A laughing library on a Wednesday night. Spot-lights arranged to mimic a stage the floor lacked. The towers of high-school level reading swirled around the smiling faces. Coffee and cookies at a breathable distance. The first in the lime-light.
Doing stand-up comedy wasn’t my idea. I was a bargaining chip to get Wayne to do stand-up. As long as I did it, preferably to open for his set, he would show. I agreed, because he should be doing stand-up. I had seen him studying the routines of comics like Dana Carvey, Daryl Hammond, Mitch Hedberg and Pablo Francisco for years. If there was ever a time to get him to give it a try, the Coffee House would be such an opportunity.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought Wayne was destined for comedy. He could make the most awkward of instances a laugh-riot with a well timed pun, or an irreverent reference. He was the illegitimate son of Sam Kinison, Dave Attel and Patton Oswalt. In those days he lived and breathed to make other people smile. He still does, though his audience has shrunk to a specific few.
That first night, there were a crowd of wooden chairs filled with poets and musicians who naively believed this was their first step to greatness. Mostly. There were just as many kids and chaperones (aka parents who wouldn’t leave their kids alone for three hours) who were just seeking to be entertained. The total sum of the audience was approximately thirty people. Seven percent of that population were friends of Wayne and myself.
I wasn’t expected to do anything magical or particularly impressive. I was the warm-up, the guy meant to remind people that comedy was another feature of this open-mic occasion. And I wasn’t afraid to bomb like Hiroshima.
My approach to stand-up that first time was somewhere between Andy Kaufman and Mitch Hedberg, with a healthy dollop of Todd Barry somewhere in the middle: I didn’t care if I made other people laugh as long as I enjoyed myself; I was awkward and visually unprepared; I read from a notebook for all my jokes. That first experience of standing in front of an audience and having something expected of you would have been daunting if I had expected anything of myself. I should have been trembling behind a book case for that first half-hour before my set. I should have been downing cup after cup of red-hot, steaming java to ease shaking limbs; I should have at least taken some sort of lozenge to ease my throat before my voice cracked in an awkward Drive-Thru-Kid from The Simpsons- kind of way. Instead, I repeated lyrics from that Pepsi Blue commercial in my head over and over again in between other acts until it was my turn to get a crack at the floor.
The mic squeaked and crackled with electricity that tickled my fingertips. I gripped it one handed, leaving the other to hold my precious green index-card-sized notebook that contained directionless scrawled notes about jokes or things I thought could be funny to talk about. When I moved my mouth closer to the rounded steel head, I could taste the electric reverberations of my own voice as it thudded from the speaker beside me.
“Mic check, one two one two,” cracked my voice.
Crowd expression: It works, dumb ass.
“How’s everyone doing tonight?”
Blank faces. Jesse stands up, “YEAH RYAN!”
“Yeah Jesse! Woo!” I reply in an overly excited tone, pointing at him. Smiles light around the now dark non-stage area. I didn’t imagine being in the light would make everyone so dark. The smiles are just about all I can see. Everyone apparently loves Crest.
“ So, I’m here to tell some jokes. With the funny, and the ha-ha. I’ve got this little notebook here, that I’ll be reading out of, because, that’s how I do this.”
Awkward laughs. I’m off to a good start in my book.
“So, it seems to me that entertainment devices are getting smaller and smaller. We started out with giant reels of film, and big clunky projectors. Then there were tapes. Beta came somewhere in-between there. Yeah, I don’t know what that is either. Now we have DVD’s and I hear Mini-Discs could be the next big thing.”
Scattered laughter. I turn the page, smiling, and drop my book. I reach down to get it, and knock over the mic. With Spider-Man-like reflexes, I grab the two and pull myself up the mic like it was a life-line rope.
“Close call eh?”
I hear Wayne stutter some laughter behind a stack. I’m still good.
“ Well, if everything is just getting smaller, I think I know what we’re going to have next in the entertainment biz: Movie Pills.”
Laughter. I get excited, start talking a great deal faster.
“ Movie pills! Lemme explain how this would work; cause I’m sure you’re dying to know. See, movies would stop coming in discs or whatever. We’re a junkie economy, and there’s few things junkies like to do, primarily: take drugs, eat shit, and watch movies. Movie pills would combine all three activities into one trippy experience.”
More scattered laughter. I can tell from Wayne’s stifled laughter that he can’t believe I’m actually using this material. But it’s working. Kind of.
“ See, if you wanted to watch a movie, you’d get a bottle of pills for that movie. Like, if you wanted to watch ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ you’d get a bottle full of little black and white pills, and on the back of the bottle would be movie-watching instructions. For ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ you’d take the movie pill with a cup of orange juice, cause orange juice looks like piss, and that one cop drinks Lloyd’s piss accidentally in that one scene.”
Laughter and ewws.
“Oh grow up, it’s just piss. Okay, a better one: For a movie like, “Blue Crush,” you’d get these little white and blue pills. Just like a wave… And then you’d down those little suckers with Turpentine. This wouldn’t help you see the movie, but it’d kill you. Because you’re better off dead than seeing that piece of shit movie.”
Genuine laughter, to my surprise. Mission accomplished. A few even more awkward jokes followed, reveling in my nerdiness and inability to understand women. I doubt anyone expected I ever had an understanding of women at that age. I probably didn't. A smile was plastered to my face for the remainder of my time in the light.
When I stepped away from the mic and introduced Wayne to the awaiting audience, I recall titling him the Funniest Kid in the School. Immediately I could see his face flush with concern and embarrassment. An awfully high pedestal to place a person on. I’d argue to this day that he holds that title.