Late one Saturday night in January, at Ha! Comedy Club, on West Forty-sixth Street, Peyton Clarkson learned what it was to bomb. Peyton, a blond, blue‑eyed twenty‑three‑year‑old from Alabama, had been performing at Ha! for only a month and a half, but he'd had so many "spots" onstage ‑ about twenty five-minute performances a week ‑ that he'd already gained more experience than many young comics get in a year. Still, there's no substitute for public humiliation.
Peyton is soft-spoken in person but energetic and swingy when he's onstage. Like a lot of aspiring comics, he'd always been the class clown; at Auburn University, he was considered the funniest guy in his fraternity. After graduation, Peyton went to New York to become an actor. During the day, he waited on tables at a restaurant in Trump Tower and went on casting calls. Every night, on the way home from his second job ‑ running the discount‑ticket lottery for "Rent" ‑ he would pass Ha!
The comedy world is a small one, and Ha! has a reputation as a home for starting comics, most of whom find their way there by word of mouth. Ha! also hosts an open‑mike night once a week, during which hopefuls can audition for the club. The first time Peyton went, he got such a bad attack of stomach cramps that he left before his turn and ran the two blocks home, to Forty-seventh Street; the second time, he made it through his set and was told that he was good enough to bark ‑ to distribute flyers to passersby and get them to come to the club. In return for getting two people to a show, Peyton would have a five-minute set.
Ha! has two stages. The main one, on the ground floor, is larger and is considered tougher, because the audience members feel more anonymous; the farther away people are from the comic, the more comfortable they are shouting out or creating their own private parties. In the lounge upstairs, Peyton had never lost the audience. The room is more intimate, with high barstool tables lining two of the walls, and lower tables surrounding a tiny stage. On this January night, though, the proximity worked against him. Even his boyish comedic style - a naïve pose with lots of gesturing and miming ‑ failed to elicit the protective feeling he often gets from an audience.
"This motherfucker ain't gonna be funny," a woman said before Peyton even reached the stage.
"My name is Peyton Clarkson," he began.
"This motherfucker's stupid," the woman said loudly. Peyton glanced at her boyfriend, hoping that he might shut her up, but he didn't say anything.
"My friends call me Consti‑peyton," he continued, with less than his usual intended dopiness. The woman shook her head, disgusted. He went into the first full joke: "Everybody in my family is a really, really big drinker, or really, really homosexual. I personally prefer the drink over the pink, but you can bet I know how to make one hell of a Cosmo." It didn't get a laugh. Usually, the silence was only a pause, broken by laughter when he went into the character ‑ narrowing his eyes and pursing his lips as he limply held a Martini glass. But this time the silence grew. And then Peyton made a serious mistake.
If you are going to address a heckler, you have to be sure that the audience is on your side ‑ that it wants the heckler to be put down. And you have to be ready to say something funny that will end the exchange on your terms. Peyton appealed to the woman's mercy. "What have I done to you?" he asked. "Why are you so mad at me?"
"Stop it ‑ just go to the next one," the woman said, her eyes down.
He tried, pulling his jokes from nowhere, out of order. "But what did I do?" Peyton asked the woman desperately, when it became clear that he'd lost the crowd. "Why are you so angry and bitter?"
As barkers, Peyton Clarkson and Liz Miele get stage time if they bring customers into the club. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
"You just get on with your show," she said. "Don't worry about me ‑ just go on with the show."
The m.c. flashes a red light when a comic has one minute left, and comics generally try to use up every second of the remaining time. That night, when the light was flashed, Peyton got offstage quickly, hot with shame. Despite a recent rule at the club that comedians can't drink during work, the club's manager, Francisco Aldorando, had a shot waiting for him at the bar. "I really screwed up," Peyton said later. "I was her bitch."
When Peyton emerged from the club to go home, around 2A.M., a group of comedians were clustered beneath the club's red awning, smoking. It was an awkward moment: everyone knew that he had bombed. Just then, a Hummer limousine turned the corner at Forty-sixth Street and cruised down the empty block. "See that?" Francisco called out to Peyton, who was by then on the sidewalk.
Peyton turned back toward his colleagues, bracing himself: comics can be astonishingly cruel to one another.
"Someday, you're gonna be in there, with a bunch of strippers," Francisco said. "And I'll be driving."
Peyton looked grateful but baffled. "Thanks."
All comedians need stage time ‑ to keep sharp, to try out new material, to remember who they are ‑ but tyros need it to become comedians. Unlike writing, or painting, standup comedy can't be practiced alone; the pacing and the direction are influenced by incremental responses from the audience. Some comics say that you have to repeat a joke forty or fifty times just to get the feel of it in your mouth. Even before beginners can start to refine their material, they have to tackle the basic physical challenges ‑ figuring out where to put their hands, how to hold the mike and move around without getting tangled in the cord, how to breathe without its seeming like a sound effect. Then, they have to learn how to work the audience: how to deal with hecklers; when to go out on a limb to bring a crowd back and when to wait for it to return. Some audience members laugh at whatever they find funny, but plenty of people take their cues from others, and sometimes, if the room is quiet, a comedian might look for an anchor, usually a couple who are laughing, if he can hold them, they effectively give other people permission to join in. Eventually, you take on challenges of a slightly higher level: learning to get comfortable enough onstage to play around with your set, inserting adlibs and tiffs and "call backs" ‑ lines that return to the themes of earlier bits.
