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I can manage saying something now and then to make someone else laugh. And I while I don't do much in the way of public performance, I don't have anything like stage fright. But I got shivers of anxiety when reading some of the stories in _I Killed: True Stories from the Road from America's Top Comics_ (Crown Publishers) by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff. There is a strong prospect of anxiety in anticipation of being shoved onto a stage with the assignment of getting laughs from a paying audience, perhaps an audience that would feel itself better entertained if you fell flat on your face, and is willing to take steps to make this happen. The anxiety is apparent in the title of the book, the comics' aggressive cry of success, of victory over an opposition seated on the other side of the footlights. Yet the anxiety feeds back into the humor; most of the stories here are better labeled "I Died", for they are not success stories at all. But the stories of failure here are resurrected into funny stories that are bound to get laughs this time around. These true stories (true, but no doubt colored in varying degrees by the tellers, scores of now-famous comics) are a wonderful record by practitioners of a very peculiar art form.
Many of these stories come as memories of the bad old days when the comics were just starting out and if the pay was forthcoming (it wasn't always) it was measly. Many stories here involve getting stiffed of a paycheck and perhaps therefore having to sneak back into the club late at night just to have a place to sleep. Plenty of the clubs you would not want to sleep in; Judy Tenuta remembers, "It's the winter of 1981 in Chicago, with maybe ten people in the audience, when a rat (the four-legged kind) runs across the stage. Suddenly the club owner takes out a gun and blasts it, then motions for me to continue with my show." Another consistent theme here is hecklers, a real job hazard. Judy Carter withstood a barrage of thrown shot glasses, and when "... that didn't work, a guy grabbed a table cloth, charged onstage, threw it over me - and lit me on _fire_." Another theme is bombing, which happens to new comics, and practiced ones too. It sounds awful. There's even a name for a physiological reaction in such a disaster, as Kathy Griffin recalls: "I started my act and it was just a disaster... The experience was so awful that I had actual flop sweat."
There are plenty of raunchy jokes and language here; after all, these are stories generally from young people (or about what happened to the tellers when they were young people), energetic, on the road, independent, and lonely. Even Bob Hope gave a tip to Dan Bradley having to do with gaining sexual favors from the waitresses at the clubs. There are other star turns here, like a recollection by Bob Zmuda about how Zmuda would perform disguised as Andy Kaufman's alter ego Tony Clifton, whereupon Kaufman in disguise would come to the theater and heckle Zmuda ("We know you're Andy Kaufman. Why are you doing this to the public?") until Kaufman got thrown out of the room. There is a visit from an elderly Milton Berle, recalled by Ritch Shydner, milking his aged persona onstage to have the whole audience behind him. "Well, folks, I gotta go," he said at one point, resulting in a big scream "No!" from the audience and a consequent one hour set. "People were screaming and cheering as he left the stage. By the time he made it to the back of the room, he was again just a frail old man greeting a growing line of well-wishers." With all the funny stories here, there are some with real heart, like Helen Kearney's encounter with an old man in the audience who didn't seem to be enjoying the show, but came to tell her afterwards how much he had enjoyed it, and that she had helped him through the day of the first anniversary of his wife's death. There's also a sweet recollection by Mark Schiff about transporting his dying father to see his son in one last show. Mostly, however, there are ridiculous stories (like the disgruntled audience member who didn't have anything against the ventriloquist but hated the smart-talking dummy, so he broke a beer bottle over the dummy's head). There are plenty of unpleasant moments that are in these pages, now mined for laughs. That's a good survival strategy; it's a jungle out there.