I’ve been in comedy for a minute, and I’ve seen some truly great comedians emerge and find themselves. Every morning when I check the mirror, heh heh heh. But there are great comedians, and then there are capital L Legends. The ones you see live and in the flesh and tell your hypothetical grandchildren about someday.
I’ve seen a depressingly small amount, and I really want to get out there and watch them while I still can, since my chances of seeing these guys get smaller every day. Which is why I heartily encourage you to get out there and see these comedians while they’re still alive and performing. Especially since truly great comedians, like musicians, never seem to fall off too terribly in their old age, unless left physically incapable of performing.
With that being said, I did limit the qualification for being a comedy legend a bit. While comedians like Louis CK and Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan, as an example, have raised their game to the point where they are consistently turning out great material, enough time hasn’t passed from their peak popularity and performance to judge where and how it drops off. That being said:
Let’s get this one out of the way. I’ve seen Cosby twice now, and I am very grateful I had the opportunity before supporting him or his works became indefensible. Because even if, as a person, he’s a complete monster, as a comedian he is still The One To Beat. Look, I’m not saying I’m the real victim here; I’m just saying I’m grateful I could enjoy Cosby while i could.
I saw Carlin in the late-’90s, when he’d fallen a bit from his peak as a social observational comedian, and was more concerned with message than punchline. It’s a lot easier to appreciate what he was doing now that he’s gone, and I can watch his specials out of that context, but at the time, the expectation going into a George Carlin concert was seeing “Seven Dirty Words” Carlin. Which isn’t to say I am not grateful for the chance to see him at all.
It was a time when I had started doing standup, had gotten fired off my first tour, but I was still burning off the last of my classes at Queens College before quitting entirely. So, because I was also the Op/Ed editor at my paper, when we were given courtesy tickets to see Carlin live on our campus, I snagged two. I brought my fellow open mic’er Ritch Duncan, and he returned the favor a year later, when the radio game show he was hosting got some tickets to see:
I saw Newhart at Carnegie Hall as part of the Toyota Comedy Festival, which may be the only nice thing I will ever have to say about the Toyota Comedy Festival. Newhart doesn’t generate new material; he’s a major sitcom star who still tours the standup for fun. So it was definitely a “greatest hits” package, which was fine with me. His greatest hits are pretty goddamn ridiculously great. In fact, the only change he made was explaining that his act was written in the early 1960s, decades before political correctness had become a thing (this was the late ’90s also). And he acknowledged that jokes about women drivers may be passé, and I think he made a point of changing an offensive Asian joke. Otherwise, it was vintage Newhart.
I almost feel like this shouldn’t count because of course, everybody I know saw Louis back in the day at Luna Lounge and Rififi. I also saw him on one of his surprise shows at The Bell House, warming up for a tour a couple of years ago. If you can see a Big Comedian in a smaller space, I highly recommend it. Past 400 people in the audience, and the show is still one of the best in the country, but you lose that feeling of intimacy that, to me, creates an event.
CHEATS: STEVE MARTIN
I went to see a Simon & Garfunkel reunion show in the ’90s. It was pretty great; Paul Simon did some solo work, Ladysmith Black Mambazo came out and did a few songs from Graceland, and of course, Simon & Garfunkel. Before The 59th St. Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), they brought out surprise guest Steve Martin to introduce it. He explained that he remembered when he was a kid lighting up a joint and dancing along to that song, and he wanted to recreate that moment. So he did, rolling and lighting a joint, and dancing around while Simon & Garfunkel played the song. Considering he’d retired from standup decades before I got into it, that’s as close as I’ll get.
Another hero who put away his standup shoes before i was born (unless you count his appearance at the 2002 Academy Awards, which I kind of do). In advance of the release of Small Time Crooks, Woody gave a talkback at NYU for film students, which I got invited to thanks to an intern at a company I was working at at the time. While he wasn’t particularly “funny,” a kid asked his favorite joke and he gave a nonsensical answer about a horse sitting on watermelons in a stream. Still and all, I’m grateful to have had the chance to be in the same room as the guy.
I saw Tap play at Carnegie Hall. The Folksmen were their opening act, years before A Mighty Wind had come out, and the crowd spent the whole set shouting for Spinal Tap, not realizing that that was Spinal Tap playing.
THE KIDS IN THE HALL
Caught these guys at Town Hall on their first reunion tour. Considering how Brain Candy had gone, I was a bit concerned, but I shouldn’t have been. Top notch stuff.
AND OF COURSE:
Two of the great thrills of my career.
