When we last saw our moustachioed hero, he was locked in a chance encounter on public transit en route to some miscreant’s birthday party. Tentative plans were made, a flight was booked, and cynical doubts crept into optimistic hopes. And now, some months later, on the other side of the continent…
NOVEMBER 13TH, 2010 — NEW YORK CITY.
A tiny part of me wishes we’d never made these plans. If not for these plans, I might be sitting in the audience of Pee-Wee Herman: Live on Broadway right now, and how many chances does a man to get to see that? Few, if any. A tiny part of me is foolish.
Coming up to the corner of 7th and 41st, I see him. Standing at the top of the stairs next to a subway entrance in a black peacoat, he scans the streets for a familiar face as I cut a swath through the crowd toward him. For all my early skepticism, let it never be said that David MacLean is not a man of his word.
“Dave!” He smiles and shakes my hand. I’ve spent the last hour leaning against the outside wall of a hotel near Times Square, leeching their wi-fi as I flip back and forth between Twitter and TheScore Mobile. It would seem Vancouver vs. Toronto isn’t nearly as big of a deal to the people of New York State as it is north of the border, as trying to find the hockey game in NYC is like trying to find a needle in a place where it’s really really hard to find needles.
“How’s it goin’ man? How do you like the city so far?”
“It’s great.” I pause. “It’s just — I feel weird admitting to this observation, as I don’t even watch this show, I just have a vague pop cultural awareness of it. But man, Gossip Girl. You see that show and wonder, ‘Where on Earth are there 14 year old girls who look and act this way?’ But spend fifteen minutes in Times Square…? Only in New York City.” As if on cue, a gaggle of giggling pre-teen princesses and brace-faced beauty queens squeeze past us as we head back into the underground to catch a train to the Lower Eastside. Dave outlines our itinerary for the evening: we will go for cheap (“but delicious!”) margaritas in the LES before catching another train to Brooklyn to meet up with some friends of his visiting from Boston. Our early hopes to grab contraband hot dogs in a secret speakeasy have been dashed — reservations spots for Saturday filled as soon as they became available. That’s fine. I really have no expectations for the night, happy to take it as it comes. I am a stranger in a strange land, drowning in a sea of restaurants and bars, ready to experience New York City as Dave knows it.
We strike out immediately at our first destination. It’s barely 10PM, and this Mexican eatery is already sold out of margaritas. Settling for a hipster bar called Iggy’s, we down a few PBRs and a couple shots of Jameson before deciding this place is far too busy to have a proper conversation. A quick train to Brooklyn later, and we’re sitting by the window of a much more relaxed pub with two chilled mugs of Brooklyn Lager. “You still performing?” he asks. Context: Dave and I came to know each other through our high school drama program some six years earlier.
“Not really. A little music here and there, but honestly I’ve barely done any acting or improv since high school.” I try to make the case that part of why I enjoy going to school for broadcast journalism is the performance element, but deep in my heart I know it’s not the same. The nerves and subsequent adrenaline I get from reading live sportscasts in a radio booth by myself just can’t compare to jumping up in front of a live audience with no script and nothing but my wits to guide me. There are few things in life that can.
Hold up. Rewind 24 hours.
I’m sitting in the audience with my little brother, ready to take in the late night set at The Comic Strip. It’s nearly impossible to walk up and down the streets of Manhattan in the day without getting pitched on tickets to see stand-up comedy. The pitches vary, but the deals are generally the same. Two-for-one tickets, two drink minimum. “Come get drunk as a muthafuckaaa!” “Laugh ya balls off!” “We got midgets!” In this battle of pitchmen, The Comic Strip won out for making me laugh. There’s no other appropriate response when a gentleman of African American descent approaches you on the street and starts in with “Be straight with me here. You guys like black people?” On top of that, they’re promising Judah Friedlander (though almost everyone seems to be promising a Friedlander set that night), and that’s a set I really want to see.
Kevin and I hightailed it from seeing Nathan Lane in The Addams Family on Broadway up to 82nd and 2nd to catch the show, worried that our lateness would leave us out on the street. The ticket says you must to show up half an hour before showtime, and we definitely weren’t going to make that. Arriving 15mins after the recommended time, we’re just about the only ones in the club. The comics for the evening are Kyle Grooms, J.J. Ramirez, Dean Edwards, Jordan Rock, Big Jay Oakerson and Joseph DeRocha (who Google tells me does not exist). There can’t be more than 15 people in the audience, and Judah Friedlander is nowhere to be seen (he did the early show before booking it to another club across town). No worries.
There’s something special about seeing stand-up in such a small crowd. It’s a more intimate show, as the comics are more likely to stray from their planned bits and just shoot the shit with the audience. Edwards does very little of his material, spending almost his entire stage time engaging the crowd. It makes you feel like you’re part of the show, because when it’s your turn to get ripped on (for sporting a Movember ‘stache, or being on what appears to be a gay-date with a 12 year old), your retorts can be just as much a source of comedy for the audience as the comedians themselves. For someone who’s spent years wrestling with a desire to get up onstage themselves, it strips away some of the fear and tells you this is something you can do.
I’ve been wanting to do stand-up for a very long time. It was always something I’d consider after particularly positive nights doing improv in high school through the Canadian Improv Games. After all, if you can make it up on the fly, how hard can it be to write and prepare bits beforehand? But the fear always outweighed the desire. Admittedly, I’d get a strong dose of fear and nerves before every improv show, especially in grade 12 with the added weight of being team captain. But even in a leadership role, you still have your teammates to rely on. In stand-up, it’s just you, alone in the spotlight. And anyone who says that’s not scary is a liar.
