9.11.01–a comedian’s take

It was a couple of weeks after my friend Kevin had called me and said “Turn on the TV—we’re under attack.” Now, I’m not a morning person, so my first instinct was to hang up. But then I started to assemble the words into some sort of sense—we’re…under…attack.

I then spent the better part of the day staring at my laptop. I was so overwhelmed, I’m not even sure I felt sad for the first hour or so. There wasn’t any room in my skull for sad. My head was too busy saying “what the fuck” on some sort of endless tape loop for it to admit any other feelings. I watched footage of the second plane (and that was really the one that scared us, because the first one, we all prayed, was just a freak accident)…

I watched that footage hundreds of times on September 11th. I realize now that I kept watching it to numb myself to it. Maybe if I watched it enough, I would be able to process it –react to it—and then put it in a box and on a shelf with other things I just watched on TV. (By the way, at this point, I’m sure you’re wondering, “When does the comedy start? I mean, the guy calls himself ‘Mister Comedy,’ fer chrissake.” )

Listen, I was three when JFK was shot. I was eight when we lost Dr. King. I only vaguely remember shots of balconies and hooded gunmen in Munich in 1972. But this. I knew when the second plane hit that this would be the defining moment of my generation. I think if your country is attacked when you’re twenty…well, you’re invincible when your twenty. But I think when your country’s attacked and you’re forty-one, you have more of a feeling of…ownership of the place.

I realized that from March 30, 1960 through September 10th, 2001, I had not felt patriotism. I had, to be sure, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sung the National Anthem, and even, in fourth grade, constructed a map of the United States out of salt dough. But until about 9:15 on that morning, I didn’t really feel like I was a part of an ‘us.’

That’s also when I truly fell in love with New York. When I saw news reports of New Yorkers lining up for miles to donate blood, I wanted to move there. I’m from earthquake country, and went through the Northridge quake in ’92, and I don’t remember anything like the sense of community I witnessed from three thousand miles away. (I’m not saying that all Angelenos are selfish, craven, career-driven barnacles on an apocalyptic ship…I’m just sayin’…)

So…I wrote this piece about two weeks after the towers fell, and I think it’s a fair representation of what comedians dealt with in the aftermath of 9/11.


Everyone who works as a comedian (admittedly an oxymoron to begin with) had the same thought on September 11th–“I’m gonna have to get a real job–nothing’s ever going to be funny again!!!”

So here’s the deal. Humor is healing. It is what we do when we can’t wrap our brains around really bad things. It’s a wonderful form of collective denial that’s been around since the first really bad thing happened. Though there are no records of this, I’m pretty sure that there were people doing Pompeii jokes after the volcano hit (“Hey gang–real estate tip–next time you buy property, remember these four words–IS THE VOLCANO ACTIVE?”

It’s like that Star  Trek episode where the scary alien energy presence thingie was eventually defeated because the crew of the Enterprise laughed at it. OK, it’s not a lot like that, but you get my point. Or maybe you don’t.

Anyway, the bottom line is, I don’t know any comic who thinks three thousand dead people is funny. But for those of us still here, we have to joke–because if we tried to understand the level of evil we’re talking about here, our heads would explode.

As much of a lefty as I am, I actually feel sorry for George W. (In my defense, at the time I didn’t realize he would lead us into a misguided war as the puppet of some truly evil motherfuckers–I just thought he was stupid.) I mean, he just got the job–hell, he’s probably still figuring out where all the bathrooms are. “Hey–I wonder where this leads…” “Uh, Mr. President, you have a briefing in an hour…Mr. President? Oh shit–would somebody please find W. and point him toward the press room?”

The most telling video clip is the one where Bush was in a classroom being told about the attack. Rule of thumb: any time a guy in a dark suit whispers to the President of the United States, something bad has happened. And thank God the smirk is gone. W. hasn’t smirked since September 11th. Smirking is, I think, a bad thing for a president to do. Credibility-wise.

Saddam Hussein offered to help the United States–if we asked. OK, guy–let’s assume we, as a nation, forgot about the whole accessory-to-terrorism,  biological-warfare-capable, burning-our-presidents-in-effigy-because-we’re–the-Great-Satan thing. How exactly, could you help us? “Mr. President, Hussein sent that shipment of rocks and sand we need…”(Again–my bad. I was naive and bought into the whole ‘biological-weapons-capable’ deal.)