TRIUMPH THE INSULT COMIC DOG
I got to write material about myself for Triumph to say:
LEWIS BLACK & GILBERT GOTTFRIED LIVE ONSTAGE ON MY PODCAST
It’s hard to describe why I started Tell Your Friends! without giving you my entire life story. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to give you the abbreviated version. I started doing standup when I was 19. When I was 23, I took over my friend Brody’s show, The Brody Stevens Festival of Laughter, a weekly show at a coffee shop in the Flatiron District called Eureka Joe. I liked running a show. I got to see friends, I got to meet and book comedians I’d never met, and it was a great place to workshop new material and get better. I ran a show at what was then a youth hostel, the Gershwin Hotel. My friend Patrick Borelli ran a great show there Thursdays. Crowds built.
I was bullied out of this show by the bookers of the space; one week, they hired a jazz trio to play outside the door to the room where the show was held. Another week, they told me that the room where the show was held had been booked. I could produce my show in the front cafeteria, or I could produce my show on the roof, which would have been very cool, but I’d have to pay them a hundred bucks, to pay the building’s handyman to set up chairs on the roof. I got to the hotel that friday, and of course the showroom wasn’t booked at all, and when I asked the handyman directly, he told me he never got paid extra to set up the roof for other events. There was a lot going on like that.
I got booked to perform on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, realized I didn’t have to put up with this bullshit, and moved on. I did a lot of other things in my career, and along the way, I missed having a space where I could fail over and over again. My act was stagnating, and part of the reason was that i went into every show afraid to fail. I stuck, for the most part, with the tried-and-true, even with shows that didn’t pay and that didn’t have an audience, because I knew that bombing meant I wouldn’t be asked back.
So to make a very very very long story short, I walked into the Lolita Bar on Broome Street in the Lower East Side in 2005, which had previously hosted a show by my friend Amber Tozer, and proposed a new standup show to be held in their basement. The owners figured nothing from nothing is nothing, and allowed me to start my little show. My idea was to have a standup show that was an open mic for people who are too big to do open mics. The first show featured a headlining set from Andy Borowitz, who had just moved back to NYC and had decided to give standup another shot. People came from all over to fill that little basement, including a couple from outside Atlanta Georgia, who had driven all day because they’d heard Andy was doing a free show.
That first year was rocky, but aside from a few dead and empty shows, Tell Your Friends! took off in a big way.
TELL YOUR FRIENDS! BLOWS UP!
The neighborhood where Lolita stood (it was sold in 2012) is now a part of the sprawling hellhole that is the Lower East Side Party Zone, with hipster-big-deal restaurant Dirt Candy around one corner, a high-end coffee place and a South African restaurant around the other place. But when I started my show, Lolita was an outpost in the middle of Chinatown. Towards the end, it became a hellish place on weekends, with NYU trust fund kids and finance popped-collar types, the types who travel in packs of five in matching clothes searching for a pack of women to terrorize/hit on. Back when I started my show, though, Lolita was still a cool place to hang, a place for locals in the know to hang out and seek refuge from that scene, which was raging north of Delancey.
I could stand in the doorway most Monday nights, when my show was, and if I saw a white person approaching, I knew they were coming to my show. We had a lot of college students, until the NYPD started cracking down on underage drinking in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of locals, New Yorkers, comedy fans. Most nights, no matter the size of the audience, the vibe of the audience was mellow, friendly, like a tight-knit group.
In addition to Andy Borowitz, we had established comedy stars come through there, like Todd Barry, Nick DiPaolo, Marc Maron. We had friends of mine who were in the process of becoming famous, like Demetri Martin, Christian Finnegan, Kristen Schaal, Reggie Watts, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of pictures and information on this website if you want to learn all about it. In fact, go here.
But I always had my eye on the larger prize; I had a vision for TYF!, and that was not to just make it one of the best shows in New York City, but to make it a part of my larger legacy. As crazy as that sounds when I read it back to myself, I had a feeling that TYF! could occupy a permanent place in comedy history. And if you’re going to say that that seems a little grandiose, I have to politely disagree; it’s incredibly grandiose, and crazy, and as it happens, correct.
EATING IT, INVITE THEM UP, and COMEDY DEATH RAY
The granddaddy of “alternative” comedy shows in New York City was Eating It, a show held in the back of a rock club called the Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. A lot of big names performed there, mixed in with up-and-comers and for years it was the hottest show going, and proof that you didn’t have to work comedy clubs to get seen by “industry” or build a career.
That spawned shows by myself, and Borelli, and Eugene Mirman, whose Wednesday night showcase, Invite Them Up, in the back of a former revival house movie theater/cafe would become the next iconic “indie” comedy show. Everybody went to Eugene’s for years, and he was the first person to book acts like Reggie Watts, Flight of the Conchords, Modest Mouse, Aziz Ansari, who would go on to be huge fixtures in the comedy world.
On the West Coast, a similar show, by two former Mr. Show writers, BJ Porter and Scott Aukerman, called Comedy Death Ray (now Comedy Bang! Bang!) had launched first in LA’s M Bar and then at the Upright Citizen’s Theater when it opened in Los Feliz.
