Comedians of a Lesser God

Blogging | December 22, 2010

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t argue with the nightclub manager who took pity on me having my right foot in a travel cast. But for the record, I was uncomfortable with the idea that my injury could earn me any sign of favoritism.

I had hurt my foot 4 months earlier and had finally gotten around to having it treated for plantar fasciitis. And while my right heel still hurt whenever I got up to walk, and the orthopedic doctor had sentenced me to two weeks in a travel cast, I didn’t think that constituted being placed at the head of the line to get into the nightclub.

But it did, and like I said, in the end I was glad that I didn’t argue.

My wife and I have lived in the Washington, DC, area for nearly seven years, but have rarely availed ourselves of the downtown nightlife. Getting Picky Sue out, let alone out on a weeknight, let alone out on a weeknight before the Christmas holiday, takes an event of biblical proportions.

Or in this case, a pair of tickets from our son.

To backtrack, we had actually gone into town for a show once before. My brother and a friend had decided to sample the Washington Improv Theater’s holiday show in 2005 or 2006, and we tagged along. The night was not without issues — parking, travel and the return trip home being the most notable. But the show itself? Just a lot of fun and a good example of why it pays to live in a major metro area. It even led me into a brief foray into Improv, taking an 8-week introductory course that WIT offered on its website.

But we were heading into town on a Wednesday night due to… well, serendipity, I guess. Just that previous Sunday, the Washington Post Magazine had run a feature article on stand-up comics cutting their chops in DC — a “one-joke” town on the comedy circuit. My wife and I both read the article and thought that might be something to do.

Usually that means “something to do” in the big scheme of things, once our lives get less hectic.

But my son’s phone call on Monday evening had my wife and I both laughing. To the point that she was covering up the phone, telling me “Ian’s got two tickets to a comedy show in DC Wednesday night… at that place we read about in the magazine!”

To explain just how bizarrely fashioned this phone call appeared to us, I should point out that I telecommute on Wednesdays, and I had Thursday and Friday off this week. So, from my perspective, it wouldn’t be a case of me commuting 2.5 hours roundtrip to and from work, and then turning around and heading back in to town two hours later that evening, and then getting up again at 4 in the morning for the return trip.

Couple that with my wife having Thursday as her scheduled day off, and the stars are not just lining up, they are creating the gravitational groundswell necessary to get us off our lazy butts and onto Route 66 heading in to town.

(But I really think it was the tickets coming from our son, but that’s another story.)

Even with all of that, the ride in is not without some drama. We are seven-tenths of a mile from our house when I realize I don’t have my BlackBerry. My wife doesn’t have her phone, and there’s no way we’re risking a road trip without some form of electronic communication. (A reminder of a recent Thanksgiving debacle surrounding my BlackBerry being temporarily lost is thankfully not brought up… but we both know it’s out there.)

Fortunately, a quick you-ee gets us back to our house and back on the road with BB in tow in less than four minutes.

The rest of the ride in goes very smoothly. I risk a quick loop around the block before heading to a parking garage and we’re both chuckling as we turn onto M Street to find one of the ubiquitous black SUVs leaving a parking space. We pull in right behind it and I shuffle-hop-step my way to the entrance of the DC Improv on Connecticut Ave.

As we make our way to the “Will Call” window, my wife takes over, going into way too much detail on how we ended up here this evening. The gal working the window smiles and listens politely, but she’s really only interested in one thing.

“What’s the last name, please?”

“Oh! Maffett!”

She riffles through the tickets and finds ours.

And with that, we join the queue for the 8 o’clock show. It’s at this point that the manager stops to chat and asks if we’d like a table near the front. My initial thought is, “A table near the front of a comedy show… thank you, but no thank you.”

My guess is, he can sense my unease and says “We actually have a table near the side exit.”

And then it hits me. He’s being polite and practical, in the unlikely event that something does happen in the club, you don’t want a gimp mucking up the exit. That changes things for me and I let them show us to the table.

A waiter comes over to take our order. I order a diet soda and my wife, in a rare nod to the rarity of the evening, asks if they can make a “Berries and Cream.” A favorite of hers at the casinos. They can’t, or the waiter has never heard of it. Either way, she settles for an Amoretto Sour. When it arrives, she winces at the first sip, pronouncing it, “Strong… but good!”

