As I write this I am sitting in the café car of the Carolinian, the Amtrak route from Charlotte to NYC. I performed in Raleigh, NC yesterday as part of my “Introduction/Farewell to America” Tour and the trip was well worth it, but not in the traditional sense of worth (e.g. profit, using train bathrooms that do not have The Shining-esque rivers of urine, etc.). If the train home does not experience any more delays my totals for the last 36 hours will be: 20 hours on Amtrak, $50 profit, 2 college friends caught up with, 1 set that yielded some great things for the special taping in 15 days and a partridge in a pear tree. With that, let’s break down the details.
The Piss-Dodging, Salad Buying Train to Raleigh
Based on my last experience trying to get home from Philadelphia via Amtrak, taking a 10 hour train trip from Newark to Raleigh with only 2.5 hours to spare before showtime might be perceived as a risk. After all it took me 5 hours to get home from Philly due to a 4 hour train delay. One of those delays would ruin the show, if you are doing the math. But the train arrived in Newark on time and 9.75 hours later arrived right on time in Raleigh. I did lots of comedy writing/fine tuning on the trip down so it was a productive trip, but the real success of the train ride down had nothing to do with punctuality.
Taking a piss as a man on public transportation is a tough proposition, if – and this is a critical if – if you care about the condition of the bathroom once you are finished. On Too Big To Fail, my 2012 album, I was going through a Greyhound Bus phase where I was taking the bus line to a lot of gigs. I described trying to responsibly piss while on a moving Greyhound bus as the world’s most challenging core workout. On Amtrak I have perfected a left shoulder lean for balance to get over 95% of the piss in the toilet. But when I entered the bathroom late morning on this train I could see that someone(s) without my core strength, tactics or ethics had used the bathroom and apparently believed that the toilet was something to be avoided at all costs. The toilet area was covered in piss. Not a light drizzle or tasteful spritz, but a sloshy amount. And as I positioned myself for what turned out to be an unexpectedly long piss (hydrate folks!) i noticed that the piss was slowly but steadily moving off the toilet area toward where my New Balance sneaker was positioned. The was as close as a piss has come to an episode of 24. This was Indiana Jones yanking his hat at the last minute except in this case it was a stream of stranger urine attacking my sneaker. Finally my bladder was empty and I pulled my foot back with about 2 seconds to spare. But the adventures were just beginning.
As the train pulled into DC I knew there would be an engine change as there are for all trains departing south or west from DC (when my comedy career finally is declared dead I would like to work for DOT on rail expansion, despite no experience in any related field – consider it payback for SNL allowing Kim Kardashian to host). In an effort to eat healthy I decided to get a salad since I knew there was a Chopt salad in Union Station. When the train pulled in at 10:49 am I knew I had 19 minutes until the train left for parts south. I was also in the business class (BALLER) car, which was the last car on a very long train. But fortune favors the bold so I went in to the station, got myself a kale salad and made it back to the train with 8 minutes to spare. How was I rewarded? With some guy sitting next to me for the rest of the ride once we arrived in Alexandria, the next stop.
On Amtrak they now do assigned seating for business class. That is fine, except some of these Amcucks don’t realize they can change their seat. And on top of that, they cannot see who they are selecting a seat next to when they need to choose a seat that is already partially occupied. So while a bunch of small women got to enjoy their entire trip solo, I had some guy cuddled next to me for the last 5 hours of the trip. Fortunately for both of us I ended up doing a lot of game tape review (watching recent comedy sets where I realized that sets I thought were just decent were in fact outstanding – you are welcome Boston and Philly!) in the café car.
I got to the club at 735pm and noticed that there were not many people in attendance. At 8pm when the host went up I could hear that there weren’t many people, but definitely louder than the few people I had seen when I entered the club. It was a comparable crowd to the one I had in Philly, which was more expected in Raleigh than it had been in Philly. The set went well (just reviewed it) and a few bits were off the charts so at least my primary goal of making the best comedy special of 2022 (presumably when it would air or be released) still feels within reach even though my more immediate goals of happiness and profit seem woefully out of reach. When you subtract my travel costs from my payout I made $50. Now, the special makes economic considerations secondary but this felt like what a climate scientist feels when they see a dead coral reef: the future is bleak.
One of the highlights for me at the show was the fact that flanking the stage, in identical spaces on opposite sides of the stage were two friends from Williams (they knew each other but had no idea that the other was there until mid show). Several fans new and old approached me after the show felt great, but I would be lying if it was not particularly nice to hear a fan say “Not afraid of burning in hell” which has become a bit of a catch phrase from Righteous Pk Podcast (my impression of Ron Reagan Jr’s atheism commercials are basically my co-host at this point). One reason that this new phase of my career feels like the worst is that when featuring you are in a city for a weekend. That allows you to settle in, socialize, etc. These one and dones are sometimes financially and emotionally deflating, but they always force you into a wham bam thank you ma’am, maybe I will see you in a year if we are lucky existence. I did get to have a beer with my Williams friends Matt and Pete after, during which I learned that their kids are big fans of my videos. So that was nice to hear, even if I will be dead by the time their kids can legally enter comedy clubs.
Back to New Jersey
When I got on the 10:13 train (currently we are 25 minutes behind scheduled as I type this) – interrupting this for a random musical comment. I don’t know if any artist simultaneously wows me and annoys me more than Celine Dion. Her version of “I drove all night” just came on my iPod and my God she can sing. As long as I am not watching her in an interview or during some weird performance I am in awe of her. Anyway, back to the blog – I get on the business class car and there are 5 people in the whole car. 5. But guess where one of those 5 people is sitting? Yes – the seat next to mine. I have no idea why someone would either pick or be assigned a seat next to someone (when I picked my seat a month ago the entire car was empty) but I checked on the Amtrak app and saw there were 7 sets of seats that were completely empty for the entirety of the ride. So I picked one of those. Now that I am done recapping time to go back and read. Just 7 more hours on the train to wonder WTF I am doing with my life. #Blessed
This morning, on 3 hours sleep (we will address that later) I finished reading Michael Lewis’ new book The Premonition. It is a book about some select people, much like those featured in his book The Big Short, who had a combination of outside-the-box thinking, instinct and intellect to know something bad was coming. In The Big Short it was the financial crisis underpinning The Great Recession. In The Premonition it was the current pandemic. I know that Lewis will never write a book about me, but I feel like I have some of the same gifts for anticipating doom and gloom, with one caveat: I can only really predict them for myself. And a day after going on an exhausting, infuriating trip to my nephew’s soccer game (this week’s Righteous Pk Podcast is dedicated to that story – go have a listen), the soccer game misadventure would pale in comparison to the Sunday experience I had going to, and coming back from, Philadelphia. So let’s get to it.
Christian Rock Lyft
I was headlining Helium in Philly on Sunday night at 7pm. The good news seemed in abundance. It was one of my 2 favorite clubs in the country, the Eagles were not playing Sunday and the last time I performed at Helium to record my album Thots and Prayers, I sold 100 tickets on a Wednesday. So my cautious optimism was that I would at least meet that number given my exponential boost in fame and the fact that it was at least a weekend day, if not the worst day of the weekend. I sold 150 tickets on a Monday in Boston, so Philly on a Sunday shouldn’t be a problem I thought. Now of course, I slept poorly the night before the show and felt my heart racing all day. See, when I say that comedy is bad for my health I mean that quite literally. When you entire career has been a fight to get your talent recognized and every legit milestone of your career exists as an isolated incident instead of accumulating as momentum building events, every gig that presents an opportunity for money, a relationship with a club chain, etc. takes on extra weight because of the overwhelming feeling of “these opportunities are infrequent at best.”
So I ordered a Lyft to take me to Newark Penn Station, the world’s worst train station. My driver arrived and began blasting Christian pop-rock. I like Church and I like rock, but rarely do I like the combination. First off, how many songs can you just have about Jesus’ love? I mean that with all due respect – all 10 songs I seemed to hear seem to come from the same single idea with little variation. There appears to be almost no daylight between a vaguely Christian pop song and a parody of a Christian pop song. And the radio station said they had pastors on call if people wanted to call in. I found it all sort of humorous, but the driver was not just enjoying the music – he knew the words and was adding percussion on his steering wheel. And then we passed a homeless man in traffic looking for money and Dominican Joel Osteen behind the wheel just gave him the Jordan shoulder shrug.
My driver had 55 minutes to get me to Newark Penn, which according to GPS was a 13 minute trip. Well DJO opted to avoid the highway (which was clear) for a series of side streets all the way to the station, We still got there with 18 minutes to spare, but I sort of felt like I was being taken the long way to see if the music of Imagine Jesus Dragons could work its magic on me.