In two successive years, Comedy Central Records put out compilation albums (and i’m really eliding a lot here in service of what is, ultimately, my own story), featuring some of the best acts out of both shows. And I took notice. Because, as I said, I also had one of the country’s best shows, and I wanted recognition for it. A year later, I pitched a similar Tell Your Friends! album to Comedy Central Records, and received a polite refusal; sales for the previous two were not all that they had hoped. This was, after all, the age of peer-to-peer audio sharing. Album sales had taken a huge dip, and the sort of young, hip comedy fans who would be expected to buy these sorts of compilations were stealing them wholesale.
But I’m grateful for the rejection.
VICTOR VARNADO AND THE AWKWARD COMEDY SHOW
My friend Victor Varnado had been doing standup and teaching himself the basics of filmmaking for years. In 2009, he produced, directed, and headlined a comedy special, called The Awkward Comedy Show, with fellow “nerdy” black comedians Eric Andre, Hannibal Buress, Baron Vaughn, and Marina Franklin. The five most confident, least awkward comedians I’ve ever met. But no matter; I went to the taping and, as you’d expect with that lineup, it was a great show. Victor sold it to Comedy Central, and I produced the release show, featuring the cast, as well as surprise guest W. Kamau Bell, and after-party with DJ Prince Paul. As is the case with almost every show I’ve produced, now you could sell out a large theater with that lineup, but at the time I was busting my ass to fill the Comix Comedy Club.
By the way, please don’t feel I’m understating Victor’s accomplishment here. To take an idea from scratch (in this case, take the Kings of Comedy template and transpose it onto the comedians he performed with; in fact, his original title was The Kings of Awkward Comedy until the gentleman who actually owns the legal rights to the Kings of Comedy name put an end to that). to rent out a crew on a shoestring budget, to figure out how to give the set dressing a professional look, and to direct a live show while also performing. That’s a huge accomplishment. And for Victor to do all of that and then sell it as an actual TV special with his name all over it?
Again, I took notice.But I was focused, in those days, on my own standup career. I had submitted for a half-hour special, and was particularly confident in myself that I’d get it. 2010 was my year, and I’d take the money from that special and move to Europe for a couple of years and completely rebuild my act and, most likely, drink myself to death in Kreuzberg. Instead, I found out that I’d been passed over for a new crop of comedians who had all started seven years after I had. That was a big reality check. On top of that, I did a show that night with most of those guys, and completely bombed, and sat there after they all killed one after the other. Another reality check.
I biked home that night, drunk and in an emotional freefall. And I quit comedy. And then a week later, I realized no one noticed that I’d quit comedy, and I decided that the I was going to put myself into a position where I had the power to quit and have it actually affect people.
I was insane. I was grandiose. I was, it turned out, once again absolutely right.
WATCH TELL YOUR FRIENDS! THE CONCERT FILM! ON HULU:
I stood on the stage at The Bell House, a rock club in Gowanus Brooklyn, and said, “Thank you everybody, for coming out to our movie!”
Earlier that year, I had invited Victor Varnado out to lunch with a proposal: I had an idea. I wanted to take what he had done with The Awkward Comedy Show, what others had done with The Original Kings of Comedy, The Original Queens of Comedy, and so on, and make it bigger. Better. Less like another TV special, and more like an event. remember: I was grandiose, I was insane, and i was correct.
I wanted to do a concert film in the style of Woodstock, in the style of The Last Waltz. Epic, era-defining rock concerts, that didn’t just capture a show, but an entire generation in transition. And so I didn’t just want cameras pointed at a stage. I didn’t want swooping crane shots, as you see in many specials, and I didn’t want cuts to random audience members. I wanted to stage the kind of show I’d staged with TYF! over the last few years, with some of the biggest rising comics, and I wanted interviews with comedians who had come out of this “alternative comedy” scene and made it big, to talk about how these little shows had become so big.
But I really was adamant about the idea that it would be a rock concert-style film, with split screens, with cool lighting, with a you-are-there-on-stage-with-us feel. To his credit, Victor “got it” right away, and said that if I got the money together, he was fully onboard. In the meantime, I had two things I had to do: I had to write a prospectus for potential investors, because I certainly was not, and am not, independently wealthy, and we needed money to make this happen.
And the other thing I had to do was talk to my man Steve Rosenthal. Steve is an editor, a former comedian, a filmmaker. truly a genius, and an old friend. It was him who had pointed out to me at a Super Bowl party one year that most comedy specials that have swooping crane shots look cheesy, and that cutting to laughing audience members is a cheap way to edit, and that in fact even if you are genuinely cutting to a reaction shot it makes you look cheap, like you’re taking the easy way out. He had edited the Awkward Comedy Show for Victor, and I wanted him to do as good a job for me. So I took him out for a couple of after-work drinks, and explained my vision to him. To his credit, he got it as well, and we talked for a while about what could realistically work and what couldn’t. He and Victor were both skeptical about the idea of using split-screen effects for a comedy show, but I knew the kind of film I was going to stage would not just be dudes standing behind a mic telling jokes. Because the lineup I wanted to put together was going to be as diverse and interesting and daring as the shows I’d been producing, and watching, in New York City.
