It was 1986 and I was broke and struggling in a sea of improv Chicago comedians to land a coveted spot at Second City when I got a called to audition to be the official company, "spokes-turtle" for DeMet's Chocolate Turtle candy. The audition involved performing ten minutes of stand-up comedy material that featured DeMet's Chocolate Turtles, It was to take place at Zanies Comedy Club in front of reps for DeMet's and a real live audience. Being an improv guy, I had very little experience with stand-up comedy, but the ten-grand paycheck and the chance to be a spokes-turtle was all the enticement I needed. I came up with material that used my only two impersonations: I bought a hand puppet turtle who sounded suspiciously like Woody Allen and I played guitar and sang a song in the voice and harmonica style of Bob Dylan about the glory and wonder of Chocolate turtles.
At the audition, I was scared shitless, but I nevertheless threw myself on stage with the reckless abandon of one of those polar bear swimming club members who dive into Lake Michigan in the middle of winter. Somehow, the Woody Allen turtle puppet and the Dylan chocolate sing-a-long worked and I won. Like most things show biz there was a catch. I didn't win the actual job, but a chance to compete in Los Angeles against the winners of the DeMet's spokes-turtle search from NY and LA. So, off I flew to Hollywood to do my stand-up routine again, this time at a LA comedy club, for the top DeMet's brass and a bussed in audience. At the time I was an 80s fashion victim. I sported vintage bowling shirts, Doc Martin boots and two silver earrings. I imagined that I was going to shoot to comedy fame as a New Wave stand-up comedian, a cross between Richard Lewis and Duran Duran. And that's then I saw him.
We were all milling about the club before the show trying to schmooze the DeMet's execs and there was this stand up from New York who had them totally eating out of hand. They had surrounded him and were laughing at everything he said. Who was this guy? He seemed everything I wasn't: Confident, professional, gregarious and totally relaxed. With ten grand on the line, I had become nervous, gassy, reserved and totally tense. Of course, the New York comedian went on right before me and killed. He didn't have puppets, guitars, harmonicas and sing silly songs, he had actual jokes, with set ups and punch lines. He introed me and I went on... I wouldn't say I bombed as much as left my body when Woody Allen Turtle got nary a chuckle and the Bob Dylan song was practically drowned out by clinking glasses and a smattering of coughs. After all the comedians had finished their routines, the winner was announced... It was that New York comedian, Ken Ober.
I was devastated, now I had to go back to Chicago still oh-so-broke, with no prospects in sight. Sitting by myself in back of the club nursing a beer, I jealously watch how all the DeMet's execs fawned over Ken. Then, he broke off from them and came over to sit next to me. He staggered me by how genuine and encouraging he was about my set. Yes, he also made fun of my ridiculous act, but he did so in a way that made me laugh and forget about what a chocolate turtle egg I had just laid on stage. He just wouldn't let me stay down on myself. What a jerk, I thought to myself, first he kills on stage, then he wins spokes-turtle and ten grand and now he's this really great guy too. Although, I was envious, I knew he deserved to win and I really appreciated how nice he was about it.
Cut to a few years later, I got my first professional writing job on none other than MTV's Remote Control. My first day of work I came over to reintroduce myself, but before I could Ken laughed and screamed, "Hey, it's the puppet guy!" It was a blast to work on Remote Control and to get to hang out with Ober every day.
The last time, I saw Ken was three weeks ago. I walked on stage to give performance based on a book I have coming out next year. It was only the second time with this material in front of a live audience, so I was a little tense. Ken was seated in the front row. He was the first person I saw in the audience when the lights went up and he looked straight at me and gave me this huge reassuring smile and fist pump. I knew right then the show would go well after that. Same supportive stand-up guy, Ken Ober. Audiences loved Ken on Remote Control, but he'll always be my all time favorite spokes-turtle.
Jeff Kahn got his start writing for Remote Control on MTV, he won an Emmy Award for writing on The Ben Stiller Show on Fox. His new book, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up... a love story, co-written with his wife, Annabelle Gurwitch comes out next year.