One of the questions I get asked the most is what is the biggest crowd I’ve performed for? As you might be able to guess from the title, it’s 3000. Here’s the rest of the story.
A few years back, Frank Caliendo called me and asked if I wanted to open for him at a casino on the American side of Niagara Falls. The date he needed me for I was already booked, but since I was going to be doing shows close to the area (in Michigan) I was able to work it out with the booking agent to free myself for the night.
I was in the Mid-Michigan area, so it made sense for me to drive past Port Huron and through Canada to get to my ultimate destination. Now I’ve went through Canada before and have always been treated well by Canadian Custom Agents–Can’t say the same for their American counterparts. All 3 times I’ve came back in to the US, I’ve had to get out of my car and had it searched. Two of these times it was before 9/11, so that isn’t the reason. Knowing this I gave myself 3 hours to spare before showtime.
So I drive through Canada and as soon as check-in with American customs, I am told to pullover. When I got out of my car, the first agent starts giving me the 3rd degree and says he will need to search my car. Now, I’m a not a guy who ever has drugs in his car, so I didn’t worry about anything I might have dropped, but I was concerned that some fellow comic I had given a ride to might have dropped a bag of black tar heroin under the seat. Look, you have these thoughts in this situation. Once when I went to Panama, I was pulled over at the airport baggage by their custom agent and he showed my own suitcase which had white powder scattered all over it. He began to run his finger on it saying Coca? Coca? Sweet Mother of Scarface. No Coca! No Coca! I panic-ally said, feeling very Midnight Expressish. I mean what dummy would bring Cocaine into Panama, when all I could ever want is across the border in Columbia? The agent then laughed and said, it’s baby powder. You can go, and gave me my suitcase. There is still nothing funny about this story. Can I help it that I get a sweaty sack and need a little help?
So I was told to go sit in the US Customs Office next to the checkpoint. Which I did for an hour. Then I went up to the counter and asked if there was a reason for my hold up? The agent, who wasn’t doing anything else goes ballistic on me and tells me to sit down and wait! Good to see this guy wasn’t feeding into any power trip he had from being a Customs Agent. Another half hour passes and I go up again and tell him that I have a show that I need be at in less than 90 minutes and I know there will be a a sold-out crowd of thousands disappointed to have to wait for me. Now they would have done the show without me, as they were all there to see Frank Caliendo, but it was time to throw some type of celebrity plea to get out of there. Comedy doesn’t give me health insurance or sick days, so I need a little bonus and I used it this time. My celebrity plea helped enough that the guy told me there was some type of problem with my license. What problem, I responded. And it was back to Sir, sit down and I will tell you when you are needed!
Ok, so about 15 minutes later, the agents come in and hand me my keys and tell me I can go. I asked, what was wrong that caused this to happen so I can rectify this problem. Sir, I would suggest you leave, was their only response. (said in a tone like I was a drunk at closing time.) I never did find out what the problem was that caused them to hold me for almost 2 hours, but i made sure to drive around any chance of dealing with customs on my drive home.
So I call Frank and tell him I will be to the stage in about 20 minutes. I race to check into the casino, quickly get dressed and I’m there in plenty of time, but not in a great state of mind, which was only heightened since I would be opening a show cold for 3000 people.
Now I’ve done shows for over 2000 in a theater before and that is cool, because it’s built for entertainment and with a balcony the room seems tighter. This casino show was held in an enormous room I’m guessing was used for conventions. 3000 chairs set up on the floor. Very spread out. There is no connection you feel from anyone in this situation. Frank Caliendo’s audiences are good ones, though. They are generally really nice people that are not jaded comedy fans. They LOVE Frank. Part of opening for him is that you don’t get to be edgy or alternative in your material, as kids are at his shows. It’s just part of the gig.
Despite being out of sorts from my stressful customs appearance, I did ok. You might think that the laughter would be enormous sounding when you do a show like this, but 3000 people in a room with poor acoustics has a weird effect on laughter. The sound of it is kind of muted and there is a couple seconds of echo that you have to kind of wait on. It throws off your timing. In music, some bands like Queen or Muse become bigger than life in a stadium, but if you are Cat Stevens or Ray LaMontagne, the best place for you to perform is in a club. Standup is more like acoustic music. It’s not designed for big spaces. I don’t care how much I liked Steve Martin or Dice when they hit at their biggest, I’m glad I never saw them in a 20,000 seat arena.
Look, it’s fun to say that you’ve done shows for 3 people and shows you’ve done for 3000, but the best shows I’ve been a part of are ones in a tight room with 100-300 people. That’s when standup is at its most electric. Now if I ever become an overnight sensation* and I’ve got 3000 people who want to pay to see me, I’m willing to my theory up for discussion.
*Not sure that if you hit big after doing standup for 20 years that you could be considered an overnight sensation.