After a stand-up show in downtown Chicago one night…
A clean cut, middle-aged guy came rushing over to a long-haired, 22-year old me, pumped my hand enthusiastically and said…
“Man, I loved your pot jokes. You’d be PERFECT for an event I’m hosting next month at the Tennis Club. How much do you charge for a show?”
Let’s take a moment to consider all the different brain chemicals this three-sentence rush of information fired off for young Kevin…
First, some visual evidence of who this man was describing as PERFECT for his Tennis Club…
(“Edgy” young Kevin, c1993)
As you can see, It’s likely I already had a junior chemistry set worth of cognition disruptors swirling around before good ‘ol “Chet” walked over and assaulted my senses…
(“Chet” the Tennis Guy, c1873-present)
But, lemme tell ya… nothing helps a mid-level club comic focus faster than a compliment and an offer of cash money.
“Oh, cool. One show?” I muttered, as if I had a standard price. I was probably getting around $40 a show at the Improv (now defunct) where this scene was taking place.
“Yes,” he fired back, all business-like. “Just about 20 minutes of your skit.”
Strangers to comedy always refer to your stand-up act as a “skit.”
“Twenty-minute skit, huh? Where is it?” I said, stalling for more time, trying to read his wallet.
“It’s called the Beverly Hills Racquet Club (or something ritzy like that), just about 20 minutes north on the Gold Coast,” he replied.
My brain lit up again…
“Holy shit, ‘Beverly Hills!’” I thought, that means monayyyyy. Man, you can’t name your Chicago tennis club after the most expensive place to live in the country unless you love throwing cash around.
I steadied myself and said, “Twenty minute drive and twenty minute skit? I could do that for… three hundred.”
At the time, that was a huge amount of money for one set. Unheard of.
I remember trying so hard to end strong on the vocal consonant to show confidence, but I’m positive it came out totally sing-songy, guessing-like. Three hunnnn-dredd?
“Deal,” he said quickly and shook my hand again. “Here’s my card, call me Monday and we’ll set it up.”
So, Chet and I worked out the arrangement. He sends me a check for half the fee, and agrees to pay the rest in cash after my “skit.”
When I arrived at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club on a hot summer afternoon, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake.
Well, let’s be real, I knew the mistake I was making the second I said “yes” to Chet, but now, with half the money long spent, I was hating my greedy self for getting my artist self into this mess.
The gate guard came out to greet me in my rumbling, road-scarred Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a look of utter discontent. His arm half-cocked toward the road to direct me back out of the wrong turn I had surely just made.
I cranked my window down, gave him a wink and said, “Afternoon, lieutenant. Kevin Rogers, Chet should have put my name on the list.”
He scoured the list, and, to his dismay, there I was.
He directed me to the club house, jotting down my tag number as I drove away. (For the police after I committed my crime, I’m guessing.)
I sputter my way to the clubhouse on a winding road dotted with perfectly quaffed people, clean and proper enough for Sunday church — if church was held on a yacht.
My comedic fight or flight instincts were flashing emergency red: DANGER! EVACUATE!
I valet my hooptie and find Chet.
Or rather, he finds me, as the entire ballroom of people stop and turn when I saunter through the doors looking like “party Fonzie” in a Cher wig.
I’m praying he’ll be as horrified as I am seeing this mistake of an arrangement about to come to fruition and say, “Not sure what I was thinking, here’s the rest of your money. Sorry I made you drive out here.”
Then I would casually stuff my pockets with delicious buffet items and be on my way.
No such luck.
In fact, Chet looks eerily delighted to see me. He motions me into an empty side room and closes the door.
“So, a little history about this place…”
He explains that it’s a super-exclusive club (you don’t say) and today is the day that members introduce their nominees to join the club.
“That’s the only way you can become a member, you have to be nominated, and it’s a pretty big deal,” Chet says smugly.
Then he mentions there’s been “some controversy” over nominations recently.
Apparently some members wanted to “broaden the criteria” and invite a “more diverse” group of people into the club. (Oh, the thought of it!)
