The wannabe comedian thinks he’s a hit. His has-been talent agent isn’t so sure. 2,779 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
When comics say, “I started at the bottom,” they are talking about a place called The Wellington, a three-star steakhouse piano bar on a lonely stretch of used car dealerships deep in the San Fernando Valley.
“One time only,” Roy had said, “and don’t get any funny ideas about me managing you.”
As we entered, Roy eyed the schlocky place like a battlefield. I signed my name on the clipboard list (Number 8) and sat next to him at the bar with the Thursday night lushes. I said, “Looks like comics aren’t exempt from the two drink minimum.”
Roy gave me an uncomfortable smile. He was too big for the room. He said, “I’ll drink yours.”
The restaurant hostess — a sandy-haired college girl in a tuxedo vest and a collarless shirt — was doubling as emcee for the night. She balanced a round plate of drinks with one hand and held the mic with the other, giving it all a little too much enthusiasm for the defenseless dinner crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen… Our first act… The hilarious Krembo!”
A WASP-y guy in his forties came up and relieved her of the mic, started right into bits about traveling in Amsterdam. He was dying, not a giggle or a guffaw in the place, and I was cringing — he was truly awful. I couldn’t stand to look directly at him but, just as I bowed my head, Roy somberly put down his vodka gimlet and leaned into me, whispering ardently, “Look at the talent up there. I don’t know what it is that makes someone a superstar, but he’s got it.” Now I had to shut my eyes to keep from laughing out loud. “No, no, Tommy, this guy has got the magic.”
Next was a wrinkly woman who had to be at least 70, telling bawdy tales and cackling with laughter. The crowd was picking up a little, not busting up but they were engaged — out of politeness maybe. Roy didn’t laugh, but I could tell he liked her. She got The Nod.
It went on like this, comic to comic, my nervousness creeping like a time-release capsule. Just my luck, comic Number 7 was a seasoned pro, one of those Italian dudes who grabs the crowd with pure testosterone. He was throwing punches like Ali, making the audience bounce off the ropes with laughter. The diners and drinkers were suddenly lit up, laughter coming on in wild pockets all over the room, smiles everywhere.
But not Roy. He looked positively disgusted with Number 7’s little triumph, like a parent watching the other Little League team score a home run.
When the four minutes were up, Miss Emcee said, “Next up, from right here in Hollywood, we have master impressionist Tommy Ellis!”
Roy leaned into me. He whispered, “Breathe.”
This is how it is: their eyes scrutinize you like an opponent’s. Someone will go down in flames — you or them. Like sex, or LSD, or running for your life, it is not possible to truly convey to another human being the sensation of performing comic impressions “on stage” even when that stage is simply standing in front of a piano. You hear your voice, you feel your body. You are present yet absent, like a yogi in maximum meditation, or a man on fire.
In fact, the crowd, with its lugubrious concentration, wants you to burn. At all costs it is their desire that you should not win their hearts. Make no mistake: they are your enemy.
You’ve got to strike with surprise, so I opened with a little Yosemite Sam moderating Bugs vs. Daffy in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. For an opener, it was going okay. A smile here and there. But their opposition was palpable.
The next bit was the whole career of Kirk Douglas in fifteen seconds. This they actively resisted, with nervous faces, harassed confusion.
Then I did De Niro as a Pizza Hut delivery man — my squarest bit, and people started conversations. I scanned the room. It was official: I was bombing.
That’s when I zeroed in on Roy Golden. His face was stone, like an ancient statue. But then his eyes flashed, and suddenly I remembered what he had taught me. TI juiced up for the kill: the Multiple Personality Disorder Talkshow Host. And it worked! The first real laugh is a Get Out Of Jail Free card. The next laugh is being kissed by your true love. And then, voice by voice, bit by bit, it builds.
The laughs come in patches, bubbles, torrents. A new voice, a harder laugh. Sinatra. Elvis. The Chief Oompa Loompa. The audience keeps coming and you keep zapping them. The energy tightens and tightens and then—
The grinning bartender raises four fingers. One last push: The Flinstones move in next door to The Jeffersons. The audience convulses, flush with joy. They are yours.
The hostess grabs your mic and says, “Monday night at The Wellington! We are having a blast tonight!”
And the crowd is cheering.
When it was over, I glided back to my barstool smiling graciously, a little humbled. Roy was sullen. We left and he slid into the back of the Bentley, and I took the wheel, still a little amped. As I pulled out of the gravelly lot, I blurted out, “Pretty nice crowd, right?”