The nightclub is small. It’s actually part of an apartment building, sequestered off to one side of the ground floor. For the most part, the crowd seems to be folks our age… 40 and 50-somethings out taking advantage of the relatively light vehicular traffic during the holidays.

After about 10 minutes, the house lights blink and the manager runs up to the stage to welcome everyone. The stage itself is really tiny, but for the 100 or so people packed in the room, there isn’t a bad seat (or standing position) in the house. We are at stage left, three feet from a fire exit that’s a little chilly, but not drafty enough to make my wife uncomfortable.

I thought we were signed up for the holiday Improv show, but it turns out it was an Open Mic night. The MC explained how it worked. They posted a sign-up sheet, everyone got equal time… no less than four comedians, no more than 12 (my guess, they have four on staff in case there’s ever a zero night…). Tonight they had five people sign up, so each would get… pause and polite laughter while he does fake math… “Uh… five into 6 is one, carry the two…uh, carry the one… uh… a little over 10 minutes…”

To keep it fair, he explains, they draw lots to see who goes first…

By the time the first guy has come and gone, I’m debating the wisdom of coming all this way… even for a free ticket. He wasn’t not funny, but he never really hit his stride. To his credit, he was young and ethnic, working a room of mostly middle-aged white folks, and he tried to tailor his routine to them (and if he’s ever going to make it big, that demographic will be well-represented at his shows).

The lone chuckle he got from me was when he told the story of his grandma saying she’d learn to use an iPad the day he learned to use an iRon.

Next up is just one more coinkydink in the line of travel that got us here. Or not, given the size of the DC stand-up comedy scene. The Indian girl featured in the magazine article is on stage. The magazine article talked about how sometimes a comic is on and sometimes they’re not. She was on. Maybe it was the contrast between her and the first comic. Maybe a room full of white folks is more inclined to laugh at an articulate ethnic girl than a threatening black man.

Didn’t matter. After the polite applause that shepherded the first comic off the stage, Sanji gets the genuine article. I take my BlackBerry out and surreptitiously videotape (well, digitally record video of) a couple minutes of her act.

The MC comes back on stage, flips through the index cards and looks off to the side of the stage.

“Is this for real? This next guy is deaf?”

I perk up a little at this. I know more than a little American Sign Language, having worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing employees during my stint as a mail-processing supervisor for the Postal Service in Lancaster, PA.

The MC continues his whispered conversation with someone offstage and makes a move that I recognize as being a legit response to someone being around deaf people for the first time.

“Is he ready?” And as he says this, he covers up the microphone.

And then he looks at his hand over the microphone and does a double take… “Like that’s gonna make a difference…”

Only one or two people in the audience get the joke and chuckle.

He gets the thumbs up from someone off stage.

“Ladies and gentleman, we have a newcomer to our stage tonight. From Galludet University here in DC… Give it up for . . . Dell McCoy!” (Galludet, for those who don’t know, is the DC university that was founded for deaf people. Little know sidenote- Galludet football players created the “huddle” so opposing teams couldn’t read their signing plays)

And with that intro, out walks Dell McCoy.

Imagine a 40-year-old John Denver about thirty pounds overweight, and you’d be a long way down the road toward what this guy dragging a prop trunk looked like coming out of the wings. Dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, pageboy cut to his dirty-blonde hair, and the thickest horn-rimmed glasses outside of a vaudeville skit you’ve ever seen, Dell McCoy and the MC do an odd and uncomfortable dance as the MC tries to place, and I do mean place, the microphone in the guy’s hands.

Dell McCoy takes the microphone and turns and faces the audience.

And smiles.

If a great smile is all it took to make it in show biz, Dell McCoy’s would make him an A-lister overnight. I challenge anyone to see him smile and not smile right back. (It doesn’t hurt that his horn-rimmed glasses magnify his eyes to three times their regular size and make him absolutely the least threatening person we will see this evening.)

“Heh-lo… My naaym i Dell Muh-koy…n I em defff.”

How to describe a deaf person’s voice? Throughout my career, I worked, drank and partied with a number of them. I’ve met deaf guys with high, squeeky voices, and deaf women with voices so low, “Dey vuld scare de tits uff Mudder Russia…”

Dell’s voice is low, but he because of the prolonged pronunciation he places on his vowels, and the way he enunciates certain consonants; he presents as someone with low verbal skills. The uninitiated can mistake that for a mental slowness that doesn’t necessarily exist.