ASSEMBLING THE A-TEAM
The first thing you have to remember is that I was so impressed by, and truth be told, a bit jealous of the previous “collection of great comics” albums, Invite Them Up, Comedy Death Ray, and The Awkward Comedy Show, that I didn’t want anyone to ever confuse my project with theirs, and I didn’t want to make it look like I was in competition with any of these things. So my rule was simple: If anyone had been involved with one of these shows, they wouldn’t be doing standup in mine. And not because I thought they were bad, or because I was competitive; I wanted to have a very, very clear distinction, at the end of the day, between mine and theirs. All of theirs. In hindsight, this meant that i was cutting myself off from booking people I really liked a lot; in a perfect world, Hannibal Buress would have been in the movie. I was a huge fan of his. He had performed in Chicago with my friend Prescott Tolk, and he was one of those people who, when he was making the movie to New York, Prescott told me I should book and look out for. I’ve been a fan of Hannibal’s for a very long time.
But the lineup I put together was, and still is, for me, everything I could have hoped for. It was exactly what I wanted. Sitting with Victor at an outdoor cafe, after my conversation with Rosenthal, I called Reggie Watts to ask if he would headline this project. I had gone to see him a year or two before, at the small space below Webster Hall, doing an hour. I sat on the floor up front and watched him, stage lights streaming down through his afro, and realized he would some day be huge, and that someone should make a concert film with him.
I got a text back from Reggie immediately, explaining that he was on a train in France, and couldn’t answer his phone. I asked him, if I could get the budget together, would he headline my movie? I’d been booking Reggie for a few years in my crappy basement show, and he said yes of course. Everybody I reached out to that week said yes, and I think it’s because it sounded like the absolutely craziest, most quixotic undertaking possible. Getting together the budget for an indie film based on a show in a bar basement is, still, even after all is said and done, the dumbest thing anyone could ever want to pour money into. And my friends, being my friends, said yes, of course, if I could get the money together they would be in my concert film. And if the sun shone out of my ass they’d be happy to ride a unicorn over a rainbow, because why not?
SO THEN AN INVESTOR SAID YES
And things got more intense. Because I then had to confirm everybody who had said yes. And I’m going to give everybody involved credit here; they all were as good as their word. The funding came together quickly, really quickly. In fact, I was writing a submission packet for a TV show the entire week I was negotiating with my investor and everybody’s reps. I am very grateful, because not only did they all agree to do it, but they agreed to film with a little over a month’s notice, which meant that every single act went into that show at The Bell House without a contract. Which means that, if someone’s rep was particularly bloodthirsty, they could have held me up for more money, or for crazy contract demands. Instead,the only concern anyone’s lawyers or managers had was that I treated their clients completely equally. That I had no problem with; if there’s one thing my career has shown, it’s that I’m not the person who screws others over for career or financial gain.
Not that the production was smooth sailing, by any stretch of the imagination. There was one day when everybody on the show would be available for filming, which was June 22nd. That day, Reggie would only be available for the late show, as he was going to lead a yoga session in front of 1,000 people in Central Park that afternoon, and then was going to headline a fundraiser for his friend’s theater troupe before getting into a car and headlining the TYF! filming. (The day after his manager had given the go-ahead to have Reggie as part of the show, the New York Times ran a full-page article about him. In the three months since i’d first approached him about the film, he had become huge.)
There was a lot of scheduling craziness going on (Kurt was moving into a new apartment the night we filmed, so he arrived the the Bell House with all of his stuff in suitcases). And while all of this was going on, I had to keep going out nights to keep my act sharp. I was truly worn out by the time we reached the Bell House, which we rented for free, by the way, after I struck a deal with the booker Heather Dunsmoor, that allowed us to use their space in return for charging a five-dollar cover that the venue could keep.
In fact, we taped two shows that night, and I completely bombed the first show. I was doing a set that I’d worked out at all the shows I was doing, and of course, when you do material that people who come to see you see at show after show, it’s not going to go well. I was panicked backstage between shows, and I quickly made a mental inventory of other material I had that had ever done well in the past. If you watch the movie, and I hope you do, the “Ten Whiskeys” bit did extremely well, but I was desperately trying to remember how it went as I was going along! Anything you see me do in that film comes from that second show.
