Located in what felt like the middle of nowhere in Barrington, Illinois, the Penny Road Pub was a bar and multi-staged venue that made its living by hosting shows. More often than not there were bands, but myself and a few other different comedian/producers tried to get comedy started there as well. Unfortunately, we all learned one thing: because this venue is in the middle of nowhere, Penny Road Pub had, literally, zero foot traffic. The only way to have a crowd is to bring the audience yourself, which is not a skill suburban comedians are super-great at.
The venue closed down last night and that made me wistful. In the fifteen years or so I’ve been doing comedy, that venue provided me some of my happiest/angriest/weirdest moments. I got to hang out with some amazing people, meet lifelong friends, and watch amazing comedians work their craft in front of small audiences. When I say small, it was usually just my wife, Jon- the brother of co-producer Lewis Rhine, and Jon’s friend Charlie. Later, Lewis and I would add Joe Motisi to our production team, mostly because we just liked spending time with him and we all thought each other were hilarious.
What the show lacked in numbers, though, it more than made up for in memories.
There was the time Mike Wiley and I were opening for Powerman 5000 (yes, THAT Powerman 5000) and I saw Wiley get a minute-long applause break from a metal crowd about Magic: The Gathering. There was the time I ran upstairs after hearing yelling because I was worried that Dean Carlson was getting beaten up by some hecklers he had chewed out earlier that evening, only to find them all drinking and laughing and playing that game where you hit a punching bag. There was the first time I ever saw cocaine. There was the second time I ever saw cocaine. There was the third time…
In retrospect, Penny Road Pub may have had a cocaine issue.
The one night that sticks out the most happened before I started producing shows there. It could have just been a terrible night of comedy, and, at the time, it absolutely was. But it actually taught me a very valuable lesson, so I guess I got something out of the deal. Because what I didn’t get that night was paid… or a fun night… or even a full show.
Let’s get into it. No names are changed but I have forgotten a few.
I was pretty new to comedy, so this would have been Easter 2007 or 2008. I was at a point where I was just starting to get booked on some shows, which meant I was able to leave a venue with a couple bucks in my pocket and a few drink tickets. I was leaving a show with a gentleman named Ricky March, and he deserves his own paragraph.
At the time, Ricky was going by the stage name Cranky Ricky, which was such a wild misnomer once you spent two seconds with the guy. To this day, I’m not sure I’ve met a more caring and generous man in comedy than Rick, and I cherish his friendship. He’s just a sweetheart of a guy who loves telling jokes and making people laugh and having a good time with friends. You know those people who tell you that their problem is that they care too much, and then you look at them and think, “No… you’re just a monster”? Ricky March is truly a guy who cares too much. I could make the rest of this story about how much I love and respect Ricky and it still would only be the tip of the iceberg.
Anyways, Ricky was doing a show the next night (which was Good Friday) where the producer had a dropout and wanted to know if I wanted to hop on. He made it clear up front that there wouldn’t be money but that the show was being filmed for cable access and the guy who he was working with was sure he would get a crowd there. I easily accepted because the lineup didn’t just include Ricky but our good friend Cindy Cornelson, who was just a great comic and better person.
So, it’s Friday night and I get to Penny Road Pub an hour before the show. If you’ve never been there, which is probably most of you, the venue has three stages- a small basement stage, their big main-floor stage, and a tiny attic for smaller performances. We were in the attic, and I went up and was stunned that there was an actual crowd. People had come- early even- and were excited for a show! Things were looking good. I met the guy running the show and he seemed nice. And, by nice, I mean drunk. But, whatever, I’ve certainly been a little tipsy during shows I have produced so I’m not gonna give the guy shit… for this.
Ricky and Cindy show up and it is fun. We are joking and talking comedy and having fun watching people come in the room and be excited for a show. As we get closer to showtime, we’re told the show will start a little late because the producer was waiting for a special guest. Ok… no problem. No comedy show ever starts right on time. I will tell you what did start on time, though…
The heavy metal show directly below us on the main stage.
