It’s Thursday so, you show up to a hamburger restaurant in Times Square. It’s empty but you’re not there for the food. It’s around 6:45 and the stand-up show you’re going to be in is at 8:00. You walk to the back room and find two or three other guys milling around or writing their initials on the back of 4″ x 5″ flyers. You take a stack yourself and start writing your initials with a ball point pen on the back. According to Steve, a long time regular, using the ballpoint pen gives the paper a slight texture so they don’t stick together.
You’re about to bark. You have to bark people in because, technically, there’s no audience yet and none will be arriving, not unless you create one. You yell like one of those guys at a baseball game, only you yell about stand-up comedy, not hot dogs or Budweiser. You hand out these flyers for admission to the show. If a customer comes in with a flyer bearing your initials, you get credit and a spot, though you’ve never seen anyone denied a spot for not getting enough people in.
This is barking.
You haven’t gone out yet, though. You’re still putting initials on flyers. You’re stalling because what you’re about to do sucks. You joke with some of the other comics before going out. You head outside to 45th street, take a right and head to Times Square to start barking.
You stand on the corner by Planet Hollywood or the Swatch store across the street. This is before they created that plaza for people to sit. There was still traffic all the way through.
You take a deep breath, resigned to how crappy the next hour is going to be, and then you begin, “We’ve got stand up comedy! Stand-up comedy. Comedians from The Tonight Show, Letterman, Conan, Saturday Night Live! Stand-up comedy.”
Well, maybe not lying but certainly stretching the truth. These claims are technically true. Warren was a background extra on a Conan sketch once. Eric contributed a joke to SNL weekend update once. You start saying “may have seen,” using a technicality to make yourself feel better. You may have seen these comics on these shows. You didn’t. But you may have. It was hard at first to say those things, fearful that someone would say, “oh, so like, Will Ferrell?” And then you would have to say, um, no, but we have lots of other great acts.
Adam Greenberg, the best barker the world has ever seen will tell you, “They don’t even know or care. I’ve actually said, ‘yeah, we have Adam Greenberg from Saturday Night Live‘ and they’ll say, ‘oh, oh yeah, honey, we’ve heard of him.’ So, don’t sweat it, just say it.” Adam Greenberg is a hustler who looks like he’s in a boy band and his skills are remarkable. Watch him. He sees a group, starts his pitch, hands them flyers and actually puts his hand on their shoulders and directs them to the show.
And they go.
How does he do that?
The first time you did it, you went up to a couple and started talking. “Would you like to see some comedy? We have all of New York City’s best comedians. We have comedians from Saturday Night Live, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno. With this flyer, you can get in. Okay, you know what? Half price on the cover. How’s that? What do you say, folks?” And breathless, you look at this couple and realized that they have a German to English dictionary in their hands. Your friend and fellow barker Matt watched the whole thing from a few feet away. He comes up to you and stifles a laugh. “You’ll get better at it,” he says. “Just relax.”
You will get better. You’ll eventually get good enough to perform Friday and Saturday nights too. You will do this for years.
You’re out there for over an hour, whether it’s hot or cold. You see people. You see so many people. You see couples and families walking through one of the most densely populated tourist attractions in the country if not the world.
“We’ve got stand up comedy! Stand-up comedy. Comedians from The Tonight Show, Letterman, Conan, Saturday Night Live! Stand-up comedy.”
Sketchy looking bros will ask you where they can get a package. “What’s a package?” Liquor. “Oh,” you say, “Try eighth avenue.”
“You folks like stand up? We’ve got comics from all over New York City. They perform in clubs and colleges all over the country.”
Homeless guys will sometimes ask how you got this job and does it pay and where can they sign up.
“We’ve got stand up comedy! Stand-up comedy. Comedians from The Tonight Show, Letterman, Conan, Saturday Night Live! Stand-up comedy,” you keep lying.
One time you see Sponge Bob Squarepants throw off his costume, revealing an angry little man who looks like a hard living longshoreman, and tear off down the street leaving volumes of profanity in his wake, chasing after someone who took a picture with him without paying.
You’re actually surprised that they don’t look down on you more for doing this.
You hear everyone who thinks they’re giving you some unique quip. “You want some comedy, come down to my office on Monday!” “How about some sit down comedy?” You’ll let these people go. Then you’ll see your least favorite. You’ll see a group of clearly privileged kids walking together. They’re attractive and preppy. It’s hard to tell if they’re high school or college aged but high school most likely. They’re in from Westchester or Greenwhich or somewhere like it. The most brazen among them walks up to you mocking interest, takes a flyer, walks past and laughingly tosses it up in the air.
A couple of times, you’ll see a flyer that you handed out on the sidewalk with a clear shoe print over your initials. You won’t be able to help yourself thinking that that’s a metaphor of some kind.
You’re so sick of your own jokes about Listerine and beer helmets and herpes commercials
You’ll run into people you know a couple of times and it’s not nearly as embarrassing as you would have imagined. A classmate from high school, another friend’s little brother. You’re actually surprised that they don’t look down on you more for doing this.
You get word that there are enough people in there to start the show, so, you come back inside. You watch from the back of the room as your fellow stand ups do the exact same jokes you’ve heard them do so many times before. Then you do your set and you’re so sick of your own jokes about Listerine and beer helmets and herpes commercials but they’re instinctive now and you’ve learned to coax and pry laughs from an audience. And for those ten minutes it feels so good.
Every comic knows that the only difference between hard drugs and comedy is that, with comedy, you can get that first high back.
But all good things must come to an end. Eventually Adam Greenberg, convinced that he deserves more from the comedy room – more of what you will never know – will open up his own room in the back of yet another restaurant across Time Square. Ha! Comedy Club will open too and now Times Square is full of barkers making it much easier for tourists to ignore all cries of “stand up comedy!” The building that houses the hamburger restaurant will be sold and you’ll lose the gig you had for a few years and not know where to go next.
Looking back, you’ll think, “what was I doing? Shouldn’t I have been dating or making friends or doing New York twenty something things?” But then you’ll think, “no, that’s who I was and it’s who I am.”
You won’t ever bark again, not if you can help it. But you have one rule. You’ll see people on the street with clipboards for Greenpeace or the environment or gay rights. You’ll resent them but you’ll remember. So, you’re never ever rude.
“No thank you, not today. But good luck!”