Saturday, April 19, 2008

Boo Radley

I was booed off the stage of the Apollo Wednesday night. Thought I'd get that out there right away, in case some of you don't want to read the 5000-or-so word post that I'm about to write. I'm going to describe the whole thing in (perhaps agonizing) detail. Seriously, this is going to get long.

It was kind of a shock when the day rolled around, because it didn't seem like it would ever actually happen. I auditioned way, way back on December 1--yes, that's over four months ago. At the time I assumed I would be back in Utah in April, and wondered if I'd actually be able to perform. Then, as the day drew closer, I knew I'd still be in the city, but wondered if there would actually be a show on April 16 (it wasn't listed on the schedule on the Apollo's home page, I found discount coupons that were valid only for shows on April 2, 9, and 23, plus I know people who've bought tickets in the past only to show up and learn that the show had been cancelled for that night).

This waiting and uncertainty, combined with my natural tendency to procrastinate, resulted in poor preparation on my part, at least for a while. From the day of the audition, my routine was always in the back of my mind, but I made only token efforts to get ready until I was nearly out of time.

By the end of December, I had three ideas that I thought I could flesh out into three-minute routines. My goal was to prepare all three, perform them for FHE focus groups, and go with whichever routine was funniest. By the end of February, I had a full outline for one routine, a bunch of notes for one of the others, and nothing beyond the one idea for the third. By mid-March, I abandoned the idea of finishing all three routines (because I knew I wouldn't do it) and started focusing on the one I had worked on the most (which I'm pretty sure was the best option of the three anyway).

I finally wrote my first full rough draft during General Conference weekend, but didn't actually have a final draft until last Sunday (and I even made a couple of changes the day of the show). I practiced it a few times on my own Monday and Tuesday to make sure I had it memorized and that it wasn't longer than three minutes, but I was fairly tense and apprehensive when I woke up on Wednesday.

I think most people would agree that I'm a pretty laid-back guy, which is great, except for the rare times I am stressed out, because I don't really know how to deal with it. I didn't go to work that day, and luckily Cousin Rachel also had the day off. We met near her apartment and got some Crown Fried Chicken (excellent), which we ate in Central Park. Rachel gave me a good pep talk (even though a lot of it consisted of telling me about others who bombed at Amateur Night, so it was also like a preemptive consolation talk) which calmed me down a lot. By the time lunch ended Marcus had joined us (Marcus and Rachel are two of literally dozens of people in my ward who live within two blocks of the north edge of the park), and I performed my routine for them.

This was a HUGE help. My nervousness was largely caused by three things: I had never performed it for an audience of any size; part of my routine involved me yelling loudly, and it felt too weird to practice that part at full volume on my own in my apartment, but outside with people watching it felt more natural; and last of all, I was worried that my stuff just wasn't that funny (when I outlined it, I thought it was really good, but when I wrote it all out I was kind of disappointed, although as I memorized it and became more comfortable with it it started growing on me again--but I just wasn't sure). But Rachel and Marcus laughed a lot, and I now felt much more at ease than I had the past few days. Thanks, guys! (Especially you, Cuzz--you're the best!)

I had to be at the theater for sound check by 3:30 (the show started at 7:30). We had to wait around in the green room (just a big open room with a bunch of folding chairs in it; I don't know if they have better dressing rooms for when big stars come to perform) for a while, which gave all of the contestants a chance to get to know Bobby Pass. Because Bobby made sure everyone knew he was there.

I actually remembered Bobby from the audition. He kept trying to cut in line, somehow thinking he was important and awesome because he was there to audition, even though that's why everybody was there. He's a big guy, a near double of the comedian Bruce Bruce, and he actually would've probably done well as a comedian (but he chose to sing). Bobby is definitely one of the most likeable unlikeable people (which is worse than being an unlikeable likeable person) I've ever met. He was constantly talking, alternating between talking about how we was going to win and we were all going to lose, bragging about his ability to perform the Whispers (he sang "Chocolate Girl"), telling the story of how he got a free bus ride from Philly to NYC to do the show and how late he'd be getting back that night, and most unsettlingly, hitting on and saying inappropriate things to every woman in the room, including the mothers of the younger competitors who were there. Not pleasant. The other comedian who performed that night did a pretty good job of keeping him in line and mocking him when he went too far (he was MUCH funnier backstage than onstage, which is too bad).

