A couple weeks ago, I had a show in Nevada in the middle of nowhere. If that sentence seems redundant, that’s only because Nevada itself is the middle of nowhere. Nevada is the capitol of Nowhere, actually. Its primary exports are depression and coupons for a free meal at a casino buffet. As you can tell by how inappropriately dismissive I am of an entire state, this show did not go well.
A little while ago I got added to a booking agency, and this show was my first that I got through them. I was booked to feature at Winners Casino in Winnemucca, Nevada. The headliner of the show was going to be a friend of mine, Greg, who vouched for me when I applied to the agency. He has small children, so he had to drop out. The agency found a last minute fill-in — a Sacramento comic that they’ve hired several times before whom I will refer to as JP.
My first interaction with JP was when he called me the day before the show and we worked out a travel plan. JP said he’d done shows at this casino before, and that we had to be there by 8 PM. The plan was that I would pick him up in Sacramento before 2, and I’d drive us to the venue. I later found out that the itinerary the agency gave us specifically said 7 PM, and that if we weren’t going to make it on time we had to call the agency first so they could take care of it.
Being that this was my first time working with this agency, I didn’t realize those guidelines, and was planning on just following JP’s lead. I was running a little late; I got to Sacramento around 2:30, but if we gunned it we could still make the show by 8. (At that point, I still thought that 8 PM was the show time) Once I got to Sacramento, we spent between 60 and 90 minutes running around while the headliner tied up some loose ends for his day job and tracked down his girlfriend. She wanted to come along, but only if she could waste a bunch of time first. (I don’t think that’s accurate, but it was very frustrating.) We left a little before 4:00 in JP’s car, with him driving and his girlfriend riding shotgun.
Around 5:30, the thought occurred to me that the venue had no idea we were running late. I mentioned that we should call the venue, to which JP replied something to the effect of, “Nah, it’s cool.” This was the first moment where I realized that maybe following his lead probably wouldn’t be a good idea. ”No, we at least have to call the venue and tell them.” JP pulled out his phone and Googled “Winners Casino” and found the number for the front desk. They answered pretty quickly. “Hey, who’s the big black guy that runs the shows?” (JP is also black, but the receptionist really had no way of knowing that, so it was probably weird to pick up the phone and immediately be greeted with what sounds like racism) “Herb, yeah that’s his name. Can you put him on?…. Hey, Herb, we’re running late, we had some car trouble. We should be there around like 8:30.”
My inner monologue went something like: “Oh ok. Car trouble. That’s the story we’re going with? Good to know.” I pulled up the GPS on my phone to see how close we were. Estimated time of arrival: 9:50 PM. I think JP did the same thing, or he just realized how far away we were, because after that call we started going far above the speed limit.
A little after 8 PM, I looked at my phone and saw that I had a missed call from David with the agency and a text that said “Sam, please call me as soon as possible. Hope you guys are alright. Want to know exactly what mile marker you are at. Thank you.” I called back, and his obvious first question was “What happened?” I looked over at JP; I was caught between a rock and a hard place. If someone’s paying me money, I really don’t like to mislead them. JP kinda looked at me, as if to nudge me and say, “Car trouble, dude.” I kinda stammered my way through explaining that “we had car trouble,” and once the follow-up questions appeared, I just handed the phone to JP. JP really dug his heels into the lie, adding details here and there. He’s definitely got experience doing that.
Finally, the phone call ended. I tried to put together a set list. I was supposed to do 30 minutes. I figured that my set would get cut a little short because of the late start time, but it’s good to be prepared. At about 15 minutes away from the casino, JP turned to me. “You should probably get into whatever clothes you’re gonna perform in, because we’re gonna have to jump on stage when we get there.” As we pulled into the parking lot, it struck me that I really had to pee, and there was no way I could stay on stage for 30 minutes if I didn’t go to the bathroom first. As we were getting out, I asked, “Hey, do I have time to find a bathroom?” “Yeah, just hurry,” JP responded as he and his girlfriend got their stuff out of the car.
I ran inside to find the bathroom. As I did, I noticed on the near side of the casino a person that I assumed was Herb, the casino’s event coordinator, on stage. I couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been up there. As I got out of the bathroom, JP was already on stage, and Herb tried to hold the microphone away from his mouth as he asked JP, “Did you bring a feature with you?” “Yeah, he’s in the bathroom…” I raised my hand to get JP’s attention. “Oh, there he is.” As I made my way to the stage, Herb started into a grand introduction that came to an abrupt halt when he leaned over to me and asked, “What’s your name, kid?” “Sam Weber.” “Ladies and gentlemen, Sam Weber!”
