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

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

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

Milwaukee

Milwaukee

 

We had a 20 minute layover in Chicago, so Leroy Pinkerton (who easily looked 30 years old), hopped off the bus and brought back a bottle of Don Q 151.

Now the trip was official. We felt deserving after working so hard to prepare for our journey to Milwaukee. The Northwestern High School Symphonic Wind Ensemble had been invited to perform at the National Music Educators Conference. I never was one of the best musicians and felt lucky to be able to play with these people. My instrument was the clarinet because father was a huge Pete Fountain fan. I wasn’t really into it, but he pretty much insisted.

We took sips of the Don Q passed by the fellas in the back. Ron Elliot, the coolest and first chair clarinet, led in the singing of the Temptations catalogue. Ron Sumling made out with one of my exes. She was my ex because I wouldn’t/couldn’t do the nasty yet. They were exactly in the middle of the bus with a blanket as their only cover. It didn’t bother me as my liaison with the Don had me “astreemlee mellow.”

I remember the feeling of walking through the streets of Milwaukee, dressed in tux and tails, and hat. We had survived a night of bus riding and were ready to do our thing. We looked good! We felt big time, getting out into the country. Young Black folk, keeping our heads to the sky.

Our performance at the conference was recorded and became an album. It was exhilarating to hear the response. I was surprised it was so strong, I didn’t think we sounded that great. I think now the audience’s response was the result of seeing a wonderful sight on stage—a stage full of young, Black talented musicians.

Our antics at the hotel room that night didn’t exceed being in the wrong room after curfew. One of the adult chaperones, Mr. Dalton, (Miriam’s Dad and my typing teacher) gave us a lecture about the “the right thing” and “representing your school.” He caught a few of us fellas hanging out in Penny’s room. I remember using my hiding place of choice, under the bed.

That trip solidified what already was a powerful connection. Our combined love for music, youth and being Black, remains a life force, carrying us through and all up into the 40’s.

William Stephenson

Poker Game

Poker Game

 

On Monday nights in the East village, a killer comedy show is going on. And no audience to see it. Eddie hosts a weekly poker game, 6 years running.

It’s a roast without the dais, a sophisticated snap session with cash involved. The current regulars are Vic and Robin, JR., Adam, Louie, Jeff, Eddie and myself. Vic’s wife Robin and Adam are writers and the only non-comics of the regulars. I am the LCN or Low Card Negro because of my propensity for getting low cards. (Very few other brothers have played in this game. Greg Poole, the brother from Speed 2 and my cousin Lamarr. It seems the ratio of brothers is the same as brothers working comedy clubs in the city.) Sam, Joe and Carrie (nicknamed Pounders after calling an ace a pounder), average 1 or 2 games a month and considered the easiest touches of the group. The Fitzdog stops through with his donation when he’s in town.

Vic provides cat like injections of humor filled with obscure references and has the best road stories that take 5 hands to finish. He should be from Chicago as much as he comes in second. Robin was once accused of farting in the cab on the way to a game. She to this day denies it, but you always love the idea of a pretty woman farting. Jeff is fascinated by the old Catskills comics and plays in a regular Friars Club game. Joe is the most improved player over the years, but he was pretty bad to start. President of the 20/20 club, ($20-20 minutes and out) Joe can hang for an hour now. “I know I’m doing something wrong. Every time I get a good hand they all drop out.”

Louis brings the harsh side of him to every game he attends. Owner of the best exit award, Louis had bad cards all night and lost plenty. After his last hand, he rose from the table to exclaim, ” So long, suckers! Maybe I’ll let you guys come by and visit your money!”

Eddie, always the congenial host is the hardest to beat. He has a knack for putting the hammer down. That’s when you decide to raise the maximum every chance you get. Many players use this tactic to force other hands out. “You gotta be innit to winnit,” says JR. With the hammer in the down position, you’ve got good cards or fully expect to get them. Adam is most often caught with his hammer down. All of us have made truly bonehead decisions though.

The most common is misreading a low hand that’s actually a straight. Or not keeping the right number of cards in one of the pass games.

