Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guest Blogger: A comic's New York story

Today FunnyGrownHere features a story from guest blogger Ray Charbonneau, a freelance writer who followed a comedian friend to New York City to see how tough it is to break into the clubs there.

Ray Charbonneau's book, Chasing the Runner's High, has been called "a hard look into the mind of a runner." It's available in paperback or as a "name your own price" eBook.

Doug on his way to NYC
For a Boston comedian like Doug Fitzgerald, it’s hard to resist the gravitational pull of New York City. Millions of people, a wealth of big name comics, and more industry to spot you and give you that big break, all just a $17 bus ride away.

Doug’s real name is “Kevin,” but a grammar school bully named him after the Nickelodeon character, and the name stuck. It fits with Doug’s unprepossessing appearance and thinning comb-forward, an appearance that matches the stage persona he describes as “a cross between cute lovable single guy and creepy guy.”

Two years into his standup career, Doug’s starting to get regular bookings at local clubs like The Comedy Studio and ImprovBoston. He wanted to see how his act would play outside of Boston, so he emailed the Gotham Comedy Club in New York to ask about getting a gig. He knew about the Gotham because it’s been the host of a number of TV shows, including episodes of “Last Comic Standing” and Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham.” Jessica Kirson, the booking agent at the club, offered Doug a slot on their Monday night “New Talent Showcase.” It’s an audition show, where lesser-known comedians can get stage time to show whether they’re worth asking back for a set on another night.

The show is what comedians call a “bringer.” Comedians hate bringers. In order to go on, a comedian has to bring a certain number of people along. In theory, that makes it a step up from an open mike night. Acts have to have enough of a following to get a few people to show up. In practice, comedians who have to do bringers are still trying to build a following, so they have to count on their friends to show up. The real reason clubs do bringers is to ensure there’s someone besides other comics in the audience, so someone’s paying admission, buying drinks, and laughing at jokes.

After the initial email exchange, Doug had the impression he needed to bring four people along to get onstage. He knew it would be tough to get people from Boston to go down to New York for a Monday night show, but he had some friends in New York who might come. He posted a message to Facebook on the Thursday before the show to see if anyone wanted to go and if anyone had a place for him to crash after the show.

Friday, he got another message from the Gotham. This one said that he’d need to bring ten people, not just four, in order to go on. Four seemed possible, but ten was a much higher hurdle. Doug posted an update to Facebook with the new number. One friend from Boston said he’d go down for the show, and a few more who were already in New York chimed in to say they’d be there. That brought the number up to around five or six.

On Saturday, Doug posted another update on Facebook. When I noticed the message, I came up with the idea of writing a story about a comedian’s first trip to the big city. I knew other comedians, some who’ve made the move to New York and some still in Boston, who would be able to flesh out the story with their experiences.

I thought I might even find some synergy between the struggles of a new comedian and my attempts to get a writing career started. I’d finished a book on running and was poking at some short fiction ideas, but I was having some trouble getting going. Maybe taking time for a bit of journalism would help. If nothing else, it was a way to put off working on my fiction, and my other methods were starting to wear thin. All that, along with the cheap bus fare, flipped the switch, and let me justify the effort to myself and Ruth, my wife.

So Sunday, I called Doug to see whether he’d be interested in having me tag along to go to the show and write a story. Duh. All comedians want attention, or they wouldn’t be getting up on stage. And whether or not I ever wrote or sold the story, he needed bodies for the bringer. If he got any extra publicity out of my story, that was just a bonus.

Doug told me he had a ticket for 7:30AM Bolt bus Monday morning, which would get us into Manhattan about noon, enough time to wander around New York before the show. I e-mailed a few of my contacts in New York to see if they’d have time to talk with me that afternoon. Dan Hirshon was working in midtown and got out at 1PM, so another piece fell into place.

