Anyone who’s seen City Lights by Charlie Chaplin will remember that heartbreaking final close-up when the Tramp realizes he’ll never be loved. He chews his fingernail, scrunches his eyes and smiles pleadingly/pathetically at the woman he longs for. We’ve been laughing for 80 minutes as he’s endured homelessness, beatings, persecution, all hilarious in wide shots – but see his pain up close and nobody’s laughing. Why? Because Comedy = Tragedy + Distance.
That’s an old showbiz dictum. It’s the reason farces work better on stage than on the big screen: it’s not funny seeing every pore on the newlywed’s face when she realizes that her husband’s secretary is also his lover, but it’s a hoot when you’re up in the nosebleeds. Tragedy + Distance = Comedy.
Nonetheless, for the audience at the Stand-Up Slam Down to have found Jake Mason’s set funny, they’d have to have been watching from no nearer than the moon.
Chalk it up to the fading popularity of impersonators.
No, not “fading”, but faded. Waned. Extinguished.
And not “impersonator”, but impressionist – Jake insists on this distinction. It isn’t that he’s trying to paint himself with the same brush as Monet (Lame Gag = Word + Play), but that in his words, “An impersonator is someone who looks like George Clooney and gets paid to pose for selfies. That’s not an art. That’s not even a skill.”
Whereas an impressionist is what?
An impressionist is a comedian, perhaps even an artist, who combines elastic vocal chords, an operatic diaphragm and a knack for imitative physicality with up-to-the-minute material that draws big laughs.
Except when it doesn’t.
And from what I saw, it usually doesn’t.
Two minutes after the Stand-Up Slam Down ends (winner: Marty Cliff; runner-up: Laura Christie), amateur comic Jake Mason is walking up 2nd Avenue, NYC. His head is bowed, his hands are in his pockets, he’s sidestepping slush with his leaky left boot. Snowflakes are whizzing around like grapeshot.
Jake’s an hour from home, where there’s no food. He asks me if it’s alright to duck into a convenience store. “Just do what you’d normally do,” I tell him for the third or fourth time. The night clerk, a white hipster in his 20s who’ll turn out to sound like Tony Danza, is smoking outside without a coat. He delicately stubs out his cigarette, puts it into his breast pocket and follows us inside.
There are five islands of merchandise and more on the walls: an enormous amount of choice, but few attainable options. Jake’s budget for January is $6.10/day, a figure arrived at by checking his month’s pay, subtracting bills/rent and dividing the remainder by 31. January in New York sucks because you have to survive 31 days when heating costs are highest. California comics don’t have to deal with that, although, as Jake points out, “they do have to deal with LA.”
Tonight Jake has spent five bucks to enter the contest and given a quarter to a bum, a karmic pre-show ritual. And since he can find no new miracle product, no banquet in an 85-cent can, it looks like soup again. He’s reading a can of minestrone when he hears the voice of Marty Cliff, the young man who won tonight’s competition. Marty and Jake were the only two black comics on the bill.
“Jake Mason!” Marty shouts from three feet away. “Great tight five, man. You rocked it!”
Jake’s caught off guard, but he manages to spin his surprise into a William Shatner: stiff, staccato, the soup-free hand jerking with each word like C3P0. “Marty, I’m…flattered…that you would…be…so…flattering…”
He’s botched it. The impression was solid but the words had no substance. Jake’s just not an improviser. But when he’s around other comics, he always tries to be on. You never know: Marty’s only 22, half Jake’s age, and he won tonight’s contest. Maybe one day he gets his own sitcom, then maybe he needs someone to play the wisecracking uncle with a thousand voices. It’s called networking.
“Captain Kirk!” yells Marty. “Incredible, man! I don’t know how you do it. I can’t impersonate anyone. I can just be me.”
“Well, you killed tonight,” says Jake. Then, as Joan Rivers – breathy, raspy, round-lipped, wide-eyed, soup hand on heart like for the Pledge of Allegiance – “Darling, they loved you!”
“Yeah, it was a good crowd.”
“And 100 dollars, that’s very nice.” Borat. The clerk suppresses a smile. He’s watching this interaction pretty closely. 2 Black Men + Convenience Store + (11:30pm in America / Race) = Edgy Night Clerk. (Or maybe he was just curious about me, the silent white dude scribbling in a Moleskine.)
“Yeah, I’m glad for the money,” says Marty. “But that was some stiff competition. Laura was killer, and Rick Sanchez, Tommy Dibbs…you. I’m just lucky the girl turning the applause-o-meter liked me. It’s not the most scientific method.”
