Inside the Improv Green Room: Parallel Universe

“But that’s why I ordered the cheese fries in the first place!” The echoes of Ted’s punchline thudded against the back wall of the Knoxville Funny Farm.  Two hundred audience members stared blankly at him.  Some smiled, some even chuckled.  But silence ruled the room like an oppressive wizard.  The clattering of bussed plates broke the silence.  The sharp jangle of steak knives being reloaded into some drawer in the kitchen gave it a lonely harmony.

It was Sunday night in Tennessee.  The Fall weather had finally taken away the oppressive heat of the Summer, giving way to more pleasant and soothing temperatures.  Most in the audience had been up since 10:00 in the morning, preparing to watch the Titan’s play the Steelers.  These people had no energy left;.  They had drank and got drunk before noon.  Then they sobered up, trudged down to the Funny Farm and resumed drinking.  They were worn out and regretting the fact that they bought tickets for the Sunday show because the others had been sold out.  They lethargically wished to see their headliner, Randy Shapcrag.  They had made Sunday, a day of rest, their day to see comedy.  The crowd yawned as a whole during Ted’s set.

Three more minutes Ted, the comedian thought to himself.  Just get through these last three minutes.

“So I’m trying to watch what I eat,” he began his next joke.  But his focus had been completely shattered.  The words poured from his mouth as if it were an automatic sprinkler.  He was going through the motions, phoning it in.  He was earning a paycheck by shaving off little bits of confidence and serving them cold to an insatiable crowd.

Randy Shapcrag was well-known from playing bit-parts on the nation’s number one sketch comedy show and starring in a number of low-brow, but financially successful movie ventures.  Ted grew up watching Randy play a number of lovable doofuses: Frank (a guy who stands at a fax machine and makes funny noises as co-workers walk by); Bill Tableton (the garbage man with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who makes love to women with various physical and mental disabilities) and Tim Guster (a lactose-intolerant Subway Sandwich Artist who mutates into a snapping turtle when he drinks milk).  

However, Randy was not the person Ted had been expecting. He wasn’t kind or goofy or nurturing.  Instead he was dismissive, rude and quick to criticize.Ted had received the gig through negative energy and it had infected the aura of the weekend.  Randy had hired then fired another local comedian, one of Ted’s friends, off of the show just the night before citing that, “That guy’s comedy didn’t serve me.”  So Ted knew to approach softly and avoid interaction if possible.  These Hollywood types are all too eager to exercise authority over their mid-western counterparts.  Ted knew it would be better to get through this weekend under the radar.

The day of the show Ted approached Randy and asked if what he would like for an introduction. “Just say whatever,” Randy told Ted, avoiding eye-contact.  “Also, let me give you a little advice.”  He looked Ted up and down, examining his athletic wardrobe.  “You’re doing comedy, not going to the gym.  Try and dress up a little bit.”  Ted examined himself and suddenly felt uncomfortable with his choice of apparel.

“Do you see this suit?” Randy asked, grasping his lapel between his thumb and forefinger.  He held it up to Ted for examination.  “This suit cost $3000.  Now I don’t expect you to be wearing a $3000 suit, but you do have some money saved up, right?”  Ted nodded.  “Then you need to dress like you belong here.”

This is how the weekend started for Ted.  The joy he normally felt performing for people, the rush of meeting a celebrity for the first time all soured within a moment.  And comedy became like any other job.  Just get through it and go home.

Randy demanded that the opening act be clean, even though his act was not.  He also demanded that the opening act be quiet on stage.  He felt that any loud expressions or animated movements might seem distasteful to his sophisticated audience, especially the ones wearing “Bill Tableton: Farting Garbage Man” t-shirts.

The Saturday night shows went ok. Ted cleaned up his material, which took away some of the bite.  He also tried to suppress his somewhat animated movements, which took away a bit more.  Soon Ted was left with skeletal set-ups and paltry punchlines.  The basic framework was there, but there was no meat on the bones.  But he put his head down, plowed through his 20 minute set twice and went home.  Sunday night loomed like a grey mist in his mind.  But he went to bed knowing that it’d all be over soon.

The Sunday night show had started off similarly degrading.  Randy walked in to the green room to find Ted practicing some new jokes.  He again examined Ted’s wardrobe.  “Eh…better.”  Ted could feel the unwelcome advice machine beginning to start it’s initiation sequence.

“Hey by the way, just keep it clean tonight,” Randy said as he sawed into a barbecue chicken breast.  He had a cup of hot water brewing in the corner.  As far as Ted could see, he was brewing it with broccoli stems.  Hollywood.  What a crazy place.

“I thought I was being pretty clean.  I didn’t say any of the big swear words,” Ted responded, still confused by the vegetable water in the teacup.

“Just cut down some of the sex material,” Randy ordered.  He took another hunk of chicken and shoved it in his mouth.

“I…I don’t have any ‘sex material’,” said Randy looking over his setlist.  Phrases like “New Diet”, “Prescription Drugs” and “College-Self” seemed devoid of any sexual imagery or energy.

“I’m pretty sure you do,” Randy responded.  “When you do that stuff it changes the whole tone of the room.  I can’t really open the audience’s minds to new ideas.  Like last night’s show, you kind of put me in a hole there.  I had some other topics I wanted to explore but it was just too hard to switch their mindsets after your jokes.”

Ted peered at Randy to see if he was joking.  He remembered how Randy closed the show last night.  He pantomimed making love to his wife and screamed, “That’s what your butt is for!”  Ted then had to go onstage and let the audience know that Randy would be selling and signing “Not Milk!” t-shirts at the end of the show (a homage to his character Tim Guster’s aversion to milk).

And now Ted had two minutes left.  Two minutes to contain his disappointment and rage and contempt.  “Officer, I think that woman just robbed a deli.” The sound of another dead punchline dropped to the greasy floor of the Funny Farm.  Two minutes to go.

In two minutes he’d be done.

But then what?