April 1, 2010
The Funny Bone comedy club in Station Square was a fixture of the Pittsburgh comedy scene for nearly three decades. I say that in the past tense now though, because as of Monday the Funny Bone is no longer with us. The owners announced that the club will instead scale back and move into the Radisson Hotel in the suburb of Greentree. This is a very normal move for a comedy club. Many of them nowadays simply cannot face the harsh environment on their own, so they seek shelter in established real estate that already has captive audiences readily available. There is no shame in this. It’s a smart business move and that’s what it’s all about. Like it or not comedy would not exist if it didn’t make money for the people producing and performing it. Neither would any form of entertainment; art, television, sports, literature, porn, etc.
I will miss the beleaguered club though, in a strange way. To be honest, my fond memories of that place are very few and extremely far between. However, it was the home of my very first time ever doing stand-up comedy. And you always remember your first time.
It was June of 2006. I had graduated from Penn State just a month prior and was already working at my day job. I was also a boomerang child, living at home with my parents, so I felt the extra need to get out of the house. For the last few months of school, I had seriously thought about doing stand-up. I had begun writing down little funny ideas here and there in my junior year of college. It was only then, almost 4 years ago, that I started trying to piece them together to form cohesive bits of comedy. I had read several books on getting started in the world of comedy, so I knew, at least academically, some of the basics: call the club a week beforehand to get booked, tip the wait-staff, and always get off when the red light in the back of the room flashes.
I called down to the Funny Bone and asked the lady at the other end of the phone if I could attend the open-mic next week.
“Sure,” she said. “You know you need to bring at least ten people right?”
“Uh, yeah. I can do that,” I replied.
“You know all of those people have to buy at least 2 drinks right?”
“Um…no. But I’m sure that won’t be a problem. I have very thirsty friends,” I answered. Already I was seeing the strategic business sense of the comedy club shining through. “By the way, since it’s my first time performing, how long of a set will I need to do?
“Oh, I don’t know. I think like 20 minutes is the usual.”
Gulp. 20 minutes? I didn’t even think I had five minutes of material! As I hung up the phone, I thought to myself, Screw that! I was just going to go in with my fragile 5 and see where it got me.
I spent 40% of the next Wednesday pre-vomiting from over-anxiousness. I was going to do stand-up, something I’d talked about for months. I couldn’t believe it.
As I walked through the doors of the Funny Bone on the next Wednesday, I was greeted with a wall of headshot photos of comedians from the 80’s & 90’s who had all passed through town and performed. Some of the comedians I recognized (Kevin James, Artie Lange); most of them I did not (let’s just say there were a lot of rainbow suspenders and Art Garfunkel type afro’s in the bunch). One day I might be on that wall, I thought to myself excitedly. People will look at my picture and say, ‘Wow! I never even heard of that guy!’
Josh Copen, a West Virginia comic now residing in NYC, was the MC for the night. I had stacked the audience with probably 20 of my family members, friends, and acquaintances. I was nervous for sure, but I had run through my 5-minute routine about 40 times before I went up on stage. My set mostly revolved around trying to figure out the age of women while in a bar, the phrase ‘Have your cake and eat it too,’ and some final thoughts on religion. It went extremely well for my first time. Every “How to do Comedy” book that I read all definitively said that the first time is always bad; I luckily proved them wrong. I came to the back of the room and started talking with two comedians that I had just met who were almost as new to comedy as me: Terry Jones and Tim Dimond. Little did I know that they would become two of my closest friends in the world of stand-up.
The Funny Bone accidentally booked a headliner for that night as well, some type of hypnotist/comedian. I forget his name now but he put on a great show. He even hypnotized a few of my friends who were in the audience. The image of my buddy PJ shooting the audience with his fingers because he thought he was a police officer is still as clear and hilarious to me as it was the night it happened.
I went to the club again for a few open mics after that but I soon became disenfranchised. Week after week, I heard the management team there commenting on how the open-micers sucked, how they should make local comedians pay them to perform on their stage, etc. On top of that, they consistently made me pay $2.50 for a glass of tap water. I know that gross margin is a large indicator of a business’s health, but a 249% profit on a glass of aqua is overkill.
As the stars in my eyes slowly faded, I realized that I was making money for them. A 2-drink minimum for the 10-20 people I was bringing in every Wednesday was nothing to sneeze at. Their attitude towards the people who drove their business left a bad taste in my mouth and I really lost any interest in returning. So I moved on and started doing some shows at the Improv (they gave out free water to the comedians), at bars, etc. Only recently have I been visiting the Bone again. And just like that, she’s gone.
I’m feeling the way one feels when they hear that a high school sweetheart died of a heroin overdose or a drunk driving accident. The person who you were infatuated with for a short-period of time when you were young and naive, who made you jaded through their reckless actions, and who you eventually lost contact with, died suddenly but not unexpectedly.
You are sad, a little bit. You feel guilty, a little bit. Maybe you could have done something more to save them. But you realize that every one steers their own destiny and the choices that they made were wrong. As morbid as it is to say…they probably got what they deserved.
So there won’t be any elaborate funerals or eloquent eulogies given for the Funny Bone. Just a slight shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders that seem to say, “Gee…that’s too bad…”