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Room 32

By D. R. Haney

Nonfiction

adhered

The idea, I thought, was a simple one: rent for a night the West Hollywood motel room where Jim Morrison lived on and off for three years, hold a séance with a few friends, and afterward throw a party. It seemed a fitting homage to Morrison, a party-hardy mystic who believed himself possessed by the spirit of a Pueblo Indian he had seen as a boy while traveling through New Mexico and happening upon the aftermath of a deadly accident. Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding, he famously wrote of the incident in “Newborn Awakening,” his poem set to music by his band, the Doors, seven years after he died. Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.

 

On Super Tuesday, after a blast of last-minute organization, Rick Santorum won the North Dakota caucus. I spent a strange and happy chunk of my kid-hood in the city of Minot, barely an hour from the Canadian border, and I attended the St. Leo’s parish school downtown, just blocks south of the Souris River and the giant red neon sign of the Bridgeman Creamery. Because this was also a time when my parents happened to be grassroots crusaders in the anti-ERA, anti-secular humanism textbook battles of the late 1970s, I feel a sense of déja vu to see Santorum win in North Dakota.

This is another way of saying I watch him win and feel about ten years old.

The title of this piece comes from the 1993 Rush album of the same name. It’s not about Rush, but it’s an apt title for a conversation between two college students in their early twenties who study at college, enjoy the music of Rush, and engage in the barbaric sport of stand up comedy. However, whilst we’re similar, we live on either side of the Atlantic ocean. We’re counterparts, geddit?!

This discussion was carried out two months ago. I am a British person, and my words appear in bold. Riley Fox is my American counterpart, and his words appear in italics.

When did you do your first stand up show, and what prompted you into doing it?
 
The first time I performed stand-up was May 26, 2006, although I don’t count that as my official start date.  For the last few years I had been really getting into comedy.  I watched stand-up on TV constantly, I bought CDs, DVDs, books by stand-up comedians, books about stand-up comedy in general–I got my hands on everything I could.  Sometime after I started educating myself on it, I just started writing jokes.  Every day after school, I would go home, sit at a desk, and write jokes in a spiral-bound notebook.  I wasn’t going for any kind of Seinfeld-ian level of discipline–I was just constantly writing.  Granted, whenever I go back and look at those old notebooks, I realize that nothing I wrote really resembled jokes.  They were more just goofy ramblings of an American high school kid, but of course I found them all hilarious at the time.

Haha, I think that, the old notebooks, are part of the territory when it comes to writing jokes as a kid… Where did you go form there?

I was wrapping up my junior year of high school, and I had some friends who were in a band.  They knew that I was writing these jokes (even though they’d never heard anything I’d ever written), and we were all young kids who didn’t know any better, so one of them basically said, “Hey, we’ve got a show.  You wanna open for us and tell your jokes?” Amazingly, I didn’t even think twice about it before saying yes.

One of my early shows was like that. My first time telling jokes on stage was the 2003 school talent show where my friend George and I were the only acts not doing an Avril Lavigne cover version (Avril was pretty big at the time…). That went okay but I didn’t do it again for about four years and it was kind of like your thing— a guy I knew was desperate to pad out this high school concert and put me on despite my lack of experience. I absolutely died onstage, but somehow got paid for it…

I’ve heard so many comedians tell stories about their first times onstage–usually they KILL, or they DIE. It’s almost never anywhere in the middle.  I got lucky, and I killed.  Not only that, but I somehow managed to do a 25-minute set. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and in an odd way, I don’t think I’ve done that well since that night. To some extent, my whole career since then has basically been a collective attempt to do as well as I did then. The jokes don’t hold up anymore, but it’s more about going for that feeling of connecting with the audience mentally to the point that they are completely onboard with everything you say. It’s only happened to me a couple of times since that first show, but not to that level. However, after a few more of those gigs opening for friends’ bands and a couple of bar shows— gigs that didn’t go very well in comparison to the first—I kinda drifted away from comedy for a little bit when I left for my first year of college.

