Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a little post called "Learn to Say Ain't." Setting aside the fact that John Tester and Jim Webb and other campaigns in 2006 validate me as a media genius, there's the bit in there about "Boats" Johnson, the road comic who taught me how to tell gun control jokes in Montana.
I got this in the e-mail this week:
My name is Sam Johnson, son of Mike "Boats" Johnson. I just wanted
to send an email saying I recently read your blog about saying aint
and how you told the story of my dad in Wyoming. Every now and then
I come across a mention of my dad online.. or hear new stories from
people that knew him and they really cheer me up and make my day. I
love seeing that he did or said certain things to make a lasting
impression on people.
I am not sure if you know.. but unfortunately my dad died in January
of 2004 from liver failure due to another bone marrow transplant.
If you have any other stories I always love to hear them.
Seeing as he changed my life and career, hell yeah.
Eighteen odd years ago, in the dying embers of the comedy boom , every Chinese restaurant and sports bar had a Comedy Night. This was a natural, if intermediary, step in the evolution of nightclub entertainment. Bar owners had just discovered that stand-ups were cheaper to book than bands, but had not yet sussed that karaoke was even cheaper.
Subsisting well under the HBO-level strata, but mining that rock for all it was worth, were the one-nighter booking agents. They strung together tours of these one-night gigs in the hinterlands in order to make the trips profitable for the comics and affordable for the clubs. There was no way in hell a comic was going to drive to Klamath Falls to do a $200 one-nighter. But if it were the Saturday on an Albany/Corvalis/Eugene/Roseburg/Klamath Falls run for a $1000 plus hotel, well then, that's a week worth travelling for. These agents would also rep you at the regional conventions for college entertainment, folding the two aspects of the trip together for maximum profitability. Name a community college in the Pacific Northwest, and I performed stand-up on one of their cafeteria tables.
My original one-nighter agent out in the Northwest was Donna Richards, a real sweetheart who eventually moved into the travelling gameshow and Christian comedy market (and made a killing, might I add). However, this is not a story about one of Donna's considerately constructed comedy runs.
This is a Tribble Run.
David Tribble -- who may still be doing this, for all I know -- ran the one-nighters in the Northern Colorado/Wyoming/Utah/Idaho region. You may note that the states I just cast together constitute a helluva lot of "region." You would be correct. For David's rule of thumb was: if you can make the trip in one day, that was a legitimate connection. That is, if Monday's club was no more than a day's drive from Tuesday's club, then it was fair game. Tribble, however, always held that a "day's drive" could be a full day. As in ten hours of driving. Overlapping radii of six hundred miles each, for each gig.
Now, I'm not really complaining. I met a lot of great people I never would have met working just the mainstream clubs, saw some of the most beautiful parts of America, and I was making a hundred bucks a night to tell half an hour of jokes. This was not a bad life.
At least Tribble was, when I worked for him, honest. There were runs where the booker would lure you out to just north of Bumfuck, British Columbia, you would drive seven hours a day, and when you arrived in the tiny woodland towns you would discover that the gigs had long since ceased to be. Comics won't take these tours without the full week, so the booker would "forget" that the gigs had fallen through. As alluring as Alert Bay is, it isn't high on my list of freebie tourist destinations.
(True Alert Bay story #1: the other comic and I are checking into the hotel. A bystander remarks "Hey, you must be the comedians!" I'm pleased: "That's great you recognized us! They must really be promoting the show!". To which he answers "Nah. You're the first strangers off the ferry in a month. You must be the comedians.")
(True Alert Bay story #2: I'm on stage, and a sullen guy in the front row has a full wrist-to elbow cast on both arms. Fifteen minutes in I stop. "Listen, I'm sorry, I have to ask. What the hell happened to you?"
"Well, my girlfriend called me an idiot, and I was drunk, so I punched the wall and broke all the bones in my right arm."
A beat. "What happened to the other one?"
"When I punched the wall it hurt so much, and I got so mad, I punched the wall again with my other hand. Broke that one worse."
At which point a small, high voice from the back pipes up. "You're still an idiot."
"Will you SHUT UP!"
My routine, at that point,was not just fluous. It was superfluous.)
