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.