Everyone clamors for a book by star comedians who reflect on their rise to success. They usually sell well because they are funny and they give readers a latter-day Horatio Alger story: comedians always seem to start poor or at least unhappy and then rise to a position of fame and wealth and slightly less unhappiness. But what about feature (the guy or gal between the emcee and the headliner) comedians -- the stop on the way to headliner success for some, or the purgatory of comedy for many? As a national feature act (meaning underpaid, underbooked and under the radar) I have thought about writing a book on the experience of traveling America and seeing the country through the lens of comedy's middle class.
Here are the ten titles I am considering (I am far too lazy to follow through on an entire book). Keep in mind, these are based on my own experiences. Some comedians may feel the same, some may not. I applaud those of you that feel the same because you are right. And a message to my civilian readers -- I know I can sound bitter -- think of my posts (sometimes) as a darkly humorous look at how the comedy sausage is made:
1) 25 Percent Off a $4 Order of Mozzarella Sticks -- Nothing feels quite like a kick to the balls than the food discount, especially when the food item is dirt cheap to begin with (not to mention seeing the headliner eat that $7 hamburger free of charge -- why don't you blow your nose with $100 bills while you're at it!). $1 off a $4 order is not so much about savings as it is about sending a message. The message? "You ain't sh*t" (another possible title). That is why I now travel with homemade coupons for free back rubs. If I have to pay for appetizers then the club is going to have to earn my money... the hard way (Rodney Dangerfield blog voice).
2) Trying Not To Get Hit By A Car While Walking On The Side Of A Highway -- For every four day trip on the road, I spend about 5 hours on stage and 20 hours walking around towns where the lack of sidewalks help to explain America's high level of obesity. I am 6'7" and anywhere between 240 and 290 pounds, depending on how despondent I am over my "career," but even at my fittest I have had this fear that a murder will occur in any number of the towns I perform in and witnesses will recall "we saw a real big unhappy sombitch just walking along the highway. And we ain't never seen him before." And my only alibi will be "Google Maps told me there was an IHOP two miles down the road!" Either that or a car will simply hit me as I dart across a highway to get to a Starbucks with WiFi. Headline the next day: "Tall Stranger Killed Trying to Check Facebook. No One Had Any Idea Why He Was Here Or Who He Was."
3) Why Do All These White People Find This Mediocre Black Opener Hilarious? -- If anyone wants to know why large pockets of America think President Obama is a Muslim, just go to about 90 percent of the comedy clubs in America. This country, for all its progress and love of Will Smith, is still an incredibly segregated place, where people of color still possess an exotic aura for many white people. And no job is easier in comedy, in my estimation, than to be a mediocre opener of color in front of a white audience. White audiences in America are often times self-selected (my native Bronx is by no means the only place in America that has experienced white flight) so no line ever does better than "I must be in the wrong club!" when delivered by an opener of color. The goobers in the audience are simultaneously thinking "That's a funny joke!" and "That's true!!" I was actually emceeing shows recently and a feature, who was black, told me after a show while we were chatting, "Every time I talk with white people from here after a show, they always want to tell me some 'black sh*t,' like some story about a black guy they met or a black person they hooked up with. Maybe I just want to talk about some other sh*t!" This is not even necessarily a mean thing (ignorance is not necessarily evil), but it does explain a high tolerance for bad comics of color in America (the gentleman I am speaking of was not in this category). Now there are great, good, OK and terrible comics of every race working out there, but the large parts of this segregated country that still think American black people only exist in prisons, rap videos and sporting arenas (because our president is actually Kenyan) are giving refuge to a lot of terrible comics of color. I don't know which came first, the sheltered/ignorant white crowd or the black opener with way too high a swagger-to-talent ratio, but both need to stop.
4) Why Do All These Black People Love This Asian/White Comic -- The pendulum swings both ways and if there is something that annoys me it is when a member of a group gets respect from an audience comprised of a different group, simply having the guts to show up. I have seen this in black rooms almost as often as I see it in white rooms. Now this is not to denigrate comics with real skill and talent who happen to be different. Rather it's the ones who coast on their appearance as if that alone is a "voice" or "perspective" (often times these guys DON'T have a voice or perspective, which might actually make their job more difficult if they lack the requisite skills to pull it off). Of course #3 and #4 are just a prelude to my personal gripe...
5) Why Do White and Black People Judge My Biracial Ass For Making Humorous Commentary On Race (unlikely to work as a title for most comedians) -- If you can tell from #3 and#4 this is personal. I have the comedic misfortune of being opinionated and sharp on race in my material while looking like an Italian in the winter and an Egyptian in the Summer (my Dad is black and my mother is apparently bleach). In other words, black rooms (not necessarily black people individually, but rather comedy clubs with a classic urban sensibility) require me to be more forceful in asserting my blackness before I am "allowed" to speak on it, while many whites don't like being lectured to on race by some guy who looks mostly like them. On the flip side black crowds will often give respect to a fully white (or Asian) comic just for showing up on their turf, while you already know what I think can happen when a black comic performs in front of all white crowds. In conclusion I hate you both (another possible title).
6) Please Let It Be a Hotel... Dammit It's a Comedy Condo -- I would have more mental peace licking a Las Vegas hotel comforter than I have getting into a comedy condo bed. "Hey, I like your choice to go with a white comforter in the comedy condo -- really brightens the room!" "Huh, that comforter is navy blue." Cue Jim Carrey crying in the shower in Ace Ventura.
7) Jack and Jill and Other Things I Am Ashamed Of On The Road -- I love going to the movies, but it can reach the point on the road where I am seeing a movie just to avoid staring at a wall or becoming Jack Nicholson in The Shining. That is my official explanation for why I saw Bucky Larson last year.
8 ) Why Am I Getting Paid The Same As A Feature in 1985? From several accounts I hear the actual dollar amount is less (especially when considering that travel was sometimes included during the comedy boom), but the fact is that in adjusted dollars features are making far less than their counterparts 20+ years ago. Any other profession work that way? Is a partner at a law firm in NYC going home to his family saying, "I just made partner! How does $50,000 a year sound? What? That is how much our daughter's private school costs? OK, well, let me get back to my managerial position at Best Buy where I can make some real cash."
9) Dear Booker, It's Me J-L, Please Read My E-Mail -- Being a comedian without management is sort of like being Jodie Foster in the movie Contact. You are just sending messages out into space with the faint hope of receiving a reply. (My June and July are open - call me!)
10) Yes, I can Explain That 4 Year Gap on My Resume... I Was In Jail -- This is the excuse I have come up with if employers start asking me about my tweets or YouTube videos. "No, that is not me -- my accounts were hacked. I was actually in prison for those four years, but in no way, shape or form was I performing stand up comedy. Perhaps you are thinking of that time I was a traveling t-shirt salesman and I just told 20 minutes of jokes a night as a sales pitch."
J-L's New Stand-Up Album "Too Big To Fail" is available at www.JLCauvin.com for FREE until April 30th. His weekly podcast "Righteous P***k" is available for free on iTunes with a new episode every Tuesday.