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that, judging by who I saw on the street that night,  the largest number of American flags seem to have been purchased by a group I call ‘tattoo patriots’–and I’m not sure I feel safe with a front line of rednecks and trailer trash defending me. I mean, I just don’t like it that the most vocal people seem to be the type of guys that think  “Hell, me and a couple of buddies ought to just go over there and kick some ass.” It just doesn’t seem the time for rational dialogue right now…

But once again, the true heroes in this national crisis have been the rock stars who, instead of giving some of their gazillions of dollars to the victims of the attack, chose to–sing. But the thing about September 11th that made it unique amongst the challenges we’ve faced, it that nobody knew how they were supposed to react.

The most unfortunate choice of words in the first two weeks–the announcer for a New York Mets I watched who, after a game-winning home run, said “Shea Stadium has just exploded!”. Imagine some poor working-stiff bastard, just wants to hear a little of the ball game, take his mind off the tragedy, and right when he turns on the radio he hears that.

Actually,  think we should all cut Bush a little slack (in retrospect, I take that line back). I’m serious–we’ve all gotten a new job and then a couple months in realized we’re not quite sure we can handle it–you know, they train you at Starbucks and then all of a sudden they start selling some new kind of coffee, and there’s a huge line, and you’re not sure what button to push on the register, and you panic, and the assistant manager tells you don’t worry, just go clean the tables.

Which is sort of what W. probably went through— “Um…guys…nobody told  me what to do if the bad guys CRASH OUR PLANES INTO OUR BUILDINGS!!!” He’s frantically flipping through The Presidency for Dummies–meanwhile I imagine Cheney being a total jerk– “OK ,Mr. President–you need to call the president of   Pakistan—–and his name would be…?” “C’mon Dick–stop messin’ with me–it’s–I know it starts with an M…”

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apartment roulette

After living in Chicago for three years, and in Minneapolis for eight years before that, when I came back to Minneapolis I was kinda freaked to realize that I had turned into—a midwestern guy. Sweet Jesus at the State Fair! Grew up in SoCal, always loved New York, and apparently finding my true home simply required splitting the difference, geographically.

By the way, I loved Chicago. It had everything I liked about New York, but was cheaper and had nicer people. Granted, I could never find a decent deli that knew how to make egg salad like Murray’s, but Chicago has a heart and a soul that feels just about right. Besides, my two favorite spectator sports are baseball and politics, and there ain’t nothin’ like Chicago for sheer surrealism in both. Following the Cubs AND livin’ in the land of Daley—now that’s a veritable carnival of weird, and as a writer, it was like gold.

I was a bit put off by the notion of settling, once and for all, in Minneapolis. I don’t mind Minneapolis, in the way one doesn’t mind eating a casserole (sorry–‘hot dish’), or a comfortable pair of Dockers—they serve a purpose, they won’t annoy anybody, but they won’t ever thrill you, like lobster bisque would, or…whatever the thrilling analogy to Dockers would be.

And yet, I’ve decided I’m good with ‘comfortable.’ Sure, as a writer, I wanted the diversity of New York, and in Minneapolis, a diverse neighborhood means a mix of Norwegians AND Swedes, (it’s not so much a melting pot as it is a nice layer cake). But trying to find a place to live in New York was like trying to find Middle Earth on a map.

The Girlfriend and I might be looking for another place here soon, and I am so glad I don’t have to look alone, because that process can kick your ass. When I last tried to move to New York, I realized I probably wasn’t gonna find a place I could afford in Manhattan, so I started looking at Craigslist for roommate listings near New York that might be affordable.  Now I hadn’tt spent much time in the Outer Boroughs (which always sounds like where you’d get exiled to in Soviet-era Russia), but I had seen a couple of Spike Lee films, so I figured I’ve got a handle on the area, and as far as knowing my way around Jersey, I have “Clerks” on DVD.

There are some phrases you see in more than a few roommate ads, and I guess it’s been a while since I’ve looked into shared housing, but some of them seem a little strange. I think my favorite is when the person posting asks for “no drama,” which puts me in a bit of a quandary as an actor. Does that mean I can’t rehearse at home, or just that I can’t actually mount a full production of “Death Of A Salesman” in the common area? And I’m a little put off if all the roommates in the place are described as mellow, or as the kids say, ‘chill’–I’d be worried I’d be walking onto the set of a Judd Apatow movie. Do I watch too many movies? Anyway, if a couple of the guys living there were a little less ‘chill,’ they probably wouldn’t have to look for a roommate. I also saw a variation of this (which I hope was a typo) that described two ‘chilled’ girls…

I was actually offended by one ad. Guy in his twenties, great place, great location, and right as a I was visualizing moving my suitcases in and learning the schedule of the J train, he writes “please be around my age, older people tend to be set in their ways, and that’s a drag to live around”…I was actually gonna send him a nasty email, but I remembered my tv shows were on, and I never miss my “CSI.”