I think I know the feeling. Up until last year I could practically count the number of shows I’d done on my thumbs. I’ve only done one really good show, but I felt it validated the effort spent trying to get onstage. It was a twenty minute story, rather than traditional jokes, about being painfully rejected by a girl. Just as I was about to start the routine I had to deal with a heckler, who I managed to silence. Weirdly that helped give me focus and authority. I could see people on the edges of their seats, and each punchline in the story killed. It’s an incomparable experience. It’s that feeling, or at least the search for that buzz that makes it worth the effort… what keeps comics coming back, even if they’re bombing most nights…

I don’t think I’m ruining the suspense by saying you drifted back to stand up…

Fast-forward to Fall 2008.  I almost flunked out of college my first year, and I had just gotten out of a fairly heavy relationship, so I moved back home outside of Nashville to regroup.  Over that summer I had slowly started reconnecting with a couple of comedians whom I’d met during my previous stint in stand-up, and they encouraged me to start doing it again.  I needed something to fill the void, so I started performing regularly at open mics and comedy clubs in Tennessee the week after Barack Obama was elected.  I remember it that way because Nashville‘s most popular open mic show is on Tuesdays— and so was Election Day of 2008.  I wanted to stay home and watch the election results, so I decided that the next week I would begin doing comedy for real.  Haven’t stopped since.

On your Facebook page you claim your job is better than everyone elses because you can drink at work if you want to. When we started hanging out in that old MySpace group in 2007 neither of us were old enough to drink. But now that you are old enough to drink on stage, do you ever make use of the opportunity?

There are two things that go into that:

1. what kind of show it is, and 2. what my role in the show is.  If I’m emceeing/hosting at a comedy club, I usually don’t drink during the show. I like to be in control of myself when I’m performing.  And as the host, you’re essentially the person in charge of controlling the show.  If you can’t control yourself because you’re drunk, you can’t control the show.  I might have a beer or two at most, but I try to stick to the whole professionalism thing because I think its important starting out, especially in comedy clubs.

That was my attitude when I started, on and off stage actually. I used to be quite sensible…

Now, if I’m just performing at an open mic at a random bar, then it doesn’t matter.  I’ll have a few drinks before I go on if I feel like it.  It’s a much looser atmosphere.  The only thing that will stop me there is if I’m really focused on workshopping a specific piece of new material— this goes back to the whole control issue.
 
I never did, but then I started getting free drinks from the management of the place where I run a comedy night. There were mixed results… the material I’ve been doing fit with drinking, but drinking didn’t fit with being a good host. 

I try not to overthink that kind of stuff, as far as the whole “comic persona” thing goes.  I try not to have a particular “attitude” or what have you.  I’ve always tried to present myself as myself in the sense that if I’m telling a joke about something that happened to me, I want to tell the joke in the same way that I felt when that thing happened to me.

I’ve been wrestling with the ‘comic persona’ thing since I got back into doing it because I wanted to be a ‘cool’ stand up. Which is ridiculous, because there’s nothing funny about being cool— some, if not most, comedy comes from awkwardness and being an outsider.

Exactly.  There’s an American comic named Jimmy Dore who has said in interviews and podcasts that comedy should always aim upward, in that your targets should always be above you in some sense-like making fun of political leaders rather than the homeless bums around the corner.  To him, comedy is about being the underdog in every situation, and I think that’s the right perspective to have.

You host an open mic, right?

Yeah, I host an open mic in Knoxville, TN, where I go to school.

How did that come about? 

Quite frankly, it just fell into my lap, and I wish the story was much more interesting than it is.  The open mic had already existed for a couple of months, but another guy hosted it.  Then the workload from his day job got too heavy, so he handed it off to me.  That’s it.  I should make up some outlandish behind-the-scenes story. (“Yeah, another guy hosted it and said that if anyone could pin him in a no-holds-barred backyard wrestling match, he’d give them the show.  Well, a couple of chairs and a figure-four leglock later, I hosted the next show via Skype from my hospital bed across town.”)

