Sunday, December 09, 2007

How to be upstaged by a star like Robin Williams

Orny Adams
December 10, 2007

I should be preparing for an audition… and I haven’t slept in two nights. I just can’t seem to come down from my show Tuesday night in Mill Valley at the Throckmorton Theater (12-4-07). I stood before you all naked in heart and soul and at one point actually almost naked… but how did my show disintegrate into a male review with me disrobing onstage? (I’m just bracing for when the scandalous pictures emerge on the internet.) Let’s investigate.

The theater was jammed-- wall to wall-- people standing in the balcony on their tip toes to see the stage. It was quite an inspiring scene for ME. Definition; ME: a guy who has spent years playing to less than (and even less than less than) sold out venues. (I once did a show with NOBODY at a club in New York City, but I’ll save that story for the book.)

Pre-show: The hotel was smack across the street and I could watch the crowd filter in from the far left corner of my balcony. I would go back and forth from doing push ups, sit ups, bastardized versions of stretches and yoga, all the while looking over my notes scattered about the room, to taking breaks to eye the crowd entering the theater. Maybe five months ago I had one of my strongest shows at this place. Such a quick rebooking was soul tantalizing. I was a little bit shocked that they wanted me back so quickly. The gamble paid off-- the place was packed.

With my dark grey Target duffle bag stuffed with DVD/CDs slung over my shoulder, I made for the theater. I love walking in with that thing-- makes me feel like a folky with his guitar. No pretension. I settled into the familiar green room. As most performers do, I surveyed the food offerings (usually a sign of how much they respect us. A great spread equals great love) and then laid out my notes creating a work area for me to continue pounding thoughts into my head. The mood would shortly shift.

The green room door opens:

“What are you doing in my green room,” I thought and hopefully didn’t show on my stoic face? Barely peering over my stash of notes, I gave my best mix of coy, yet respectful, but not overly excited posture, as Robin Williams walked in. It’s hard NOT to be a little enamored by a guy who has done so much. And I had never met him before.

My mind started making millions of calculations: “Well I guess it isn’t my show anymore. But I’m the headliner, what now? Maybe he doesn’t want to go on? Maybe he had somehow heard of me and actually came down to watch my show. Oh, Orny that’s ridiculous. He’s going on. Will he go on before or after me? Maybe they knew Robin was coming and that’s why the food spread is so exceptional.”

My mind continued whizzing at tornado speed and then it started to drift into an odd conversation:

Dear Orny’s Ego,
This is your reality check. Mork from Ork is here to remind you of how little you have done. So just in case you were feeling great about yourself for headlining a sold out show and returning to a theater you played a mere five months earlier, and was excited to show off all your new routines, it’s time to remember you are a very, very, small, small creature in the entertainment world. I would like to further remind you, that the chances of you surpassing this person’s accomplishments are very slim. Now, get your shit together and get on that stage and “pretend” you are prettiest girl in the room… but you’re not.
The Universe

Dear Mr. Williams,
I am a huge fan of your body of work and all that you have done. You blew me away in “Good Will Hunting.” When I was in college, I remember counting the seconds in between laughs on your record. If my recollection serves me correct, I believe you averaged a laugh once every three seconds. Amazing. But, tonight is Orny’s night. (I don’t know if they forgot to tell you that.) And it is my job to protect and delude Orny as much as possible from the truth. (The truth is just too damning.) Honestly, between us, he’s not quite as funny as he thinks he is… which is great because that means I am doing my job brilliantly. But you coming into the green room right now is an unworkable task for even me to alleviate. How do you suggest we handle this?
Orny’s Ego

SNAP OUT OF IT! The reality sets in. The possibility of working with such a mega talent is somewhat intoxicating. But now I have the added pressure of HIM watching ME on stage. And it was important to ME that HIM like me.

Robin started to pillage the food. He was doing my favorite thing-- mixing carbs. I’ve caught myself dipping bread in mashed potatoes before. He was chasing a piece of pizza with some sort of pastry. I kept to my notes. We exchanged small talk. The energy in the green room felt slightly askew. So when he came out of the bathroom, I decided to break the ice, "Even your piss sounds famous." Robin immediately catapulted head first, without a safety net, into some off the wall thoughts about famous pee. And from that point on, we connected. And the rest of the night we riffed. We all riffed. Other comics there that night, like Mike Pace and Robin Cee, jumping in. Hanging out with comics and just topping each other about nonsensical subjects is a beautiful thing-- I love it.

