It’s January 2011. I arrive at the Loony Bin in Wichita just as a winter storm hits. When I walk in, Chris, the door guy, is in the lobby talking to a guy I’ve never met.
“This is Michael Brown,” Chris says. “The feature this week.”
“What?” I’m confused. I just came from dropping my stuff off at the condo, where I had met a guy named Daryl who also claimed to be the feature. “Then who’s the guy at the condo?”
Michael sighs. “They double-booked the week. I came in and asked Mark for the alarm code, and he was like, ‘I already gave you the code.’ And I was like, ‘Um, no, you didn’t.’”
“Seriously? Where did you drive in from?”
Just then, Daryl walks in and stands next to me. It’s suddenly very awkward in here.
“This is Michael,” I say. “He’s supposed to be featuring.”
“What?” Daryl says. After some discussion, the three of us head into the showroom in search of Mark, the man in charge who is supposed to be resolving this issue.
Mark Payne, the infamous boss-man of the Wichita Loony Bin, is lounging in the back of the room, his cowboy boots propped up on a chair, his arms crossed as we approach him. I’ve never met Mark before, and for some reason, I was under the impression that he would have a mullet and/or a mustache, but he has neither. He’s slim, tall, and wears his hair in a high-and-tight. He claims he wears it that way because he doesn’t want to mess with it, but I have a secret theory that he does it so he can look like the gay dad on the movie American Beauty.
I hold my hand out. “I’m Leah.”
“Well, well.” He shakes my hand. “You’re the Oklahoma City girl.” Then he looks back and forth from Michael to Daryl to Michael, back at Daryl again. “No wonder I got you guys confused,” he says. “You look like twins.”
Daryl and Michael look at each other. It’s obvious that neither one of them take the statement as a compliment.
“Is it because we’re both fat?” Daryl asks.
They look nothing alike. Michael is short, has a beard, and looks alarmingly similar to the late Chris Farley, and Daryl is tall, beardless, and looks like Daryl. They do, however, share three characteristics: they’re white, they’re overweight, and they both have on thick-rimmed black glasses.
Mark stands. “I guess we’d better get this figured out. All of you, in my office.”
In the office, we gather in a semi-circle around Mark, who sits in a swivel chair next to his computer and opens up a file on the desktop. “Uh oh,” he says and points at the screen. On the computer, it says Tony Tone is the headliner, it has no name for the feature, and Michael Brown is listed as the opener. Mark points at Daryl. “Now who are you?”
“Okay, Farrell.” Daryl tries to protest, but Mark just continues. “I don’t have your name here at all.” He turns to me. “And I know I booked you. You called me on the phone, right?”
After a clusterfuck conversation that I liken to Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First?” routine, we reach the conclusion that Daryl was supposed to be the feature, and Michael the opener, but because Michael’s a nice guy and has plenty of work lined up for the month, he gives me his spot and volunteers to go home.
“Then it’s settled,” Mark says. “But we gotta figure out the sleeping situation for tonight because I don’t want you driving anywhere on this ice.”
“I can sleep on the couch and leave in the morning,” Michael says. “I don’t mind.”
Mark looks at me. “Well, I’m not too keen on the idea of leaving a woman alone in a house with three guys. You’re gonna lock your door, right?”
“There’s no lock on the MC’s door,” I say.
“Just push something heavy up against the door before you go to sleep.”
For a brief moment, that makes perfect sense. I had actually employed the “push something heavy against the door” technique once in the Little Rock condo. But then it dawns on me why Mark is so concerned. “Wait a minute, are you saying that you think these guys might rape me?”
“Well, you gotta be careful.”
I scoff. “Yeah, well, I can take care of myself. In fact, I dare someone to try and rape me. See what happens.”
Michael and Daryl stand side by side at the door, inching closer and closer to an exit.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Mark says. He points at a picture on the wall behind me. In it, he’s dressed head to toe in hunting gear and holding a rifle. “I’m pretty good with that there gun.” He then opens his desk drawer and pulls out two different sized shotgun shells. He places them in front of him on the desk and leans back in his chair.
“Oh my God!” I start giggling. “Are you saying you’re gonna shoot them if they try and rape me?”
“Well, thanks? I guess. For offering to shoot my rapists.”
He nods at me and swivels back toward his computer, and all of us comics are free to go contemplate Mark’s hilarious insanity, which only gets better as the week goes on.
Thursday night, I can’t find the crowd during my 15 minutes on stage, and I’m all over the place trying to get them to like me. I know I have four more shows, four more chances at redemption, so I accept the bad set for what it is and vow to make my next one better.