With all the force and bluster of a sonic tornado, we could feel double-kick drums and seven-string bass shake the floor. Our audience seemed confused. Some were genuinely concerned. Our producer seemed unphased.
Thirty minutes passed. Then 45 minutes. Then an hour. And keep in mind, there were people who had been there when I arrived an hour early. So they have now been waiting two hours for some kind of entertainment to start. Ricky, Cindy and I approach the producer and wondered what the hold-up was and he just said he was waiting for his secret surprise guest. When we asked who that guest was, we were informed that it would be the bass player to the band Boston.
I guess this bass player was also a solo artist and would be performing songs. None of us were told about this beforehand, and we were all just instructed to hold tight because something would happen soon. And, when another fifteen minutes passed and no bass player arrived, something did happen: the producer started a karaoke contest among the audience members.
As a comedy show, this was not going well.
However, things finally start about 20 minutes after that and the producer assures us we’ll all go up quickly and have fun. Ricky volunteers me to go first, and I follow this producer/host and do my ten minutes. How did it go? I honestly don’t remember, so let’s all pretend I crushed when in reality, no one could probably hear me because of the heavy metal. Producer gets back onstage and asks people if the crowd want more comedy. They are still, somehow, into this show. They want more comedy.
So, of course, this dude brings up the bass player from Boston.
I would like to stress now that while I don’t know this woman’s name, she seemed like a nice lady and had good songs and was just as confused by all of the night’s nonsense as we were. That became apparent when after she finished four songs, the producer got onstage with her and said, “Now it’s time for an interview,” to which the bass player responded, “What? No.” But she stayed onstage and politely tried to answer questions. I think she was assuming this would be happening for 5 or 10 minutes, because she was visibly annoyed when this interview hit the 25-minute mark. Heavy metal show rumbling below, I walked over to one of the guys operating the cameras and asked if any footage would be usable considering the music under us. His response was simple: “We never started filming. This is a mess.”
It sure was man.
Ok, so the interview’s over. I’ve now been at Penny Road for over three hours. Cindy and Ricky haven’t even gone on yet. I mention this because, at the time, I was in the mindset that most comedians have that you stay for the whole show, if for no other reason than to show your friends that you were supporting them. But this stopped feeling like a show a long time ago. It became a hostage situation.
Producer/host announces that we’re taking a 10-minute bathroom break, and then motions me and the other comics over. He says, “I know you’ve been waiting a while, but I promise it won’t be that much longer. We’ll come back from break and do a karaoke contest and then see where we are…”
He is quickly cut off by Cindy, who wants to know what in the world he is talking about. Karaoke contest?
“I just thought, people were having so much fun with it before that we could keep the party going,” this dude said. And, with that, I saw something snap in Cindy. And she did the one thing I’ve never seen a comedian do: she thanked the producer and left.
Ricky and I followed her out to the parking lot, and she made it clear that she wasn’t going to waste anymore of her time for someone who clearly didn’t respect the comedians enough to at least let us perform and then leave. She had waited an hour, then for a musical set, then for an interview. But this was the last straw. It was almost midnight. The show should have started at 9:00. It was time to cut losses.
After she left, Ricky and I were talking. He knew I had a drive to Wisconsin to celebrate Easter with my family the next morning. He insisted that I also leave. We hugged, and I asked him if he was going back in there. He said he was, and later told me he did a set. I have no doubt he did well.
It would have been really easy for me to just chock that up as a bad night and try and forget it, but I remember how Cindy stood up for herself. Too often, people think of artists as people who can just donate unlimited time and resources because we love our craft so much, and I’ve seen so many people get taken advantage of. It’s important to remember that your time and skill and energy is worth something, no matter what drunk karaoke-loving weirdos might think of you.
And if that is all Penny Road Pub gave me, then I’m grateful for the lesson.