I had gotten a call earlier in the week that Dana Carvey wanted to stop by and go on the show-- which I more than welcomed. “Do you mind if Dana Carvey stops in and does 10 minutes before you?” I said, “Not at all! And let him know he can do 12 if he is killing.” And I more than welcome a Robin Williams any day of the week too. Now, I have a huge ego (who happens to be an articulate letter writer too), but I went into this line of work because I absolutely LOVE the sound of laughter and even more the roar of a crowd. And I was quite sure Robin would get a huge roar and that would make my ears orgasm. This is why I prefer live band CDs over studio cuts-- a performer feeding off the audience and vice versa-- nothing like it. Must be the same feeling Anthony Bourdain gets when two food items like canapés of duck confit and foie gras paired with some French wine feed off each other. (Don’t think I memorized those dishes, I had to get up and reference one of his books.) I prefer simpler food.

Now, I should take a moment to address the general aura of the Throck. The theater dates way back-- Chaplin played there-- before they had air conditioning. And I played there and they still don’t have air conditioning. It’s rumored that Dylan played there. (He would love the place!) It’s an intimate community theater and it’s probably everything a traditional theater used to feel like-- before we all went global, moved away from our families, our neighborhoods, and into the anonymously cold and congested voids we call cities. For many of us, we live in places that have zero sense of community. I don’t even know my neighbors. My neighbors walk by me without even making eye contact. I try and have thus been labeled as the neighborhood crazy. “Who’s Mr. Wild Eyes?” This is not the way we are hard wired to exist. So it was refreshing to perform in an environment that felt like a home. I sent this email to Lucy, the theater’s owner, the following day, “Thanks again for providing such a wonderful environment to perform in... it is NO secret that what you do there is foster an energy that makes us all superior performers.” Of course everything will change when it gets bought by a corporation and becomes the “Head On, Apply Directly Where it Hurts Theater.”

Most joints I perform in have this assembly line mentality: get the people in, get the people two drinks, get the people’s money and exactly 90 minutes later GET THE PEOPLE OUT! And then get in a whole new set of people. Don’t feel too used. They have the same attitude towards the performers: get us in and get us out. One of the last clubs I played was filthy. Popcorn on the floor (I didn’t even see popcorn being served the entire week-- which led me to believe that the popcorn promotion was probably discontinued and the floor had not been cleaned in a while. It reminded me of this restaurant in Massachusetts called “The Ground Round,” where they encouraged people to throw popcorn on the floor. I still don’t get the encouraging part of it.) On the stage at this particular hellhole was a bottle of water-- an old bottle of water-- had that look of one that had been sitting on the desert floor for a while. My mind kept imagining a human skeleton holding a map laying next to it. The cliché brick wall behind me was crumbling and you could see hunks of drywall on the stage.

How is this supposed to make the comic feel? It is demoralizing to the performer. Would you like working in an office that was not kept clean? In general, these places DO NOT CARE. If you read the “Tipping Point,” then you understand the value of upkeep. One example cited in the book explained that a dramatic drop in crime in poor neighborhoods resulted because they had replaced broken windows in abandoned buildings; Or how New York City tipped crime on the subway in a favorable direction by enforcing and cleaning up graffiti on the cars.

So Sunday night rolls around (water bottle still on stage)-- and for reasons I will not get into or you would know what club I am talking about-- there were only 25 reservations on the books. I get to the club, expecting the show to be cancelled. What I didn’t expect to see was 25 people seated in the back along the perimeter. I asked the workers, “Why aren’t they seated upfront?” One of them chimed in, “Nobody wants to sit too close to the stage.” Well, I don’t know if you realize this-- but you kind of need people up close to have a comedy show. But they don’t care. They just want the night to go by quick, with the least amount of friction, then clock out, probably have a beer or a joint, and forget about it. They are there for a paycheck, not for the love of comedy like some of us. In my mind, I kept hearing the same thought, “Is this the first week you guys are doing comedy? How could you not know to seat people up front first?” They should be trained to walk people to a table close to the stage and say, “This is your table.” If they get any resistance from the patron, “What about back there?,” simply respond, “Oh sorry, that section is closed.” (All this and more will appear in my manual, “The correct way to seat people at a comedy club and why dropping the checks in the middle of a show ruins it for everybody.”)