“No, it isn’t,” Jake says. “I hate applause-o-meters.” Then he takes a huge breath and comes out with Peter Finch from Network: husky, heavily enunciated, from the depths of the throat. “And I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
Every performer hates applause-o-meters, but they’re pretty accurate. Marty sent the dial spinning tonight; Jake got 5½. Even that was generous. He’d botched his Woody Allen and never recovered.
When Jake was a teenager in Detroit, Woody Allen was the first celebrity he found he could do: rapid, rounded rs from the chin, squeaky emphases, the timbre of a muted trumpet. Tonight he was debuting a brand-new bit. He flung his arms all over the place and went, “Oh hi, I’m Woody Allen and I’m just, I’m so excited to meet you, I’m ecstatic, really I am. And is, oh, is this your daughter? Lovely, what a lovely little girl. When are you two getting married?”
But he screwed up his delivery. He backed too far away from the microphone stand; the punchline was barely audible. He soldiered on for three more minutes, giving his all to marble faces bathed in phone light, battling an unforgiving soundscape of swelling chatter, chair-scraping, drink-ordering, a screeching hinge on the bathroom door. Hell on Earth – but no hecklers at least.
Marty’s phone buzzes during Jake’s Network impression, which he clearly doesn’t recognize anyway. The applause-o-meter girl is looking for him. The comics say their goodbyes, Jake as Drunk Frank Sinatra, Marty as a normal person. On his way out, Marty drops $15 on a pack of smokes without flinching.
Jake puts the soup down and walks the aisles again. He checks out a TV dinner: Salisbury steak. He knows it looks better than it tastes. And it would have to go on his credit card. His left foot is already wet from walking one block. There’s a shopping bag around his sock but the bag must have torn. That’s just one more goddamn thing.
The clerk is still watching him. He returns to the soup.
“59 cents,” he says to me. “The 99-cent can has three times more soup, but I’ve only got 85 cents in my pocket. I’m too broke to save money, see?”
It’s a theme he’ll revisit often over the next three days. He knows it’s better to buy the jumbo bottle of shampoo or the bushel of pasta, but he never has enough money at that moment, so he buys single-serving products and spends more overall. The same with boots: he buys at least two crappy pairs every winter. “It’s just one more way the poor get screwed,” he says. “Being too broke to shop smart.”
He buys the soup. That means he’s banked 26 cents for tomorrow. In that way, he’s ahead.
I spent three days with Jake Mason. The first time we met on the record was at the Stand-Up Slam Down. The last was the incident at Mitzy’s. He spent the intervening day working (cinema, stock team, zero-hour contract) and the evening at home in East Harlem (three young roommates, sixth floor, no elevator, “ideal in winter because heat rises”). Jake is reluctant to move outside the city, figuring that the commute would leave him poorer than he is now. Besides, to leave the city is to be beaten by it. “You don’t conquer Rome by renting an affordable place in Carthage” – one of Jake’s wittiest remarks, geographical inaccuracy notwithstanding.
By walking to work on Monday and skipping lunch, he’s banked enough that his budget for Tuesday is $12.36. He’s requested that day off to go to Mitzy’s. He doesn’t need the whole day off, but he prefers not to work before a night out; his shifts turn his bones into steel bars. Even come Tuesday evening, he’s still stiff from Monday.
Mitzy’s is in Hell’s Kitchen, a two-hour trek via Central Park. Jake puts a high-quality shopping bag in his left boot, and another in the right one just in case. The weather’s turned warmish and there’s slush everywhere.
Not far from Mitzy’s, he stops at a crowded K——. Legal forbids me to mention the name of the supermarket, but it’s one where Jake has learned to outsmart the automated checkouts. You enter your PIN incorrectly, bag your groceries and leave. There are no alarms or flashing lights, just a discreet onscreen message that anyone might miss. (Jake argues that Hunger – Cash = Necessity. “That’s the whole basis of Les Miz, and people eat that shit up.”) When he enters the club, he’s got two shopping bags and a backpack full of “hot food”.
Mitzy’s is a basement joint that’s recently been revived by strangers after a 15-year closure. They’ve renovated severely and it smells like a Home Depot. There are fewer tables than Jake remembers and a green velvet curtain hangs upstage where there was once a traditional brick wall. Jake recalls doing his first George W in front of that wall: “I had a full head of hair then.”
