10 Years From Letterman
Today is 10th anniversary of my stand-up comedy set on “The Late Show with David Letterman”
In honor of it I’d like to share the memories I have of the day/week I taped it. This is just about the actual day/week I did the show.
Friends & fans know the entire long road to that week and show was a roller coaster of it’s own. That story has been told many times by me in talks, books, articles etc… AND I believe, told best by the fantastic film-makers of “Dying to do Letterman” (Available HERE FREE on Amazon Prime! #shamelessplug).
Please check the documentary out if you haven’t. It’s an incredible ride. But in honor of the airing anniversary I’d like to just concentrate on the week I taped itself. That day has a story of it’s own you only see a small part of in the movie. So I’d like to share what I remember of it, this decade later.
The booker of “The Late Show with David Letterman” Eddie Brill, called me on a Wednesday in late August 2009. I was returning a rental car with some other comedians. I looked at the phone and saw Eddie’s name. It got me excited and frustrated at the same time. I had been sending Eddie DVD’s and links to my comedy for almost five years at this point. Some times he called me to tell me why what I sent him wouldn’t work on the show. Other times he didn’t respond at all (I knew what that meant). Eddie was always encouraging when I spoke with him. Even though he was always telling me the jokes weren’t “good enough” or “right” for the show. But even though he handled it the nicest he could I was still left depressed after each call. It always felt like I was getting further away from being on the show, not closer.
Again this is a reflection on me not Eddie the booker. I can’t imagine having his job. He made hundreds of comedians dreams come true…but he also had to break the bad news to many more thousands. Tough thing to do. He handled it better than I would have.
Anyway when I saw his name I felt excited… and then almost immediately beaten. I knew this was gonna be another call of him telling me why what I had sent him wasn’t gonna work. I even showed the other comics his name on the phone and rolled my eyes. They all got excited. “Answer it, you idiot!” They hadn’t gone through four plus years of rejection calls from the show. They hadn’t sent bit after bit to him being sure “this was the one”… only to be told it wasn’t. I knew I would never quit chasing my dream to be on the show, but I wasn’t handling it as well as I had before.
I stepped outside the rental car office and took the call. Eddie sounded extra pleasant. He pretty quickly told me he was going to put me “on TV.” I started to let myself get excited. Then I let doubt creep in and asked if it was on Letterman OR a different TV show. Eddie laughed and said of course it was on the Letterman show!
NOW I let the excitement take over. I can feel the excitement again as I type this. My mind whirling. My hands shaking. My stomach full of pterodactyls. I broke into a smile I couldn’t speak through. I turned to look at the rental car building I was standing in front of… the other comedians were all lined up inside at the giant window watching me with anticipation. I smiled bigger and tried to give them a “cool” thumbs up—like this somehow happened all the time. They all knew that meant “YES!” They started pounding the window and jumping up and down. I still love all of them for showing the excitement I was feeling (but holding in) in that moment.
The booker told me I was going to tape the show the following Tuesday. They wanted me there a day early in case travel got messed up. Less than a week from then I was going to be on. In those 5 days I had to fly home to Los Angeles from the East Coast, get a suit, practice the hell out of that set and fly to NYC. I remember thinking I didn’t have enough time to run the set in front of audiences as many times as I wanted. Eddie, the booker, told me a bunch more things and details but I don’t think I heard any of them. I told him that. He said he understood and that someone from the show would be contacting me to arrange it all.
When I hung up all the comics ran out and hugged me. We hi-fived repeatedly. Even hours after that. It was great to share it with them. Comedy is usually a lonely business. Onstage alone. Traveling alone. In hotel alone. I got to experience the moment with a bunch of people who understood every bit of that.
I called my wife, Denise, and shared the news. I think she cried. She knew this whole journey from a non-comic’s perspective. From a partner’s view. It’s strange I’ll never know all the feelings she had that day. That week. I know she was happy and excited and proud. I felt loved and that WE had reached something together.
That evening I flew home and stared out the window of the plane the entire 5 hours. The clouds that day were amazing. So gigantic and fluffy and brightly colored. The kind you’d imagine landing on, not falling through. It was the perfect view for what I was feeling inside. I felt like I was hovering magically above the Earth. I mean I was in a plane, but it would have felt like that anyway. You know what I mean.