Oddly enough, it was Judd Apatow’s Funny People that pushed me to really want to pursue stand-up. It’s a movie I enjoyed very much for a lot of different reasons, but one of my primary takeaways from it was “Hey, that was funny. I’ve thought that before. I could do that.” Shortly after seeing the movie in the summer of 2009, I started writing down stories and working on bits in a MS Word document titled “Stupid shit that I find funny because I am a juvenile idiot”. I’d sneak into the bathroom at parties to leave myself a voice memo on my phone, making sure not to forget something funny in the dazed fog of the morning after. Twitter too can be exceptionally useful for this. The eventual goal was to build a strong enough set to feel comfortable taking my material onstage. If the opportunity ever materialized, I could at least feel somewhat ready for it.
And now, back to Brooklyn, 24 hours later.
“I miss it, man. That rush… I definitely miss it.”
Here’s the point where things get fuzzy, and I can’t really remember the order in which things happen. But let me give it a shot: Dave starts talking about performing with The Red Herring at McGill (the university’s “unofficial” satirical newspaper / comedy club), doing amateur comedy nights in Montreal. He asks if I’ve ever done stand-up, and when I say no, the conversation shifts to how weak the comedy scene in Vancouver is. This isn’t to say Vancouver doesn’t have its fair share of quality comedians, because it does — the problem is there’s only one club, and if you’re trying to break in your performance options are severely limited.
“Do you want to do stand-up?” I talk about seeing the show last night, how refreshing and inspiring it was before ultimately settling on ‘Yes.’ “Then why don’t we just make our own option?” There is a good chance Dave will be done at the UN by the end of the year, and will return to B.C. for 2011. Working with the show template used in his time with The Red Herring, he has a good idea of how to make this show work both artistically and financially. We’re not just talking stand-up either, but live music, slam poetry, scripted sketches, a film… A real variety show. The original plan is to do something in Victoria, possibly by February, working out an arrangement with the venue where we take cover and they keep bar, with the promise that we will pack the place full of university kids.
Victoria seems perfect. It’s close enough to make a weekend trip out of the show, but far enough that everyone I know won’t be there to see me bomb horribly if things don’t go well. Between the two of us, we’re convinced we can round up enough talented friends to put a show together AND know enough people to promote it to the point where we can draw a sizeable crowd.
As we start to get really excited about this, the girls from Boston roll in to the pub. Katie, D-Mac’s friend from McGill, is rocking the Rachel Maddow haircut with the wits to match. We get along instantly. She’s brought her friend Liz along for the ride, as well as a host of other girls who I couldn’t pick out of a police line-up. Show-planning is shelved, more beers are consumed, and we’re quickly whisked away to another club in Brooklyn called The Royal Oak, with a dance floor so dark that anyone could look good on it. To complete my New York comedy experience, Dave buys me a cocktail called the ‘Tina Fey’ — I couldn’t tell you what’s in it, just that it’s strong enough to get you Liz-Lemon-drunk.
Before I know it we’re at a bar that feels more like a barbeque/house-party. Everyone buys their drinks inside before heading out to the open-air backyard patio, complete with fire-pit and taco truck. Just about every guy has a beard like Joaquin Phoenix and I suddenly find myself grateful to be sporting a Movember ‘stache — it’s like wearing active camouflage. We leave here shortly after they stop selling booze (but not before I shove two unopened PBRs in my pocket for the road) and head to a penthouse apartment. I can not explain how or why we are here, or how the owner is in any way connected to our group, but the place has a nice view and I’ve long since stopped asking questions. The guy whose place this is flicks on the television to find Funny People playing on HBO. I couldn’t script this stuff.
The sky starts to lighten as Dave, Katie and I head back to the subway. Katie and I, having hoped to jump the turnstile, find ourselves trapped in a twirling metal grate that’s impossible to slip through. We are saved by a generous homeless man who offers up his transfer to let us in, at which point we part ways. She hops a train heading in the opposite direction, while Dave and I head back to the Lower Eastside. It’s close to 5AM now, and we’re both antsy for some late night eats. On my first day in the city, Kevin took me to a 24 hour Ukrainian restaurant in the LES called Veselka, where everything on the menu is amazingly delicious. I have made a point to visit it at the end of every single night on the trip, and Dave’s never heard of the place. For once, I get to show him my New York City.
We sit down, grab an order of pierogies (stuffed with ham, potato and Gruyere) and sip waters as we continue to talk the show, comedy, and life in general. Halfway through our early breakfast (which comes with sides of sour cream, apple sauce, and the most incredible sauerkraut of all time), Dave leans in quietly, looks over to the table next to us and asks, “Is that the Gossip Girl guy?” As Veselka is one of the few places in the city I can get wi-fi, I instantly whip out my iPhone and look up the show on the IMDb app. Pulling up Penn Badgley’s page, and without a hint of discretion, I hold my phone up in my hand, looking back and forth between the app and the man sitting next to me. I pass the phone to Dave and he does the same. It is indeed the Gossip Girl guy. The fucking Gossip Girl guy. Only in New York City. … We try not to bother him.
As we finish up and leave the restaurant sometime after 6AM, nearly everything having come full-circle, we walk in the sunlight in the direction of both the apartment I’m staying in and Dave’s girlfriend’s place (which as it turns out are not far apart). “You know I’ve been here for more than a year,” he says, “and not once have I stayed out all night until tonight.” In the city that never sleeps, my work is done.
Some hours later, as I sit on the plane listening to the comedians guesting on Doug Loves Movies, it finally starts to dawn on me: I am actually going to do stand-up. The opportunity has materialized.
I am not ready for this at all.