Throughout the next however many months I’ll be counting down my 100 favorite albums, because why not. I’m up to number eighty-five.
In 1995, when I was 31, I enrolled in The Stand-Up Comedy Workshop at New York City’s The New School, an institution whose uninspired name does a disservice to the many great courses offered there. This class was taught by Scott Blakeman, a comedian whose big credit at that time was playing one-half of a same-sex couple in a nationally-televised IKEA commercial, the first time a same-sex couple appeared in a national TV spot. It caused an uproar among a certain segment of the US population, who objected to graphic images of homosexuals shopping for a dining room table. “Ikea is attempting to normalize and glorify this sinful lifestyle by showing two men flaunting their Jokkmokk while children are watching!”
Alumni of the class include Jon Stewart and Caroline Rhea, and my fellow students yearned to achieve the same stand-up heights. I don’t know if any of them did. The only classmate I recall is Michael, a 23-year-old from New Jersey who did a bit about Easter at his house. All I remember of it is the punchline, when his dad responded to his question as to where the Easter eggs were hidden with “They’re in my asshole, asshole.” I didn’t get the joke; I’m ignorant about Christian holiday traditions. I *THINK* that for those who celebrate it, Easter commemorates the resurrection of their lord and savior, Jesus Christ, though I haven’t the foggiest how the eggs fit into the story. “Welcome back to earth, Jesus! Here’s a colorful egg I extracted from my father’s rectum.”
“Um, thanks. I’ll put it in the cabinet next to the myrrh. Note to self: create a registry at Crate & Barrel.”
In our house we observed Passover, when during the Seder my dad would hide a piece of matzo not in an orifice but perhaps under a seat cushion or in the fireplace. Whoever found the piece of matzo got a dollar, the matzo, and hands covered in soot.
My goal in taking this class was not to be a famous comic. I was trying to overcome shyness. When I was around other people my anxiety was like Snoop Dogg – super high, regardless of whether I was with a stranger, someone I knew a little, or those at my family’s Passover Seder. My tendency was to not say a word. Of course, if I was super high like Snoop Dogg, I wouldn’t feel anxious, but I’ve never been one to smoke the marijuana. A treatment for fears is exposure therapy, where one is exposed to that which scares them in increments so as to reduce the fear. For example, if someone is afraid of snakes, they lessen that fear by first holding a small garden snake and work their way up to bigger snakes until they’ve eliminated their fear and can wear a boa constrictor around their neck like it’s a fashion accessory.
The New School class was my garden snake. Each week, with Scott’s help and encouragement, we’d hone our jokes. I also used what I learned from years of listening to comedy albums from the likes of George Carlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, and my favorite – Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks’ 2000 and Thirteen, which is not stand-up but an extended improvisational piece in which Brooks portrays a man who is 2,013 years old and Reiner interviews him about historical events and figures, such as Jesus Christ, who the 2,013 year old man calls “a quiet lad. He came into the store. He never bought anything.” And Paul Revere, who the Brooks character calls “an anti-Semite bastard,” afraid that Jews were moving into his neighborhood, yelling all night “They’re coming, they’re coming! The Yiddish! They’re coming!” When corrected by Reiner’s character that he misheard Revere, the older man, feeling bad about skipping Revere’s funeral, says “Ooh, I’m gonna have to send his wife a note.”
From these great comics I learned about timing, word choices, joke structure and sentence structure. In my early routines I posed deep philosophical questions, such as “If Dionne Warwick had a Psychic Friends Network in the sixties, would she have recorded ‘Do You Know the Way To San Jose?’” I tackled social issues with delicacy and taste: “Did you know Michael Jackson is primarily vegetarian? He eats little meat.” I would never tell that joke in 2023, as we’ve since learned that pedophilia isn’t all fun and games. These bits were a start, while I aspired to the level of the 2,013 year old man telling how Moses gave the tablets containing the Ten Commandments to his parents, who put them over the mantelpiece. “And the TV man comes. ‘Ooh, look! Oh!’…and they have a $40 frame around them.”