I got home and shared the news with the rest of my friends and family. Denise had started a checklist of everything I/we needed to accomplish before flying out to NYC. I started to call every club I to get a guest set, so I could practice the routine. I remember doing the Comedy & Magic Club, The Hollywood Improv, The Icehouse and The 3rd Street Theatre. There were more but those are the ones I remember.
Funny story about the Hollywood Improv guest set. I was there to run my set for the last time before heading to NYC. I was waiting in the hallway and scheduled to go up next. It’s always awkward running a TV set in a normal club setting. You can’t really be loose and engage with the crowd. You need to be still, focused, exact. No extra words or movements. No interaction. You do it like you’ll do it on television—which is the opposite of how you’d perform in a club. So you stick out like a sore thumb onstage when you’re practicing a TV set. But you have to do it and it’s unnatural and nerve-racking. So I’m in the hallway running the set in my mind and I see Carlos Mencia walk in. NO!!!!
Any comic reading this knows what that means. For non-comics it means there’s a strong chance I won’t get to go up. Stars often pop in and do unscheduled sets at clubs. It’s routine. They’re stars so it’s great for them, the crowd and the club. But often when this happens someone who was scheduled to be on the show gets removed. Not all the time but a lot of the time. UNLESS it’s Carlos Mencia. Then everyone usually gets scratched because he never does less than a half an hour, even if he says he’s doing five minutes. So by the time he’s done there’s no time for anyone else.
I’m not making a judgement here, it’s just how it is with him. OK there’s a little judgement. Anyway I quickly see my last West Coast chance slipping away. I panic. Decide to be bold. I walk right up to him and tell him I’m doing Letterman this week and I’m going up next. He doesn’t seem to really care and asks who is running the show going on. Once he meets that guy it’s over. I’m feeling dejected. I look at my friend Biagio who is a filmmaker and is there with his camera. I think quickly and say “Biagio, it’s Carlos Mencia!” Biagio jumps right in and runs over to meet him, camera in hand. Biagio says some nice things to Carlos and engages him in compliments and industry talk for just enough time that the show runner comes out to the hallway. He asks if I’m ready. I say, “yes” and try to rush him back in the showroom. He notices Carlos. “Is that Mencia?” He asks? DAMNIT! “Uh yeah…but he’s talking to some filmmaker. Better wait to talk to him when he’s done.” The booker nods in agreement and we go inside. YES! I run the set. It goes OK. Carlos goes on after me. Everyone else gets scratched. My quick thinking and Biagio’s improv skills got me a set that almost slipped away. What I’m saying is I was on a good run that week.
My wife Denise wasn’t able to make the trip to NYC with me. Again if you want more of that story see “Dying to do Letterman” on Amazon Prime for free. Shameless plug 2. I flew out to NYC on Monday by myself. I was feeling a little lonely even though the biggest day of my life was coming. My dream was coming true but because of the quick notice of it all a lot of friends and family who shared the journey could not be there. Lots of friends who said they’d be there when it happened couldn’t. So I arrived at JFK alone. I went into the city alone. I arrived at the hotel alone. The hotel was a couple blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was called The Dream Hotel. Seriously. That made me feel a bit better.
Eddie Brill picked me up at the hotel Monday night and we went to a couple clubs in NYC to practice the set. I wanted the practice but I’d also heard awful stories of comics not doing well on the practice sets and then not doing the show. That never left my mind. I ran the set three times that night. After the second run-through Eddie suggested removing the first 25 seconds of the joke. He thought it would work just the same without it. I resisted. I wrote the joke this way. I honed it this way. He approved it this way! But Eddie thought it would work just as well without it and we’d get into the heart of the bit quicker. I honestly didn’t even want to consider that he might be right. My point was it was the night before I was going to do it on TV. I’d done the joke hundreds of times one way—18hrs before doing it on TV was not the time to mess with it.
Eddie pushed harder and also suggested a tagline for one part later in the joke. I felt pressured and had the idea of losing the TV spot in my mind. He convinced me to try it his way on the final practice set that night. I relented. The joke worked fine with the changes. But that was only one time I’d tried it that way. One time doesn’t tell you a lot about a joke working or not. I was still hesitant to do it this new way.
Eddie insisted and I felt II was in no position to say, “No I wanna do it the way I’m used to.” He was giving me this opportunity and so I had to compromise. I said I’d cut the first part but I didn’t want to do the extra line he suggested later. He agreed.