They finally came and got us for the sound check, which increased my confidence in my ability to make the top four. Several acts seemed imminently booable, including a girl who did a really cheesy (which is appropriate, I guess) rendition of a High School Musical song (although it turned out she was actually in the Young Stars competition, the under-15, boo-free portion of Amateur Night); Charles, who sang Rihanna's "Umbrella" (it started off really bad, but he and the band changed the key, which made a huge difference, but I was still worried for him); my comedian friend, whose name I can't remember (his act consisted of encouraging white people to declare bankruptcy, and how black people are constantly in a recession--again, he was much funnier offstage than on); Lena, a 19-year-old Russian singer who had talent but was super nervous, and I also thought some people might be put off by her affectations (like putting her hand to her ear even though she's not wearing an earpiece; if she auditioned for American Idol Simon would've likely found her annoying); Black Jewelz, who did some kind of rap/angry poetry thing (those acts are never a big hit with the Amateur Night crowd); Monique, who I thought was probably the second-best singer in the group but forgot the words at one point; and, of course, Bobby. He refused to hold the mic close to his mouth, which would've helped him out, but he just wasn't very good.

That left just four acts that I thought were as good as or better than me, and one of those was in the Young Stars competition, so my confidence was growing, especially after getting a few laughs during my sound check. We finished about 5:30, and were told to be back by 7:15 for final instructions and to find out the order we'd be performing in.

It was a beautiful day for walking around Harlem. I wandered the streets, where I saw old men sitting outside playing dominoes for the first time. I bought my first NYC street shishkebab in five years, and moseyed past all of the street vendors (125th Street, where the Apollo is, is almost like a Chinatown extension. It's also where Bill Clinton has his offices--it's a fun area), including the one where I bought my "costume" for my performance (more on that in a bit).

I made my way back to the theater around 7:00, and the butterflies started to return, but not as bad as they had been that morning. The woman (not sure what her title is; producer? talent coordinator?) who had laughed hardest during my audition came in and told us what would happen to the top performers (cash prizes, and the top three come back the following week for the next round of competition!), and then ran through the show's lineup: Young Stars first, then the ten acts in the regular competition. I was 9th. This, I thought, was both bad (it meant that much more waiting, that much more time for my anxiety to take over) and good (it seems like the producers put the acts they feel are best at the end of the show--the final performer was the winner both this week and when I was in the audience about a month ago).

There are three huge plasma screens in the green room, but Amateur Night is not televised, so when we were in there we couldn't see what was happening on the stage, but we could hear it. The show finally started, with house band Ray Chew and the Crew trying to get the crowd pumped up. Then they did the traditional "Apollo Soul Train Dance Off," which is often the most entertaining part of Amateur Night, and the part I was most disappointed at not being able to see. They pull people out of the crowd, usually foreign tourists, and let them make fools of themselves onstage. It's great. I heard that I missed a memorable performance from a big lady in green spandex.

While this was going on, CP Lacey tapped his way into the room. Mr. Lacey is better known as The Executioner, the man responsible for chasing people off the stage when the crowd turns on them, tap dancing all the while. I asked him for a picture, saying I hoped it would be the only time we were near each other that night.

Yes, my t-shirt says "I'm so Harlem." Jessica Allred was the one who alerted me to the shirt's existence and where to find the vendor who sold them. I tucked it in to enhance my already-raging whiteness, plus it accentuated my pot-belly, which I thought would be helpful for my first joke (keep reading). Unfortunately, I let Lacey wear my hat for this photo, and then he wouldn't give it back. Just kidding.

After the dance contest, it was time for the Young Stars competition, hosted by none other than Ronald McDonald. Having him out there, especially speaking with a New York accent, is pretty creepy, although I never had a problem with him when I was a kid. The one girl sang even worse than she did in sound check, although I couldn't see how her cheesy dance moves went. The other girl won with a decent rendition of an Alicia Keys song.

Out next was our host, a comedian named Drew Frasier, who did a short-but-not-short-enough monologue. Most of it was the same one he used a month ago, although a new bit about causes of death among black peoples' dogs was pretty funny. However, it came in relation to a strange comment about how two years ago, people were worried about mad cow disease, and last year the big scare was bird flu. Does this guy ever update his act? Overall, though, I thought he was much funnier than the last time I heard him (both in his monologue and in his comments in between acts), although I don't think any of my friends in attendance found him amusing at all.

The first one out was Clarissa, who sang a gospel song called "His Eye is on the Sparrow." In sound check, I heard the first line as "Jesus is my Porsche," but I later found out it's "portion." Makes more sense. I've seen people get booed when singing about Jesus, but I think a song about the Lord will buy you at least an extra 30 seconds of stage time than a generic pop song before people feel comfortable heckling. Clarissa didn't need it though, she was really good.

