This week I’m reminded of attending our very first live comic because I just sent out an email to a small group of friends, asking who is interested in attending the next Comedy Under the Stars.
I’ve shared a few stories about live music concerts we’ve attended (link). My wife and I together have shared many concert performances, including my first one in this story about Alice Cooper (link) and I will likely one day try to document the comics we’ve seen in a story by itself.
Comedy Under the Stars is the name given for a comic night performed in our local village’s outdoor amphitheater. We live in a town named Fair Oaks and every California town has an ‘old town’ which is typically the original center of the town’s founding. The old town center of Fair Oaks is affectionately named ‘the village’ (of Fair Oaks). It’s very cute and quaint, very small with its own outdoor enclosed amphitheater. The comic night is sponsored by the Sacramento Laughs Unlimited club and held in our tiny village three times a year – we try to attend them all.
Chickens….oh yeah, we have chickens in the village. The story I once got from a long term resident was that there was a group of hippies who lived in the village back in the 60’s. They raised their own chickens and when the hippies left, they set the chickens free. They are indeed now “free range chickens” who stick to maybe the same ten to twenty blocks of land in the village. We leave them alone, they are protected and they’re a part of the Fair Oaks culture now. I don’t think I’ve seen a comic there yet who hasn’t made a chicken joke.
And this then leads me to my Billy story….
Kim and I were married in 1978 and during the first few years of our marriage, like a lot of couples, we spent a lot of time with both of our families. On my side, we would bowl together with my mom and Joe in a church league, (which meant we had to attend church Avery now and again – yuk). 🙂 Also though, we attended a couple of outings with them. We saw Linda Ronstadt at Miami University where we used our Christmas gift binoculars for the very first time.
Who doesn’t like to laugh? We also saw our very first live comic with Mom and Joe. Our very first live comic? None other than Jodie Dallas from the TV show, SOAP. Alright, so if you weren’t at least a teen in the late seventies, you won’t have a clue as to whom I’m referring (dig the fancy grammar there). And even if you were alive then, you still might not know who I’m talking about. When Harry Met Sally? Analyze This, Analyze That? No? What about City Slickers? Fernando’s Hideaway on SNL, you gotta’ know that one.
Of course I’m talking about none other than Billy Crystal. I think the year was 1979. Billy had landed a rather groundbreaking role playing a homosexual in a comedy sitcom called SOAP. Yes, before he became Mike Wazowski on Monsters Inc, he was first a homosexual. SOAP ran for 4 seasons in 1977-1981. I watched a few episodes but it really wasn’t my thing back then.
My mom loved it. She was the one who heard that Billy Crystal was going to come to little ‘ole Hamilton, Ohio to perform his standup routine at the small auditorium of the Hamilton branch of Miami University. According to this old 2006 article on the Miami of Hamilton website (link), the guy who started the artist performance series back in ’79 prides himself on being able to book a few lesser known performers with big potential. Billy was certainly that!
I imagine that Billy’s agent thought he/she was booking Billy to some small town college venue, you know, the kind that always sell out with standing room only. On a nice evening, this might have been the case but on an early December, (I think), evening in 1979, Hamilton received a snowstorm. I remember we got something like 4-5 inches. The road crews did a pretty decent job of cleaning up the streets, but it was still a little nasty out when we left the house. It took us maybe twice the normal time to get there from Mom’s house and the snow was still coming down.
Seating was reserved. Parrish Auditorium seats maybe 450 people. Naturally I don’t recall our exact seats, but I’d estimate we were maybe ten or twelve rows from the stage, towards the far right side, (looking out from the stage – see the picture). I distinctly remember sitting there in our tiny group of four with no one around us for many rows and seats. As I looked around the seating, I saw a dabble here, a splatter there. All in all, there must have been 40-50 people in total there; all of us in our assigned seats.
The show opened with a local girl playing her acoustic guitar and singing her songs. She sang her heart out for maybe 20-30 minutes. Soon then, it was time to introduce Billy. A guy, (I assume it was this Howard Epstein), soon came out to give Billy a great big introduction. I don’t remember all that he said, but I do remember his mentioning his current role in SOAP.
I didn’t know what to expect. There was no YouTube then like there is today. Today we can all log onto the Internet and within a few short minutes, we can see anyone and anything we want, (and a few things we don’t want to see), in just a few quick keyboard clicks. The young actor from SOAP came out onto the stage. One of his first jokes was about how empty the place was and that he was sympathetic because Hamilton had just found out about the automobile. 🙂
And then, Billy Crystal, this young actor and comic, he spoke directly to all of us – (I’m paraphrasing) “everyone, let’s all get comfortable. All of you up in the higher seats, come on down here close to me. Let’s all get to know each other”. And so we did. We all got up and made our way close to the stage, a small cluster of onlookers into Billy’s living room.
And what did Billy do? He performed his act! He performed his act as if every seat was packed and there was standing room only. He was amazing! I’d never before seen a live standup comedian and never before seen this guy, this relatively unknown guy who appeared in this semi-popular television comedy series, but we were all blown away by how quick, how witty and how damn bend-over funny he was.
I typically don’t remember many of the jokes but I do remember ‘the moment’, the evening itself, the whole experience of letting go of everything and just allowing someone the opportunity to make me forget about everything else that day – and just to laugh.
I found this early clip of Billy Crytal on YouTube. I do remember the silent skit in here and the very funny routine about being 15. In his live performance he was using his free hand a lot more (use your imagination as you’re watching this). I hope you take the time to listen and enjoy because it was hilarious to see live (from 1978):
So what? What’s the significance, why do I remember this evening so well? I was only 21 years old, a young man who had left Taco Bell earlier in the year and was now working in my first ‘real job’ at Deuscher Foundry. What I tried to remember that night was not the jokes Billy delivered with perfect timing. What I wanted to remember was how professional Billy acted.
His agent booked him to go to what he thought was going to be a sold out college auditorium performance and what he saw was only a handful of individuals, most of them not really sure what they would see or hear after this ‘Hollywood actor’ realized he wasn’t all that popular or well known. Had he been a spoiled brat or someone easily knocked down, he easily could have not put so much into his performance. Perhaps he could have cut it short to only 30 minutes? That would have been so easy. Instead, he performed for a whole 90 minutes and even came out after our small group gave him a standing ovation.
Now, THAT was class! There were moments in my professional career when I felt I didn’t have my ‘audience’, times where I felt a little less than adequate. On a couple of occasions, I tried to muster up a little bit of Billy courage I had been privy to that one snowy evening in 1979 in a nearly empty auditorium in a little one horse town of ‘Hamiltucky’.
Just another little bit of growing up on Prytania……