Here’s the story: A little over two years into comedy, I was lucky enough to win the San Francisco version of the Johnny Walker Red comedy competition. That night remains one of my memories of my early days. I had auditioned for this contest with two minutes of jokes in the afternoon, after standing in a line of about 200 people.
Basically, I did one-liners because you can only set up so many premises in just two minutes. I remember performing for four judges in a big empty room, and laughter was not abundant during my micro set. But somehow I made it to the stage show held that night featuring all 10 finalists. They were guys and gals I started with, and many (maybe most) were further along than I was and, to be honest, funnier.
The show was held at the San Francisco Improv, but I had an emcee gig that night at Cobb’s Comedy Club across town. At the Improv, I picked my number out of the hat, hoping whoever got #1 would trade with me. I drew the sweet spot, #4, and when I approached #1, he was thrilled to trade. So I got up on stage with no stage jitters, but the anxious about finishing my set in time to catch a cab to my paid gig. Being up first was fine. My 10 minutes as a finalist was far better received than my two-minute qualifying set, proving once again that a crowd helps immensely. I caught a cab, got to Cobb’s with minutes to spare, and had a blast with that show too.
Towards the end of the evening, the manager at Cobb’s got a call from the Improv asking if they would allow me to return. Tom (who owned/managed/booked Cobbs) agreed, helped me into a cab, and even wished me good luck.
I offered the driver $20 if he could get me to the Improv in 10 minutes. The cabbie got a demonic look on his face and drove the wrong way down one-street saying it was the best short cut in the city. I showed up still not sure what was going on, when some of my pals said that no one had done as well as my first spot. It was good-hearted “welcome to the club” feeling of finally being a comedy peer and not just the nice guy hanger-on.
This was a truly wonderful feeling, but I felt even better when they announced that I won and would travel to Los Angels to compete in the Nationals (I was not a peer to those comics). The $1,000 check I won that night paid my rent for almost four months. Maybe I was on my way before, but this knocked everything into a higher gear.
I kept that oversized check for a long, long time, and have happily revisited the memory long after I had any physical evidence. Thanks to Mark Pitta (and happy birthday, too) for sending me this photo and letting me relive one of my best career moments.