Tonight I tried to record my first live performance of this story at Bevery Mickens' wonderful Story Salon at the Art Parlor in Studio City. I think it went pretty well. But then I came home and dropped my Zoom H2N digital audio recorder in the toilet. I snatched it out and it's drying as I type this, but I don't know if it will survive. Also, I don't know if I ever want to touch it again. It went in the toilet. That's icky.
That said, I think the story works very nicely. I'll probably try to record it again at some point. In the meantime, I present it below. I present it under the working title:
The Story of Jimmy Brogan is the Kindest Man on the Planet and Wil Shriner Taught me to Stop Having Murderous Fantasies About Bill Maher
I’ve realized, as I trundle through middle age, that my life has taken on the repeat-refrain structure I employ in many of my stories. Events that occur in the course of a day seem to be callbacks to events of years gone by, newly informed by intervening experience. I cannot tell if this is an indication that I seek natural closure in life as I do in art, or simply an indication that I do not evolve and simply continue to do the same things over and over again.
I’ve recently realized that the first place I performed regularly when I started doing Stand Up comedy all those years ago, was a bar in New York called The Callback, although I believe the bar’s name referenced the meaning common among actors -- the second round audition achieved by auditioning well enough to be looked at again -- as opposed to the meaning common among comics and story-tellers, the use of a word, phrase or punchline that recalls an earlier moment in the presentation newly informed by intervening imagery.
In the mid-eighties, a year or two after I moved to Los Angeles, I became house MC at Krissy Frances’ Hollywood Comedy Room on Santa Monica Boulevard. I took my job very seriously and thought of myself as host not only to the audience but to the comics I was to bring to the stage. It was always my goal to make everyone feel relaxed and supported and at home. I tried to protect the more famous guests from inappropriate fans. I also tried to protect everyone from this guy named Marty who came in every night trying to sell people jokes. Marty was not a regular performer at the club. He was not a comic at all, as far as I could tell. Nor was he a joke writer, really. He was mostly just a nudzhedikka salesman with a lot of chutzpah and a firm conviction that this made him qualified to hang out at comedy clubs and pitch jokes to largely impoverished comedians.
Jimmy Brogan performed regularly at the club. His act consisted entirely of “where are you from?” and “What do you do for a living?” He was all likability and improvisational crowd work. He came into the room ready to play with nothing prepared and stayed in the moment so comfortably that he could find hilarity in his conversational style without ever becoming cruel or abusive. He had gotten in with the folks at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and he was invited back on to perform stand up on that program every six months, but national mainstream television is not comfortable with someone going in front of the cameras and saying “where are you from?” So every six months he had to work up a new six minutes of actual jokes.
He came into Krissy Frances’ Room one evening doing jokes in preparation for a Tonight Show appearance. One of the jokes was an innocuous little one liner – I go to Supercuts ‘cause it’s only eight dollars. Well, eight and a quarter with tip – and it caught the attention of Marty the humor hawker. Jimmy came off stage. I went on to bring up the next act and when I returned to the green room Marty was standing much too close to Jimmy’s face saying, “You want Supercuts jokes, Jimmy? I got one for ya! What about this? What about, ‘I was short on cash one month so I went to Pretty Good Cuts?’ You think you can use that? ‘Pretty Good Cuts!’” I wanted to protect Jimmy, my guest, from Marty, whom I thought of as little more than an abrasive party-crasher. I moved to Jimmy, put my arm around him and said, “You’re looking for Supercuts jokes? I have a Supercuts joke, Jimmy . . .” And steered him away from Marty, chatting about what a good set he’d had and thanking him for his work and so on.
After a minute or two, he said, “What’ve you got on Supercuts?”
I said, “I only have one Supercuts joke, Jimmy. But I wasn’t – I was just saving you from Marty.”
Jimmy chuckled and said, “That’s very sweet of you. What’ve you got on Supercuts?”