Back in Philadelphia
When I arrived in Philly, on time at 435pm, I walked by the club to see my face. Two things I noticed. One, the club used The Late Late Show as my credit. Perfectly legit, even though most people know me from other, more recent things. But multiple clubs have insisted on including “with Craig Ferguson.” Would there be a violation of comedy law if we fooled people into thinking my stale late night credit might be from James Corden’s era? Is Corden going to sue in Musical Theater Court if someone doesn’t make it clear that I was not on his iteration of the show? The second thing I noticed was the Sonja Morgan of The Real Housewives of NY would be headlining the club a week after me. I have often told my girlfriend, more anecdotally than with hard data, that when she watches 4 different real housewives’ shows she is supporting the reality show industry which boosted cheap shows starring talentless turds at the expense of more scripted material that before streaming might have been an opportunity for struggling writers and comedians. I am not saying that reducing scripted shows by half in the 2000s would have directly led to me personally having a boost, but you get that in the aggregate, someone like me might have had more bites at the apple. But I never meant it in a literal, direct sense. But thanks to sharing a marquee with Sonja Morgan I see that my journey of 18 years in comedy has been worth all the effort and that I am now in direct competition with Sonja Morgan (as singers must compete with Countess Luann’s bars on “Money Can’t Buy You Class”).
So now my premonition of doom was bordering on full blown panic. I went to a nearby Barnes and Noble to finish mapping my set and then went to Shake Shack for a chicken sandwich. Then I went to the club. With about 15 minutes until showtime my fears were confirmed. I was not going to get close to the crowd I had 3 years ago. I went into the green room and chatted with the emcee and feature (who both did well) and apologized for the less than stellar crowd. That is when in a corner of my mind I entered a dark place – if my crowd is reduced by half, after a period when I exponentially increase my fan base, then what has really been accomplished? Other than a Greek Tragedy-level dose of social media-induced delusion. My goal, of course, is not to be an Internet G-list celeb; it is to be a headlining comedian. But that requires translating Internet money and followers into asses in seats. Somehow I did what felt impossible – I turned a fan base 40x bigger than in 2018 into a crowd 50% smaller.
Now before you worry about whether I should be sharing this in an industry that prides itself on false confidence and ass kissing, my crowds in DC and Boston were great. So it is not like I have been travelling and eating dogshit. But, like many comedians, I can be a prisoner of the moment and because of my several successes in Philadelphia at Helium, it felt particularly depressing to have my smallest crowd in 10 years performing there (including 2 album recordings on Wednesdays when I was obviously the headliner).
The Healing Power of Fans
So I did my set. It went well. My shirt was soaked with sweat, which had less to do with heat and more that I felt like I was fighting off career failure with every joke I told. I greeted fans after the show and they were great. There were social media fans, there was a guy who has first saw me during my first feature week in 2011 and has been a dedicated fan ever since (he told me that when my stuff blew up in 2020 he was indignant on my behalf “you need to check out his stuff! He’s been funny for a long time!”). And then a fan/friend via social media, Doug, postponed his return trip to the Netherlands to come to the show. I bought him a milkshake at Shake Shack after for his troubles (as another fan knows – if you travel on a 6 hour+ flight to see me do a show, I will hang out and buy food/drink after – not a great deal admittedly). So as I walked back to 30th street station, having sold merch and met many kind, generous and effusive fans I felt so much better. One of the silver linings of having a fan base that is not too large is that you get to feel and appreciate their support up close. From a business perspective sure, it would be better to have a fan base of millions, but when the fans you have can make it personal it makes it easier to be appreciative and stop feeling mopey because one show was financially disappointing.
And then all the good feelings were eviscerated.
The Soul Killing Power of Amtrak
I arrived at 30th Street Station at 1010pm for my 10:28pm train – the Palmetto, which travels from Georgia to NY. The train was listed as 20 min delayed. No big deal. But on further examination of the arrival/departure board included trains that were supposed to arrive at 718pm and 802 pm from south of Philly as delayed still. For the next hour, I watched how every ten minutes, ten more minutes was added to the Palmetto departure time. I checked to see what a Lyft would cost from Philadelphia to Bloomfield (the non-Christian rock, local road option) and it was $134 before tip. Had I made a killing at the club it would have been a no brainer, but instead I decided to wait for my train.
At 1145pm an announcement was made that all northbound trains were delayed with no addition information. At that moment a mouse ran around near me, presumably trying to get a Lyft before the surge pricing kicked in. I then checked Lyft and it was $220 before tip.
Interesting J-L Jinx sidebar here – the club offered me a hotel. I turned it down because I wanted to be able to start work on Monday morning. Well, as it turns out I do not currently have an assignment, so staying the night in Philly would have had no negative impact on my day job.
At 1215 there was an announcement that the trains north of DC have begun to move and the first one would arrive in 45 minutes. No word on the Palmetto. After the 718 train arrived at 1245am, the next train was announced (the 802pm would be here at 105 am). The station then announced “if you are on the Palmetto your tickets will be honored on this train.” I considered waiting for my train where I would have a reserved seat to myself to maybe nap for the hour back to Newark, but then the Amtrak employee shouted – “Train 90 can board this train” (that is the number of the Palmetto) so I figured he was emphasizing as a courtesy. So I went down the stairs at 105 am and boarded the 802pm train. And then we waited. Multiple trains pulled into the station after, discharged riders and continued north as we sat idle. An hour later (and as it turns out 35 minutes after the Palmetto had come and gone without me) it was announced that we were waiting for a crew change. My guess is that a train crew cannot continuously operate a train for beyond a set period of time and perhaps the 5+ hour delay necessitated a crew change by union rule. Well at 215am we finally got to leave. I had the all-nighter chills and shakes, so I probably looked right at home as I arrived at Newark Penn station at 320am, a tidy 45 minutes after the Palmetto had swung through.
I caught a cab and arrived home at 345am to be greeted by Cookie. I put on my eye mask (my bedroom is disturbingly bright in the morning, which is not usually a problem since I cannot sleep past 5am), caught 3.5 hours of quality sleep and woke up wondering if I can continue doing comedy. Fans are one thing, but 6 hours for a one hour Amtrak trip in the middle of night might be the most powerful, negative force known to man. The good news for you readers who like miserable comedy writings: I am Amtrak-ing to Raleigh (10 hours each way) in a week and a half to headline Goodnight’s Comedy Club. God help us all (in Christian Rock voice).
P.S. – as soon as I published this by Twitter mentions were blowing up because SNL had announced it hired a new Trump impersonator for the upcoming season. It was not me. Amtrak actually does not feel so bad anymore! Good luck to all the new cast members.
This weekend I celebrated Juneteenth in Levittown, Long Island, opening for the great Roy Wood Jr. I feel like that sentence alone packs so much I could just end the blog there, but as a sign of progress Levittown did not move to another town once Roy and I arrived. Any set of gigs in Long Island can be a pain for someone commuting from New Jersey because you have to coordinate two different train systems. Door to door it is just as fast to fly to Denver as it is to go from Newark to Levittown via the NJ Transit-LIRR double trouble. Rule of Thumb – if your commute consists entirely of populations that like to include “strong” as a description of, or moniker for their community, you are in for an inefficient commute. Roy was gracious enough to ask me to open for him when we were both on the same bar show in April, so no amount of awful infrastructure was going to stop me from saying yes. So here we go!
Friday: Only a Historic, Catastrophic Basketball Loss Could Ruin This Night!
On Friday, in honor of Juneteenth Observed, I went out early to see my friend Brian. We had burgers at some well regarded burger stand in Massapequa, where the price of items had apparently been frozen since 1983. Tasty and cheap, I picked up the tab, assuring Brian that thanks to my web cam girl side hustle I could cover our combined $1.14.
We then made our way to Governor’s Comedy Club. Only one show on Friday and I crushed it. It was a good thing I did because a friend and colleague that I have not seen since March showed up with some friends and realized I was not just “I hate work, so the guy who sits near me is funny” level funny, but funny funny. A recurring theme of my career for the last 6 years – fans of The Black Guy Who Tips showed up (to 2 of the 3 shows over the weekend, more for Roy than me, but still for me too) and my favorite type of fan also showed up Friday: The “I did not know you were going to be here, but I follow you and am a big fan” fans. Once again, thank you social media algorithms for rendering my fan base a total crap shoot.
After selling a few USB cards (all 6 of stand up albums are on one USB card that I sell), Brian gave me a ride to the LIRR. The 10:29 back to NY Penn would give me breathing room (i.e. Haagen Dazs kiosk milkshake drinking time) before the 1141pm train home. When I exited the train in Penn the Utah Jazz, my favorite team for 34 years, was winning 72-50 at halftime, on the road. My former doorman texted me a gif of Jordan Clarkson. My girlfriend texted me “jazzzzzzzzzz,” which meant the Jazz were either winning or falling asleep. Then, like all things NJ transit touches, the Jazz game went to shit as soon as I got on NJ transit (but my doorman friend and girlfriend jinxing it deserves some blame as well). By the time I exited the train 29 minutes later in Bloomfield, NJ the Jazz were up 2 points going into the 4th quarter. I arrived home in time to see one of the worst quarters of basketball in franchise history and watch my team’s season end. However, I felt a small sense of relief. I had one less place to story my anxiety and stress so I ended up getting an above average 6.5 hours of sleep that night. It also obscured the fact that Jazz legend John Stockton had recently come out as an an anti-covid vax type weirdo. June 18th should just be known as Black Friday for the Jazz organization (which is also what most people in Utah call the movie Friday, to distinguish it from Joe Friday in Dragnet).
Saturday – Can a Half Black Man Catch a Cab in Long Island?