The least favorite part of the poker game for me is answering the age old questions, “Any raises left?” “How much is it to me?” “Has Puff Daddy ever written a real song?” We imposed a 3 raise limit, in keeping with the friendly nature of the game. Checking and raising are not done either, for the same reason. “Focus and Enjoy” is a popular prelude to many hands that are dealt. Eddie always stresses the enjoyment factor, while I try to keep players focused in the game.

We listen to everything from John Coltrane to Elvis Costello and much in between. Jeff complains the most about the music and I always hear stuff I wouldn’t listen to at home. We all love to play poker… and screw up all the lyrics to whatever tune is playing. JR will inject the word “lady” into each song, much to our delight. Jay gets honors for most bizarre entrance and exit.

He once ran in butt naked, did a lap around the coffee table and ran out. (Picture a real life Ken doll action figure). One time semi-regular Kenny would sit with a hip flask of Old Grand Dad, and attempt to pass it around like we were camped out in the woods. His girlfriend Vivka was universally despised for her extremely slow play. You had time to go around to the Cellar and do a set by the time she made a bet.

They were eventually banned from the game and she was deported. Ray went light on a pot, excused himself from the table when he lost to go to the bank. He never came back. Pounders once brought an overweight player to the game. He broke a chair. At that point, his name became “Thousand Pounder.” Pounders is famous for odd poker behavior. Last week she brought her dog, a little Yorkie to the game. At one point, she placed the dog on the poker table and sat back for us to marvel at his cuteness. Pounders lives in the fantasy world of afterlife poker.

“What did you have? If you had folded, I would’ve got my boat!” What the hell, she brings gyros or other foodstuff. Chips and bits fly at the comedians poker game. It’s the comics golf course. Intricate stories of missed flights, bad hotels, and weird club owners are woven between jokes. An hour into the game, someone will call for a food break.

Vic: (giving food order to Eddie who’s on the phone with the deli) Tell ’em to send me a cock sandwich.

Eddie: What if they don’t have cock?
Vic: I’ll take turkey.
Phone rings.
Eddie answers and leaves the table to talk in the bedroom. He comes back 20 minutes later grinning:

“Who was it?” one of the regulars will ask.
“Wrong Number” The timing is always on the money.

One of my favorite games is pass two left and right anaconda. I call it Take Whitey Down. Louie brought Mr. C.K.’s Balls to the game, and we honor Louie by playing it when he’s not there. JR calls a lot of biddy badda boww. It’s a game where you have the option of buying one card for 50 cents, another for a dollar or a free one from the deck. Fifty evolved into biddy and dollar became badda. Boww (rhymes with cow) is used to represent going for the unknown, selecting the only unseen card of the choices. When dealt an ace for the boww, it’s known as the best boww in the business. JR loves dealing this game and beating me.

“I also feel at my most useful when I’m separating the chips. It’s sort of my turn to shine whether I’m Chippy McSweepum or not.” JR quickly divides the pot into neat stacks for the winners to collect. (Chippy McSweepum is any player that wins a big hand or a well full of chips. The variations on this theme are unlimited). “On the back bumpski” is a situation where one player is raised by a player who had previously called. He may have been holding great cards from the getgo, or setting himself up for a frankchank, one of our favorite phrases.

Frankchank can be used in a variety of situations. If a player raises has nothing and gets caught, he was frankchanked. Or when a player Franks his Chank, he has won a hand with very little. “Frankchank with the lady” is one of JR’s numerous contributions. I suppose if we were a singing group, we’d be
called…”Cooly Cool and the Frank Chanks.”

This is humor for comedians and we live for our weekly dose of tomfoolery.

About 3 hours into the game, a quitting time is established. Usually 30 minutes to an hour later we have 2 showdowns. The first is for $10 each and each player is given 7 cards face up, best hand wins. The second is $5 for 5 cards. This way a player can pick up nearly $100. Many nights the showdown makes the difference in a winning or losing night.

It’s a friendly game, which is crucial to its success. Disputes are not settled with guns or violence. If the bank comes up short, players toss a buck or two to whoever comes up light. Overage is taken care of by having a 3rd showdown.

There is nothing like a good poker game, and this is one of the great ones.

William Stephenson

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