At this point, I’m positive I’ve landed in an episode of the Twilight Zone…
Here I am, a raunchy club comic dressed for the 1970’s, hired to perform in a tennis club trying desperately to hold onto the 1870’s!
So, get this… Chet is not telling me all this so I can be conscious of the scenario and avoid hurting any feelings… no… he wants to use me to make FUN of the scenario!
And he’s come up with a “brilliant idea” for how to do it.
“See, when I introduce you, I won’t tell them you’re a comedian. I’m going to pretend that YOU are MY NOMINEE,” he says, pointing at me to emphasize the hilarity.
My bewildered look was having no effect on his enthusiasm. “You play it up for a few minutes, then explain it’s a joke and slip into your skit.”
“Chet, that’s a horrible idea,” I say, deadpan.
“Not only is it insulting to me and the six other people in the room who don’t wish Franklin Pierce was still in office,” I reason, “it’s also going to put me in a hole that I’ll never dig out of.”
Chet’s face looks clueless.
“You may’ve noticed,” I continue flatly, “this isn’t exactly my crowd to begin with.”
“No, no, it’ll be great. Trust me,” Chet shoots back. “They may not look like it, but our members have a pretty keen sense of humor. This will be great.”
So, Chet hops on stage, taps a fork against a water glass and begins “the show.”
True to his plan, he introduces me as his nominee and I walk to the stage to a confused smattering of applause.
I look out at the squirming crowd and say some version of…
“Yes, yes, thank you, Chet. This is so wonderful. I can’t wait to get out there on the greens with all of you… Greens, that’s tennis, right?” Nervous chuckles.
“You know what, I can’t go through with this,” I say as the room falls silent.
“Chet thought it would be funny to pretend I was his nominee, but that’s just not true. I’ve never played tennis in my life.”
“Shocking, I know.”
“The truth is,” I continued, pausing for effect, “Chet and I met recently at a highway truck stop. He was trolling for love and I needed a ride to the city, so…”
A few audible gasps, as every head turns to look at Chet, whose eyes are as wide open as his mouth at this point.
“Look,” I went on, fully committed now, “we both got what we wanted that night, and normally it would end there. But, instead, something really beautiful happened.”
Chet was standing there, frozen in shock.
“Chet,” I go on. “I know this wasn’t the plan, but I don’t want to hide anymore. Let’s not sneak around here carrying tennis rackets just so we can shower together without raising suspicion…”
Chet’s face was shifting past red to maroonish in color.
“I think these people deserve better,” I plea dramatically. “I think WE deserve better.”
You could cut the tension in that room with a fancy silver butter knife. This was the split second decision where I had to choose how this amazing debacle would end.
I could have fake-cried and ran off the stage past the stunned crowd, leaving Chet to explain. Which, frankly, is the better story ending and I kinda wish I’d done that.
Imagine the hours of joy I’d have gotten wondering how ‘ol Chet tap danced his way out of that one. Glorious.
However, a comic’s instinct is to save themselves and the show whenever possible. I felt I had a slim chance to make the turn, reveal the real truth, and work their nervous laughter into actual laughter.
Plus, my buddy Chet was back there holding the other $150 he owed me, and I’d have to fill my twenty minutes if I wanted it.
I mean, I’d already humiliated him, why not pile on by forcing him to hand me cash on top of it?
So, I pull the mic from the stand and say, “Juuust kidding… I’m a stand-up comic, we met at the Improv.” Slight relief and a few guffaws.
“Chet thought it would be funny to make light of the recent controversy around nominees, and I thought it would be more fun to make light of Chet.”
Then I launch into my club act, modifying for sunlight and crystal glassware the best I could, and actually make a decent time of it.
Afterward, Chet hands me the envelope of cash and says, “That was… really something.”
Heh. Yes it was, Chet.
I took a lap around the buffet and rumbled back to the city feeling rich.
Moral of the story? Two words: Show up.
Don’t shy away from discomfort. Take chances. Get yourself into binds. And even when you want to run the other way, trust that you’ll get through it and be richer for the experience.
Great stories come from conflict.
Growth comes from solving it.