While the pros refine their material on the road or on the elite circuit, newcomers work on their basic skills as they move among a string of dingy rooms ‑ often a different place every night. A‑list clubs, when they use amateurs at all, are careful to identify them as such to the audience, and confine them to brief intervals between the professional sets. This is where Ha! distinguishes itself: in a ninety-minute show, fully a third of the time might be given over to the barkers, each of whom will do a spot lasting between four and nine minutes. Ha! has thereby established itself as something of a clubhouse for aspiring comics. It isn't where you want to end up, but it's a place to start.
The youngest barker at Ha! is Liz Miele, who is eighteen. Though she's an unknown on the comedy circuit, she's certain that she has been immortalized by hundreds of visitors from around the world in their snapshots of Times Square: she's the short (just over five feet) girl with long curly hair in the background, wearing a bandanna and clutching a stack of Ha! discount flyers. (Barkers write their initials on each flyer, so that they are credited with the customers they bring in.) "A lot of Mexicans want to take pictures of me - I'm probably known as a prostitute," Liz says. On an evening in January, however, she was barely visible beneath her winter clothes. She was on the bark, and the temperature had dropped to seventeen degrees.
"Standup comedy!" she called out.
A woman paused. "Which way is Forty-fourth?" Liz pointed her in the right direction.
A family stopped. "Do you know where Toys R Us is?" She did.
She continued her barking. "Standup comedy. Be a friend, take a flyer! Ladies get in free." Liz's sidewalk persona is a lot like her stage one; she looks pleasant and helpful, but her tone is deadpan, almost expressionless.
Inevitably, passersby made cracks, all of which she'd heard a thousand times: "How about sit-down comedy?" "Make me laugh." "We got all the comedy we need right here."
"At first, it's funny, then you start to hate them," Liz said. Even after eight months of barking, the harsh exposure gets to her: "A little piece of me dies every time I go out."
For the past few months, the sidewalk outside Howard Johnson's at Forty-sixth Street and Broadway has been her main barking spot. Liz has learned to avoid standing under the "Stomp" billboard, where pigeons like to perch. She used to stand in front of the Marriott to stay close to the policemen, but then she got to know John, who passed out cards for a strip club called Flashdancers and swore, every night, that he was going to quit. She has also become friendly with a nearby hot‑dog vender who keeps the creepier drunks away.
Weird things happen on the bark. Groups of kids sometimes see barkers as free amusement and grab their flyers; a fetishist offered a barker a hundred dollars for his dirty socks; a drug dealer tried to recruit another, impressed by his salesmanship. One man took a flyer, blew his nose on it, and handed it back. A teenager took one of Peyton's flyers and told him that if he didn't have a good time he was going to come back and shoot him in the face. Even without celebrity; Liz has already had a stalker; the man managed to track down her family's phone number, in New Jersey. After that, she promised her parents that she'd take a cab to her dorm room, downtown, at the end of her late nights.
"A lot of who I am is because of my dad," Liz says. Her parents are both veterinarians, and own three animal hospitals. James Miele wakes at 4 A.M. and e‑mails his children and staff daily inspirational quotes from his extensive self-help library: "Awaken the Giant Within," "The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari," "The Power of Now." His take on the second law of thermodynamics is a particular favorite: "Unless you put energy into the system, it's going to go to maximum disorganization." Shortly before Christmas, Liz told her father that she felt her momentum had stalled, and he responded with a four‑page memo.
Liz decided at fifteen that she wanted to be a comic; during high school, she wrote letters to every comic and comedy writer that she could track down and asked for career advice. One afternoon, George Carlin called. They spoke for fifteen minutes and he gave her pointers, though she was too excited to remember what he said.
Not long afterward, she learned about "bringers," where you get stage time in return for bringing in audience members ‑ usually people you know. During the school year, she did bringer shows twice a month in New York, corralling teachers, friends, and the staff of her parents' animal clinics. By summer, she was doing a bringer every week. For the first nine months, afraid for her safety, her father supervised the expeditions to the city. Liz wouldn’t allow him to watch her perform, so he waited out her sets at Starbucks. During her senior year, Liz began barking for Ha! whenever she could, and, in the summer before she started college, at the New School, she was doing twenty shows a week.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are now her class days, but she still does eleven shows a week at Ha! In December, she started dating another Ha! comic, Greg Barris, but kept it quiet. Liz is one of the few female regulars, and she has cultivated a conveniently sexless role for herself: part mascot (owing to her height), part den mother, part kid sister. Often, while she waits for her set, she does her homework at the bar.