“It was okay,” he said, fastening his seatbelt and reaching under the seat for his flask.
“I got some laughs,” I insisted.
He looked at me in the rearview. “It was amateur hour at The Wellington, Tommy.” Then he took a drink.
Then there was a long pause as we waited at a red light, edged on all sides by dark used car dealerships.
“Kid, it needs work. You had zero subtext up there.”
“Subtext?” I asked, as the light changed and I started driving down Laurel.
“Relax. You want to get there yesterday. But you can’t speak the language yet.”
We drove in silence, past decrepit palms and offramp trash, the Valley of the Shadow of Death. All the way to Beverly Hills. Silence. When we pulled the car into the loop in front of Castle Roy and stopped, I said, “Anyway, thanks for checking it out. It really meant a lot to me. Goodnight, Mr. Golden.”
Then he pulled an old microcassette recorder from his coat pocket and said, “Bullshit. Our night has just begun.”
We sat at the breakfast bar with a freshly corked bottle of port, listening to my four minutes. The first listen was like paradise revisited. But as we played it again and again — stopping, rewinding, zeroing in on the rhythms — I could hear that Roy was right. It just wasn’t that good. At best I was corny, at worst mechanical. The laughs that thundered in the moment seemed weaker on tape. Some bits went right past them, others peaked midway.
Dammit. It was All Wrong.
Roy didn’t share any of these emotionalisms. He was sitting there drinking his port wine and rewinding over and over again. There I was with my punchline, in the voice of Dudley Do Right. “Why, I am on the lookout for a sexy female religious Jewish rocket scientist who refers to my penis as Captain Mongo The Heroic Vigilante.” It was a mouthful, and it got laughs. But not roars. Roy replayed the tape over and over and over again with a quizzical look in his eye.
If it wasn’t that funny the first time, it was torture the 28th time. He played it over and over till the words lost all their meaning and the creepy motivation — gimme laughs! gimme love! — came pulsating through like a cancer.
He looked me in the eye. And then he said the line in a low rumbling cadence as elegant and as serious as any plaintive melody you’ve ever heard. “Who refers to my penis as Captain Mongo”— then the pause — “Heroic Vigilante.”
I fell off my stool crying with laughter.
From then on, I was in the clubs doing Elvis. Mel Blanc. Mister Moviefone. Mister T. Charo. Bogie and Bacall. Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. James Mason and Lolita. WC Fields. Walter Matthau and Tony Randall. Peter Lorre. Sidney Poitier. R2 and C3, Han Solo and Chewie. Frankenstein: Boris Karloff and Peter Boyle. Louis Armstrong, duh. Miss Piggy. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Christopher Walken. Gary Cooper. Captain Kirk and Spock. Peter O’Toole. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Jack Lemmon. Bill Murray. Kathleen Turner. Groucho and Chico. The whole cast of Apocalypse Now. Don Knotts. Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson. Sean Connery, Vincent Price, Alfred Hitchcock, John Houseman, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, and Darth Vader.
Forget about so-called fame. I was lurking in the windowless wings of Hollywood with a head full of accents, By my side stood the legendary Roy Golden. I didn’t have to tell you that my heart was pounding. My body trembled.
The emcee, this time a man, was introducing me. “No, seriously, folks, this next kid is amazing. If you close your eyes you’ll think you’re at the Academy Awards or somethin’. Ladies and gentlemen, give a warm welcome to Tommy Ellis, man of a thousand voices!”
The sound of my name was like a gunshot sending seven horses flying out of the gate. Center stage, I had less than a second to make an impression and set the tone. Then I opened with somebody unexpected, half-forgotten, like a crotchety Bette Davis. “Fasten your seatbelts. it’s going to be a bumpy night.” And the laughs bubbled up like lava. They were mine.
The hot lights brought the saltiness of sweat to the corners of my eyes. Only one thing to do: focus. I built it rapid-fire, shifting gears, morphing under the beams like living claymation. “It’s showtime! You talking to me? The name is Bond. James Bond. Here’s Johnny! There’s no place like home. E.T., phone home. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Play it again, Sam. I’ll be baaaack. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore! Go ahead; make my day. I vant to be alone. Houston, we have a problem. Why don’t you come up and see me sometime. I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. I’ll have what she’s having. May the Force be with you. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? Attica! Attica! Plastics. Stella! I am not an animal! She’s my sister! She’s my daughter! Luke, I am your father. Hasta la vista, baby.”
And the crowd went apeshit.
