Wake Up

One of the greatest things about youth is a feeling of invincibility. Energy and agility are two things heavily in your favor. You feel like you can stop on a dime and give up change. You begin to get out and see some of the world and it’s all in your hip pocket. An event will then come along and strongly suggest you pump your brakes.

My wake up call took place when I was about 16. I had just overcome my “gump” phase (see nerd). I was hanging with the best of the band members going to picnics and ride-outs to Belle Isle. Somebody mentioned an abandoned mansion down by the river that just might be haunted. I don’t remember the first time we hung out down there but I’ll never forget the last. Ignoring the no trespassing signs we had at least a dozen of the crew on this night. Underneath the huge pipe organ in what had to be the ballroom we drank beer and smoked weed. “Cops!”

The proverbial jig had risen. We made a mad dash to just get the hell out of there and people ran all types of whichway. A large group left the property but I was in another group that felt hiding in the tall brush was sufficient. The feeling was the cops wouldn’t see us and continue on their way. Laying face down in the scratchy grass I heard a click right next to my ear followed by the words, “You move you a dead motherfucker!” I thought it sounded like a gun. What am I, in a movie?

About 5 of us were corralled into a clearing lined up side by side. The cops were behind us and we all thought we were about to be shot in the ass. One of my legs couldn’t stop shaking while the cops took their time scaring the shit out of us.

“What are you DOING HERE?!
“Clearly marked PRIVATE PROPERTY.”
“You wanna GO TO JAIL?!”

Oh no, this simply could not be happening. In no way did I want to go to the big house. I begged my leg not to buckle and my bowels not to vacate. The cops shined flashlights on our butts and snickered. If this scene had been photographed the caption would have read: “Dear sweet Jesus, let me out of this mess and I will never get in trouble again.”

We were let go when the cops felt we had been sufficiently spooked. I have not had a run in with the cops since.

William Stephenson

Homeless Man

I had an interesting talk with a homeless dude I have seen hanging around the Comedy Cellar for months. I first noticed the man who looked to be around my age last spring on a warm day when the Olive Tree has tables set out front. ( The Olive Tree is the restaurant directly above the Cellar.) Tracy Morgan often held court there before his accident last summer. People were stopping by for pictures with the 30 Rock star.

The homeless guy came by and Tracy handed him what looked to be a fistful of twenties. I have since seen him posting up at the entrance to the W. 4th street subway station. Sometimes at the top of the steps but more often at the bottom with his usual spiel,” little help, god bless.” He’d shake his cup hoping passersby would add to his jingle.

A few nights ago as I walked by him on the subway steps, I heard him tell a group of Asian folks to “go back to their own fuckin’ country!” I was glad I never gave him any money because he was just rude. Nobody is obligated to give you money so you can’t get mad when they don’t.

Last night I was having my usual smoke and cup of coffee before the show and he stopped to chat. A couple of people recognized me and it’s then I find out he didn’t know I was a comedian. He thought I just put shows together. He mistakenly thought I had money to give him since I was a performer.

I told him a bit about my homeless experience 30 years ago. I broke it down to him how broke I was and now he’s telling me how he’s going to get his shit together. He has been studying for a food service handler’s permit. He said he saved money to buy new shoes, shirt and pants. His plan is to take the test and get a job.

He seemed surprised and encouraged by my story and with the help of the bathroom arrangement he had with a nearby McDonald’s, he vowed he would follow through. Stay tuned.

William Stephenson

2nd Amy Shumer Sketch

A few months ago, Amy Shumer asked me to play a judge again in a new sketch for the 3rd season of Inside Amy Shumer on Comedy Central. Entitled “Cosby Court”, the shoot was a couple of weeks ago and it was long and fun. Amy plays the defense attorney in the court of public opinion. I had only a few lines, most of which were “overruled.” The day started off with good news and bad. My call time was 7:45 AM, which always kills me because I am not a morning person. The good news is I had to be at 96th & Broadway to be picked up which is 10 minutes away by subway. I hosted a show at the Cellar the night before and didn’t get a whole lot of sleep.

I made it on time for the ride to the same courthouse used in last years court sketch in Yonkers. An intern in a white mini-van was waiting to carry me and the woman who played the prosecuting attorney. With jazz playing softly in the background I put my seat back and tried to get some rest. I found out on the way back the driver was also a comic but she was in full driver mode and thankfully didn’t try to crack any jokes.