On Juneteenth I headed out to Long Island early because the NJ transit trains are every other hour in my town on the weekends. So I left Bloomfield and eventually arrived in Hicksville, Long Island (a 9 minute drive from the club) at 5:01pm. I saw that there was a Chick Fil-A a ten minute walk away so I went for some Christian chicken before the show. Once I was finished I figured I could kill time until 6:10 before getting a cab for the 7pm show. Well, no Lyfts were available. So I walked back to the train station which has an old school cabby depot. No cabs available. So as I began to feel nervous about not making it to the club on time (I don’t have Uber on my phone, but apparently they are easier to get on Long Island, presumably because people on Long Island think it is “gay” to spell Lyft with a Y. So, after contacting the club and the emcee I was able to hop a ride with Roy when his train arrived at 6:55 and we arrived shortly before the show began, albeit beginning about 15 minutes late. The early show Saturday was the only show I was not happy with my performance. It was fine, but the other two were a lot better. I think part of it was the 240% humidity combined with the stress of rushing to the club had me sweating like Ron Burgundy when he is racing back to the news station in Anchorman.
After the show, in addition to more The Black Guy Who Tips fans, I was greeted by a couple that was quoting my Lincoln Project ads back to me. But they were not following me on social media, nor did they know I would be there. More accidental fans! But more hilarious, though out of respect for Roy I will be cryptic, was what went on between the shows. Let’s just say I do not envy the part of Roy’s success that leads to potential Hustle and Flow encounters:
The second show went well (I am resisting my usual video posting this year because I really want a lot of my bits to be new for most people when I record in October) and then I rode to LIRR with Roy. Here is where the story gets interesting.
Because of the weird train schedules, Roy offered me a hotel if I needed one. I said I would take one Saturday so that I could stay until the end of the 2nd show and not worry about missing the last NJ train out of NY Penn. But for some reason, most hotels in the vicinity of the club were all booked, so the best option was a hotel that looked nice to me on the web in Jamaica, Queens (PSA: the Internet is deceptive). Roy’s assistant booked it and I thanked her. The good news, on top of the catfish hotel photos, is that it was a quick walk from LIRR in Jamaica, which would also facilitate a quick departure in the morning. Here, in bullet point form, is the rest of my trip (you know I got home safe because this blog is being written Sunday night):
Exit LIRR at 1am on Sutphin Boulevard. Look around and see some working folk and some ne’er do wells. One way looks well lit and the other turn looks like an invitation to go out like Bruce Wayne’s parents. Of course the GPS points me toward the darkened, abandoned street for 3 blocks.
When I arrive at my hotel, the lobby is not air conditioned. There are two women who look like Snoop from The Wire sitting in the lobby with t-shirts that say “Security.”
The guest check in area is behind thick glass (this felt more like bullet protection than Covid protection)
I get my room on the 2nd floor and head up. As I walk down the hallway of this fairly busy hotel I see a couple exit the room at the end of the hall. They seem sort of awkward. I could not tell if this man and woman were a couple or just the occupants of the room for a couple of minutes but they stood at the end of the hall as I approached. At this moment my math was “40% chance she’s a prostitute, 40% chance they are a couple and 20% chance they are a couple and are about to attempt a push-in robbery as soon as I tap my key card.”
They did not. I entered my room and proceeded to do my final Father’s Day Cameo (feeling that it might represent my final work). Went to bed at 2:30. Woke up at 6:30 and left at 710 for the 7:22 LIRR to Penn Station. The night clerk was still up and gave me a look like “leaving so early? Were you not satisfied with your floor’s whore services?”
Fun weekend. Lots of reading on trains. Worked with one of the best in the business. And lived to write about it.
17 years ago I graduated from Georgetown Law and like the cicadas I just made a triumphant return to the DC area for 3 nights of shows. It was a weekend of fancy Amtrak accommodations, reading on benches in shopping malls, heckles from plastic surgeons, hotel curtains that would not close, Cheesecake Factory, great comedy and a truly unique experience in my almost 18 year comedy saga: meeting fans. So without further adieu, here it is folks.
Thursday – Amtrak Luxury and a Fake News Summit in Arlington
Newark Penn Station is the closest Amtrak station to where I live, but it is also a disgusting place. So even though going to New York Penn would add time to my trip, I would also be able to luxuriate in the revamped Amtrak lounge in NY, one of the centerpieces of the new Moynihan Train Station. As a Select Plus member of Amtrak (baller) I get access there for any Amtrak trip I take. And it did not disappoint. Unlike other Amtrak lounges on the east coast, rather than some Rold Gold pretzels and leftover Sara lee danishes, the new lounge has a full bar (well at least coffee bar), dozens of premium snacks and treats, beautiful, spacious seating and slaves fanning you. I ended up having a tea and two packs of Lorna Doones (I eat not for the job I have, but for the job that my great-grandfather wanted).
After I finished watching the complimentary gladiator matches in the lounge I made my way to my Accela to DC. I read 50 pages in Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland (leaving me with only 4200 pages left) on the way to DC and then took the Metro out to Tyson’s Corner, VA (which now looks like a whole new city) after arriving. I checked into my Hilton hotel (as I told the crowds I like my hotels the way I like my sex tapes) and then made my way to O’Sullivan’s in Arlington for two shows.
Several fans showed up for both shows, but the true highlight (with no disrespect to my fans or the father of one of my college hoops teammates who showed up) was Jonathan Martin of the New York Times coming through for the first show. Since most of our discussion was off the record I will not reveal all of the details of our hang out in between shows, but I will say this – everyone deserves to be loved the way Jonathan Martin loves my Mike Pence impression. Here is a brief transcript of a moment I will share.
J-Mart: You know Trump really did say to Pence “You can be a patriot or you can be a pussy.”
J-L (in Pence voice): Well Mr. President, I can assure you that the last thing I want to be anywhere near is a pussy.
*JM laughing hysterically*
J-L (in Pence voice): I won’t even go into seafood restaurants.
*JM almost falls out of chair laughing*
Friday – Mall Reading and Brewery Comedy
Friday was the type of day I had been missing for a year and a half. Walking around a new city, sitting around reading and just feeling relatively care free. Of course the day began unexpectedly due to my hotel curtains. There are two types of hotel curtains. One type I call scissoring curtains – where you just try to bring together two separate sets of curtains to the middle and smush them together, in hopes of sealing them shut. The other type are the “am I in there?” curtains – where you drag one curtain all the way across and try to seal it against the wall so no daylight seeps through. Well. at 7am, after 4 hours of sleep, I woke up thinking I had left a light on. In fact, the curtain had about 1/3 of an inch of daylight coming through, which was a sensation can only be described as “nuclear blast outside of my hotel window.”
Friday I ate at Shake Shack for lunch (their chicken sandwich is far superior to their overrated burgers) and read some more Reaganland (somehow I now have 4700 pages left – I think pages actually get added as you read it). The mall Starbucks seating was closed so I had to drink my coffee and read my book just sitting outside of a random women’s clothing store, which after about 90 minutes, struck me as possibly creepy. I then headed to Twinpanzee Brewery in Sterling, VA for the Friday show. Unlike Thursdays shows, where I felt a tad rusty, the set Friday was great, which was good because my girlfriend’s friends all went to that show and there are only two things you don’t want your girlfriend’s friends to see you do on the road in this order: 2) making out with a sidepiece and 1) doing badly on stage.
Saturday – Coffee Shop Greatness (a J-L coffee is extra light with a dark roast if Java Nation wants to make a beverage named after me)
Saturday I had lunch with my buddy Ross at the Cheesecake Factory. Even though I could feel Type II diabetes forming in real time it still felt like the right fuel for the last two shows of the week. Then it was time for the shows at Java Nation in Rockville. I think the best way to share with you what went on is through bullet points (because I am tired and need to do other stuff):
First show – a group of plastic surgeons who were drunk were disrupting my set. At one point I told one “fu*k your mother” simply hoping he might attack me so he could be removed. This was the only low light of the evening.
This was the clip 2 minutes after the f your Mom comment. This is now my gold standard for quickest turning a crowd around in my career:
Several fans told me after show how excited they were to see me in person, how I helped them get through 2020 and (most important for my future) how great a stand up I am.
Show Two was surgeon free and was incredible. My set was great, but I was blown away by the audience.
One fan told me that he had lost multiple family members during Covid and that my comedy had really helped him.
A fan who had seen me my last time in DC (2018?) came to the show with a friend who had independently discovered me through my videos (nice to have those two worlds collide).
Last, but not least – 5 members of a family flew from Ohio on Saturday to see me on the late show (and then flew back the next day). They were incredible fans, but as much as they enjoyed my comedy I must say seeing them all together having so much fun as a family really warmed my heart, or whatever part of my heart has not been destroyed by the comedy industry and the cheesecake factory. After so many years, it felt truly incredible to have people showing such great and meaningful support to my comedy.
I also had a message on my phone after the 2nd show from a fan who had recently lost their father. I had done a cameo for the Dad a little while back and this person told me they were watching it and getting a good and needed laugh. Needless to say that was powerful, especially on a night that already meant so much to me. It becomes a lot harder to gripe about industry slights when the people who actually buy your stuff are so connected and supportive (though I will double my efforts to still gripe if that is what it takes).