IF you’ve ever seen the documentary “Comedian” with Jerry Seinfeld you might remember a scene where Orny Adams goes on Letterman. They ask him to change one word in a joke he’s doing on the show. Hours before the show. They want him to change the word “Lupus” to “Psoriasis.” We can all agree Lupus is a way funnier word. Orny rightly stresses out about the change. He didn’t write it and hone it that way. Who knows if that will work? I had seen that documentary and now it was all I could think about. He had to change one word in the middle of the act. I was removing the first 25 seconds of my joke. The introduction. The jumping off point. The launching pad!
Plus I was already doing something a bit different. I was doing a set that was entirely one bit. One topic. No changes in subject. It was one long story about one thing. If it wasn’t working there was nowhere else to go. Usually comics on TV have four or five different jokes or topics they hit. If you’re not liking something don’t worry cuz there’s a change-a coming! It’s a little freer. Easier to be confident in. I had only seen Jake Johannsen and Brian Regan do one long bit on Letterman. They were comedy Gods. They had done the show 30+times each. This was my first time. I was attempting something difficult already. A tightrope with no way off. And now it was changed the night before. With one run through. I was scared. But what was the alternative?
My mother was the only family member able to make the trip to New York on such short notice. I met her back at the hotel and we decided to go out and grab some late dinner in the city that never sleeps. We walked to the Carnegie Deli a few blocks away. I told her about the change to the joke. She was concerned but told me things would be alright. She did it in that way that mothers do where it helps even if you don’t believe them.
The Carnegie Deli was packed even though it was after midnight. It’s closed now, but it was the kind of place you sat at tables with strangers. Even though I had to fit in a new suit the next day I ordered some comfort food. My mom got a slice of cheesecake the size of the ribs they put on the Flintstone’s car. After a few minutes it started to thin out and I noticed Howie Mandel sitting across the restaurant. I had done some audience warm-up on “Deal or No Deal” when it started but knew Howie would not recognize me. However, my mom wanted to meet him. So when he got up to leave I said his name low enough so only he would hear it and he came over. I asked him what he was doing in New York and he said he had been on Letterman that day. My mother seized the moment and proudly proclaimed “My son is doing it tomorrow!”
Howie laughed and smiled at her pride, then looked at me. I told him I was a comic, but didn’t mention “Deal or No Deal.” He wished me luck. My mother reached out to shake Howie’s hand. Now I laughed because it’s very well known Howie is a germ freak. So he made a fist to “bump” my mom. My mother just stared at it, as any normal person would. I said, “Howie doesn’t shake hands, Mom. He fist bumps.” She gave me a look like she understood but I could tell she did not. My mom then reached out and enclosed Howie’s fist in her own hand and shook it like you would in a handshake. Fist in hand. Howie was taken aback but you could tell appreciated the humor of it. He quickly said goodbye and good luck and left. I’m sure to find the nearest bottle of Purell. The hilariously awkward moment got me out of my head and allowed me to let go of the joke worries for the night.
I tried to sleep in, but that’s pretty hard on the biggest day of your life. My best buddy Gary was the only friend able to make the trip to NYC on short notice. We met up in the middle of the day to grab lunch. We walked around for an hour trying to find just the right thing to eat—nothing too filling, but something to soothe my stomach. We decided a salad would probably be the best thing. Gary nor I are regular salad guys. But we knew that this was the moment for it, and that a better meal would come after the show taping. Strangely, it was hard to find a place to just grab a decent salad in the greater Times Square/Broadway area. Lots of great delis, fine restaurants, chains, and of course pizza places. But not a place to grab a quick salad. We looked for an hour before realizing it was going to get too close showtime to eat. So this is how, on that very special day, we came to eat at an Olive Garden. Yes, Olive Garden. We were in the greatest culinary city in the world and we went to Olive Garden. NYC home of the greatest Italian restaurants outside of Italy—and we went to Olive Garden. We knew it was wrong but we did it. I had a great salad and my stomach was good fo the day.
After lunch I went back to the hotel and ran the set into the mirror a few dozen times. It felt weird the new way, but each run through was a little less clunky. I took a shower and as I was getting dressed I realized I hadn’t packed enough underwear. I needed to go shopping. I couldn’t wear old dirty underwear under my new Hugo Boss suit!
Truth be told Gary wasn’t the ONLY friend to make it to NYC. My Friends Joke & Biagio made it too, But they were also there as the filmmakers that were capturing the whole journey. They checked in with me after lunch, and when I told Joke I had to go buy underwear she said they needed to capture this ridiculous errand for the movie. Now a decade later I don’t remember them bringing cameras on the shopping trip, but I do remember them helping me find a nearby store, walking there with me and choosing the perfect pair.