At 9:30P.M., a fellow‑comic appeared on the street corner to relieve her. "Have a good show," he said, and she headed back to Ha! The barkers pass one another on the sidewalk like factory workers changing shifts.
Liz's performance style is low-key. She walks on, calmly takes the mike out of the stand, moves the stand to the side, and begins, "I'm the baby of the group, the little sister of the comedy club." In a musing tone, she goes on, "Lately, people have been trying to inflict their life lessons on me?" There's a bit of teen "uptalk" in her intonation. "Like, the other day, this guy came up to me and said, 'You know what, Liz, life is one big emotional roller coaster,' and I told him I didn't agree. But then I went home and I was thinking about it, and I was, like, you know, maybe life is one big emotional roller coaster and I'm just too short to get on the ride." This usually gets a small laugh. She goes into a series of short jokes ("I feel kinda like a Caucasian Smurf"), and bits about how she wears her trademark bandanna instead of gauze after getting banged in the forehead with book bags and fanny packs. If she isn't hearing laughs, she'll do a fake ad‑lib with the audience. "Sir, I feel like I'm hurting you," she'll say to a man. "Are you all right?" Then she'll pretend to invite him out after the show: "Maybe we can get a drink afterwards. You can get a beer, I can get a milk?" She talks about having had her wallet stolen, and she bemoans the identification requirements of the D.M.V. She says she felt suicidal there, but decided against ending her life like that "If I did die at the D.M.V., who would know? People would be, like, 'Is that Liz Miele?' 'Naw, she only has five points of identification.'" During her routine, she uses her hands conversationally; otherwise, her movements are cramped. She'll stand sideways to show off her new chain wallet, gesturing toward it with a sweep of her hand. "Who's scared now?" she says. "But sometimes I wonder. Maybe someone will look at me and say, 'She's tough, don't fuck with her,' but then someone else might think, Must kill before taking wallet."
After her set this January evening, she was going to take the train to New Jersey. She had promised to babysit her three siblings the following day so that her parents could have their weekly date. Otherwise, she would have been in her dorm, eating chocolate‑chip mini‑muffins and watching comedy tapes.
The man who owns Ha!, Anthony DiNapoli, has no particular love for comedy. His career in show business began in 1993, when he teamed up with his brother, an Elvis impersonator; they did karaoke in Yonkers, bought a pizza parlor, and ran a pub. During a trip to Vegas, he says, "I was exposed to the concept of the dueling piano." When he returned to New York, he found an old bakery on West Forty-sixth Street and converted it into a piano bar, which he named Sweet Caroline's, after a favorite Neil Diamond song. Not long afterward, Anthony was approached by a showy gay comic named Exiene Lofgren, who asked if he could book comedy shows during the club's downtime. Business picked up. In October, 2002, the dueling pianos were finally carted away and Sweet Caroline's became Ha!
Because more amateur comics bark for Ha! than for any other club in the city, it is able to bring in audiences for a minimum of seven shows a night on weeknights, and eight or nine on weekends. (A‑list clubs usually do no more than four shows a night at their busiest.) This means that Ha! fills more than two hundred spots a week with novices. Ha! is also relatively cheap: where A‑list clubs sell advance tickets with covers of between fifteen and thirty-five dollars, admission to Ha! is seven dollars with the flyer. The barkers don't get paid for their sets, but after the first five customers they earn two dollars a head. Ha! amateurs also do a fair amount of grunt work ‑ mopping, sorting empty bottles in the basement, walking Anthony's dog.
"It's a family atmosphere," Anthony, who comes in every day from Yonkers, says. "Like in every family, someone's in control." He is thirty-five, wears his dark‑brown hair in a gelled comb‑back, and has a gruff, bullying air. He favors button-down shirts that he leaves un-tucked, possibly because he's gained some weight in the past year. His authority is demonstrated in unpredictable outbursts of temper, which sometimes take place in public, and an ever-changing list of house rules (comics can drink only after shows; comics can’t drink after shows at the upstairs bar; comics can’t drink at all; only those comics approved by Anthony can drink, comics can't hang out together at the bar between sets; and so forth). "He's Fred Flintstone, if Fred Flintstone joined the Mafia," one comedian says.
The club's other principals are Francisco, the manager and booker, and Exiene, its "creative director." Both of them have the pallor of people who live in clubs, but their styles are different. Like a disciplinarian older brother, Francisco affects a labored sternness, though the effect is undercut by the fact that his suits are a size too big. Exiene, a pear‑shaped man with a flawless, fatless face, has a sort of dishy Broadway shtick, which works well at showtime; on repeated exposure, he can come across as calculating and hard. Exiene m.c.s three or four shows a night and is something of a stage mother, slighting certain comics while showering attention upon his proteges. You hear complaints that when he m.c.s he deliberately undermines performers he doesn't like. Another source of contention is the "check spot"‑the moment when the waitresses hand out the checks. Nobody
wants to work it, because the audience is distracted by looking over the check and sorting out cash. Francisco is admired for stepping up and "eating the check spot," as m.c.s are supposed to; Exiene has been known to give it to newcomers.
