Booed off the Stage at my Home Club

There’s a story comedians will often tell each other after a bad set, and that is the story of Dave Chappelle getting booed off the stage at the Apollo Theatre, back when he was a teen in the early 90’s. It’s a comforting story to a comic who just bombed, because Chappelle became such a huge success after what sounds like a bombing way worse than anything you or I (until recently) have experienced. Even back then Dave was funny, but he was young in comedy and this Harlem crowd was merciless. He recounts the experience as being one of the defining moments in his career, that shaped him into the comic he became later on. And thus, as a comedian, you hear this story and think, well, “Even if a crowd boo’s me off stage, I just might go on to be the next Dave Chappelle!”

Sadly though, sometimes you just get booed off stage because you…suck. The universe is trying to tell you something. I mean, it takes a lot for a crowd to boo someone off stage. The crowd is not just sitting in silence like a normal bombing; a booing takes effort, moving around, and raised voices. You really do have to anger a whole group of people all at once, which requires a special talent in itself. It’d be really interesting to have a competition, where the crowd doesn’t know, but each comedian on the show’s goal is to get the crowd to boo them offstage. I guarantee that even some of the worst comedians we know could not pull it off! Well, my friends, I pulled it off.

It’s the night after Christmas, and all through the house…no one laughs, not even their spouse. I’m returning to comedy after 2 nights off, which is the most I’ve taken since my 10 day hiatus right after my 1,000 days. I’m the kind of comedian who gets rusty real fast. Even between nights, I rust. If I take a full week off of comedy I’m like a junkyard, ready to trash the whole show and give them tetanus. Why, I’m not sure. But I know it has something to do with me being very antisocial. Whereas some comedians spend their off-time yap yap yapping, I prefer to bask in my own silence. Less noise coming out of me, the better. I often go through whole days without talking to anyone, and so when I hit the stage it’s like I’m coming out of a cave and learning words again. Suddenly, there’s a group of people in front of me expecting me to be some sort of ambassador of communication, and yet they’ve been talking more than me all day! I’ll stutter and jumble words, looking like I just started comedy for the first time. My brain will freeze and I start worrying that people will demand their money back. This is how I feel every time I return to comedy after a night or two off. It’s an icky feeling. And that’s why I did 1,000 days in a row, just to not feel that way for a while.

Maybe I should just start talking during the day? … Naaaaa.

So here I am, at Tommy T’s in Pleasanton, the stage that raised me in my early years, where I learned the art of stage presence, and how to simultaneously get a weird mix of a suburban and urban crowd on my side without being able to use my full vocabulary of words I learned at Berkeley. This is the club that’s closest to my parent’s house in Fremont, the club that called me up to perform every week when I was less than a year in and nobody knew who I was, the first place to headline me on a weekend, and the place where I won a $5,000 competition between 100 comics just less than a year ago. What I’m saying is, I know this stage. If there’s any stage I know, it’s Tommy T’s Pleasanton. I know what pleases them, and also what prickles their pickles (make them angry). I’d never had to resort to using the latter…before this night.

I’m the feature act tonight, and I notice from the opening sets that the crowd is not being very responsive to the comedians. But if anyone shouldn’t bomb, it’s the feature act, since it’s the prime middle spot, where the crowd is warm and not anxious to leave yet. So I go up thinking, “I got this.” Famous last words of a comedian before he/she bombs.

I get on stage and start doing jokes, not my best ones, and my delivery is rusty, but still I feel that I deserve more laughs than what I am yielding. I notice there’s a lot of chatter from a few of the tables. So I talk to them to get them to quiet down. But they don’t. Then I go into a joke about crack and ask if anyone there has ever done crack before, which is a rhetorical question that usually just gets a laugh, but this time, two young women raised their hands, and it was sincere. They really do crack, and one was very proud of it. “Hell yea I do crack!” she exclaimed as she raised her hand. Then, the table next to them started calling them crackheads and laughing, and then a war broke out between the tables, which started to result in an altercation, but then the pissed off members just left. So now the room is now divided, the right hates the left, and the left hates the right. Meanwhile I’m on stage doing a horrible rusty job of choosing the right jokes to keep the rest of the crowd engaged. I start talking to the table in the front that is listening, and it’s this guys first comedy show ever. I say ‘Give it up for this guy, it’s his first show!’ and no one claps. Jeez, this crowd does not want to be controlled.

I continue with jokes, getting a few laughs, but there are tables still talking over me. Finally, I snap, and say, “You know what, let’s get civilized here so I can tell my jokes and you guys can shut up and listen, because we are effectively ruining the show right now, you all by talking, and me by letting it happen” (or something like that). After I say this, I can sense their anger just boiling up. I go on with a few more jokes, and now they are laughing even less, because they, collectively, don’t like me. They already didn’t want to like me, and then when I suggest that they shut up, they liked me less. Except one table in the back is laughing. I say, ‘You guys are the best!’ which makes the rest of the crowd even more hostile because what I said seemed backhanded, even though I was really just trying to bond with the only part of the crowd that likes me.

