The world is divided into haves and have-nots: those who have a sense of humor and those who do not. At the San Francisco tryouts for "Last Comic Standing," everyone was a comedian. It was like Woodstock with rubber chickens.
We arrived early, as in the night before. The line pressed against the wall like Silly Putty. One guy was imitating ET at a strip club, pointing with his long, bony finger: "Ho'."
Yes, it was going to be a long night.
Gretchen Macchiarella, whose name requires support beams, would be my partner in crime. Her mission: videotape people eating, snoring, talking to themselves, etc.
To round out the homeless experience, I had no shaving cream or roll-on. Airport security had seized them as part of Operation Toiletry Sweep. Maybe the terrorists have achieve their goal after all: Everyone smells like them.
Another traveler didn't respond so well to losing his Right Guard. He steamed from the eyeballs until a policeman said, "Sir, you'll have to take it up with your congressman."
My wife used to end conversations that way.
For the record, San Francisco has its own brand of cold. It's like the ocean is breathing on your nipples. I brought three changes of clothes and wore them all at the same time.
Gretchen and I befriended our line mates. I had performed with one -- Shawn Felipe -- the week before. It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it. HEY-oh! Stephen Wright out of the gate.
A lesbian couple, Laurie and Justin-not-Justine, would sleep in shifts so that no one stole their iPhone or messed with their mullets (mullet clipping has reached epidemic highs).
Justin asked, "What do comics do when they get depressed? Call in serious?" Then she rolled over without waiting for a reaction.
Jason and David, celibate not by choice, had just stepped off The Starship Enterprise. Jason hunched over in apology for his tallness, while David was more well-rounded -- able to sleep in a perfect ball.
The two debated the meaning of wit and united only in their hatred of Dane Cook. I didn't point out how Dane Cook had performed for 18,000 people in the round. These guys carried phaser guns.
Now and then a trolley glided by -- ding ding -- and we'd all finish the jingle: "Rrrice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat!"
A comedian whom I will call Brian, because that is his name, popped an unlabeled pill. "I'm not going to lie to ya," he said. "I like the way they make me feel."
"So you never do a show while sober?"
"No, man. I'm a professional."
Twenty-four-year-old Travis Brown had flown in from Columbus, and boy were his arms tired. HEY-oh! Travis approached the contest as one might "Survivor," willing to cannibalize our bodies if necessary.
Ding ding. "Rrrice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat!"
Playtime petered out until all you could hear was the foghorn. I read cartoons beneath a Heineken nightlight, which changed the pages from red to green to yellow. The tricky part was keeping my bones off the pavement.
"Don't think of it as pavement," said Gretchen. "Think of it as the world's firmest mattress."
At midnight they locked the Andy Gumps, and did anyone else know about the potty curfew? I didn't complain but used a half-empty bottle of Pabst. Excuse me: It was a half-full bottle of Pabst, and according to connoisseurs, you could shelve it with urine and no one would tell the difference.
I'm not sure what the ladies did. They would need at least a Mickey's Big Mouth.
Earlier in the week, "Last Comic" held auditions in Tempe, Arizona, where the men's bathroom had flooded with comedian discharge (40% alcohol by volume). I have it on good authority that the toilet actually devoured a local ventriloquist. The last thing he heard was, "Feeeeed me, Seymooour."
Gretchen sat up with crooked Charlie Brown lips. "My abs are sore from shivering." From a woman with warmers in her socks. Cry me an icicle.
At some point you give up on sleep and listen for the birds, some sign that it's over. Just as I nodded off, a voice said, "Wake up, afro head. They're here."
The line had doubled in size with comics who had slept on orthopedic mattresses and had showered with soap and everything. One guy showed up in a suit. The whole reason I started comedy was to avoid wearing suits. So it goes.
Turns out that we did not, technically speaking, have to stay the night. We could have left a placeholder like, say, an empty tent. David took a Vulcan head count and reported to his Handycam: "Twenty line cutters, just as I suspected."
I didn't care. My goal was to be the last comic sleeping.
Camera crews probed us with boom mikes, calling for "more energy, more energy!" I myself was not used to being vertical at that hour.
Gretchen defrosted over green tea while I filled out paperwork, eyes closed. And a mere two hours later, Jason Love, comedian # 68, appeared with camper's beard before an NBC production assistant. I couldn't remember my name, my material, or whether my ears had always been purple.
"What is your objective in trying out for 'Last Comic Standing'?"
"It's just a step, sir, in my larger campaign to swallow the universe."
The PA didn't laugh. He had started the day chirpy enough but had long since reached his Comedy Threshold. The PA ushered us into the annex in teams of eight -- 24 comedians per room. It was like performing at a bus stop.
"All right, Jason, give me your best 30 seconds. Go!"
At that moment, half asleep and stressed for time, I abandoned my set and tried some one-liners: "How come there are signs that read no shoplifting? Are there places where it's okay?" "What do you call tights that are too big for you?" "Does the remote control go inside the dinner knife or outside the soup spoon?"
"Thank you. Next."
And that was that. Don't call us; we'll call you. Fourteen hours in the gutter. Literally. I wasn't sad; I was numb. I had that calm feeling you get after you drop a knife on your foot but before the pain sets in.
A hippie comic tried everything -- punching the table, talking to God, singing falsetto. "Thank you. Next."
A man in pink promised to donate all proceeds to charity. "Thank you. Next!"
The PA ushered us out; who loves ya, babe; and so forth. I hobbled away with that feeling you get when you play shortstop without a cup. The Trekkies blamed it all on Dane Cook. Justin-not-Justine consoled herself with a Marlboro.
That afternoon I took two showers: one for the gutter stank and one for NBC. If you're into camping by the dumpsters and maybe scoring recreational Vicadin, I recommend "Last Comic Standing." But if you want to perform comedy for a national TV audience, you may have to take it up with your congressman.
Find video of this ordeal at Studio805.tv.