You pull your road-weary car into a gravel parking lot. You eye the marquee and observe that only half the lights are blinking. The others are burned out or defective. You chuckle as you recall how your dad would hook up the Christmas tree lights and cuss out the manufacturer in six different tongues… not that he was multi-lingual but because that’s how many languages came with the instructions. (Obligatory 21st century politically correct note: If you never celebrated the holiday and therefore have no such Christmas memories, maybe you just think of your dad cussing out his in-laws after a few light beers. See there… if you use your imagination, everyone can participate in the “father with lights” memory.)
Back to the original mental image I’m trying to illustrate. You take a double-take-the semi-blinking marquee advertises your appearance, but it looks like a promotional afterthought:
Nickel Beer!!! Wet T-shirts!!! Ride the Bull!!! Also… comedy.
You notice that the “E” in “comedy” is actually a reversed 3 and your name is misspelled by at least 5 letters. You feel the overwhelming sense of caring and take a deep breath.
You open a door that is strategically laden with confiscated fake I.D.s. They no doubt serve as a warning to anyone trying to use one, like when 18th-century port cities would deter pirates by displaying hanging corpses of their comrades. I can only imagine the extreme humiliation underage pirates experienced when they attempted to pillage and drink. Poor fellas. You cautiously enter the dimly lit bar.
A lady on her 23rd Marlboro and her 14th game of Photo Hunt wheezes from the corner that they “ain’t open yet”. You explain that you’re the comedian for the evening and you’re just checking in for hotel directions. She says, “You’re a comic? Well you ain’t said nothin’ funny!” In your exhausted state you manage to laugh, albeit impatiently. She waits for you to do something humorous, as if comedians walk around all day with a jokebook in one hand and a rimshot sound machine in the other. You win the stoic stare down with her, and she finally yells for the manager. He emerges from the restroom and proudly exclaims that he just installed his new Osama bin Laden urinal cakes.
He introduces himself and gives you directions to the hotel/baitshop. He then explains that the show is supposed to start at 8:30, but that “we may wait til whenever people get in on out the cold.” As you marvel at how he’s able to use three prepositions in the same sentence fragment, you also sense a bit of shock to see that he’s a manager who is actually older than you for a change. Under normal circumstances this would be a plus, but on this particular night, you discover he’s a former DJ from the early 80s who can’t let go of the past. You know this because he says “Rock-n-roll!” after everything and even says, “Show starts at Rock-thirty!” You leave, shuddering as you consider the very likely possibility that at some point tonight, he will make you choose between David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar.
Welcome to the nightmarish world of the comedy one nighter. A “one nighter” is a gig that takes place at a bar, but other venues often get involved too: restaurants, elk clubs, pool halls, roller rinks, coffee houses, laundry mats, you name it. Every other night of the week, each of those establishments is doing exactly what it was intended to do… getting people drunk. Okay, the coffee houses don’t sell liquor, but sometimes talking to a blonde on her fifth latte is worse than listening to a hillbilly heckler after his third Jäger shot. Lots of run-on sentences and occasional gas.
One nighters, in many regards, are necessary evils. Generally speaking, we as comics don’t enjoy working them, but sometimes we need the extra money. With regular unleaded costing a kidney a gallon, the “comedy whore” label comes out from time to time.
Usually the bars have comedy shows on Mondays or Tuesdays, but you learn right off the bat that the people didn’t come there for a comedy show. They came to drink and talk. And “no punk outta-towner (who annunciates) is going to get on stage and change that, by Gawd!”.
You check into the hotel… a classy joint whose staff will make your room non-smoking by simply removing the ashtray. You kindly explain to the monster cave cricket who is showering that he has to leave. You take a nap on the floor because it’s cleaner and more comfortable than the bed. At an hour before rock-thirty, you shower and head to the show.
Over the past few years, your gut has been right most of the time. You realize, however, that every now and then you have been wrong in prejudging a crowd. So you convince yourself that this may not be that bad. All you have to do is suck it up and bring on the funny. You’re a professional comic, for crying out loud. This is what you do. So let’s get it on!
Then you arrive at the bar and your gut re-emerges with authority, actually predicting that this will be the rowdiest crowd since the one that wanted to free Barabbas. As usual, your gut is accurate.
Comics everywhere loathe the one nighter gig. And throughout the evening, you remember why:
- Similar to the plight of the Blues Brothers, you’re told upon entering “We like both kinds of comedy… dick and fart jokes.”
- A football game is on every TV in the joint. The tubes will probably remain on during the show. If the manager does decide to click them off, he will most likely do so when the potential game-winning field goal attempt is in mid flight, in which case a collective angry groan will overcome the room and people will look to take it out on someone. That’s when you’re introduced to the stage. You’re greeted with a roomful of crossed arms and malicious looks, like you’re the one responsible for canceling Hee Haw.
- The stage consists of two wooden palates pieced together with fishing wire and electrical tape.
- You notice how the DJ booth is stocked with about $23,000 worth of stereo equipment, the back of the room offers four different versions of Golden Tee Video Golf, and there’s a satellite system so powerful that it can pick up an illegal dog fight in Monterey if you wanted to watch it. And the whole time, you’re on a wooden palate talking into a duct-taped microphone whose cord crackles during every punchline.
- Throughout the show, you learn that in order for a joke to go over well, it must contain any or all of these words: Dick, fart, pecker, booger, ass, booger-fart (I’m confused on that one too), taint, pubes, nipple, or any variety of F-bombs.
- The manager heckles you.
- People there think Screech is a comedic genius.
- Cell phones not only ring, they’re answered.
- After the show, there’s at least one person who tells you a joke “you can use”. Yes indeed, it includes the words dick, fart, booger and something about a kid named Little Johnny. You chuckle a bit to be polite, which only encourages him to repeat the punchline four to five times. He then reminds you that “you can use that one. Seriously… you can use it.”
- People pass on purchasing your $10 CD but don’t flinch a bit when buying five watered-down test-tube shooters from some waitress with big hooters and a tattoo on her tailbone, a fad that was unique about ten years ago but is now more overdone than a Nickelback song. She is damn cute, though, so you can’t blame them.
- You can’t get paid until after last call.
That’s the one nighter world we often live in, folks. I’m not trying to sound bitter. I love comedy and working the road. For the most part it’s truly an amazing experience. I often tell myself that for encouragement as I say to the manager, “David Lee Hagar. I mean Sammy Lee Roth. Honestly, who gives a shit anymore?” and then run to my car.