We interviewed over two dozen people, in addition to the principal cast, for the documentary aspect of the TYF! movie. In addition to all the people you see in the film, we talked to Morgan Murphy (in the back of the Purple Pianos Studio, our friend Sven’s rehearsal space in the back of his junk shop attached to his moving company in Williamsburg) We talked to then comedy-blogger now owner of the hottest club in NYC The Stand, Patrick Milligan. We shot him in the old Mars Bar, a beloved East Village dive bar. Most of the space we filmed in were more than happy to have us, but to get it, we had to send our Production Assistant, an attractive young woman, to talk to the owner, an old neighborhood guy who sat out in front of the bar every day in a lawn chair watching the world go by. When we went to LA (more on that in a second), we talked to one of my absolute favorite people to come out of the UCB comedy scene, Seth Morris, on the roof of the Gary Sanchez Productions office, where he then worked.
We flew out to Los Angeles, as I said, because there were a few people I felt we could not honestly make an accurate movie about the New York City “alt. comedy” scene. One was Jeff Singer, the former producer/booker for the original New York City big deal bar show, Eating It (his partner, Naomi Steinberg was, sadly, not available). Another was Marc Maron, who is now a huge star in the standup world, but at that time had just released the Robin Williams episode of WTF that would put him, permanently, on the map. But at the time, he was still a comedian who, to me, represented the best of the New york “alt. comedy” scene of the ’90s, when it was still a dangerous, exciting, rock n’ roll scene.
And while we were there, we wanted to talk to Seth, to Kumail Nanjiani. Unfortunately, Pepitone was away in Florida filming a movie, and Baron Vaughn (the original permanent host of TYF! until he got too successful) was in Toronto shooting a TV show. But for the most part, we were able to get everybody we wanted. In fact, we were so successful at getting people to talk to us, for the most part, that Victor had to finally put his foot down and refuse to film any more interviews.
I had one of those perfect LA moments, after just landing at LAX, with our Production Manager, Myka Fox (herself a very funny comedian and writer), at whatever budget car rental place we’d picked. While filling out forms, the woman behind the counter, an older, very tanned woman with a thick Israeli accent, asked what we were doing in town. And me, being very proud of the fact that I’d actually pulled this off, made the mistake of saying, “Oh, we’re here filming a movie.”
The woman then grilled me about where I got the budget for it, and explained that she was trying to put together her own action movie, the plot of which she then outlined in detail, which involved ninjas traveling in time from ancient China to present day, and she could get Tom Cruise but CAA wanted a guaranteed budge of $60 million before he would attach his name, and I realized oh yeah, everybody in this town is show business and nobody gives a fuck. Here was a woman, helping me find the cheapest option for renting a car before driving out to the fleabag motel in LA where we were staying (on the Sunset Strip, now torn down for a boutique hotel), who thought I could conjure tens of millions to make her dreams come true.
That didn’t stop me, a couple days later, from having a moment, sitting in the passenger side of the car, riding down Hollywood Boulevard on our way to interview Seth, where I realized, “Here I am, on my way down Hollywood, to film my own movie that i star in that’s actually happening.” It was a great moment.
And then we were done shooting. It was then up to me to get out of the way and allow Victor and Steve to do what they did best, and what I didn’t do at all… edit together a movie.
WATCH TELL YOUR FRIENDS! THE CONCERT FILM! ON HULU:
To say that reception to the movie was better than expected is an understatement. The plan was simple; sell the film to a network for as much money as possible, and move on to the next project as quickly as possible. I had rented Anthology Archives downtown for the “friends and family” premiere for everyone in town in February of 2011. I had insisted on a trailer being made for the movie, before it was even finished, because I wanted to start promoting it as soon as possible.
I put it up on YouTube, and then contacted the comedy editor at Huffington Post, a friend, who posted it to their site. Then a man named Charlie Sotelo got involved. Charlie is the comedy booker for South by Southwest, and had worked as the documentary booker for their film festival. Victor had submitted The Awkward Comedy Show for the film festival the year before, and while it had ultimately not been accepted, Charlie knew him. When he saw the trailer for Tell Your Friends!, he asked for a copy. Victor sent him a working copy, and Charlie had it accepted for its world premiere at a 700-seat theater on March 17th, 2011, less than a month away. Which meant that Victor and Steve , along with our sound editor Jason Kanter,had less than a month to put together a finished film. And they did it. Don’t ask me how, but they put in some long nights and 12-hour days, and we had an HD CAM professional broadcast-quality copy of the film ready to screen. We flew down to Austin, texas, and spent the week hanging out, watching movies, meeting up with comedy friends, and generally having a blast being WORLD PREMIERE FILMMAKERS AT ONE OF THE BIGGEST FILM FESTIVALS IN THE WORLD.
FESTIVAL TOUR: NEW YORK CITY PREMIERE AT THE PALEY CENTER FOR MEDIA
I ran into Christian’s manager at the bar at Stand Up New York one evening, and she told me that Alexander Zalben was looking to putting on screening events at the Paley Center in New York and put me i touch.
