We arrived in the Big Apple -- me, my wife, and my son, the youngest son that is, the one who is either an incipient Gary Cooper kind of man or an averagely non-communicative kind of teenager -- on the morning of Dino and Andy's podcast. People with bursting calendars were meeting up in New York not for money or personal advancement (OK, I alone was possibly advancing myself) but only for that will-o-the-wisp called love. We loved Dino. Dino is hard to describe concisely. If you were to describe him by some of his most vivid traits, he might come across as, in Lionel Barrymore's immortal words, "a warped, frustrated old man." But far from it: he's the very best person in all of show business! Funniest, smartest, and in a sneaky way one of the most decent, most committed to personal and philosophical truth-telling.
No, that's not quite right. Tina Fey is those things.
No -- it's a tie! Dino and Tina tie for Best All Of Those Things. I've loved them both for decades. And this evening presented an unprecedented occasion where the three of us would actually be together, in a shared sort of enterprise. Us, plus 6 or 7 other hilarious no-accounts. You see, Dino had written, with Stephen Colbert, a pilot for a backstage-SNL sitcom back in the late 1990s. The writers, actors, and based-on characters from the pilot script were coming together for a live read at the City Winery, to be replayed later on Dino and Andy's podcast, and that's the four-word phrase that brings us back to the top of the story and out of the weeds of preliminary exposition.
The first stop was a pizzeria where we met Dino, Jeff B. Davis, and Andy Dick's assistant for lunch. Andy Dick's assistant was young, muscular, and frankly not very funny compared to the rest of us except for my teenage son, who compared to the assistant in youth and muscularity but might have been a tad funnier, had he opened his mouth to speak. The talk was freewheeling and mostly avoided the work, or "work," ahead, but it did emerge that Dino had refamiliarized himself with the script only that morning. This was a theme that was to be replayed through the day and night. No one but, it seemed, me had bothered to spend any quality time with the document in question. I was the sole non-comedy guy in the group and was not at ease with the idea of popping up on stage and just being loose.
On reading the script that he hadn't seen for 20-some years, Dino was surprised to see that Louis C.K. had a role, though a small one, in the show. He texted Louis to see if he could come down to the club that night, but the great stand-up replied that he was away and couldn't make it. Talk turned to who could conceivably cover the role, which was that of the warm-up comic for the audience at the live SNL-style broadcast.
"Gilbert Gottfried?" said my wife. We were both big fans of him and indeed religious adherents of his twice-weekly podcast.
"Could Gilbert do the job, stick to the script and all?" said either Dino or Jeff B. Davis.
"Would it matter?" said the other.
Jeff recounted the story of Gilbert doing standup right after the Jonestown massacre, the ultimate tragedy-minus-time standup story, better even than Gilbert's post-9/11 Hugh Hefner roast with the Empire State Building joke. I'll tell you some other time. Then we talked a little about Gilbert's version of the Aristocrats joke, and then the bill came, which Dino swept up.
Our hotel was called the Standard and the view, featuring the Village Voice building with the paper's title looming across from us, giving us entree to the golden days of Andrew Sarris and Stan Mack and Nat Hentoff, was unbelievable. My wife was assigning guest list spots last minute. We had this idea that my performing at an event with Colbert and Fey and the others was somehow, uh, exploitable. We just couldn't think of how to do it, and the music business people we had contacted were for some reason not leaping at the guest offer -- the event, with its podcast and pilot and live-read and celeb dimensions, was a little hard to describe or to understand, I guess. We had a morning news show producer as a possibility. He said he might come but couldn't help my career, and that if he did come he'd like to bring his brother, who was a comedy fan. There was a well-known artist manager -- hey, it might be nice, having a manager! -- who also couldn't come but who could send an assistant around. There were a couple writers from Colbert's Late Show, who were extremely nice people and who clearly wanted to come, but we thought we might come up with someone more powerful to give the tix to. And then there was Frank Santopadre, the comedy writer and co-host of the Gilbert Gottfried podcast, who was on the line with my wife. We really wanted to meet the guy, and now that it looked like we could locate no truly powerful show-business people in Manhattan who were interested in seeing the show, he was in! We were ecstatic.
