Site by Ian Coburn
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Don't Tell My Mom
Comedy clubs are categorized. A-rooms book a lot of big names to headline—acts on the verge of getting a sitcom or who have been on TV frequently. They typically run shows five to seven nights a week. B-rooms don’t headline big names much and typically run shows three to five nights a week. A lot of their headliners are just as funny as big-name acts; they just haven’t met the right people. In entertainment, meeting the right people is Big. Both A- and B-rooms tend to be in larger cities.
One-nighters are just what they’re named. They’re one night gigs that can take place anywhere, but tend to be in towns and smaller cities. One-nighters that suck are called hell gigs. Most of the time, comedians have no idea they are working a hell gig until they’re already at the gig. I once played a bowling alley, which is a bad gig to begin with; the other acts and I assumed the show would take place in a room separate from the bowling lanes, like maybe the bar. Nope. At show time the manager simply kicked customers off the center lane, and that became the stage. We each did our act standing halfway down the alley while people bowled in the lanes around us. Good times.
My first big A-room gig came when I was nineteen. I did open mic night at KJ Riddles, an A-room in a suburb south of Chicago. While I was onstage, comedian Jimmy Pardo and the owner, Ken, hung out in the back of the club. I had met Jimmy when we both made finalist status in a competition to appear on The Tonight Show.
Ken picked up a flyer advertising the acts for the next few months off a table. He pointed to a week and told Jimmy, “I need an emcee for this week. Any ideas?”
Jimmy pointed to me onstage and asked, “What about Ian?”
Timing is another big element in entertainment. Had Jimmy not been sitting with Ken at the moment I was onstage, and had Ken not brought up the week, it probably never would have occurred to Ken to consider me for the spot. Good ole Jimmy. Ken approached me with the flyer as I got offstage, “Hey kid, I need an opener this week; you free?”
I recognized the picture of the headliner. He’d been on The Tonight Show several times, as well as a bunch of other television shows. His name was Drew Carey.
At the time, I was going to school in DeKalb, Illinois, which was a good hour-and-a-half away from the club. I didn’t have a car, and it was a week-long gig occurring in January, while school was in session. (Currently, I was on winter break.) I looked at Ken and without missing a beat replied, “Yeah, I can do that.”
Immediate panic set in. What the hell was I saying? I couldn’t do the gig; I had no way of getting to it. There wasn’t any public transportation anywhere near the club and the friend who had driven me that night would be back at school in Iowa.
“Good. It pays four hundred dollars.”
Four hundred dollars?! Four hundred dollars?! I might as well have been Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost yelling, “Four million dollars? Four million dollars?”
To a college student in 1991, four hundred dollars was like ten grand. Hell, I was writing checks for thirty-four cents . . . and they were bouncing. Four hundred dollars was a semester of work. It was fifteen minutes a show, eight shows total. That’s four hundred bucks for two hours of work. At the time I was making four dollars an hour after taxes in my dorm’s cafeteria. I was going to get paid one hundred hours of dish work for two hours of comedy work. Ken said a bunch of other things after “four hundred dollars,” but I have no idea what they were. I didn’t hear anything after four hundred dollars.
The day after I booked the week at Riddles, I started calling other comedy clubs to let them know I was working there and that I was opening for Drew Carey. It was the first big step toward full-time comedy. Doors that had been shut tight before were suddenly opened. I booked two months of emcee work in two days. I booked clubs in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. All the gigs took place during the school session. And yes, I still didn’t have a car.
Back at school, a week before my gig at Riddles, I began to freak out. I still didn’t have a car. I had been unable to secure any rides to the show. My bank account boasted a lofty $54 and some odd cents. Not too many cars were going for that price (I checked). What to do? What to do? The answer hit me on my way to Japanese class (yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking when I signed up for that course either, except that it would be nice to understand my math teacher for a change). There, at a table in the middle of the sidewalk leading up to the arts building was the sign—literally. It said “MasterCard.”
In college banks give you credit cards like they are handing out candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. I had avoided them before, for fear of racking up bad credit, but now seemed like a good time to change my tune. Armed with MasterCard checks and a $2000 credit limit, I went to work finding a car. I bought one for $1600 the day before the gig started. It was a 1985 Buick Century. On the advice of the seller, I took it in immediately for an oil change.
