Texas is vast. It is a sprawled out, multifaceted, cocky piece of real estate. That swagger surfaces early, too, particularly if you’ve ever entered the state from the east. A bright green sign proudly displays the distance to other cities. Orange, Texas is four miles away and El Paso is 857, just in case you thought it was going to be a quick sprint from Louisiana to New Mexico.
“Howdy,” says Texas. “This ain’t Rhode Island.”
As a comedian I have traveled the entire state. Literally, border to border to border to border, there are very few cities that I haven’t heard of. Tiny towns – villages really – dot the landscape, often little more than single traffic lights and a corner store set up to service the surrounding farms. There are mid-sized cities too, with their Wal-Marts and community colleges, and there are larger ones yet, with real universities and more than one intersecting highway. Then there are the Big Three. Houston, Austin, and Dallas.
And we pretty much hate each other. The three cities couldn’t be more different. Houston is gritty and a little dirty, more Mexican than American it seems sometimes, like a Latino Darth Vader. Dallas is shiny and pretentious; a rich but overweight cheerleader that nobody thinks is hot but her. Then there’s Austin, immaculate because the hippies keep it that way.
The comedy scenes are quite different as well. Houston was home to Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo, Thea Vidale, and the legendary Outlaw Comics. Austin arrested Mitch Hedburg. Dallas, well, Dallas has never really done anything at all.
I was among the group of comics that set off that morning for a down and dirty, Houston themed one-nighter at Austin’s flagship comedy club. Johnny, Rob, Andy, and I limped onto the freeway around noon, painfully early for people who do this sort of thing for a living. Every one of us was a veteran comic, but none like Andy. Andy was one of the original Outlaw Comics and had been doing comedy almost as long as the other three of us combined. As we drove toward Austin, he told story after story and we happily listened to them all.
“So Kevin Spacey falls down some stairs coming out of this gay bar late one night in England,” Andy says. His way of saying it is so matter-of-fact that you instantly trust it, even if you can’t confirm the source. “People are snapping pictures of the injury and he knows it’s going to be all over the news. He doesn’t like to discuss his sexuality publicly, so instantly he gets on the phone with his publicist and they concoct this whole story about how he was out walking his dog and slipped and fell. I mean, sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, but he loves his dog that much. That would be the story they decided. People would buy that.
“So they set up this huge press conference for early in the morning so he can get in front of the controversy and explain that he was just out taking care of his furry little best friend. Then Spacey calls his assistant. Turns out his assistant at the time used to work for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, so this was barely on the radar for weird shit that he’s had to deal with, but still, it’s the middle of the night. The assistant answered the phone all sleepy, and Spacey said…” Andy paused for a second, giving it that flawless half-step that comes from thirty years of comedy.
“I’m going to need you to go buy me a dog.”
And so the entire trip went, four comics riffing in a car together all the way up Highway 71 and through La Grange. After the show that night, Andy retired to the hotel, his hell-raising days behind him, while Johnny, Rob, and I ducked off with some people from the show to finish off the night. Johnny’s friend Mike knew a bar a block from the comedy club and we ended up on the patio with some Austin locals.
Ninety percent of the 18-34 year old, male demographic in Austin looks exactly alike. Striped V-neck tee (or a not striped, but with a picture of Che Guevara or a Nintendo controller), glasses (regardless of whether or not their vision is bad), knit cap (despite being summer in Texas), and skinny jeans (how do you get those on? Do you unscrew your foot before you put your leg through and then reattach it?).
I happened to be sitting next to their leader, who had replaced his Chris Martin-esque hat with a pair of sunglasses at 1:45 in the morning. “I had them on when I got here, man,” he said, which meant he had to have gotten there at 7:00, which meant he either was lying or that he had been at a completely dead bar for seven hours, which meant that either way he was probably a complete loser. As if to confirm my suspicions, he slid a business card across the table that had the words “The Poet of Funk” printed across a picture of him combing his hair while wearing his signature sunglasses.
“I do alternative hip hop,” he said.
“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I replied, and turned back around to my friends.
