Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Mencia Show

Before I write about my one hundreth set this year, I wanted to expand on my experience working with Carlos Mencia at Magooby's Joke House last Tuesday. I have been promising a longer blog for a while and if there is any show that deserves one, this is it.

When Andrew Unger (the owner and booker at Magooby's) asked me to open a show for Carlos Mencia, many things were going through my head. First of all, I was incredibly surprised. It is a big deal for any comedy club to bring in a name like Mencia, but it is an especially big deal for a club in an area like Baltimore. Baltimore tends to get lost in the shuffle a bit. If a big act comes this way, they tend to go to Washington, DC. I don't know if it is because the Improv has a pedigree or if it is easier to get to from New York, but most major comedy acts forgo Baltimore and head to DC. If a big act like Mencia comes this way, he is most like going to be in a bigger theatre (as was the case last time when Mencia headlined the Lyric Opera House).

On this tour, Mencia focused on clubs. He wanted to use this as an opportunity to warm up for his new hour long Comedy Central Special and work out his new material. This is what brought him to Magooby's Joke House. To date, Mencia is the biggest name Magooby's headlined. As you can imagine, this was a huge show for them and there are probably fifty or so local comics the venue could have asked (or at least I would have asked) first to host. So it was a big surprise and great honor just to be considered.

That being said, I had some reservations in doing the show. Despite being one of the most popular stand up comedians working, Carlos has his share of haters. This hatred and stigma mostly comes from allegations of joke stealing and plagiarism brought on by several comics that worked with Mencia (two of which I am a big fan of in Joe Rogan and Ari Shaffir). Since the allegations he has admitted to some of these wrong doings and defended himself from many others. Is Carlos guilty? I think that is a debate that has been described by smarter people on better blogs (If you get a chance... Check out Marc Maron's podcast and interview with Mencia). Ultimately, his fans love him and his haters love to crucify him.

In taking the gig, I ran into many of the latter. Comedians that I barely know or talk to went out of their way to contact me through facebook or this site to bash Mencia or me for opening for him. A lot of the bashing was unconstructive and childish. I also know the comics that got on me for this would have taken the show in a heartbeat if it had been offered to them.

I accepted the show because it was a great opportunity. For me, it was a chance to perform in front of a sold out crowd at my favorite comedy club opening for a legit A-list headliner. Most importantly, it was a chance to get better at my craft. Of course I was going to do it. However the reasons I wanted to do it were also the reasons behind and cause of my anxiety.

As I've said in previous blogs, I'm still an infant in comedy. This show is a big stage (figuratively and literally) for any comedian, let alone a schmuck only doing comedy for eighteen months. Hell, I played guitar for fourteen years and never had a chance to open for Cheap Trick or Coldplay. I felt like I had just graduated from teeball to the instructional league only to skip high school, college and the minors before called up to catch for the Orioles.

My neuroses made me wonder if I was doing this prematurely. My biggest worry was letting down Magooby's. Andrew and the staff there have been really good to me (giving me way more chances than I deserve) and I did not want to let them down. Again, this is a big show for every one involved. I did not want to blow it.

I didn't eat and was anxious the day of the show. I'm not sure if then nerves or the empty stomach made me nauseous, but I had an awkward feeling in the pit of my stomach from the minute I woke up and it did not go away at any point.

One of my favorite songs is a tune called "How You Like Me Now" by a Brit band called The Heavy. It is a great song that you may recognize from the movie "The Fighter" or the TV show "Lights Out." This song (which I shared with everyone via Facebook status that day) and my supportive wife were the only things that kept me sane all day. With her and my Ipod by my side, we got to the club at around 7:30 for the 8:00 show. The place was already packed and I became even more nervous.

Before the show... there was some stress caused by miscommunication between Mencia's camp and the club that made me think for about five minutes that I was not going to open the show. Before the show it was agreed that Carlos would bring his own feature act (a comic that performs 20 minutes after the host and directly before the headliner) and that the club would provide a local host to open the show and introduce the acts (the idiot writing this blog). Mencia showed up to Magooby's that night with two comedians. Obviously, it was Carlos' intention to have one of his guys feature and the other to host. Luckily for me, Andrew at Magooby's was adamant about having me MC the show (again... way too fucking good to me).

