Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I’m Just Happy to Be Here by DANNY PALUMBO

I like a good train wreck. Watching some poor sap’s first time on stage, visibly nervous. Seeing a really good comic in front of a tough crowd, working hard for faint laughs. I like watching my friends get heckled, too. I will gladly be in the attendance of failure, but I’m also a bit of a masochist. I enjoy being involved in the ensuing disaster. Something about it builds character…sort of a “taking your lumps” situation. A lot of times I approach a crappy show with a child-like attitude and a proverbial propeller hat attached to my head, saying to myself, “Gee, I’m just happy to be here. What can I learn tonight?” I’ve lost that attitude. It’s been replaced with menthol cigarettes and hard liquor. Stand-up comedy is a sadistic life choice, especially in Pittsburgh. I realized this on October 16th, at a small bar in the North Side, a place called Zangaro’s.
Having your name on a sign does not guarantee people will like you.

There’s a lot of competing factors at bar shows. Hockey, football, heated games of pool, a loud conversation between an intoxicated, mustachioed individual and his ex-wife; these are things that deter people from listening to comedy. On this particular evening, as I observed my surroundings, I knew this was going to be a car wreck of a bar show.

No microphone stand. Televisions all set to the Penguins game. A Build-Your-Own-Sausage Sandwich table complete with packaged hot dog buns and crock pot. Wreckless drink specials. Strategically placed security cameras. Everything looked flammable…

Older crowd, too. There were some younger dudes there, but not my type of people. Bros. They all look like they care about the character arc in Entourage, or at the very least DVR How I Met Your Mother. Upon arrival, an older drunk man engaged me in a ten minute conversation about his issues regarding the front door. Yes, the front door.

“See, most people pull on the door, instead of pushing it.”

“Right.”

“Then they just walk away because they think the bar is closed.”

“Because they can’t open the door?”

“Yeah.”

“Well…God damn that door, man.”

Then I noticed the live feeds from the security cameras.
“What’s with the cameras here?”

“Did you meet Tammi? She owns the place.”

“Oh, yeah, Tammi.”

“She got beat up outside one night. Two guys jumped her.”

“Good Lord. Like they stole money from her?”

(thinking) “No. I think they just beat her up.”

My mind’s hung up on that last statement, although the older gentleman glosses over the context of the beating entirely and continues…
“If things get rough you can always leave out that door. Just make sure you pull it on the way out. Door’s tricky, you know.”

I made note that the door was a hard right past the sausage sandwich table.

Starting in twenty minutes. I need several drinks. Also glad I bought cigarettes. I’ve now started smoking and drinking excessively four nights a week. I really don’t know how anyone can do this completely sober. Another drunk fella, this one smoking a cigar, walks up to me and will not stop impersonating Rodney Dangerfield. This conversation picks up about ten minutes in, when I’m clearly over the spot on Rodney Dangerfield impression.

“My wife tells me, ‘Take me someplace I never been.’ I said, ‘OK, how about the kitchen?’”

“Haha. Yeah, I heard that one.”

“I once bought a used car and found my wife’s dress in the back seat. Life is tough, I tell ya.”

“Haha.”

This exchange proceeded for another five minutes: Him imitating Rodney Dangerfield, me pretending to enjoy it because I’m too much of a pussy to walk away rudely. Finally, I finished my third drink. I wasn’t drunk. But I needed to be.

Then he breaks character.  “See, you should do stuff like that. You need quick shots. Bam, boom!”

Flash-forward a half hour later. I’m on stage asking someone in the crowd to buy me a shot. Tammi, the kind woman who was wrongfully punched in the mouth, bought me a double Jim Beam.
I’m asking for a shot because a man pushing 300 lbs. asked me for a pillow. I wanted to say, “Somebody get this fat bastard a pillow and a teddy bear.” I didn’t because I knew someone out there was begging for an excuse to beat the hell out of me.

I’m asking for a shot because twenty people at the bar have their backs turned to me watching a hockey game. I wanted to throw my drink into the crowd, and tell them all that there’s more important things in life than hockey….like what I’m doing. Then I realized not only how overly pretentious that thought was, but also that maybe the hockey game was more important than what I was doing. So I pandered to all of them, “So the Pens are winning? Alright. Hey, the Steelers are going to whip the Browns on Sunday.” Then I proceeded to do two minutes of impromptu Cleveland jokes. I was pandering. I became Colonel Panders.

I’m asking for a shot because five minutes ago, somebody asked me if it was OK to interrupt my joke. It was a middle-aged woman trying to talk to her friend who was leaving the bar. Apparently, my set is distracting. She stopped me midsentence,  “Excuse me, honey. This will only take a second.”

“No. Go right ahead.”

“It’s Frank’s curfew. I’m sorry. Frank, have a goodnight. Be safe!”

“Curfew?”

Frank approaches me. He’s just close enough so that I can smell whiskey on his breath. I took one look at Frank and I knew that at some point in his life….Frank had done something very, very wrong.

“Yeah, curfew, kid.”

“Alright…”

“You want some jewelry?

“Jewlery?”

“Yeah, ankle jewelry.”

Frank lifts up his pant leg and reveals a probation-sized ankle bracelet.  The entire crowd loses it. Applause breaks all around. Biggest laugh of my entire set. And it had nothing to do with what I said. The crowd settles down.

“Oh, thanks for clearing that up. I thought you had a beeper strapped to your leg.”  Minimal laughs.  “What the hell did that guy do, anyway?”

Frank starts going ballistic by the front door.  “What do you mean what the hell did I do?!”

I inadvertently gave someone that elusive excuse to hurt me, but Frank’s being held up at the front door by a group of friends. He leaves. Thank you, state issued curfew. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a back entrance.

And I almost said, “Curfew? What are you sixteen? Life is tough, I tell ya.”

Nothing productive came out of this show. I traveled further along what seems to be a self-destructive path of alcohol and nicotine. I did gain some money for groceries and gas, though that seems to be directly funding my aforementioned habits. I’m pretty sure 90% of the people there thought I was gay because I wore a medium-sized shirt. The bar was far too rowdy for me to gain any real insight on any of my jokes, and I came away unsure if any part of my set was funny anymore.  But I enjoyed myself.

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