We take a small table near the back, where scouts/agents sit. Jake finds the cheapest beer on the menu: Budweiser at $4.50, a two-drink minimum. That’s fine. He orders a bottle and tips the server 50 cents because “she’s probably got a daily budget, too”. I get a Guinness.
The Tuesday Night Revue at Mitzy’s has been generating good buzz. It advertises “the undefinable, the uncategorizable, the unmissable”. Acts are auditioned (Jake’s here to see if he ought to book an audition, knowing full well that he will) and each comic does 15 minutes, eight performers in all.
First a white woman in a blonde wig and sunglasses performs in character as a Park Avenue housewife. Then a white self-loathing 30-something makes uncomfortable suicide jokes that split the room. A lady in a hijab delivers a monologue, not strictly comedy but warmly received (if this were an applause-o-meter contest, she might have won). A college-aged white guy does his painful best to channel John Oliver but errs on the cringier side of the wit/sanctimony balance, then there’s an intermission. Jake hasn’t laughed once.
It’s standing room only by this time. Jake knows a few people, having been on the scene for years, but he doesn’t have the energy to network, not even to say, “Hey, look, this reporter guy’s doing a profile on me,” which he’d thoroughly enjoyed announcing at the Stand-Up Slam Down and to his roommates.
He orders his second beer and doesn’t tip. He’s spent $9.50 now, leaving $2.86 to bank for tomorrow, or if the weather turns he can take the subway home and still come out 11 cents ahead. His eyes look heavy.
I was probably drawn to Jake’s story because I’ve had some experience with stand-up myself. In college I was into ventriloquism, maybe the one form less popular than impressionism. I toyed with the idea of doing it professionally for about five minutes.
The problem is that stand-up, like any artform, has its movements. When Jake was a kid, it was all tidy jokes and stories: Cosby and Carson. In the ’90s it was observational comedy, post-Carlinian musings on sex and airplanes: “Did you ever notice…?” Then after 9/11 there was a shift toward less trivial subject matter, a Comedy of Naked Truths rooted in serious issues, a sort of mainstream Lenny Bruce resurrection: Chappelle, Rock. (An afterbirth of that movement was shock humor, which uses similar vocabulary but jettisons the social import.) A rising trend today is Comedy of Representation, wherein comedians from marginalized demographics mine their personal experiences to present a specific worldview, e.g., Ali Wong, Josh Blue, Ramy Youssef, Kumail Nanjiani, Hannah Gadsby, Hari Kondabolu, the lady in the hijab at Mitzy’s. (This isn’t to suggest that straight white men have been squeezed out – just look at late night TV – but they’ve suddenly got a lot more material about social justice than Leno ever had.)
Jake Mason is a working-class black man, but he isn’t interested in Comedy of Representation. He’s a damn-the-torpedoes impressionist, a niche that might have earned him stardom no later than the 1980s, when he was 10. He’s also, as I overheard a white audience member comment at the Stand-Up Slam Down, “the last guy you’d expect to see imitating Joan Rivers”.
Toward the end of the intermission at Mitzy’s, I ask Jake whether he thinks there’s anything anachronistic about his act. He doesn’t need me to define the word. “I do some old-school celebrities,” he says, “but I think of them as standards. For an impressionist, doing a Schwarzenegger or a Pacino is like singing ‘Summertime’.”
I follow up with a question I’ve been trying to phrase since we first met: “When you think about your bits, like ‘Jeff Goldblum Orders a Pizza’ or ‘Stephen Hawking Movie Trailer’, what do you think they contribute?”
“Contribute in what way?”
“In any way you like.”
Jake downs the dregs of his Bud. “Laughter?”
I nod silently in case he keeps talking, which he does after a while.
“I’m not sure this place will want me. I might not be a good fit. That’s usually the problem: the fit.”
I wait a while (listening is my superpower), then I ask, “What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t pursuing stand-up?” A silence. “Would you move back to Detroit?”
“No way.” He means it. “I don’t know really. I’ve always thought Boston sounds nice. Nicer than New York anyway. Don’t know what I’d do there, though.”
“Work. Get an office job, build a pension. You could still do all the impersonations you want, but wouldn’t it be liberating to do them just for fun, without this crushing pressure to succeed in some one-in-a-million way?”
Jake peels back the Budweiser label like a man who’s looked absolutely everywhere else for answers. “Nah.”
I’m about to ask what “success” looks like and why it has to be New York, but Jake shushes me as soon as the emcee returns. I’m left to finish the conversation with my notebook, where I jot down a simple formula:
Ambition – Success = x.