So now, my show is almost in complete silence, so I just take a break to reshuffle my thoughts, and sigh it out. My brain freezes…. Crickets…You can hear me breathing. And then I say, ‘Well guys, I’ve got about another 10 minutes up here.” Suddenly crowd explodes with a massive “BOO!”. Here we go! It was as if they turned to each other like ‘Holy shit! 10 more minutes of this guy??! No way! We can’t let this happen! We need to boo him off” I was shocked by how the boo came out of nowhere, from complete silence, and furthermore that they were able to coordinate the boo so well with each other, when previously they seemed like a crowd that was not capable of working together to do anything. It was certain they all wanted me off. Part of me is saddened by this deliberate insult to my art, but the other part is surprisingly happy that I emitted a definite reaction from them for once. And now the purpose of this set is at least starting to have meaning.

So now I got a crowd of 100 booing at me, and of course, when all is falling apart, the club gives me the light. I could just get off now. But your boy likes to do his time, and I kinda want to punish this crowd some more. I keep moving forward with jokes, and now it’s like fighting a hail storm. I remember once watching a clip of comedian Bill Burr, where a crowd in Philly was booing him, but he kept going, and ripped on them for his remaining time. I’m not the type to rip on people, so I just keep doing my jokes. I have one guy and his girl laughing in the back and everyone else in silence or boo’s. I look at the guy in the front whose first comedy show it is, and he’s one of the crowd members booing the hardest! Really man? You have no frame of reference, this is your first show! Now I’m really feeling like a piece of sh*t. But I keep going. Now I’m doing jokes that I know they specifically won’t like. Higher brow, jokes about linguistics and religion. I start using words that I know most of them don’t understand, like ‘paradox’. I can feel the hate boiling. People are looking at me like I’m the Satan of comedy who has come to destroy the art form they once knew.

“I’ve got a few more jokes guys”, I say, and the crowd explodes again with an atomic ‘BOOOO!” Well, at least I’m unifying the crowd on something. A crowd that was once fighting each other is now in full harmony with their communal hatred for Sammy Obeid!

So I start going into sex jokes, stuff they would actually like, and it’s all still falling flat to their joke protest. That’s how much they hate me now, that they are hating jokes that they know deep down in their soul that they find funny. And I can sense, after a few of these jokes that they would like, they are starting to realize that I do have value to them, yet we’ve committed so hard to our enmity that we continue to play the game. Well, let’s play then!

“Last joke guys” BOOOOOOO.

Now part of me is feeling bad that I’m doing this at a home club of mine, so I say, “Okay, there’s two things I want you to take home tonight. 1) Keep coming back to Tommy T’s and supporting live comedy. And 2) go fuck yourselves.” The crowd is in shambles, full of “Oh no he didn’t!” and “Get this guy off!” I close with one of my best sex jokes, normally my strongest joke at Tommy T’s, it’s so right for this crowd that it actually has a lot of them laughing against their own will. I can tell the laughs hurt them. It was like I sprayed them with bullets, and then I walk off stage, and I’ve never seen a crowd so excited and rejoicing for my exit.

Walking off stage like that I felt all of embarrassed, failed, yet accomplished, and liberated. I stood my ground and didn’t surrender to them or tell them they were great when they weren’t. I don’t think I could have handled this experience a year ago or before. It would have crushed me. But even if I bomb now, I”m still the guy who did 1,000 days of comedy. I”ve been through worse.

And I didn’t let this experience stop me. I picked myself up and came back to Tommy T’s the next 3 nights in a row and did well on every show. Complete 180. Since the weekend shows at Tommy T’s are normally hot. A few nights later, I”m headlining the Crow’s Nest in Santa Cruz, and a guy and a girl come up after and say, ‘We saw you at Tommy T’s last week’. I was like, “uh-oh, what show?” They said, “The bad one, but we were the couple at the table in the back laughing” I said “You guys! You laughed when no one else did!” They say, “Yea we thought you were so funny that night that we looked you up and came out to this show to see you do a longer set. We’d also like to buy a CD.” I gave them a CD for free, signed with a big heart. Even at my worst, they were fans. And way to not follow the lead of the others that night. That’s what I like to know, that my fans are leaders, not followers or crackheads.