Then Doug’s friends started backing out. Your friends want to be nice, so they tend to overstate the likelihood that they’ll show up for a show. “I’ll go” means the person might go. “I’ll probably go” means they probably won’t. And “I might go” means they definitely won’t. They’re trying to let you down gently, but what they’re really doing is setting you up for a bigger disappointment later on. But counting on friends to show up is tough on them too. If they’re good friends, they’ve probably seen your act a few times already, and noticed that the funniest stuff tends to get repeated and that it gets less funny every time.

The cost of the show also seemed a little high, especially to people from Boston. The Gotham wanted people to pay $12 for a ticket, plus the cost of a two drink minimum (at inflated club prices), for “new talent” on a Monday. Monday night in Boston, any comedy show is likely to be a free open mike designed to bring in a few people to buy drinks on an otherwise slow night. If nothing else, the comedians end up buying a few to drown their sorrows after another night of telling their jokes in front of nobody but other comedians who’ve heard most of the jokes before.

When Doug’s Boston friends added in the bus ticket and the cost of eating out, and took into consideration that the trip required nine hours on the bus and taking one or two days off from work, it started to look like the costs outweighed the benefits.

Doug called me to discuss what we should do. He told me he already had his bus ticket, which was a major expense on his comedian’s budget. He decided if he couldn’t get ten people to commit, “I’m gonna show up and see if I can use my charm, wit, and charisma to finagle my way on the list.” If not, he’d find an open mike to get some stage time. I checked with Dan, who said there was a good open mike in the area at 9PM if we needed it. He also said that he’d signed up for a four person bringer at the Gotham and when his people didn’t show, they still let him go on. So Doug and I decided to give it a try.

We met at South Station for the 7:30 Bolt bus to New York. Even though the tickets were cheap, the bus looked clean and new. They even had wireless Internet service on board. We got our seats, and after the bus got going, Doug and I started talking about his experience as a stand-up and his plans for this trip to New York and afterwards.

Doug started doing standup by taking an adult education course. He kept with it because, “it was something to do that I really, really like and it didn’t cost me any money. It never cost me any cash to go do open mic nights and I realized I was kind of good at it. I started getting booked shows and I started getting recognized. People started liking my set so I just kept with it. It’s kind of like going to the gym but less costly and my arms don’t hurt the next day.”

He’s only been paid for one gig, $20 for an appearance at ImprovBoston’s Naked Comedy Showcase. “Two girls bought me a drink after the show,” he said. “They said they liked what they saw, and that my material was pretty good too.”

He has hope for the future. “I definitely want to make a life of this. Next season I want to do ‘Last Comic Standing.’ I want to see myself on ‘Comedy Central Presents.’ I want to get my own sitcom, on FX. None of this ABC Family crap.”

He thinks he’s ready to take the next step. “I was told that if you can make people laugh in Boston, every other place in the country is so much easier,” he said. “I’m going to put that to the test today. I know Boston likes my material, I know Cambridge likes my material, I know Somerville likes my material. I want to see whether New York likes my material.”

Doug worried about whether he’d bring enough guests, but he had some flyers and he was going to do what he could. “I plan on wandering the city and prostituting myself to people, see if I can get people to come.”

We settled down to the tedium of a long highway bus trip. At one point I got up to go to the bathroom, and I found that Doug had left his joke notebook there. I considered waiting for him to figure out it was missing, but I decided to be kind. It turns out that Doug finds sitting in the bathroom a good place to work on material. It’s up to the audience to decide whether that’s reflected in the quality of the jokes.

Arriving in NYC
The bus dropped us off on the sidewalk in midtown Manhattan at 34th and 8th, next to the Tick Tock Diner. It was a bright, sunny day. The light brought out the riot of colors in the storefronts and the clothing of the thousands of people rushing around. I was reminded of my first trip to Las Vegas, in that it was bright, flashy, and a little overwhelming at first. I focused on the little things, like the garage where it cost $6.76 to park for a half-hour, or the fact that every woman who had a pocketbook had one with a short strap and carried it with her elbow clasping it tightly against her side.