The Paley Center used to be known as The Museum of Television and Radio, and when I was a teenager, before the days of Youtube and streaming video and every computer with an internet connection being an infinite media library, they were the place to go screen old TV shows, specials, unaired pilots. For a few years, my grandmother bought me a membership, and when I was a fat, unpopular teenager with secret dreams of somehow, some way breaking into big time show business, I would go there most weekends and check out their library, their screenings, their old-time radio room.
The Paley Center has been adapting to the new world of media, hosting an annual huge TV festival and premiere screenings as a way of retaining membership. And so I found myself walking again, decades later, through the same doors I’d walked through so many times with a gigantic HD CAM tape of my comedy concert film. And a few nights later, there I was, in the board room waiting with the rest of my cast for this prestigious screening, post-screening Q&A. I wished i could go back in time and screen video of that evening for my lonely teenage self. It would have made things a lot easier.
FESTIVAL TOUR: THE NEW YORK COMIC-CON
The New York Comic-Con is a huge three-day pop culture/nerd event held in the epic Jacob Javits Center space. We had a screening of an excerpt of the film early Sunday morning, and a panel discussion the night before to promote it. I had a bad feeling about it that I couldn’t shake all weekend. Kristen would be at the panel, very kindly staying for a few hours after a panel to promote an Adult Swim show she was starring in. Kristen was so great about using her precious spare time, in the midst of a huge career surge, to boost the film whenever she could. Whenever I get in a crabby mood and am tempted to be ingracious about something in comedy, she’s on the people I remember and take as an inspiration.
Kurt came in to the Javits Center, as did Rob and Christian. It was taking a Saturday night to go all the way to 12th Avenue way the hell on the west side of Manhattan, and we were one of the last events of that evening. Festivalgoers had already packed out panels and screenings for shows by networks like Adult Swim, Comedy Central, MTV, Marvel, and on and on. How could i possibly make my rinky-dink little event stand out?
That evening, I walked over to the tiny conference room we were using, as the Javits Center began to empty, and streams of costumed dorks left. I began practicing my “gracious face,” preparing to make this the best possible showing for our panel and whatever handful of comedy fans actually showed up. i walked down the hallway past a line that snaked down the hall, around several corners, young people who had apparently been sitting for a while to get in first. “I wonder what that’s for,” I thought. “Probably the Blu-ray release of Aeon Flux or something.”
I found the conference room for the event, which is where the first person in line was sitting. All of these people were waiting for us. My mind was blown. And then we suddenly had an opposite problem; there was a huge crowd, more than could possibly fit in our little room, waiting, and we had no ability to hook my laptop up for the A/V presentation to the little TV screen we’d been assigned. Apparently, not only had I been expecting nobody to show, but so had the Con organizers or the tech guys. We eventually got someone down, just as the panel was set to start.
Kristen came in, escorted by a security guard to protect her from, yes the throngs of adoring fans in the hallway I guess, and it was an excellent time had by all.
AND SO IT GOES…
On and on, festival screening triumph after festival screening triumph. Some of the biggest highlights of my comedy career happened in that six-month span, and everything was going well except in actually selling the damn movie. They say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” And remember, while the screenings and festival appearances were going phenomenally, the plan was to sell this movie as quickly as possible and get on with my career. Instead, the opposite was happening.
In a way, the film came together at exactly the right moment, and came out at exactly the wrong moment. TV networks, feeling the pinch of the recent Great Recession, were no longer acquiring outside produced specials. Those that got back to me, gave me a very polite thank you but no. An executive at one network came out to the Paley Center screening, and we had a back and forth where we outlined a plan to sell it two networks, and then we took the end of December off, and when we came back she had moved on to a different job. This happens all the time in the business, and it’s not less heartbreaking every time it happens. In fact, I almost didn’t tell that story, as it still hurts as I write this.
However, it also came right before streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu and Amazon started acquiring and producing original content. Which means I did the best I could. I struck a deal with a digital distributor to have it available on certain platforms, and ASpecialThing Records has it out on a DVD/CD soundtrack set, which they did an excellent job with (it has bonus scenes, and multiple commentary tracks).
And on this, the fifth anniversary of the actual show taping, am I done with it? Yes and no. I’d still love to have it screen on television to, you know, make some money. I’m making some quiet queries to see about having an anniversary screening somewhere next year, and we’ll see if that goes anywhere.
But other than that, I had a great time, some of the best of my life. If you’re lucky in this world, you get to do one thing you’re proud of. With Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film! alone I probably achieved an easy dozen, if not more. And if nothing else, at the very least it has placed Tell Your Friends! in the pantheon of great indie shows. And yes, that sounds a little grandiose, and a little crazy, and I am absolutely correct.