I shrugged and said, sort of sheepishly ‘cause I was in my early twenties and suddenly felt as though I was auditioning material, “Right after I go to Supercuts, for about two weeks my friends keep coming up to me and saying, ‘did you just take a nap?’” Jimmy laughed. He said it was pretty funny. He asked me if it was for sale.
Despite Marty’s presence in the club at which I worked, it had never occurred to me that I might be able to write and sell jokes. I said, “um. Sure. Yeah. How much do jokes like that sell for?”
Jimmy said, “I’ll tell you what. Let me take it out and try it for a week. If it’s getting a laugh, I’ll give you twenty-five dollars.”
At this time in my life, twenty-five dollars was slightly more than I was spending regularly on an eighth of an ounce of grass. I wasn’t actually using the joke. I said, “Great!”
A week later, Jimmy returned to the club. He pulled a check from his pocket already made out to me for fifty bucks. I took it, looked at, and informed him that he had actually only offered me twenty-five. He chuckled and said, “Yeah. That was in case it didn’t work. Never take less than fifty bucks for a joke.” And then, “It’s getting a good laugh. I’m still probably underpaying you.”
This shows a sort of kindness, a generosity of spirit one rarely encounters in the stand-up world.
In 1990 someone informed me that Bill Maher was doing a joke of mine. I had opened for Bill a couple of years earlier, so I knew when he had heard the line and I confronted him outside the IMPROV on Melrose about it. He asked me which line. I told him. He said, “Oh. No. That’s word-for-word. That’s my line. I’ve done it on television.”
I told him that I had written it and that I knew when he had heard me do it. He asked me when I’d written it. I said, “I think I wrote it in ’84.” He said, “’83. It’s my joke.” From this I learned an important Hollywood lesson. Always let the other guy bid first.
For a little more than a year I carried my resentment over this joke around with me. I hated Maher to an inappropriate extent. I told the story and the joke to everyone who would listen. I was constantly on the lookout for joke thieves as if I was the corner-man for some bizarre humor-distribution gang.
One night at the now defunct L.A. Cabaret I saw a young comic doing a bit that I knew to be Wil Shriner’s. I called Wil from the payphone at the back of the club to alert him to the thievery. He chuckled and asked what the bit was. I told him.
I said, “You want me to talk to him?”
Wil said, “Nah. We can write, Dylan. If he’s stealing from me, it’s ‘cause he can’t write. I’ll come up with something else.”
It was so off-handed, so effortlessly generous-of-spirit that I was instantly reminded of the act of kindness that Jimmy had performed years earlier. I began to think consciously about which sort of performer I wanted to be, about which sort of person I wanted to be.
I had been following in the wrong footsteps, developing hostile, Hollywood habits of guarded envy. I wanted to be Wil. I wanted to be Jimmy.
Two years ago Jimmy and I were booked together on an all-headliners’ show at a comedy festival. I hadn’t seen him in more than twenty years. I told him that I owed him thanks. He was largely responsible for me finding my way into comedy writing as a source of income. I asked him if he minded if I developed the story to use on stage. He asked me what the story was. I told him.
I won’t repeat it now, ‘cause I just typed it a minute ago. Krissy Frances’ Hollywood Comedy Room. Marty the joke vendor. Supercuts.
He said, “I remember that joke! That used to get a good laugh.” And then, “Sure! Go ahead and tell the story.” No hesitation. Pure generosity.
The next night, I brought him a check for fifty dollars. He said, “What’s this for?”
I said, “If I’m telling the story, I’ll be getting a laugh with the joke. I figure I should buy it back from you.”
He said, “Keep your money, Dylan. Now that I remember it, I’m gonna start doing the joke again.”
I said, “You don’t mind that I’ll be using it when I tell the story?”
He said, “I work the road a lot. We probably don’t have a lot of crossover audience. And if someone sees one of us do it, and then, weeks or months later sees the other one do it. . . well, then it just works as a really good callback.”