The headliner, on the other hand, brings the house down – I actually see a woman convulse as though she’s having an epileptic fit when he does his Steven Seagal impression. So far, so good. Now, this particular headliner, Tony, has a choreographed closer that needs a music cue. Because I worked with him in Little Rock in December, I’ve seen him pull off this bit many times without a hitch. Tonight, however, during his last week on the road before some time off, the sound guy jumps the gun and gets all trigger-happy with the play button.
Tony stops his act and looks at the office. “Too early,” he says from the stage. “Let’s start it again.” He sets up the bit for a second time, and this time the cue is right, but the music starts about 30 seconds in.
Tony stops. “Back it up to the beginning.” He looks at the crowd and smiles. “I’m sorry, we seem to be having some technical difficulties.”
Again, he sets up the joke. Again, the music starts too late. Again, he pauses and stares at the door to the office, where Mark and the sound guy are looking out at him, their hands held in that “I give up” gesture.
At this point, I figure I should try to help, so I walk backstage and say, “Mark, can you start it from the beginning?”
He holds his hands up. “I got this.” Then, he follows me out the door and into the showroom with purpose. I think he’s going to mess with some cord or push some magic button that will fix the situation, but all he does when he gets out the door is stand there and yell at Tony, who is still on stage, helplessly waiting for the mercy of his music cue to get him off.
“Tony!” Mark yells. “Just start 30 seconds in!”
“I can’t,” Tony says. “You have to start it from the beginning.”
“Just finish your little show and get off the stage,” Mark says. “God damn.” Then he walks back into the office.
For the fourth time, Tony sets up his joke. This time, the music plays from the beginning, but the CD immediately starts skipping. Tony stops and shakes his head. “I’m sorry, guys. Maybe I won’t be able to end on that joke tonight.”
“Aw,” the crowd says. “Come on!”
“I want to,” Tony says. “Believe me, I want to, but I need the music and—”
At this point, the door to the office swings open again. “Tony!” Mark yells. “Your fuckin’ CD is skipping. What the hell do you want me to do? You want me to do your little dance for you?” Then he hops around for a minute like an insane pigeon. “How’s that? You know, I haven’t danced in years, so you’re welcome!”
Tony stares at him. I’m doubled over with laughter. The crowd roars. They’re loving the shit out of this little call and response exercise. I wonder if they think it’s part of the act: the comedian pretending to have technical difficulties while some redneck asshole keeps jumping out from the back room and shouting very unhelpful things at him. A real in-your-face artsy approach to comedy.
In the end, they get the CD to play, Tony finishes his bit, the crowd gives him a standing O, and everything ends up okay as these things usually do. And even though Tony destroyed for his entire set, I can’t help but think that Mark’s little cameo stole the end of the show.
After the Thursday night show, Mark tells me that he’s in the final process of setting up a deal for his club to be on a reality T.V. show. “Of all the clubs in the entire country,” he says, “why do you think they chose this one?”
If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because Mark is a loud, opinionated weirdo that says every little thing that pops into his mind, and this makes for reality T.V. gold. I don’t say that. Instead, I say, “Because they thought you were interesting?”
He scoffs. “Hell no. You don’t think I know why they want to film me? Shit, I know what they’re gonna make me look like, but I don’t give a fuck what people think of me.”
I smile because I like it when people surprise me. For a minute, I thought Mark was delusional and believed he was going to be on T.V. because of his savvy business practices, or his no-nonsense work ethic. But Mark is not an idiot, and he’s self-aware enough to recognize that he acts like a complete nut job, and anybody with a constant camera in his face will exploit the shit out of that.
Friday night early show, and I have another mediocre set. I throw everything I think they might like at them, but they’re looking at me like I performed my own abortion and then ate the aborted fetus onstage in front of them. I walk off to the back of the room where Mark is standing, and I stare at him.
“What?” he says.
“You look like you want to say something.”
“Well, so do you.”
I shrug. Five long seconds go by.
“You say pussy too much,” Mark says.
“What? I only said pussy once. No, actually I said it three times, but only in that one joke.”
He shakes his head. “You can’t say ‘pussy’ to these people in Wichita.”
“But I was saying it in the context of quoting someone else. I was quoting the pervy guy that said pussy to me. Why do I gotta be judged for quoting fucked up shit that other people say to me?”
Mark sighs. “Well, look, can’t you say something else? Kristin Key was here a few weeks ago, and she called it her hoo-hah.”
“I’m not gonna say hoo-hah.”
“The point is,” Mark says, “women in this audience don’t wanna hear you talking about pussy. They wanna pretend they don’t even have a pussy. They don’t like their pussy to be thrown in their face like that.” (Insert carpet-munching joke here.)
“Hmm,” I say. “I don’t really think that’s true, but I’ll take it into consideration.”