My first gig came courtesy of Scott, who called me at my day job one afternoon. That night he was hosting a comedy mixer for singles at the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and one of his acts dropped out. “Would you like to take his spot?” I was immediately filled with a combination of excitement and panic, like when I got my first car, a Ford Pinto. In the 1970s, Pintos had a reputation for catching on fire if hit. If I could survive my late teens and early twenties a light bump from becoming a flaming fajita, I was confident I wouldn’t perish spending seven minutes trying to get laughs from Jews looking for a date. That’s why I took the stand-up class – to make single (and coupled) Jews (and non-Jews) laugh. Time for a bigger snake. I said yes to Scott’s offer.
That night, in a room brightly lit with faintly buzzing fluorescent bulbs, facing a dozen rows of white plastic chairs filled with chosen people looking to be chosen, I made my stand-up debut. “I’m from New York. Has anybody here ever been to New York?” Some chuckles. I told the Dionne Warwick joke. I told the Michael Jackson joke. I did my routine about The Mime Café, a theme restaurant where the waitstaff mimed the specials of the day, acting out chicken, fish and the big crowd-pleaser, vegetables. I got more laughs as my set went on. Clearly at least one Jew scored that night. I imagine that right now, somewhere on W. 86th Street in Manhattan, Irving and Sheila Rabinowitz are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, saying “Remember the night we met at the JCC? That comedian was so funny, not to mention handsome, and thin.”
My boa constrictor was The Comic Strip, an Upper East Side club where Scott served as emcee on Wednesday nights. Over the years that club hosted everybody – Pryor, Carlin, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, etc. As my “graduation” from The Stand-Up Comedy Workshop, Scott gave me five minutes on the Comic Strip’s stage. Taking the stage before me was Janeane Garofalo, who by that time already had two comedy specials on HBO under her belt. Her hilarious story recounting a holiday she recently spent at the home of her friend’s parents was equally terrifying (I’m not that funny!) and comforting (she loosened up the audience!). Janeane left the club before I went on, though her positive vibes were still felt. My set went well, and Scott put me up on subsequent Wednesdays, where I kept honing my skills.
My last performance at The Comic Strip served as my audition for the club’s booker, Lucien Hold. I told the audience about a date I went on. “The guy was – oh, I date guys. Yes, I am…single. And I’m out of the closet. Is anybody here in the closet? Raise your hand if you’re in the closet. Everybody here is out? Faboo!” Lucien watched my set and afterwards gave me feedback. “You’re very funny, but as it is, I’m under pressure to put a woman comic up each night, so if I put a gay guy on stage, I can’t put on a woman,” adding for good measure “Why do all gay guys have that voice?” If I had to choose between Garofalo and Schwartz, I’d also choose Garofalo, but the public never said “It’s Elton John OR Kiki Dee.” Let them enjoy both of us. Don’t go breaking their hearts!
Bookers of less gay-hostile venues caught my Comic Strip sets and gave me stage time at their clubs. I performed at Gotham Comedy Club and at Stand Up NY and at Don’t Tell Mama, where in the audience one night was Joy Behar, who told me after I left the stage “You’re very funny.” I don’t watch The View, but I imagine she frequently mentions me during the part of the program where they talk about stuff. “I saw this comedian, Glenn Schwartz, who was so funny, not to mention handsome, and thin.”
I often added new, meaningful and relevant material to my set, like my routine comparing the extremely high notes Mariah Carey sang in every goddamn hit she had to the sound of an outgoing fax, and my bit about how loud Laura Branigan sings the chorus of her hit song “Gloria.” “It’s not that there isn’t anybody calling. It’s that Gloria can’t hear the phone ringing over Laura Branigan’s singing!” If Mel Brooks can joke about people who were around centuries ago, I can talk about a pop song that was released in 1982. Judging from the reactions I got from audiences, people were starving for humorous analyses of Laura Branigan’s oeuvre. Folks were noticing me, including reviewers for Backstage and other publications.
