What is the craziest week of standup I’ve done in a few years? Answer would be last week in North Dakota.
The week begins with me in Williston, North Dakota. If you don’t know where Williston is, you are in the majority. It’s is 15 miles from the Montana and 80 miles south of the Canadian Border. It is as isolated as any place I’ve ever been in the US. 5 years ago, as part of a comedy tour I was on in North Dakota, I had a show in Williston. It was 53 below with the windchill. You read that right. Let me mention that if you are in North Dakota and the weather person shares with you that it’s a record cold night in January, you made some very unfortunate plans. I should mention also that the bar was pretty full and that my car didn’t start the next day.
Well this time the temps were in the 90′s, so the heat swing from my trips was over 140 degrees. There is no easy way to get to Williston. The gig wasn’t paying me well enough to fly, so I drove the 20 hours to get there. I drove 13 hours to Fargo, got a hotel, and then did the rest the next day. If you are asking me why I did the show, I knew I was already going to be out that way and wanted to do a favor for the booking agent who I like a lot. Besides that, I knew the promoter of the show, as he’s a friend and comic who has spent the past couple of years running a poker room in the area. Poker room in a small border town in Montana?
If you haven’t heard, things are booming in Williston. It’s the capital of the Fracking movement and is the biggest oil producing area in the US. (That includes Alaska). I’m not here to get political about the place, but what I will tell you is it totally surreal. The difference from how it looked 5 years ago to now is mind-blowing. There is brand new hotel after hotel stacked on each other like a mini-Vegas. The rooms are full which is why a Motel 6 had a sign for 89 dollars a night.
It’s really the definition of the wild west, as so many young men are there filling the high-paying jobs. Starting pay at Wal-Mart is 18 DOLLARS! It’s 15 dollars to work at Taco Johns. (The Taco Bell of the Plains) Before you move there remember that there is a huge shortage in housing and that the place is kind of lawless. With fracking jobs paying 100k, the story I heard is it’s hard to find people to police the place. Here is some video of a couple comic friends I was talking to in Fargo about my next night in Wiiliston.
Unlike strippers and prostitutes who make a killing there, I was not compensated in the same fashion. From you can tell from the video below, the lodging wasn’t exactly what I was accustomed to. I should offer up, never a good sign when your itinerary includes do not make jokes about the hotel/motel.
The crowd was surprisingly good, as it was mainly dudes under the age of 30 who I know what buttons to push. After the show I sold a decent amount of Fracker t-shirts which I had made specifically for this trip, but not enough to do much better than break even on this portion of my sojourn. The highlight had to be when 1 guy came up to me and said are you going to come out and party with us? Despite not having any desire to go back to the Bates Motel, I told him I was too tired as I had driven almost non-stop for 2 days to get there. His response was
hey man, we got that covered. Where we are going we have coke and hookers!
Hard to argue that logic. It was like I had stepped in some type of time warp from 1986. I responded that was a nice offer, Ricardo Tubbs, but I was going to have to pass. I then got in my car, fired up the Phil Collins on my iPod and drove back to my crack den-like accommodations.
Hey there was 1 plus in driving that far. I was too tired to get too freaked about sleeping in the Motel, though I did wear my jeans, t-shirt and socks to bed.
The next day had my opening act, J.D. Provorse and I driving to his hometown of Jamestown, ND. When I took this run, I knew I had an empty Thursday and reached out to J.D. to see if he had any leads on a room we could do. Considering how much rooms were going for out that way, I was looking for someway not to take a big loss for the night. A high school friend of J.D.’s had taken over managing a Vets club there, so voila, we were in business. When I got there I realized this was going to be a challenge. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the majority of the people at the show were of retirement age. Mix that with a few people up front who were in their early 20′s and I knew this was only going to work if I made it an interactive circus-like atmosphere.
I started the show by acknowledging the situation. I find it impossible to mention the obvious, even if it might blow up in my face. I was able to use something topical to perk up the joke.
Comedy is different than other art forms. At a concert or a movie, the ages are usually between 10-20 years. Not comedy. Look around tonight. We have people in their 20′s. We have people in their 80′s. That puts a lot of pressure on me. I don’t have a joke that is going to work for both groups at the same time. I don’t have a joke where Hannah Montana meets up with Matlock and they solve a crime. (doing my best Andy Griffith impression) Twerking. No, I’ve never heard of it, but could you twerk on a Ritz, cuz that sounds delicious!
It didn’t bring the house down, but it connected. Then I dealt with the next major issue. When you do the first show ever at a venue the thing that gets most overlooked in the setup is the lighting. I’ve discussed it here before, but never underrate the importance of good lighting at a standup show. The spotlights they had weren’t right and the best lighting was the overhead in the first row. I did something I bet has never been done at a comedy show and asked the people in the front row to move back a row. I then climbed up on the chairs they were sitting at and did my show from there. I know it seems crazy, but the audience all agreed they could see a lot better.