“Fine,” he says. “Do what you want.”
Second show Friday night doesn’t go much better than the first. I don’t say pussy, but I do go retarded for a minute during my set and repeat the punchline to my first joke in the middle of my second joke. It’s hard to bounce back after that sort of self-sabotage, but I pretend I’m fucked up, so the audience at least listens to me for the rest of my set. (Note: I find that “I’m fucked up” is a great excuse for failing at lots of things.)
I’m in a pretty bad mood by the end of the night. So much so that Daryl, Tony, and Mark are all sitting in the back with me trying to help me figure out what I’m doing wrong.
“You did a good job,” Tony says. “Remember, you’re taking the bullet as the opener.”
“You had them at the beginning,” Daryl says. “You got yourself caught up when you flubbed that line, and you let it affect the rest of your set.”
“Wichita is an industrial town,” Mark says. “I tell people that all the time. People from Oklahoma City come up here and can’t cut it because Oklahoma City is a metropolitan town. Wichita’s just a different animal.”
I roll my eyes at the thought of OKC viewed as this hip metropolis to the decent, hardworking Kansas folk. “But that shouldn’t matter,” I say. “I should be able to make anybody laugh.”
“Well,” Mark says, “it doesn’t help that you’re pretty.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I look at Tony and Daryl for some help, but they both shrug and give me a look that says they think Mark might be right.
“Oh, that’s just great.” I feel myself getting all worked up for one of my famous Leah rants. “First, they tell me that people won’t like me if I look uncomfortable, so I wear t-shirts onstage. Then, people tell me I look like a lesbian. Or like I’m trying to be a boy. So now when I try to look like myself, I look too good? Is that what you’re telling me? I mean, I can’t not be me.”
Mark laughs. “You’re too hard on yourself.”
First show Saturday night goes well. I don’t necessarily “kill it,” but I do get consistent laughter for every joke. I walk offstage more relieved than anything.
After the show, Tony and I are sitting at a tall table in the back of the room when a man, probably in his late sixties, comes by and shakes our hands. When he gets to me, he says, “You’re funny, but you need to be more confident. Have fun up there.”
I smile until he leaves, then I turn to Tony. “What the fuck did I do?”
Just then, Mark walks up to me holding a piece of paper in his hand like it’s a decree from the King of Kansas. “Comment card,” he declares. “Do you want to read it, or would you like me to read it to you?”
“Oh God,” I say. “You read it. No, I’ll read it. Shit, I don’t care. You read it.”
He clears his throat. “Needs to believe in herself.”
At this point, I’m so frustrated, I want to pull all of my hair out. “I don’t get it. What am I doing that looks like I don’t believe in myself?”
“It’s all about the way you present yourself onstage,” Mark says. “Get up. I’m gonna teach you a few things.”
I reluctantly stand next to him.
“First of all, you want to keep your feet at ten and two,” he says. “Like your hands on a steering wheel.”
I copy his position. “Oh, yeah, this feels real natural.”
“Stop messing around. Now, your arms are all tucked in, so you look defensive up there. You need to open them up.”
“What do you mean? You want me to hold my arm out to the side. Who stands like that?”
Mark glares at me. “And stop gripping the mic like you’re trying to strangle it. Loosen up your grip.”
That one actually makes sense.
“And one more thing,” Mark says. “Smile while you’re up there. You have a really nice smile. You should use it.”
“Like while I’m talking? Nobody smiles while they’re talking.”
“I’m gonna punch you,” Mark says.
“Okay, I’ll try it.”
And then I walk off toward the stage with a shit-eating grin on my face, moving like a robot without changing the positions Mark gave me for my arms or legs because I think it’s funny.
Once I’m up there, though, loosening my grip on the mic, holding my arms out and open like I’m trying to give Wichita a big hug, smiling when I get a laugh and remember why my jokes are funny, I realize that all of this is bullshit, that sometimes I have to say “fuck it,” and just be me up there. I can’t not be me any more than Mark can’t not be Mark.
But I need to be me more in the way that Mark is Mark: unapologetically. I need to be me in a way that I’m not up there begging for people to like me.
Because that’s what people in Wichita can see in me that I can’t see. When I’m stripped of the upper-hand because the people aren’t laughing at my jokes, when I’m in the industrial city of Wichita, Kansas, the audience members can see right through my practiced wall of sarcasm and into the core of me where there exists a scared girl telling a pussy joke, screaming “Goddamnit, Wichita, like me! Please like me!”
So I figure what I need to do is this: find that unsure girl inside of me, convince her that she’s a funny woman, and then decide, “I am that woman. Fuck everyone who doesn’t like her.”