I expanded from shows for mainstream audiences to gigs specifically for gay audiences, including participation in StandUp NY’s Funniest Gay New Yorker contest, where I debuted a new bit about how to meet guys. I was surprised how well my set went over at a lesbian bar in Brooklyn. As I told the audience when I thanked them before exiting the stage, “I was nervous about this show because everybody knows that lesbians hate men and have no sense of humor, but you were fantastic!” Sincerity and gratitude are important, as was currying their favor by tossing a handful of Indigo Girls CDs from the stage to some lucky lezzies. We all left that night closer to fine.
I performed at a standing room only Gay Pride celebration at Times Square’s world-famous 300 seat venue Caroline’s On Broadway. By this time I was self-assured, confident in my material, and able to address the masses. I fed off the energy of my audiences, so the bigger they were, the better I was. Comic Strip Shmomic Shmip.
One of the most amazing things about the 2000 And Thirteen album is that the jokes were born from improvisation. Aspiring to reach that level of comedy, I took improv classes. In my stand-up performances I used what I learned – mostly the confidence to just be in the moment and trust things will work out – to banter with audience members. I got good at that and soon I was getting paid jobs hosting comedy shows. (Improv is also good for helping overcome shyness. Scripted conversation can only get one so far. “Hi, I’m Glenn. So how about that song ‘Gloria’ by Laura Branigan? Oh, you have to leave? You just remembered you have a dental appointment? At 10:30 PM? It was nice meeting you!”)
I performed at a club in a blue collar town in Pennsylvania called Bananas. The club was called Bananas, not the town, though how great would it be to live in Bananas, Pennsylvania? “Yeah, I used to live in Bananas, Pennsylvania. It had appeal. I was planning on staying there till a ripe old age, but I had to split. I slipped up. I met someone who was very sweet. I was getting mushy. We started monkeying around, but they were still green. Next thing I know I was chased out of town by an angry bunch. I’m not pudding you on.” If you ever see me on stage doing that bit, you have my permission to rush the stage and set me on fire. Succeed where my Ford Pinto failed. That’s called pun-ishment. (Sorry. Please put away your lighter.)
I was at Bananas the club because a friend from my day job at Sony Music, Kathy, became my agent, and she connected me to the agent of Gabe Kaplan of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, who got me paid bookings, including at Bananas, where I hosted three shows – one on Friday night and two on Saturday. At the Friday night show, a man up front made sure I and others in the audience knew he was uncomfortable. When I did my “I’m gay and out of the closet. Raise your hand if you’re in the closet” joke, while most of the audience laughed, he let out an “Oh, boy,” and not an “Oh, boy” like “Billy, we’re going to Disneyland for your birthday!” “Oh, boy!” or “Glenn, I’d like you to meet Mel Brooks.” “Oh, boy!”, but a different “Oh, boy,” a more fearful “Oh, boy,” like when you’re in the jungle and see a jaguar coming at you from your left, a lion heading toward you from your right, a hippopotamus in front of you, and, when you turn to run, you see an anaconda. You never did conquer your fear of snakes. “Oh, boy.”
The Saturday shows at Bananas went great. At one of them was a bachelor party. I flirted with the groom-to-be, which his friends loved and that feeling of positivity and having fun spread through the entire audience. The groom-to-be was a good sport when I singled him out to give him my tips on meeting guys. I imagine he still tells his wife “I wish you were at my bachelor party. That comedian was so funny, not mention handsome, and thin.”
Positivity and good vibes also emerged from the audience during my set at the opening of Gilda’s Club in Hackensack, New Jersey. Paid gigs are great, but there’s something more rewarding about donating my time to help a worthy cause while lifting people’s spirits, even if only for a few minutes. Named after Gilda Radner, one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live and a comedy idol of mine, Gilda’s Clubs offer support for cancer patients, survivors, their families and friends with workshops, lectures, networking events, and, in my case, an afternoon of comedy.
In a similar vein, some of my favorite shows were the ones I did at a place on14th Street in Manhattan that offered programs for adults with developmental disabilities. My improv training came in handy, as it was clear just seconds after taking the stage that my prepared set was going out the window. Punch lines were not necessary. Me: “Hi, I’m Glenn Schwartz.” Audience member #1: “Hi, Glenn Schwartz!” Audience member #2: “Hi, Glenn Schwartz!” Audience member #3: “Hi, Glenn Schwartz!” Me: “I’m from New York.” Roars of laughter. Several audience members: “New York!” Attendees would shout things to me. Not nasty things, like “Get off the stage!,” but things that showed they were engaged and having a good time, and isn’t that the point of going to a comedy show? They were hands down the most appreciative audiences I’ve ever performed for. I got the feeling that so seldom did people come in to entertain them. They relished being seen and heard. As a (former?) shy person, I understood that. Their gratitude and delight has stayed with me two-plus decades later.