At that time Letterman was taping two shows on Tuesdays. An early one that aired later that evening, and a late one that aired on Fridays. I was on the second taping. Eddie Brill told me he would call me after the first taping and let me know when to come. Waiting for that call was nerve racking. I heard endless stories of comedians being “bumped” or scratched from the show because other parts of the show ran long, or for unforeseen circumstances. Ray Romano was bumped twice before he ever got perform on the show. With an early show it felt to me like there was more of a chance for this to happen. If someone famous was on the first show and got bumped, why not just slide them to the second show since they were there?
I was back at the hotel rehearsing when Eddie called. Just like his call at the rental office 6 days earlier I picked it up excited and scared. Eddie was in a great mood. He said the first show went great and to come on over. It was a GO! I packed up my suit and walked the few blocks to the theater. Seeing the “Late Show with David Letterman” marquee gave me the biggest smile of my life. I was here. I was going inside. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life walking up to the building.
There was a line outside forming for the second show audience. Maybe a hundred people were there as I passed. My friend Larry “Bubbles” Brown had given me a tip I decided to use. I stopped in front of the line of people. I said, “Excuse me everyone…” and they all turned my way. Even the CBS Page working the audience coordinator position looked at me. She seemed perturbed, like only she was allowed to command this group. I’m sure she thought I was a crazy street person harassing the group at this point. Before she could jump in to say anything I continued, “My name is Steve Mazan and I’m a stand-up comedian making my debut on the show tonight. I know you don’t know me, so I thought I’d say ‘hello’ now so you recognize me later.” The line all yelled “hello” “hi Steve” “break a leg” and applauded for me. The CBS Page still looked mad.
As a guest I got to enter the the theater from the alley entrance. Any fan of Letterman can tell you all the crazy bits and sketches that have taken place in that alley off Broadway (Rupert Jee’s Deli right there too!). Turning into the alley that day was magical. On the first show that day Letterman had a dog jumping competition, that was sponsored by Purina I think. So as I turned and walked down the alley there was still a raised runway for about 50 feet and then a giant long pool for the dogs to jump in. Even though the sketch was done, the alley was filled with dogs and there were even a couple still running and jumping into the pool. What a surreal sight. Here’s a link from a time they did it a couple years later.
I checked into the theater and they put me in the green room. They offered me drinks and food but I didn’t want to mess with anything at this point. I even turned down what appeared to be freshly baked cookies. I swear. A Page told me they’d have my dressing room available soon but it was still being cleaned from the guest on the earlier taping (Jeremy Piven or Rumer Willis probably). While I was waiting I saw the strangest man I’d ever seen in my life eating the food on the craft services table I was denying myself. He was so odd looking. At one point we made eye contact and he gave me a nod and a smile. He seemed very comfortable here. Then it hit me who he was. Paul Schaffer. He just wasn’t wearing his trademark sunglasses. It was like seeing Chaplin without his mustache. It didn’t seem right.
After a few minutes they took me up to my dressing room. It was up on a different floor than the stage and you could walk up a few flights of stairs or take an elevator. The page and I took the elevator and they left me in my dressing room. Pretty quickly someone from wardrobe came by and took my suit and shirt to be pressed. They took my shoes to be shined.
Eddie Brill came up and said hello and asked if I wanted to see the stage. YES! He took me down and walked me onto the legendary Ed Sullivan stage. There was Dave’s desk. There was the Band Shell. There was the theater—two gorgeous levels of sprawling empty seats (for now).
Eddie showed me where I’d come out. Where I would stand. Where the cameras would be. Then he said, “Ok they’re gonna be letting the audience in, let’s get you back to your dressing room.” I asked him if I could stay a few more minutes. He smiled. I think he understood. He said he had a few things to do and left me there.
There were crew people running around setting things up, a band member here and there, but otherwise I was pretty much alone on the stage. I took it all in. I always feel weird the first time I perform somewhere. Every stage is different. I usually don’t feel comfortable at a comedy club until the second night there. Once I know the sightlines, the parameters, the lighting, the sound. The feel.