Most of these comedy clubs need new tables, seats, flooring, bathrooms, mics, backdrops on stage, headshots on the wall, and in general a facelift. It’s not the type of place that feels warm to me. The customers sit there waiting for the show to start, having crappy music jammed into their senses, sitting in a shell of what was once probably a nicer club-- none of which says to me GET READY TO LAUGH. But we comics need these places. It’s where we cut our bones. I will always keep a foot in the club scene. I would not be a fifth of the performer I am today without these joints. I just wish they had more pride in their clubs. To make a living in these clubs, week after week, is a sad existence. I don’t care how impervious you are, how thick your bark is, “the club attitude” gets deep inside you. This does not apply to all the clubs. There are some wonderfully run clubs in this country. But they are rare. And I greatly look forward to working those weeks. They’re clean, the staff is professional and fun. (But all this is something I should discuss later in much greater detail.) So to be at place like the Throck is special.

The Throck is everything these places are not. The warm proprietor greets each patron and is continuously making sure the performers are comfortable. When the green room ran out of food, Lucy ordered more. When the club was way oversold, Lucy gave me a bonus. And this is why stars like Robin Williams and Dana Carvey drop in there and not places that leave old water bottles on the stage.

There is something undeniably magical about this Throckmorten Theater. It’s a comedy hungry audience that actually sits there and listens to the comics spin their words. They care. They laugh. Can you imagine that? They actually listen and respect the performer! I DID NOT SEE ONE CELL PHONE the entire time-- no servers with their arms extended, balancing flying saucer sized trays filled with drinks to make the drunk idiots… drunker drunk idiots. Sorry, but whoever thought alcohol was a necessary component to the comedy experience was WRONG. It’s there for one reason, to act as a little hand to go into your wallet and extract more of your money.

So for the first twenty minutes or so I am trying to find the proper rhythm for performing in front of a respectful audience. Sadly, I have the least amount of experience with this. And it took me that long to slow down and relax. I kept thinking, “It’s OK, they’re listening, don’t try so hard to hold their attention.” But like a rescued dog who’s previous owner abused him-- I kept flinching for twenty or so minutes. Then I trusted them.

Mark Pitta, the weekly host and organizer of the show, commented to me afterwards in the greenroom, “I thought we were having an earthquake at one point. People were stomping their feet and banging the walls.” “You ever see that before,” I asked, as I always have a need to know if my circumstances are special or not (I do this with women too)? “Never,” Pitta confirmed. I had never seen that before either. It was like a European soccer match with all that banging and stomping. It was a dream that I kept waiting to be interrupted by a riot. Minutes into my act relief set in, as I had felt the pressure of Robin watching (I could hear him laughing off to the side behind the curtain) and living up to the standing ovation my previous time at the Throck.

My goal in this type of situation is to do a mix of the old with plenty of new. I want to WOW the people seeing me for both the first and also second time. The old stuff is like a favorite pair of sweatpants-- broken in and very dependable. (By the way, in the above sentence you can substitute for sweatpants: t-shirt, sneakers, shoes, hat, ex-girlfriend, or mom’s meatloaf.) But I feel it is important to insert fresh material; it keeps me energized and satiates those returning or who have seen my DVD/CD “Path of Most Resistance.”

Sometimes a crowd is too good and they don’t even know it. They don’t realize they can’t possibly sustain this soccer stadium level fervor for an hour. This is when I make a calculated move to slow things down a bit-- get introspective-- sing a ballad. It gives me a chance to catch my breath, and in this case, realize I am over heating. Tuesday night I made the mistake of wearing a thick, black, button down shirt and jeans. I prefer t-shirts since I tend to get hot under the lights. I cant stand long sleeves. Even growing up in Boston I wore short sleeves all winter. But I wore a button down to show a modicum of respect for working in a theater. But at heart, I am a short sleever. Why am I wasting finger energy typing all this out??? Oh, that’s right, because beads of my sweat were dropping to the stage joining a puddle started by Charlie Chaplin.

The theater had a solution for this-- a fan. In the middle of my act, they actually plugged in a tornado fan and put it in the corner of the stage. I scoffed initially, but was shortly pleased at it’s effectiveness.

I take a seat on the stool and slow it down-- way down. I unbutton my shirt a bit. I was that hot and that pleased with the current state of my stomach distension. And gauging the reaction of the crowd, I feel safe about unbuttoning one more. And this leads to another, more roars, and I felt so good about myself I got down on the stage and started doing push ups. What does this have to do with comedy you ask? Not much, except for being in the moment and creating laughs for the sake of laughs and building a relationship with the audience. It’s important sometimes to just show that you are human.