Also staying with me two-plus decades later is a fundraiser for a Catholic hospital in New Jersey I took part in. My audience was dozens of septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and one table of middle-aged nuns and priests. In a banquet room in the medical center the patrons were served dinner, which was proceeded by the entertainment. In previous years they had fashion shows. This year they switched it up by having three stand-up comedians, including Glenn the gay Jew atheist. I went on second. I started off well. Knowing they were accustomed to fashion shows, I did some runway, struck poses. That was met with smiles and laughter. Then I launched into my set. “I was raised in New Jersey. Has anybody here ever been to New Jersey?” Chuckles. “Last night I went on a date with a guy. Yes, I am…single.” Grins and giggles. Then I did a bad bad thing. I hope you, my reader, don’t turn on me when I tell you what I said, as it showed very poor judgment on my part. No, I didn’t mock them for where I had heard they hid Easter eggs. I used a word. A specific word. A bad word. A filthy word. A disgusting word. A coarse, crude, nasty, profane, tasteless word, quite possibly the most offensive word one could say. I used the d word, and not in reference to Misters Van Patten or Van Dyke. What was wrong with me? No comedian had ever achieved success using such salty language. My act was actually very clean, though I tiptoed into PG territory that night, thinking “This audience is all adults. They can handle a little d*@#.” Big mistake. There was an audible gasp in the hall. The Catholic seniors turned on me, as if I was the Jew who personally nailed their savior to the cross. I swear I wasn’t anywhere near Jerusalem that day. It was clear I lost ‘em, and there was no getting them back, even if I were to toss out Lawrence Welk 78s. God forgives. His flock? Not so much. “Get off the stage!,” yelled a woman who looked old enough to have been at the crucifixion with her grandkids. I felt like I was in the jungle surrounded by a jaguar, a lion, and a hippopotamus, and while they moved slowly due to their age, they could probably take me out by pelting me with dinner rolls, dishes and dentures. Still, I continued, as I was getting paid $200 for doing a 20-minute set, so
goddammit golly, I’m doing a 20-minute set. The only people who laughed at my remaining material were the priests and nuns, so I directed the rest of my set toward them in particular. “So, fathers and sisters, let me give you my tips on how to meet guys.” WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME? I should go back to being shy. When my time was up the emcee introduced the third comedian, but the audience was in no mood, so she bailed after four minutes (and still got her $200!) and the next year it was back to a fashion show.
I quit performing stand-up the following year, not because I set back relations between Jews and Catholics two thousand years, and not because I was completely cured of my shyness. Among its other effects on me, the September 11 attacks took away my desire to perform stand-up. What I talked about on stage felt so trivial in the grand scheme of things. Before that day I hadn’t realized that there are far more horrifying things in the world than Mariah Carey’s (overused) upper register.
Sometimes I miss performing for audiences under 70 years old. I still “study” my favorite comedy routines from Patton Oswalt, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Janeane Garofalo, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Wanda Sykes, and plenty of others. Their routines are in my iTunes library and are on my gym workout playlist. I’ve heard people say that don’t understand the appeal of comedy records, as once you know the punch line, why listen again? Well, everyone knows how “Bohemian Rhapsody” ends, but does that take away their enjoyment of it? Bismillah, no! I enjoy stand-up routines that same way I enjoy songs. It could be the words; it could be the vocal delivery. The same way I appreciate “Billie Jean” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Gloria” every time I hear them, I never tire of hearing Carl Reiner ask the 2,013 year old man if prior to worshiping God, did man believe in a superior being. “Yes, a guy Phil….One day Philip was hit by lightning. And we looked up and said ‘There’s something bigger than Phi-il.’”
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