Sunday – Back to NJ
The next day as I waited for my train back home I gave two homeless people $10 each (one did a double take and the other one tried to hug me (I kissed her with tongue since the CDC said I was safe). I was only going to give them $1 each but then I opened my wallet and $10s were the lowest denomination I had (baller) and once you open up the wallet it would take a real piece of shit to say “just kidding!” to some desperate folks.
So my first real road comedy trip in a year and a half was an incredibly satisfying experience. Thanks to everyone who came out and who helped organize the shows (Jon and Gil). If you want to know where I will be each month, sign up for my monthly newsletter (bottom of my home page) and if you like me talking and joking about comedy life – be sure to follow Righteous Pk podcast (just click on podcast above).
And if you were wondering, Cookie was hanging out with her human cousins over the weekend loving life:
After not being on stage since February 2020 I finally got back on stage last night. Etch April 27, 2021 into the comedy history books. Before 2020, my road comedy recaps were a regular part of my existence – write ups of all my road work to report the highlights and lowlights of doing the road as a middle act. Well after an unexpectedly successful 2020 I now begin writing road recaps as a headliner. I consider 2013, the year I dropped the double barrel release of the Louis CK parody video and Keep My Enemies Closer to be the year (my 10th in comedy – when it is cliché to say that a comedian has found their voice) that I was ready to headline and take comedy by storm. Obviously comedy, unlike Q, was not ready for the storm. Fast forward I was asked by a friend to headline his room in Magnolia, NJ in February and I asked for the last Tuesday of April because it was 3 days after my birthday and I figured if I was not vaccinated (as an essential fat person I assumed I would be high on the list) by April 27th we were all fu*ked. Well I got my second Moderna shot on April 9th and two weeks later I was good to go – 4 days before the show. So with that preamble, let’s get to what may be the first road recap for many of you.
Greyhound Bus – Superspreaders of All Varieties
I have a bit on Too Big To Fail about Greyhound so go listen to that for more of my opinions on Greyhound, but Greyhound was my best way to get to the gig (meeting my friend and show booker in Atlantic City to then ride to the bar in Magnolia, NJ). I arrived at Port Authority at 215pm for a 3pm bus. On my way from Penn Station (The Godfather to Port Authority’s Godfather II, in terms of homelessness and human tragedy in NYC) to PABT I witnessed 4 drug deals on 34th street in the span of 30 seconds (NYC is BACK!) and a young Asian man trip so bad that I admonished the sidewalk to #StopAsianHate. I got to PABT and bought an iced tea and a bag of pretzels. I scarfed them down on line for my bus because I figured the safest way to take what appeared to be a crowded Greyhound bus to Atlantic City was to not remove my mask at all during the trip.
When I got my seat I was happy to see that I had a seat to myself. There were a few other seats available, all next to people smaller than me (at 6’7″ and a PED, pandemic enhancing diet, inflated 300 lbs it would be tough to find someone bigger) so I got ready to read my Rick Perlstein book (Reaganland). And then one more person got on the bus.
He walked to the back of the bus but then made his way to me and just stood next to my seat. I was listening to music, but I looked up and asked “do you want this seat?” comfortable that his answer would be no. He said yes. My good vibes were gone. I began questioning my life, life choices and why, in a life that seems to deliver near hits and catastrophic failure, why the small comfort of a book and a seat on a Greyhound bus proved too tall an order for the transportation gods to complete (I know, I am being to dramatic and pessimistic, but where the fu*k do you think I dig for my insightful, aggressive, resentful brand of comedy?). He sat next to me and my right thigh began a 2 hour sweat like it was the debate stage chest of Tulsi Gabbard. But now, like Israel I could tell I had enemies all around me. The couple across from me both had their masks around their chins having a conversation. Do people think they are going to fool the bus driver? Like if he stops the bus and turns around to make sure people are complying they can flip it up like a Looney Tunes cartoon? This is for us! I asked them to put their masks on and they did (REAL LIFE INFLUENCER KIDS). Two seats behind them a guy was enjoying what looked like a casino buffet with his mask down and the thighmaster next to me began snoring through his exposed nose (mouth only covering still seemed like a win given what my other neighboring nations-seats were offering. I put my book away and just listened to my iPod the rest of the way. But one thing was clear: stand up still had plenty of suck left in it for Comedy’s Sisyphus.
My buddy and show booker Steve picked me up in Atlantic City and we drove to the Laughing Fox Tavern in Magnolia, NJ. The place was very nice with a very nice lounge/clubby area downstairs where the show would be. I had a pulled pork sandwich and coffee and went over my set. The crowd started filling in and it ended up being (I think) a socially distanced capacity crowd. My set was meh. My material is great and was delivered decently for the most part (and in the 50 minutes, about 90% new material from 2020-21), but I had to look down at my stool (the chair, not the one I needed to take after pulled pork and coffee) so my polish was not there. The energy in the room was supportive, but a little weird. But when I am not in full command of my material I tend to be lower energy (Jeb!) and I think that informs the crowd’s reaction. I am not a comedian that says “the crowd is never to blame.” As you can imagine I am the type of comedian that is very willing to apportion blame when it is due (my next/first tour should be called “The Personal Responsibility Tour”), but in this case I think it was a crowd that could have been gotten, but I was not near the top of my game.
The really good news was that several new fans showed up to the gig! I spoke with them after and then road back with Steve to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. I waited for an hour for the midnight Amtrak (ate 2 donuts and recorded a YouTube video in the station because at some point you become a 42 year old man/comedian who cares not for their health or how the other patrons stare at you as you speak like a former president (I was doing my Coolidge impression)).
Home Sweet Home
When I arrived in Newark I hopped in a cab (nice thing about a 130am cab ride in Newark is that they will not gouge you – same price as a Lyft without the wait and mystery. And whenever possible I try to support real cabbies. We zipped up Bloomfield Avenue, he dropped me off and I entered my apartment at 1:50am to a delighted, but sleepy looking Cookie Cauvin.
When I first started doing stand-up comedy I relied heavily on impressions (contrary to how many of you reading may have come to know me, impressions have largely been absent from my stand-act from 2007-present day). One impression I had (shocker) was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger impressions belong with Trump, DeNiro and DMX in the “not this again” impressions hall of fame. But I still had one and it was better than most. One of the frustrating things about impressions if one like an Arnold or a Trump become so ubiquitous, it almost does not matter if yours is great, accurate, etc. But I was new at stand up and had more voices than minutes of material.
One of my first bits that started doing really well for me in my first year in comedy in Washington D.C. (June 2003-June 2004) was an Arnold Schwarzenegger family reunion bit. But due to the length of the name, the family had an abbreviation for members of the family: “negger.” So Arnold would ask his son if he “wanted to be a big strong negger like his Dad or a lazy ass negger like Uncle Frank.” The bit almost always did really well because the impression was good and the concept was a little risque (like callbacks, being a little “naughty” is easy points with a comedy club audience). In fact, when Dave Chappelle debuted “The Niggar Family” sketch on Chappelle’s Show several months after I had been doing the bit around DC, three different comedians texted me their condolences, not because they thought it was stolen but because my station in comedy would make me look like a copycat if I ever did the bit again.
Now this is not totally a story about how even 17 years ago our comedy tastes were so much broader and less sensitive than they are today, though that is somewhat true (real comedy fans are no more sensitive, but the broader swath of society that consumes comedy through cell phones and the Internet is surely much larger and as I repeatedly say, if you are going to take the increased wealth that can come from increased exposure you need to accept some of the broader taste and sensitivity that come with it). The reason that the negger family also worked (and why this is not just a PC sucks screed) is because I built disclaimers about my racial background into my material. I had a bit in the beginning of every set where I planned to do “Negger Family Reunion” about being half Black. Therefore I had offered my proof of membership in the club where I could take more liberties with racially sensitive material. I was not saying the N word, but I was dancing on a line gleefully and realized that given my face and the city of my comedy birth, Washington D.C., I needed to offer some bona fides.
Several years later in my career, long after I had relegated my impressions to YouTube sketches and begun developing lots of stuff to say on stage in my own voice, I would encounter a different issue. Often when I spoke on racial issues, or made jokes about race I would make some audience members (not limited to one race of gender) uncomfortable if I did not offer my racial bona fides early on. To say nothing of white guys wanting to discuss my dick after shows or Black women (on much rarer occasions) wanting body hair proof of my half-Blackness, it seemed that I had to offer proof of my Blackness to joke about race. However, even after offering my biography and ethnicity CV in joke form, more frequently than I like, I am still not afforded basic respect for who I am. It is a small percentage of audience members, but it happens at most shows (perhaps being more well known will reduce awkward skepticism, but then it will just be transferred to the next Rashida Jones looking comedian down the road so that doesn’t really spell comedy progress) So as my comedy became more centered on my thoughts and experiences in life I became much more hostile to proving anything. The Schwarzenegger joke is really the only time, other than one bit on my first album, where I ever uttered something close to the N word in life or on stage. So I felt like I was not taking any liberties that a comedian should not be entitled to, let alone one with a Black father. And as my friend Josh Homer commented one night many years ago (and on a few social media posts during the years), if a crowd did not respect my jokes on their own merits, I would often not bail them out with an “hey folks, it’s ok – I am half-Black” permission slip to enjoy the material they were already anxious about.