I wouldn’t get a second night here. So I stood on the spot I’d be performing on and just looked all around. I tried to take it all in. Tried to make it feel like I’d been there before. Like this was old. This was familiar . This was home. After about seven minutes the audience started filing in. More crew and stage hands were scrambling about. More and more people looking at me like “who the hell is that guy and what is he doing standing there onstage?” I took one last deep inhale and tried to save it the entire way back to the dressing room.
I relaxed for a couple minutes in the dressing room and ran the set again into the mirror there. Almost right after I finished, someone came and grabbed me to go to make-up. The make-up people were so much fun. They helped me relax. It was three or four ladies in a room laughing. All good looking as make-up people often are. Almost immediately the “hair girl” asked if I was going to be bending over. It seemed like a weird question until I realized there was a part in my act where I do bow and bend a bit. She said, “Great then let’s fill in this little bald spot at the back of your head.” Her nonchalance and obvious routine of dealing with this cracked me up. It set the tone for 15 minutes of laughing with them. It also allowed me to ask for a favor. As the “make-up girl” was finishing with my face I said, “ummmm, I don’t know if you noticed but I have very light, thin eyebrows…” Before I could even tail off she responded, “I noticed the minute you walked in the door. I’ll make ‘em look great.” Again I burst out laughing and set my mind at ease. I was in the best of hands.
When I went back to my dressing room there was more than my pressed suit waiting for me. The dressing room next door was overflowing with people. They were spilling out the door, filling the hall and completely blocking my door. Whoever this guest was they had a huge entourage. Or so I thought. I squeezed into my room and there, with smiling faces, were my friends and filmmakers Joke & Biagio.
Joke and Biagio were originally just going to watch the show from the audience. They weren’t allowed to bring cameras in or around the studio, so they were just going to enjoy the taping with my mother and Gary. I was given four tickets and that was the plan. However things changed the day before. A family I had met on a cruise the year before had heard I was going to be on the show. They lived in upstate New York. Although the short notice was hard for most of my West Coast friends to make it, it was pretty easy for this family to make last second plans to attend. But I had a hard limit of four guest tickets. Luckily, I was able to get the parents of the family, Katherine and David Barringer, into the show and have Joke and Biagio just join me in my dressing room.
Since Joke and Biagio would watch from there, they were in the dressing room when I returned. As I entered we all made a face at each other like, “It’s a circus in that hallway, right?” I then actually said, “I wonder whose entourage that is?” To which Joke replied, “No, we met them. They’re all in the band that’s on after you.” I’m not kidding when I say there were twenty people up there. I assumed what Joke meant was that there were 4-5 band members and their entourage. Nope. It turned out most were in the band. You can see footage here of classic Dave stumbling through all of them, thanking them, after their performance.
As I recall the show started pretty quickly and I got dressed and was ushered backstage. Behind the cool city bridges backdrop the show had. There I met Biff. Yes, that Biff. The legendary stage manager I had grown up watching. He was exactly like he was when you watch the show. Likeable, smiley and charming. He had something that said “Army” on and I commented on it. Biff told me he served in Vietnam and asked if I had been in. I told him I had been on a submarine in the Navy—then the guy who just told me about his war tours told me he could never be on a submarine. We laughed and traded some barbs about the services. He really kept me loose.
Biff told me we had a little time while Dave was interviewing the first guest and that he’d hand me a microphone right before I headed out…if it was going to happen. IF? What did that mean? Then I realized I wasn’t going to have a microphone. The show wanted comics to use a hands-free lapel lav mic so it didn’t look like a comedy club. I think at that time only Seinfeld was using a microphone when he did stand-up on the show. This would also be the first time I told the joke without a microphone in my hand! It sounds minor, but imagine practicing something one way—like a dance—a thousand times with something in your hand. And then being told in the most important dance to do it without the object. Well what do yo do with that arm NOW? Definitely a curve ball.
So I told Biff I was already mic’ed up with a lav. He said, “Oh right,” like he remembered that was the new way too. Then I asked, “What did you mean ‘IF’ it happens?”
“Oh, sometimes the interview runs long and the comedian gets bumped.” Of course I knew this could happen before getting to the show. And yes, I did know it could happen even this late. I had heard a story from one of my favorite Letterman comics Nick Griffin of being given the handheld mic by Biff as they went to commercial…and then having it yanked from his hand just before they came back from the break. He got scratched that late. Mic in hand! So I knew it was possible. But seeing Biff be ready for it, and mention it to me, made me worry about it way more than I had been. Just another log on the fire.