Both of them have larger ambitions for Ha!, though everyone knows it's pretty far dawn the comedy food chain. "I would love nothing more than for this to be the next Second City," Francisco says wistfully. Exiene says, "We want to do this generation, which means a series of trial and errors. We're just starting to find our legs." Exiene sometimes recognizes that his ambitions for the club outstrip its likely prospects. For both clubs and performers, comedy is such an arduous business that even staying in place is an accomplishment. "We work hard to respect them," Exiene says of the barkers, "but sometimes we're, like, 'Grow up.' We forget that they are not only young comics but young."
Liz's boyfriend, Greg Barns, was a twenty‑one‑year‑old Greek‑American comic with a head of curly brown hair and a vague resemblance to the actor Mark Ruffalo. Greg moved to New York from Orlando, Florida, a few months ago to do comedy, and has grown increasingly self-critical about the gap between his onstage persona and his real‑world passivity: "I'll be on the bus and I don't push the button because I don't want the bus to stop just for me, and l end up fifteen blocks from where I'm supposed to be," he says. "Yet I'll getup onstage and talk about my problems getting an erection. Why?" He obsesses about such things on the long train rides to and from Bensonhurst, where he lives with his grandmother and an uncle. He has no paying job and few friends in New York, and his grandmother complains because he's often out until dawn and then sleeps in. He recently overheard her talking to his mother, saying, "We eat dinner with him every night, and he's just not funny."
One January night, when Greg was waiting by the bar for his set, he bemoaned his knack for getting into "special situations," like falling asleep on the subway home, and having to do the real scut work at Ha! ‑ chores that Liz deftly manages to avoid entirely.
Greg swears that he's not going to unclog the toilet the next time he's ordered to, but then Francisco will catch him at the bar ‑ "Barns! Toilet's clogged" and, moments later, Greg and the plunger are headed upstairs. Or he'll be informed that there are empty bottles in the basement that need to be separated and counted. “And then I go downstairs and scream," Greg said. "In my mind."
Greg's stage act plays out this conflict. He begins one of his bits in a quiet, contemplative voice: "I'm very passive-aggressive. My ex‑girlfriend used to take the sheets from me at night. And I would be sheetless, and cold, and instead of telling her the next day, 'Hey, honey, you're so beautiful. Sometimes you take the sheets at night? And I was wondering if you could stop?,' instead of doing that, I wait till we're asleep and she starts to take the sheets" ‑ his voice turns angry - "and then I fucking grab the sheets, and I spin and I spin, and I'm staring at her, and I'm thinking" ‑ now he's speaking in a guttural, enraged whisper ‑ "You stupid fucking bitch! Who's got the fucking sheets now?"
Unlike many of his peers, Greg writes constantly. "He does a new joke every friggin' day," Liz says. "I've done three new jokes in the last two weeks." Greg seems more interested in the philosophy of standup than in getting a laugh. He's proud of the stealing‑back‑the‑sheets joke because "there's no funny at the front," he says. "It's so great. I love it. The audience loves it. And I can't wait until I hate it. That's when I know I'm progressing." He has similarly complicated feelings about the audience. He loves the participatory nature of standup, but he sometimes resents the stupidity of the audience ‑ the way, as a comic, he labors over intelligent material only to hear the audience roaring over the kind of jokes you’d find on the Internet.
Greg always carries a dog-eared moleskin notebook along on his city wanderings, in which he writes down lists - books he wants to read, movies he wants to see, music and comedians he wants to checkout, together with new jokes, his set lists, and bits of dialogue. He spends two or three hours a day commuting between Ha! and Bensonhurst, and he reads voraciously (in the past month: "Lolita," two collections of essays by Lester Bangs, "A Confederacy of Dunces," Krishnamurti, some Chomsky, Terrence McKenna, and two chess strategy books). When he returns home to his grandmother's, at 4 or 5A.M., he'll spend a few hours writing on his laptop in the living room. When he wakes, at three or four in the afternoon, he'll write a few more pages. "The more I write, the more comfortable I get with the way l think," he says.
These days, Peyton is the only up-and‑comer to whom Exiene pays serious attention. "He's my protégé," Exiene says. "Right now, he's no different from any other comic, but he has a charm that transcends that." Exiene says he's impressed with Peyton's work ethic and with his humility; he likes the fact that Peyton doesn't blame the audience for his failures. But he does think that Peyton needs to get knocked around by life a bit. Exiene got knocked around himself. He grew up poor, white, fit, and gay in a rough black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago. He sees the ability to be funny as "God's little reparation for the trauma."
