Thirty years ago, as a baby comic, I would venture almost anywhere my car would take me to do comedy. Living in San Francisco (when a starving artist could live there), I was always on the hunt for places to play and ways to make this laughter thing “full time.” Back then, I just skipped the odd meal here or there. (Like lunch for most of 1987.)
My search led me to a comedy competition in the East Bay of the San Francisco area. Going there was a big investment because in addition buying gas, I had to pay a bridge toll to get home.
But no guts, no laughter, right? So I go.
When I arrived and tried to sign up, the bouncer let me know it was an “all black” competition. With astounding naiveté, I respectfully declared that “funny should be funny, and color shouldn’t matter.” Of course back then, I didn’t consider the realities of the society I was in. There were plenty of places for me to perform that might not welcome comedians of color because of the small mindedness of the management or the audience.
I really wanted to perform because I had to pay a $3 bridge toll to get home, stage time or no stage time. That’s what I told the bouncer and I further pointed out that the ad said nothing about exclusivity. In conclusion, I should be allowed to go in!
“You wanna go in, you can go in. Good luck!,” he said with a laugh. (This was significant progress from first thing he said to me: “You lost?”)
Aside from not being aware the extreme awkwardness of the situation, I went up and got a few laughs. Actually, enough laughs to get me to the finals a few weeks later!
At that event, I got some more laughs as well as a few heckles that I handled without getting beat up. My comebacks generated some of my biggest laughs. Still, when the votes came in I was dead last. At least the green room had snacks for the competitors, so dinner was on them. I was happy for the additional stage time, happy to meet comics other than the ones I always ran into in San Francisco, and happy that the bouncer shook my hand when I’m pretty sure he didn’t think he’d see me a second time. The best part was that I handed out 10 business cards.
The following week I got a call to check my availability for what would be my biggest gig to date. The people on the line wanted me to be one of the supporting acts for a Ray Charles concert held at the Richmond convention center. Ray Charles!
At that gig, I had a dressing room, someone to walk me to the stage, and a pitcher of water. It was something. Okay, it wasn’t perfect: I had to do my own intro, and the lighting guys weren’t ready when I walked on stage, so I delivered material for the first five minutes in complete darkness. Apparently you don’t need to see me, you just need to hear me. But I got to intro Mark Curry, who later starred “Hanging with Mr. Cooper.” After our sets, we were treated to great seats to watch a true legend. Ray Charles!
That gig paid my rent and more than a few lunches for a few months. Thirty years ago, I was just a kid looking for a place to play and ended up stumbling into the biggest credit of my early career. Ray Charles!