And then there was the biggest log of them all: Neil Patrick Harris. He was the first guest that night. This was when he was on “How I met Your Mother.” But the show was just finding its audience around this time. It was a bit like “Seinfeld” like that. I still thought of Neil Patrick Harris as a kid star at that point. But he was really showing people he was way more than that around this time. And that night he was cracking Dave up. I could hear Dave laughing at him. Genuinely. I’d seen enough Dave enough that I thought I could tell what was real and what was not. He was enjoying Neil. Neil was scheduled for two segments but at one pint Biff said to me, “They’re extending, Neil.”
Damnit. I was gonna get bumped. But there was a band too. Would I get bumped or them? It seemed easier to bump one guy rather than the traffic jam up in the dressing rooms. Biff told me there was enough time and not to worry. But I still did. The more I heard Dave laughing the more I thought, “Come on, wrap it up, Doogie.” And he finally did. They went to commercial and and I was wondering if I was gonna walk out there after the break or be sent back to the dressing room.
As I waited there alone—Biff wandered off somewhere—Neil Patrick Harris came off the stage. He saw me and said, “Hi.”
I said, “Hi. Great job. I’m the comedian, Steve.” He introduced himself even though he didn’t need to and said the crowd was great. He wished me luck and said he’s be watching from the dressing room. He walked away and Biff came back.
Biff was obviously listening to something in his headset. He put his arm on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, “Ok, Sailor, here we go.”
It was happening. I heard the band start to wind down the song they were playing through the break. And then something crazy happened. All the worry went away. I felt cool, calm and collected. This is seldom the case. I still get nervous today on shows at coffee houses or crappy shows that have no consequences whatsoever. But for some reason at that moment I wasn’t even feeling butterflies of excitement. It was like I worried about IF it would happen so much, I forgot to worry about WHEN it happened.
The band stopped and I heard Dave make a few off the cuff funny comments. Then he went into my introduction. On my intro I asked that they plug some upcoming shows I had at “Wiseguys Comedy Club” in Utah. Eddie Brill asked if I had a different place to plug because he knew Dave would find the name “Wiseguys” funny. I stuck to my guns on this because the owner of Wiseguys, Keith Stubbs, was the first club owner to headline me. I wanted that to be the plug.
Eddie was right though. Dave cracked up at the name and riffed a few jokes about it before continuing with my introduction. I even had a fleeting thought about, “What is he riffs on my intro soooo long that we run out of time for the actual comedy set!”
Finally Dave said, “Please welcome Steve Mazan.”
Biff pushed me in the right direction. The band kicked into AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock-n’Roll” a song I requested because they are my favorite band AND cuz it was appropriate for the long journey getting to that moment. I walked out confident and a little cockier than I usually take the stage. As I walked past Dave’s desk I looked over and gave a little Asian-bow to him. A show of respect for having me on his stage. Thank you, Master.
I hit my mark and waited for the applause and music to stop. Then I started my joke on Hotel Keys in a way I had only done one other time onstage. It didn’t matter. I was feeling good. My first laugh line worked and we were off an running. The crowd was great. Laughing and applauding too. I quickly heard someone in the band laugh. And then Paul’s unmistakable laugh. Now it was feeding me. I was stretching out in that fake cockiness I came out with. I had to pause a few times because the audience wanted to clap at some lines. It was a theater crowd for sure.
The pausing actually threw me off a little. Stopping the flow disrupted my rhythm (a good problem to have applause, I’m not complaining) and I actually made a mistake. I screwed up part of the joke. I think it was a combo of the changes to the joke and the flow of it that night—it was all so different than the other hundreds of times I’d performed it, that I messed it up. Luckily it was a very minor detail and only I knew it was screwed up.
If you watch the video of me on the show you can see at the 2:25 mark I pause because the audience laughs really big at my wife’s line telling me I’m “doing it wrong.” She’s also supposed to suggest here that I don’t swipe it, I should drop it in the slot and let go. Because of my timing being off I leave off her first suggestion that I “drop it in the slot and let go.” To anyone besides a comic this might seem minor. And the joke still works as I tell it here. BUT if I told it the right way, with her suggestion coming first, then I would have gotten a bigger laugh on the sarcastic line about, “you think if you weren’t here I’d just fall asleep in the hallway?” That line doesn’t make as much sense without the first “drop it in the slot” suggestion. It loses some bang. You can see at 2:38 I actually realize I messed something up. That line doesn’t come out smooth. On top of that, the repetition of my wife saying “drop it in the slot and let go” is lost. I only say it once. It would usually get a nice laugh because she’s already said that—and instead of responding to me being a smart-ass she’s being one herself by ignoring me and repeating her suggestion.
