Aug. 02, 2009
Often, when I interrupted his class, my seventh-grade math teacher asked if I was a comedian. Finally, I have a definitive answer for Mr. Byrnes.
Tonight I'm opening for Bobby Slayton in his Tropicana showroom, and the only thing funny here is how hard I'm bombing.
All journalists need to think about new careers right now, and I was pretty confident this could be mine. People often tell me I'm funny on the page. So I assumed a natural correlation to funny on the stage.
At first, the crowd chuckled mildly at my self-deprecatory short jokes. I told them that my day job is making Keebler cookies in trees and that my parents met while working on the set of "The Wizard of Oz."
But those chuckles quickly fizzled. Now the audience appears as though someone replaced it with a Madame Tussauds audience display.
Wait, there is some movement: the shaking head and rolling eyes of a guy in a burgundy baseball cap up front. He is all I can concentrate on.
Slayton -- who grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., influenced by comedians Lenny Bruce and Robert Klein -- told me he laid many similar eggs while launching his career in mid-'70s San Francisco.
"Never as bad as you, of course," he said. "Let's get that straight. But I would try to write jokes and a lot of them wouldn't work."
Making an audience laugh with any consistency is the result of years of evolution. Something happens onstage one night and gets a huge laugh -- probably for some reason unbeknownst to the comedian. It then enters the act, knocking something else out.
"It's a very organic process," Slayton said. "There are no shortcuts."
Ah, but I didn't jump into this job as cold as I usually do. I attended three separate stand-up courses taught by comic Mick Lazinksi at Bonkerz at Palace Station. For five months, I studied joke writing and delivery techniques.
Slayton wasn't impressed, insisting: "You can't teach comedy!"
Attending comedy class wasn't even my idea. I originally requested to open for George Wallace, and he was game -- until my audition. Wallace's publicist then informed me that she also represented Bonkerz Comedy School and that it wouldn't be a bad idea for me to enroll until Lazinski tells Wallace I'm ready. (I never heard back from Wallace.)
After agreeing to take me under his wing, Slayton offered many helpful tips, such as "Don't ever say you're a stand-up comic because you're not," "Try some good jokes instead" and my personal favorite: "You're not even a writer, you're a monkey with a crayon."
I figured he was just insulting me because that's what "the pit bull of comedy" does. I wasn't horrible my first time onstage, during a Sunday-night Bonkerz spot Lazinski threw me into. That crowd especially dug my show-closing real-estate joke: "If money is the root of all evil, my house is half as evil as it was last year." (It also earned five whole LOL's as my Facebook status update.)
Tonight, I opened with it, tightened up every other gag, and memorized everything to the point that peeking at the crib sheet Scotch-taped to my palm wasn't even necessary. Frankly, I worried that I could go over too well to have anything interesting to write about.
There was no need for worry. In fact, if raw tomatoes were handy, they would be in danger of taking flight.
According to Slayton, the going is even rougher for unknown comics today than when he, Robin Williams and Kevin Pollak built their reputations alongside waitresses serving veal. The paycheck is about the same ($75 per set) and even those gigs are harder to come by. In Las Vegas, only five regular clubs seek outside comedians.
"A thousand guys around the country are vying for those spots," Slayton said.
I still have a chance of becoming a famous stand-up comic, Slayton said, but only because other comics might adopt my name as a synonym for bombing: "Whoa, he just laid a Levitan up there!"
I do earn one decent laugh. It comes at the very end of my act, and it's not the kind of laugh a comic ever wants. Still, I'll take it.
It comes when I yell, "Bobby, (expletive) save me, please!" Even the guy in the burgundy baseball cap enjoys that one.
No, Mr. Byrnes. I guess I'm not a comedian.
Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.