Up next was Nasty, a beatboxer from the Czech Republic. The crowd loved him, and rightfully so. He told me he ran out of saliva at the end of his performance, so he didn't get to end his routine the way he wanted to, but the audience didn't care. They cheered him throughout.

Charles was up next. He sounded pretty good, but eventually we started hearing boos over the greenroom speaker. Eventually the boos were joined by the sound of a siren, and the Executioner had his first victim of the evening. Chuck came back downstairs, obviously disappointed but not bitter (he was a super-nice guy). I sniggered as I saw Lacey walk into the room wearing a Cub Scout uniform (he's dressed in a different costume every time he dances out onto the stage), but stopped as soon as I saw the angry look on his face.

"That wasn't cool man," he said to Charles, who quickly tried to apologize. (Apparently, when the Executioner came out on stage, Charles aimed a mock martial arts kick at him which had accidentally grazed him.)

Lacey started walking away before quickly spinning around, with a big smile on his face.

"I'm just kidding, man," he said. "It's all part of the show." He then advised Charles that at the Apollo, it generally doesn't go well "when guys do girl songs or girls do guy songs." That's been true from what I've seen and heard at previous Amateur Nights.

After Charles came the Apollo Legends video tribute segment. Obviously noticing the large LDS contingent in the audience, they featured Gladys Knight and the Pips. GK and the P won Amateur Night an astounding five times early in their career.

When I say large LDS contingent, I mean large. I made sure my performance was mentioned in the ward e-mail the last few weeks, but the fantastic Becca Shim went one step further and organized a way for people to get tickets together as a group. I had about 50 fans sitting together in the lower balcony level plus five to ten more scattered throughout the audience. I was and still am very surprised and flattered at the massive amount of support I received from my friends.

Lina was up next, and she made it through her song without getting booed off. The other comedian was up next but not so fortunate, despite Drew urging the audience to give the comedians a chance to get going before they judged them (he lasted about 20-30 seconds before they started letting him have it). He didn't even return to the green room. I guess he just left.

My man Bobby hit the stage next, but the crowd wasn't having it. It seemed they had gotten into a booing mindset, like when the Springfieldians are stealing their lemon tree back from Shelbyville and Homer tosses a steak to distract the junkyard dog chasing Bart, but the dog gulps it down and continues the pursuit. "Faster, son," Homer calls, "he's got a taste for meat now!" Yeah, that's how the crowd was, and it had me a little worried.

Bobby lasted probably about two minutes before getting the boot. He came back down obviously angry, cussing up a storm, which at least distracted him from hearing the insults Drew dished out after he left the stage. Monique made it through her Chaka Khan song without forgetting the words or drawing the crowd's ire. Then there was intermission.

The intermission seemed so long. There were only three acts left; Sharmain was super nervous, which was making me more nervous. Black Jewelz didn't say a word to anybody the entire night, so I don't know how he was feeling.

They finally brought us all up to the stage area. Jewelz didn't rub the Tree of Hope (the tree stump every performer rubs for luck as they walk onto the stage) for some religious reason, he said, which didn't sit well with the crowd. And neither did his passionate semi-rap about how finding Jesus turned him away from a life of crime and drug abuse. He didn't get to finish.

I was then pulled in to the area just offstage, where some of the stage hands were muttering, "I don't know what religion that is." I barely had enough time to grab the microphone handed to me before I heard Drew Frasier say my name.

I walked on to the stage, gave the Tree a vigorous "Wax on," then looked up at the crowd. The lights were so much brighter than they had been during sound check, and it kind of threw me off. I received a number of positive comments on my shirt from my fellow performers and some Apollo employees, but I doubt that many in the audience could actually read it. Darn. I wasn't scared, just excited, and I didn't freeze, but I made a couple of mistakes right off the bat. First, I probably waited at least a second or two longer for the noise to die down before I got started (the crowd gave me polite applause as I emerged, and my cheering section was probably more vociferous).

Then I gave my first line, "I know what you're all thinking," but instead of following it up with "but NO, I am not the pregnant man you saw on Oprah," which always gets a good laugh, I inexplicably ad libbed something about how they were all probably waiting to boo me off just like they had done to the rest of the male performers. I was practically inviting them to boo me, and some people did. (Unfortunately, I don't think any were saying "Boo-urns.")

Realizing I had made a potentially fatal mistake, I immediately launched into my routine, but it was too late. As soon as my friends heard the first boos, they started cheering like crazy in an attempt to save me. This seemed to motivate the booers to increase their volume, and soon there were two competing waves of sound with me trying to shout jokes about the subway over them. I got about halfway through my routine before my friends were overpowered, and the siren went off. I gave the classic Mountain West ref pose (arms spread in a "What happened?" fashion), gave a wave to the crowd and walked off stage. I didn't notice what Lacey's costume was when he came to collect me; if anyone saw, please let me know.

