Thursday, February 26, 2015

Did You Ever Hear the One About Regret and Minor Resentment?

Odds are, you’re not overly familiar with a comedian named Bl*ine C*p*tch. The 49 year-old writer / comedian’s highest profile gig was as the host of the second season of the Comedy Central game show, BEAT THE GEEKS in 2002. He’s also appeared on a handful of stand up shows and most recently on Chris Hardwick’s @MIDNIGHT (where he also works as a writer).

And if the name does ring a bell, it’s probably because of his former writing partner, Patton Oswalt, who frequently name drops C*p*tch as a friend and comedian whose work he admires. C*p*tch is a fairly major character in Oswalt’s new memoir, SILVER SCREEN FIEND. In fact, Oswalt mentions C*p*tch so often that one can’t help but wonder if it’s not an attempt at a little nepotistic career boosting.

That’s cool, I’ve got nothing against nepotism in the arts (Rama Kushna knows I’ve benefitted from it a few times). And I respect Patton’s loyalty. But every time I encounter the name or visage of Bl*ine C*p*tch, I can’t help but wince a little bit. Y’see, way back in 1987, Bl*ine C*p*tch committed the cardinal sin of stand up comedy: He stole a joke, outright. I know this because he stole it from me.

The typesetter misspelled my name. Ha.
It was the stand-up comedy boom of the ‘80s, a time when every room with a stage hosted the funny at least one night a month, and Chameleon, the tiny rock club in Lancaster, PA (where I worked as a cocktail waiter) was no exception.

A local impresario (whose name currently escapes me) convinced Chameleon owner Rich Ruoff to dedicate the last Wednesday of every month to stand up. He would book the comedians, but they needed a regular emcee for the gigs. I don’t remember if I was approached or volunteered, but, despite an utter lack of experience, I was loud and (according to some people) sufficiently amusing to fit the slot.

On August 26, 1987, the first Comedy Night at Chameleon, one of the acts was Bl*ine C*p*tch, who was from Lancaster’s sister city, York. I remember being impressed by C*p*tch’s professionalism, but he wasn’t my favorite stand up that night (that would’ve been the fantastic Warren Hutcherson, who went on to write for SNL).

I opened the show, doing about ten minutes of material before introducing the first comic, then a few more between each subsequent performer. My first time as a stand-up comedian wasn’t exactly a hit; I have a vague recollection of doing a joke about having my penis laminated to prevent STDs, but now I really had to pee, and then some bit about how comedians feel no compunction about sharing shockingly personal anecdotes onstage, theorizing that there was a connection between the verbal intimacy of comedian and audience and the phallic nature of the microphone. Not hilarious stuff (as the lack of laughter from the crowd proved), but I still felt mostly at ease in the spotlight.

After the show, I was talking to some friends about the then-current sex scandal involving televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The Bakkers were typically histrionic and over-the-top caricatures, and Tammy Faye was known in part for her clownishly heavy makeup. To illustrate how much makeup Tammy Faye wore, I joked, “This is how she puts on foundation,” and mimed Bakker holding a large bus pan, dunking her head into it, and swishing it around to completely coat the face.

Again, this wasn’t something I said onstage, I was just joking with some friends. But C*p*tch was standing nearby, and made a point of telling me that he thought it was a funny gag. I said thanks, and thought nothing more of it.

That is, until a month later, when Bl*ine C*p*tch made a return trip to Chameleon’s Comedy Night… And did the Tammy Faye Bakker joke. Onstage. Verbatim. Right down to the physical part of the bit.

I stood at the back of the club with my mouth agape. I’m pretty sure I turned to one of my coworkers and spat something about him stealing my joke, but I did not confront Mr. C*p*tch about it.

I’m guessing that he forgot exactly where he got the joke, or he probably would’ve left it out of his set that night. Or maybe he just didn’t recall that it wasn’t his idea in the first place. That happens sometimes. Or maybe because I told it offstage and I wasn’t a “real” stand up comic, C*p*tch reasoned it was fair game. I dunno. But the facts as I have presented them here are cemented in my brain as indelibly as any pivotal event in my life.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Bl*ine C*p*tch stealing my joke wasn’t as life altering as, say, the first time I had a comic strip published, or losing my virginity. But it did have an impact (and not just on how I react to the guy in 2015).

But my brief stab at stand up comedy is one of those burning “What if” questions that tortures me sometimes. I don’t know exactly why I decided to stop doing stand up. By the end of the autumn, I was doing okay, I enjoyed it, and the booker had offered to put me into venues other than just the Chameleon. But for whatever reasons, I declined. When Chameleon stopped doing its comedy nights, I stopped doing comedy. Maybe I was scared. Maybe I didn’t think I had “it.” Or maybe the Bl*ine C*p*tch incident left such a bad taste in my mouth that I felt more comfortable sitting alone at my drawing board.

Over a decade later, in the early 2000s, I was living in Hoboken NJ, and my friend Mark decided to take a stab at stand up, taking a class at Caroline's Comedy Club. I accompanied him to some open mic nights in New York City, and felt a tiny bite of the stand up bug. I started writing down potential material, keeping both a file on my computer and a physical notebook that I carried in my messenger bag. I wrote more than enough stuff that would've filled a short open mic set.

But I never got onstage again. Certainly, the New York City comedy scene was more intimidating than Lancaster’s, but I think it was more lethargy than fear that kept me from jumping back into the fray. And now, well, I think I’m just… too old. Too tired. I dunno.

I like Patton Oswalt quite a bit, even if I feel like his prediction about losing his comic edge when he became a parent turned out to be sadly prescient. He’s still smart and frequently funny, but he’s not really ANGRY any more (which I feel is the main prerequisite to really good comedy). He and I have a lot of the same tastes and opinions. So I have to imagine that Bl*ine C*p*tch—being one of his closest friends—is a good guy (the C*p*tch written about in SILVER SCREEN FIEND certainly doesn’t seem like a villain). Maybe this was the first and last time C*p*tch ever stole a joke from someone. And I’d wager that the odds that he remembers this incident range from slim to none. But I do.

Don’t misread me, I’m not elevating one stupid stolen joke to the import of steering me off what may have been my true career path. But it didn’t help.

I’m not even sure of my impetus for posting this tale. I’m not trying to impugn Bl*ine C*p*tch’s reputation, honest. In fact, I’ll probably feel like a real shithead if, somehow, he ever reads this (even though I stand by the facts). I guess it’s just something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a long time. And there’s nothing like a midlife crisis to make you clean out your closet of regret and mild resentment!