In the mid 90’s Warner Robins, Georgia was not the part of the state that swings elections.
It was the part that makes you drive behind farm equipment on the highway.
Where the “good” restaurant is a giant buffet of processed food items simmering in square tins, the dress code is coveralls, and there are spittoons out front for those who can’t resist a chew after that last dish of ‘nana puddin’.
But it’s not Warner Robins’s fault that my comedy career ended there.
They were actually quite polite – supportive, even – about the whole thing.
The last time I played WR wasn’t the first time. I don’t remember how many times I played it before that fateful night, but it hardly matters.
Because that gig represented the crux of my career as a road comic in the 90’s:
Roadside hotel lounges with small entertainment budgets and an ambitious manager who thought bringing in some comedians would be a fancy shake-up of the “show” calendar; otherwise comprised of a DJ (think wedding, not Deadmau5) and karaoke.
The audiences at these weeknight pop-up comedy shows ranged from frisky traveling salesmen, to bored locals, and the DJ and the karaoke queen waiting to do their thing.
You know that Eugene Schwartz line about how you cannot create demand, only feed it? These one-nighters were the epitome of that truth.
Very few audience members at these gigs were there to see comedians on purpose. The show was either unexpected, or in their way.
Compare that to a proper weekend showroom; designed for stand-up and packed with people who’ve been waiting all week to laugh their asses off, and the dichotomy made it hard for comics to fathom being in the same business Thursday night as you were on Friday.
From nuisance to hero in 24 hours flat.
The Warner Robins room was somewhere in the middle of those two entities; a midweek set up (hotel lounge, wonky sound, tractor parking) that did four shows on the weekend.
A club where you had a chance of killing the room, buuut… no matter what, you’re still opening for karaoke.
The moment that ended my career came during the second show on Saturday night.
Like any job you stay at too long, internally, I sensed it was already over.
I’d been exhibiting the kind of behavior that is begging to be called out.
Or better, spark the incident that sets “the norm” ablaze so all anyone can do is stand there, shaking heads, and watch it burn.
Nothing dramatic, mind you. I wasn’t getting plastered before shows or fist-fighting the club manager. I just couldn’t bear to be in the showroom one more second than necessary.
Thing about being a road comic in a small town… the show is your only entertainment, and the other comic is your only friend.
So, normally you make the best of it. You support the other act, and drink with the crowd after the show.
That’s the life.
But, this time I couldn’t do it.
The same way you’ll avoid the culprit after a case of food poisoning, something in me snapped that week and I just could not stomach the smell of stand-up any longer.
Especially my own.
Two things I remember very distinctly from that night are my thoughts before walking on stage, and the heckle that sparked the fire.
My thought as I sat in the far back of the small lounge while the host uttered my bloated credentials to the audience was this:
“I would pay anyone in this room every dollar to my name (about $65 at that time) to go up there and pretend to be me right now.”
Realizing I’d waited far too long to make this proposition to even the most willing taker, I stood and walked to the stage amidst the hollow smattering of applause specific to a group of people who’d been instructed to “make some noise” but had skeptical faith their effort will be rewarded.
I probably grunted into the microphone the same way a Walmart worker sighs away their personal freedom just before punching the clock, and then meandered into my opening joke.
“Warner Robins… nice town you got here. I had some time to kill today so I went to the local police auction. Bought my bong back.”
“You know when is a fun time to be high? Fourth of July to watch fireworks. Everyone is high on the 4th of July. Which makes it a horrible time to be on a boat. Think about it… you could be sinking out there, you shoot up a flair… everyone’s like, (stoner voice) “Whaaa… that one kind of sucked.”
There’s a bizarre phenomenon in stand-up comedy where you can absolutely kill one show and then bomb the next.
Same exact jokes. Delivered in the same careful order. Yet, somehow, one group of strangers will collectively find you brilliant and cheer you on like their favorite band performing their favorite song on their 21st birthday… and the very next group of strangers, in the very same seats, will resist you like a vagrant asking for money in a dark parking lot.