I was maybe 2/3rds of the way through my first joke when a faceless woman in the back took the cigarette from her mouth to call out, “Herb, you’re funnier than him!” Just remember, there’s no part of this story where things go well. I, having just traveled for 8 hours, most of that time with strangers that made me lie to my boss, was already pretty flustered. I kinda acknowledged that someone had said something rude to me, and then tried to finish my joke. That’s strike one. For clarity, the joke itself is about a show I did in an old white town that did not go well. Afterwards, I texted my friend about it and said, “Hey, why don’t old people like boner jokes?” He responded with, “Because they don’t get ‘em!” Yuk yuk yuk. Erectile dysfunction jokes are fine for a quick laugh, but only with certain audiences. Keep in mind that of all the towns where you can do that joke, Winnemucca, Nevada, is probably the oldest and whitest. That’s strike two and strike three. Again, I was flustered.
I got the light at about 8 minutes in. It wasn’t a soft light, like wrap it up, end strong. It was a hard light, with wild arm gestures to make it clear, end the joke and get off the stage. I can’t think of a good analogy to illustrate how horribly soul-crushing it is to be contracted to do something for 30 minutes, and then get benched less than a third of the way through. I’m sure there’s a good one, though. As I was walking off stage, JP pulled me aside. “Hey man, they’re cutting the show short because of time. I’m probably gonna do 20 or 30, and then I’m gonna pull you back on stage and we’ll riff on the audience. Just hang out in the back, don’t leave.” I nodded, because I comprehended the sentences that came out of his mouth, but at the same time, it was possibly the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. Why would we do that? And how? There’s only one mic. And seriously, why? This audience doesn’t want to see me ever again.
Herb gave JP a nice introduction, and he jumped on stage. It was instantly obvious why JP gets work. From the moment he got on stage, the crowd was entertained. He ended up performing for about 45 minutes, and most of that was crowd work. The written material he did use was all set up by stuff he was talking about with the audience. A few minutes into his set, I got a call from David at the agency. My reception was terrible inside the casino, so I texted back something to the effect of, “Can I call you after the show?” David’s response was crystal clear. “No. You are not on stage, call me immediately.” I realized then that doing what JP said had only made things worse, so I walked outside to make the call.
David yelled at me for about two or three minutes before I think he realized that most of the problems had been out of my control. He explained that the casino wasn’t going to give us full pay. My pay would be cut to a third of the original amount, and JP’s would be cut to 50%. Given that we were two hours late to begin with, I had thought there was a very real chance that we wouldn’t be paid at all. I was fine with getting anything, but I knew JP would not be. The conversation ended with David telling me to make sure JP called him as soon as possible.
When I went back inside, the only thing I wanted to do was check into my room and lie down for a bit and charge my phone. I tracked down JP’s girlfriend. She told me that my stuff had been locked in the car, and that the keys were in JP’s pocket. On stage. In other words, I was trapped sitting at the bar in a room where I just got yanked off stage, and I had to stay there until the headliner got off stage so I could get my crap out of his car. That is my personal hell.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Herb. He’s just the talent coordinator, he’s not a comedian. He had to cover for a show that got started two hours late, and he managed to keep a reasonably large crowd, too. I went over and apologetically thanked him as best I could. He seemed appreciative. With an unsteady and awkward dismount, JP got off the stage and Herb took over. After doing the standard host stuff, (“Give it up for your bar and wait staff!”) he called out, “Hey JP, David wants you to call him!” and I couldn’t help but facepalm.
I got the keys from JP to get my stuff and check into my room. (JP had to be at work in Sacramento the next morning at 8 AM, meaning we would be leaving from the casino at 2 AM. Having a room didn’t mean a place to spend the night as much as it meant a private place where I didn’t have to interact with people.) With my phone charging, I came back down stairs to find that the massive train wreck of a phone call between JP and David was underway on the casino floor. In the middle of the casino floor. All over the casino floor. JP had just found out that he wasn’t going to get paid in full, and was angrily pacing between slot machines and shouting all sorts of belligerent things. There were threats about how JP’s going to steal all of David’s business, vague warnings along the lines of “you have no idea who I am,” etc. It was upsetting.
Herb watched this situation develop, and saw the difference between the raving madman on the phone scaring the patrons and me sitting quietly at the bar. He walked up to me and said, “We can pay you $75 instead of $50. Follow me to the cages.” By the time I got my money and came back to the bar, JP and his girlfriend had gone to their room. The performance space had cleared out, and a waitress who looked like she’d been working here for too many years was almost done picking up the empty glasses. She looked over at me and said, “You guys had a pretty rough night, huh?”
I thought about it for a second. This was without a doubt my worst experience in comedy. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a show this bad again, but even if I do, I don’t think it could be any worse. Beyond that, I got paid $75 for 8 minutes, which is probably an hourly rate that Harvard-educated legal consultants get. I looked back at her and said “Well, it’s not always this good.” She laughed. “That was a good one.”