Funnily enough that’s almost exactly how I came to host one over here…

With the one I run it was a total accident. I e-mailed the one venue in town asking how much it might cost to hire a room to do a stand up show and ended up with free reign over my own series of open mic shows. I wasn’t the most qualified candidate, but it would take an unambitious and/or honest man to turn that down.

How does acting as MC compare to a usual slot in the show? I find I almost prefer it… it’s almost less pressure… if a joke bombs you can just bring someone else on to repair the damage and you get plenty more chances to win the crowd over again…

I like emceeing.  Its fun, but the amount of pressure depends on where you’re doing it.  I don’t know how British comedy clubs are, but in the US, there are some clubs where as the emcee, you have to do four or five minutes’ worth of announcements to plug their merchandise, social media (Facebook, Twitter), drink specials, upcoming events, etc., in addition to performing your material.  That can be a pretty big challenge because now you’re thinking about eight different things in your head that you gotta juggle alongside your jokes.  It’s great experience, though— a bit of hosting boot camp, if you will, and it makes it easier to handle in other situations.

I guess I’m pretty lucky. It’s not strictly a comedy club, and the managers don’t really give a fuck what I do as long as I include an interval so they can sell drinks…

There are other clubs that might just want you to maybe throw in an announcement for upcoming shows and then let you do whatever you want with the rest of your time.  Obviously, this scenario is much easier to deal with because you can focus mainly on the material.  The only other challenge as an emcee at a comedy club is keeping track of time.  The shows have to stay within a certain length, so you can’t spend 5-10 minutes in-between acts doing more material— you gotta keep things moving.

I don’t have official time constraints with mine. I sort of throw in a little joke here or there if it feels like it’s a good time or if the previous act maybe killed the mood a bit. I do tend to find there’s a natural time limit with the audience. Once it gets to about half past eleven people start leaving…

At an open mic, or an independently-run comedy night like yours, the emcee has a lot more leeway.  You can makes jokes in-between performers–which most comedy club shows prefer you not to do.  But you have no time constraints (unless there’s some other event happening after your show), so you can do pretty much whatever you want.  At a comedy club, you’re basically running the club’s show.  At a bar open mic, you’re running your show.

Another horribly clichéd question: influences. We could both probably talk about Bill Hicks at length at this point, and probably Carlin too… but let’s go more contemporary… which current stand ups do you admire right now?

Haha, you and I have gone on for way too long about Hicks and Carlin in past conversations, and I could keep going if I had to.  But I love discussing more contemporary comics too.  Lewis Black is probably at the top of my list.  He was actually the guy who sparked the whole thing for me.  I saw him on Comedy Central when I was a teenager and thought he was the funniest guy in the world.  I remember once actually recording a couple of his old half-hour specials on the network so I could transcribe his act and study it.  I’ve always had an affinity for the social commentary-types–although my act isn’t nearly as far in that direction as I’d like it to be–and he was the first one I latched onto.

I’ve only ever really seen Lewis Black on The Daily Show which doesn’t air over here any more. I remember he did a particularly long segment on Glenn Beck’s obsession with Nazis which was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Lewis Black’s stand-up is hysterical.  If you have to start anywhere, you have to start with his first three albums-the White Album, The End of the Universe, and Rules of Enragement-they were recorded back during his comedy club road-dog years (he mainly plays big theatres now).  His pace has slowed in recent years, but on those records he is in full-on rapid-fire pissed-off rant-mode.  Top-form. (I think I’ve hit my hyphen quota for the decade.)

Another big favorite of mine is Marc Maron.  He has a podcast called WTF with Marc Maron that is required listening for anyone with an interest in comedy.  He mainly focuses on American comedians, but he’s done a few episodes abroad, such as England, Ireland, and very recently, Australia–each featuring comics from those regions.  His stand-up is top-notch as well.  One of the most emotionally open comics I’ve ever seen in my life, and his podcast reflects that as well.

