For the first time in my entire career as a professional performer, I walked out on a gig. I picked up my purse, bid farewell to the Promoter/Booker/Deejay and took my Black Ass home. There have been many gigs over the years that I wished I had walked out on. Or just had the flat out good sense to say no to them in the first place.
There have been:
- Country club gigs where the people are too uptight to laugh.
- Bar gigs where patrons would rather watch the sporting event du jour on TV than the comedy show.
- Corporate gigs where the people are afraid to laugh, perhaps subconsciously believing that laughers are the first to be fired.
- Outdoor gigs which are not always bad, but are always a challenge. The good news is they offer an easy means of egress when things go as badly as the odds and your experience tells you it will.
But I’ve always stuck it out in the name of professionalism, pride, and an awareness that no gig is perfect. Much like a game of spades, you play the hand you’re dealt. To that end, I’ve never bailed on a gig until now.
I remember doing a show years ago in New Jersey that was supposed to be great. It was a sold out event for a prominent women’s group. What could go wrong? For starters the sound system was not working properly. It was also completely inadequate for the room of 500 chatty women who were, quite frankly, just excited to be out and away from their families. Their temporary freedom, lubricated by the open bar, was really all the entertainment they needed. The comedy show was superfluous.
As the venue tried to fix the sound system on the fly, the show stopped and re-started multiple times. This went unnoticed by the audience. They were busy scarfing down the remnants of a prime rib dinner.
There were three comics on the show that night, but that dwindled down to two when one of them turned to me and said, “I’m not doing this. I’m out of here.” And then he left. Just like that. I was stunned. This was not a newbie comic who was afraid to tackle a tough room. He was a seasoned veteran who knew that stand-up comedy loses its power and allure when a comedian has to shout all of his set-ups and punch lines. Comedians don’t need much, but good sound in a large room, with a big audience is definitely on the short list.
I was deeply in awe of his courage. He chose the integrity and quality of the performance he could deliver over money. But it’s not just about the Benjamins. It’s also about your word. If you say you’ll show up and perform, people expect you to do just that. Reneging seems like a mark that goes onto your permanent record. But as I watched the other comic leave, everything inside me screamed, “Wait! Don’t leave me here! Take me with you!”
But I stayed and did the show; and there was no joy in it. The audience, enmass, was never entertained. There seemed in fact to be a schism. A goodly number of folks had finally caught onto the idea that there was a comedy show going on, and they were trying to enjoy it. But it’s hard to enjoy what you cannot hear. The ocean-wide dance floor between me and the crowd didn’t help either. The other audience members seemed deeply resentful that they were being forced to endure an annoying background buzzing sound while inhaling their strawberry cheesecake.
I thought no more about this incident until the other night when I was confronted with my own Jean Luc Picard “Here and no further” moment.
And I can’t tell you what my tipping point was in this comedy show turned open mic. It could have been the super-sized deejay booth looming large behind the comics, making it seem like they were performing in front of the supreme court. Maybe it was that the Promoter/Booker/Deejay chose to start the show even though his emcee had yet to arrive. Was it the fact that the comics on the show outnumbered the audience? This wasn’t hard to do since there was only one guy there to see the show. Was it that the highlight of the opening comic’s act was her sitting in the lap of said Lone Audience Member making it an awkward comedy show/lap dance? Or maybe it was just the moment when the Promoter/Booker/Deejay said with a straight face: “I don’t know what happened. It was packed last week.”
In any event, I was suddenly gripped with the fear that if I didn’t leave soon, I may not ever be able to. I was unshakeably sure that I was sitting in the comedy version of Hotel California. (Home By The Sea for you Genesis fans.) And just outside of my peripheral vision Rod Serling was narrating a very special episode of the The Twilight Zone just for me.
This wasn’t a matter of money (I wasn’t getting any) or pride (clearly, taking this gig, I didn’t have any). But I now knew that not every show should be done. There was nothing I could accomplish and indeed I might be doing damage that my therapist would not have the skill to undo.
And so I left.
As Gloria Gaynor bid her errant lover do, I walked out the door. A part of me wanted to feel bad about this, but I only felt liberated. I imagine it was how Kunta Kinte might have felt if he had actually managed to get away, foot intact. In the end I know I made the right decision. Even the threat of amputation would not have been a good enough reason to make me stay at this gig. Like Kunta, I would’ve found a way to run.
Join The Urban Erma on Facebook or follow on Twitter. You can listen to the podcast on Podbean or subscribe on iTunes. Leighann Lord is a stand-up comedian, who's style is best described as "Thinking Cap Comedy." If comedy were music, she'd be Jazz. Check out her upcoming shows @ www.VeryFunnyLady.com. Join her on FaceBook. Follow her on Twitter.