Sunday, May 5, 2013

Zach Galifianakis and Me: A Memoir

Here's something you'll never see in Braille: "If you see something, say something."

Zach Galifianakis, Saturday Night Live, May 4, 2013


In 1998, I began playing covers and newly written original songs each Monday evening at an open mike in Santa Monica, CA at a wonderful venue on Pier St. called simply 'Creativity.' The venue had an enormous stage and seating for about 50-75 audience members. I was an amateur on the pop music scene and had only recently begun writing my own songs, so the Monday open mike was a chance to play before other musicians and stand-up comedians, all of us trying to break in to our respective entertainment fields and all searching for that key to unlock entry to the entertainment world.

The venue Creativity seemed tailor-made for my efforts, as its proprietor kept the Open Mike strictly acoustic. (Although this occurred during the hey-day of the "Unplugged" fad that swept alternative rock, I suspect the devotion to acoustic had as much to do with the proprietor not wishing to pay ASCAP and other fees.) The stand-up comedians at the time were practicing a new form of comedy called 'Alternative Comedy" or "Alternative Standup". Rather than recite a pre-canned and memorized routine, the stand-up comedians would stand on the stage holding little notebooks or pieces of paper with their observations of funny things that had happened to them just that day or that week.

One night, a mild-mannered and diminutive figure took the stage. Short and a little overweight, he seemed to pause briefly as he squinted at the tiny notebook he held in his hands. I no longer remember what he said next. But Zach Galifianakis proceeded to set the room on fire in the next 5 minutes. Keep in mind that this was a room half-full of professional stand-up comedians and, still, it is fair to say, Zach had the entire room convulsing in the type of hysterical, transformative laughter one associates with a Jack Benny or Robin Williams. I mean, everyone in the audience is laughing non-stop and I am laughing so hard my sides hurt.

Zach did not show up every Monday night. In fact, among the performers at Creativity, Zach was probably one of the more irregular of performers. (No doubt, his professional career in show-biz was already beginning to take root.) But every time he came, the room hushed in anticipation of his latest observations. Each time, the room would be reduced to that same level of existential laughter I witnessed on his first performace. And all this from a tiny little spiral notebook filled with mundane observations.

The venue Creativity eventually folded, unable to pay the sky-high Santa Monica rents from the meager offerings of its entertainiment and the poverty of its clientele. Many of the comedians subsequently relocated to a new open mike at the Gypsy Cafe, a restaurant in Westwood, CA, just down the street from the UCLA campus. This was a comedy-only open mike and no musicians were ever featured there. But I had made so many friends among the comedians at Creativity that it was only natural that I would migrate there to see the comedy open mike.

I saw many of my favorites at the Gypsy each week. There was the very funny and profane Arthur Montmorency, who went on to write for That 70s Show. (I heard later on the grapevine that Arthur died of a drug overdose, a victim of his own success perhaps.) There was Maria Bamford, who has gone on to enjoy success of her own. There were so many other hilarious comics whose names and routines have now escaped me over these past 15 years. And there was the positively Dickensian Lean Gene, a hugely obese man who was unable to ever elicit a single genuine unforced laugh from the audience, partly because he was so grotesque but mainly because he was so desperately unfuuny and so pathetic in his desperation to be loved by the audience and failure to understand how unfunny he really was. (I heard on the same grapevine that Lean Gene died of a massive coronary, brought on by his morbid obesity. But maybe also by a broken heart that none of us knew existed?) Every once in awhile these days, I will see a name in the media and will say to Alma, my wife, "Hey, I knew so and so back at the Gypsy or Creativity." For the most part, though, the names and acts of these stand-up comedians have faded into obscurity.

About this same time, I had pushed my songwriting and performing career in its natural trajectory for a singer-songwriter, as I styled myself at the time. I had entered the studio of one of my associates from the open mike circuit and begun recording some of my songs. Before I knew it, I had 15-20 songs recorded in the studio and so, the next logical step was, make my own CD. Audio CDs, to the un-initiated, are (or were) the coin of the realm among aspiring musicians on the circuit, a sort of audio business card, if you will, a way to generate a little revenue off mostly non-paying live gigs, a way to get your work "out there," bascially a rite of passage for any serious aspiring original musician.

In April of 2000, my CD Living in the Shadows finally came out. Ah, what delusions of grandeur I had as I placed my order for 1,000 CDs (getting a nice per-CD volume discount in return for my hubris). I proceeded to sell a few copies on, a few copies at gigs I was playing around town, and a few to my friends and acquaintances from the open-mike circuit.

