I met her at a comedy club in Charleston where I was performing. She looked my age, late-thirties, except she wore her years much better. I figured her for an attorney, the way she pulled back her dark hair and dressed like she had just come from a job interview or a funeral. Still, she looked good, so I turned on the old charm machine.
Seeing the empty glass in her hand, I sat next to her, smiled, and asked what she'd been drinking. She rolled her eyes, like a woman used to barroom pick-ups. I liked her immediately.
"I thought I'd buy you a drink," I said. "If I'm out of line, forgive me."
Without smiling, she said, "You're not out of line, yet."
Instead of letting me buy her another drink, she bought me one. That surprised me.
"You're not trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me, are you?" I asked, slipping what there is of the charm machine into high gear.
"Only if you get drunk on one drink." She paused. "My generosity has limits."
This woman had substance, not the typical fluff hanging out at clubs.
When we got to exchanging names, she told me hers, Jane Brandson. I said mine was Rocky Green, pointing towards the sign on the wall with my name in bold lettering above the words, "Now Appearing."
That usually gets me in the door. Instead, she looked at me and asked, "So what's your real name?"
Shrugging, I said,"Roger Greenbladt."
I expected her to laugh, but with a face as non-committal as George Burns talking to Gracie Allen, she said, "Now that's catchy."
She stayed for my act, but I couldn't see her because of the lights. I like not being able to see the audience when I'm on stage. That way I'm safe in my protective cocoon, telling jokes and timing the laughter before I start the next one. I have this shrug and exasperated expression I use between jokes to squeeze out an extra laugh or give the audience time to react. Usually, my mind is totally focused on the next line, but now I found myself squinting into the audience, trying to see her reaction. It threw off my timing. Still, I managed a few good laughs, even if they were started by my buddies, fellow comics who laughed like I was the Second Coming of George Carlin, for free drinks from the management.
When I finished, I found Jane. Her reaction?
"Cute?" She may as well have cut off my left testicle to use as a cat toy.
She handed me her card. It turned out she was a talent scout looking for comics to play Vegas. There was a time when I would have cut off my other nut for a chance at that circuit, but now I wasn't so sure I wanted it. The money would be nice, but Vegas meant pressure and a whole new life style.
Hell, Vegas comics are required by law to wear a pinkie ring and gold chains. I'm comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt.
Still, I wanted to hear her say something nice about my comedy. I waited until I couldn't stand it.
"So you liked my act?" Getting a reaction from her was about as easy as climbing Mt. Everest barefoot.
She took her time, wetting her lips and wrinkling her brow. "I like your delivery," she finally offered. "You have a presence." She paused, knowing exactly how to wring out a zinger. "Contact me if you get new material."
I knew then I should have excused myself, accepted my role in the minors, and joined my buddies to get so stinking drunk the only thing I'd remember about the night was tomorrow's hangover. Instead, I asked what she was looking
"I know it when I see it," she said.
"You mean like porn?"
"Something like that."
Then she told me to follow her in my car to her hotel.
That was a couple months ago. And I can't get her out of my head. I performed what I thought were some of my best moves that night, enough to at least get a, "Yes. That's it. Yes, yes, yes," if not a "Hallelujah!" We settled back on our pillows, catching our breath. She seemed satisfied, so I figured this was a good time to seek a compliment. I don't learn.
"So what do you think of my act now?" I smiled to show I wasn't expecting a serious critique.
"You're good. But you could still use new material."
Now it was her turn to smile.
She kissed me and stood up, letting me get a good look at what she had to offer. Before I could say anything, she told me she had to wake early to catch a plane. "I'm serious," she added, "about calling me if you write new
A comic is a lot like a used car salesman. He has to sell with confidence. I knew my material wasn't groundbreaking, but it was good enough to get laughs, a decent paycheck and, once in a while, a warm body to help me through a cold night in Fargo or Cincinnati.