The first night of the show went great. I was nervous as hell in front of a packed house of 450 people, but after my opening joke killed, I relaxed and just cruised through my material. I met Drew while the feature act was onstage. He gave me his intro. He was a very cool guy and made me feel at ease. I was surprised at how nervous he was. Every show, as it got closer and closer to his time to go up, he paced back and forth, back and forth, relentlessly.
He also couldn’t talk to a pretty woman to save his life. Every time one of the cute waitresses approached him for an autograph or to chat, he could only manage to mumble and mutter in reply. He didn’t go out after any of the shows; he just went back to his motel room and read a book. I later learned that he preferred to frequent strip clubs. I found that surprising, given that it was very easy for even me to meet women after a show. There weren’t any strip clubs near KJ Riddles.
On my way back to school after opening night, my brand-new secondhand car died. I restarted it and continued to drive . . . with the engine light on. (Needless to say, I knew very little about cars at the time.) After a few miles the car died again and would not restart, despite my begging, cursing, and eventual pounding on the steering wheel. Luckily my roommate’s parents lived close to where I broke down, so I was able to spend the night with them. In the morning AAA towed my car to a shop. (AAA is the wisest investment I ever made. They saved my butt many, many times. Anyone with a car should join; go with AAA-Plus.) Apparently the mechanics who changed my oil had stripped the oil pan (they over-tightened the drain bolt). Oil had been slowly leaking out of my car as I drove. My engine light went on because I was driving without any oil.
What an exciting turn of events. A day ago I owned my first car; now I owned my first two-ton paperweight. A new engine would cost more than I spent for the car, so I cut my losses and junked it. I was now in worse shape than my original dilemma. I had two months of gigs—one of which I was in the middle of—no car, and only $400 of credit left on my MasterCard. I was also standing, bewildered, in an auto repair shop while I was supposed to be eighty miles away, taking a test in Japanese. Everyone who’s been to college knows that tests are huge. College classes only give two or three tests each semester and each one accounts for like forty percent of the final grade. I did the only thing I could do . . . I called my mommy.
I felt like an idiot for calling my mom, but I was glad I did. Although she didn’t like the idea of her little boy performing in clubs with “drunk people, clouds of smoke, and loose women,” she did have a solution: I would stay with her the rest of the week back home in Oak Park, a suburb just west of Chi-Town, and she would drive me to the shows for the rest of the week. This was a big sacrifice on her part, as I had never known my mom to spend any time at a bar or nightclub. She detested most of them.
Mom wore her favorite scarf the first night she drove me. It was hand-knitted for her by her favorite aunt or someone who had since passed away. She had had it for years and wore it everywhere. On the way to the club, she became too warm with it on and took it off, placing it between the driver’s and passenger’s seat.
My second night went just as well as my first. My mom sat in the back of the sold out club. I went up to her after the set. “Well, whad ya think?”
“Do you have to swear so much?”
“Mom, I swear like twice and all I say is hell and damn.”
Boy was she in for a surprise. Although Drew’s standup was squeaky clean on TV, his favorite adjective was “fuck” and he used it like a chef over-seasoning a meal. To make matters worse, his closer was a three-minute bit on masturbation. I decided not to be anywhere near her during his act. She liked the feature, as he spent a good portion of his show impersonating Bob Hope, who didn’t use harsh words like “damn” or “hell.”
Drew and I spent most of the feature’s act talking about my car situation. He liked that I was willing to make stupid decisions just to get onstage. I decided to get another credit card and buy another car, which is what I eventually did. All the money I ended up making over the next two months paid for the cars and then was gone. But I got two months of experience onstage, which was priceless. (Yeah, my second card was a MasterCard, too.)
Years later, when Drew had his sitcom, I heard stories of him buying new cars for employees who owned clunkers. I had worked with Drew just before he shot his first sitcom, The Good Life, on which he was a sidekick. The show bombed and got canceled after a few episodes, but it was enough to get Drew his own show. It’s a known fact in Hollywood that one of the best roles an act can land is the sidekick on a new sitcom. If the show flops, everybody blames the lead, not the sidekick. Plus, the sidekick has been seen and now networks can cast him in just the right role, as they’ve seen his work. The worst thing to be is the lead on a flop; no one wants to touch the actor after that with the proverbial ten-foot pole. (I guess it’s true; Drew Carey landed a big successful sitcom after The Good Life flopped while John Caponera, the show’s lead, fell off the radar. It’s too bad because John is talented and, truthfully, most sitcoms fail because of just-awful, forced writing; not because of the lead.)
