Andy Fleming is the co-host of Comedy Secrets. He’s heard dozens of stories about sadness and disappointment and family disarray. Enjoy the Nightmare Gig! -ed.
The date was April 20, 2014. That’s right, bro: 4/20. Right off the bat you can tell this is gonna be one chill-ass story, right?
I’m from Memphis and I’m a big dumb yokel about how many great, up-and-coming comics I get to be around in Chicago. Whenever I can, I load a few Chicago comics in a car and book a stage in Memphis to show them off. As I mentioned, this trip landed on April 20 and what you might not know about me is that I am COOL. So I called the show a “4/20 stand-up showcase” and put a picture of Rhianna smoking a joint on the flyer.
As I was getting ready to head to the venue, I got a phone call tipping me off that my estranged father was going to show up at the show. WHOAAAAAA WHAT’S UP WITH MY DAD AND ME, LET’S FIND OUT IN THIS FLASHBACK:
My dad and I don’t really speak. Haven’t for over ten years. It’s not really important why, this story isn’t about villainizing him. What’s important for this story is that this was not the first time he had dropped in on my stand-up shows. The first open mic I ever did was at the now-defunct Comedy Tennessee, a comedy club in Memphis. I went to their Wednesday open mic religiously. One Wednesday, I walked in and Sammy Marten, the Cajun redneck and one of the club’s owners (and who has since become one of my best friends), shouted at me across the bar, “FLEMIN’! Someone’s been callin’ here asking when they can see you perform!” [I know it seems like I’m arbitrarily choosing when to type Sammy’s accent, but no, that’s just how he talks. All drawl, and then meticulous articulation at the end of each sentence.] “I think you got a fan!”, he told me. “I told ’em you’re here ev’ry Wednesday for the open mic and that they could see you then.”
Dudes, I was psyched. I was super new to comedy, but someone had apparently seen me at the open mic and liked me enough to ask about me. This is the way careers start! People like me, then they ask for me at the club, and then the club books me, then I’m a REAL COMEDIAN– you get where this is going, right? I realized when I saw my estranged dad shuffle into the showroom that it was he who had called. (And yes this is pretty much exactly a plot-point from the movie Punchline. I hadn’t seen that yet so I didn’t know to be prepared for this, and also didn’t know I should have asked for a locker at the comedy club.)
He showed up to the open mic that night and it was weird. It was weird for everybody. We didn’t speak except when he mumbled, “Nice job,” as he shuffled his way out. The second time he dropped in on a show was pretty similar. He showed up to a comedy contest I was in and we exchanged maybe ten words.
“ANDY I THOUGHT THIS STORY WAS ABOUT A 4/20 SHOW.” Yes, okay, fair point, person-I-made-up-as-a-literary-device!
The 4/20 show would be the third time in about seven years that my dad would be dropping in like this. He showed up promptly at showtime with my stepmom and four people I did not recognize. One of them– an older lady that I’ll call Jan, because she reminded me of a white trash character that Jan Hooks would play– was already drunk, and seemed upright only because of the gentleman’s arm around her waist holding her up. The six of them took the front, center table, about three feet from the wooden part of the floor that we called the “stage” in this bar. My heart sunk. I couldn’t ignore them if I wanted to, and I was hosting the dang thing, so I was gonna be up there all night.
Memphis comic Richard Douglas Jones was co-hosting with me, and the first words out of his mouth when we started the show, this also being an Easter Sunday, were, “Happy Zombie Jesus Day!”
Jan piped up immediately: “I DON’T AGREE WITH THAT.”
It was such a straightforward heckle, like something a robot would yell, that all I could manage in response was, “…What?”
“I don’t agree with what he just said!” Jan said, pointing to Richard. “About Jesus being a zombie.”
Richard said something back to her about how she just seemed like she wasn’t getting laid enough WHICH IS NOT THE MOST FEMINIST HECKLE RESPONSE I KNOW, but Rich came up wrangling drunks as the house emcee at the Tunica, Mississippi Funny Bone and sometimes he knew just what to say to give someone just enough rope to hang themselves. And he was right.
“Nuh-uh!!” Jan assured us. “I get laid plenty!”
I made some remark about how I thought it was cool that she loved fucking AND loved the Lord, just trying to move on, but Jan replied, “That’s right! The Bible doesn’t say nothin’ about not havin’ sex. I MEANNNN it DOES say a man shouldn’t lie with another man, but other than that…”
This was the FIRST TWENTY SECONDS of the show.
It would get worse before it got better.
We brought the first act up, a Memphis comic who decided that he was gonna be a fuckin’ REBEL and light up a joint onstage. This was a nightmare. My dad’s table shut down, and why wouldn’t they? This was clearly way more than they had bargained for. Hell, it was more than I bargained for. I mean I know I booked a show that had Rhianna smoking a joint on the flyer, but I figured we’d do the show and then go get high on the bar’s back patio. Like ADULTS.
Because of the way this room was laid out, if the front table wasn’t having fun, it was really easy for that energy to spread. And this front table for sure wasn’t having fun. Kristin Clifford and Tim Barnes (both pretty clean acts) were the only two to do particularly well. I put up a local rapper to close the show, and as soon as he started, my dad assembled his crew and left, mumbling something like, “Nice job,” to me. I think he put something nice in our donations tin. Like I said, he’s not a villain in this story. Just a guy with a real penchant for doing things in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, and leave footprints on our hearts. Some are our dads for about half our lives, but then just periodically show up to ruin stand-up shows. This story doesn’t have a good ending. THE WORLD IS NOT A FAIR PLACE.