Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thank you, Kenora: the worst stand-up gig ever!

The steak was tough, but the crowd was tougher.

The worst stand-up show of my life? Thanks for asking. It was probably "the world Kenora tour" I did with Jason Beck, Trevor Boris, and Charlie Onskye back in...oh, I dunno, I've blocked it out of my mind.

The venue, which I can't find online, was a combination steakhouse, hotel, and bar. As we drove up to the place, we noticed a bottle-wielding man chasing a woman down the street. "Well, that's odd," we thought.

We should've just turned the car around and got some fries at the chip truck. However, like in any horror movie, we checked into the hotel, ate a terrible steak, and got ready to entertain the fine people of Kenora, who'd been getting ready for our show by drinking since 8 a.m.

Among Canadian comics, small-town shows are legendary for being awful. As comedian Derek Edwards once said, "Slave Lake is every bit as charming as she sounds." You learn early on that you should buy your own mic, stage, and spotlight, because the small-town club won't have any of these extravagances. You also become wise in the ways of small-town comedy tips, like "Never play a town with "Fort" in the name."

I've never understood the club owner with clubful of drunk people buying overpriced alcohol, who surveys his surroundings and thinks, "What this place needs is some comedians!" Yet, there are more of them than you'd think.

This particular establishment used a slightly raised wooden dance floor as a comedy stage. It was surrounded by drunk patrons on all four sides, ensuring that you would always have your back turned to one-quarter of the audience.

Among my comedy peers, I always made it a point of (misplaced) pride to go first, as if to say, "I don't need anyone to warm up a crowd for me, no matter how drunk or obnoxious the crowd, or I, may be." So, I took to the stage first. 

It became instantly clear that the crowd was loaded and not ready to listen to edumacated, geeky dudes in their 30s with receding hairlines and glasses. And so began the suckage.

I told only one joke that got a laugh. A well-dressed young woman walked in and I said, "Oooooh - just stopping by on your way home from Buckingham Palace?" The crowd laughed so hard, I felt bad for singling out the one person in the club who appeared to not be loaded. I should've said, "You're well-dressed. You're sober. You're not from Kenora!"

I still needed to fill 15 minutes, so I invited the crowd to come up and tell their own jokes. If you've ever seen a comic do this before, it's the comedy equivalent of lying down in the fetal position. It's desperate, hack, and sometimes it works!

The crowd, which had previously shown no interest in comedy, was much more interested when the comedy involved their drunk friends yelling obscenities into the mic. The owner watched from the bar, unimpressed. I imagined him thinking, "I paid these unfunny comics to be here, but I could've got these funnier, drunk guys for free?"

The crowd-participation part of the show ended when an audience member did an impression of The Rock. I gladly handed him the mic - like a cop giving up his revolver - and watched my remaining time tick away. I said good night, walked off the stage, and left my fellow comedians for dead.

The next morning, we woke up in our complimentary hotel rooms to discover that the owner had closed and locked an iron gate leading to the hotel exit. He was nowhere to be seen. We were locked in and serving an indefinite sentence, having been found guilty of being unfunny in the first degree.

We imagined the owner coming back to carry out the death penalty, so we left our hotel rooms through a window, slid down a drainpipe, ran to the car, and made our escape.

On the way out of town, we stopped for bags of chips. They tasted like freedom.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tom Segura bombing at Rumor's - just like I did!

I've bombed there before.

By "there," I mean Rumor's Restaurant and Comedy Club in Winnipeg, where I used to be a regular host.

In theory, Rumor's paid me $40 and a meal to welcome the crowd, tell some jokes, and get everyone laughing and warmed up for the headliner. In practice, sometimes Rumor's paid me to welcome the crowd, tell some jokes, bomb horribly, and hide until everyone left the club and it was safe to come out again.

So, my heart goes out to comedian Tom Segura, a very funny American comic, who recently lived through an epic bomb at the same club. He recounts what happened in his podcast, above, while playing clips from the actual show. It's not for the timid. Generally speaking, you know something's gone horribly wrong when a comedy club manager approaches the stage and asks you if you're OK.

When you do well in comedy, you feel like James Cameron at the Oscars. When you do badly, you feel like Justin Bieber's eggs. So, it's awesome that Segura's so good natured about his experience, let alone even able to listen to it again. He blames the bombing on three factors: the club, the audience, and himself. Yeah, it pretty much takes a village to experience humiliation on this scale.

As I say, I've been there. Mercifully, I've never faced an angry mob, but I won't rule it out for the future. My most memorable bomb at Rumor's is the time I was onstage and noticed a table of people who wouldn't shut up during my act. I decided to handle the situation delicately: "Shut the eff up!" I yelled, though I may have actually said the full eff word.

I expected waves of laughter, and I got back waves of hate. Turns out that a wedding party was seated at that particular table, though the spotlight was so bright in my eyes, I didn't know it. The audience turned on a dime and, unlike Segura's group, shut up and sat in judgmental silence, like Tom Cruise in Magnolia. I didn't sleep for a few days.

I saw the same thing happen to Canadian comic John Wing at Rumor's when he suggested to a heckler that he wasn't exactly an MIT grad.

"What's that?," asked the heckler, proving the point.

"Massachusetts...Institute...of Technology!," yelled Wing. He left the stage a few minutes later to almost no applause. No one's ever won over a crowd by saying that they're dummies, except maybe Don Rickles.

Another time, Canadian comic Ron James stormed off the Rumor's stage and refused to come back until the club removed the idiot in the front row who was heckling him. That's the only time I've ever seen a patron removed from the club, if you don't count the amateur comic at the open mic who vomited onstage, ran out the door, and never came back.

Here's the problem; when someone in the audience is out of control, whose job is it to solve the problem: the comedian or the club? On one hand, any good comic prides him- or herself on the ability to control the room and handle bad things when they happen. On the other, what happens when there's someone in the audience who just won't shut up? Does the club have a responsibility to intervene at the horrible risk of not selling a few more pitchers of beer and tater tots?

In Canada, it's actually very rare for hecklers to yell stuff designed to destroy a show; most of them are just drunkards having a swell time and wanting to participate.

In Winnipeg, though, I think there's something special going on. Unlike America, where the audience tends to identify with the comedian onstage, we Winnipeggers tend to identify with our fellow audience members. "Hey, if you insult one person in the audience, you insult all of us!"

In that special way, we're close to each other if completely unsympathetic to the poor person boldly attempting to entertain us, the unentertainable. 

The next time Segura comes back to Rumor's, and I hope there will be a next time, let's do him a simple favor: leave the torches and pitchforks at home.

Tom Segura.