Rob was talking to the girl that ran the bar’s karaoke night, or rather was talking directly to her boobs, and Johnny was engrossed in another conversation… and next to them sat an eight-foot tall stuffed banana with a huge smiling face and dreadlocks. Johnny isn’t a small guy, but the massive fruit dwarfed him. I blinked a few disbelieving blinks, and when I opened my eyes again it was still there. I glanced around for an explanation, but a round of shots came out before I could ask.
“That’s our mascot,” the bartender said as he set the drinks down. “The Rasta Banana.”
“That’s some real shit, right there,” the Poet echoed, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon. “It’s dope than a motherfucker.”
And I knew at that exact moment there was no way we were leaving without stealing that banana.
A heist is a difficult thing to orchestrate, particularly if you’ve never orchestrated a heist before. Every plan that began to form dissolved just as quickly. I was the Danny Ocean of the group, and I needed things if we were going to get away with something this big – things like a helicopter, a flatbed truck, and Pierce Bronson – and we had none of them. “Gimme your keys,” I said to Mike.
“Why? You’re not driving my car.”
“Of course not. I just want to, um, look at them.”
“Oh. Okay,” he said, and then flipped me his keys.
It didn’t matter that there was no way the banana was going to fit in his car with the rest of us. That was a math problem. I dropped out of college so that I wouldn’t have to do math, and I wasn’t about to take it back up again. Getting it in the car was not my responsibility though. I had bigger problems. The patio was still full of beatnik kids and bar employees, and someone had to get them inside. I slipped the key to Johnny and whispered some quick instructions. He and Mike were going to be the extraction team.
Rob’s job was the girl. I texted him from across the patio, and he glanced up at me to let me know he’d gotten the message. Get karaoke chick out of here. Instantly he stood up and headed out into the parking lot with her. We didn’t see him until the next morning, but I was amazed at his efficiency. No one had told him about the plan to steal the banana. He just followed the order unquestioningly, like a Secret Service agent or one of Caesar Milan’s dogs. It was perfect. I can’t imagine what he said to her, but it worked.
“Hey!” I yelled suddenly to the remaining few hipsters. “Shots on me at the bar. You can tell me about your dope ass hip hop,” I said, and three skinny vegan rappers followed me inside. Positioned strategically at the bar, I ordered four well whiskeys straight. It was the rot gut stuff that no one drinks without a mixer, but I needed the extra time that their reaction would buy us.
I glanced over their shoulders as they looked hesitantly at their shot glasses. The banana was slowly moving across the patio toward the exit. Maneuvered from behind by Johnny, it jumped another jerky foot every second or so, like a big, yellow, stop-motion Gumby, and then suddenly it was gone, tucked miraculously into the back of Mike’s vehicle. I dropped a twenty on the bar. “Enjoy the shots!”
“Yo, check me out on Facebook!” the Poet tried, but I was already out the door.
We descended on Mike’s house like a swarm of drunken bees, each one of us recounting our part of the heist, toasting the banana, and flopping down on top of it like it was some huge, yellow Santa Claus. It moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the back patio, finally free of its counter-culture captors and in the company of (in our minds, anyway) giants. I couldn’t tell you how many pictures were taken both of and with the banana that night, but I know that it was more than one, and that that was probably still too many.
The next morning found us incredibly puzzled as to what to do with it. Andy just shook his head, happy that he had chosen to retire for the night. “I’m too old for this shit,” he said, though we knew better. Rob wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of tying it to the top of his car for the three hour trip back Houston, so we finally decided that we should just return it. Not a creative return like in The Thomas Crown Affair, where we painted it to look like a Golden Tee machine, snuck it back into the bar, and then set off the sprinkler system, but a simple delivery of the mascot back to its rightful owners with an apology.
“We can’t brag about stealing it if we don’t return it first,” Johnny said, and we all agreed. It was never about keeping it anyway, we realized. This was a fraternity stunt, and we were in definitely in a fraternity of sorts. It was one that went back generations, comedians roaming the countryside, both telling stories and creating them, and the stunt wasn’t worth pulling if we couldn’t talk about it later. As enticing as the thought of a bar full of hipsters crying over their loss was, a good tale is always worth more to a comedian than any stuffed banana, eight-foot tall and Jamaican or not.