Without divulging anything beyond the title, my next album (or hopefully first special) is tentatively called Half Black Face. We are in this annoying time in comedy where so many of the free speech warriors in comedy veer into “offensive bigots just using comedy as a shield to protect indecency” and people who are so concerned with policing comedy appear to be people who don’t seem to either enjoy comedy or know anything about it. So if you want to be a decent person with free reign to be somewhat indecent in an art that is built partly on indecency then your creative space feels like it is shrinking. But what annoys me on a personal level is that too many people want to judge me by rules that I don’t think should apply to any comedians, but still have force because they are about “protecting” certain groups of people.
Over the last year I have picked up an exponentially larger following than I have ever had in my career and I am grateful for it. But I have also had too many “fans” (often, but not exclusively white progressives) inform me that because I am white (to their eyes… and let’s be honest for half of the year almost all eyes) my comedy did not hit as hard as someone who is not ostensibly white. While people fawn over clapter comedy or the latest Pet Rock of humor, I found myself forced to defend my material as both original and valid, despite appearing to come from a white person.
Beyond that I have been lectured about my own jokes. One joke I wrote said that London Breed, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Lori Lightfoot (all Black women mayors who were appearing jointly during Covid news appearances) sounded like the names of superheroes or porn stars. Multiple people informed me that mocking Black women names was problematic. I am fairly certain if I looked Black I would not have been lectured by a white progressive (because then they would likely view that as “violence towards me”) but I also believed the joke stood on its own, like I feel about most jokes. Other than “Keisha” there is nothing about those three names that screams “Black woman.” Follow that with me making a joke about Timothy Chalamet and JB Smoove looking like Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and someone calling it racist (mind you, the Ossoff doppelganger was not racist, just the Warnock doppelganger). And then this morning, a joke I made a few months ago about Cornel West looking like an old Don Lemon (the joke was about the verbosity of West, not their appearances being similar, and was promptly met with some progressives denouncing my terrible comedy).
I am of the opinion that offensive comedians should be allowed more space because like speech in general, it is the ugly stuff that needs to be protected. No one is required to laugh, but condemning jokes seems to be happening too often, especially from people who don’t seem to know or enjoy most comedy. I am not a jazz fan (musically, we all know I love the basketball team) so I won’t buy tickets to a jazz concert, but I would never deign to lecture someone on what good jazz is or what jazz they should support. But everyone appears to want to be funny or be seen as having a great sense of humor, which seems to be the only qualification for dictating the terms and taste of comedy. This would not annoy me as much as it does (though it would annoy me), but for the racial angle, which I take personally. Some folks seem to think that even including a Black person in a joke as a white (looking) person is off limits.
It reminds me of the time a nice fan complimented me after a show, but told me I should stay away from jokes about trans people (the joke had been about wanting more diversity among serial killers – all the docs were about white killers, but what about women, POC and trans serial killers – the joke was literally about diversity, not attacking trans people, but the new wave of comedy fans truly seem to be triggered by words before they even interpret the context). That would be bad enough, but that sensitivity is coupled with an outspoken boldness. So in many cases you have people too sensitive to enjoy or understand comedy, but simultaneously emboldened enough to condemn it. This particular fan was nice and almost inquisitive so it was not a time for an argument but just an exchange of words, but many people come much more forcefully, despite being equally ignorant.
So when it comes to my own material I want to remain uncompromising, though I do believe I have probably missed out on some opportunities during my recent run because I am a comedian and not an actor or PR creation cosplaying as a comedian. I don’t need people to know my race and would prefer audiences that embrace the quality of my comedy on its merits without needing a demographic cosign. I am not comfortable being a spokesperson or representing something other than a true stand up comedian. That is because I am honest about my experiences in life. When I visited Ireland as a child many kids asked if I was North African. But as I grew older many people thought I was Italian, Jewish or occasionally Egyptian. I understand I have had in some ways the whitest (or at least lightest) of privilege – being a large, angry looking beige guy has not drawn the scrutiny that someone my size and disposition might have gotten if I had a different role of the genetic lottery between my parents. I respect that experience when compared to other POC, but it doesn’t fully strip me of my identity and my right to be who I am without having to constantly prove it.
I still think Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr is a great impression that poses no problem. Can I say this as a half-Black man who looks white or non-Black to most people? Who determines if I can say or feel that way? I am not trying to speak for others, but is my opinion not at least somewhat valid? I would love to live in a world where all jokes are ok if they are truly meant as jokes, but for every 50 audience members that are triggered, there is a comedian who probably uses comedy more as a weapon to vent hate than to explore ideas. But I think we need to protect that person as comedians and comedy fans, even if we don’t like it. But I don’t want to have to protect my own audiences from jokes anymore.
Callbacks in stand up comedy are a common trick. The comedian will mention something in an early joke and then later, or at the end of the set, the comedian will re-introduce or allude to the earlier mentioned thing in a way that wraps up the set. It can often be funny, but sometimes it is simply a trick to make the audience feel smart. They get to say to themselves, or the person next to them, “I remember that from earlier!” And the joy that comes from that is not always because the callback is funny, but because it allows the audience member to pat themselves on the back.
Or as I once said to someone, “people are mostly stupid and callbacks give them the momentary feeling of being smart.”
Now, I have been a bitter curmudgeon for a majority of my career. As long time readers of this blog will know, up until 2020, I spent over a decade as a road comedian, performing as a middle act at comedy clubs around the country. Middle acts have not seen a raise in pay in at least 30 years and as you know, bus, train and plane fares are not operating at 1987 rates. In addition to that, some comedy clubs have stopped providing rooms for middle acts so a typical weekend may end up netting a middle act zero profit unless he has albums to sell (which I do) or t-shirts to sell (I would rather work in a Spencer’s Gifts than use my stand up career to hock t-shirts, though I sympathize with those that do it because of the awful economics of stand up comedy). I spent years writing about the shameful economics of stand up comedy and once I realized that middle acts were too scared to jeopardize their meager opportunities and headliners were too far removed from struggles to care or help that I came to the conclusion that I was simply a tree falling in an empty forest.
So realizing that trying to change the business of stand up comedy was futile I became sort of depressed with the life I had chosen – attempting a career in a profession with horrible business practices and a workforce with a factory-installed scab mindset is a tough place to try and change things. But as time has gone on, from things like Soundcloud rap to Twitter “front facing comedy” to Tik Tok dances I see that what once felt like an industry problem has become a much bigger societal and cultural problem: commerce and virality are not just driving business decisions, but are now the driving force of art itself.
The De-evolution of Dance
I am not a dancer. Even at my most athletic I was not much of a dancer, but certainly not now, as I am practically an inanimate object, but for my expanding waistline. But we all know great dancers – from Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson to Chris Brown, etc. we know a great dancer when we see one. Great dancing was once something we could gawk at or would make you really cool at a Bar Mitzvah, but as Tik Tok demonstrates, it seems that dancing is no longer about doing something that no one else can do – it is about doing something that everyone can do.
Years before I reluctantly joined Tik Tok I would see people posting “Tik Tok challenges” and wondered “what is the challenge?” They often appeared just to be 15 seconds of easily replicated choreography. But like the callback in stand up, the point was not to make a great dance move; the point was to get engagement. And by calling it a “challenge” instead of “anyone can do this you uncreative sack of shit” you incentivized engagement and might even go “viral,” the holy grail of 21st century creation. And as Tik Tok goes, not only to the original inventors go viral, but copycats can go viral as well!
Art nowadays feels like the meeting point of “inclusivity” and “the death of expertise.” Like if anti-maskers got together with the San Francisco school board and decided on the worst ways to ruin real creativity. But Tik Tok is the current king of social media, so it seems “imitate” is the new “create.” My only question would be did Tik Tok create this world or simply accelerate where we were headed? Seems safe to bet that it is the latter, since the genius of Tik Tok’s algorithm is delivering what we already want.
Making Art for the Algorithm
As I write this blog on Word Press, there is a running tracker on the side bar, indicating this blog’s “readability.” Through algorithms, the site is telling me how “readable” my sentence structure and paragraph breakdowns are. I started at “good,” but am now at “needs improvement” (the last time I got “needs improvement” on something was my 1st grade report card where my math and reading were 100, but my “listening skills” needed improvement. My answer to my parents at the time was “I must be listening if my other grades are 100” – that is how a condescending monster is born). In other words, Word Press is helping the writer curate their writing to an algorithm-based audience. I am ignoring the advice because this is not 2001: A Blog Odyssey, but it is instructive. More and more the goal is to modify one’s work to meet the audience, rather than produce work and hope that your truest, best effort gets an audience.
I referenced Soundcloud rap earlier because of this point. A few years ago I read about how Soundcloud rappers were making shorter songs, often with a hook that seemed indistinguishable from so many others and only one verse because that combination would often lead to maximizing the number of plays of a song. So as we all laughed at the record executive in Bohemian Rhapsody questioning Freddy Mercury on the lunacy of a 6 minute pop song, in real life “artists” (quotes because I cannot really consider someone an artist who doesn’t prioritize the art in the creation of said art) were basically trying to serve up songs under 3 minutes!