Peyton's training in theatre shows up in his tendency to act out the words of his jokes ‑ swinging an arm to indicate walking, conducting the audience like a maestro when he wants a chorus of pity for a my‑girlfriend‑just‑broke‑up‑with‑me opener. The mugging and the impressions can go awry, but they usually pay off in a sequence he has on P.M.S., in which he shifts between two roles ‑ the hormonally crazed girlfriend and the baffled boyfriend. "Ladies, I gotta ask you a question. Tell me why is it that when a girl's P.M.S.ing she's only mean to her boyfriend? Me and my ex‑girlfriend, we'd have friends over for dinner, and she'd be cool like monkey drool to everybody else there. She'd be walking them to the door, saying, "Bye, Steve, see ya soon. Thank you so much for coming over. Oh, we just had the best time. G'night!' "He mimes dosing the door, and transforms himself into a bellowing harridan: "'Fuck you and let me tell you why!'" His own voice again: "As men, we are completely unprepared and defenseless against the mood swings and the utter it's‑my‑faultness of P.M.S. I walk into a room and it's, like, forty-five degrees colder than the room I just came out of." Before long, the girlfriend character is jumping off the stage as the P.M.S. monster incarnate, neck jerking like a "Jurassic Park" dinosaur. If the material isn't hitting, he'll break out an aw-shucks grin.
As Exiene's protégé, Peyton has to put up with relentless comments from his fellow‑barkers about blow jobs and Vaseline. But he tries not to take it personally: he stays away from the gossip, focuses on his chores, works his sets. "At this level, I'm not a commodity yet, and I don't expect to be," he says. "You can't look too far down the tunnel, but I'm so glad that I'm at least walking that way."
Although. Liz no longer has to do bringer shows for stage time, she still does one occasionally in order to network and to try out her sets in front of a more discriminating audience. The established clubs tend to draw people seeking comedy, whereas Ha! catches tourists who have time to kill. Bringers, which require comics to bring in anywhere from three to twenty customers, help clubs fill otherwise empty seats during their slower hours, and get the comic a five‑to‑nine‑minute set, depending on how many guests show up.
On January 2lst, Liz performed at the Gotham Comedy Club, in Chelsea, where Jerry Seinfeld has headlined. Liz and Greg hadn't been getting along lately, but he came to show his support. Liz brought in eleven people, including childhood friends, their roommates and their boyfriends, and Greg. The place was packed.
Greg, who arrived in a brown Diesel coat, slid into a seat near Liz's rowdy tribe ‑ a guy in black leather with a proper Mohawk, a chubby boy with facial piercings, a slender girl named Alison, and Amanda, Liz's best friend, who has two-toned hair.
"So you're the boyfriend," Amanda said. Before Greg had a chance to respond, she started flirting with the Mohawk guy, and Alison turned her attention to the menu. Greg sighed, the elderly twenty-one‑year‑old out on the town with the kids. He sat back and marveled at the elegance of the Gotham, with its antique-white walls, oak bar, and deep‑blue velvet curtain framing the stage. "It's so beautiful it makes me want to cry," Greg said.
When Liz came on, her people cheered. She was wearing a white bandanna and bangle bracelets, and her fingers flashed with rings. She began slowly, with her "I'm the little sister of the comedy club" bit, and moved into the short jokes, but the first big laugh came when she ad‑libbed, "I'm fucking hilarious. I don't know what's everybody's problem!" Then, with more animation, she moved onto her stolen‑wallet joke, the D.M.V. sequence, and so on. Her more sarcastic material went over well, including a bit about her mother: "We are talking about a woman who once ran down the dog in the driveway to prove the point that's not where it goes."
When the show was over, a check for a hundred and seventy-eight dollars arrived. Amanda handed it to Greg. "You are the coolest guy l ever met," she told him, smiling brightly. "Can you do the math?" She and her boyfriend immediately left to smoke a cigarette. Stranded, Greg appealed to the other punker. He contributed what he could, but Greg was stuck with an extra seventy dollars of the tab.
Outside, it was snowing. Greg flagged down a cab, because he was running late for the bark. By eleven o'clock, he was back in Times Square, in front of the Toys R Us and its giant Ferris wheel. Charged up by the snow and the blinking neon signs, Greg skated along the sidewalk and slid to a happy stop. He pulled a bunch of Ha! flyers from his pocket and targeted two girls. "You ready for the magic?" he began. "You used to be a party animal," he said to a middle-aged guy, who ignored him. "What happened to the legend?" Two women approached. "Ladies, standup comedy. It's free for the ladies. I'm there. I'm very handsome. Ladies?" They kept on walking.