I won’t say that my getting booed of the stage in front of a hundred Pleasantonians was as horrifying of an experience as it was for the young Chappelle in front of thousands of Harlemmers, but I will say that it felt like a defining moment for me as well. One where I learned that I have power over people’s emotions in ways that I didn’t even know I did. And one where I learned that I could take a booing and shrug it off, because I have enough faith in myself as a performer. And I also learned that even when one bombs, there still may be future fans in the room 🙂

Either that or I completely failed to hear the universe trying to tell me to quit.

Day 909-910: Working with Chris Kattan from SNL

Kattan comedy stand-up

When I was a young lad, my dad would call my sister and I into the living room late on Saturday nights.  It was a treat to get to stay up that late, and it was only for one reason: Saturday Night Live.  My dad had been a fan during it’s golden era, and insisted on sharing it with us.  We saw him laughing at it, so we laughed too, and eventually it grew on us.  Some of the most memorable sketches were the drill sergeant, night at the Roxbury, and the one with the monkey, all featuring Chris Kattan.  My interest for SNL peaked in 96, and started to wane, until after 2000, when I could hardly watch it anymore.  I know a lot of people still watch it, and I occasionally glance and see some funny stuff, but it’s not the same.

SNL was probably my first introduction to the idea of live comedy.  Before that, all I knew was cartoons and Full House.  Flash forward about 20 years later, I get a call from Tommy T’s in Pleasanton, the club where I was bred.  I got into all of the Bay’s clubs fairly quickly, and the San Jose Improv was the first to put me up, but Tommy T’s was the first to give me regular weekly spots.  I learned most of my moves there and tried out new material so I could grow as a young comedian.  Tommy T’s is an interesting club, because it’s also a steakhouse, so you could theoretically go there just to eat.  Also it’s crowd is pretty atypical for the Bay, though very, very indicative of an American road crowd, with a preference toward urban comedy.  Low brow, racial, d*ck jokes all play well there.  Accordingly, this is how my set started.  But as I progressed and played with other crowds, namely in San Francisco, I started to raise the brow of my material, but I’d always go back to Tommy T’s, and make sure it was still palatable for them.  I think this has largely played into the comedian I have become today.  Because I like to write stuff that is rooted in my deep thought and logic, but still accessible by the general American road crowd.  I admit, not all my jokes are smart, and some of them are too smart for the road, but when I write, I always think both, ‘is this clever and sophisticated enough for San Francisco?’ and ‘is this simple, relatable, and animated enough for Tommy T’s?’  As a result, my winning jokes I’m able to do pretty much anywhere, because if they can span SF to Pleasanton, they can do pretty much anywhere in America.

Okay enough narcissistic comedy talk.  I get a call from the club and they want me to middle for Chris Kattan.  I plan a last minute drive up from LA with Julian, my documentary maker, and a guy we met on Zimride, who happened to be a film review critic, and though I didn’t ask for a career favor, I did proposition to him that he can pay me half of the gas money if he drives most of the way.  As a result I got to nap and work.  We get to Tommy T’s right as the show starts.  I found out that Chris Kattan is actually hosting, and I am closing.  Weird I thought at first, but makes sense, because he’s still new to stand up, and just wanted to have fun and work out some stuff, where as Tommy has trusted me to close weekend shows before.  The shows were all packed and hot, the crowds were a lot of fun, and I got to headline a weekend at Tommy T’s with an opener from SNL!  Pretty cool!  Kattan is a great guy.  Really nice, approachable, and not condescending in any way, which we often find successful people in showbiz can be.  Me on the other hand, after one weekend of headlining sold out shows, my ego grew a few notches.  A headlining ego, if you will…an ego that headlines its own show.   But then I saw my paycheck, and went right back down to a middling ego.

Day 827: Winning a $5,000 Competition

Easter Sunday morning I’m asking my dad for an Easter favor. When we were kids our parents would get us tiny easter gifts, and my sister and I would get greedy and ask for specific things of higher value as the years went on. One year she asked for a discman, and I asked for an album of x-men cards, I was 11, she was 13. They said fine, but this would be the last Easter gift ever. They called it ‘The Bunny Buyout’.

18 years later I’m calling in an Easter favor, my bank account has been overdrafted. Apparently I’ve been spending all of this college bookings money before I’ve earned it. Oops. I get a letter from the bank saying I’ve overdrafted, and I owe the bank $800. I don’t have any checks coming for a while, so I ask my dad if he can loan me $1000 to fill the account. Meanwhile I just spent all my cash on some new clothes and shoes, and I’ve been eating high end Indian buffets all week. My dad reluctantly agrees, and my mom lectures me for poor financial management.

After a family Easter brunch I go get a massage and spend more money I don’t have. But I want to be relaxed, because I’m competing for $5000 tonight at Tommy T’s. I shower and put on my Sunday’s best, which is a blue shirt and jeans. Blue is a soothing color and is good for winning competitions. And it’s a bright, Easter blue.

