February 18, 2011
“It’s Saturday night and I’m in West Virginia.” The more I say that to myself, the more it starts to sound like the title of a Bob Seger B-side. But it’s true. Wellsburg, WV is where my show is at tonight. I think I’m pretty close to the venue. I’ve passed a few frightening coal plants and some solitary Pizza Huts. The woman in my GPS system tells me to recalculate. I know I punched in the right address. This could be bad. I might be stranded in a dark corridor of Appalachia with no resources to guide me to my destination. At least I could go get a pizza.
I luckily find the Station Grill, a moderately-sized watering hole, and park in the adjacent Advanced Auto Parts. As I enter the establishment there are a few signs that proclaim, “Comedy Show Upstairs!” Most bar shows don’t exhibit this level of planning and forethough.
I greet Dan Main, the comic who is the organizer and MC of the event, and take a look around the room. It’s a nice set up. There is no stage per se, but the microphone is in front of a DJ booth, which is good enough for me. For some reason a sign that says “Soundtrax” is hanging from the ceiling written in unlit neon lights.
He shows me to the green room. Holy crap there’s a green room! It’s full of slot machines and service tables, but it’s still nice. There’s even an unused salad bar sitting alone in a dark corner. I find this to be very appropriate as the line-up for tonight is a smorgasbord of comics. James J. Hamilton, Derek Minto, Molly Sharrow, Billy Lyday, John Hensler and I are all on the bill for tonight.
The show starts and my fellow comedians go on stage. We can hear laughter in the backroom along with the comedian’s voice, even over the soft din of the green room’s slot machines ringing. But we can also hear one slurring audience member talking. Incessantly. At every opportunity.
The further we get into the show, the more the comics are getting annoyed. “Someone needs to shut that lady in the front the hell up,” says Derek Minto as he walks back into the green room after his set.
Derek has a large stage presence so if he can’t get this lady to listen, then Molly Sharrow, a much more subtle and much more feminine comic, is going to have trouble going on next. And I, even subtler and more feminine than Molly, will be in for a real beating.
Molly comes back to the green room after her set looking a little relieved. “I wish someone would shut that lady up in the front,” she said. “She talked the whole time.” By now the audience has turned on her. You can hear people shouting out for her to be quiet. “Shut up lady!” Audience cannibalism.
I am nervous about going on at all. A lot of my jokes require pauses and when someone distracts that pause, it ruins the joke. I’m secretly hoping that I don’t have to be the one to try and shut this lady up.
Billy Lyday is up next. He is a more seasoned comic with an intimidating aura. His tattoos and large frame would suggest that you don’t mess with him. However, when humans drink the men get beer muscles and the women get beer mouth. She begins her jibber-jabber again as soon as he starts. Billy has had enough and he rips into her. The audience loves it, but he can’t get a joke out. She’s ruining everyone’s timing, which means I am definitely screwed. He does his time, delighting 99% of the audience, and leaves the stage.
As John Hensler goes out, I’m realizing that I’m walking into a bad situation. The whole crowd is divided, there’s a heckler among them, and they’ve seen an hour and twenty minutes of comedy so far.
“Hey the spotlight just went out!” I hear Derek say as he re-enters the green room with a beer in hand.
Deep sigh. I’ve been in this situation before. I’m just going to take my butt-whooping and try to play a prevent defense so I can cover the spread. Go out and hit them hard and fast at the opening. Hopefully this will get everyone focused and then you can do some of the slower-paced jokes. I anxiously pace around the unused salad bar.
Dan Main introduces me and I walk through the thin wood-panel door of the green room. I grab the mic and begin. Quick joke, quick joke, quick joke. This seems to be working. I’m even looking at the suspected heckler and she seems engaged.
I get a little cocky and try two new jokes. Silence. Idiot.
And with that, I lost her. I had built up enough credibility with the rest of the audience at that point that they would forgive me and move along. But not her.
I proceed with the rest of my jokes and try to broadcast over her non-stop mouth. My philosophy is just talk over them as much as you can stand it. I’m about 15 minutes in to my set, about the point where I wanted to start closing the show. My last joke is a long one with lots of pauses. It’s not going to work unless I get her to be quiet.
“Ma’am, this last joke has a few spots where it’s supposed to be silent so I can’t really do it if you are talking,” I tell her. Oblivious. She continues talking to her husband, who can tell he’s doing something wrong but is afraid to not listen to her.
“Ma’am?” I try to get her attention.
The audience is kind of digging this. I hear people suppressing laughter because they’re not sure if this is uncomfortable or funny.
OK. I’ve found a little space here. Let’s explore it for a bit. I repeat that word about 28 different times trying to get her attention. But she just can’t stop.
“Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am?”
I start to wonder what could possibly be so interesting and engrossing that she literally can’t hear a room full of people laughing at her. So I slowly slide my body over to her table with each “ma’am.” Someone in the front row nudges his friend and I hear him say, “He’s inching over there!” That comment is extremely rewarding to me for some reason. He knows what I’m going for.
I pull the microphone stand up from the floor and start reaching it over to her table, lowering the boom ever so slightly. And at the last moment, right as the conversation is starting to come into focus she stops…and looks at me.
It’s a powder keg of tension now. I’ve pretty much been making fun of this lady for six minutes straight without her knowing it. Now she has caught me. The entire audience shuts up. They don’t want to be associated with the embarrassment. Cowards. I have to bear the full brunt of this. She’s glaring at me. I can only respond one way.
Laughter and relief.
I get off stage and I’m bleeding. Another Bob Seger song title. Another night on the comedy circuit.
I’m already booked back in March.