But having a college student as your muse can sometimes lead you into making a fool of yourself—that was always the danger. And I had the kind of reckless energy that compelled me to take those kinds of risks, always pushing my luck in an attempt to improve audience reaction. So when I got my next brainstorm I rushed it into production without considering any negative consequences
it might cause. First thing I did was call my friend Bryant Alvarez to tell him what I was going to do. Bryant is an attorney whom I met while working at a real estate office in Newton, Massachusetts, when I was in law school.
“Don’t do it, Bill!” he said.
“Why not? I think I’d enjoy trying stand-up.”
“But what if you bomb?”
“I’m not afraid of that.”
“But for the rest of your career you’ll have an inferiority complex. You might not be able to speak in public anymore.”
“I already have an inferiority complex,” I said, “and I do fine speaking to audiences.”
“Trust me, I’m working on some good jokes.”
Bryant thought for a minute, and then he offered his final argument: “I speak to groups all the time. They’re elderly people who want estate planning advice. My method is simple: I just keep talking until I say something funny. I don’t even plan it in advance; an idea just pops into my head while I’m talking, and I say it and people laugh. But I would never try stand-up. It’s too risky.”
When I got off the phone I told myself to ignore his advice. Bryant was smart, but he wasn’t me. I knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do. I bought a portable tape recorder, and whenever something funny occurred to me I would ad-lib into it. Then I transcribed these monologues and worked on making them shorter and punchier. At this time, in 1998, I also started visiting comedy clubs in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge. While doing this I met Chance Langton, one of the most hilarious professional comedians I had ever seen. Chance used a lot of one-liners, and he had one specific joke that I loved above all his others. After he did his set, he would pause briefly, smile at the audience, and then say: “Are there any requests for any of the jokes I already told?” He usually killed them at the Comedy Studio, which was located over a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square. Chance and I became friends, and he also became my mentor. I even took a class with him on comedy technique. Naturally, I also ran my jokes by Cathy.
In the summer of 1999 I had mailed a video on spec to an MTV producer, and although he didn’t use it he suggested that I submit a few interstitials—short promos for the network—to their sister channel MTV2. I invited Cathy to act in one of these film projects, and during a break in shooting I tried one of my jokes on her. We were in the kitchen of the house that I had rented for the shoot, and I told her a silly story about how I used to get disciplined as a kid, put in the corner, spanked, and sent to bed early.
Cathy cracked up.
“You think it’s funny?” I asked.
“’Cause I know exactly what that’s like.”
“Are you serious?”
“My father was a strict disciplinarian.”
I think Cathy’s strict upbringing and closeness with her dad had a major impact on her personality. Although she possessed a rebellious streak, she also had a pronounced tendency to act extremely compliant around men who had authority. For example, when I directed her in the MTV shoot or in class she slipped into an almost automaton-like state. She once told me, “I’d like to find a man who could tell me what to do, and I’d do it. But I’m afraid of that side of myself.” In some ways she had a Jekyll and Hyde personality: when she wasn’t being rebellious and bossy, she treated me like a father figure and respected my ideas and instructions. I respected her opinions too, so after she gave me this positive feedback on my joke I decided to lead off with it in the stand-up routine that I was developing. I planned to do my first performance in downtown Boston at an open mic night hosted by a local comedian. I set up my camcorder in the back of the room to record my show, and I sat waiting my turn. I had decided to use a new stage name for the set: Jack Hackensack. Folks, I was stunned because when I was announced people started laughing even before I walked up to the microphone. It turns out that they thought my name was funny, and let me tell you, it’s a wonderful thing for a performer when an audience has a positive feeling about you before you even open your mouth. I was nervous, but I had spoken before so many audiences that I thought I might have an aptitude for doing live comedy. Unfortunately, I learned that my ability as a lecturer on the subject of kissing didn’t exactly translate to the comedy arena.
That first stand-up experience got me a decent amount of laughs, but I felt naked on the stage. The problem was that I didn’t have my kissing demonstrators up there with me. I even included a few jokes about kissing, but again I felt they would have worked better with the couples present. All the focus was on me at the comedy club, and even though I had rehearsed my material thoroughly and didn’t forget any of my jokes, I didn’t feel comfortable with the setup. In fact, when I compared myself with other young comedians who tried out their material at these open mics, I could see that they looked relaxed whereas I felt too nervous to enjoy it. Still, I pushed myself to perform seven or eight times in Boston, Cambridge, and New York. Ironically, about twenty years later Cathy started doing stand-up too—and she got more laughs than I did.
Now here’s where stand-up harmed my speaking career. While researching material to add to my performance, I studied the work of successful comedians, including Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Andrew Dice Clay. Clay had a technique of dealing with hecklers that I thought I could incorporate into my kissing show in the event that I encountered troublesome audience members. Most college crowds were friendly and polite, and up to that point I hadn’t encountered any hecklers, but I wanted to be prepared just in case. His technique, which is used by many professional comedians, is to call the heckler an asshole. There are actually two common put-downs that the pros use: one is to insinuate that the heckler is a drunk or so intoxicated that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and the other is to call him an asshole in hopes that he’ll shut up.
Shortly after I started dabbling in the world of standup, I was booked to do a gig at a school that had a reputation for late-night parties, especially on weekends. My show was scheduled for Friday night, and when I started speaking, I immediately realized that this was a terrible crowd. Although the room was overflowing with about four hundred students, I couldn’t hear myself talking because they were so noisy and disruptive. I figured I had to shut them down, and fast. The room had a balcony, and it too was filled to capacity with students. One girl yelled out some nonsense, and I looked up at her and used Clay’s line.
“I think you’re an asshole.”
The room instantly became quiet.
“And by the end of the evening everyone here is going to think you’re an asshole.”
This shut the girl up, and she promptly left. So, in that sense, wouldn’t you say I did the right thing?
Oh, noooooooo! Not by a long shot.
When I got home I received an angry call from Kevin.
“You’re in trouble,” he said. “The school wants its money back. You called one of the students an asshole.”
“I know, but they were a bunch of drunks. I mean, you literally could not hear me talking even though I had a microphone. And I was worried for my demonstrators, the kids who had rehearsed for an hour. They weren’t being treated right either.”
“But you can’t use that kind of language.”
“Why not? I got the idea from Andrew Dice Clay. He’s very big and he uses it.”
“But he’s a professional comedian working in nightclubs. He’s not beholden to a college that paid him to speak to students.”
Kissing USA by William Cane is available today everywhere books and ebooks are sold. Or, even better, support your local independent bookstore and place your order through them!