In 2005 I got a phone call to come to Shreveport and kill a dragon.Dragon slaying is a metaphor I adopted long ago – the origins of which are probably best saved for another story.Still, this was a mission.My friend Rachel ran the comedy club there at the time and thought I should come in for a particular weekend to “help her solve a problem”.She had called me more than a few times about it, actually, but that was all the information she would give me.
“So, can you do that week?” she asked me.
It didn’t make sense for her to be so determined about a specific date.I was already scheduled to be there in a few months as it was. “Why are you so insistent about this?” I asked.
She paused.“I need you to feature for Dustin Diamond,” she finally said.
Dustin is best known as the child actor that played Screech on Saved by the Bell, and by best known, I mean only known.“He’s going to be here that week and he’s horrible.I need him to sell the tickets and then I need you to make the people not sorry that they bought them.”It was sort of flattering I suppose.“He’s going to suck, and maybe if you’re funny in front of him people won’t feel so ripped off.”
Before this begins to look like I am blowing my own little air horn as a comedian, you need to understand this:Screech is the worst comedian you’ve ever seen.Ever.Take bad comedy, cube it, and then double that.The Holocaust was funnier.What compounded the problem was that, aside from being a brutally bad performer, Dustin was also known for being a notorious joke thief.In the world of stand up, originality is everything.It’s the sacred code.Take nothing, from anyone.Our jokes are our children. That little fact automatically made him my enemy.
Still, Shreveport was my backyard.Screech may be a headache to deal with, I told myself, but my shows will be good.“I guess I’ll see you in two weeks then,” I told Rachel.
* * *
I arrived at the club for the first show of the week to find Dustin secluded in a corner.I walked over to say hello while he proceeded to ignore me and play with his cell phone.“Look, bro,” he said dismissively. “I’m not your friend, I’m not going to be your friend.Sorry.My wife Jennifer handles everything.Go talk to her.”
“What do you mean, talk to your wife?I didn’t even want to talk to you.I was trying to be polite,” I said, and then walked off.We were working Wednesday through Sunday, so I had five days worth of this to look forward to.Apparently though, I was going to get to talk to his wife whether I wanted to or not.
For anyone that recalls Dustin’s character from the early 90’s, anyone that remembers seeing the nerdy little kid with the hiked up pants and the goofy grin, anyone that ever thought to themselves, “That poor boy will never grow up and marry a hot chick” – you were all correct.
Her name was Jennifer. I feel a bit bad passing judgment, but she was hideous.She was built like the bottom half of an hour glass and her face was all mashed up, like she did a 100 yard dash in a gym that wasn’t quite 100 yards long.And her personality made her even uglier.
She wasted no time in explaining to me exactly how things were going to be, and she spoke every word with the saliva-filled lisp of a cartoon elephant.
“So what kind of material do you do?” she spit.
“Umm, I tell jokes.”I wasn’t sure what she was getting at.
“What kind of jokes?”
“The kind that make people laugh.”
“Like what?” she pressed.
“Like, I start with a set up, and then once I’ve put that out there, I generally toss in a punch line of some sort,” I said.“I have no idea what you’re asking me.”
“Well, here’s the thing,” she explained with the most elitist smirk a human being could possibly ever wear on their face.“Other comics have a tendency to watch Dustin’s act on the first night and then go up and do his jokes in front of him the rest of the week, and I hate to have those people fired.”
Guinness shot out of my nose. Did she just – ?No.There’s no way.“Wait a second,” I said.“Are you… insinuating that I might steal one of HIS jokes?”
“It happens,” she hissed.
The hypocrisy was almost obtrusive.Her calling me joke thief on Screech’s behalf was somewhat akin to Richard Simmons calling someone a cocksucker.It was a black fly in your chardonnay or some other Alanis Morissette lyric.It was the pot and the kettle and the dish and the spoon all packaged into one nice neat little fruit rollup of irony, and it kind of pissed me off.Technically it wasn’t an accusation yet as nothing had really happened, but it was a great indicator that a storm was probably on the horizon.
The first show went as expected.I did a half-hour in front of him, and then about a third of the way through his set, people started walking out.“You are so much funnier than him!” they would say as they filed past me.
In all honesty, I hardly knew anything about comedy five years ago.I was okay, but nothing more.I wasn’t that good; he was just that bad.To put it in perspective, if you went to a nice restaurant and they brought you a ham sandwich out as an appetizer, you might not be too impressed.But, if they brought out your entrée and it was a big Bucket of Shit, then you would probably check to see if they could bring you another one of those suddenly delicious sandwiches.That’s what happened with us.
When I walked off stage the second night, Rachel met me in the Green Room.“You’re not going to believe this,” she said.She gave me a look that indicated that she knew I might overreact to whatever she was about to tell me. “Are you ready?” she asked, and then took a deep breath.