I remember you recommending that podcast. I don’t have a good excuse for not listening to it either. The main internet place for British stand up, Chortle.com, has had a link to it for weeks. I suppose my excuse is I’ve been kind of busy writing recently. It’s not a good excuse, but it’ll have to do…

And then, as far as simple jokes go, I am a huge Todd Barry fan.  He is one of my favorite joke writers.  He has one CD that has 55 tracks–one joke per track, and most of the jokes are the length of about a minute or less.  He’s not a one-liner guy like Mitch Hedberg; he’s just a bare-bones set-up/punch kind of guy.  No filler; no fat.  Every joke cuts right to the chase, and they are all fucking masterpieces.

I just watched [British stand up] Stewart Lee’s latest TV show which is inter-cut with conversations with his producer apologizing for the lack of jokes in the episode. He tells four deliberately bad jokes right at the end in a weird send up of his lack of conventional joke telling. He’s one of the few British stand ups that I take influence from/totally rip off. I know we’ve spoken about him before; did you ever get around to checking him out? 
 
I still need to get into Stewart Lee.  One of these days I’m just gonna go on a big YouTube binge and watch everything I can find of his.  Anyone I’ve ever known who’s talked about him–yourself included–has done nothing but sing the highest of praises for the guy.  He’s like your Winston Churchill of comedy or something.

I should probably absorb more from British stand ups, because frankly I sound too middle class and well spoken to pull off the same sort of delivery as those American stand ups. It’s one of those weird situations, like with sitcoms I guess, where Americans can come over here and we relate, but it doesn’t work so much the other way around. Are you familiar with any of our comics? 

I’m aware of several British comedians, though I still am ridiculously behind in my knowledge of modern British comedy.  I know of guys like Stewart Lee, Bill Bailey (I’ve got a friend who is REALLY into him), Tim Minchin, and then of course your heavy hitters like Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard, etc.  However, I’ve only seen very small snippets of things from each of them, so I don’t have as much to draw on as I do the American comics. (Bill Bailey’s “oud” bit is pretty damn funny, I can say that much.)

I feel I should add, for any Aussies that might read this, that Minchin is technically one of yours.

It’s interesting you mention Gervais. I read an article by a professional stand up who doesn’t think Gervais can be counted as a true stand up. I’m sort of inclined to agree… his shows are very funny, but it’s hard to imagine them being so successful if he’d started out before writing an incredibly successful TV show. Some stand ups over here consider it almost cheating…

Yeah, there’s some debate about whether Gervais is really a stand-up over here too.  There’s a small group of comedians in the States who started off as television or film actors and then used their success to fuel a second career in stand-up after their acting career went bunk.  Hell, I think there are even some soap opera stars touring comedy clubs in the US now.  They aren’t really regarded as legitimate comics either, because they never had to work their way to the top in the stand-up industry (and therefore, don’t really have the chops for it).  Case in point: Michael Richards.  And, I guess, Gervais.

Finally, you’re one of the people to blame for me liking Rush. I hated them, but between you and the radio DJ with a Rush obsession who kept playing Far Cry every twenty minutes I ended up totally reversing my opinion. I’m still not sure what it is about them that I like… can you describe the appeal?

One of the reasons Rush resonates with me so deeply is because all three of them are social outcasts that never really belonged in the framework of the mainstream. Their music doesn’t fit into a neat little box, and the three of them as people are even a little eccentric. But rather than complain about how they’re not more popular, they’ve pretty much come to terms with their cult status and even embraced it. I think most comedians are wired the same way— we don’t fit in with the sort of generic cookie-cutter lifestyle that the rest of society leads, and comedy is our way of circumventing that path.

But I don’t blame you or anyone else for hating them at first.  Hell, truth be told, I hated them at first too.  

I think it’s mostly Geddy’s voice… that or all the talking trees…

They are definitely an acquired taste, but in my opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. Like really good beer.

Kind of like Guinness…

EXACTLY!





Shortly after the completion of this interview I semi-retired from semi-doing stand up to focus on re-writing and directing my first play at a proper theatre.