It’s too bad I didn’t work with Drew when he was buying people new cars. That’s the kind of guy Drew was when I worked with him—genuine, grateful, and someone who felt it was important to spread his good fortune. It’s always good to see people like that find great success, as they deserve it.
During Drew’s set I headed out into the club’s lobby, where I met Jennifer. She was standing in the lobby alone, looking at the pictures of comedians papering the walls.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Hey, you were the first guy. You’re really funny.”
“Thanks. So what are you doing out here?”
“Oh, I’m only eighteen and I got caught. They kicked me out of the show and now
I have to wait for my friends. I’m bored to death.”
“Oh, that sucks. I’m only nineteen and they let me stay in there.”
“You’re one of the acts.”
“Exactly. So just go on and do some time.”
She laughed, “Yeah, right; I could never do what you do. I’d be so nervous.”
“Yeah? What can you do?”
“I can do some things.”
“Yeah, like what?”
She smiled. She was really cute, with short brown hair, big brown eyes, and deep dimples. I was scared to death but I stepped into her as I asked again, “Tell me, what can you do?”
She grinned, “Stuff.”
I kissed her. In a few moments we started to make out. She slid her hand down to my crotch and told me she had never seen a penis. I told her no girl had ever seen my penis. She asked, “Do you have a car?”
“Sure, just let me go get the keys; they’re in my jacket.”
Back in the showroom, my mom was pissed.
“This guy is filthy. I should have brought my earplugs. Why does he have to curse so much? You’re not going to be like that, are you? ‘Fuck this, fuck that’; I won’t have it.”
I grabbed the car keys.
“Hey, where are you going with those?”
“I left something in the car.”
Inside the car, Jennifer changed her mind. We just kissed for a while. She kept rubbing my crotch, though.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see it?”
She nodded, “I’m sure.”
I touched her breasts over her shirt, which she wouldn’t let me remove, even though I tried several times. After a while, as Jennifer kept talking about penises, I decided to be bold. I unzipped and released the beast. She freaked out. “Oh my God! Put it away!”
Not the reaction a guy hopes to get. I zipped up.
She stared at my crotch, “Why did you do that?”
I shrugged, “Seems like you really want to see one and I’d like someone to see mine. I’d like the first to be you.”
“Take it out again.”
I was more than happy to oblige. Immediately, she recanted, “Okay, okay, put it away.”
This went on a few more times. I was going crazy, sitting in my mom’s car with Sybil. At her request, I took it out yet again. She looked at it. “What’s it feel like?”
She shook her head. I gently took her hand and moved it over.
“Wow. It feels so different than I imagined. It feels really good.”
She tried touching me in different ways. “Does this feel good? Does this feel good? What if I do this?”
“It all feels good.”
It felt amazing. I was her tutor; her practice tool. There was something especially fulfilling in that. Suddenly, she threw me a curve ball. “Do you have a condom?”
I stared at her, “Really?”
“Yeah . . . really.”
I did not have a condom, as I had never needed one. What’s more, I did not want to search the car for one. My parents had been divorced since I was six and I really didn’t want to know if my mom had condoms in the car.
“Damn it; I don’t have one.”
“It’s okay. Tell me what feels best.”
When she hit a motion that made my eyes roll back in my skull, I nodded my head rapidly, “That’s it; that’s the one.”
Suddenly, just as I was about to orgasm from my first hand job, I heard huge applause coming from inside the club. I looked at my watch. Oh my God! Drew was getting off. I had lost complete track of time.
Part of the emcee’s job is to go up and close the show after the headliner finishes; tell the crowd to tip the staff, point to the exits, let them know who’s appearing next week, that kind of thing. Here it was, the second night of my first big week and I was going to blow it! I knew from the first night that Drew got two big applauses at the end of his act. I had just heard the first one; the second would come in about thirty seconds. I had to get back inside! As every guy knows, though, at nineteen, there was no turning back. God was going to force me to stop now? To come this close and stop? Such cruelty!
“Oh God, Jennifer, hurry; I have to get back inside.”
She finished. Now, it being my first time, I was especially excited. After all, I’d been imagining this moment since I was twelve and had seven years of pent-up anticipation. Stuff went everywhere; I mean everywhere: the steering wheel, the dashboard, the radio . . . Jennifer was impressed.
