My First Hit Of Standup

My first hit of standup comedy took place in 1982 at Garvin’s Laugh Inn in Washington, DC. It was open mic night and I was number 13. Not exactly an encouraging number. I had plenty of time to get nervous enough to sip on a little Hennesey before I went on.

Good thing I had been onstage before, not as a comic, but, as an actor and clarinet player in high school. I had an idea of what it felt like to have lights shining on you while people watched what you did. For many, the idea alone would cause such severe stagefright that most people would never consider stepping on stage. I was 25 years old and buoyed by the support of my then-girlfriend, Brenda. It was her idea for me to sign up and do five minutes. We spent hours at the International House of Pancakes scribbling notes on the placemat. She was a teacher and knew I was looking for a career change, when we met I was tending bar. Just before that, I was driving a cab. It was time to take it higher.

Sam Greenfield, talk show host for KXNT in Las Vegas at the time, was the emcee that first night. The club wasn’t packed, but I remember there was a nice sized crowd…at the beginning of the show. By the time, Sammy called my name, a decent chunk of the crowd split. That was fine with me, the fewer people that see me drop a bomb, the better. I told no one in my family what I was doing. They would have yawned a “that’s nice,” then teased me like the devil.

I’m positive they would’ve been supportive, but before I made the announcement I had to figure out if I could do it. Brenda sat in the middle of the club and maintained a tight grin throughout my set. I was so glad she was there. She was always there for me in my good old days, driving me to the club every week.

I never decided to hold the microphone or leave it in the stand, so I did plenty of both. (A clear rookie mistake). In the five minutes I was onstage that cherry-busting first time, I got exactly one laugh from the “jokes” I told. Most of the things I said were ramblings of a confused man, going nowhere and saying nothing.

If I live to be a thousand, I will always have a crystal clear recollection of what that first laugh did for me. I felt a ring of electricity surrounding me, erasing the ugliness of the other 4 and a half minutes of my debut. The winning joke I told involved Leon Spinks trying to buy an Aretha Franklin tape. The clerk, thinking he said reefer, informed him that the record store didn’t sell marijuana.

The one, sweet laugh I got juiced me enough to come back the following week and go for 2. Those first weeks were torturous, and I knew I had to write some material that would make me stand out. I recalled what a teacher told me in a Black psychology class during my brief stint at a community college. She said the reason people without color (white folk) oppress people of color (mainly Black folk) is because they were jealous and it was human nature to be mean to people who had stuff you wanted.

From her way of thinking came, “So You Want To Be Black” in the form of an off-the-wall game show. Brenda came up with the brilliant idea of asking Washington Post columnist Bob Levy to be a guest contestant. I never thought he would, but he came down to Garvin’s and did well on the show, ending with being named honorary Black for one year.

On March 6, 1983 he wrote about his open mike experience and said, “If you come to Garvins on a Sunday night, bring earplugs. Remove them for William.” That article pumped me up for years, giving me written proof that I was funny.

William Stephenson

Behind the Side Door Waits the Comic

Behind the side door, waits the comic. It won’t be long before the comic’s name is electronically tossed before a group of humans he or she expects to amuse. Maybe? It’s the old False Intro, a plague in the world of standup comedy.

The main thing every comedian wants from the emcee is to be brought “right up.” That is, on the first try. The host can be halfway through the comic’s credits and suddenly realize he didn’t mention the waitresses. Or his favorite album cut. When a comic is told next, he goes into his preparation mode. Standing offstage, he will roll his eyes to the back of his head or employ one of the various tics, twitches, and shiggles available to him.

Kevin Brennan slowly and steadily heads toward the stage. If the emcee doesn’t hurry, Kevin will be talking over his own intro. Mark (Coco) Cohen enjoys pre-set banter with the host. This can be dangerous, but we’re talking about Coco here. He’s built for it.

Waiting behind the side door this weekend at the Comic Strip Live is Wanda Sykes Hall. Noted for her writing and appearances on the Chris Rock show, she recently broke out on her half hour “Comedy Central Presents.” performance. Tim Young works out at the Strip and is always fun to watch. I figure any comic that can use the phrase “bucket of bb’s” in a set has got to have funny all up in him.

Over at Standup New York, see David Atell. Love Dave, hate Dave. You can have fun just trying to figure out how you feel about him. Dubbed the “comic’s comic,” Dave says things other comics think about, but figure those things are not funny.

Note to all late night comics searching for a closing line, try….Thank You and Good Night!

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William Stephenson

Northwestern at 100 – Part Two

When you look forward to something months away, sometimes, the event is anti-climactic.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 100th anniversary of Northwestern High School!”

The response from my opening statement was tepid, given the 300 people in the room. I’m told over 500 folks attended this event, but most were more interested in catching up with classmates than listening to what anybody was saying. A constant undercurrent of conversations was heard throughout most of the speeches. There was a speaker from each decade from the 1940’s to 2000’s. Their testimonies of what the Big N.O. meant to them were met with a not-so-polite indifference.

I felt sorry for one speaker; in particular, who traveled clear across the country from Oakland, California. The conversations got so bad that the woman who escorted him to the stage asked me why so many people were talking during his speech. I told her the fact that some of these people had not seen each other for many years and that they paid $100 a pop gave them the right to act as they pleased. In between the speakers I tried to admonish the crowd, but most of them were older than me and simply ignored me.