Meanwhile Riley is a better and more accomplished stand up than I am because he does regular shows. This is a list of his upcoming shows.

 


Please explain what just happened.

I’m pretty sure I just agreed to do an interview for The Nervous Breakdown.

What is your earliest memory?

Are you kidding? I barely remember last week.I’ve got about 6 brain cells left and they are in a boat screaming, “Who’s got the map?!?!”Actually, even though I have a photographic memory I really don’t live in the past.

If you weren’t a comedian, what other profession would you choose?

Writer, director, editor – something creative where I could make my own hours.

 

I know the steward is Argentinian. I heard him talking Spanish with one of the passengers up front several hours ago. There is at least some affinity then—albeit unspoken and unacknowledged—when it is he who leans down to ask me to turn off the call light I’ve had switched on for the last fifteen minutes.

I don’t know the Spanish word for ‘smelling salts’. I’m not sure of the English word for the chemical it contains. My eyes are streaming out onto my cheeks like raw eggs. The rubbing together of the surfaces at the back of my throat is like a concert given in particularly coarse grades of sandpaper.

The fear is palpable in the sidelong glances I’ve been getting all throughout this leg of the long journey, all the way back from Asia, towards the influenza-ravaged wastes of Europe. I sneezed at stentorian volume all the way through the swine flu warning—given in hushed tones over the cabin public address loop.

The gummed-up wads of used tissue paper I have stuffed into all my pockets are not much more than germinal smart bombs as far as the other passengers are concerned. An uncovered, red-raw nose and mouth is the equivalent of a diseased cock and balls without a condom, or a used syringe. The lady sitting next to me has been wearing a surgical mask for seven hours.

I’m in so much pain that I can hardly speak, never mind enunciate clearly and intimate demonstratively what the problem is. It feels as if all the liquid conduits in my neck are being slowly injected with nitroglycerin.

I try to explain with a series of arabesques at the shape of the bottle of smelling salts that I remember being given in a similar situation on an Aeroflot flight into Moscow some years before.

This doesn’t help.

The steward suggests that maybe I would like something to chew on. I surmise he now understands I have such nasal congestion that the air pressure is forcing my sinuses to expand across my face and the back of my head to such a degree that they are pressing on my nerves and causing my head to go numb. He suggests I might like some biscuits.

I make an effort to swallow, mainly to confirm just how awful the prospect of a dry biscuit seems to my desiccated epiglottis.

Thankfully, a stewardess rushes back with two plastic drinking cups stuffed with hot towels and I gleefully press the things to the sides of my head, uncaring at the searing of the flesh of my ears against the steaming flannels; oblivious to the fact that I look like a demented child impersonating an air traffic controller, or a radical re-interpretative take on the cup/string telephone.

I stumble off the plane onto the shuttle bus, thanking the stewardess profusely, but aware that I am completely deaf in my left ear. This is something like the twentieth consecutive hour without sleep, so the paranoia levels are staring to jump, and I immediately begin to wonder if, by thanking her, I’ve given the defense some rope in the court case I am already envisaging bringing against the airline for permanent damage to my hearing.


The allergic reaction to the new air redoubles as I enter the tiny, beige terminal. I blindly follow the ‘Transfer’ signs and stagger through another baggage scan even though my connecting flight isn’t for another eight hours. I fail to understand the significance of the strange looks my boarding pass gets from the staff checking my details until well after the last flight of the night—when the scant hotel reps plying their trade on the other side of the airport have all packed up and gone home.

It takes two trips to the clinic and a series of injections of nasal ordinance of increasing potency to feel like I can tackle getting a hotel room, but it’s already well after midnight when I realise that I’ve been shepherded beyond the point-of-no-return, and unless I want to spend the next eight hours in a freezing-cold strip mall, I need to spend US$35 on a visa in order to leave the terminal and enter Qatar.

I try to draw out some money from an ATM for exactly this purpose. The transaction goes through but the money never appears, and I spend another hour online and on the phone to the bank trying to ascertain if I’ve lost the cash.

The verdict is inconclusive.

