Chicago, 1994—I was a relative newcomer on the Windy City comedy scene, but I’d landed a gig headlining the Improv comedy club about twice a month.
The show was a cabaret, so I’d share the bill with all kinds of acts; jugglers, magicians, acapella groups, dancers, even the occasional ventriloquist. (Twisted bunch, ventriloquists.)
Backstage at those shows with dancers running around half naked and singers warming their pipes, I felt a kinship to burlesque era comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. The after-party would typically run ‘til sunrise. Good times.
The cabaret format worked so well, they only interrupted it when a big name comic would roll through for a weekend… and I was often tapped to open the show for those acts.
When I got the offer to open a string of shows for Chris Rock, I wasn’t impressed.
I’d seen Chris in NYC a few times—nothing special. His casting on SNL was the bigger punchline than anything he delivered in a sketch. His primary achievement was being known as “Eddie Murphy’s guy”, and I wasn’t the only one wondering what Eddie saw that I didn’t.
But the Chris Rock that showed up at that week in Chicago was not the Chris Rock from SNL.
Something had pissed him off … he was clearly out for blood.
Gone was the goofy Cameo hairstyle, gone was the typical stand-up vocal cadence, gone was the assumption that crowds had to love him because they’d seen him on TV.
He prowled the stage like a caged tiger. His material was raw in both subject and substance—a sign that he was truly building a show, not just getting though them.
I was surprised to find myself in the balcony after my sets laughing hard, and marveling at how bravely he would totally re-approach material from show to show.
See, comics live for the “sure thing”—a joke that you keep in the chamber like a silver bullet should the crowd take an ugly turn. And once you’ve developed such a joke you don’t mess with it…
…unless you’re blindly determined to be one of the best.
George Carlin would famously melt down his silver bullet jokes—just to see what else he could make from them. So what if the crowd or the critics starting shooting in the middle of it. I can hear his response as clearly as if he was sitting next to me: Fuck ’em!
Same with Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, and now, it was becoming obvious: Chris Rock.
(A year and a half later he released his breakout HBO special, Bring The Pain and with that special and every one since his name would be permanently etched into the exclusive list of comic greats who refused to take the safe route.)
Offstage Chris was quiet, reserved, and painfully shy. Every night he would sit in the manager’s office with his friend and collaborator, eating fried chicken from a Styrofoam box and listening to the show on a small speaker on the desk.
“How were they?” he’d ask as I came off the stage to cheers. Performers waiting to go on stage don’t trust the cheers they hear in the showroom. They need to hear it from the guy who caused them.
“How were they?” really means, “how were you?” Did you honestly kill, or just sneak one by?
“They’re hot tonight… best crowd yet.” I said and wished him luck.
“Hey…” Chris called out as I headed off, “d’yu hear?”
“Jordan’s coming to the ten o’clock.”
“No shit.” I asked.
“Would a brothu lie about Michael Jordan?”
In 1994 Michael Jordan was not only the most famous athlete, but one the most famous people in the world.
The Bulls had just completed their first “Threepeat” of back-to-back-to-back championships. Jordan was MVP in all 3 series and had held the NBA scoring title for seven years – a record that’s never been touched.
No One had ever shot like Jordan. No One had ever floated trough air like Jordan. No One had lifted a team (and a league) like Jordan. And No One had ever moved product like Jordan.
Add it up and in the early nineties you could not walk through any city, town, village or slum on planet Earth without the people there knowing all about Michael Jordan… you saw that famous Nike Air logo and 23 jerseys on men, women and children alike.
He was more famous than any leader or tyrant or rock star that ever lived…
…and he was coming to the 10 o’clock show.
After Chris told me the news that Jordan would attend, I ran to the newsstand and bought a Time magazine. A few days earlier I had read their feature about his retirement and the murder of his father. A story that shocked the world.
During my set I could think of nothing but Mike being in the balcony. I’d do a joke, get a laugh and think: I wonder if Jordan is laughing. I couldn’t help it. I’d seen him enter the club with his wife, along with famed Chicago Bears defensive end Richard Dent and his wife.
Jordan seemed to glide instead of walk…
…and his aura was visible.
After the show, the green room was packed with staff and audience members who’d somehow found their way in to get a glimpse at “his Airness”.
Mike came bursting into the room through the kitchen doors like a mafia Don… followed by Rock, Dent and their smiling wives.
I’ll never forget Michael Jordan looking across the room, spotting me, and putting his enormously long arm in the air for the greeting. He said something about how funny I was. I wasn’t sure how to return the compliment to a guy in the midst of leaving a sport he redefined – for a roster spot on a AA baseball team.
“Thanks, man. Glad you came.” was all I could muster. Then I did the thing that haunts me to this day. I pulled out the magazine and asked him to sign it for me…instantly dropping my rank in his eyes from talented entertainer to common fan.
I knew it was a mistake the second I did it. The door was open for any conversation I wanted to have with him, and I had just slammed it shut by choosing the same one he is forced to have with strangers every day.
The shame of it.
I ended up giving that autograph to a friend whose kids would get a thrill from it. I was glad to get it out of my site. No dollar value placed on it could ever be worth more than the harsh lesson I learned that day.
See, I know now why I sabotaged that moment. It was more than just a bad split-second decision in a dramatic social situation…
The truth is… I didn’t feel worthy of Michael Jordan’s attention – and especially his admiration. I was viewing him as a superstar instead of a person.
I should have spoken to the Michael Jordan I could relate to…
The one who grew up poor in North Carolina, who was cut from his varsity basketball team for being “too short”, who was “freezed out” by teammates at his first NBA All Star game. The one fumbling through an awkward career change. The one who had recently lost a parent.
But I wasn’t looking for his human traits. I was caught up in his aura. Too Busy looking for what was more than human about him.
I don’t make that mistake anymore.
Don’t get me wrong… I still believe in seeking out people to admire, even call them “heroes” sometime. But when I meet a famous person (whether they’re universally admired – or only famous in my mind) I remember that they are just people. And no matter how high their pedestal, there’s always common ground between us.
Celebrity is manufactured in the mind of the fan. When you meet someone you admire, do yourself a favor and forget their resume. Pretend you’ve never heard of them. Be yourself.
If Michael Jordan wants to be your fan for a minute…let him.