I head to Tommy T’s and am overwhelmed with how many comics, and good ones, are competing in the finals of this competition that just had 2 rounds. 17 comics each doing 8 minutes. That’s insane. And it’s a burial grounds for anyone going after 12. The ‘arc’ of a show is typically 90 minutes, which will expire near the 10th comic, since there is a host doing time too. We draw for order and I pull #4, which is the first ‘good’ spot, but it’s also very early so it’s not ‘great’. ‘Great’ would be 6-10 for this particular competition. Warmer crowd, and later is more memorable, for judges and crowd.

The crowd is very Easter Sunday. Older black women wearing their spring colored, post-church outfits. Lot’s of old white people who look nothing like the kind of people who would laugh at the humor they are about to get from me and my comrades. Let’s just say it wasn’t a typical Tommy T’s crowd, but it was a typical Sunday crowd. And they are tough, really tough, it’s gonna be one of those nights.

When the crowd is tough and slow to warm up, the later comics have an even stronger advantage…still not the super late ones, but the primes spots will be 8-10. Since I’m going 4th, my strategy is to a) crack them the eff open as fast as possible, b) move fast to get them energetic and pack in the punches, going extra fast so as to make it a memorable speed, c) not be phased at all by their toughness but plow through and never look back, and d) just emanate memorability as much as possible. Big smile, super speed, strongest material, absolute confidence, and bright colored shirt.

My set is…ok. The crowd was tough. It was maybe an 8 out of 10. I went a little faster than I could have. I could have given them more time to breathe and take in the joke. I could have closed stronger. But whatever, it’s over. Now I have to wait 13 comics.

A lot of comedians have great sets, but the crowd is still tough and no one is on top of their game. Occasionally a person walks by and says great job, or that they think I’ll make the top 5. It’s reassuring. The end comes 2 hours later and the crowd is ready to never come to a comedy show again. They call the top 6 on stage…Chuck Bartell, Larry Bubbles Brown, Hailey Boyle, Kabir Singh, Vince Acevedo…and…waiting…waiting…Sammy Obeid! Whew. I go up on stage and then they do an audience cheer to determine the order of the winners. I am uber fortunate to be the last one to get cheered for, which is a distinct advantage in these kinds of competitions…largely unfair in a lot of ways, because you can use physical cues to ask the crowd to turn it up as loud as they can. I mean, if you weren’t as good as the others that would be one thing…but all 6 of us had great sets, so in this case it was a definite gift to me. I get a loud cheer, and then the judges tab the votes. The results come out…5th, 4th, 3rd…none are me. And then 2nd…my buddy Kabir, who I would have been equally happy if he won. He was great, and also we share a lot, so a win for him is a win for me. Kabir comes off stage to hug me and they announce that I just won $5,000, the most I ever have in a competition.

People are coming up to hug and congratulate me. People come up saying SEE! I told you you would win! When no one did tell me any such things, but I smiled and said thank you. The winning comedians got $1,000 Invicta watches as well, which I will probably pawn, as its much to heavy for my feminine wrists.

I guess I kind of hoped that I would win…maybe even knew it in some way all along. I’ve been through some struggles lately and felt like I kinda deserve a break. It’s a pretty simple formula, wear blue, smile, do your best, believe that you deserve it, and practice for 826 days in a row prior to.

I go home, and the next morning, slap the $5,000 check on my dad’s desk. Here’s for the overdraft fee and a little extra for you and your lady. Tell the bunny I’m buying him back. And that I expect an Easter gift next year.

Day 781: Cross-Promotion; Saucee

Today I met with my close friends and old college roommates, Mohit and Himanshu, who have teamed up to start their own sauce-making enterprise, Saucee, with slogan ‘Eat More Creatively’. All sauces are organic, and original. Just like my comedy. Here’s a link to their Kickstarter:

They have hired me to offer my comedy talents for investors who pledge a certain amount of money. They also gave me a Saucee shirt, which I wore on stage tonight at Tommy T’s. When you believe in someone else’s product and they in yours, you have the option of synergy via cross-promotion. That’s what we are doing. I wouldn’t do it for many products, because a) I only lived with one group of guys in college, and b) most other products suck. I wouldn’t do this for Red Bull, because I don’t believe Red Bull is a good thing. I mean if they paid me millions, in theory I probably could believe that, but why get into hypotheticals?

Plus, comedy and sauce have a lot in comedy. Without it, life is dry, and bland, and boring. Essentially, comedy is the sauce of life. Life was given to us with all sorts of emotional, expressive, and cognitive capabilities, but without laughter, all of this would suck. That’s why next time you head out to a restaurant or make food at home, grab some Sauce (TM)! And likewise, next time you head out at night, come to Sammy Obeid’s comedy show (TM). God knows you’ll have a chance to do that every night…at least for 219 more days.