Back to Boats. He was my headliner, and had taken great pity on me during my first Tribble run. His "Learn to Say Ain't" lesson came at the end of our brief tour. Up until then, however, he'd been no less sweet -- charming, funny, relaxed, comfortable with every audience we stumbled across. A lot of comics made impressions on me when I was touring, but I think Boats really set the vibe I went for with the rest of my career: odd little stories, a feeling that you were hanging out with the guy rather than watching him perform. Let's just say, if you're going to be a college-aged Boston Irish physics geek driving across Wyoming, doing jokes for Mormons and rodeo folk, you can do no better than having Boats Johnson as your mentor and guide. He was also eminently practical, with a ruthless business sense born of being a freelancer in the comedy scene.
Which brings us to Rawlins, Wyoming. Rawlins is midway between Cheyenne and Rock Springs.
I repeat. Rawlins is midway between Cheyenne and Rock Springs ... yet at the time was still infinitely more desolate than even that sentence can convey. We actually had to drive into town along the train tracks, as the off-ramp from Route 80 was being repaved. By convicts.
We park at the hotel where we're performing that evening. There is no wee poster on the front door, bearing our faxed/photocopied headshots. There is no notice on the front door that a show even exists. There is no front door.
"This place is under construction. " I not only don the Captain Obvious hat, but give it a jaunty tug. Boats strings together a marvelous combination of invectives. We enter.
The manager of the establishment tells us he'd "forgotten" to call Tribble and inform him that the hotel and bar were being renovated. The manager had a fine motive for forgetting: he'd signed a contract for X months, and when the audience attendance didn't result in commensurate drink sales, he didn't want to cough up that $300 bucks a week for the funnymen. Contract's a contract however. What's an entertainment mogul in Rawlins, Wyoming to do? You'll see.
He led us to the attached sports bar where we'd be performing. As stipulated in the contract, there were audience tables set up. Two tables. Sandwiched behind band saws and stacked drywall. Add a stage -- a slab of plywood atop four cinder blocks. The lighting was a bit spotty, the nova-white construction lamps refracted through the -- I shit you not -- plastic sheeting draped from the half-finished ceiling and walls behind the stage. At least it covered the 2x4 studs.
Boats nearly throttled the manager. "What the hell is this?"
The manager smiled and shrugged. "Hey, if you don't want to do the show ..."
There's an old road rule. If the manager pulls the plug on a show after you've made the drive, he still has to pay you. But if you pull the plug, no harm no foul, no pay.
The manager leaves us to stew. No promo, no audience, no room to speak of ... son of a bitch. I'm waiting for Boats to make the call. We're talking two days of driving for no money if we bail. He looks around the rest of the "complex."
The bar itself was finished, a cut-out hole in the wall with a bored ex-high-school quarterback pulling Coors. At the bar, oddly, were two respectable-looking thirty-year old in suits. What the hell were they doing here at six o'clock, drinking in a half-finished basement --
Wearing the traditional late 80's sports-bar waitress garb of bicycle pants and t-shirt, Sally was ten pounds of classic American Midwest pulchritude poured into a five pound bag. You would gladly charge the Russian encampment, straight into the teeth of hot .50 fire, screaming "Wolverines!" if it meant liberating Sally from the other side of the razor wire. She had a high-country complexion, a visage so radiant and pure that if Scarlett Johansson were to cut off Sally's face and caper onscreen wearing it as a macabre skin-mask, you would consider it an upgrade.
Both men were plainly in love with her.
Boats walks up to the bar patrons. "How's it going, guys. I'm Boats, the comic for tonight." The gentlemen are "Rob" and "Dave". Two local professionals. Unfortunately, they're about to leave. Can't stay for a show. Not that they knew there was one.
Without missing a beat, Boats turns to Sally. "You're working the show, right?"
Sally shrugs. "Well, sure, if there's a show, that means bar's open and I'm working."
Rob and Dave sit down.
As it turns out, it was a damn fine show. We escorted Rob and Dave to the front table. We bought the first round. I did my half-hour, Boats did his hour. We both got standing ovations.
The manager, literally swearing under his breath the entire time, pays us. We each tip Sally $25 bucks, retire to Boats' hotel room with a bottle of stolen Johnny Walker, and the man schools me on how you never, ever let the fucking suits win.
Oh, and always have a dick joke. Just in case.
Thanks, Boats. Next one's on me.