We pulled up at the YMCA where we checked in, then walked 2 blocks to the make up and hair trailers. I didn’t need any major work so after flirting with the hair lady it was back to the holding area for breakfast. Soon it was time to go to the set for rehearsal. No problems there and back to holding we go. I didn’t know any of the other actors beside Amy but the guy who played delivery man knew me from “Louie.“

Now it’s time for the taping and back in the van we go. I remembered the director and the guy who put the microphone in my shirt and they seemed happy to see me. After the first hour I got real sleepy and had to fight nodding off several times. I failed at least once when I heard the director say “Ok William, no more sleeping!”
Ouch. I was awake the rest of the way, but it took all of my concentration. At the end of the sketch I was to join a conga line with the jury as we chanted “Cos is great! He gives us chocolate cake!” This took a while for the different camera angles. I put in a few moves I had from those Funk Nights at the Café Wha? and we were done. Or so I thought.

They still had to shoot close ups of my reactions to the attorneys. I had to be bored, then amused. A full 12 hours after leaving my crib I was finally wrapped. It was an exhausting day but a good one and hopefully the sketch comes out as funny as it felt.

William Stephenson

Moving to NY

Saturday, January 09, 1999
7:27:23 AM

From the window seat of a greyhound bus, New York City had the look of a huge group of tall pointy-headed monsters, standing shoulder to shoulder. Coming up the Jersey Turnpike, my bus took its place in the herd of prey headed to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Just like I pictured it―skyscrapers and everything.

For 4 hours, I half slept and thought about exactly what the hell I was doing. With 2 years working in D.C. under my belt, I needed the challenge of one of the two coasts. Coming to New York was an easy choice, since I had cousins there. And no money to get to LA. I gathered a few dollars and my ever loving mom gave me a few dollars more. After 2 weeks of staying with fellow comic John Mulrooney, I was going to be hurting for a residence. I had bookings for 2 weekends in a row, and the plan was to get more work, keep this thing going. Ok, so they were Jersey gigs, but they paid cash. I took it as a good omen the fact that I had 2 seats on the bus all to myself. I kept my bag with my notebooks in one, and I stared through the window, not noticing the rain and dark skies.

My mood did not allow for conversation, and I barely looked at any of the other passengers. I checked my will, my desire and my strength to make sure I had enough to handle what was ahead. I kept patting the pocket with my wallet and thought of how I used to watch Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and George Carlin on the Ed Sullivan show. Scenes from high school plays flashed through my head.

In the Lincoln Tunnel, I knew this was it. Fear and terror requested access to my psyche and were flat out turned away by my belief and resolve. I was here with a purpose, I had come to do standup comedy. Ha! I had come to be eaten by the monster known as the entertainment industry! I did remember the “Livin For The City” Stevie Wonder tune because the first thing I did when I got off the bus was, not accept a package from a stranger.

William Stephenson

Saying Something

I have been riding the NYC subway system since moving here some 30 years ago. All things considered, it’s the best way to navigate this rough and tumble town. If you own a car you, you should be at least rich, or plan to live in it because parking is a female dog.

Riders are told that if they see something, say something. That is just a catchy phrase because snitches get stitches. The bold among us will video any activity destined to get many hits on YouTube. I suppose that is saying, something. I’ve seen drunks splayed out on the floor. Couple fights are common on late weekend nights. Once I saw a guy with a look that strongly suggested he wasn’t going to make it all the way home. I knew he was going to throw up so I sat a safe distance away.

I saw something the other day and I said something. I was seated in a car with no vacant seats and several standees. An older man just to my right was laden with several bags and a suitcase. When his stop came, he gathered his stuff and made his way toward the door. A guy standing in front of him noticed a stamped envelope laying on the seat. It looked to be a personal letter that was addressed by hand. I indicated it wasn’t mine and he grabbed it and headed toward the closing doors. He didn’t quite make it but managed to get his arm jammed through with the letter. He flung the envelope to the platform after calling out to the likely owner. As the train pulled out, we watched the man see it and break out an ear-to-ear grin.

I said to the guy that did the cool thing, “nice work.”

William Stephenson

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