As a standup comic, I’m typically insecure in that if I do 10 shows, where nine of the audiences love me and one hates me, I’ll tend to agree with the one that hates me and try to convince myself I should never perform in public again. That usually works until the next mortgage invoice shows up and I realize I have no other occupational skills.
In my experience, nothing reinforced that feeling of insecurity and worthlessness more than when, in 1995, I accepted a gig warming up the audience for The Drew Carey Show. Warming up a sitcom audience is not as easy as it sounds. You don’t hop onstage for 20 minutes, do your act, then say goodnight and let them shoot the show. A sitcom taping often drags on for hours, with frequent starts, stops and interruptions, as scenes are shot and reshot and mistakes are made and sets are changed. Your job as a warm-up is to keep the people entertained whenever the cameras aren’t rolling, so that the audience never loses its enthusiasm and is constantly in a good mood. This becomes difficult when the audience hates the warm-up guy.
I don’t think an audience has hated me as much as it did during that particular taping of The Drew Carey Show. I got my first inkling of that when, at 7 p.m., I did my standard opening line, “Give yourselves a round of applause for being here!” and two guys yelled out, “Blow me!” It continued during my standard explanation of what to expect during the taping and a run-down of the basic rules, when another guy raised his hand and asked me, “Are you gonna be talking during the whole fucking show?”
I looked at my watch. It was 7:01. I hadn’t introduced the cast yet, and I was already fantasizing about quitting comedy and opening a dress shop. Having a bad show is upsetting enough, but knowing that you’re bombing and there are four hours to go is about the worst feeling any performer can have. And the maddening part was, I hadn’t even started my act yet. They hated me for just saying hello and having the nerve to show up wearing a shirt and pants. During the introductions the audience suddenly came to life and burst into wild applause as the cast members appeared one by one. Thinking that maybe the storm had passed, I relaxed a bit and did one of my reliable, road-tested jokes. The reaction I got wasn’t so much laughter as it was a deafening silence followed by the kind of horrified groan you might hear in a Turkish prison on Bat Day.
Subsequent jokes got the same response. It got so bad that by 7:14 I was certain any minute my mother would be shaking me awake and telling me it was time for school, and why was I muttering, “Fuck you, that was funny!” in my sleep? But no, the nightmare dragged on and on … joke, groan, joke, bigger groan, joke, heckle (“Drew, could you come up here and save us?”). By 7:28 I was out of material. I didn’t say that out loud, even though it probably would have been my biggest applause line of the night. Desperate to fill the remaining 453 hours it was going to seem like, I resorted to any tricks I could think of: trivia contests, talent shows, merchandise giveaways, anything that would make them forget I was there. Hard as I tried, occasionally they would remember it was me and give me one of their signature terms of encouragement (“Tell us where you’re appearing next so we know when not to be there!”). Somehow I mulled on through to the show’s last scene and, finally, some time between the onset of global warming and the Rapture, it was over. The funniest thing I remember is, as the audience was filing out, one guy actually patted me on the back and said, “Good show, dude.” I have done many shows since that day, mostly in comedy clubs and theaters, mostly to happy and appreciative audiences. They say the shows you always remember, the ones that keep you humble, are the bad ones, and I’ll never forget that glorious evening of hell at Warner Bros. with a roomful of Turkish prisoners. Hopefully things will never go that badly again, but just in case, they recently closed a pet store in my neighborhood that’s a perfect size for a dress shop.