I was 20 minutes late when I arrived at the theatre. It was a small joint carved out of an old retail space and the metal door squeaked loudly as I pulled it open. Inside, seven latecomers and an usher turned and stared disapprovingly. About twenty feet in front of us, the first performer was already on stage. The producer of this particular "spoken word" show (who I'd told I was going to be late) grabbed my arm and whispered my instructions. When the current performer finished, I was to scurry down the aisle past the MC and drop into my seat in the front row. I complied. Once there, I discreetly opened the program and discovered that I was the last performer on the bill. My heart sank.
As anybody in show business can tell you, the last performer is the one the producer is hoping will “bring it home.” It’s sort of the star spot and the pressure is on to “kill.” I began to feel a little anxious. The piece I was planning to read was very personal and didn’t feel like a real “killer.” Plus, I’d had a busy week and felt a little under-rehearsed. I tried to focus on the show. It was a great line-up with no stinkers. Several of the pieces were awesome; full of originality and self-exposure. Finally, only one piece remained before mine. The writer-performer, who was blessed with a ton of quirky charm, started reading his offbeat and stylized story. The guy was hilarious. Suddenly, the audience seemed to consist entirely of his personal fan club. He was “killing.” I was fucked.
I originally got into the spoken word circuit because several readers of this blog suggested that I submit one of my columns to “Sit ‘N Spin;” one the granddaddy shows on the spoken word circuit. Since it began 10 years ago, SNS has sort of become a rowdy clubhouse for some of the craziest, funniest people in L.A. The shows are always edgy, honest and funny as hell. The audience is about 90% comedy writers and stand-ups. They’re super smart – which is great because you can do really complex, subtle stuff and they’ll get it. They’re also a tough crowd, so you have to bring your best game. They don’t give out a lot of pity laughs at Sit ‘N Spin.
The first time I read at SNS, my piece was okay. I maimed, but I didn’t kill. Then a couple of months later, I got a call from the producer. Some bastard had cancelled at the last minute. Could I step in on very short notice? The timing was perfect. I’d just finished a piece about a rotten experience I’d had “speed dating” that I thought was a scream. The night of the show, the comedy Jesus was with me and I killed. Since then I’ve performed many times at SNS. Some nights I’ve slayed them. Some nights, I’ve left a small stain on the stage. But no matter what happens during the show, everybody always goes out to a bar afterward where we all get drunk and tell each other how hilarious we were. It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life and I treasure my SNS family. They’re the best.
This however was not the Sit ‘N Spin show. I didn’t know this crowd. As I sat watching the quirky guy rack up his 800th laugh, I began to feel queasy about my piece. It was about acute personal desperation - a subject I am very knowledgeable about. It had seemed sort of funny before. Maybe I should put back those two jokes I’d cut out. My mouth felt a little dry.
Then, a little nugget of hard-earned wisdom dropped into place with a hard clink. It was too late to worry about it. The piece was what it was. All I could do was man up and tell the story I’d come here to tell. The MC gave me a gracious introduction. I strolled to the music stand. I looked up at the crowd and smiled.
A spoken word show is not quite stand-up comedy. It’s not quite NPR. It’s not quite theatre. It’s somebody’s story told to a crowd of strangers. Somehow, if you manage to give them the perfect amount of cleverly-observed details mixed in with a healthy dose of blistering truth, they’ll love you. They’ll laugh or they’ll listen with a soundless intensity that can make your skin tingle. The most successful performers on this circuit are the ones who manage to scare you a little while making you pee your pants laughing. The only way you can score in this arena is to be utterly yourself. Nothing less.
Lights in my eyes. My piece on the music stand in front of me. I take a deep breath and look up. Smile. Talk. Set-up. Punch line. Joke. Boom! A nice healthy laugh. We’re off to a great start. They like me. Big Smile. The next joke is more personal. It lands. Apparently, it’s my night. Making a long story short…I killed. Not only did I kill, I was a killing machine. It was a comedy bloodbath.
I wish I could tell you that I “kill” every time I read, but I don’t. It’s one of the small miracles of show business -- those nights when it all comes together; when you can do no wrong. It’s ten minutes of comedy ecstasy. It’s better than heroin and twice as addictive. It feels better than anything you’ve ever done. Laughter fixes people. Always has. Always will.
So, if you happen to be free tonight, I’m performing in a yet another spoken word show at the Road Theatre. I’m reading that story about speed dating. Stop by. I can't promise that I'll kill, but I'm definitely going for attempted murder.
Fundraiser / Spoken Word Show
MELT IN YOUR MOUTH
Monday, November 22
The Road Theatre
5108 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Suggested Donation: $20.00
818 761 8838
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv