Kent ran a show in south Jersey that was known for filling out a comic’s schedule, and not much more. Originally, Smart Asses Comedy Club was in the back of a pizza place that was in the back of a sushi bar that sold ice cream. Had the building been longer, you’d have walked through a sub shop, a Korean BBQ, an Entenmann’s factory outlet, and a Burger King bathroom to find the showroom. Appropriate, as their logo was a pair of smiling butt cheeks.
Dig in, piglets. Comedy show this-a-way.
My manager gave me detailed information about the gig, which is never a good sign. I’ve learned the more facts & figures beforehand, the more likely I’ll drive home cramming gas station snacks and chanting “I should’ve gone to grad school.” Suspicious phrases include:
“The owners are nice guys.”
“Let’s give this new room a chance.”
“Hey, summer’s slow.”
“I will be out of the office all weekend.”
By the time Jerry added “If you leave mid-afteroon, you might get there in under 3 hours,” I was dreaming of my can of Pringles from the Cheesequake rest area Sunoco station. Screamin’ Dill Pickle? Memphis BBQ? The world is my oyster (oyster flavor not available in all markets).
For a long time, I thought the name “Cheesequake” referred to some kind of dessert-inspired geological event. It’s actually based on the Lenni Lanape word “Cheseh-oh-ke,” which means “upland” in that Eastern Algonquin language. Great news for lactose-intolerant Native Americans – don’t say we never did anything for ya! Still, I prefer to imagine a Baby Watson so powerful it’s measured on the Richter Scale.
Quakin’ all over.
The showroom itself was a cheerful space you might use to store broken wheelchairs or steel drums labeled toxic waste. But to lighten the mood, the owners painted cinderblock walls pitch black. Comics were nagged to sign these walls in metallic Sharpie, with most leaving an illegible autograph that couldn’t be traced back to them, or a simple cry for help.
As an aspiring actor, Kent assumed he could pull off hosting their shows. He was wrong. And since they didn’t have the budget for an MC and he wasn’t going to fire himself, his resume now included aspiring comic. The other co-owner was a silent partner, and boy did we wish Kent would follow in his footsteps.
Kent would open each show with a witches’ brew of joke-book jokes and awkward crowd work that made ticket holders look at each other with terror in their eyes. Was the whole show gonna be like this? Had they made a mistake in choosing Smart Asses as the venue for their child’s soccer fundraiser? By the time Kent brought up the real comics, they wondered if it a mistake having children at all.
Eventually, the silent partner did speak up (probably saying something like, “Kent, you are terrible and this comedy crap is losing money”), and Smart Asses left Uncle Tony’s Teriyaki Warehouse & Creamery or Whatever. They relocated to a local hotel, where ironically I was able to get the free meal I’d been denied at the restaurant.
This is common business model in the comedy business. I mean doing shows in hotels and restaurants – not the business model of refusing to feed me, although that’s a popular, too. The show promoters bring in the lights, sound, and performers, then make their nut on ticket sales. This leaves the food & drink (plus liquor license hassles) to the venue. This then trickles down to the talent in the form of a bartender insisting I can only have chips with my sandwich instead of fries, even though we’re using a mic and cable I had to fetch from my car.
The new location wasn’t bad, definitely better than the previous Black Box of Death. Crowds tended to be Italian or Irish moms & dads raising cash for their brats’ travel teams, which lets me talk about food for 30 of my 45 minutes. Plus I could bring a friend for the middle spot, so we’d enjoy the whole drive talking shit about people we knew.
Smart Asses was headed in the right direction, it seemed. The reception room we used for the shows had decent sound and lights, plus there was a decent chicken parmesan sandwich to be had. Even Kent was bordering on adequacy, although I soon found out why. Other comics were grumbling that was helping himself to their best lines buffet-style. He was the lowest of the low: a joke thief.
Joke stealing happens, although most accusations are bullshit. Often they’re arguing over a premise so obvious a monkey could turn it into viable, non-feces-hurling material. Trust me, I know – I’ve opened for that monkey and the prick made me set up his merch table.
“I told ya to put my ‘Monkeyin’ Around’ thongs in the lobby between shows!”
It does happen though, even at the highest levels. Amy Schumer, Dane Cook, and Robin Williams have all been accused (btw – I don’t think so, probably, and yes). Carlos Mencia fell from stardom after admitting he had sticky fingers and never recovered. It’s even more personal at the working comic level, where acts get entire personas stolen.
I’ve been on both sides. A decade ago, an experienced – but very paranoid – comic sent me a nasty email because he heard I had a similar premise (“You do jokes about wearing glasses? Dammit, that’s mine all mine!”) He even tried to cause trouble for me at a few clubs, which ignored him. But I’ve also been told of notorious thieves who were doing entire chunks of my act. Both situations were shitty.
Some “comics” just want the love from the audience, and they don’t care how they get it. Last year I worked with a prehistoric Catskills act who legit did a long, well-known Dangerfield bit but just Mad-Libbed in his own name. Pathetic. On the other side, you have writerly nerds like me who need those strangers to validate our wordplay, thought puzzles, and brilliant conclusions. Also pathetic, and less likely to get you laid after a show.
Years ago, when I was hosting at a club in CT…
…and let me interrupt to clarify it was many, many years ago that I was hosting at that club. I’ve since worked my way up to headlining, although I’m still prohibited from ordering a steak from the complimentary menu (as clearly posted on the green room wall).
Where was I? Oh yeah…
…so I was hosting and both the middle and closing act were such hacks they could’ve cleared a swath through an Amazon jungle. After the first show, the headliner was pissed because he’d done the same joke as the middle act and the audience stared at him. That priceless piece of material? I’ll let a screencap from Reddit take it from here:
Lord only knows what kind of bullshit was in my act then (or is in my act now, for that matter) but that night I learned two things: 1) good comics do their own material, not old-ass joke-book jokes, and 2) the sesame glazed salmon was more expensive than the porterhouse, so I ordered that instead.
FYI, this club used to be notorious for its rowdy Saturday late shows. I did OK up front and after I brought up the last act I headed for the men’s room. While I was in the stall, two dudes came in.
“I’ll just hide in here for a few days. Do you have anything I can read?”
DUDE 1: This show sucks.
ME: (thinking) Great. Now I have to hide in this gross stall until they leave
DUDE 2: I dunno, I thought the first guy was all right.
ME: (thinking) This may be my only chance to make a break for it.
As I stepped out, they both recognized me with looks of horror.
DUDE 2 (unsolicited): Hey man, I said you were pretty good.
ME: Don’t worry about it. Although technically, what you said was…
Another guy (let’s call him DUDE 3) walked in and said, “Hey are you the first guy? The guy downstairs is looking for you.”
The guy? What guy? Did he mean the club manager – had they overturned the steak policy?
I checked my watch; the closer was barely 20 minutes into his set so he had at least 25 more to go.
ME: What guy?
DUDE 3: The guy onstage.
I ran back to the showroom to hear the entire audience engrossed in conversation, completely ignoring Mr. Playboy’s Party Jokes 1965. He saw me, nodded, put the mic in the stand, and said good night.
Son of a bitch – he’s bailing at the halfway mark!
I hopped on stage and got an applause break just for not being those other comics. Usually, doing time after the headliner is a no-no, but the servers needed time for the check drop so I saved the day. In gratitude, they may have sprinkled an extra sesame seed on my sesame salmon.
END OF PART 1