In the taxi on the way to the club I wrote a fake theme for the pilot on a piece of scratch paper. The show-within-the-show was called SomeTimes Live, or STL, and my song went like this:
It's SomeTimes Live! America's favorite pilot! The show that didn't even last one episode
SomeTimes Live, a comedy-writer backstage comedy, just like...The Dick Van Dyke Show
[During the ellipsis I thought I would look meaningfully at Tina, whose 30 Rock bore some resemblance to Dino's pilot.]
We rounded up the hottest talent we were able
Scott Adsit, because Kevin Dorff was unavailable
[Scott, who was in the line-up, is always linked in my mind with Kevin, who wasn't, because they were in a memorably fine Second City mainstage production together, and also they were similar types, the dry, handsome, deadpan, brainy white-guy figure that Second City generously offers up once every season since 1959.)
Colbert, before anyone knew he was funny
Tina Fey, before she was sitting on giant stacks of money
It's SomeTimes Live! It's funny, it's original, all rumors to the contrary are a crock
No, it's nothing like 30 Rock!
The melody was aimless and ridiculous, and I wasn't sure how to pull off the looking-at-Tina thing, but I felt confident about the stacks of money and I loved "crock" as a dumb word and an inept rhyme choice.
Besides the theme, Dino had asked me to play some of my tunes at the top of the show, and then to sit with the others in a line of stools while the script was read, to offer occasional underscoring or comic interjections, "like Paul Shaffer." He kept saying "like Paul Shaffer."
At the club no one was in the dressing room but Tina. She had on a sweater and jeans and was quietly reading through the script at a table.
"Are you just reading this now?" asked my wife.
"Yeah," she said, then added, "I had my assistant read it earlier in the week just to make sure I wasn't giving anyone a blow-job, or speaking in Spanish."
"Don't worry," my wife said, popping some cheese from the snack tray into her mouth. "You don't have many lines at all. A bunch of guys wrote it."
Tina and I sang through about 2/3rds of the song we were planning to sing, Loretta Lynn's classic "Success." Just by comparison to my own doggerel above:
We used to go out walking hand in hand
You told me all the big things you had planned
It wasn't long 'til all your dreams came true
Success put me in second place with you.
You have no time to love me anymore
Since fame and fortune knocked upon our door
Now I spend all my evenings all alone
Success has made a failure of our home.
Ouch, people! Ouch not just to that payoff, ouch to the "episode/show" non-rhyme in my theme, which bothered me for the whole night, and ouch to my crappy scansion. Loretta's song is beyond reproach in meaning, rhyme quality, and scansion -- to wit, iambic fucking pentameter!
I was looking over my list of possible underscore moments. When Dino came in I showed the list to him and started talking about my ideas.
"Yes, yes," he said patiently. "That's fine. But if you just think of yourself as being like Paul --"
"I don't see myself freely wisecracking with this bunch. I shouldn't actually be here. I might just play the guitar."
"Look," he said, with his shoulders slumping gently inside his mangy, off-the-rack sports coat. Actually Dino doesn't start sentences by declaring "look," but since he operates in a way that tends to clarify things while putting you at ease, "look" seems to set the tone here. "Don't worry about planning things out too much. The point is to have fun. If everyone has fun then it's a good night. Who knows, we might not even read the script. Ha ha." With that he drifted away.
The room started filling with performers. Mike Stoyanov and his old lady were on a couch at a 90-degree angle to me and "Gary Cooper." Stephen Colbert walked in, still in his monkey suit (loudly not off the rack) from the taping of his show, unescorted and smiling. More little trays of cheese were appearing. Copies of "Bossypants," Tina's memoir, were appearing too. Andy Dick had one he wanted her to sign. Gary Cooper had his face deep in a pile of homework on the glass coffee table, and I was killing time on my iphone. Tina came over with hers and we looked at pictures of each other's kids. She had a remarkably cute video of her girls singing "Tonight You Belong To Me," as made famous by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in The Jerk.
Louis C.K. came in, in loose jeans and sexy black-rimmed glasses. Turned out he could jam in the appearance at City Winery after all, between landing in NYC and going home to his kids. "Shit," said Tina, "now I'm not the headliner." Now the dressing room was fairly hopping. The talent, the producers, some wives, the venue people, and no Andy Dick's assistant. Louis and Stephen were standing and chatting casually in the center of the room. I was on the couch fucking around with my phone and thinking, "Don't look at or bother Louis or Stephen," the two people in the room I didn't know. If they hadn't been so famous I certainly would have introduced myself, but past a certain level of fame, it's hopeless. No matter what you say -- and God forbid it would be something as inane as "I love your work" -- it will not distinguish you from someone who is desperate to make a moronic quasi-religious connection with a celebrity. And a dressing room is no place to be uncool.
