June 2013 - A Tough Room for Comedy

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

My career as a stand-up comic lasted roughly forty minutes. I was not “discovered,” I was not paid, and I was not the least bit interested in a return engagement. The only good thing about failing at stand-up comedy is that—by definition—no one is laughing at you.
Back in the eighties, I got talked into doing a stand-up routine as part of a charity benefit. The Los Angeles Daily Journal had a wonderful writer named Milt Policzer who admired my column.1 He was putting together a benefit at a comedy club in Encino and he asked me to do twenty minutes. It was for a good cause, and it was a chance to meet Fritz Coleman—now the weather guy at KNBC, but thirty years ago an aspiring comedian. I said yes.
The benefit was a breeze. All my friends drove to Encino2 and laughed at my jokes. I got to sit in the green room with Fritz Coleman. We raised a substantial sum of money. I chalked it up as a “W.”
Then, a week later, the owner of the club called me. He’d lost his opening act for the week and offered me a job filling in Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. He said I could do three days without joining the union, and if it went well, he’d get me “a card and a contract.”3 It looked like easy money. It looked like fun.
It was neither. My friends could not make the 150-mile round trip on a Tuesday night, so I went out alone. Unfortunately, I was almost literally alone. The staff—a bartender, a cook, two waitresses, the manager, two legit comedians, and me—outnumbered the customers.
The customers consisted of a newlywed couple who spent the whole night necking in the back of the room, three guys from UCSB who had driven down just to heckle the comedians, and a drug dealer waiting all evening for his connection to show. He was less likely to laugh with every passing minute.
I did twenty minutes of comedy in the pitch-black dark (with stage lights on, you see nothing of the audience) and never heard a sound except the heckling of the Gaucho sophomores. Not a laugh, not a titter, not a throat-clearing. Except for the unkind comments of the frat boys and the smell of my own flop sweat, it was like a sensory-deprivation chamber with waitresses.
Sustained failure is unnerving. I walked off the stage, told the manager I was retiring, and returned to my job as a prosecutor the next day with renewed dedication.
I mention it now because it reminds me that comedy can be a difficult gig. The world has become a very tough room. You can’t do satire if real life is more absurd than what you can dream up. I’m sitting around all month trying to think of funny things to say and non-comedians are coming up with stuff that puts my imagination in the shade.
This month, much of it originates in the South. I find this encouraging because if you include Callaway County, Missouri, as part of the South,4 I am the first member of my father’s family born outside the Confederacy. If there is a streak of crazy comedy in southerners, I consider it a part of my birthright.
But I may have been west of the Mason-Dixon line too long. I can’t keep up with these folks.
There’s a town in Georgia that has passed an ordinance requiring the head of every household to own a gun. Honest. LA Times, April 2, 2013. Nelson, Georgia, about 40 miles north of Atlanta, now requires every householder to own a gun.
I’m not gonna spend a lot of time railing about this. I have some strong feelings about gun control. Last year more people were killed by gun violence than automobile accidents—a trend I think will continue until we develop more accurate automobiles.
And I’m offended that I can buy an AK-47 at the swap meet, but if I want sparklers for the 4th of July, I need to engage in interstate commerce and violate my own city’s laws. It seems to me that government chooses some very strange times to decide when to intrude in my personal choices and when not to.
But the point I started out to make about the Georgia law isn’t that it’s good or bad, but that it sounds like the premise for a Judd Apatow movie. Doesn’t it? Can’t you just imagine a movie built around this that stars everyone from the Hangover movies? Mild-mannered Nelson homeowner Bradley Cooper is reluctant to buy a gun because he has children at home, so Zach Galifianakis takes it upon himself to get him one. He and Ed Helms steal one, but it turns out to have been used to kill the son of a mob boss and the mob is out to find the gun, and poor Cooper and his buddies have to match wits with the Sopranos while driving around Nelson in the General Lee.5
That’s what I mean about real life making it hard to do comedy. The crazy ideas are being co-opted by city councils.
And homeowners’ associations. According to The Week, “A Florida homeowners’ association has decided to ban all outdoor play to keep neighborhood children safe.” Yep. No bicycles, baseballs, skates, or skateboards. No running, no playing tag, and no “acting boisterously on the association property.” All play will be indoors. Nerf life.
Okay, make up your own “bombing Vietnam to save it” joke here. I’m too demoralized. On my best day, I could not think up a premise that crazy. I brainstorm for hours, trying to come up with something goofy and bizarre, and the Board of Directors of the Persimmon Place Homeowners’ Association glides by me with something orders-of-magnitude nuttier without even working up a sweat.    
“We don’t want the kids’ childhoods to be dangerous, so we will order that they not have childhoods.” To keep them from playing in the street, we will ban playing. How do I compete with that?
But the coup de grace has been administered by a judge in Kentucky. There, so help me, “A Kentucky teen was charged with disorderly conduct for falsely yelling ‘bingo’ in a bingo hall.”6
Go ahead. Read it again. Read it over and over if you want. Kid was arrested for yelling bingo—falsely yelling bingo.
And what do you think the judge said? What do you think he compared “falsely yelling bingo” to? Think about it. In the entire history of American jurisprudence, what’s the only precedent for a “false yelling” case? 
Yep. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
I kid you not.
I’ve never been in a bingo hall. I can’t really speak to the level of tension and anticipation in a bingo hall. But offhand, the only thing I can think of that you could yell in a bingo hall that would be comparable to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater . . . is “Fire!”
But that’s not how they saw it in Kentucky. Judge there—obviously a lot better qualified than I to gauge the seriousness of inaccurate bingo calls—found the teen guilty of disorderly conduct and ordered him not to say the word “bingo” for six months.
This sounds like an easy probation term to obey.7 But nothing about criminal sentencing is ever easy. Suppose the kid’s mom plays bingo. Dad comes home from work, says, “Where’s your mother?” Kid either lies to his father now or to his cellmate later.
So as innocuous as it seems, this could be pretty harsh. But, as the judge explained, serious measures were called for. “People take their bingo very seriously.”
See, this is my problem. If people are taking bingo seriously, it’s hard to figure out what they will laugh about. And my contract with this publication requires that I figure it out every month.
It’s easier being a judge. I’m not required to own a gun, nobody yells “Bingo” in my courtroom, nobody drives down from Santa Barbara to heckle me, and they let me play in the street.
In fact, members of the appellate bar have been known to urge me to do just that. I believe they recommended a busy street. A freeway may have been mentioned.
(1) He was a columnist, not a critic.
(2) I’ve got great friends. If I can talk God into judging me by the company I keep, I’m a lock for heaven.
(3) Translation: He had a real comedian lined up to open on the weekend, but needed a warm-up act for the weeknight shows.
(4) And it’s hard not to. Pound for pound there was more secesh sentiment in Callaway County than in Richmond.
(5) If you’re too young to remember Bo and Luke Duke and their adventures in Hazzard County, Georgia in the early eighties, count yourself lucky. Most of us who can remember The Dukes of Hazzard wish we couldn’t.
(6) This is The Week magazine, again. They’re probably having a problem similar to mine. It’s gotta be tough to be a serious news magazine when the whole world seems to be inhaling helium.
(7) And the kid better obey the terms of his probation. You violate, get sent to jail, and then have to admit to your cellmate that you’re in stir for bad language, you’re in trouble. If you then have to admit the bad language was “bingo,” you’re toast.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.