WATCH TELL YOUR FRIENDS! THE CONCERT FILM! ON HULU:
I have to ask, I really have to ask; come on guy, you really needed to steal my doormat? My doormat?
And we’re not even talking about a fancy ornamental, expensive doormat – the kind embroidered by a young child in a dark factory in the heart of Taiwan; the kind with the word “WELCOME” woven in over an irresistibly crude caricature of puppies playfully squirming under a doormat of their own, their big eyes staring straight through your soul; the kind that you can only find in an elegant, out-of-the-way specialty store like K-Mart or Target. And I understand that not everyone has the rare combination of both ten minutes and six dollars that it takes to go out and buy a doormat of their own. And if I had owned this kind of extravagantly decorative doormat, I would understand a working man’s need to steal it, to give his family a small taste of the same lavish, luxurious lifestyle that Doukhobors like myself enjoy in our rent-controlled apartments in the heart of Queens.
But that’s not the kind of doormat we’re talking about, is it? The kind of doormat we’re talking about, the kind that you stole under the dark cover of night, is dirty and beige; it’s the kind of doormat that I got not from Wal-Mart, nor even from Kiki’s 99-Cent Emporium, but rather from the relatives of an elderly neighbor who had recently died, shuffling off this mortal coil in housedress and slippers, plastic bags clutched in her hand, a faded babushka on her head and a complaint about the heat left unspoken on her tongue. That’s right; you stole a free, dead woman’s doormat that I, myself, did not even want in the first place.
To be honest, I’m not even angry so much as I am completely baffled; what, exactly, did you think you were going to do? Just put it down outside of your apartment, the only place you could logically use it, and hope that I wouldn’t go door-to-door through the building hallway looking for it?
In the annals of crime, stealing a neighbor’s doormat falls somewhere between mugging your boss in the elevator on the way up to the office and bursting into a police precinct, waving your shotgun in the air, and declaring “The next person who moves gets it.” Which is to say that it falls exactly halfway between being “poorly thought out” and “fucking moronic.”
And if you can’t use a doormat for its intended purpose, what exactly would you do with it? Sell it? Not that I would put it past you; after all, the person who would steal a used dime-store doormat is the exact same person who has undoubtedly, at several points in their life, had a small, swarthy man named Chico calmly inform them that “you ain’t can’t have the weed if you ain’t don’t got the cash.”
And so I scoured Craig’s List, searching for the tell-tale ad: “FOR SALE,” I imagined it would say, “Doormat, gently used – NO QUESTIONS ASKED! Serial numbers have been filed off. Am looking for best reasonable offer – cash, food, or even MetroCard swipe into subway.”
Or perhaps this doormat was of some value to you, a value that I myself did not ascertain and could only truly appreciate once it was gone from my life. In my mind’s eye I can see you running through the building, clad in an Indiana Jones-style leather jacket and fedora, clutching your bleeding, gunshot arm as dark-suited thugs from the Russian mob close in fast. Trapped in a corner, desperate, you wheel around, revealing a Luger held to the head of a dirty beige doormat trembling in the crook of your arm.
“Don’t do anything we’ll both regret,” says a large man who steps from the shadows, a deep scar running down the side of his face, a gloved hand removing a pair of $500 Ray Bans, revealing one eye made of milky-white glass, the other filled with a mixture of hatred and respect.
You shake your head once: “No.” You pant for breath, swallow, then add, “Tell your men to step back and give us safe conduct, Vladimir. Now. Or the only place this doormat lies is inside the entrance of a mausoleum.”
He gives you the once-over; he knows that after what went down in Morocco, where he watched a small, frayed bathroom rug die in his arms, that you’d be just crazy enough to do it. He signals to his men, and they step back, warily placing their guns halfway into their holsters.
“You’ve won this round,” he says. “But I’ll return. Even you can’t watch forever. One day you’ll be napping, or drunk, or out of your house for ten minutes to get some milk from the store. And you’ll leave that doormat alone and unguarded. And when you do, I’ll be there. And I can tell you now, I won’t have to steal it away; it will come with me, and willingly.”
And you know in your heart that he’s right. You may have that doormat for now; hell, you may even love it as much as once I did, but you’ll never own it. The tread-worn beauty that makes it a treasure is also its biggest curse. This doormat was born to roam free, my friend, and no matter what kind of care you take of it, there’s going to be a morning when you awake to find it gone, and with only the memories to sustain you.
MEMO #2 TO: The Neighbor Whose WiFi Signal I’ve Been Sharing
RE: Constant Service Outages
Hey “Linksys_AP_Underscore 77,” if that is even your real name. Just what the hell is going on here? As a comedian and writer with a home office, the bulk of my work day is spent online; checking my Fantasy Baseball team, then my Facebook page to see if anyone’s responded to my hilarious status updates, then my blog’s statcounter to see who’s been Googling me, then my Twitter account to see if anyone new is following me, then my email, then my Facebook, then my Twitter account, then my email, and so on and so forth. Between that and all the music I download from my 37 most-favorite MP3 blogs, your Internet connection is one of the most important tools of my business.