At this point my wife popped in the room and ran up to the two comics yelling moronically, "Oh my God! Louis C.K. and Stephen Colbert! I love you! Oh my God!" They stopped talking and looked at her until she stopped talking. Then she talked some more, and they muttered something polite, and she moved on. "What a moron my wife is!" I thought, and I vowed freshly to myself to speak to neither of the two men. I went out into the hallway with my guitar and played fiddle tunes for a while facing the wall.
Toward showtime, Dino approached me. I was still messing around on the fretboard, and getting ready to play some songs to open the show. "Don't worry about doing funny songs," he advised me softly. "Do 'That's Where I'm From'."
"I don't think I will," I said. But it was good advice, and appreciated. In the event I played not the lugubrious country song he suggested but "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals," a long involved hard-to-classify shaggy-dog narrative. After my segment, he and Andy came onstage and riffed, and then everyone came out and did the script.
At the end, we walked offstage in single file. This is when I found myself alone in the City Winery stairwell with Louis C.K. He was ahead of me, head down, going down the stairs, and at this point I realized that it was aggressively stupid for someone alone in a stairwell for 20 seconds with Louis C.K. to say nothing at all to Louis C.K. out of some half-baked sort of moral conviction that the famed should not be accosted. So I tapped his shoulder.
"Louis?" I said. It was then that he turned, and I saw his head was not looking down at the next step but buried in his iphone screen. And I understood in an empathetic flash that he was trying to text his girls, those not-fully-formed humans whose lives he was intermittently superintending, whose lives he really ought to have been tending to for the last three hours instead of hobnobbing and kicking up clouds of wonderful hilarity at a downtown wine seller's. What would I say, now that I had interrupted his paternal sacrament? How about --
"I just wanted to say, I...love your work!"
Reader, I said that. He turned back to his phone with a grimace I couldn't see but could achingly feel. "Thanks," he said, arching the "a" in the word up to a cruelly sarcastic pitch. We descended the rest of the stairs in grim silence. Back in the dressing room, Robert Smigel and Jeff B. Davis were talking "Match Game," how odd it was that Brett Somers had a permanent chair on the panel, until you remembered that she was, of all things, Jack Klugman's wife. The room was feeling crowded for the first time all night. My middle son had driven down from college upstate and he was there, David Cromer was there, Brian Stack and Cullen Crawford were there, at least a half-dozen copies of Bossypants were there, producers and writers and hangers-on were there, no cheese was there. A sexed-up doll of a woman at least a generation younger than the rest of us was there: Andy Dick's new assistant! Godspeed to the old one.
"I have to poop so bad," I said to Jeff B. Davis, and that was true, I did have to poop. I had been holding it in at great personal cost for the final hour of the show. Jeff B. Davis laughed at my simple statement, and it reminded me of the easygoing humanity of a lot of people in comedy. On stage, you have to dress up a concept like "I have to poop" in all sorts of imaginative finery (e.g. size of anus, varieties of turd, social awkwardness, our common biological frailty) to earn a laugh and the approval of peers, but backstage or in other forms of real non-perfomative life, a fellow can say he has to poop and a comedian will chuckle, pat you on the back, and say, "Have a poop then, boy." Throughout this night of comedy stars I was thinking about green rooms I had shared with many hundreds of musical non-stars, including this very City Winery dressing room. Non-stars who stare at you coldly upon meeting, who demand a certain sort of bourbon or complain about the cheeses offered, who sit on the couches in weird black eyeliner prattling about old rock stars they've hung out with or old records they feel everyone should have memorized or the stupid old Rolling Stones or whatever. Low, boring people. Many of them don't even play music very well! And yet here are these smart decent comedians, many of them one hundred times higher in the economic firmament than some musician yokel, and they walk into the City Winery without assistants or fuss, study the job quietly, converse amiably, dress simply, issue no imperious demands, and try to text their families at home while some idiot taps them on the shoulder and makes a thoughtless comment on their so-called work. Gee whiz! I love being a music guy, but this night made me think I should have been a comedy guy. Or just really, really successful.