I wasn't there for the conversation, but I imagine it wasn't that intense of a war room discussion. Carlos' Tour Manager Joey is a laid back guy and his host Rivist Dunlap (who was a really nice dude) was cool and agreed to do five minute guest spot while I opened and hosted the show. Though the crisis was averted, it did not help the sick feeling in my stomach or my blood pressure.

Carlos Mencia got to Magooby's Joke House at 7:45. The first thing I noticed is how different he looked. Apparently, he worked really hard to get into shape before and during this tour that he lost sixty-five pounds. He looked like a different person. We made small talk about the tour, Baltimore and his upcoming special that he was filming. It's weird to say, but I was surprised how nice of a guy he was. I know you shouldn't be shocked when people act the way they are supposed to but I was. Despite everything I heard (rightly and wrongly) he could not have been more of a professional or a gentleman during my encounters with him.

At 8:00 I sat along the side of the stage waiting for the show to start. As the pre-show announcements started, I did what I do before every set: I took three very deep breaths. I once took a cheesy breathing exercise training for work and for some reason part of the lesson stuck with me. The one simple breathing technique usually works for me. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. During my breathe out is when I heard it...

"How You Like Me Now" by The Heavy started playing right as the announcer started listing my credits. Dave Shofer (local booker, friend, colleague, sound guy) saw my video facebook status earlier that day and decided to use the song as my introduction music. It wasn't something we talked about (hosts or features don't typically pick their intro music) but something he said he felt like doing. As I heard the opening horns, I couldn't help but laugh to myself and any nerves I had disappeared. I took the stage to my favorite song at the best comedy club in front of a sold out crowd of 370 people which most importantly featured the greatest person I'll ever know... my wife. I could have died then and died a happy man.

I had a great eight minute and thirty-five second set. The only reason I know it was good is because I watched the video. As long as the built up felt and as excited as I was, the set itself was a blur. The only thing I remember was my third joke in got a huge extended laugh... As I paused to wait for laughs, all I could think was "Holy shit."

When I watched the video, the first thing I noticed was that I looked comfortable and relaxed on stage. The past eighteen months of shows, good open mics, bad open mics and countless learning experiences came together for one night in a very solid set. Every joke hit and despite the big crowd and sound issues, I never lost control. I don't know if he was really paying attention, but Mr. Mencia told me I did a great job and fist bumped me as I got off stage.

The cheers as I introduced Carlos were the loudest noise I have ever heard in my life. The only thing I can compare it to was how I remember it being when Ripken hit a homerun during the game he broke Lou Gehrig's record or Ray Lewis stopping a running back on fourth and one. The sound of the crowd was deafening. You could feel the stage vibrate and the energy coming off the biggest audience I have ever performed in front of.

I learned a lot from Mencia on and offstage. On stage, I saw a master performer. Love him or hate him, he can sell a joke as well as anybody. The audience was with him and ate up every punchline, gesture, facial expression and stool kick he did for almost two hours. I'm not going to justify the bad things he's done or has been accused of doing but his performance definitely made me see him in a slightly different light.

After the show I saw Carlos take time to meet every fan, getting his picture taken with and signing autographs for everyone who asked and going out of his way to acknowledge and thank the staff and waitresses for their hard work (in a non-public setting). Though this is part of the job, he handles this stuff incredibly well.

For a guy who has been bashed as much as Carlos has, I wouldn't blame him if he were jaded or socially awkward with people. Instead he handled his post-show meet and greet and thank you's with class and enthusiasm. I've seen some comedians (with far less popularity and even less demand) handle these situations like they are a chore. Carlos doesn't. If the guy is nothing else, he is certainly an engaging figure.

Overall, I rate this night as a major win and a great learning experience. Doing a show like this makes you work a little harder and yearn for that brass ring a little more. Performing in front of sold out crowds with top names in the best clubs isn't something I want to do every once in a blue moon. It is something I want to do every night and I feel like I'm on my way.

So far this year I have performed over one hundred sets, did a show at Carolines on Broadway in New York, opened for some of the biggest names in comedy (including Mencia, Rich Vos, Carl LaBove and Tony Woods), headlined the best bar rooms in the area and I married the girl of my dreams. Is 2011 my year? The neurotic jew in me thinks this success is proof that it really is all downhill from here.

My next entry will detail shows #100 and #101 (Arlington Drafthouse and Sonoma's Bar and Grille).

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