Dell has placed the mic back in the stand so that he can sign as he speaks. I’m following along, watching as his fingers spell his name, a fluid blur of letters.

“Duhs n-e-one here know any sign langwitch?”

My wife glances over at me, and I stop her before she can point me out.

“Heh-loooo? Is thith thin gahn?” With that, he raps on the microphone, a comic staple made marginally funnier by his infirmity.

A few nervous chuckles ripple through the crowd.

“Duhs n-e-one here know any sign langwitch?” He asks again, a bit more urgency to his voice.

Without a waiting for a response, he puts a hand over his eyes to block out the stage lights, and peers into the audience…”

“Oooh… Not that sign sir, this is a fambly show…”

Like I said, it’s an older crowd, and that loosens them up a bit. It’s a good-natured laugh.

He smiles again. Big blue owl-eyes blinking in the spotlight.

And with that, Dell McCoy starts his bit…

I realize my experience with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community has probably made me more in tune with the subtleties of distinguishing deaf speech, so I’m laughing before some of the other folks can process his jokes.

He started off by talking about how difficult it was to grow up as a deaf child.

“When I was young, we had no super-heroes. No Super Deaf Man able to hear ultra-high frequencies in a single bound…”

Okay… that didn’t make a lot of sense, but he was on a roll and we were going with it.

“Who did I have as a young deaf man? No one. The closest I got was watching Gomer Pyle on TV!”

He waits for that to sink in…

“For those who don’t remember, Gomer Pyle was a marine… when his sergeant would get upset with him… Sgt. Carter would say…”

I remember it just as Dell is saying it…

“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!”

“I was a young deaf boy, watching TV… every night I would watch Sgt. Carter…”

And here he begins to flow seamlessly between the three characters… Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, Frank Sutton as Sgt. Carter and a young Dell McCoy. For sheer comic characterization, Dell has the transitions nailed. I think that catches the audience off guard as much as anything else… watching a deaf man mimic three different people like that. (As a supervisor, I watched deaf people tell a story where they would play three, four or five parts. And usually, one time through the characters is all you needed to keep them straight. Their body language alone lets you know who’s who.)

He cycles through them about four times and the shift from Sgt. Carter’s ramrod drill sergeant and Dell’s angelic face, beaming up at an imagined TV, is priceless…

“I … CAN’T… HEAR… YOU!”

“Oooh… Sgt. Carter… I can’t hear either…”

He’s pacing the stage as he does this, each time a little faster, picking up the pace of his delivery as well…

“So, I’m watching… he can’t hear… I can’t hear… I’m not alone anymore… and I’m watching and I’m feeling good, I’m feeling warm… and it hits me… he can’t hear, I can’t hear…we’re so much alike… Oooh, Sgt. Carter, you’re my hero… you can’t hear, I can’t hear, we’re so much alike… except for one tiny thing...”

And with that he stops, turns his attention to the audience, cocks his head back and says…

“I ain’t making a big effin' deal about it…”

The audience roars… It was flawless… really, “hearing” comedians would have a tough time matching his timing…

And with that he’s off… he goes on a tirade, if it could be called that, of how overrated hearing is… being deaf is not so bad. He’s been married 20 years and never had to listen to his wife bitch at him “I cover my eyes, turn off my hearing aids…”

And Frank Sutton? McCoy says he wrote him… “And I never heard back from him…but hell, I’ve never heard back from nobody.”

“What the hell is that? Speaking/hearing people say, “I wrote you a letter but I never heard back from you… Did I miss something? Do envelopes have voice assisted optical character recognition? (this came out as “voith a-thith-ted opti-kul char-wuk-ter wecognition’?” In his exuberance, he went Elmer Fudd big time on that one, making it even funnier…)

He had three other bits in his remaining six minutes that were worth noting.

He asked one audience member to be a “Designated Heckler.”

“I can’t hear what the other hecklers are yelling out, so you’re job is to repeat it… slowly…and I’ll read your lips…but you should know… I cry easy…”

And I knew there was no way he could get off stage without acknowledging the John Henry Deutschendorff similarity… he pulled a guitar out of a prop trunk, managed a few chord progressions followed by what was probably the worst rendition of “Take me home, Country road…” ever to be played on a stage…

“Apparently, I’m tone deaf too,” Dell deadpanned.

He did something about Star Wars, but you could tell his time was winding down. So far, I thought he had acquitted himself well. Sure, he took a couple easy potshots over the deaf bow, but for the most part, it was no worse and occasionally better than the ethnic humor that preceded him.