In stand up comedy I see the same thing happening. Because of horrible economics, Sirius XM is one of the greatest sources of income to (trying to be) working comedians. Because I never shared the rights to my work with any large labels for “exposure” (something I have told comedians for a decade to little avail) I have made almost $200K since 2014, largely through satellite radio royalties. But, like Soundcloud rap, shorter has become better and I have seen comedians making albums with 30 tracks, all under 2 minutes to help rotation. Once again, I understand due to the economics of stand up comedy why someone would do this, but would we have a comedian like Gary Gulman if when he started the economics of comedy were basically making him choose between a 10 minute bit on cookies and a 90 second bit on Hydrox? Is that in any way good for stand up comedy? To favor only quick hits and to have that favoritism shaping newer comedians? I would say no. Sure a Dave Attell would not have to change a thing with his great comedy, but not everyone is or should be a Dave Attell.
Something that seemed to begin with Jon Stewart but really accelerated under Trump has been people getting their news from comedians. John Oliver has rode this trend to multiple Emmys for what is a very good show, though not necessarily the funniest. While I don’t think Stewart or Oliver are particularly at fault here as they do provide a lot of laughs, it seems that the growing trend is that if comedy is “important,” whether it be Hannah Gadbsy’s Nanette, John Oliver’s shows or Dave Chappelle’s recent foray into spoken word then it is “good comedy” (when did comedians stop trying to make their points through comedy, at least while on a stage, and just decide “this will be the serious part of my comedy show”? I always thought the extra genius of Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central was that he made all his points sharply and brilliantly with, and through, comedy). When we reward “importance” over laughs in the comedy space it seems to incentivize comedy on both sides of the political aisle that is merely hammering one’s ideological opponents (there are plenty of funny people I know right of center who seem to have become redundant bashers of what they view as P.C. culture so it is not just the left that does this). It also has probably let many people off the hook in terms of being engaged and serious citizens. When The Daily Show was at its Jon Stewart-peak it was often said, perhaps apocryphally, that more young people were getting their news from Jon Stewart than mainstream media. As fun as that might sound, it is not actually a good thing. Reading the paper every morning is about 90 minutes of my day. I know not everyone has that much time or desire, but 22 minutes of comedy at 11pm is also not the answer (to say nothing of the garbage being called “news” on right wing stations).
Even in a year when I put out a disproportionate amount of political comedy relative to my normal amount, I am proud that at least 90% of my content whether stand up, impressions or comments, have been comedy. If I had remained one note for the whole year perhaps my following would have continued to grow but I am a comedian. Though I have lots to say about lots of things (as this “needs improvement” blog shows) I feel like if people follow me for comedy, then it is my job as a comedian to provide… comedy. However, social media seems to want people to be Mariano Rivera and not David Cone. Let me explain non sports folks. Rivera is the hall of fame pitcher who threw one devastating pitch for his entire career. David Cone was a master craftsman who could throw (if I remember correctly) 4 different pitches, threw them from different angles and was also a workhorse. I prefer to be a David Cone (if not an outright Bo Jackson hehe) of comedy, but it seems that Twitter often rewards people for staying in one, predictable lane. And the way it works on our brains is that once we are rewarded for certain content, the motivation becomes to provide that content or opinion all the time, like a Mariano Rivera cut fastball, except more annoying and less interesting.
So social media, at least on Twitter (I quit Facebook over 2 years ago because I felt like destroying democracy in this country was not worth getting birthday messages from people I did not know in real life), it has devolved into people hammering home the exact same points over and over again, including the rise of “front facing character comedy,” but which seems to exponentially grow, like a the mob of zombies in World War Z (see below). Along with this what has bothered me is a sort of rise in cowardice in comedy. I did a series of parodies as Dave Chappelle recently and was told by someone that I shouldn’t do it because Dave is doing some cool philosophical stuff. Huh? Almost 8 years ago I went viral for impersonating Louis CK. It was done with some venom, not because I had anything personal against the man (none of his scandals were public), but because I do comedy with some bite. I got a lot of hate and a lot of love for that video, but now there seems to be even more caution. Because the powerful in comedy seem to have so much power people seem to only want to mock those who do not threaten their fiefdom. If you are on the right you will dunk on The Nation and late night hosts because those avenues are not open to you, but you probably won’t do too much critiquing of Joe Rogan. On the left, you will continue to mock the GOP, but will tip toe carefully about “punching down” or making jokes about Joe Biden. I have said this for 8 years, but in comedy it used to be “nothing is sacred,” but not it appears to be “as long as I don’t align with it, it is not sacred.” This is in part because of algorithm-driven content but also in a selective form of bravery among today’s comedians.
Are Fans Getting Dumber and More Entitled or Did We Make Them that Way?
I have often written that many of the people who complain about “PC Culture” and “Cancel Culture” do not seem to recognize that their increase in wealth and exposure did not occur in a vacuum. It happened on the Internet. The cost of greater exposure is greater exposure. People watching comedy are no longer just stand up comedy or sketch fans – they are bored people who may have never entered a club or said a funny thing in their lives but want a diversion. If their eyeballs helped fuel your rise then their opinions are going to be part of tearing you down as well. I have not griped about being cancelled, but I do wonder if the business of comedy and the Internet, combined with what feels like an increasingly dumb population is what will really destroy art and comedy in particular.
I remember watching a season of a singing show (I think it was the X Factor, but it might have been American Idol) where Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls was challenged by an angry contestant to sing and sing she did. The songs of the Pussycat Dolls songs did not exactly require the range of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria so I assumed Scherzinger would be mediocre. But she was not. Her voice was excellent and powerful. And I had a thought those many years ago that I am guessing very few people have had, other than the Pussycat Dolls – were the Pussycat Dolls dumbing down their talent to make it more accessible? And that seems to be the perfect storm we have arrived at of late. Business models that cater to short attention spans, art that inspires and encourages imitation rather than awe and fans that are conditioned to need art curated to their tastes, opinions and capacities as they are.
We elected George W. Bush because people wanted to have a beer with him. We have a Covid outbreak because your angry neighbor’s opinion on masks was as valid as Dr. Facui’s and we have an art landscape that seems to be increasingly driven by algorithms rather than artistry. If they redid The Matrix today, Neo would just be a Tik Tok star producing 15 second hooks because that is all that would be needed to thrive on the app (while his comatose body lay hooked up to machines in a comedy club). I see political pundits driving conversation about comedy, comedians being praised for offering self-serving, punchline-free “analysis” and fans treating comedy like it’s Uber Comedy Eats (do zero impressions and you’ll be treated like an unknowable genius; do 30 impressions and fans will treat you like a jukebox). And this does not even touch the loss of the concept of “selling out” (a friend once told me about a survey many years ago where the impact of Kim Kardashian (who might as well be Patient Zero of the plague known as “influencing” – I think of her as the George Washington of Only Fans), had basically eliminated the concept of “selling out” in young people’s minds. Being a brand or an influencer was as good or better than being an artist or creator and you can certainly do both now with almost no one questioning your integrity. We can save that for another “needs improvement” blog).
I will (finally) leave you with this. A few weeks ago I took a selfie of my hair and said “a week away from being able to do my Malcolm Gladwell impression.” The following exchange then took place (paraphrasing):
Fan: More like another year
Me: Oh you need to update your Gladwell afro reference point.
Fan: shares a picture of Gladwell with the date 2008 on the picture. In it, Gladwell has a very large afro
Me: sharing a 2020 picture of Gladwell with significantly shorter hair saying “yes your pic is from 12 years ago.”
Fan: Hey dude – it is your joke – if I have to know what Gladwell’s hair is like now it sort of ruins the joke. Sorry you can’t take some friendly Twitter sparring.
I then blocked him for being a nuisance, but I felt the exchange illustrated so much of what this blog encompasses. So I suppose, even though the Twitter algorithm has not been friendly to me over the last 4+ months (but still I am way ahead of the game compared to my social media worth a year ago) I am falling prey to the deal I warned others about: the Internet giveth happiness but it can taketh away. However, this has not changed my fundamental desire as a comedian: to headline comedy clubs. I still have faith in the people that spend their moneys to go to live comedy that they truly understand the art and what it is about (not 100% but a lot more than the social media world for sure). In a comedy club they are not there just to be distracted from their office job or Covid; they are there for stand up comedy. On-line content, and especially comedy, feels ever more disposable and as platforms cater to the whims of their shareholders, it becomes harder and harder to get a critical mass of fans to provide meaningful support. As business, social media & clout chasing mediocrities posing as creators combine forces they will strengthen their collective grip on determining what we want and like. And at some point, even a callback will not be enough to penetrate the stupidity we will have fostered.
This year has been a terrible year for the world and so many people. But for awhile it seemed that I would be one of the few people along with Jeff Bezos to have a career year. Once my Trump impression took off in March I began gaining fans by the ten thousands and getting a lot of money from digital platforms like YouTube and Cameo. There were frustrations, expected and inexplicable alike, but by almost any possible measurement my year was going great, let alone graded on the curve of a global pandemic.
By late May I had not seen my family in Riverdale (Bronx, NY) since early March and my Uncle John’s 71st birthday was coming up. I grew up with my uncle as my neighbor. From 1986 to 2020 my uncle lived directly across the hall from my family (which for the last few years was just my mom, his sister) so needless to say he played an outsized role in my life compared to the typical uncle. He was also a tough person to buy gifts for sometime. And despite my unexpected positive economic numbers I had no idea what to get my uncle with my new money during a pandemic. And then I had an idea.
