We did a show at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA last week – sponsored by WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. They even recorded me and pulled together a cool little plug on the radio for it – you can hear that here: And I Am Not Lying: Live, Raw Storytelling.
We were joined by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a bunch of folks who play the typewriter musically a hell of a lot better than I did it when I was dabbling in the genre.
The show sold out, which was a hell of a kick – there’s nothing like busting your hump for a month and seeing it pay off.
I’m booking all our stuff out of town now and arranging all the press, too. It’s always a hurricane of phone calls, emails and text messages, last-minute changes and just … STUFF. I’ve never once had a show where there wasn’t a surprise, a change, a sudden boulder of bullshit falling at the last minute like a turd-studded iceberg of waste from a crack in a passing jetliner. At this point, I get a little nervous when it doesn’t happen.
And getting people in the door is my primary source of stress. I’m trying to get to where I don’t take empty seats personally, but it’s a long, slow journey.
We’re not at the point where we can count on a sold-out show, or really any kind of turnout at all. People don’t know the name of the show yet, and I ain’t exactly a draw on my name alone. This isn’t like music, where people bring friends to see a band based on the genre.
You can say “hey man, there’s a really sweet reggae band playing tonight, let’s check ‘em out,” and you’ll get some good walk-in. With comedy, you can say to your friends “hey, this venue that regularly books comedians is having some comedians perform tonight. Let’s go have some laughs,” and you might get some decent walk-ins.
We have no established genre. The best thing someone can say to sell us is “hey, this guy that was on This American Life three years ago is going to say a lot of SAT words and also a lot of cuss words, and it may be really funny but it may also be kind of depressing. Also, they might have some people do burlesque performances in addition to other storytellers who also have a lot of feelings they would like to share.”
You’re not going to hear Conan O’Brien say “We’ve got a very charming and thought-provoking storyteller on the show tonight” anytime soon. People that aren’t into The Moth or This American Life think that storytelling is either standup comedy or some dude in a bowtie and a seersucker suit at a folk festival talking about growing up on the farm.
So when I see a line stretching out through the door of the club, through the restaurant and out the front door, curving around the block and around the corner I just want to jump up on top of the bar and spike a football. I always try to walk along the whole line and just drink it all in.
All these people made tonight their date night, their going-out night, and they did it because they wanted to be THERE, with us, seeing something a little new and weird. I wanna kiss every last one of them, at least until they start fooling with their phones.
The first half of the show was a dream. I’ve been busting ass on actual joke-writing to build a standup set ever since a tragic crash-and-burn a month or so back. And to deploy those jokes on a roomful of cheering, happy people – it was like riding a gold-plated surfboard down a sunbeam. Everything was cruising like a dream during the first half, every performer killing and the Boston Typewriter Orchestra rocking it …
… then a guy had seizure right in the middle of Cyndi’s story. He was collapsing and confused, and suddenly someone in the crowd yelled “is there a doctor in the house?”
A bunch of people surged over to rubberneck, too. Or maybe not. It is Cambridge, after all. You might as well say “Is anyone in here NOT a doctor?”
So as the host, my job changes very quickly. I’ve got to get a doctor over there, get folks to call 911, and keep the crowd calm from the stage. And also squash any urge to make any grim jokes that would disrespect this guy’s very real suffering. And also tell the selfish little voice in my head that’s thinking “oh no, what’s happening to the show, DAMMIT” to just shut up. It’s all about getting that guy the care and help he needs.
We called for an intermission while the EMTs came and took care of the guy, who was lucid and able to walk to the ambulance outside at the end of it all. Cyndi had to get back on the stage and start her story over, sacrificing her spotlight to help get the room back in the groove. She did it, and did it well – and had to kick into autopilot to hide that she was so worried about the guy with the EMTs.
She’ll never get any credit for that performance, but it was one of the hardest ones anyone’s ever pulled off — getting up onstage and using your life and personal history and demeanor to pretend that everything’s fine and settled, and it’s okay to have a good time again.
Then The Boston Typewriter Orchestra did “White-Out” – essentially “Wipe-Out” played on typewriters, and one guy smashed his typewriter onstage and dumped beer all over the wreckage.
By the time I got up to do my story about Reverend Al Sharpton and my band with two piano-playing chickens, it was pretty late. But during the middle of the story I referred to my attempts to cover Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” on the typewriter — and the Boston Typewriter Orchestra launched into a flawless cover. We’d arranged that ahead of time, but then the entire room spontaneously burst into a sing-along. All of a sudden a roomful of people were singing “Folsom Prison Blues” along with a bunch of folks playing typewriters while I led the room and clapped along, and I swear if snipers had taken me out right then, it would have been a pretty solid exit.
The only regret I have from the night is that I couldn’t really see my friend’s stories. I saw the crowd leaning forward and drinking it in, heard people laughing and clapping, and from that I can triangulate that these dear people I love so much all just KILLED, but I was so busy running around sheepdogging people up to the stage that I didn’t get to take a few sips for myself.
It’s OK, though. I’ve got that Johnny Cash singalong with the typewriter accompaniment, and I’ll be dining out on that one for a good while.