Rep. John Conyers got the best response. He is the most well-known Northwestern High alumni. (Detroit Tiger Willie Horton, original Supreme Florence Ballard, original Temptation Melvin Franklin, and Ray Parker Jr. are some of the other famous folks).

At one point, a guy with a mask went up to the podium and just started talking. Nobody knew what he was saying because the rubber mask covered his whole head. He was quickly led away and everybody thought that was weird. Speakers near the bottom of the list were rushed because dinner had to be served at 7:15pm sharp (choice of chicken or salmon). The best part of the evening followed the speeches and not a moment too soon.

The Al McKenzie Band (class of ’79)—keys, drums and bass—played a jazzy funky set; including, Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon. You know, I got my dance on. For the finale, Al brought up two Detroit legends, vocalist Dennis Rowland and saxman Gus Parham. Now it was a jam session and everybody was grooving. A DJ followed the band and she got the dance floor filled with alumni doing a line dance.

A couple of tunes later, I was out. A classmate who didn’t attend the event came down and took me over to a nearby casino. He said there was a pretty good band backing a Canadian singer with a weird name that I refuse to remember. I found them the least entertaining of the 3 bands I saw during my trip.

When they wrapped it up at 2am, I hopped a cab to the airport. I arrived a full 3 hours before my flight boarded. I found a seat near an outlet, charged my phone, and nodded in and out until about 5am when a breakfast place opened. I still had on a suit. By then, my shirt would not stop riding up and I looked like I spent the night at the tables, but didn’t do well.

Overall, it felt good to be in the presence of so many alumni. Some remembered my father, who taught social studies in the 60’s. Everyone looked mighty fine in their red and gray outfits. I wish more people listened to the speakers talk about what Northwestern High meant to them. I wasn’t able to convey my feelings about Northwestern fully, but overall it was a superb night.

William Stephenson

 

Read Part 1

Swoosh

If you’re lucky, you get to travel through life collecting a vast array of experiences that bring you pleasure. And if you are really lucky you are able to re-live them to the end. Some of the best memories may leave you for a while but return exactly the moment you need them. I consider myself lucky, but not in the usual “win the lottery” way (Lawd knows I’ve been a-tryin’). I have a stockpile of odd little blocks of time that never fail to pick me up. A butterfly landing on my knee or being first in line for anything. Many of the things that hit my spot outside the world of comedy are tiny, barely noticeable events.

There is a sound I have been obsessed with since I was a kid. I have not heard it regularly in years, but when I do it automatically calms and soothes me. When I first heard this wonderful noise, it was the dead of night and it has always been my favorite time of day since. It resembles a lover’s breath looming over your neck and ear.

The only way this sound is produced as far as I know is in a car. The radio is off and the windows are down. The last thing you need is a quiet residential street. Driving less than 25 mph, maybe looking for a parking space, a sweet swoosh sound is created as you pass other cars. It has three distinct parts. You hear part one−a kind of “swoo” sound−followed by the middle “ooo”−and “sh” comes at the end. With the decrease in speed, the middle part is prominent. I don’t know why but I absolutely love it.

I believe the first time I remember hearing this sound was the end of a road trip from Detroit to DC. Every summer my family drove the 16-hour trip to visit both my parents folks. We’d end up near Rock Creek Park at my Aunt Barbara’s or my mom’s mom on Taylor Street NW. When the car slowed, the swooshes became softer and carried the knowledge that we were seconds away from reaching our destination.

The last time I heard this sound was quite by accident. I was in a cab in NY during summertime. I opted for no air conditioning as the driver reeked of the standard cabbie odor. I would not have survived the drive without fresh air. Between the street noise and the cabbie talking on his cell, I almost missed it. Turning off Broadway onto my street, I heard it as the cab slowed to drop me off. Suddenly, the odoriferous cab driver and all the other pains of NY city life drifted away.

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William Stephenson

7 Minutes

In the 7 minutes it takes me to walk to the subway, I see a variety of images that appear in this short film of life. More than a few are constant, for each trip down Nostrand Avenue features several baby carriages pushed by young Black women. I smile whenever I see a Black man pushing one. Some of these carriages are being pushed with concern about getting across the street first, using the baby as a siren.

Young men are on the first corner I cross on Nostrand Avenue. They wear the space coats and hoods and caps and Tommy’s and Nike’s. Drug dealers? Not really, they just live off the misery of others. I think that’s called hustling. It’s common practice in America…get what you can how you can. The Man has been doing it since forever so let’s not get on their backs about it.

Somebody will usually ask me for something in my seven-minute trek to the subway. A cigarette. “Say brother, you got a quarter? All I need is 50 cents.” I have developed my walk to hinder anyone saying anything to me. Stern face. Deliberate strides suggesting I have to be some place very important very soon.

All of my walks to the A train in the last 11 years have not provided me with depressing images. My favorite event happens at the corner of Nostrand and Atlantic. Sometimes, a car waiting at the light will honk at me, or holler out the window. They saw me working somewhere and wanted to let me know they thought I was funny. Yes, there are occasions where my walk is downright inspiring. It was in this stretch of Brooklyn that gave me the inspiration for, “The Good Walk.”

So I suppose you take the good with the bad, but I sure wish I smiled more while walking down the avenue.

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William Stephenson

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