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(NOTE: Yes, you have been exhorted innumerable times, to "keep it clean!" - - - but, as you discover in this essay, "rules" are guidelines; they are never written in stone. Also, you really lose a lot of the impact of Handley's line if you were not personally acquainted with my "wild-man of comedy" reputation when I was a comedy club producer.)
Virginia Handley is perhaps one of the sweetest persons I've ever met. She reminds me a lot of Nicole, as she is so outgoing and personable, and just loves to laugh at everything or anything. Wait, let me change that - Virginia is delightful, and again, like Nicole, she's just a lot of fun to be around.
I met her doing stand-up comedy. She was one of Cantu's ex-however-you-want-to-describe-them. (I'll give you her description in just a second.)
About a decade ago, Cantu started "The Comedy/Humor Writers Association." I wrote the newsletter and served on the Board of Directors. It was a labor of love for him, and probably cost him about $100 a month. We held a monthly meeting with a guest speaker and the Board decided we needed to do a benefit because we were, well, bleeding. We figured out what to do for the benefit: have a roast of Cantu. He wasn't that much up for it, but figured, hey, if it helped the organization, I'll go along. And the woman really responsible for putting it together, Karen Warner, stressed that she wanted it to be a very classy affair to reflect well on the organization.
We lined up a very impressive bunch of comedians. (Cantu: Malcolm Kushner, featured in the December 2000 issue of "Meeting Magazine" as one of the country's current speakers ''making a splash;' Bill Farley, winner of the first comedy competition - first runner up was Robin Williams; Comedy club headliner John "Dr. Gonzo" Means; another comedy club headliner and best buddy, Tony De Paul; Comedy Day co-founder Jose Simon; and the afore mentioned longtime friend, Virginia Handley.)
I was the Master of Ceremonies. I was never a good comedian, but I was a very good emcee - I knew how to keep a show moving. Cantu had always taught in his classes, "Don't swear on stage. There's no need for it." So I didn't. When I opened the show as emcee, I had a good set - all I was doing was telling Cantu stories, so it was easy - and the next comedian, who was also one of Cantu's students, did a very clean act.
Then I introduced Virginia. Virginia was probably even a worse comedian than I was, and she acknowledged it. She opened by saying, "I couldn't figure out why they invited me to perform here tonight . . . but then it hit me . . . I f****d John Cantu, and lived." After that, the gloves came off, and the comedians became comedians - any comment was fair game.
In retrospect, it was probably the most pleasurable night I've ever spent dealing with a comedy show. The comedians weren't being butthead comedians (Cantu and I call them "scum of the earth" because their egos are out of control and you can't talk to them - all they want to do is perform for you, so you better listen). It was obscene - but pleasurable obscenity.
Virginia runs the Fund for Animals and regularly travels to Sacramento to try to influence the legislature or governor to do more to protect animal rights (and obviously, she's a vegetarian - most of the time, although sometimes she succumbs to the temptation of the flesh).
Back when I was taking people down to perform at the AIDS ward at St. Mary's Hospital, I asked Virginia to come down - not to do comedy. These people were too whacked out. (One night when I was down there, the woman in charge whispered to me, "Can you do another ten minutes?" I said, "I don't know if I have another ten minutes of material." She said, "Well, you see, someone just died, and we want to keep them in here so we can sneak the body out as it depresses them." I drudged up ten minutes of material.)
Virginia has a beautiful voice. I asked her to come down because she has a karaoke machine and is just a delight to listen to . . . and she does a perfect Patsy Cline. Comedy did not work in an AIDS ward but the woman running it kept asking me down just to do something to get them out of their beds. People with dementia are not that attentive to words. But music . . . they hear music. Virginia was a hit. (And I insisted she do Patsy Cline's "Crazy," which incidentally was written by a young Willie Nelson.)
Afterwards, I asked Virginia, "Do you mind giving me a ride down to the BART station?" because getting home from St. Mary's Hospital on the bus is a major pain in the butt - plus, it's cold out there. Virginia said, "Sure . . . I'd take you home, but on Friday nights I volunteer to read newspapers and magazines on the radio to blind people, so I wouldn't have time. But where I have to be is right near BART, so no problem."
On the drive there, she started laughing and told me, "I tried out for a musical out in Concord. The audition went really well." (What a shock - she sings beautifully, and has extensive stage experience.) She continued, "After my audition, the theater company's director asked me back to her office, and then asked me, 'So, what is your religion?' I laughed and said, 'Well of course, I'm an atheist! I'm an ex-Catholic! When you're an ex-Catholic, you don't do that middle of the road agnostic stuff, you go the whole nine yards and completely deny god!"
She told me she didn't get the part. And I never said another word. The irony of, as I said, one of the sweetest persons I've ever met, who won't eat meat because she can't stand to see animals killed, who had just come down from performing at an AIDS ward which is hellacious (and at a Catholic hospital) and had to rush to get to her volunteer reading job for the blind, being denied a job because she wasn't "moral" (religious), just stunned me. All I could think was, "Don't think! Don't think! If you think, you're going to explode!" Well, I guess Virginia is like me in a way. I don't really care what people do to me (it's more complicated than that - at times I do, but, oh, never mind). When I hear about an idiot being stupid, and, and, exercising poor judgment against someone else - it works me up.
"lived" Cantu notes: RE: Virginia Handley
Handley's line is very illustrative of another aspect of comedy writing. Edit and be succinct. She told me afterwards, "When I first started writing the joke it was three, maybe four minutes long.
"I started out with 'I couldn't figure out why they invited me to perform here at this roast tonight for Cantu. I mean when you look at the 'Zoo' and all the women that came out of there when Cantu was running it: Carrie Snow, Paula Poundstone, Nora Dunn and on and about how they couldn't get in touch with any of those women, and then because I used to date Cantu, and on and on . . .'
"I just kept cutting words out and got it down to those final 6."
Edit. Edit. Edit.
"material" Cantu notes: You can imagine how little sympathy I have for comics who complain about any aspect of a comedy club performing. There is a world beyond the four walls of any comedy club.
"wouldn't have time" Cantu notes: Hey. Here's an insider's tip. This a great way to practice for voice over work and get an audition tape free.
As you read the articles, try different voices for different parts. One voice for the straight copy and then a male or a female voice as you read the lines of people quoted in the story.
Get a copy of your on-air performances. If you read weekly, within six months, you will have 13 hours of recorded material (30 minutes a week for 26 weeks). Use your best clips for your voice-over audition tape.