“Wow. Does it always happen like that?”
“No, not even close. That’s all because of you. You were great.”
She smiled, “Thanks.”
In my extreme haste, I grabbed the only thing in sight big enough for this job . . . my mom’s scarf. I mopped up everything, zipped up, then Jennifer and I sprinted for the club. I tossed the scarf into the trash along the way.
Even though Drew and I got off at the same time, the continuous applause from the crowd bought me some time. I made it back and brought him off the stage. No one was the wiser.
Strangely, I didn’t see Jennifer again. She left without saying goodbye. I thought we would exchange numbers, but we didn’t. Yet, I didn’t mind. There was something satisfying about it, like a secret. It actually made the whole incident more exciting. We had shared something special in a car while everyone else was inside the club. No one knew but us. We gave each other something for the first time and we always had that. I couldn’t explain it but I liked that feeling.
Years later, when I was headlining Riddles myself, a woman approached me after the show and told me she had seen me back when I was starting out, when I opened for Drew Carey.
“My friend gave you a hand job in your car.”
That was awesome.
When my mom and I got in the car to go home, there was no reason for her to grab her scarf; the car was still warm from Jennifer and me. We had the heat on while we were in the car. It wasn’t until we got home that she realized the scarf was gone.
Every night she made me ask each waitress if they had seen a hand-knitted scarf. Every night she bugged the club manager to look in the lost and found. Till this day, she still doesn’t know what happened. And as I don’t expect she will be reading this book, please don’t tell her. Thanks.
I learned five things from Jennifer:
I was always a little disappointed that Jennifer and I weren’t each other’s first, mostly because it was due to my lack of preparedness. She had given me something really good and I would have liked to have repaid her . . . in spades, if possible. (Which was probably very unlikely at nineteen.)
From that day forward, I always carried some condoms. The decision has had many impacts that I never anticipated. For example, consider an occurrence at which I used all the knowledge I learned from Jennifer.
One night I was out with some friends, all guys, at a popular bar named John Barleycorn. Four women approached us, all attractive, the ringleader hot. She was young and had a great, tight little body. They had a list of items typed on a piece of paper. “Are you grocery shopping and you got really, really lost?”
The girls laughed at my joke. It turned out they were on a scavenger hunt as part of a bachelorette party. They needed to get a condom from a guy. Surprisingly, they were having a tough time. I was shocked to learn that none of my friends had a condom. I took one out and held it up. The ringleader, smiling at me, reached for it. I pulled it away, “Not so fast.”
I paid close attention to her reaction. She smiled, “What?”
I had been given a green light to continue.
“What’s in it for me?”
“What? Do you want like a dollar or something?”
I shook my head, “I don’t want a dollar.”
“Well, ideally, I’d like to use his brother.”
I pulled out another condom and the girls all laughed in dismay. My friends backed away, suddenly embarrassed to know me.
“But I’ll settle for a kiss.”
The ringleader asked, “Who do you want to kiss you?”
“Why you, of course.”
“I’m not going to kiss you.”
She closed her eyes, though, so she was obviously preparing for a kiss. Her actions spoke louder than her words. I leaned in and kissed her. We swapped spit for a good minute and then I gave her the condom. I got her number and we went out a few times.
My friends were amazed my approach worked, which baffled me; I thought it was common knowledge. Since then, after many candid conversations with guys and gals, I learned that it is not common knowledge; most guys don’t know how to behave or read signals, and most women are frustrated with guys’ poor interpretation skills. It’s one of the reasons I decided to write this book. One woman I recently met went out with one guy several times who never made a move.
“Jesus, how many low-cut tops can a gal wear? I invite him up to my apartment, I’m wearing the lowest-cut shirt I own, nothing. Hello?!”
Some of my other friends had no idea that a girl twirling her hair while she talked to them was a sign of interest. One even thought it meant she was bored! I informed my friends of the need to pay close attention, to be prepared, and to take a risk and flirt. Sexual contact of any sort cannot be initiated without taking risk. Remember Jennifer. I risked making a move, we wound up in my mom’s car, she said she didn’t want me to take out my penis but clearly she did, and had I had a condom, Drew Carey would STILL be onstage at KJ Riddles . . . how’s that for wishful thinking?
Copyright by Ian Coburn 07
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