Sometimes it’s us, and sometimes it’s them.
Over the years I chalked it up to simple “chemistry.”
The same way you can meet a single person and instantly hit it off or feel unbearable torture to be in their very presence, groups of people form a nucleus, and that nucleus forms a distinct personality.
Sometimes you and the nucleus become soulmates, other times you detest every slow-ticking second you’re forced to share the same oxygen supply.
My chemistry with this audience, second show Saturday in Warner Robins, GA, was unique.
They wanted to root for me, but they weren’t. Because I was rooting against me, and vicariously, against them.
Fucked up, right?
That’s a lot of strange energy for what should have been a predictable rhythm of set-ups and punchlines.
As if they were a group of kindergartners led to the library for story time and the book is, “Mommy’s New Friend.”
Finally, a single voice from the dark rose up to speak, in a thick southern twang, what everyone was feeling…
“Man. Is it me? Or is somethin’ weird.”
That’s exactly what he said.
Easily, the strangest and most profound heckle ever hurled at me.
Not a threat (like the time a guy in Nebraska yelled, “You’re dead!”) or an attempt at one upping the comic, or a “just helping you out, bro” type heckle.
This was an intervention.
His intent was clear by his tone.
Part angry customer who was receiving bad service, part caring human who felt for the server… but either way, was not going to sit and suffer through it without saying something.
“Yes, it is weird,” I said back. “It’s my fault, man. I just don’t want to be here.”
The room was silent.
“I’ve been hauling this same trunk of dick jokes around the country for nine years. I’m tired. The jokes are tired. And you’re catching us on a night when we can’t muscle through it to give you what you deserve,” I continued on in full existential confession.
“Which is a few laughs for showering away your shitty job, driving down here, paying the cover charge, and taking a chance on something magical – or at least amusing – coming through this microphone tonight.”
“Let’s say it together,” I continued. “Well, I guess that shit ain’t happening!”
At this, the first genuine laugh of the night.
I went on to rant openly about the road, the business, the “stranger in a small town” existence of it all. And slowly, the nucleus of people who’d previously been counting the minutes until I’d vacate their oxygen supply, started to become, if not soulmates… caring, understanding, and amused, new friends.
Despite a chunk of their night being stolen away by my sloppy service, they embraced the funkiness of it and allowed the chemistry to flip.
I ended my set with a respectable run of still-tired, but now inspired, dick jokes. Thanked them for gifting me a memorable last show and said “goodnight” to a meaningful round of applause.
And that was it. The end of a decade-long run of adventure I would not trade a second of, but had clearly run its course.
I believe we all face these moments where we hit the proverbial wall of life. Where whatever momentum we’ve been fueling smashes to a stop with a crashing “thud.”
We always hear it. And feel it.
Usually others sense it, too.
If we’re lucky, someone who cares will reach out and ask you if “somethin’s weird.”
Change is never easy.
Accepting that something does need to change when you don’t know what it is, or how to do it, is a genuine crossroads moment in life.
The stories we hear from people who’ve built significant things, and created interesting lives, have each stood at this crossroad. Staring down four barren, unmarked paths with no way of knowing where each one leads.
The one thing none of them did at that moment was sit down.
They, like you have, or will be summoned to one day, followed their best instincts, chose a path, and started walking.
It’s easy to feel, when we’ve been putting our energy towards something for a time, like we’re obligated to the direction we’ve been moving in.
The walls are there to challenge that urge.
Do you stop and change direction?
Find a way over the wall?
Risk death trying to smash through it?
Only the future can say.
But, I’m confident that if we listen to our thoughts, trust our instincts, and refuse to sit idle, we end up in a better place.
My wall was clearly marked with big letters: “Welcome to Warner Robins”
The “thud” was audible to me, and amplified to a group of kind strangers.
From there, I just started walking.