I know this is all a little “inside baseball” but I wanted to share what’s actually going through a comic’s mind as he or she is telling a joke. All the things that can go through your mind at once. How you have to bee your toes and ready to shift gears with what’s happening. It’s what I love about stand-up.
Luckily, the mistake doesn’t ruin the rest of the joke. Only I knew I messed up. I remember hearing a nice laugh from Dave, soon after that, and it got me back on track. Almost a little too much back on track.
I had submitted hundreds of jokes to Eddie Brill over the years. This was the one he picked. One about Hotel Keys. Many friends and fans have asked why I didn’t do one of the other jokes they love more. Simple answer: it’s the one they allowed me to do. It’s the one THEY wanted me to do. Not the other way around. There are a lot of jokes I would rather have done on the show. But this is the one they thought was right for it.
It’s hard to argue. The joke does really well in front of what is probably a large tourist crowd, I get 4 or 5 applause breaks, They are probably all staying in hotels that night. They can relate. It was a smart choice on the booker’s part to choose this one.
By the time I’m on the second half of the joke I’m feeling great. I know I’ve got a great callback to wrap up on. If they’ve loved it so far wait til they hear that part! I remember actually feeling all that on stage. It’s amazing all the things that can go thru your head while you’re performing. You can think about how the last line did or did not go. How you really need to sell what you are saying right now. How you gotta remember to commit to that line later in the bit. Even, “how come that guy in the second row isn’t laughing as hard as everyone else? I wonder if that’s his wife next to him?“
All that can go through your head at once. So somewhere (probably around the 5:25 mark in the video) I was really feeling good. I remember allowing myself to soak the moment in. I thought to myself, “This is going well. You’re in the Ed Sullivan Theater! Beatles. Elvis. 400 people loving your comedy…. Don’t let it end…. Don’t finish the joke… skip the line you told them you’d end on. The line that cues the band, cut that….just start going into other jokes you’ve always wanted to do on this stage… you won. You’re here. What will they do? Yank you off eventually? It’ll be a great story!… just keep going….”
Then common sense kicked in. “Get the hell out of your head! You’re on TV damnit! Concentrate. Focus. Stick to the joke. Concentrate on selling this and wrapping up well. Don’t be an idiot.” And I went back in the moment and finished the joke. But I really didn’t want it to end.
Once I wrap up all the excitement hit me. You can see how big I’m smiling. I wave too much at the crowd I actually raise both hands in victory at some point. It looks like I won the Super Bowl. But that’s how I felt. And my “I’m going to Disney World”? It’s Dave coming up behind me. I realize I now get to meet my hero in person. I’m ecstatic.
Dave is super complimentary and I did my best to relish and snapshot in my mind that moment of looking into his eyes and shaking his hand. Then he starts on reading the cue cards to go to break. I start reading along…and I notice it says the band’s name “….The Magnetic Zeroes”….I see this right before Dave reads it and it cracks me up. You can see me start to laugh like a goofball at the 6:18 mark as I realize the band has a name with magnet in it and I just did a joke that had a chunk about magnets in it. It struck me as a silly coincidence. I don’t think Dave understood why I was laughing.
We go to commercial and Dave thanks me again, says I did great and am very funny. Then he shakes my hand and is about to walk away. I say thank you and, “Can I have that cue card?” He looks at me. Then at the cue card. Then with a shrug he gives me a look of, “sure” and walks to the cue card guy and grabs them. Dave hands them to me and he walks back to his desk.
Eddie Brill runs over to me smiling huge. He tells me it was great and congratulates me. I thank him profusely. He escorts me backstage. Once there he compliments me again and says we will meet after the show. He asks if I know how to get back to the dressing room. I say yes. I don’t.
I wander around a bit and see some Magnetic Zeroes coming from one direction so I head there. A couple MZ’s say nice job and that I was great. I wish them luck. I find the elevator and a Page is there saying it just went back up to get more of the band. I’m too high to wait. I’m feeling electric. I can’t stand still.