And then he pulled out the dummy.

Now… I’ve seen some shit in my life… but a deaf ventriloquist?… just the sight of it has me… and a few others in the audiences… chuckling. Even my wife is going, “Oh… that’s just wrong!”

True to the trade, the dummy that Dell sets on his knee is a mini-Dell… and according to Dell “Dell-Bert is anatomically correct…” which in this case, earns a sweep back of the wig to show it has no ears.

I check my watch… he’s been onstage for about 8 minutes, so this should go pretty quick.

“So… Dell-Bert, tell the folks a little bit about yourself.”

There was that sense of drama… the audience really did get dead quiet to see how this was going to play out…

The dummy just sat there.

Not sure what the deal was, but Dell could have played it any number of ways from where I was seated… have the doll spin its head around, roll its eyes, do a Harpo thing where he did all kinds of charade-type things and Dell interpreted for him…

And still he sat there.

By the time Dell said, “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” the mood had shifted. The timing he displayed so brilliantly earlier in the show was missing. The audience that had been eating out of his hand minutes before wasn’t buying the juju.

It may have been the stage lights, but there were definitely beads of sweat popping out of Dell’s head at this point.

His feeble “Soo… Dell-Bert…heard any good jokes lately?” coupled with an anxious look to the audience wasn't a good sign. He was up against it, that's for sure. And pandering to an audience, no matter how bright your smile, could only get you so far.

The unpleasantness in the room had taken on an Andy-Kaufmanesque feel. To his credit, Dell could sense the shift in the room.

Or, he could sense the folks at the tables grabbing their coats.

“Dell-Bert… I have something in my trunk for you…”

With that, Dell began to reach around in the trunk with his free right hand. He picked through an assortment of items, but I was thinking now would be a good time to pack it in.

My wife had the same idea. “Do you want to get out of here?”

“Yeah… this just got ugly…”

We were standing up when we heard it.

“Oh, you never freaking learn do you?”

“It” was the unmistakably high-pitched voice of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Dell-Bert had decided to talk.

On stage, Dell-Bert’s horn-rimmed eyes were open, his mechanical mouth was moving, and, to quote Chris Tucker, I could indeed “understand the words that were coming out of his mouth.”

“You had them eating out of your hands! ‘Oooh, Sgt. Carter!’ ‘Luke, Luke… Come to the Deaf Side’… you were killing here. But you had to pull out a dummy?!!”

“A @#!!ING DUMMY!!! ARE YOU CRAZY?!! WHOEVER HEARD OF A DEAF VENTRILOQUIST?!!”

That the dummy is yelling this in a spittle-flecked rage into the back of a wonderfully ignorant Dell still looking through his trunk only adds to the incredible relief of tension every freaking person in that room had to feel.

I am wiping away tears, I’m laughing so hard. I’m fairly certain my wife and some other women have laughed so hard they wet themselves.

At this point, Dell looks up and notices the audience laughing. He squints to see what’s going on. That the dummy stops its tirade and goes blank when Dell turns to look at him is predictably hilarious. (Hey, we’re all so happy this is part of the joke that we’ll laugh at anything now.)

Dell and Dell-Bert close with a marvelously well-timed back and forth rant of the dummy talking every time Dell turns his head back to the audience.

“I SUGGEST”

“YOU TAKE”

“YOUR SHIT”

At which point, Dell turns, him and the dummy do a quick stare down, and both turn to the audience and say,

“AND GO!”

It’s then that Dell flashes that smile (I mean, really… just a great smile!) and stands up, takes a bow, lets the dummy take a bow and they move off to the best standing ovation my gimp-legged ass ever participated in. People were still wiping their eyes when he came back out for a second curtain call.

I’m sure, well… fairly sure, that there were two or three more comics after that.

But obviously, they were comedians of a lesser god.


Comments

1. pearhater on December 23, 2010

In reading this It felt like I was sititng right up front watching this guy with you and PS. Really nice job on getting it down and no detours on the way home this time so a winner all the way around. ; )

2. Hellmuther on December 24, 2010

Uh... You guys were in the first draft... I just tightened it up to keep it under 10 pages! ;)

(That's my way of saying "Blogging" may not have been the most factually accurate category for this one... :))

3. pearhater on December 24, 2010

So I heard!

Any Comments?

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