Jake doesn’t live in Detroit or Boston, but he doesn’t actually live in New York either. He lives in the fear of x, and he’s made a home there.
The last four comics are more of the same: edgy, self-reflexive, young. There are two more white guys and a Japanese-American who does tiresome paraprosdokians: “Hillary Clinton will always be remembered for breaking the glass ceiling…of her BMW. Brand new sunroof, shattered.” Jake pulps his beer label.
The final act is a Scottish meta-comedian, the type that tells a lame joke then scores real laughs by explaining it, and whose self-deprecating thought process drives the show: “That concludes Joke #1. Sorry.” He’s getting the confused, rolling laughs that he’s shooting for. Jake whispers, “This isn’t stand-up, it’s shitty performance art.”
Half-way into his set, the meta-comedian calls for audience participation. I suspect that Jake is martyred in the name of diversity; the audience is mostly white, and we’re way at the back.
When he realizes the comedian is pointing at him, Jake flushes just like any regular audience member would. The beer has made him dull, not drunk but heavy. He normally meditates as near to showtime as possible.
Not that this is a performance.
But of course, it is.
The comedian shakes Jake’s hand and positions him. This guy doesn’t hold the mike; he leaves it in the stand and paces between jokes so that his stepping up to speak becomes an event. It’s a good technique, one that the largeish stage at Mitzy’s accommodates.
“What’s your name, sir?” asks the meta-comedian.
Jake leans into the mike and says, “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.”
He has correctly gauged the volume of the amplifiers and the mike’s distance from his mouth. From where I’m sitting, the impression is good.
A murmur of surprise grows into a laugh, then applause. The meta-comedian paces a bit, then the audience quiets down when he returns to the microphone. Everyone wants to see how he’ll deal with an upstaging audience member. He sticks to his routine.
“Well, Johnny, I’ve got some plays here that I’ve written. I say I wrote them, I plagiarized them really.” (A small laugh.) “From my own mind.” (A bigger laugh, to Jake’s obvious bemusement.) “Will you help me perform them?”
Jake leans in and does a Woody Allen: “Well, gee, I’m not much of an actor, I’m just…Well, honestly, I can only really play myself.”
The audience goes nuts. They realize now that they’re not just watching a guy with a decent Johnny Cash, they’re watching a real impressionist and he’s good. Jake presses his luck with a Joan Rivers: “Oh! Oh! Can we talk please? Can we talk about meta-comedy?”
Huge laugh. A table of women whistle and the trucker hats who have been eying them join in.
The meta-comedian says, “Can we just do a scene or two first?”
He holds a piece of paper in front of Jake and shows him which part is his. The lines are typed in 11-point font. Jake makes them out by squinting. His glasses are on our table and he wouldn’t have put them on anyway.
The meta-comic delivers the first line in a decent Southern accent: “Gee, old timer, them dogs of yours look tired.”
Jake’s line is, No more tired than your mama last night. That’s all that’s written on the page, the entire scene. It’s stupid and juvenile but Jake is determined to make it work as John Wayne. He finds the spot in the middle of his chest and drawls, “No more tired than your mama last night…pilgrim.”
The meta-comic gives Jake a serious glance, breaking character. Then he turns the page, revealing a sheet that just reads, B: …Dad.
Jake’s character is B; this is the punchline. He delivers it, still as John Wayne, and the audience laughs in little bursts as different tables realize what’s happened, that Jake has spoiled the joke.
“Okay,” says the meta-comedian despondently (which is in character). “Let’s try another one, shall we?”
He shows Jake the next page. Character B is a vampire. Jake doesn’t have a vampire in his repertoire so he squeezes out a Vincent Price. The audience is unmoved by the impression (they’re probably too young to recognize it) and they don’t like the scene either. Strike two.
“Finally,” says the meta-comic, “Johnny and I are going to try some improv…I’m afraid.” (Laugh.) “Normally at this point I ask whether the volunteer has any improv experience, but we’re just going to skip that bit…” (Big laugh, which Jake gamely joins in.) “Now, Johnny, you’ll be playing a lawyer, alright? And I’m your client, charged with murder, but I’m also…your daughter!”
The meta-comic whips a purple shawl out of his back pocket, wraps it around his head in a practiced motion and bats his eyelashes in caricature of a damsel. “Oh, Daddy!” he cries, using the same Southern accent in a higher register. “How can I ever be acquitted of this grizzly murder?”
“Well…” says Jake.
He’s not a confident improviser. When he’s forced into it, he looks for ways to incorporate his written material.