Now I doubted myself, and gags that had worked earlier were falling flat. We all have slumps, my pals reminded me. But this felt different, like my life was slumping, not just my
The strange thing is, the more lost I felt, the more I wrote. The new stuff was darker than my usual material. Instead of asking why, when we shower, do we spend more time washing our bellies than our feet, I began questioning
my life. I wondered aloud how many people on their deathbeds wished they'd watched more television? I still got laughs, but not the raucous, woo-hoo type comics live for. The sound of the audience made me uneasy.
Don Ivey, the owner of a club in Bayonne, New Jersey, cornered me after my new act. "I hired Rocky Green," he said. "Rocky Green keeps customers happy, and happy customers buy beer and nachos. You wanna keep working here, make them laugh. You want them to think, go find a coffee house called The Morose Hippo or some shit like that." He pointed his index finger at my chin. "Unnerstand?"
I wanted to tell Mr. Ivey where he could stick his finger. He had hired me, Roger Greenbladt, not some nacho shill named Rocky Green. Then I had a few drinks with my pals who assured me that Rocky Green didn't need to change. "Stephen Wright never changed his act," is the way one of them put it. After a few beers, it made sense.
Of course, a lot of dumb things make sense after a few beers.
I woke up the next morning with a redhead--a natural redhead, no less--named Gretchen. The lines under her eyes told me she was no Jane, but one look in the mirror reminded me I was no George Clooney. Hell, I wasn't even a Louis C.K.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering what I was afraid of. Was I scared my new act would fail? Sure. But what the hell? If you do stand-up, you're gonna have nights where you feel like you're buck naked and everyone's pointing. No, I realized if I was afraid of anything, it was that I'd succeed.
I'd already been what some would call a success. Before I got into stand-up, I pulled big bucks doing public relations for a company that thought addicting kids to sugar snacks a sound financial model. My ex-wife, with her MBA, made even more money. We had the big house, fancy cars and clothes. But I always felt like an imposture.
Probably because of my old man, who had worked as a butcher most of his life. I know he felt proud I made big money, but sometimes I'd catch him looking at me like I was from another planet.
I'd often see that same look in the mirror.
I started doing open mikes soon after my parents died in a car crash. My wife's friends assured her it was my way of grieving and I'd give it up. But the first time I stood on stage and heard the crowd laugh at my jokes, some I wrote and others I grew up with, I knew I was on to something. I felt alive, as if I was doing something that connected me to real people, something I wasn't ashamed of.
My wife never understood. We divorced, amicably enough. She got the house, jewelery, cars and half our savings. I got a shitload of ex-wife and divorce lawyer material that I'm still using.
So I suppose Don Ivey hit a tender spot with his index finger.
That night, I managed to combine Roger Greenbladt and Rocky Green. I killed. I mixed my new stuff with gags so old I feared Milton Berle might rise from his grave to sue me. The audience howled, and I did ten extra minutes.
There's nothing like the adrenaline kick after a kill. I felt so good, I stayed up most of the night working on new material. Making people laugh was worth more than convincing them to buy sugar-coated snacks. What's more, I was happy.
I even called Jane and left a message. I told her if she wanted to see what happens when Rocky Green meets Roger Greenbladt, she was welcome. I told her to check my Facebook page for my schedule.
It felt good taking myself seriously again. And my pals treated me with a new respect. I even helped them with their jokes. It was only right, since I'd been stealing their material for years.
So now I'm honing my act, tightening some of my old material and writing new stuff, not to impress Jane--she may never show up again--and not to fall into bed with the next Gretchen, but to challenge myself. If it leads me to Vegas or Kimmel or the college circuit, so be it. If not, that's okay, too.
I seem to be playing a lot of gigs in Atlanta and Greenville lately. Who knows? Maybe I'll settle down, meet a good Southern girl and learn to like grits. One thing I know for sure. I'll tell her right off my name is Roger.