I remember vague mumblings about some kind of meal voucher for passengers stupid enough to place themselves beyond security with such a yawning delay until their next flight—us sad, solitary individuals, alone on the cheapest possible overnight connections from Asia back to Europe.


I think the wrong word is in inverted commas here…

If the night flight from New York to Los Angeles is the “red eye” flight, then this is resolutely the “dead eye”. The men here, from various European footballing nations, wear an unmistakable—and strangely familiar—expression of grim accomplishment. You see it everywhere in the North of England, from National Express coach waiting rooms to January sales queues. It’s a look that says:

“I’m saving money here, cock and I don’t care what happens to me in the process”.

I walk for twenty minutes and queue for half-an-hour until I find out I’m at the wrong restaurant. Every transaction is expressed in so many different currencies and languages, that it proceeds at a geological pace.

The meal voucher system is organised according to a protracted and esoteric logic that remains a mystery for three-quarters-of-an-hour stood rattling a set of nose pills around in my fist—devoid of the precious lubrication promised by the voucher. An official arrives and an eclectic queue ensues. He writes out each voucher by hand and I finally get my food; sitting down to enjoy it among the lads in football shirts and various stages of depravity. One familiar T-shirt reads: ‘Good Guy Go to Heaven, Bad Guy Go to Pattaya’.


I imagine this is pretty much exactly what every entrepôt station in the world has been like for centuries, from Constantinople to the Cape of Good Hope: A stark confrontation with ourselves as base animals; herded around and scrambling over each other for purchase.

I go and brush my teeth in the brackish Qatari water to try and make myself feel like a human being again.

It doesn’t work.

I add nothing but an additional suspicion of dysentery bacteria swimming around my teeth.

I manhandle my unwieldy luggage through the narrow aisles of the mall, fighting to see anything through a veil of mucus and apnoea—squeezing past the throngs of sheiks, African ladies and Chinese tourists to join the end of an immense queue of people—baskets brimming with muck and tat.

A small boy recoils bodily when he sees my swollen face and oozing cavities, backing up against a cigarette display and edging around in terror. I feel like sneezing on him. I buy some child’s nose balm and some more tablets which don’t work. For tissues, the cashier recommends I try the toilets.

Dithering in the air-conditioned chill knifing down out of the ceiling and straight through the diaphanous layer of my second shirt of the day, I decide to change and put on some more clothes in the stinking bathroom, awash with piss. The most difficult choice is whether to wear my sweat-soaked used shirt against my skin and the new one over it, or vice versa; to put my shorts on over my trousers or on under them; whether to wear two pairs of trousers, or three.

With the legs of some overly baggy bottoms tucked into my socks, I open the lid of the only vacant toilet to find a dozen anaemic flukes of variegated wan shit that won’t flush. I close the thing on its fetid contents, hitch the legs of my trousers out of my socks and up beyond my knees, step up and over my luggage on the trolley I’ve jammed into the cubicle with me; unlace one shoe on the raised surface of the toilet, and then use it squashed-down as an improvised mat in order to shift my weight over and prepare the other foot.

I am gagging so much from the stench that I feel I have to abort half-way through, but find myself standing barefoot, on tiptoes, at full-stretch, on shoes which are already soaking up the piss; laces dangling in the puddles; trousers gathered around my midriff like a bunch of skirts; naked torso shivering in the fluorescent light. I’ve stamped the toilet closed with one foot, so I have nothing to vomit into except a torn plastic shopping bag which sits gaping in the top of the trolley.

It’s when the sneezing begins again that I start to wonder if the increasing number of apocalyptic doomsayers, from George Carlin to Kip Tobin, may actually be right. As a species, I think we might be irrevocably fucked.


I used to think that we would breed out the retrograde, destructive elements eventually; surmount the religio-ethnic differences; trim the population to a level commensurate with the distribution of resources etc. etc. but after eight hours in Doha airport, to bastardise Francis Ford Coppola, I think there are almost certainly too many of us; we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little-by-little we went insane.