There was also a listing which might be the best example of ‘TMI’ I’ve ever read. Spent a little time looking at the Philadelphia listings (hey, it’s only an hour and a half by train), and was really tempted by an apartment that was listed right in the heart of the city. Free internet. free laundry, five minute walk to the commuter train, and this:

A cat lives there already that will fight other cats. A former roommate once took heroin and passed out in the middle of the night with the oven on. For obvious reasons, she’s been replaced.

First, note that the cat WILL fight other cats. Not ‘might.’ It will–as if, that’s what they have it for. Secondly…the roommate. Couldn’t just say she’s moved out, no, we needed the pulp novel, Billie Holliday visual. Yeah, she was replaced, but it doesn’t say whether they replaced her with another junkie who just doesn’t attempt any baking. While you’re at it, you might want to replace the cat. Oddly enough, this ad didn’t say ‘no drama.’

On a lighter note, I’ll share my favorite typos. One place seemed charming, and I think they meant ‘large’ furnished apartment, but the headline clearly said the apartment was ‘MARGE FURNISHED.” I imagine moving in, and there’s Marge–because, well, nobody had the heart to ask her to leave.

And my favorite–an apartment that conveniently has a ‘laundrymoat.” I’m thinking this may not even be a typo, but some medieval-inspired building feature, designed to prevent tenants from other building from taking your stuff out of the dryer. And that really couldn’t be a typo–I mean the ‘o’ isn’t near the ‘m’ or the ‘a’ on the keyboard!  They must actually have a ‘laundrymoat‘! I never pursued it, though–they might have a laundrymoat, but unless they have a security drawbridge, I wouldn’t have felt safe. It was New York after all.

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to all the towns i loved before

In all my wandering, I’ve formed very specific relationships with each of the cities I’ve explored. Because really, when you move somewhere new, it’s a lot like dating–you get to know the personality of the place, try to figure out if the two of you are meant to be together…sometimes you have to break up with a place, and sometimes you just end up with some great memories. I decided to reminisce about the cities I’ve been ‘involved’ with.

Los Angeles: Ahh, my first love. I really only started seeing you because you were my neighbor growing up. We met when I went to UCLA, and I thought you were fun. But a guy needs more than fun, and besides, you were always dealing with some sort of drama–earthquakes, fires, mudslides–I needed something more stable in a relationship. It wasn’t till after I left you that I realized how shallow and superficial you really are, but I wish you well–I’m sure you’ll find others who get lured by your easy charm.

Minneapolis (the first time):  My first grownup relationship with a city. You encouraged me with your midwestern nurturing…because of you I was able to pursue my career. You cooked me wild rice soup and were always so nice…but like a typical man, I left because you were too nice. I thought I’d outgrown you, and needed have a little more action in my life. And let’s be honest–you can be really cold.

Boston: I’ll admit it–I was a jerk when we first got together. In my late twenties, making good money as a comedian, I was cocky and full of myself…I used you and had no intention of staying with you. We weren’t right for each other, and to be honest I always resented your provincial ways.

Miami: 1987…You were hot. And you got me into a lot of trouble. I’ve got no hard feelings about the time we spent together–but this was just a fling, all sex and drugs and no romance. I actually saw you again recently, and thought you looked good.

Los Angeles (again): I had no business seeing you again, and during our brief reunion I didn’t feel like I had ever really known you. Maybe it’s my insecurities–you’re almost too pretty for me, and though I still think about you, and I still want you, I can’t see you again.

Portland: After living on the edge for so many years, I found you, and I fell in love. You were so comfortable and low-maintenance. But ultimately, we just spent too much time getting stoned, and I was worried I was becoming complacent. With you, Portland, I didn’t have the drive to accomplish much, but it was cool hanging out.

Chicago: Now you were one helluva lady. A shot and a beer kinda gal who could still dress up and dazzle–in a simpler time, you’d have been called a ‘broad’ and it would have been a compliment. We spent three years together, and I think we could have made a go of it, but then I lost my job, my health became an issue, and I became a burden. It just seemed best to move on–guess it was a mid-life thing, and I had to find myself again.

New York: You know, I had heard about you from friends. Friends who thought we’d be great together. Exciting. Open to anything. We only had two weeks, but what a whirlwind it was (you probably don’t remember, but I actually met you ten years before–at the time you didn’t even notice me, and I left without so much as a goodbye). I think we might give it another try someday. But I’m not ready to commit to you yet. You demand more than I’ve got to give, and let’s be real–you’re used to someone spending a lot of money on you. When I get my shit together, though, I will definitely look you up.