During my rise to Twitter infamy several celebrities that I am a big fan of began commenting, retweeting and following me. Pop stars, Emmy winning actors, legendary actresses and many other people of that ilk were in my mentions frequently. But one new fan stuck out in my mind as it related to my uncle: Bob Gunton.
For those of you who do not know who Bob Gunton is by name, when I say The Warden from The Shawshank Redemption, there should be no other questions. In one of the most popular and acclaimed films of my lifetime his performance stands equal to (and for some, like my uncle, surpasses) the great work of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in that film. He has been in many, many films and TV shows, but the iconic and defining performance of his career is Warden Norton. And for my uncle, a lover of movies generally and Shawshank specifically, Gunton’s performance was an all timer. Anytime it was on TNT (44.7 million airings and counting) he would say “Why didn’t Gunton get nominated?” But it went beyond that. My uncle, armed with Google and a computer in the 200os became a Google/Wikipedia expert on anything or anyone that piqued his interest. Gunton’s life story of being a lifelong Catholic that attended seminary and receiving a Bronze Star in Vietnam were some of the Wiki details that my uncle shared with me about Gunton. Almost as if their shared faith and an impressive service record further validated my uncle’s appreciation of his acting work.
So in late May, after receiving multiple complimentary tweets from Mr. Gunton I decided to write to him to ask a favor. I relayed my uncle’s appreciation of Mr. Gunton’s work and asked if he would be willing to send him a signed headshot. The answer was an immediate yes and it was placed in the mail the next day. The headshot arrived on my Uncle’s birthday and was opened separate from my card so the surprise was total to say the least. When you know someone long enough you know when they really appreciate something. My uncle’s response was akin to the janitor clapping at the end of Rudy or Mr. Miyagi’s smiling nod to Daniel at the end of The Karate Kid. Not hugely vocal, but undeniably pleased. I knew because the next day we had a chat where he basically described the headshot in greater detail.
My uncle had always wanted me to focus on my legal career and I think comedy always seemed like a fool’s errand to him (and for most of my 30s it felt that way to me as well). But the Bob Gunton headshot was an unintended flex of how my talents had finally reached a broader and impactful (to us at least) audience. I genuinely cannot remember ever getting him a present that seemed to make him happier and it would not have happened if my impression had not blown up during Covid. So, at the risk of sounding hokey, it is clear that the money and increased attention and opportunities have to be considered secondary to being able to get the headshot for my uncle. A month later he told me that he had framed it in a nice frame. It said “Hey Uncle John, Happy Birthday! From The Warden (signed Bob Gunton)”
On August 12th I got a phone call while I was sitting at my desk wearing a ball gag around my neck, which is how so many bad stories begin. I had just finished recording a video doing my impression of Mike Pence (hence the ball gag prop) when the phone rang. I picked up and it was my uncle. He had been waiting for medical news and the news was not good. A few weeks earlier he had to get bone marrow tests because his white blood cell count was skyrocketing. His doctors believed it was chronic leukemia, but as I sat in my desk chair my uncle delivered the bad news to me: it was acute. Instead of being able to just get oral medication he would have to start a chemotherapy regimen soon. Because the leukemia seemed to have changed from chronic to acute it appeared that it was aggressive. I had planned on going to visit my uncle and my mom at the end of August, which was a week away, after not seeing either of them in person since early March, but now that would be delayed with his chemo. He would require a 5 day stay in the hospital monthly until his levels got back to acceptable. Unfortunately some other health issues emerged before he was set to go to the hospital so he had to go early. When speaking to my mom she had told me that my uncle thought about bringing the Gunton headshot to the hospital. We laughed about it and he did not bring it with him.
From there I would only have a few more conversations with my uncle. A series of health issues emerged, but the chemotherapy seemed to strike a knock out blow instead of helping. It was a very rapid and unexpected decline and about 2 weeks after first going to the hospital he passed away. We did not get to say goodbye as he was sedated for almost 2 weeks. As we talked after, piecing it together it seems like my uncle knew his health was in trouble for a lot longer than he let us know. He had purchased a lot of new things in the last year and it makes me think that it was a form of retail therapy and/or an attempt at optimism. But I thought of the headshot as well. We laughed that he might want to bring it to the hospital, but as I think about it maybe he wanted it because it was a really bright light in an otherwise dark year. A year that denied him peace of mind for his health and usual contact with his loved ones. It is tough enough to go through Covid more isolated, but if you know that your health might be failing it can only exponentially increase a hopeless feeling. And I think the headshot was something that meant so much to him and was so cool to him because it was a gift and connection he never expected in a year of bad news and diminished connections.
So it has been a tough year for so many in so many ways and my family is no exception. But I want to say thank you so much to Mr. Bob Gunton. Your work gave us decades of enjoyment and your kind and generous gesture touched my Uncle in a time when I did not know quite how much he needed it. So for my Uncle I put my trust in the Lord, but your headshot belongs to me.
A middle child of privilege. A man with deep contempt for the majority of Americans and its principles. A man who used a warped vision of a world religion to produce fanaticism among his followers. A man whose leadership has led to the death of thousands of Americans. This is a description of Donald Trump, though you could be forgiven for thinking I was referencing Osama bin Laden. In America, we have become reflexively accustomed to equating terrorist with Muslim and/or Brown, but make no mistake: Donald Trump is a terrorist. His whole life he has lacked both courage and faith, but do not think of him as a fanatical warrior engaging in actions that strike fear into people. Think of him more as the leader who issues orders and spouts religious platitudes while committing adultery and looking at porn in his private quarters. Dictionary.com defines terrorism as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” By that definition can there be any doubt?
I think I need to acknowledge the fact that many people colloquially think of a terrorist as a sort of violent, religious fanatic, or at least someone conducting their terror with religious undertones. Obviously the definition does not require this, but real life and dictionary definitions can often diverge. For those more inclined to link terror with religion, I would ask: doesn’t Donald Trump often wed a religious fanaticism to his political objectives? Donald Trump has no religious convictions, but is very happy to weaponize religion to suit his pursuit of power. As I have often thought of some fundamentalists (I am a Mass-attending Catholic for what it’s worth), faith becomes a post-fact rationalization for desired effects. For some it is violence. For many it is misogyny. For some it is to repress things about themselves. For Trump it has been an easy way to weaponize a group of people who want to win more than they want to embody Christ. He clearly believes in none of it, but he is willing to conduct violence on peaceful protesters just to send signals to his true believers that he is a tip of their religious spear. Combine that with lies and misrepresentations about abortion and inane declarations like “Joe Biden wants to hurt God” or “get rid of Churches” and you have effectively primed your religious fanatics for a Holy War (likely with trademarked merchandise).
Violence For Political Purpose
Donald Trump issues calls to violence repeatedly but because he and his followers are white, “Christian” men they are called patriots instead of armed fanatics following their leader’s fatwas From claiming “2nd Amendment people” could take care of candidate Hillary Clinton, to demanding Michigan and Virginia be “liberated” (and a non-vague reference to the 2nd Amendment in Virginia’s case) he has consistently encouraged violence on the part of his followers as the way to fight for his cause (himself). He could not even bring himself to condemn the racists in Charlottesville because it would have contradicted his one and only goal: retaining his most fanatical and solid supporters. The political aim is always about him and his reelection and he will both encourage violence and ignore violence if it clashes with his sacred purpose of protecting Donald Trump’s power.
But beyond his direct calls for, or ignoring of, actual violence Donald Trump’s self-absorbed “leadership” has also cost tens of thousands of lives. Not pursuing Russian bounties on U.S. troops, lying about the risks of Covid to protect his economic numbers, failing to properly provide for the American people and then diminishing the risks of Covid again as the election nears he has shown at best, a grave indifference to the lives of American people, especially those in Blue states. In other words, those who did not support him were expendable. If “Terrorism by omission” were ever a thing he would be its supreme leader.
In summary, Trump encourages violence, looks the other way when his supporters engage in violence and prioritizes his reelection over the safety of Americans, especially the ones from places that do not support him. And as the cherry on top, sometimes, “friends” of his like Herman Cain are simply collateral damage. Unwitting suicide bombers in a Trump 2020 jihad.
Donald Trump Serves Donald Trump
These words will come off as sensationalist or incendiary to some, but I mean them. If Donald Trump were running another Democracy this way we would be encouraging new leadership. If he were in charge of a young democracy or a developing nation I think we would either have the CIA or SEAL Team 6 seeking his ouster and would cheer his downfall as a victory for Democracy. But he is a white, American, self-proclaimed Christian and he is afforded all the protections those labels provide while representing a daily threat to human life, Democracy and the founding principles of this country. Fans of Trump, like the rabid moron Alex Jones, love to claim that 9/11 was an inside job. Well, Trump actually is an inside job. We put him in office and he is causing more death and lasting damage through commission and omission than any terrorist ever has or ever could.
As heinous as 9/11 it did not break us as a country. In fact it unified the country, at least in the pre-Iraq War days. Donald Trump’s brand of terror is not an isolated incident. It is a governing strategy and personal philosophy and it is ongoing. Donald Trump’s terrorism does not profess to serve God or Yahweh or Allah. He serves himself and is willing to sacrifice all in that service and that should earn him at least as much scorn and condemnation as the agents of death and fanaticism that have preceded him.