Now 30 minutes into the hour, I’ve calmed the room down. I button my shirt up and start the difficult incline back to the place I had them at 10 minutes previous. I know it sounds insane to many of you that I would essentially sabotage my momentum and bring it down-- but it had to be done. Classical musicians do this all the time; they build it up and then bring it way down (bore us with a flute solo) and then go way up again. You have to texture things. I think it was either Mozart or Beethoven or possibly Captain and Tennille that would write symphonies and guess when audience members would start to dose off. And at the moment they figured people would have heavy eyelids, they guy with the cymbals would stand up and CLANG! I could watch people shocked by a good cymbals clang all day-- somebody should Youtube those moments.

Somehow I am now at 45 minutes. As it often does, time leaps on stage. I got lost in the moment, which is an important thing to do and not necessarily so easy (so many distractions). Time flies in the moment. About the only time in my life I am that close to the moment is onstage. Lately, I’ve been listening to Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” My mind is so full of noise it’s nearly impossible for me to be in the NOW. Tolle is a German, self help spiritualist who put out these CDs. By listening to his CDs he tries to help you achieve being in the NOW, but his German accent usually puts my someplace around 1942.

I button up my shirt-- but of course am off by a button and my shirt lays lopsided. My face says it all-- I give up. There’s no hope for me.

Offstage, Mark Pitta gives me the light. For those of you that don’t know what this signifies (which means you are not in show business and I am envious that you have escaped the insanity that has plagued my entire adult life), a performer is given the light to signal that he or she has a set amount of time left in their show. You can request a 5 or 10 or even 15 minute light. I usually like a 10 minute one. But Pitta was strobing the thing, making motions like he was slitting his throat with his finger-- in other words, like he needed me off the stage immediately. I looked at him and said, “What does that mean?” Pitta took this interaction as an invitation to walk out onstage. If it isn’t about him for more than half an hour, he gets nervous and tries to redirect the attention back on him. And when I said exactly that, the place broke into applause. Pitta is fun and runs a loose show there. He is adored by the community, rightly so. But they get his character type. The show has been running for 4 years based on his likeability. And as Pitta tried to commandeer my microphone to rebut, I said, “I don’t know how you guys have put up with him for 4 years, I couldn’t even stand him for the drive from Oakland airport. Wish I had known San Francisco airport was 10 minutes closer, I would’ve paid the additional 50 bucks to fly in there.” Actually, Pitta is the exact type of guy you can’t dislike-- his personality is infectious.

Pitta, not having a mic to work with, starts to unbutton his shirt. I take this as a challenge, so I start to unbutton mine again. And as he goes lower, I go lower. He whips off his belt. So I whip off my belt… half expecting that song “Dueling Banjos” to start playing. Then my shoe comes off and I sexily throw a sock. So Pitta starts to lower his pants. I’m thinking, “Is he really gonna do it.” And then out of nowhere, Robin Williams walks out onstage in just his boxers. It was hilarious. The place roared. The audience jumped to it’s feet. It was AS LOUD as I have ever heard an audience when I was onstage. And it wasn’t for me, it was for Robin! But I still loved it. Imagine you’re sitting there and have no idea Robin Williams is even in the country and then he walks out almost naked? Now with Robin in the middle of me and Pitta, the three of us barely clad, start taking stage bows-- like we just wrapped up performing Hamlet. Man, was it a thrill to see an audience react to a star like Robin Williams.

Pretty brave of Robin to strip down to his boxers and walk out there. I wouldn’t do it and I have far less to lose. And later it hit me-- that’s why Robin is a star, he is not hindered by inhibition. Every person that knows Robin, who I’ve told this story to, has said the same thing, “That’s Robin.”

They exit the stage and it’s just me up there again. Now what? “Thank you, I’ll be in the lobby selling my DVD?” It could’ve been worse, Robin could’ve walked out naked covering his phallus with his Oscar. How do you close a show like this? I’m digging deep, trying to process what just happened and how to exit the stage with decorum and dignity. No question I was upstaged, but I still deserved to wrap up my show and get my final applause. I knew I couldn’t do jokes-- any joke would sound stiff as a corpse at that point. My corpse if I did it. The first thing I said, “That was THE BEST Robin Williams impersonator I have ever seen.” At which point, Mike Pace, who had performed earlier and ripped it up, and who is admittedly anything but in shape, walks out shirtless.

And then a moment later Don McMillian, this awkwardly geeky giant, and former engineer, who had done a hilarious power point presentation on the show, walks out in his boxers and lifts me off the stage. It was chaos and the audience was loving every minute of it. And NONE of it was staged. It was all just unraveling. It was one of those nights I wished I was in the audience. (Unfortunately the house photographer was instructed to not take any pictures when Robin was onstage.)