I see the stairs and start running up them. The page yells that tit’s like four floors and the elevator will be right back. I yell back, “I can’t wait.” I sprint all the way up and burst through the door. Joke an Biagio are there waiting. They have a camera rolling (one we promised we wouldn’t bring anywhere near the studio —guerrilla filmmaking at its best). We have a fun moment of documentarians vs. friends where they want to shoot me at this moment BUT they also want to step out and hug me and congratulate me. And I want to embrace them and share all the adrenaline I’m feeling. They’ve made this trip with me. I was so lucky to have them along the way and in that room after. I didn’t have an agent there. I didn’t have a manager there. I had a couple friends with me. It made it all the more special.
We hung out in the dressing room for as long as we could. We hi-fived and hugged the Magnetic Zeroes when they came back up. Eddie came up and congratulated me again. I thanked him for giving me the chance. I invited him to dinner but he declined. This was a routine work day for him. He gave us a great suggestion of a real Italian restaurant (I.e. not Olive Garden). Then we all went down to the stage and Eddie let us take some pictures. Me and my mom and Gary onstage. I soaked it all in now that it was empty again.
I don’t remember leaving but eventually we did. We met my friends the Barringers and we all went out to the restaurant. My Mom, Gary, Joke and Biagio and the Barringers. After getting everyone seated I stepped out and called Denise. I shared how well it went and she said she wished she could have been there. Me too. Then I asked for a favor since I had her in a moment of weakness. I asked if I could buy everyone dinner. It was a fancy restaurant but these people had traveled a long way to spend my greatest day with me. I wanted to thank them.
Denise and I weren’t doing great financially at this point. I still had crazy medical bills. She had lots of debt from getting he studio up and running. Being on the show paid $1500 and we’d already invested almost half of that on a beautiful suit to wear and having it tailored. Now I was basically asking to spend the rest that same evening. To Denise’s credit she agreed pretty quickly. It was a special night. One to remember. We’d figure out the finances without this money. And we did. And it felt great to buy these special people a meal as thanks for sharing it.
Everyone was beat after dinner. Except me. And Gary. Well, he probably was too but he didn’t show it. Everyone else went to bed and Gary and I walked around NYC til 3am or so. We grabbed pizza at one place and dessert at another. I’ll never forget his friendship that night. You got to have someone to share those moments with. I was lucky to have a few. And lucky Gary was one of them.
I flew home sometime the next day. I don’t recall that flight. I do remember that because of the taping schedule I got a whole Letterman week. Usually comics tape the show and it airs later that night.They watch it in their hotel room, Or at a bar in NYC. One day experience. I got to record it on Tuesday, then enjoy the week and watch it back home with my friends in Los Angeles on Friday.
We had a nice big get together at our place. All my close friends came. My sister Cathy even flew in for the viewing because she felt bad about not being able to make NYC. What a great sister. Joke and Biagio came over and brought their family who was visiting too. We became fast friends with them.
I was so lucky to get a chance to watch the airing with a bunch of my LA friends who had been part of the trek all along. My friends Lee and Sean were there. They had been so great helping me along the way, It was great to have a night where we could share the end of it all together.
I couldn’t watch the set as it aired that night. I stepped out of the room. I wanted to preserve the experience I already had., The one onstage. The one delivering it. Not watching it. I enjoyed seeing the monologue, Top 10 List, Doogie and Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes since I wasn’t able to watch them that day. But I only peeked in during my set. It’s so weird to watch yourself. Any comic will tell you. Hell, any person will tell you. You know how weird it is to hear your voice on a recording? How strange that sounds? Add a visual element to that. It’s not pleasant. Plus watching others watch you is especially unnerving. You have even more time to misinterpret every little nuance of your performance and their reaction. yuck.
So the company was enough of a reward for me that night. I have of course watched it since then. Heck, we had a documentary to make, now! (Available on Amazon Prime right now if I haven’t mentioned that).
So yeah I’ve seen the set. It’s strange I’ve only told that joke maybe a dozen times in the decade since then. Probably only once in the last five years. It was never my favorite joke. But it obviously had a special place in my heart. And that place only grows warmer as time goes by...
If you read any or all of this…thank you. I know it was long. But It felt nice to revisit this a decade later. And I never know what people will enjoy about it so I included it all. I’d like to thank all the people mentioned above and all the people I didn’t mention. There’s an even longer detailed version with all the mentions. And honestly I’ve probably forgotten some details at this point. So if I missed a thank you or a moment you were a part of I apologize. Let’s blame time. And a special shout out to comedian Jim Short who shared a few of his TV show taping stories and inspired me to do the same. I only hope this was a fraction as interesting as I found his. Thank you all.