Doug and I walked up 8th to the Port Authority station at 42nd. He went inside to buy his return ticket, since he couldn’t buy one online because his comedian’s budget didn’t stretch to money in the bank to fund a debit card. I walked on to 50th, where I would meet Dan Hirshon at 1PM, when he got out of work.

I went into the Applebee’s at 50th and 7th, mostly to find a bathroom. The bathrooms and the main restaurant were on the second floor. On the first floor, there was a separate bar, with a lounge area with benches, pillows, and funky designer tables, unlike anything I’d seen in any other Applebee’s. At noon on a Monday, the bar was empty. I ordered a soda and called Dan to let him know I was there.

When Dan arrived, the waitress came over to take our order, but Applebee’s was too expensive a lunch option for Dan, since he was also living on a comedian’s budget. The waitress was cheerful, not at all a stereotypical New Yorker. She even turned the loud music down when I said we were doing an interview, though it was already apparent that we wouldn’t be ordering any food.

Dan moved to New York three years ago. “I didn’t really have a specific plan, but I just wanted to get out of Boston and try something new,” he said.

He started with standup while he was attending Brandeis, and he had been working in Boston for seven years, when he made the decision. “I had my circle of friends and a lot of them were moving down to New York and so, at a certain point, it wasn’t going to be too crazy,” he said. “I had a guy who was looking for a roommate down here who was also a Boston comic, and then I had a few friends in the neighborhood, the neighborhood being Astoria. A lot of comics live there. So when I moved down I was already kind of with a support system.”

The move was harder than he thought it would be. “I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. He got stage time, but “it’s just the audiences I wasn’t ready for. In Boston, I kind of figured out what worked and then I had my act. And then I moved here, and you get tourist audience and you get urban audiences and you get alternative audiences, you get older, younger, mixes of everything.”

He worked hard to adjust. “When I first moved here, I was at a club where you did like six sets a night and like audiences from all over the world and sometimes there’d be five people and sometimes a hundred and when there’s like five, sometimes none of them spoke English,” he said. “You gotta learn to deal with that.”

Dan found that the New York comedy scene allowed him to take more risks. “I think in New York a lot of the time some people will take more chances and are willing to bomb, just because it happens more,” he said. “When I was in Boston, ratio-wise there were more audiences that were showing up to have a good time, whereas down in New York a lot of them are barked in, a lot of them are from all over the world. They don’t know what they’re getting into, they’re just looking to do some crazy New York thing.”

I asked him why he stuck with it. “I question that a lot, every day,” he said. “When I think about other things to do – I don’t enjoy anything else. No one enjoys their job 24/7. You put up with a lot of shit sometimes, a lot of stuff I don’t enjoy about standup up. It isn’t the stage, it’s dealing with bookers and trying to convince people that I’m ready to go on stage.”

Dan recently had to take a part-time job, but he’s still focused on his comedy career. “I don’t have any crazy dreams or anything,” he said. “I just wanna be like a working comic and have an act that I love to perform.”

Ray's Pizza boxes
After we finished, he took me up to 53rd St. for a slice of pizza. It wasn’t until after I ordered that I noticed we were in Ray’s Pizza. It’s all about me. We ate, and then Dan left for home and I wandered down Broadway into Times Square with my camera out and my head swiveling around, just like any other tourist.

I made my way down to 23rd St. in Chelsea, where the Gotham Comedy Club is located. It’s right next to the Hotel Chelsea, famous for the creative personalities who’ve stayed there, and as the location of the deaths of Dylan Thomas and Nancy Spungen. It was only 4:30 and I wasn’t supposed to meet Doug until 6PM, so I walked down 23rd and napped in the Hudson River Park before heading back to the club to meet with Doug and his friend Emily at the Starbucks on the corner. Emily moved from Somerville to New York back in May. She lived in an “affordable” section of Brooklyn and worked in a theater prop warehouse downtown. Rather than travel back and forth after work, she was waiting for showtime with us.

