Monday, September 29, 2008

Last Call at the Comedy Warehouse

The official last call was Saturday Night, September 27, 2008. But I had to work that night. And my final farewell was clogged by a surprise; for the first time in years, there was overflow crowds at the Comedy Warehouse.

For those of you in other parts of the country, let me explain. Disney built a huge nightclub complex called Pleasure Island, next to what they call the Disney Marketplace, a big outdoor mall. For years it was a great place to go. It had a fixed ticket admission price, and had several clubs for such varied pursuits as country dancing, disco, 70's and 80's dance music and teenage rock. It also had two comedy clubs. The Adventurers Club was a free-form club with various Indiana Jones-era adventurers (most of them braggards) talking about their experiences. You walked around the club and chatted with them, and attended shows where they told their tall tales. Others have talked at length about it; I won't, because my favorite club was the Comedy Warehouse.

I came upon Pleasure Island about eight years ago, when I got out of Disney on a rare day off. I found this place, and went in, and discovered this little comedy place. Turns out it was designed for Disney by a local theatrical school/club, Sak Comedy Lab. Nineteen years ago, when Pleasure Island was built, it presented scripted shows all evening. Problem with scripted comedy was that people wouldn't come back to see it again. When the audiences fell off, they got the smart idea to have improvisational comedy.

I fell in love with the entertainment Comedy Warehouse presented. As someone who works an overnight shift, there's little to do late at night in most clubs in the middle of the week except get drunk, be cheated by hookers or see movies you'd rather not see. But here, you could participate in creating comedy. Well, you came up with ideas if you could, and the actors would turn it into comedy. Too many people, when asked for locations, say "bathroom." The point is, the cast would create surprisingly good comedy on the spot.

What encouraged me was the attitude of the performers. It isn't easy to do this stuff, night after night, and stay fresh. An improv actor depends upon the audience, and audiences are sometimes in crappy and unresponsive moods. The weeks after September 11, 2001 were particularly grim. A club that held 300 people barely got thirty at some shows in those weeks. But they kept doing their best, despite cold audiences and drunken louts and nights when their creativity failed, when they had to rely on canned jokes and technique instead of inspiration.

That determination to commit to the job was the most inspirational thing I have ever seen in real life. I could only reward them by being nice to them in person (I was, frankly, intimidated if not outright scared of them, and could barely talk to them after shows). Oh...and when I found out a handicapped lady made Christmas wreaths for the actors, out of coat hangers and green plastic trash bags and ornaments, I determined to given them, the tech crew and the servers a present every Christmas.

One year it was a set of restaurant silverware, purchased wholesale, but wrapped up in real cloth napkin. "Even if you have to eat Disney food, you can at least pretend it's real," my attached note said. Another year, I gave them all little LED keychain flashlights, so they could find their way back to their cars when the show was over at one AM. I found out that cookies were a bad idea; although I'm an excellent baker, making actors fat is not a good idea. But they loved the many little stuffed animals I gave another year. (I had so many that on a Valentine's Day I suprised the wait staff with the leftover stuffed bears and kitties and bunnies.)

That gratitude was not sucking up. It was in appreciation for bringing comedy, music and joy into my largely empty life. And as it turns out, it was my thanks for their spirit expanding my life. In the time after I first went to Comedy Warehouse, I connected with Michelle and Martin, wrote for TOON Magazine, and helped create this blog and podcast. Most recently, I've been acting in online radio drama. I'll talk about that when my first full performance is released in October. But let's just say, the actors of Comedy Warehouse made me into an actor. God help the profession.

The last night, I gave my last gift to the performers. It was a mix CD of various comedy music artists I met and loved (another thing CW inspired in me was a respect and desire to help these performers). I always thought that if I had won the Florida Lotto, I would have brought Luke Ski, Carrie Dahlby, and maybe Tom Smith down to entertain the CW actors and crew at their private Christmas party. This was the closest I could come to that - and I included Jonathan Coulton and Sudden Death in the virtual concert.

I was sad and outraged that Disney closed this unique entertainment venue to replace it with a bunch of crappy overpriced mall restaurants, and a tethered-to-a-steel-cable ballon ride that lets you see ALL of Disney's shopping malls from high in the air. What a thrill that's going to be (ahem). But my outrage has ebbed. I enjoyed years of great comedy and gained confidence and joy from these people. That's more than some people get in a lifetime.

And they have worked the nastiest gig any performer could ask. They had to be (1) funny, (2) for an audience of drunks, (3) and keep to Disney standards. They walked that tightrope every night. And they never seriously fell. I'm sure they will do great work wherever they go. And I'm sure most of them will go. Disney will never have anything this good, Universal's CityWalk is just a collection of crappy restaurants like Disney wants to build, and there is no real theater community in this town that can provide a living wage.

So I bid farewell to the performers. You guys were great. You guys will be great again. In a very real sense, may I offer a toast from Douglas Adams: so long, and thanks for all the fish. That was the salute the dolphins gave to the human race just before the evil Vogons destroyed Earth. And that's the toast I give to the slick-as-dolphin performers as they escape the Disney-engineered collapse of their attempt to entertain adults. From now on Disney will only be cadging money from children, or more properly from children's parents. Good luck with that, guys.