Now I didn’t spend my whole time standing up on the chairs. There were a few times where I walked through the room riffing off the oldest members. I did a more PG-rated show but didn’t want to totally penalize the people who wanted an edgier show, so when I did those jokes I would sometimes go out and apologize afterwards to the bluest of the blue-hairs. I noticed one old guy not laughing and asked him if he even liked comedy? His response was he did and he was looking forward to when I would start doing comedy. That was one of the top 10 best heckle responses I have ever gotten. I let him have the acclaim he deserved. Then whenever a joke didn’t go over that well, I would go back to him and say maybe he had a point.
The show ended up being a big success. I could have stood up in front of these mostly elderly audience and did jokes about Twitter and Netflix, but that would have never worked. Hell yeah, I’m patting myself on the back here, but I’m also trying to demonstrate that some shows are less about the material and more about being an entertainer. I understand that for many of you that isn’t why you got into standup. I’m with you. It’s not my preference, but there is a reason I’ve been doing this for 2 decades and hopefully will still be able to do it for another 2 decades. Understanding how to shape your show for the situation you are faced with.
The weekend was in Bismarck and was the reason I was in North Dakota in the first place. A funny friend of mine named El, who I had worked with in the Fargo area a few years back, was helping book the Dakota Stage Playhouse. (Just another example of how you never know how a gig you did a few years back will impact you in the future.) We worked out a weekend and as I’ve outlined I hustled up a couple other gigs to help with the travel.
One big plus in me getting into the state early was that I was able to fit in a TV appearance to promote the shows on Wednesday. Amber, who runs the theater, mentioned that she was going on the local Bismarck noon news and I told her I could get up early and route myself through there to do the show. Now after driving 13 hours just to get in late to Fargo, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to getting up early, just a few hours later to do this promotional appearance, but I want to do everything I can to help sell tickets. Amber was very appreciative and took me out to lunch afterwards. The whole weekend I was treated with class. A lot of clubs could learn from their efforts.
NOTE TO CLUB OWNERS and BOOKING AGENTS: I try to bust my ass to add additional free media opportunities. I do this because I feel like we are part of the same team. The ultimate goal trying to get more people out to the club and to make sure those audience members leave feeling really positive about standup. I will mention though, that if I do this and you have a good money week aided by efforts, I would appreciate some type of thanks shown my way after. (Examples: Pay me more–(best option), have me come back more than every 18 months, or tout me out to other clubs/booking agents as someone they should use.) I will admit I tire of Comedy Central Presents acts, who make a third to half more than I do for a week and don’t draw as well as me, but they still get preferential treatment. The only thing that keeps me from totally losing it is knowing that a majority of them will be off the road within 5 years, when they get exposed for being glorified feature acts. (I’m guessing I’m on my 3rd wave of these comics at this point of my career). Don’t get me wrong, if you are someone like Kyle Kinane who is hilarious and has created a good-sized following, great, but if you are Aisle Inane, the quirky alt. comic with a podcast and nice Twitter following, but can’t draw anyone outside of a few markets where hipsters abound, I start to fill with rage. I get that I’ve traded off some of my asking price by not living in LA or NY and not having the credits you might be seeking, but so often these credits do nothing for the bottom line. I don’t have a problem with an act making 10 times what I make, as long as that translates to how much the club makes, but too many of these acts are booked by some big agency and they put less butts in the seats than I do. Yes, I know I sound whiny, but I really shake my head and wonder sometimes why clubs/booking agents bring some LA acts in who can’t draw worth a shit and don’t translate well to their audience. Sure I know that sometimes it’s a package deal where a big agency says you need to take this client if you want to get the one you are asking for, but it still reeks of bad business.
Now for those of you reading this thinking I’m talking about you, I only am if you are starting to feel a little guilty. I’m very kind to booking agents/club managers here, but you too often live in a world where you only hear great you are by ass kissers or how you are the worst human beings in the world by bridge exploders. I’m somewhere in the middle. Take it for what it is. OK, off my soapbox for now.
As for the weekend shows in Bismarck, they went great. I try not to detail how I killed with an audience, as I know the majority of readers here don’t want to read that. What I will offer up is that it was really fun doing a 90 minute show by myself in a cool theater setting with an appreciative audience. I will also add that as different as the 3 venues I performed at during my 4 nights in North Dakota were, all the shows went great. As much as it is a grind to drive as much as I did during this trip, it makes it worth it when you get paid fairly (thanks Dakota Stage) and you perform for appreciative audiences. Not even hookers and blow can give you that kind of high.