A movie cliché that I’ve never been able to corroborate is the idea that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. Is that true? How would you be able to find out? Wouldn’t the entire investigation consist of sitting at the crime scene until the perpetrator returned? It sounds like that script device that no one ever debates, and the writer hopes he can sneak in without much scrutiny. Kind of like all the nebulous legal jargon that permeates legal dramas with the writer hoping the audience gives him a pass.
I was recently in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. My niece was graduating from high school and I was looking forward to the bathtub warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, the soft white sand, and a grouper sandwich.
Life intervened with a health crisis for my girlfriend, and we were lucky to have family, and two doctors on hand, and a great staff at the Bayfront Health Center in St. Petersburg.
Extending the trip presented an opportunity for me check the schedule at the Tampa Improv, to see who was in town and if it was someone I could impose upon for a guest spot. Turned out my buddy Dean Napolitano was in town, and he already extended the offer weeks before, when I asked if he was around the initial week I had planned.
More than 10 years earlier, Dean, was one of the first people I met in comedy when I was starting out. He was a recent arrival, but was a seasoned veteran of comedy. He had big time management and was running a show at a club. I was doing the open mic, on the insistence of my brother, and wondering what I had done with my life after leaving New York. These were not good days; I was living in an apartment with an interior bee’s nest and was missing New York after 9/11 when the city banded together. It felt like I left unfinished business, instead of following a dream westward.
I was embodying another cliché; that of the transplanted New Yorker lost and confused in the wilds of Los Angeles. I knew enough to shut up about pizza, bagels, and museums, but one of my early jokes had the terrible punch line, “now I’m like a soccer mom trying to get pussy,” about the car culture and dating in Los Angeles. Not my proudest moment, but you grasp at anything in the beginning.
Dean had some friends who saw me perform at the tail end of the open mic, and told Dean that I was funny. I hung out with them after watching the main show, and tried not to cling too hard onto what I thought was a good connection.
I was hungry for stage time and not so sure about the pathways to a career. I performed anywhere I could, at a Laundromat in Silver Lake, at spoken word open mics, where I’d pass off Springsteen lyrics as poetry, and once in a while with Dean and his crew.
It became imperative for me to have a tape of a set so I could get some real gigs. Even with better technology, getting tape is difficult, things go wrong: you forget to press record, you have to go off script to deal with a heckler, or somebody bumps into the tripod.
It came to me that if I got to Florida, I could ask a favor of my brother, who at the time was the executive producer of a local show that interviewed the headliners who were in town at the Tampa Improv. He had an “in” at the club — that was part one of the plan. The second part was to use his equipment from the television studio to make a professional quality tape. I was mic’d up, he had the camera they use for the reporters in the field, it was gonna be great.
I had a guest spot, which is usually 7 minutes, after the host. The headliner was Bill Bellamy. I had thrown a party the night before, at a club in LA that was the scene of an early comedy triumph that had bolstered my confidence. I flew to Tampa (hung-over) and changed into a good shirt in the car. I met the guy who extended the favor and who would also be the host. My brother took his equipment into the theater and I tried to settle my nerves with a Heineken.
The crowd started to fill in. I think I might have seen my parents and my sister-in-law before they headed to their seats. I was less than a year into doing stand-up, but was thinking this was finally a way in for me. It was writing and acting, it wasn’t passive, I could find a stage and I could perform.
The Tampa Improv is a beautiful club; it’s in Ybor City and has great architecture. It was a bigger crowd than I had ever seen. They were not there to see me. I was pacing around trying to get my energy going. The host started his set and was warming up the crowd. My brother was in the back of the room looking through the viewfinder.
The host introduced me. I had no credits. No reason to be there. And suddenly realized no material. All the jokes that worked in tiny rooms in Southern California coffee houses, and back rooms in bars were now sailing out of bounds like a rusty tennis player trying to get his game back on track. I was double faulting all over the place. I was looking for the light. It was only 7 minutes and I could not pull out of the nosedive. I was talking, doing the feeble material I had planned to do, but it was not club ready. It was not packed-house-Friday-night-paying-customer-ready. And it certainly wasn’t camera ready.
The light flashed, probably earlier than it would have flashed. I managed a dismount and walked off. The host started making fun of me and I walked to the bar and swallowed another beer in three gulps. The host came over and apologized for being a dick and kicking me while I was down, and he told me it wasn’t my crowd. I thanked him for the accommodation and apologized for eating shit. I had blown it. My brother had pulled a string and I had blown it.
My brother packed up his gear, and joined me at the bar, while I speed drank more beer. He asked me what I needed. I said I needed to get out of the building. I needed to go somewhere else fast. I needed to think about the rest of my life. We wound up at a barbeque joint and I soothed my shattered psyche with more suds.
Years later I returned to Tampa to play the rival club, Sidesplitters. I was the feature for my buddy, Jamie Kaler. My brother had his camera and I was ready. I had great shows, got great tape, and felt vindicated.
Last week, asking Dean for a spot, though, was returning to the place that made me question whether I would continue. This was the actual scene of my crime against comedy. Maybe those movie profilers are right. We do return.
My brother asked if I wanted him to see the show. He didn’t want to be a jinx. My girlfriend was well enough to attend and we were all looking forward to a night out on the town.
I have done over 1000 shows since I bombed in Tampa. I’ve got a couple of TV credits. I didn’t quit. But, I hadn’t set foot in that space since. I was warming up by goofing around with Dean, who I haven’t seen in years. I knew the stakes weren’t that high, it was a 10 minute set, on a Thursday. I just needed to stay sharp since I had to extend my time in Tampa. It didn’t look the same, until I looked to the back of the room, seeing where my brother had once set-up his camera. Then it came back, the anxiety. The crowd was good, more than half-full. The lights dimmed and the host was on stage, I was a few minutes away from being able to bury this demon, to slay this dragon, to succeed in front of family, to manifestly persist in the face of doubt. To travel back in time and say fuck you to that monster of fear and adversity. To feel good about myself. To make myself proud. To tell dick jokes in front of strangers. To do that thing we do.
I grabbed the mic and danced to the boy band music I had requested. I remembered to breathe and I remembered my girlfriend, who was in ICU for three days, texting me to “take my time.” I ripped it, or more accurately, I had a good set, got laughs and did my thing.
Dean had a great set and insisted I stand out in the lobby with him and thank the crowd as they exited. He was the headliner and they were there to tell him he did a great job, but enough people shook my hand and thanked me to let me know I had come full circle, that I had faced down a failure and turned it into a victory, to win the rematch, to get back off the mat, to get back on the horse, to topple the giant, to rattle off more clichés.
Maybe that’s why clichés are easy to use. They remind us of our connectedness. They remind us that life will step in and remind you who is in charge. And they remind you that if you return to the scene of the crime, sometimes you get to admire your handiwork.
Those ten minutes in Tampa didn’t add to my IMDb page, didn’t add money to my bank account, didn’t get me another agent. It was one of the few times where tying up a loose end is enough. It doesn’t come with a certificate. It is between you and whatever lifeforce you claim. It is one of those moments that you allow yourself some grace, some pride, some peace. I guess by sharing it I am looking to keep a record, or maybe encourage someone else to keep going, to try to face down constant discouragement. To remind myself that no one else can encourage you more than that voice inside you that says keep fighting. Thanks for hearing me. Peace.