Before The Show

Before The Show

Every comedian has a pre show routine that helps them do their best. Mine always starts with a shower no later than 2 hours before showtime. It’s important to be as fresh as possible,which is why I rarely do anything between shower and show.

There is something quite magical standing in the shower with invigorating hot water cascading down. Occasionally a weird thought or joke will pop into my head before I get out. (Who first came up with the word “queasy”?) I leisurely get dressed while listening to music or watching TV. Since I’ve been working a lot at the Comedy Cellar, I know it takes 35 minutes on the subway, but I leave an hour before showtime in case of any variety of delay. I’m only late a couple of times a year and it’s usually the trains fault.

Once at the club, I order a coffee in a to-go cup with hazelnut. At the comedians table I peruse the lineup, hoping its filled with acts I love to watch. I head down to the show room about 3 minutes before showtime. Just enough time to check out the room and make sure my fly is up.

As the intro music plays I walk to the edge of the piano, take a closer look at the crowd and wait for my cue. After 30 plus years in standup it is still thrilling to approach the microphone. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

One of the fascinating things about what I do—talk to 120 strangers crammed in a small space—is there is never the exact same crowd. People are from all over the world yet the laughter sounds exactly the same every night. Another reminder that we are all just people, with so much more in common than not.

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

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

Lame Fame

Lame Fame

 

Everybody and their mothers want to be famous. The talent/fame ratio has never been lower. People spend inordinate amounts of time dreaming about red carpets, and with the encouragement of all who tell them to follow their dreams, they succeed. They do the hard work of saying and doing anything that will allow them to reach their goal; including lying, cheating, and all those other devilish things we love.

Fake it ‘til you make it is our national theme. There is a section of the population that think the hard work is simply hustling, and I am a hater. I’m quite cool with that. Enjoy all your followers and soon enough, you’ll get the impression that your shit don’t stink, and start to lose. How many stories have we heard of people trying to stretch their fifteen minutes into an hour and come up 45 minutes short?

I know a few people at various levels of fame. The ones I get along with are really not comfortable with being famous. They treat fame as a side effect of being great at what they do. They don’t travel with a dozen people so whispers of “he must be somebody” can be heard. I’ve had people come up to me after a show and ask “Why aren’t you famous?” I tell them because my plan is working.

My entire 30 years in standup have been spent avoiding fame at all costs. They say you can’t have it all. So, I’m going to give up chasing fame. I’m not entirely comfortable with the very, low level of fame I have. For years, I’ve had trouble taking the smallest compliment. I can’t imagine not being able to go out in public and have people tailing me. We are inundated with a whole lot of Lucy’s, constantly scheming on how to attract more, and more attention.

Do you know who I am??

Yes, you’re on that show, but you still have to go to jail for drinking and driving you idiot!!

William Stephenson

10 Up Front

10 Up Front

 

When the familiar intro music starts, I navigate through the tables towards my “office.” Standing next to the piano at the near end of the stage I clear my throat. I look over at the mic on its stand, and wonder about the words that will soon go through the microphone. Scanning the faces of the front row folks, I see some of them are checking me out, and wondering if I’m going to make them laugh.

“…and now please welcome your host for the evening!”

If the applause is tepid as I walk to the mic, I will let them know.

“Every hand should be banging up against one another so the brother will feel like doing this…”

If the opening applause is solid, I tell them I feel their love and I smell good.

I want the audience to understand how to get the best possible experience out of a comedy show. I explain to the crowd how applause makes everybody do a better job, and kid about the theory working for any type of job.

“What is your occupation front row sweater guy?”

“ I am an architect.”

“Not a great example but my point remains the same-the louder you clap the better it will be for everybody.”

There is a certain amount of anxiety for some folks when sitting in the front row. If you don’t want to call attention to yourself, never sit with your arms folded across your chest. Arms folded body language says to the comic, make me laugh. The position might very well be a defense for audience members who have heard people in the front row always get picked on. Regular comedy club patrons recognize a growing number of comedians don’t want to interact individually, and would rather audience members not speak at all.

In the opening 10 minutes, I also look for possible hecklers who might think interjecting a comment with the hope of improving a joke laying out there is a good idea. As Barney Fyfe used to say, “I need to nip this in the bud.” Offenders are usually in a large group and feeling safety in numbers. I let them know that the people at the next table didn’t pay the cover to hear him or her. Then, I invite hecklers to look around the room to see if they recognize anything from their living room.

“You don’t see anything from your house in here because you’re not at home, and should act accordingly.”

After squeezing in birthday acknowledgments, other celebrations, and welcoming the visitors from all over the world, it’s time for the first act. This party has started….right!

William Stephenson

 

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