Minneapolis (again):  Why do I always come back to you when the wheels fall off? But here I am. You’re not the most glamorous city–I’ve certainly had wilder nights and more adventurous times, but at this point in life your even temper and Lutheran reserve offer the kind of peace I need. You keep taking me back, even though you know that if something beckons, I’ll might leave you again. But probably not–I’m sure in a few months I’ll be making a hot dish, and we can bundle up like mummies and walk to the Sculpture Garden.

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i should’ve done this in my twenties

A couple years ago, before I settled into my happy domestic groove and was still in vagabond mode, I thought I’d try to move to New York. My third try. Turns out, I think I liked the concept of  becoming a New Yorker more than the reality. Attempt number three happened when I was forty-nine, so I didn’t have quite the energy I had the previous times that New York slapped me down like a damned dog.

I packed up my life in six bags and took a train to New York City. What I’m really saying is, at almost fifty years old, I decided to move to the most expensive city in the country with a bum hip, no job, two weeks of housing at a friend of a friend’s and three hundred dollars. In February. If anyone needs a life coach, I’m available.

Basically, having been evicted, I had to move somewhere, and my (at the time) flawless reasoning was that I might as well go to one of the few places where there’s still a standup comedy ‘scene,’ that having been my career. And as far as finding the inevitable mind-numbing, soul-sucking day job, well, although New York is obviously getting bitch-slapped by the economic meltdown (which New York was partly responsible for), I thought there would still be more job possibilities in New York than in, say, Minneapolis. It’s a numbers game. Yeah, at least for my particular skill set, I was wrong.

But I got there, and I was excited. And terrified. And excited. I mean, when I first wrote about this, I was looking out a new friend’s window down Broadway–freakin’ Broadway! Tempering my enthusiasm wa the realization that I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping nine days later. So there’s that. Forget about mood swings–I was on a freakin’ mood playground.

When I locked the door to my Chicago apartment for the last time, I realized I became officially homeless. That’s weird to wrap your brain around when you always thought you were just ‘bohemian.’ It was almost a badge of pride to live a kind of spartan life. I’m an artist, goddammit! Oh, how I wish I lived in the fourteenth century, so I could have a patron. I could write jokes for the king, and live fabulously. Of course, I’d have to write jokes that only showed the king in a good light, but hey it’s showbiz.

Twenty hours. That’s how long it takes by Amtrak to go from being a Chicagoan (“fuckin’ Cubs!”) to being a New Yorker (“fuckin Mets!”). The first stop of any length along the way is Toledo, Ohio. For forty-five minutes. For no apparent reason. All I was told is ‘it’s built into the schedule.’ So I’m in the Toledo train station at 3:30 in the morning chatting with a fascinating Orthodox Jew whose trip ended in Toledo (I’m sure many Passover seders end with the hopeful prayer ‘next year in Toledo’). Now a train attendant told me we would be leaving at 4:00, so at about 3:45 I start getting ready to say my shaloms to Chaim and I see my train…start to move.

Suddenly I’m in a bad romantic comedy, all slow-motion and muffled yelling, as I try to hobble after my train. Incidentally, on said train were my bags, which contained my phone, wallet and laptop. My entire life,or at least all record of it, was slowly, but inexorably, leaving me behind.  After what seemed like, oh, half an hour, or at least enough time to ponder every bad decision I’d ever made up to that point, the train stopped. Great. Now my imagination has me thinking this was some colossal prank, like when you’re hitchhiking and the car slows down, pulls over and then drives away. Very funny, Amtrak.

Turns out they were moving the train closer to some air hose thing (sorry, I wasn’t really processing things well at that point), and I reunited with my life. Also turns out the attendant was speaking in approximate terms with the whole 4:00 thing, and that the train departs Toledo at 3:50. Really my fault for not saying to her as I got off the train “No, when EXACTLY do we leave, because I want to make sure I don’t end up having to stay in FUCKING TOLEDO!” Apologies to any Toledo residents reading this. I’m sure it’s a lovely city.

When I settled back into my seat, I told a guy I had been chatting up on the train the story, and he said the same thing happened to him  at a stop in Cleveland recently. Which leads me to what I call the Toledo Theory. See, I think so few people choose to go to Toledo, or Cleveland, that the state of Ohio has paid Amtrak to leave a certain number of passengers behind, to help the local economy. I believe most of the residents of Toledo, Ohio were actually going somewhere else, and once they were stranded, basically said “Well…I might as well just stay here.” Granted, it’s not as sexy as black-ops helicopters or Area 51, but it’s my first wacky conspiracy theory, I’m kinda proud of it.

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