Look, I didn’t want to have to be the one to tell you this; after all, I’m not your mother! But I really think it’s high time that you grow up a little and learn how to pay your bills on time. When you can’t behave like a responsible adult, that doesn’t just affect you, it affects everyone within three floors of your wireless server.
As an adult I’ve learned to accept that we all have a job in this world; mine happens to be nagging other people to fulfill their responsibilities to me, unknown to them though they are. If you don’t have the money for your high-speed Internet bill, perhaps you should get a second job. Or do what I do – call my parents and ask if you can borrow it. Don’t worry; experience shows that my parents are very lenient lenders, and won’t expect you to pay them back any time soon.
Thanks for reading this memo; I was going to e-mail you, but I don’t know your address. And even if I did, well, our Internet’s down.
MEMO #3 TO: The Guy in The Apartment Whose Window Faces Mine
RE: Your Strict Daily Regimen of Blasting The Same Five Metallica Songs Over and Over and Singing Along at the Top of Your Lungs, Interspersed With The Most Disturbing Deep-Throated Hacking Cough Heard Outside of a 1920s TB Ward
Hey buddy, I understand that you need a job. I know, it’s hard finding work that matches your unique skill-set. After all, I’ve been on more than one job interview in my life, by which I mean I’ve been on three job interviews in my life. And the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” has never been immediately followed with, “Now, can you do an impression of Lars Ulrich as if he were about to lose a lung?”
Luckily, despite from my heavy work schedule, I seem to be blessed with a little spare time. So I thought I’d do the neighborly thing and help you come up with some career options.
At first I thought, “Join The Army.” But then I realized that, were you to become a member of the Armed Forces, you would undoubtedly be the guy who gets fragged by his own unit, probably around the second time you sing Enter Sandman. Also, America tends to send her best and brightest sons into battle against her foes, and let’s be honest – the only opposing army that might be intimidated by an aging, phlegmatic metalhead would be the KISS Army.
Then it hit me – you could be a Wedding DJ! You’ve got the experience; by throwing your windows wide and sharing your love of mainstream speed metal, you’re already acting as a DJ for the entire neighborhood.
On the other hand, there’s only so many times that the happy couple will be able to listen to Master of Puppets before requesting that you play something a little more upbeat and danceable, like The Funky Chicken, or The Beer-Barrel Polka, or the sound of little children crying.. And when they do, you’re going to have to look them in the eye and say slowly and steadily, so they know that you’re completely serious, “The first time ever I heard The Black Album, I knew I was put here on this planet for one purpose and one purpose only; to share with this wicked world the pure and simple the beauty of the music of Lars, James, Cliff, and Kirk, whether it wants me to or not. And I know that the doctors are wrong, that this lower respiratory tract infection isn’t the Black Lung, but rather a punishment from the Demon God of Rock n’ Roll Himself for ignoring my Mission, for not playing these same five Metallica songs over and over.”
Then the groom will regroup, take a breath, and say, and say in the same gentle, patient tone of voice he would use were he placating a small child holding a loaded gun, that he completely understands where you’re coming from, but perhaps at the very least you would be so kind as to not scream along with the song, screaming long and loud like you were trying to awaken the departed souls of all the brain cells you killed smoking weed as a teenager glorying in the profoundly adult freedoms of the Meadowland’s parking lot pre-concert bakefest.
And then you will have no choice but to slowly and dramatically take the wad of cash you were paid for the wedding DJ gig – and you will insist on being paid in cash, as you don’t believe in so-called banks and their “rules” about minimum balances or excessively writing so-called “bad checks” – and then you will take that cash out of your pocket and then you will throw it in the bride’s face and then you will shriek the lyrics of Master of Puppets as loud as you can, interspersed with the juiciest lung-deep hacking coughs possible. You will shriek like The Devil unleashed from a pneumonia clinic in the deepest bowels of Metal Hell. Because no one can put a price on your art, man.
And then you should take the money back, because let’s be honest; if a couple hires a DJ for their wedding based solely on the fact that he’s five hundred dollars cheaper than the competition, and they pay him in cash in advance without asking for references or even a playlist of the kinds of records he plans to spin, said couple doesn’t deserve that fifty bucks plus carfare. And you will take that fifty bucks, and – this being the most important part – you will go out and buy both a pair of headphones and a fucking album by anyone other than Metallica.
And if there’s any money left over, and if you find it in your heart, in return for my graciousness, and my compassion and my care, and my taking the time to help a stranger in need, perhaps you would be so kind as to buy me a new doormat.