Early in my career, I became friends with a middle-aged Black dude named Larry. Larry was a funny dude who wasn’t the most original act, but he could tell a joke like no buddies business. We used to do an open mic show on a weekly basis and since Larry didn’t have a car, he asked if I would pick him up some weeks. Even though he lived in the hood, it was no big deal to me. I was young, comedy was my new girlfriend, and Larry was my friend…
One night, Larry told me about a gig he would be doing that he would need an opening act for. Since I had always done well with mixed race crowds at open mics, he said I would be a good fit for the gig he was doing. I was excited to do it because I was young, comedy was my new girlfriend, and Larry was my friend…
So we drive about 40 minutes out of town to a place called Anderson, Indiana. Anderson is one of those small industrial cities like Flint, Michigan which had fallen apart after the American automobile companies closed plants and reopened them in Mexico. It is rough place.
Now Larry had mentioned it would be a mostly Black audience, which was cool to me, as I like mixed race audiences. There is a special energy you get from a crowd with this make-up, especially if you’re a comic who has no fear of acknowledging it. What Larry didn’t share was that outside of a couple fat white chicks, I was the only person of no color at the place. I think there was a chance I might have been the only white guy ever to step foot in the place, well besides the yearly appearance of the county health inspector. I got a lot of the same looks Eddie Murphy got at the redneck bar in 48 Hours.
I had never truly understood why 2 black people who don’t know each other will greet each other walking down the street–that is until I did this show. If I would have seen a white guy in that place, I would have walked up and hugged him. I was feeling so out of place. You have to realize that I grew up in Iowa and I never even had a black person in any class I attended from K through 12. This show definitely gave me more respect for Black comics who perform in towns where they are the only non-White in the room.
Now before we went on, they had a karaoke competition. Some pretty talented singers did their thing. Then the last woman came up to the mic. She looked to be about 75 pounds and had a sickly pallor to her skin. Whitney Houston’s remake of Dolly Parton’s I Have Always Loved You came on and I was thinking to myself, poor song choice…and then she began to sing. This woman had the best voice I have ever heard in person. She was Whitney or Mariah’s equal that night.
At the end, there was no need for any audience vote, the manager walked up with the 50 dollar grand prize and just handed it to her. Right when she got the money, a guy in the back yelled out, I‘ll be taking that. Then he pulled up his pantleg and patted what appeared to be a rock in his sock. She walked directly over to him and they walked out of the bar. It was one of the amazing moments I have ever witnessed onstage and then one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed, off it.
Speaking of saddest things I’ve ever witnessed, my performance was next. I knew this was going to be a tough crowd, but it was beyond that. These people hated me from the moment I had walked in the door. Instead of ignoring the obvious, I discussed how I was the only cracker in the room, thinking they would bond with me over that. Nope. Since this was 1993, I thought I would mention that being a Black comedian is challenging, especially when you’re one like me who has that Michael Jackson skin disease. You would have thought the room was filled with Tito’s and LaToya’s from the response I got from that joke.
After 15 minutes, I bailed. I was supposed to do 20, but I blew through my material fast and the only stuff I didn’t do was NASCAR jokes that I didn’t think would be a big hit. When Larry hit the stage, he was smart enough not to even say, “Give it up for your opening act”, because he didn’t want to be connected with me at this point. He proceeded to do pretty well, but not as good as he usually did. I sat right next to the stage and nervously looked at my watch hoping the time would fly by.
We left as soon as Larry got off the stage. He said he had told them to pay him before, because he wasn’t sure we would get paid afterward. Smart man. I felt like the guy driving the getaway car, as we hustled to the parking lot to get the hell out of there. I told Larry he didn’t need to pay me, since I had done such a miserable job. Larry responded by handing me my 40 bucks and telling me he thought I did fine and he respected me even more after surviving that hell gig. He said they were some ignorant, country-ass niggas and don’t let it bother me. It was like he was Samuel Jackson and I was John Travolta, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega on the road doing standup.
For the next couple of years, whenever I had a gig that I booked for myself around town, I always used Larry. I did feel some major gratitude towards him, but I also knew he would get big laughs, so it was the best type of payback. Larry had a lot of health problems and he eventually reached a point where he needed to be hooked up all the time to a dialysis machine. He quit comedy at this point and I fell out of touch with him. My guess is he’s not around anymore. He was a good dude.