Doug spent the afternoon looking around the city and giving out flyers, trying to get people to come to the show. He was thrilled when he stumbled across the Museum of Sex. He was also excited by the networking possibilities that apparently popped up just by being in New York. He was sitting in a bar, tearing apart the flyers that he’d printed two at a time, when a stranger came up to him, identified himself as a business consultant, and told him he should get the fliers cut across the street.

“He started talking to girls next to me to help promote me to get them to come to the show and I was immediately enamored with this man,” said Doug. “This guy is totally pitching for me and he doesn’t even know my name yet. He hasn’t even read the goddamn sheet.”

As Dan had said to me earlier, “Down here it’s just easier to meet with people who have the expertise and drive and are also willing to work for free, just because the market’s so saturated.”

Doug was still worried about whether he was bringing enough people. He kept trying. When he went off to the bathroom, he came back thinking he might have found one more. “The girl waiting with me to get into the bathroom, when I said I was from Boston, she started flirting with me. I told her about the show and she said she might come.”

I left to get a sandwich before the show, and then met up with Emily at the club. Doug had already gone in. We checked in with the guy at the door to let them know we were here to see Doug and were escorted to a table by the side of the stage.

The main floor of the Gotham is a good-sized room, decorated in reds and blacks in an Art Deco style. It was dark, but we could see that the room was about three-quarters full, so it would be, by far, the largest audience Doug had ever performed for. Apparently $12 plus drinks for comedy in Manhattan on a Monday wasn’t too much to ask after all.

There was a guy set up in the back of the room running a video camera. I went back talk with him before the show. His name was Mike Codispoti, and he’s made a business out of setting up in clubs and offering the acts a video of their performance. He charges $40 for anything up to a half-hour set, which isn’t a bad price for a quality video, especially since he also mikes the stage himself to make sure he gets good sound. Mike told me that the Gotham mixes professional comedians into the “New Talent” in their bringers, which made me a little less concerned about the quality of the evening’s entertainment.

At 8PM, the show started. Doug still had only two guests. He was counting on his friend Krystal, who said she’d be bringing a few friends but she might be a little late. I ordered my first $5 Coke-flavored ice as the show began.

Sherry Davey at Gotham
Sherry Davey was the MC for the night. Each comedian waited off to the left of the stage, behind us, while Sherry was introducing them. As the show went on, I kept turning back to look at the comic waiting for the next set, to see if it was Doug’s turn.

I was looking forward to seeing Doug’s set. I’ve seen him three times, first when he opened an improv benefit show put on by some of our friends, and most recently at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge on a bill with Myq Kaplan. Each time, his presentation has improved and his jokes were more finely honed. I was interested to see whether he’d taken another step forward.

About an hour into the show, Doug came out to Emily and me and crouched behind us to pass on some news. Krystal and her friends hadn’t shown up, and Yonah Ward Grossman, the guy running the show, wasn’t going to let Doug do his set with only two people there. Grossman said maybe if there were five or six, but two just wasn’t enough. The club said Emily and I wouldn’t have to pay the $12 admission since he wasn’t going to get on, but that wasn’t really important.

Doug wasn’t happy, but we had to keep the discussion quiet to keep from disturbing the show. I looked at my watch. It was a little after 9PM. The open mike we knew about on 40th St. had already started, so there wasn’t any way we were going to get to in time for Doug to go on. Emily and I offered to leave anyhow, but Doug decided to go back and see if he could work something out.

Jim Gaffigan at Gotham
Emily and I settled back to watch the rest of the show. A little later, when the comic on stage finished his act, Davey came on to announce that a special guest had dropped in to do a set. Jim Gaffigan hopped up onto the stage and went through a new bit on working out and eating at McDonalds, using the “I’m Lovin’ It” slogan as a clear callback to his “Hot Pockets” routine. We wondered if Doug had been bumped to make room for Gaffigan, but later Doug told us that he’d already been bumped before Gaffigan showed up.

