Making People Laugh for a Living Sucks
The horrible, depressing life of a traveling comedian.
I'm in Great Salt Lake State Park, 3:03 AM on a Wednesday, and the fireworks are lit. Blue smoke billows out over the dead shore as the sizzle turns into a screech and then a star explodes. The show was earlier in a bar that did not turn off the TVs. These other comics never smoke pot, but tonight they did. We are trespassing and drinking Coors, and I have to pee again. I drop to both knees to dodge a bottle rocket, and the bones of a million extinct fish lacerate my shins. I light a Roman candle with my Pall Mall and aim it toward the laughter.
I'm in Tama, Iowa, 2:12 AM on a Saturday, and the two old women say they are princesses. They wear their coarse gray hair in woven braids that hangs like earrings over their strong shoulders. The other comic is wide-eyed in the doorway sipping Ten High from the bottle.
After the show, on the walk to their compound, they said they'd have to cleanse the trailer because their brother killed himself in there last winter.
One princess repeats the name Eugene over and over as her sister stacks feathers. The younger princess takes the bottle from my friend and pours whiskey into a copper cup. The older princess pulls a feather from the bottom of the pile and dips it in the whiskey. She lights it and tosses it on the feather pile. They kneel next to the fire and blow across the flame to drive the smoke out into the night.
That night, I sleep like I am dead.
I'm in San Francisco, California, 9:17 PM on a Sunday, and Dana Carvey just told me good set. I tell him thank you, that means a lot, and that my mom and I used to watch his special where he did the bit about his son's penis. He laughs and says, "I love that joke, but it'd be creepy if I did it now. He's all grown up." Later, I call my father.
I'm in Los Angeles, California, anytime, and no one remembers my name.
I'm in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, showtime on a Friday, and I am hollow and burnt. I have done 29 shows in 27 days. I have drank too much and slept too little. I reek like Greyhound. I don't feel funny. Don't feel human. I need to lie down. Instead I keep bumming smokes.
The flyers say "THE UNDERGROUND KING RETURNS." I am 29. I am not a legend. I am a fraud. A huckster—my jokes are snake oil. These people don't need me. No one does. I should have stayed in school.
"This guy is honestly the funniest guy I have ever seen live. We've had him twice before here in Tuscaloosa, and you are in for a real goddamn treat."
Eight years ago, this is all I wanted. Me then would have been so proud. But me then doesn't know me now. Eight years, and I still have no idea what I'm doing. I need to call my wife and apologize for being gone so long. I miss the smell of her and our bed and our dog burrowing between. I shouldn't be out here. I am just a voracious ego masturbating for strangers: I trade my sanity for money in 45-minute chunks. I don't feel good.
"Here he is, y'all." I want to cry or scream or disappear. I ask the bartender for another High Life. "Sam Tallent!"
The mic is as cold as a dead snake. "Keep it going for my good friend Brian everyone."
A stranger in the darkness yells, "His name is Ryan." I have never been so alone.
I'm in Brooklyn, New York, after hours on a Monday, and the agent says I am so funny. She represents a famous comic and says I should be on Mad TV. I smile and nod and put another drink on her tab. My shoes are hot-glued together. Vodka preference? Whatever is expensive I say, and she laughs and I look out the window at the garbage men emptying the curbed plastic cans. I bet they, unlike me, can afford to drink in here.
I'm somewhere in Missouri, just after show time on a Saturday, and the envelope is light. I am in the booker's office trying to stay cool as he talks about immigrants through caustic teeth. He speaks in the practiced dialect of closet bigots. He carries a pistol on his hip and opines on the plight of hardworking Americans. He says Obama is robbing this country blind and that Trump will give the working man another shot at prosperity. He owes me one hundred more dollars. I did 58 minutes, and I am cold with stale sweat, and he is talking about Benghazi and Jill Stein and the free market.
I'm in Dickinson, North Dakota, 12:32 AM on a Thursday, and she is beautiful, but I tell her I can't and show her my wedding ring. I thank her for the joint and get out of her car.
I'm in Sydney, Nebraska, 7:27 PM on a Saturday, and no one is here. Gary, the Exalted Ruler of this Elk's Lodge, is trying to be reassuring. The Cornhuskers are playing Kansas. People will come after the game. I say I have no where else to go, and he laughs. I'm not kidding.
We watch the game with his family and other members of the Lodge. I am funny and the Leinenkugel is so cold it stings my teeth. When she laughs, Gary's wife squeezes his thigh.
At halftime, Gary says to follow him.
The lodge has a thin galley kitchen with racks of hanging pots. Gary lights a gas burner and puts a cast iron pan on the flame. He leans against the counter and lights a cigarette. He says that when he was a young man, he played guitar in a band that opened for Cheap Trick at the Nebraska State Fair. Says he met Duane Allman once in Kansas City. I ask if he still played, and he says he does every night.
The steaks are thicker than my palm, and when they hit the pan, they hiss. Gary tells me that the key is to get the pan as hot as you can. Then he pulls out his wallet and gives me $300 bills, says not to worry about the show, that it's his fault for not checking the schedule, and he apologizes I had to drive so far for nothing. I don't know what to say besides thank you.
In the future, I want to believe. I'm in America, and I ride shotgun in a rented Chrysler Sebring convertible, paid for by the theater. My wife drives me to the airport, and I sleep on the flight. The hotel provided is four stars. It's all in my rider.
Ticket sales are good because of all the podcasts, and the special. If we sell out all 2,500 seats, I'll get a bonus that will pay for our tickets to Milan—second honeymoon to celebrate Emily's residency. Marrying her was the best decision I ever made.
My agent tells me the new novel is moving well, and she wants to talk about what's next. She gives me a new drum set after the positive review in the New York Times. I give my old kit to my son, and I come home to him bashing along to Live at Leeds. He is better than me. I hope he is better than me.