I’m in Morgantown, WV tonight playing a college gig. During this 11 hour journey I passed a sign that made me think back to my first road real road gig. I don’t count Jackson, TN or Nashville because those gigs were ‘let’s get back in the car and in either 90 min or 3 hours we’ll be home’. I’m talking about The Road.
I started doing stand-up at the old Comedy Zone in Memphis, TN on April 15th 1993. I worked my ass off to move from open mic, to hosting the open mic, to hosting in the main show room. The open mics were held Thursday nights after the main show. What we got was a mix of already drunk patrons, people who wanted to watch us and mean comics who would heckle. After surviving all that, in 1995 I did my first real weekend gig.
How did I get the gig? I’ll tell ya.
I was in the right place at the right time.
The headliner for the Wednesday night “Urban (read black) Night” at the Zone’s car had broken down and he couldn’t pick up the current feature. So the owner (thanks Randy) called the head office and I was in. I had a shitty car I was willing to drive and he was willing to pay for gas. Bookings equal yay! The headliner was and probably still is a great dude. His name was Special K. McCray. He had been is the business a long while and was even getting a break in a huge movie at the time called “Rush”. He played a drug kingpin and was actually both good and scary in the role. In person he’s a great fucking dude. He told me to pick him up at 5 am and we’d be on our way to our destination to Bridgeport, WV.
For those of you who aren’t in a car at least 8 hours a day consider yourselves lucky. It takes training and a different kind of muscle to drive 12 hours and still be ok to do a show. Not training like meditation – it’s more like ‘don’t stop in small towns at night unless you’re dying’. Always stop at Pilots or Loves truck stops if possible. They’re clean, well lit, and if you need to pull over for a quick nap you’re pretty safe.
I was not prepared. I think I stopped eight times in the first four hours to piss, fix my seat, walk around the car, get a drink; basically do whatever it was I needed to do to stay awake.
What should have taken us eleven hours took 13. I’m not a fast driver. I’ve been pulled over enough times for no reason, so my philosophy is ‘why give ‘em a legit one?’
We made it to the gig, which was in the hotel where we were staying – The Plantation Inn.
When we pulled up Special K said, “Aw hell no. These crackers are trippin’!”
He then immediately called the booker to complain and cuss him out. It was at that moment I figured out something was wrong. I quote “how the fuck are you sending us to gig at the Plantation Inn and these crackers got two of the most fucked up lawn jockeys in front of this motherfucking building!”
I looked over to where he’d been looking and yep… two blackface lawn jockeys in all their old school uniforms. Wtf was going on?
After checking in we were pointed to the show room by the redhead working behind the counter. It was a hotel bar gig. Now – I know these well. Then – not so much.
Imagine the scene from 48 Hours where Murphy and Nolte walk into the country bar and everything stops.
Yep… that happened.
The bartender actually came from behind the bar and asked if he could help us.
Special K, not missing a beat goes, “two shots and microphone and make sure our money’s are right.”
The bartender, “oh you guys are the comics, cool. I was wondering what was going on, we never see this many colored guys in here at once. Four more of you people showed up earlier, they sitting down front.”
The fuck did he just say?
Did I just have a stroke??
He said colored. Fuck.
McCray pulled me aside and said to me, “Smile, do our time on stage, and get the fuck out of here before they have me doing real time. Fuck these cracker bastards.”
That night was special for McCray because his episode of Def Jam was airing that same night. I made sure I mentioned that during my set just to help pump him up. I did my time, had a good set, and then I brought up Special K.
He crushed the room. Destroyed so hard he might have made some of those people forget he was a “colored”.
While he’s killing it on stage one of the locals came up to me. “Hey buddy, funny stuff, but is he really going to be on Def Jam tonight?”
“Yes sir”, I said “he’ll be on in about 2 hours.”
“Don’t they do that in New York?”
“Yes sir they do.”
I’ll never forget what the dude said to me next.
“Well shit boy ya’ll ain’t going to make it there in two hours! We don’t have an airport here and New York is at least an eight hour drive! ”
I looked back at him and shook my head.
No, he was serious… “Sir… It was taped already and it airs tonight. We don’t have to go to New York tonight”
He looked confused. “Oh ok, taped. Ok, I gotcha. Well look you were funny son let me buy you a drink. I’ve never bought a colored a drink before.”
Special K got off stage. As he walked towards me, I drank my shot bought by my semi racist friend and we got the fuck to our rooms.
We did one more show the next night and at 8 am on Sunday I dropped him off at the bus station. Then I drove the 13 hours back. I made it home with about 75 bucks left out of the $150 I was paid to do the gig.
I was tired but headed right back to the club to tell everyone this story.