I'm pretty sure I would've been booed off anyway, but those first few seconds sealed the deal. Apollo crowds are notoriously vocal, but some are more harsh than others, and this seemed to be one of them. Also, comedians rarely fare well; the crowd generally prefers singers, rappers and dancers (I was surprised we didn't have any dancers in our group). It also certainly seems they prefer women to men (or at least feel worse about booing women)--five out of six guys were booed off, but all four women made it through. Race may be a factor for some people, but I don't think it's the case generally; the crowd always loves the white people in the dance contest, and I was the only one to be booed off out of three white performers. If anything, I think my skin color may have helped me, but I guess there were too many factors working against me that night.

I have to say, there's nothing that can really prepare you for being booed. I've had plenty of jokes fall flat in shows and conversations, performed in front of unresponsive crowds, been turned down for dates and jobs spots on basketball teams, but I had never experienced anything with that level of hostility before. It's not a pleasant feeling. Realizing that it's "part of the show" makes it easier to get over, but I'd prefer to never have it happen again. Maybe this will help me be nicer to people.

Sharmain went next and sang "I'm Goin' Down." She nailed it, and deservedly won first prize. You can see clips of the other finalists I hoped to compete against here. As far as I know, there is no video of me performing on the Apollo stage. Sad.

Once I heard the results, I made my way out the back door and walked around the block to greet my public. A few people I didn't know told me I did a good job as I passed, which was nice. My friends were great; I started feeling better as soon as I saw them.

Yes, this is generally how it goes at formal or informal church outings here: a big group of good-looking women, and me and maybe one other guy. One of my top reasons for wanting to stay out here.

Becca lives just a few blocks from the theater, and had also arranged for people to pay a few extra bucks when they got their tickets so we could all gather for soul food on the roof of her building after the show. Did I mention she's fantastic?

Not surprisingly, everyone wanted to hear what they had missed, and I was happy to oblige. Yes, I know that cup isn't plugged in, but I need a crutch when I perform.

And I got quite a few laughs! I was vindicated! Take that, Apollo! Take that, Executioner! Take that, Drew Frasier! Most of all, take that, boo birds! I'm awesome.

False bravado aside, I will readily admit that I wish things had ended differently than they did, that I was returning this week to defend my title, and above all that I hadn't been booed. But if you've read this far, hopefully I've made it clear that the process was enjoyable and incredibly memorable. I'm really glad I did it.

It seems this blog has fulfilled the measure of its creation. I plan on continuing to write, but I may have to come up with a new name. If you're still reading at this point (only about 3800 words instead of 5000--I'm always looking out for you), feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Thank you Apollo! Good night!


SusieandThan said...

What an awesome expereience, Jeff! You are truly amazing! I hope we get to see you perform one of these days.

Andrew said...

Your story almost makes me want to develop my seriously under-developed sense of humor and voyage to the Apollo. Great job, even if Lacey chased you away!

shabba shabba said...

My take: your getting booed off the stage at the Apollo will simply go down as one of those "Michael Jordan got cut from the high school basketball team" stories, long after you have your own sitcom called "Jeff," or, hopefully, maybe something more creative. Nice work overall. I wish I were still funny, and that even if I were, that I had enough guts to go on stage the same night as people named Nasty and Black Jewelz.

Dave said...


I think it is awesome that you were even able to perform at the Apollo. I wish I had won the lottery so I could have been there to see it.

Now I just need a shirt like the one you performed in... you have got style my friend.

jeff said...

I'm disappointed I left a joke out of my post about a devoted Mormon fan base not being enough to save a mediocre comedian, a la Adam Carolla on "Dancing With the Stars." Oh well, maybe next time.

SS, I think this will be more like one of those "Michael Jordan thought he could play baseball" stories. But I'd love to follow in the footsteps of Emeril, Seinfeld, Tony Danza (happy birthday, Tony!) and others who were too dumb to play sitcom characters without using their real names.

Andrew, David, if either of you ever perform at the Apollo, I will totally come. And make posters.

Wiwi Kalawi said...

You should put this on your resume.

CJ said...

The maddest of props for having the talent and--let's just say "guts" (for etiquette's sake)--to do this. What a fantastic memory it'll always be. I thought you had idol potential when I saw the 300 WWF videotapes on your shelf at The Brittany, but this cements it.

Payazaro said...

Great post, thanks for sharing! You probably don't remember this, but if you do, what was the age range and demographics of the audience that night, and typically, most nights?