There was no way for me to end the show, but to end it with something sentimental. Pure honesty can salvage almost any situation. (In book, insert story of how I got out of speeding ticket with pure honesty.) So I simply expressed how much I was enjoying the show before the male revue started; “What a thrill to return to the Throck to an oversold crowd. All week I had been looking forward to headlining this show, I felt on top of the world-- and then Robin Williams shows up-- like my ego needed that. I hope to see you again sometime. Good night.” And they leapt to their feet. “I did it,” I thought.

Now, how do you come down from a show like that? I went back stage and just BUZZED. One fly made the unfortunate mistake of landing on me and got zapped. Robin went on after me and did a large hunk of time. The audience ate it up. I needed a martini. And I would’ve chugged the thing in one gulp-- like you see in the movies and think, “Who ever chugs an entire martini?” Well I would’ve at that moment.

My favorite part of most nights is greeting the audience after the show and selling and signing my DVD/CD. For people to buy PATH, essentially wanting to see more of me after having just seen me for an hour-- really means a lot.

When the last of the people left, and I was again alone, packing up my duffle with what remained of what didn’t sell, I ask, “Robin leave.” “Yeah, he took off. He took one of your DVDs and a steak from the greenroom,” Pitta said. “Oh, cool, I told him to take a DVD. Did he really take the steak?,” halfheartedly joking, “I wish he had stuck around I wanted to ask him something about comedy.” (I wanted to know if he was concerned about improving something and then getting the exact wording the next time he did it.)

Pitta said, “Call him if you want,” and dialed Robin’s number on his cell. I was surprised that Robin answered, “Hello.” And I said, “Did you really take my steak? Everybody knows that the headliner gets the steak. How could you do that?” He laughed and in typical Robin fashion he went right into a routine about taking my steak, which led to us riffing about animals and other nonsensical stuff, and finally talking about mutual acquaintances.

The night ended with the rest of us hanging in the green room. We were trying to make sense of what had just happened, while I was stuffing my face with the middle act’s chicken.

Nights like this remind me precisely of why I went into comedy and not a more sensible job like Alaskan King Crab fisherman.

The end.

*** How well is your reading comprehension? TAKE THE QUIZ! ***

1. When in college, Orny claims to have counted the seconds in between laughs on Robin Williams’ album. How many seconds did Robin average between laughs?

A) 5
B) 3
C) 63
D. Robin did not get any laughs

2. What famous act was mentioned in the blog as also having appeared at the Throckmorton Theater?

A) Wayne Newton
B) The Cookie Monster opening for Bob Dylan
C) Charlie Chaplin
D) Captain and Tennille

3. Performers “Get the light” because?

A) They suck
B) They need to wrap up their show
C) They suck and need to wrap up their show
D) Performers like to see flashing lights

4. Orny had a horse growing up, what color was the horse?

A. Black
B. White
C. Magenta
D. Orny did not have a horse

5. What best defines Orny’s career?

A) He won an Oscar
B) Has been in over 50 movies
C) In 1977 was voted funniest man alive by Entertainment Weekly
D) He still drives a 2001 VW Jetta from the year he moved to Los Angeles

How did you do? Answers: 1: B, 2: C, 3: B or C and sometimes D. Anything but A. 4: D, 5:D

(Please excuse all spelling and grammatically errors-- a man who is
his own editor has a fool for a client.)

© Copyright Orny Adams, Icrushed Productions 2007


dramafan said...

I aced the reading comp quiz at the end! Really enjoyed reading this. Great job! - Barb xo

Mark Pitta said...

After finishing Steve Martin's book BORN STANDING UP, and this blog, I'm not sure which one is better.

Orny, this term paper gets an A-. I didn't give you an A because I know you'll be obsessing about the minus.


FunnyDummy said...

How many hours a day do you spend writing/rewriting material?

Dr. Demented said...

Orny...very cool blog...I got re-directed over here after reading your comment on my blog...thanks for chiming in there in my fight against The Red Man.

PixieSpork said...

I too aced the reading comp quiz. It scared me at first cause I thought this was one of those "quizilla" type quizzes, but I looked forward to getting the HTML to put on my website/blog/MySpace profile.

This was a great story! I think if I were in your situation, I would be crying. Not only because Robin Williams would be showing me up no matter how well I did, but also, because I love and admire him so much. That and we think alike which is scary.
Can't wait to read your book during the planned "Catch Up On Your Reading" book publishing pause of 2010.

katykk said...

~After reading this,
I think I love you.

So let's be friends
that know they would
wear each other out
in a parallel

oops flirting again!
(I respect you too if you must know)