On the evening of February 11th, Peyton was feeling that his star was ascendant: he'd had some strong sets that week, and he'd hooked up with a pretty Polish girl the night before. Best of all, he'd been chosen by Anthony and Francisco to go to Ha!'s sister club, in Virginia Beach, to perform in the Valentine's Day weekend shows. Exiene would be the headliner. Peyton had friends in Virginia Beach, and it was an added perk that, after weeks of barking in freezing temperatures, he would be heading south.
Virginia Beach Ha! advertises "comics straight from N.Y.C.," and Peyton took the words literally. He stopped only once on the seven‑hour trip ‑ at a WaWa, for food, cigarettes, coffee, and gas. Exiene rode shotgun, coaching Peyton and philosophizing about the industry. At eight in the morning, they arrived at Anthony's "comedy condo," which had been decorated by comics before them: an Arthur Sarnoff print of dogs playing pool ("The Hustler"), a "Belly Button Lint" jar, a plaque that read, "Home, Sweet Home," and a note on the refrigerator that said, "I shot loads on everything."
On Valentine's Day, Peyton arrived at the club fifteen minutes before the first show. He dropped his canvas knapsack and sat down on a stool next to a side bar lined with grubby binders of listings for karaoke songs. He felt glum and hung over from too much whiskey the night before.
An effort had been made to gussy up the place, but it helped a lot that the lights were low. Twenty couples paid forty dollars each for dinner and the comedy show. Red crêpe‑paper twisters hung from paired balloons. Heart‑shaped glitter dusted the tables, where plastic heart-shaped trays were filled with Hershey kisses and red foil hearts.
At showtime, Exiene ushered Peyton up the back stairs. The stairwell was cold, littered with last season's cigarette butts and empty beer cartons. "We don't want the crowd to see us," Exiene explained. They waited in a hallway as Nick Lamanna, a local boy, started things off with a five-minute spot, running through a series of jokes like "They say 'Strive. Strive to be No. 1.' But if you're a pencil you strive to be No. 2." Most of the jokes were greeted by silence. He did get a laugh, though, with "My mom used to walk upside down to entertain us as children. We used to call her Wow." Nick, an Andy Kaufman fan, likes to end his sets with a surprising line. The previous night's had been "Drink Deer Park, established in 1873"; tonight he said, "Eat salmon," and stepped off the stage, seeming pleased.
Exiene got the crowd back with a barrage of gay jokes ("I am a fag, but I could relapse for you, sister. Dump him, hang out with me. In the morning, I'll do your hair"). Then he introduced Peyton, who held his own. He had refined his family Cosmo joke to a bit about his Aunt Steven; he got breathless doing his dinosaur‑style imitation of his P.M.S.-crazed girlfriend, but the end of it hit: his discovery of her "gnawing on the carcass of a small deer." At this point, he turned his back to the audience and squatted, bobbing his head maniacally and making animal sounds into the mike.
When Exiene took the stage, he couldn't seem to find his footing. He overdid the crowd work, and Peyton went downstairs, not wanting to witness the uncomfortable end. Eventually, Exiene joined him, clearly rattled. "I did too much New York stag" he said. A soldier shook Peyton's hand and, nodding toward his date, said, "You really hit it on the head with the P.M.S.!" Peyton smiled. He never gets feedback from the audience in New York, because as soon as he completes his set he's back out on the bark, and it's a new crowd when he comes back in.
Ten minutes before the final show of the weekend, Exiene sidled up to Peyton and said, "I have a gift for you." Exiene said that he wanted to feel like a proper headliner, and so he needed Peyton to m.c. - which meant introducing the show, doing fifteen minutes before and after Nick's five, and closing up. That was longer than he had ever been onstage before. To m.c., you have to scatter your jokes between bits of crowd work, not following the order of an established set. Peyton, who works from memory, was terrified. There were now sixty-five people in the audience.
"I'm scared I'll ruin the show," Peyton said, in a panic. "What do I do?"
"Go up, bring up Nick," Exiene said. "Do more, and bring up the headliner." While Peyton ran downstairs to the bathroom, Exiene confided, "I think he's so charming it's impossible to hate him ‑ so it's a good risk."
Downstairs, Peyton held his gut. "I know I have to do this," he said, his voice close to a whisper. He had started to perspire. Exiene coached him in the fetid hallway outside the kitchen, near empty kegs and a huge plastic bucket of bottle caps. Peyton wrote Nick Lamanna's name on his palm so he wouldn't forget it. He looked ill.
But Peyton got through the introduction and even came up with a few new jokes. The P.M.S. sequence did well; he managed his breathing better through the dinosaur business; in between his bits he talked to the well‑lubricated crowd, making sure to acknowledge the people way in the back of the room, by the bar ‑ something Exiene had forgotten to do. Then he introduced Nick, and even Nick got laughs. Peyton kept up the pace. He was improvising on his feet, and when he pointed out that he was perspiring ‑ more laughs. He did a bit about his girlfriend breaking up with him. When Peyton came off the stage again, the look on his face was one of shock.
