Comedy contests are dumb. They are inherently arbitrary and many times the voting is completely dependent on who brings the most friends who will laugh at them. Or, if you are me, someone screams something at you from the crowd, and your brain melts in front of a room full of people.
The comedy contest in question was a once-done, multi-round spectacular called Comedy Warfare. Every round was done at The Looney Bin in Kankakee. None of what went down was really the Looney Bin’s fault, and in fact, when the promoters made off with the money (was there money? not sure), Nick, who owns the Looney Bin, stepped up and paid the winners cash out of his pocket.
The event was set up to have three preliminary rounds. 10 comics would do 6-7 minutes sets. The top three from each would advance to the finals. The 30 comics definitely skewed younger on the scene, as more experienced comics probably knew better than to do a comedy competition.
The night I was competing, the crowd was pretty light. Two comics who I know and respect went ahead of me and completely ate shit, with one simply telling me “fuck this shit” before leaving. I was enjoying myself though, because the drinks were cheap and plentiful, and the owner’s mom was selling Jello shots. I purchased at least 12. I do specifically remember Luke Schneider and Josh Chuboff killing.
I went up and did my goofy little drunken act, got a couple laughs, and fucked off back to the bar. When the top three were announced, I didn’t make it. After the show, Josh let the promoters know that he was out of town for the finals. When they asked who should replace him, he said I should. I was pretty psyched on this because it meant another show for me and that Josh thought of me at least highly enough to send me through to the finals over some others.
The finals was a completely different story. Packed house. Good energy in the crowd. It was a really good room that night. Everyone was going to have to really step up. For some reason, when I went up in the first half of the finals, I was completely locked in. I did a couple minutes of crowd work, knocked out my set, and got a bunch of laughs. To this day, it’s one of the best times I ever felt as a comic, just to be that completely in control. I didn’t think I could lose. I found out later from one of the judges that I was the only unanimous choice to go into the finals. It helped that one of the comics who was a judge, who happens to be wheel chair bound, decided to heckle me the moment I got onstage. Let me tell you something, fine Fancy Boys: The people of Kankakee fucking love disabled people jokes. I roasted his ass.
Here is where things start to go sideways. A couple people were SUPER unhappy to have seen me cruise to the finals due to the fact that they thought the comics in their scene that drove to the show were better than me. The judges disagreed. And in a very adult response, someone went out and carved “hack” into the rear quarter panel of my car, which I wouldn’t discover until the next day, and thank god for that too, because I’d have tried to murder someone that night.
The final three were myself, a guitar playing comedian named, I think, Jessica, and a comic from St. Louis named Jon Maddy. I drew the leadoff spot, and I was completely fine with it, because I’d commited an act of comic murder onstage less than an hour prior, I knew exactly what my last ten minutes would be, and I was going to go and win this whole damn thing. I went up, and an older gentleman made a joke about my shirt from the crowd, so I decided to lean into it and roast him up a little bit. That’s when I made a mistake that has haunted me forever.
I paused to take a long drink of my beer before going into my set. It was maybe 5 seconds, but in that interim, a woman in the crowd screamed “Talk about Trump!”
Instead of doing what any smart would do, which is to simply ignore the crowd and go into your set that you know works and could win you the event, I decided to engage in conversation. For those of you that don’t know, Donald Trump is the President of the United States. In early 2016, he was simply an asshole who didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, and instead spent his time belittling his opposition. I didn’t really have any Trump material. At one point early in my career, a comedian came up to me and said “never do political humor at open mics. It ruins the crowd for everyone else.” This was, of course, some of the shittiest advice anyone has tried to hand down in the history of anything ever. But I did steer away when possible because I was, in reality, a giant pussy who didn’t want to be too edgy because I was getting booked regularly and didn’t want to alienate anyone.
I was honestly always having more fun on stage trying to tell 9/11 jokes and explaining how to single out which bridesmaid was most likely to want to have sex with you at a wedding reception. Making jokes about driving soccer dads off the road and threatening to murder them in front of their step kids, while also secretly wondering whether it was bad luck to listen to the song “Goodbye, Horses” in a car because of how terrible it would be if that were the song you were listening to when you got into an accident and died, was always more fun than playing it safe.
But as 2015 turned to 2016, I genuinely thought I was hot shit, and had been avoiding the political stuff. As such, I had no bullets in the chamber to shoot off some cutesy one liners about Trump’s hair or his political tussles with Jeb Bush. And for some reason, that also didn’t stop me. I don’t remember what I said, but I knew I was finessing a “joke” to a dead end with a crowd that was not having any of it.
I tried to tell jokes, and eventually found myself in a corner that I couldn’t get out of.
I went into full panic mode. I’d always prided myself on never letting a moment get too big for me. It was something I got good at when I was a poker player. Never be afraid of the stakes. Make the other guy more afraid of you than you are of him. But in this moment, in this room in Kankakee, I could feel myself shrinking. I was flat lining on stage. I made a desperate attempt to go back and make fun of the old guy (someone who would turn out to be a very well-liked Vietnam Veteran) before stopping, and trying the stupidest trick in the book: asking the crowd for a reset.
I actually had the audacity to say something along the lines of “you know what guys, I’ve got 5 minutes left, I’m gonna just start my set and see where it goes.” Hell, that’s where my set went. Straight to goddamn hell. There were no laughs. There was no redemption. I did my best, but I’d completely lost the room, and worse, I’d pretty well poisoned the crowd for the next comic who was supposed to go up. In that moment, I was a Hack. I deserved it carved into my car because my performance was embarrassing.
I didn’t just want to walk out of that room. I wanted to never step foot on a stage again. And, if we are being honest, it was one of the last big shows I did. By March I was completely burnt out from comedy. I walked away from it, and I stayed away from it for months. When I came back, it didn’t feel right. The joy I got from being on stage wasn’t there. By mid-summer, I’d become discouraged by some big showcases passing me up for guys who weren’t on my level, and I walked away. I’ve done shows since then, but never took the art seriously. I do shows as favors, or just for the hell of it when it comes up, but “Talk about Trump” was a cliff I fell off of that I never actually recovered from.
It wasn’t that woman’s fault, either. That was completely on me. I knew better, but I was cocky. I needed to get knocked down a peg. I just didn’t think I’d get knocked down every peg, slamming balls first into each one.
There is a funny way that poker and comedy intersect. There is a saying in poker that nobody ever remembers their best win, but everyone can remember with remarkable detail their worst defeat. I can be having a good day and have things going well for me in life, and then, out of nowhere, my anxiety creeps up and says “hey, remember that time you fucking tanked at Comedy Warfare?”
I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I’d won. Probably nothing, honestly. It wouldn’t have changed the fact that the joy was slowly leaving my system from doing comedy. That I would be getting married in just over a year and starting a real life. That my interests in writing were beginning to supersede my interest in comedy. That I was never the best liked guy on the scene to begin with. That I wasn’t sure I wanted to move to the next step, which was Chicago. That jealousy over other comics getting bookings was getting the best of me. Most importantly, that I had promised myself that when it quit being fun, I’d walk away.
Who knows if it would have changed anything, but whenever things are going too well for me, I hear that voice in my head, crashing me back down like an anchor. Talk about Trump.