Laugh by laugh, I aimed to slay. At the Improv, I destroyed ‘em. Until one crowd became all crowds, with their half-hopeful faces, suspicious, resisting, and finally, supplicant, sighing with the pleasure of their own demise. I was getting good, I was getting better. But did I have what it takes — the patience, the stamina — to become a star?
“There are only two things you need to give here,” Roy said, backstage, his hands on my shoulders. “Your heart and your soul.” I laid them up for grabs without protest. My pausing lessons were underway. Late night gigs, going over the tapes, practicing way past the point of redundancy, tearing the set apart line by line, word by word, syllable by syllable.
There was no reprieve. Compared to stand up comedy, doing my service in the Israeli army would have been a piece of cake. Roy was with me some nights but even when he wasn’t I had his voice ringing in my ear.
I’m not in the hope business” was the way he put it. “You’ll know when you’re a monster. Oh, I got one for you. What do you call a monster who’s sweet, kind, and loved by everybody?”
They don’t have too many instruction manuals for celebrity voice impressionists but I did manage to pick up a few books on comic theory and there were some killer things in there. Roy groaned when I tried to share this stuff with him in the hazy late afternoon of the bungalow office. He never talked openers, closers, toppers, taglines.
“Do yourself a favor and throw those books in the garbage before it’s too late!"
“Okay," I said, "but how can you prepare for—"
"You can’t prepare, that’s the whole point. Life is a Markov Chain."
I pulled Webster’s Unabridged off the shelf, thumbed it, and read aloud. "Markov Chain, also called Markov Property; a random math process whereby the probabilities of occurrence of various future states depend only on the present state of the system or on the immediately preceding state and not on the path by which the present state was achieved."
I looked up from the book and Roy smiled. "In other words, fuck the plan. Where are you now? And where can you go from here?"
Roy made superstars overnight. He had what it took but did I? Dizzied to the max, the mythical coveted slot on a late-night talk show was never more in reach. And if Roy was in the audience, I knew I’d hit the pause on time. The intimidation of his presence pushed me somewhere that nothing else ever could. Because he couldn’t be fooled, he knew what I was. I was his limo driver, for crying out loud!
The better my night was, the more ruthless he was afterward. He’d drag me into the kitchen and pull out a stop watch. "You were rushing. Every goddamned line. What is your hurry? I don’t know who told you that fast is good but you must be a terrible disappointment to your girlfriends. Now we’re gonna do the whole damn set, line for line. And you’re gonna learn to make time your friend."
Once, Roy pulled a favor to get me into a slick showcase at the Laugh Factory on the Sunset Strip. The joint was packed. The People had paid to see Pro Comedy, and they wanted their goods and services delivered with maximum efficiency.
But during my set, just as I was doing Rambo hitting on Meryl Streep, some teenager yelled, “You suck!”
The crowd guffawed.
Now I had trained for this heckler moment a million times but, like a soldier panicking under fire, I tossed every lesson Roy ever taught me straight into the trash. I clung to the material like a lunatic automaton in a last ditch effort to please. Roy shook his head in disbelief as I did 26 voices in five minutes: Stalin, Nixon, the Olsen twins. I pulled out all the stops, cursed with the drive to rev up the suckiness.
“Okay, wait,” I pleaded, “I’ve got one for you. Howard Cosell’s greatest hits.” My sweaty shirt itched like hell. Across the audience, behind the white spotlight, the surly club manager rolled his eyes like an impatient politician mid-debate. I said, “Folks, John Lennon has kicked the bucket.” Actually, it was me that kicked the bucket.
On the way to the car, Roy said, “You should change your name to Over Igor.” Then he bent over and wheezed like an asthmatic wall-eyed hunchback. Driving him home in the Bentley, I was sullen. He stood that for about three blocks, then took a swig from his flask and started in. "Oh, stop stewing in your own juices, Igor. It’s wabi-sabi."
"What is that, Yiddish?"
"No it’s not Yiddish. It’s a Japanese thing. It means transience, impermanence, imperfection — that’s the source of beauty. Like a rickety house that looks like it’s about to crumble to a pile of sticks. That’s wabi-sabi."
"It’s about sticks?"
Roy laughed, the only time I ever heard him laugh out loud for real. "No, you shmuck. It’s about the pause. W hen we time the pause, we’re searching for wabi-sabi, the source of all life. This is life. Not a statue, not an idea. Us. But so is our soul. All your nightmares, your daydreams. Wabi-sabi. You. Me. All of it. It’s all undeniably wabi-sabi."
"Okay," I said, driving past Doheny, toward Beverly Hills. "But what the hell does that have to do with comedy?"
"Everything. You’ll see.”