Here's how I know that Zach is not just a great comedian, but a wonderful human being to boot. I happened to bump into Zach in March of 2001 at a local coffee shop in Santa Monica (right next to the now-defunct Creativity performance space). He was sitting there by himself alone, with a cup of coffee in a disposable cup, working on a personal digital assistant as I recall. His face brightened when he saw me and I sat down next to him. "So what have you been up to?" he asked. I told him I had come out with the CD and was trying to sell it. He immediately without question reached into his pocket and pulled out $10 (my asking price at the time). I gave him a CD and then I asked him what he had been up to. "Well," he said, "I was just asked to audition to be a writer for Saturday Night Live and my agent thinks I should. But I don't know."

Had I been more of a decent human being and less a star-struck publicity whore myself, I might have probed Zach just a little bit to find out the cause of his reservations. Instead, I thought to seize the opportunity and said, "Hey, let me give you another CD so you can pass it along." He took the 2nd copy of the CD, stuffed in in his satchel with the first and his PDA, and we left to go our separate ways. I learned later that Zach's misgivings were not my imagination and that his writing stint with SNL lasted only two weeks. I have often thought back on that encounter as not one of my finer moments and, while I doubt that Zach ever remembers it, I hope he does not go "Ugh" should a memory of it ever cross his horizon.

Now I do not watch many new movies in theatrical release and, after September 11, 2001, music seemed to fade out of my life, replaced with new activism in the progressive and anti-war movements that would occupy much of the next decade. Truth to tell, I don't think I was ever good enough to deserve the big break that is required to make it in show biz. I was talented, but the streets and restaurants of Los Angeles are littered with the resumes of the merely 'talented.' I certainly was not dedicated enough. One of my piano teachers, Richard Cass, once told me, "You have to give it 100% all the time. Because there are many others out there just as talented as you who are giving it 100%." Mr. Cass must have been able to see into my soul, to see that I lacked that certain fortitude, that willingness to stick with it long enough to get my name in the bright lights.

I don't think I thought of Zach once in the next several years. I never saw him after that night when I sold him a CD. But a few years later, while renting a movie, I happened to see his name on the case for The Hangover."Hey, Alma," I said to my wife, "I knew Zach. He was easily the funniest stand-up comedian I ever saw perform on the open mike circuit."

Last night, May 4, we turned on the television to watch Saturday Night Live. Wouldn't you know it? Zach Galifianakis was guest-hosting. The weird thing is that I think the funniest part of the show was Zach's opening monologue from which the joke at the top comes. Zach's performance as an ensemble sketch comedian did not match the comic heights of his best solo work, although he did have some funny moments in the M&M Store routine where he plays a racist and sexist employee trying to apologize to his co-workers or the sketch where he tries to record himself meeting new friends at his house for the first time.

Zach, it seems to me, is funniest as a solo comedian where he has a one-on-one relationship with his audience, unmediated by any distractions. After last night, my wife agrees that Zach is best as a solo performer. I told her that his monologue last night was not nearly as good as the solo Zach I remembered from Creativity and the Gypsy so many years earlier.

I'm not much of a practitioner or participant in the cult of celebrity. My wife all too frequently has to tell me who the latest star or starlet is and what he or she is famous for. I seldom even watch much television any more, aside from current episodes of The Good Wife and re-runs of Cold Case. But I can honestly say that Zach Galifianakis and I once shared the same stage and that I feel honored and privileged to have done so with one so young and manifestly gifted as he. Zach, if you're out there in the blog-o-sphere or one of your assistants reads this, please accept this greeting from years and performances gone by. (The email address on the back of my CD is still valid, if you want to get in touch.:) It is all too fitting that you 'made it.' If any of us were going to 'make it' in the 'Biz,' I am glad that the universe saw fit to reward you for your hard work, dedication and comic genius.

And, Zach, I've never seen any of your movies, so maybe it's time I returned that gesture of generosity you displayed to me so many years ago and rented one of your movies. But, after you have accumulated enough loot and swag from Hollyweird and its offshoots, the open mike circuit desperately needs your talents again to light up a room with unforced and hysterical laughter, to remove all of us -- if only for an all-too-brief moment -- from the hum-drum banality of our existence, if only by rubbing our noses in it.  Life is too short and, Zach, we miss you out here in La-La land.

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