“What was wrong with that?” I asked.“I did okay, right?”
“Jennifer said you did one of Screech’s jokes and they want me to fire you.”
I laughed at what had to be a joke. “Shut up.”
“I’m serious,” she replied.“Don’t worry, you’re finishing the week obviously.I just wanted you to know.”People continued to leave in droves as we talked.
* * *
On Friday night we were scheduled for two performances.Jennifer lumbered toward me before the first show with a hateful look on her face.“So you’re still here?” she asked.I just smiled.“That’s okay.You won’t be by the end of the night,” she said, and waddled off.
For the third time that week, I finished my set and hung out in the lobby for the inevitable exodus of audience members.The people fled the disaster, this time going so far as to try to warn the crowd waiting for the second show as they left.Dustin stormed to the back room after his failed set.
I could hear the conversation growing heated in the office as the staff began seating the second crowd.I walked in intending to watch from the perimeter, and instead found myself at the center of the argument.“Fire him or we’re leaving,” Jennifer slurred as she pointed at me.She sounded like she had a wet dishtowel in her mouth.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong,” Rachel said, defending me.
“He’s doing Dustin’s jokes,” Jennifer fired back.
“Dustin’s not even doing Dustin’s jokes!” I interjected.I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. “He’s doing Keith Alberstadt and Kinison and… do you want me to keep going?”
“Look,” Rachel said.“Nobody is getting fired.He’s not stealing any jokes, believe me.We’ll just have to work this out some other way.”
“Then we’re done here,” Jennifer said.“C’mon Dustin.”And with that, Screech stood up and followed her out the door like a puppy.She literally took his balls and went home.He left 250 fans of his sitting in the showroom ten minutes before show time, people who had chosen to spend both their night and their money to see him perform.It was a horrible thing to do, especially considering that there were no other comedians in Shreveport to cover his time.
“Oh my God,” Rachel said, stunned.“They really left.What are we going to do?”
“Start the show I guess?I’ll do as much time as I can. Don’t worry.It’ll be fine,” I said as reassuringly as I could.“And hey.Thanks for sticking up for me.”
* * *
We started the show on time.The only other act on the bill was the Master of Ceremonies, a hip-hop radio DJ named Flow, with long dreadlocks and no jokes.If it was my job to provide the comedy, it was his task to prepare the audience for the absence of their celebrity headliner.He failed miserably.
“Yo yo yo, check it out,” he said quickly from the stage.“Screech got sick as hell and had to go home, but you’re gonna love this next guy.Give it up for Slade Ham.”That was my entire intro.
The room became a roaring waterfall of conversation, everyone suddenly wondering what was going to happen.“Did we hear that right?Screech isn’t here? Wait, what?”It was incessant, even as I walked to the stage.
You learn early as a comedian that you have to capture the audience instantly.As I grabbed the microphone, my only thought was to get my first joke out immediately.Win them over quickly, no matter what.My words, however, were lost in the cacophony, just another inaudible buzz in a room full of confused voices.I desperately needed to change tactics.
I flagged down a waitress and ordered a round – a beer and a shot of James – and then I sat down on the barstool on stage and gazed out at the chaos.My drinks arrived and still I sat there, unmoving.Eventually the spectators grew curious, ending their conversations and slowly staring back at me.At least they’re paying attention now, I thought to myself.I shot my whiskey and stood up.
“So, you’re probably wondering what’s going on,” I told them.“I’m guessing you’ve figured out that Screech isn’t going to make it tonight.I’m sorry.That’s the bad news.The good news is that you’re much better off without him.You would only have been disappointed.
“I know Flow told you he got sick but that’s not entirely true, and I think you guys deserve the truth.He walked out on you.He knew you were here and he chose to run off.He’s a dick.”
“Why’d he leave?” a voice yelled out of the darkness.
“Honestly?He was doing that badly.He got embarrassed and he quit,” I replied.
A different voice arose from the back.“You’re lying!”
“Um, no.I’m not.He really did get embarrassed and that’s why he left.”
“You’re making that up!” the man repeated.
“Why would you say that?That’s exactly what happened,” I said back, and the response that came back was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard in my life.
“Because if ten years on Saved by the Bell didn’t embarrass that motherfucker, I doubt Shreveport could do it!”
It was met with uproarious laughter.“Fuck Screech!” he said. “Tell us some jokes, Funny Man!”
And on that note, the crowd and I bonded.I made it through the show unscathed, and no one left upset.It was a far longer show than I was capable of at the time, but we got through it.I haven’t crossed paths with Screech again since then, but I have occasionally run into a comic who has.“God, he’s such an asshole,” they’ll say.“Have you ever worked with him?”
“Let me tell you a story,” I always reply, “about this one time in Shreveport.”