While Gaffigan was onstage, I took out one of my business cards and wrote a message on the back: “Please ask the mgr to let Doug Fitzgerald do a set.” When Gaffigan’s set was over, I handed him the card as he walked by us on the way from the stage. Afterwards, I could see him reading it while he was sitting against the side wall with Davey, but nothing came of it. It was worth a try.

The show finished up around 10:20. The night’s better known comics, in addition to Davey, were Mike Vecchione, and Godfrey. Most of the comedians weren’t bad, and some of them were pretty good. Only one was truly horrid, a set of tired old vaudeville jokes told by an older guy. He wore heavy black lens-less glasses as a costume, or as some sort of homage to the old-school Jewish comics that he stole his jokes from. Doug’s set might not have measured up to Gaffigan’s, but he wouldn’t have been embarrassed to be there either.

We paid our bill and left the club. I got our revenge. I took all three of the pens printed with the club logo from our table when I left.

For future reference, one way to deal with bringers at the Gotham is to get 10 people to go in and give your name. Since they don’t have to pay for admission until the end, they can leave before the bill comes (before or after the show, depending on their level of honesty).

Doug in the Gotham loby
Doug was upset after the show. He was angry with Grossman, who found room for Gaffigan and for 15 minutes of his own comedy, but wouldn’t give Doug five minutes even though he’d traveled from out of state to be there. I gave Grossman a chance to explain why he didn’t let Doug go on, but he wasn’t interested.

I could see it both ways. The club needs paying customers to make money, and a requirement to bring ten people is one way to ensure that unfamiliar comics are at some minimal level of competency. But the rule wasn’t hard and fast. If five or six people would have been enough, why not be a little more flexible and let two be enough? They ran 20 minutes past their intended 10PM finish without Doug. Why not let Doug go on in one of the less desirable slots near the end of the show, after the people in the audience who were only there to see their comic friend had left? It would have been easy to do, and nice.

We were standing outside in Chelsea at night with five hours to kill before our scheduled trip back to Boston. Plenty of things were open, but we didn’t have anything to celebrate and Emily had to work in the morning, so we took the C train to the Port Authority station to see if Doug and I could get on an earlier bus. There was one leaving at 12:15. We couldn’t exchange our tickets, but we were told we could get on it if there was space available. So we found the terminal, in an unrenovated corner of the Port Authority basement, and waited at the gate over an hour, watching more and more people get in line for the bus to Boston.

The ride to New York had been full of promise. The weather was warm, the sun was bright, and the bus was shiny and new, with WiFi and other modern amenities. The ride back to Boston that night was depressing, starting from a dank bus terminal, on a skuzzy bus with broken shocks and crumbling seats that smelled of defeat. One guy behind Doug started snoring, loudly, within five minutes after the bus left the dank terminal. The guy sitting next to him had to call someone on his cell phone every few minutes, to update that person on his current location. The pirated copy of “Despicable Me” that Doug bought at the terminal for $5 to watch on his laptop during the ride was supposed to be a copy of a review copy, but turned out to be made by a guy sitting in a theater with a video camera.

The only thing that worked well was the A/C, which was set uncomfortably high. All the little nozzles that normally twisted to control the airflow were missing. We slouched in our seats, hugging ourselves to try to stay warm, and dozed fitfully through the night.

We arrived in Boston at dawn, just in time to catch the first Red Line train back to our homes. Doug was disappointed that he’d missed his chance for his first out-of-town appearance at a major club. My story didn’t work out the way I had anticipated. But my day wasn’t wasted. It was a beautiful day, and I got to see Manhattan for the first time. The comedy show wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d feared, a top shelf pro had made a surprise appearance, and I didn’t have to spend a few hours hanging out with hookers and drug addicts before the bus trip home.

Doug and I split, too tired to do more than shake hands and say goodbye. He was already planning his next trip. Seems there’s a bringer that only requires four guests….

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