Exiene did the best set he'd done all weekend, and then Peyton closed the show. By the time it was over, he was on his third beer and his clothes were wet with sweat. "Onstage or off, that was the most fun I ever had in my entire life," he said. He'd finally lost his self-consciousness, he explained. He wasn't thinking about the order of the set, or worrying about what was coming next. He was just flowing.
As Peyton mingled with his college friends downstairs, Exiene congratulated him. He did have one pointer, though, which he couldn't resist delivering in front of everyone. That part when Peyton bent down to gnaw on the carcass? It would have worked better if he'd done it standing up, so the people in the back of the room could see.
In the second week of February, Greg was growing frustrated in his attempts to communicate with Liz. "There's a wall there," he said. "I can't pass it. She's totally shut down." He was also feeling in a rut as a performer, and thought that appearing in other venues might help. One of the first things Greg had done when he moved to New York was to circle all the comedy clubs on his Streetwise Manhattan map. One snowy afternoon, he decided to make the rounds. He planned to go to New York Comedy Club, Dangerfield's, the Boston Comedy Club, the Gotham, and the Laugh Lounge. Liz told him that the list was "a little ambitious." Greg himself was filled with dread. "Everyone knows everyone," he said. "You're the new guy. The judgment starts."
After being turned away at the first four places he tried, he lucked out at the Village Lantern. The booker there, a former boxer named Dustin Chafin, agreed to give Greg a spot if he hustled customers in. In fact, he could fit Greg in during this very show. "I can put you on fourth," Dustin said. "No cover." Greg’s face lit up. As he headed downstairs to check out the room, Dustin called after him, "Maybe you could buy a beer."
For the next few weeks, Greg gave up Ha! to perform at the Lantern. But he got only a few spots a week, and, without regular stage time, he grew cranky. "I feel like it's kind of a chemical thing," he said. He was sure that the dust at his grandmother's was bothering his sinuses and giving his voice a nasal sound. Throughout the slump, he kept writing. Liz found his material angry. Greg defended it as "honest," but he also said, "I'm not proud of it at all. I have a Puerto Rican‑girl joke I wouldn't be able to do anywhere but a seedy comedy club in New York." He was convinced that every show could be his last, and he wound up getting blacklisted from the Village Lantern for going over his allotted time. Then, shortly after Valentine's Day, he and Liz split up. He spent nights trying to muster the courage to introduce himself to bookers at other clubs in the city, and brooding about what he considers his "tragic flaw": "I think everybody hates me. I feel that I can honestly see how everyone is lying to each other in every situation, and so I'm afraid that I'm the guy about who they say, when I walk away, 'I hate Greg Barris.' 'Yeah, I do, too.' 'I hate that guy.' 'Everybody hates Greg Barris.' 'I fucking hate that guy!'" He paused. "I'm that guy."
Following Peyton's success in Virginia Beach, Anthony DiNapoli offered him a job doing chores at Ha! Now he mops, moves Pac Man machines, and day-barks ‑ sometimes for upward of five hours ‑ in addition to the two or three shows he hustles in most nights. His sets haven't been going well: he's become bored with his material. He feels that he relies too heavily on his physicality. He also knows that he is picking up the bad habits that he's observed in other comics: hounding girls, especially the Ha! waitresses; drinking too much; not writing enough.
On a Wednesday night in March, Anthony dispatched Peyton to bark along Forty-second Street for the eleven‑thirty show. It's not Peyton's preferred place to bark, but he did as he was told. The weather had warmed to thirty-four degrees. Two young white boys wearing matching fake‑tuxedo T-shirts didn't want comedy but enthusiastically recommended the dance show they'd just seen. Peyton paused in front of the B. B. King Blues Club and handed out flyers to the remainder of a hip-hop crowd, which was also getting barked by a peace activist. "Comedy show?" Peyton said to two thirtyish guys. "So funny it'll make you slap your mama!"
At the corner of Eighth Avenue, Peyton found himself surrounded by a group of black kids who had clearly been drinking. At first, they were just grabbing at his flyers, but then one of them armed Peyton by the neck and turned him around and
around, like a drunken sailor. Peyton rolled with it, more aggressively as the menace built ‑ pumping his fist in the air, shouting "Yeah!" and "Ha!," echoing the mocking cries of the kids. Suddenly, the revelers moved on, and the sidewalk seemed strangely quiet. A couple watched Peyton, as if waiting for a signal that he was all right. He shrugged his shoulders self‑pityingly, and said, in a high voice, "I feel so violated." Then he crossed the street to do another lap. "That's why I hate Forty-second Street," he said grimly.
Meanwhile, at Ha!, the seats for the eleven‑thirty show upstairs were filling with tourists from Tampa and nurses from Poughkeepsie and dental students from Kuwait. At the bar, Greg Barris reviewed his set list. He was happy to be back at Ha! The hiatus had done him some good, he thought. "I feel like I have some steady ground finally to stand on," he said. He'd taken to the material he originally thought of as "foul." Liz told him that the jokes were funny ‑ for dick jokes ‑ but she felt that he was going through a lowbrow period. "I feel he is sacrificing who he is just to get a laugh," she said.