Growing up my favorite priest at my local Church was Father Murphy. Father Murphy was a pretty hard-lined priest, but he was also a riveting speaker and someone that made me feel prouder to be Catholic after one of his homilies. I have often told people the feeling I got from his speaking must have been akin to the feeling than some get from lives in military service (a life style as difficult for me to imagine for myself as it might be for an atheist reading this to associate with being a Catholic) – a call to sacrifice and to make personal decisions for a greater good. Though I am sure Father Murphy was/is a political conservative, he never made me think in political terms. Rather, he amplified the value and righteousness of my personal life decisions.
The reason I bring that up is that beyond Church, the other thing in my life that has given me the same sense of purposefulness has been stand up comedy. I do not beat my chest and try to use “I am a comedian and therefore a First Amendment hero,” but I have found stand up comedy a sanctuary to express and/or escape some of the worst things in my mind and in my life. And in return for that I have tried to not censor myself when I believe in material, never steal material and always put humor as the primary point (though not ignoring the meaning and power of words, I do not want to be a comedian that ever pursues “clapter,” something I have seen on both sides of the political aisle in comedy – more to come on that later – at the cost of laughter). This is my way of respecting the freedom that stand up comedy has given me. So for most of my career I tried to produce stand up comedy and videos at a headliner pace while only operating on a funny first, consequences second standard and adhering to that. In keeping with an overall honest approach, I also spent a lot of spare time in my career critiquing and calling out bad business practices in stand up, highlighting comedy I thought was overrated and seething over comedians who seemed to always forget the good fortune in their self-proclaimed Horatio Alger tales of comedy success (these were the blogs, not the material on stage or in videos). These did not help me advance I am sure, but I have always embraced an all encompassing honesty when it comes to comedy – with the freedom to do comedy comes a responsibility to be honest about it, if that makes sense. Probably stupid, but quixotically consistent.
But the one thing I never did was declare some comedy “not allowed.” I might not like it, but I never believed in limiting comedians’ ability to take risks and fail. The only time I ever did that was when Michael Richards went on a tirade of N words directed at Black audience members. Although it took place on a comedy stage it was about as artistic as John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln at a theater. But other than that I have taken a very broad – “if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it/watch it” stance on stand up and comedy in general. Not to say you cannot have an opinion, but the bar for “cancelling” in comedy for me is skyscraper high. I know it is a cliche by now, but stand up is worked out in public – the art needs people to fail to advance. And to be completely honest, I often hate when I see comedians being provocative for the sake of being provocative and then hiding behind this same rationale, but perhaps that is the price we have to pay to have stand up. The same way free speech protects hate speech, comedy speech protects provocative-for-the-sake-of-being-provocative speech.
I should also point out that as the Internet has expanded money making opportunities for comedians it has also expanded the viewership and listenership far beyond the comedy club attending audience. I have scolded comedians for not expecting that thorn to accompany their rose of booming profits. And on this point I may be somewhat hypocritical because recently as my social media following has blossomed so have condemnations of some of my jokes. And I hate it.
It feels like there are two types of Progressive comedy fans. The type that leave a $10 tip in the tip jar and walk out and the type that wait 20 extra minutes until someone sees them put their $10 in the tip jar and then walk out (OK, there are definitely more than just these two but go with it for the analogy). The thing they are doing is good, but for the latter the real reward is being recognized for doing the right thing. It feels that way with some of the people who have become my fans on Twitter. They like that I am making fun of the President, but do not like it when any group that is not rich, white, powerful men get mocked. As I have joked before, as a 6’7″ genius I really have no choice but to punch down with my humor. But the reflexive push back from people is absurd. Take this recent tweet:
Many people informed me that I should take this tweet down and that fat shaming was wrong. I told several of them that their comedy opinions were so misinformed that they should definitely not be trusted on what is good comedy. And I wrote this joke with the intention of avoiding controversy – my rule is, if I could sell it to Jay Leno then it is probably harmless. And yet the trigger words came out and told me that it was mean and not funny. In other words, any mention of Lane Bryant in a joke violates some newly created rule of comedy. Here is another that got people upset:
Many people were offended by this one. I had seen these four mayors on CNN together and thought, wow those names all sound like they belong in a superhero movie or a porn parody of a superhero movie. All of the women are Black, but other than the name Keisha, in a color blind guessing game, I would have guessed that London Breed was the white daughter of a hipster celebrity couple in Brooklyn, that Lori Lightfoot was a white woman and possibly in an upcoming sequel to The Incredibles and that Muriel Bowser was the grandmother of the Mario Brothers character. And if Keisha Lance Bottoms were Ken Lance Bottoms then I would have been only the 40,000th comedian to reference porn. But the Twitter comedy police were not having it. I was informed that mocking the names of Black women is a harmful stereotype and that I said porn because they were all women. Others gave me the “jeesh maybe this would sound better at a club, but not here” type comments.
Perhaps it is because I am half-Black, or more likely because I am not an insecure person trying to constantly prove their racial awareness bona fides, but if these jokes are not OK then what these heroes without a cause are really saying is that “certain topics cannot be talked about ever.” Another good example from one of my last live shows in 2019 – I did a joke about all the white, male serial killers getting documentaries and I asked “it’s 2019 – are there no serial killers of color? No trans serial killers?” A woman came up to me after the show very complimentary but told me “trans people have it very hard and I think you should leave them out.” It was as if she thought trans people were the subject of the joke, when actually the subject of the joke were people who come up to comedians after shows and tell them that the mere mention of trans people should be off limits. For the sake of being consistent, I know these are criticisms and I said that criticism is OK, but laced along these criticisms is a desire to wall off certain topics to make it easier to appear more righteous, when it is really just cowardice and laziness.
Perhaps I am overly sensitive and after all this is only Twitter, but right now YouTube and Twitter are the only two ways for me to really perform. In 2018 I listened to The New Yorker podcast proclaim that Hannah Gadsby, a month before Nanette aired, would change comedy (I now know this was probably as much the input of a publicist as it was the opinion of The New Yorker podcast host). In my head I thought “what does The New Yorker (a magazine I like to read, but not take stand up cues from) know about comedy?” And then they were right! And I wondered – is this an aberration or a trend? Is The New Yorker the new stand uptaste maker?
This year I have seen things I never thought possible in comedy, one of which is my relative success. But I have also seen politically motivated, left wing social media dictate comedy in those spaces. I am no doubt a beneficiary of that, but what has alarmed me is how humorless (and entitled) many of these people appear to be when the comedy (and comedian) does not align perfectly with their personal and political aspirations. People who have accused me of comedy theft clearly are ignorant and may have never attended a comedy club, but I cannot dismiss them entirely because this is the platform we have for the foreseeable future. I do my best to post other jokes (see above for sources of criticism) and encourage folks to check out my vast library of videos and albums that are neither political, nor Trump related in an effort to cultivate the portion of my fan base that likes stand up comedy. But the the desire is far less for that work. On top of that, for too many “comedy fans” on social media, their support becomes about affirming themselves. I told someone recently that my comedy can make some progressives laugh, but I don’t make progressives feel good about themselves, which appears to be the ultimate aim for many of them. And I could ignore them because they won’t ever go to a show of mine anyway (if those ever happen again). But when they start assessing me as a person or telling me what to do with jokes (“take this down now!” “This is wrong!” “No!” “I thought you were funny but now I see you are an asshole!”) I would rather call them out and ask them to leave my virtual comedy club. In fact, I don’t even think they like comedy. They like affirmation and wrapping it in comedy seems cooler or more fun, but when stripped of the “me” the rest of comedy is just Cody and they don’t know him.
As a quick example of why this is not just a one-sided issue, though it appears more prevalent on the left, I wrote this after attending a Dave Chappelle show a year ago. He did jokes on a 2015 or 2016 special on trans people that offended many. In all honesty I thought they were hilarious. I am not saying they were not offensive, but they were also grounded completely in humor. However, after the backlash he went through, in the show I saw live he decided to make a tortured metaphor between his usage of the N word and his usage of a homophobic slur. The response was not laughter because there was no joke. Instead there was head nodding and “clapter,” normally only found at a very progressive comedy show, but found in abundance at the Chappelle show I saw. Chappelle is free to share his thoughts how he chooses and I simply didn’t like that bit, but the crowd’s reaction was sort of a mirror image of the cancel progressives. They were clapping at a crude analogy because it was affirming their desire to say the F word without condemnation, not because it was a great joke. Is that so much different than someone wanting to cancel an artist for an offensive joke, no matter how funny?
Now, as I have navigated the last 4 months of my life and all of its successes and frustrations I have been given kindhearted advice from friends, associates and even a couple of celebrities to ignore haters, not comment on other people and keep my eye on the prize. But right now the prize still just remains offering content from my apartment. And despite my writing, videos and impressions I am first and foremost a stand up comedian. And no matter what level my career was at, I approached it in the funniest, but also most honest to myself way that I could. And if becoming successful as a comedian requires suppressing that which made me an excellent comedian then I must circle back to a quote from Father Murphy. When I was in high school he ended one of his homilies pondering, what if people who say religion and the Church are false are correct. And he said “If it is false, then damn it all.”