I was killing.  Killing.  There were waves of laughter after each on of my jokes.  At one point I stood to the side of the stage and there was a split second where I just stopped and took it all in.  I was having so much fun.  That feeling is what comedians live for.  That’s why we drive 2 hours to a crap gig that pays nothing, just for the chance of that feeling.  The hecklers didn’t seem like they’d be a factor anymore.  Until I started my next joke…

I was right at the beginning of a new 6-8 minute bit about how I was bad at sports in high school.  I love this bit.  It’s like a newborn baby.  I will protect it ferociously if it needs to be defended.

“I played soccer for 16 years…” I said.

“Yeah right,” I heard a voice call out.  I just sighed and tried to press on.  When I hit the punchline the laughter was diluted.  It should have hit harder.  The audience was starting to focus on the hecklers.

“I was bad at baseball…” I moved to the next part.

“Yeah!!!  Baseball!!” a voice cried out.

I took a breath, suppressing the Hulk rage building inside of me.  Serenity now.  Insanity later.

“Listen dude, everyone in this audience paid to see a show just like you.  So don’t ruin their time by yelling out.”

Jumping back into a bit like that is extremely difficult.  I tried, but it didn’t feel right.  I started my next joke about me being on the wrestling team.  More chatter from the same group.  More people getting frustrated.  Other people in the audience were now calling out for them to shut up.   I tried to plow through my set-ups.  “I wasn’t a good wrestler.  I got beat pretty quick.”

“I’ll bet you did,” the same voice called out.

That’s when I lost it.  I went on an expletive filled tirade that I’m not proud of.  I was just so pissed.  I was having a great set.  One of the better ones I’d had in a while.  I was doing new jokes that I was really proud of.  They had been warned several times before.  They kept pestering.  Time to address it.

“Listen you (bleeping) nobodies; don’t you feel the social pressure of 300 people in this room hating your guts right now?  You are ruining the show.  Shut the (bleep) up.  I’m pretty sure no one here came to see me tonight, but they definitely didn’t pay $25 dollars a ticket so you could run your (bleeping) mouth.  Shut the (bleep) up.  Shut the (bleep up) you (bleeping) (bleeper) (bleep)-bags!”

The audience applauded but I could tell some of them were taken aback with the anger.  And rightly so.  I could have handled that situation a lot better.  I like to think that I’m more clever than just firing off swear words.  If I would have taken my time, I probably could have had some good, non-abrasive, comebacks.

I somehow managed to get back on track and finished the set pretty strong.  They kicked the main culprit out during my time on stage which sent a message to the rest of the group to cool it or else they’d be out on their ass too.

Ben had a great set with no interruptions.  I apologized to him afterwards.

“Sorry I lost it like that up there.”

“No, you did the absolute right thing.  Those guys weren’t the type of hecklers that can be shut up with a witty comment.  You needed to hit them full force.  It made my set a lot better, so really I should be thanking you for flushing them out.”

I told my one friend Dan about the weekend and he had a great comment.  “I don’t understand why you would ever take a bachelor(ette) party to a comedy show. Unless heckling comedians is something you loved to do when you were single and now won’t be able to once you get married.”

All this time I spent worrying about hecklers, I could have spent finding Ben Bailey’s physical weakness and exploiting it.  I will host the Cash Cab.  I consider it a Red Light Challenge.

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