Liz herself had been aiming for "edgier" material, altering the sweet girl‑next‑door character she'd created. She'd stopped doing her short jokes. "I like my short jokes, but it paints a different picture of me," she said. She found that audiences didn't always relish the shift in her persona when she did her darker bits, like one about a friend who's devoted to his one-eyed cat. ("My friend says, 'The thing I love about this cat is that he's so unusual.' And I said, 'One-eyed cats are easy to come by. All you need is a stray, a bottle of Jack Daniel's, and a spoon."') She said, "Either people are glad for the surprise or they are, like, 'Where did the innocent girl go?'" She was thrilled that the lawyer‑manager she'd been calling with invitations for more than a year had finally seen her act, and was encouraging. She also received a moving e‑mail from her sidewalk friend John, who had finally quit working for Flashdancers.
Tonight at Ha!, everyone was getting laughs. It was the second sold-out show, the crowd, of sixty‑some, was in a good mood, the drinks were moving, and there was a redhead with an infectious laugh who was boosting the volume even further. Greg had an excellent set, and his newer material went over especially well. "I'm a very tolerant person," he said. "I put up with a lot of people's bullshit because I don't want to upset or offend anybody. Like, my ex-girlfriend would be sitting on my lap and she would be crushing my legs but l wouldn't want to tell her that, because I wouldn't want her to think she was crushing my legs. Even though" ‑ his voice dropped to a whisper ‑ "she was fucking crushing my legs." In a normal voice again: "Or I'll be getting a hand job from a girl and she's just squeezing too hard and then she's hitting it" ‑ he hit the mike to illustrate ‑ "and I'm thinking to myself, Why is she hitting it? But it's not like I can tell her that. What am I going to say? 'Excuse me, miss, you're horrible at this'? No, I can't say that. So I just grin and bear it. And twenty minutes go by and she's, like, 'What's wrong?' Then I just blame myself 'Uh, sometimes this just happens.' And then, two days later, I'm black and blue and pissing blood, for what? Because I don't want to upset some girl? Some girl I paid seventy-five dollars to give me a hand job?" He finished with a look of consternation, and got a big laugh.
When Greg came off the stage, he seemed oblivious of the success of his set. "It's sort of weird when there are that many people in there," he reported, sitting downstairs. He said that he couldn't figure out where to turn, because no matter which way he looked he was aware that someone was staring at his back.
Greg headed out of the club to have a beer, and Peyton, looking pale, took his seat. He'd just had a repeat encounter with the drunk kids. The police intervened a few minutes later, when they attacked a barker dressed as SpongeBob. The waitress asked Peyton to go and get some bottled water. When he returned, he laid his head down on his arm for a while. Exiene touched his shoulder and said, "I'm just going to let them do a shot special" ‑ kamikaze shots were the mixed-drink special that night ‑ "and I'll bring you up." This is never a good thing for performers, since delivering the drinks creates a distraction, and Peyton was frustrated. He needed this set to hit.
Shortly after Virginia Beach, Peyton had abandoned his "Consti‑peyton" opener. Tonight, he started with "How's everybody doing?" and did some adlibbing about the kamikaze shots. Then he went into his girlfriend‑broke‑upwith‑me bit, cultivating the audience's sympathy, until, when the "Awwww" reached its crescendo, he brayed loudly, "The fucking whore!" His P.M.S. joke scored, and he drew it out, his dinosaur imitation got applause breaks. He did some crowd work, then placed his hands in his pockets and was greeted with hoots when he said, "I love going down on women. I swear to God!" It was the lead-in to "I'm on that Twatkins diet." A big response from the beery crowd. But, when his next bit, a rally cry against advertising, didn't go over, he went for the easy laugh: "I love eating pussy!"
Afterward, Peyton was a little mortified. He knew he'd aimed low with the pussy call back. Exiene signaled him downstairs for a quick conference and a smoke.
"I could tell with the first ten minutes who was going to do well with this audience," Exiene said under the awning outside.
Peyton said nothing.
"Greg Barris has gotten better," Exiene said, trying again.
"He's a good writer," Peyton said, not looking at Exiene.
"He's getting confidence, which is good. It's dark material." Exiene returned upstairs to introduce the next comic.
Now Anthony stepped out, chewing on a piece of pizza. His patterned short-sleeved shirt hung over his belly. He tapped his foot on the ground. "What's this?" he asked Peyton, glaring. The pavement in front of the dub was slick with oil, as was the sidewalk "I don't care about someone killing themselves out there," he said, backhanding the unfinished pizza onto the sidewalk "I care if they kill themselves here." For the moment, it was decided to cover over the mess. Peyton bent down and pulled the doormat closer to the street.