Ammo Grrrll returns to her career in stand-up comedy for the DEMO TAPE TRAGEDY — A Train Wreck in Several Chapters. She writes:
As regular readers know, the novelist Max Cossack and I are on a big road trip. We are having a spectacular time. However, I am having so much fun staying “in the moment,” as we are often advised to do, that my “journal” consists mostly of hundreds of impressions that have not yet coagulated into coherent columns. Soon I will be in one place for over a week. Then watch me write like the wind! The Road Trip Journal will resume next Friday. It will continue until we return to The Dusty Little Village at the end of July, possibly alternating with things of a more political bent as the spirit moves me.
Meanwhile, as a change of pace, I thought regular readers might be interested in Susan’s 5-year Fruitless Quest to produce ONE decent 15-minute demo tape to get more comedy work. After we learn of one disappointment after another and screw-ups that you could not make up if you tried, let us see if we can glean some universal lessons from that level of disappointment. At a minimum, you should feel better about yourself. You’re welcome.
A little history is in order first. Bear with me. In 1982, I began my comedy career at the premier 300-seat standup club in the Twin Cities called Dudley Riggs. This really almost predated VHS tape, at least as a thing you had to send to a potential client. So how did people get a look at you? Are you sitting down? By GOING THERE. Yes! People came OUT to comedy clubs and observed the comedians doing their thing and laughed – or didn’t – and came away thinking, “She might be a good fit for our PTA Appreciation Dinner.” Next, they looked in the PHONE BOOK for your name and called you to discuss the event. Then you went there, ate a nice chicken dinner and did your act and got a check.
But, pretty soon, it was not enough for a “decision maker” to see you, like you, and hire you. Oh no. Soon, “process,” which used to apply to inferior cheese, became re-purposed as a word to mean “everyone including the janitor must have ‘input’ into the decision.” And so they needed to see a videotape.
This was bad on several levels: first, the comedian, usually on the margins of economic existence, had to produce a videotape. A four-camera shoot could cost $30,000. That was most of a year’s salary for a lot of comics. Besides that, you would put your best lines on the demo tape and then everyone – including that janitor – would hear the lines and tell them to everyone who was not in the “process” pipeline and your act was more or less burned out in advance, if not stolen and sold.
But the day came when you could not get work without a tape. The HR sheeple who hired entertainment were not willing to vouch for a comedian without a large, warm, fuzzy support group signing off on it to protect their backside in case everything went south. This was not entirely unwarranted because many jerk comedians had their “clean” material on the demo tape, but after THAT 10 minutes, ran out of clean stuff and went to their NSFW stuff, causing massive post-banquet indigestion in the hiring person who was mentally updating her CV during dessert. And Political Correctness had only just started!
And so it began. The QUEST for the perfect tape. I will briefly describe only a handful of snakebit events. Since the comics I was working with at Dudley’s – four young fellas in their 20s – could no way afford the $30,000, we initially tried just for an audiotape.
The young woman who ran the tech booth at the club had a massive, unrequited crush on one of the comedians. On the night of the taping, we all had terrific sets! But just as a fail-safe, we asked the girl I’ll call Midge McDimwit (not her real name) to tape the second show too. Second shows were rarely as good, but again the Comedy Gods smiled upon us and that show went really well, too. Unfortunately, McDimwit had gone to the Rosemary Woods School of Taping, and somehow had managed to tape OVER the first set while not quite capturing the second set. We all sat at the comedy club’s bar and, I believe through no fault of my own, I was egregiously over-served! Strike One.
Ah, but it gets so much better. A later attempt involved a fan who had access to a two-camera shoot for much less money. In an all-women’s show I co-produced that ran for seven years, the six or seven women comics ponied up a small amount apiece. Though we were all nervous, happily, my set went swimmingly. At last! I had even bought a nice new dress and high heels and paid someone to do professional makeup.
Problem solved, right? Not so fast. The comic before me did musical impressions and played guitar. She had a Styrofoam wig head on which she had a Tina Turner wig. When she left the stage, she not only didn’t take the head with her, she knocked it on the floor behind me. When I watched the tape – you will think I am making this up, but I am not – there was an inexplicable bewigged Styrofoam head FACE UP, on the floor behind me, right between my legs. The tape was unusable. Move over, martinis. This was a job for Pecan Pie.
I was often hired by the Minneapolis Convention Bureau to present at various conventions to bring tens of millions of dollars in business to the Twin Cities. One was in front of 3,000 National Tour Operators at a luncheon in Orlando, Florida. Just before I went on the emcee warned me that this particular crowd was notoriously chatty and inattentive. Now I don’t want to sound like a jerk here but, as we say in the business about a good show, I KILLED. The emcee told me that he had never seen this audience more into it. Yay, it was being taped! Victory at last. Haha. You know better by now, right? The stationary camera shot was fine, but the cameraman did not mic the audience. Because the laughs lasted so long, it looks like I am just standing there like an idiot in dead silence, telling joke after laughless joke.
I will just cut to the chase with the last two attempts – in a turn on VH-1’s Standup Spotlight with Rosie O’Donnell, some technical glitch made them have to start the tape all over again. YOU try telling 3 or 4 jokes and then two minutes later repeat them to the same audience and see how well that goes.
Finally, a friend who worked at a local Tech School told me their Broadcasting Production Class was looking for someone to tape in four different venues as a class final project. All four sets went extremely well. Can you say “amateur”? It looked like it was shot in my mother’s basement. Horrible sound. Horrible lighting. Unusable.
So what lessons, if any, can we draw from this sad saga, which is not anywhere near the complete story? I have four:
One, sometimes when something is so clearly jinxed, it might be better for your mental health to just give up early. My friend Tony doesn’t believe in “serendipity.” Is it possible that if I had had a decent tape that I would now be so rich and famous that I was divorced, drug-addicted, or worst of all, like about 99.9 percent of Hollywood, simply an insufferable leftist lunatic, tweeting endless semi-literate obscenities at President Trump?
Two, eventually I got sufficiently well-known in the Twin Cities and a few pockets nationally that the tape was unnecessary. When a potential client insisted, I just said, “No” and hung up. The power of walking away from negotiations is such that lo, sometimes the less you appear to want something, the more they want you! And the more they pay you. Word.
Three, about the time that the PC nonsense was getting so thick on the ground that it became extremely unpleasant to work, I retired. Near the end, even a tape was not good enough. Some potential clients wanted to see your entire act in advance. Written down and reviewed by a committee! Uh, no; not gonna happen. And, also, HELL NO. I worked very clean, but it was totally offensive to be treated like a performer in the Soviet Union. Time to go.
Four, in the perfect little window of time that I performed, comedy was very good to me. Living modestly, happily, and well, is truly the best revenge. And you never know what is right around the bend — like this column!
F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed there were “no second acts in American life.” But F. was wrong. What do you expect from someone with such a pretentious name? Call me S. Marie Vass. Or just A. Grrrll.