He inhales deeply. “You’re no murderer, Scout. You’ve always known that it’s a sin to kill a man, and an even greater sin…to kill a mockingbird.” To do a Gregory Peck you have to take more air into your lungs than you’ll need. If your voice strains, you’re dead. Jake’s voice does not strain, but there’s no laugh. Someone even coughs, which is the modern equivalent of chucking a tomato.
“Daddy,” says the meta-comic in his girly voice, “did you remember to take your medication before you came out tonight?” This gets the biggest laugh yet.
Even from where I’m sitting, I can see Jake’s mind turning. He may be losing right now, he may be this guy’s patsy, but that can change. Skill + Experience + Ever-Present Desire = The Ability To Persevere, To Win, To Blow This Room Away.
He launches into it without waiting for the laugh to die. As Bill Cosby he says, “I’ve had my medication, doo-n-doo, my Jell-O and Rohypnol special blend.”
Then as Humphrey Bogart: “But in a crazy, mixed-up world like this, all that medication doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.”
Mr. Burns: “Smithers, fetch me my medication at once.”
(The audience is laughing, thank God.)
Bernie Sanders: “And that medication should be free! Why are middle-class Americans paying for medication? Do you think they’re paying in Sweden?”
Bill Clinton: “If anybody’s got any special medication, you know what I mean?” (Doobie fingers.) “Give some to my wife, will ya?”
Donald Trump: “But the Mexican terrorists, they’re coming into our beautiful country to steal our jobs, steal our medication.”
Peter Finch in Network: “And I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
The Scot looks on exasperated as Jake moves the audience to cheers that would send an applause-o-meter into orbit.
In the face of their reaction, the meta-comic abandons his bit. “That concludes the theatre section of the performance. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Johnny Cash!”
He points at Jake and the audience cheers more.
Jake grabs the mike off the stand, making it screech.
“Folks, if you want to hear more, let the folks here at the Mitzy’s know. I’m a professional comic, I’ve got way more impressions than these. I’ve got Christopher Walken, Antonio Banderas, Schwarzenegger, Woody Allen. Just let the new managers know you want to see Jake Mason. My name is Jake Mason and you’ve been fantastic. Good night, New York City!”
It’s the longest I’ve heard him speak in his own voice. The audience claps and laughs throughout.
As Jake steps off the stage, waving like Nixon, he hears the meta-comic: “And that, ladies and gentlemen, was a brand-new piece called Midlife Crisis.”
There’s a tidal laugh, followed by a sympathetic “Aww” from a couple of women. Jake stops waving, tries to keep his face straight.
Between the tables back to ours, not looking at anyone, not even me. There’s his backpack, his groceries. Slippery bags in his boots. Achy legs from yesterday’s shift. Eyes brimming. He can’t leave now.
He picks up his empty bottle and shakes it at the waitress. He’s about to go $2.24 over budget, then $6.74, then $11.24. He doesn’t say a word, so I sit there making notes on the lighting, the Home Depot smell, etc., and I marvel that after three days together, I haven’t heard his Trump impression until tonight. It needs work: it’s too airy, too wispy. But later, as we’re saying our goodbyes in a cold rain, I find myself telling him it was great.
That compliment emboldens him to ask the question that’s probably been on his mind since the Stand-Up Slam Down: “This profile you’re writing…It won’t be a hatchet job, will it?” He gives me a pleading/pathetic smile that reminds me of City Lights, and I spend the taxi ride home drafting my opening paragraph.
David Gerow is a Canadian based in Scotland. The story you’ve just read was shortlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize and received an honourable mention in the 2020 Craft Short Fiction Prize. His other work has appeared in various publications and on stage at Oran Mor, Glasgow. He’s a DFA student at the University of Glasgow.
Links to previous publications:
“The Rattigan Negotiation” https://www.cardiffreview.com/post/2020/04/20/the-rattigan-negotiation/
“A Man Protects His Home” https://www.hobartpulp.com/web_features/a-man-protects-his-home
“Grumble-Duck” https://fromglasgowtosaturn.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/from-glasgow-to-saturn-45-1.pdf (page 68)
“Lights Out” (buying link) https://www.bragwriters.com/product-page/brag-issue-i-where-has-it-gone
Interview about “New Directions in Focus Group Studies” http://malahatreview.ca/interviews/gerow_interview.html
“One Unforgivable Thing”: https://www.openpen.co.uk/tag/david-gerow/
“Taking Possession” http://thedanforthreview.blogspot.com/2017/06/fiction-73-david-gerow.html
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