By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Some years ago, I was the general manager of a playhouse in downtown Roanoke called Studio Roanoke.
For a period of time, Studio Roanoke hosted about three different open mic nights, one for poetry, one for spoken word performance, and one for comedy. It was at the comedy open mic that I met the one of the best stand-up comedians I have ever personally seen. He was also, paradoxically, one of the worst stand-up comedians I have ever seen.
I want to preface this by saying that I liked this kid. He showed up to the first comedy night about an hour before it started. His parents dropped him off, an amiable older couple who I expect had him pretty late in life. He was perhaps in his early 20s.
I can’t remember his name, but I do remember it was an old man’s name. We’ll call him Chester.
Chester walked in wearing a black suit and tie that hung off his frame as though he’d robbed the world’s fattest man. He was probably about 6’5”, and he loomed over me, a giant grin on his face.
“Hi!” he said excitedly, sticking out his hand. “I’m Chester!”
“Hi Chester,” I said, gripping his hand, “Ben Williams. Good to meet you.”
“Great to meet you, Benny!” he said. “I’m here to do some stand-up comedy!”
I added him to the list, and the four of us — me, Chester, and Chester’s proud parents — sat in the lobby chatting for about 45 minutes until a couple more comedians and an audience arrived.
I opened up the show, did a comedy set myself, and then retired to the light booth to watch the rest. It was a pretty forgettable evening of comedy, with the exception of Chester’s performance.
It was terrible.
Now, when I say it was terrible, I need to clarify what that means. I have watched a tremendous amount of stand-up comedy in my life, and I’ve performed some from time to time. Chester‘s style was straight from the height of the 1980s stand-up boom, an era when every bar across America held a comedy night and every aspiring comic, no matter how lacking in talent, could take the stage and do five minutes of lame observational humor about airline food and Those Clowns in Washington.
Lame observational humor was Chester’s starting point, but he also had a touch of anti-comedy to his performance — best embodied in people like Andy Kaufman, Norm MacDonald and Neil Hamburger — where the humor comes from the fact that the jokes are deliberately bad, but delivered with fake sincerity.
In Chester’s case, the sincerity wasn’t fake. It was completely genuine, and he delivered his terrible jokes with zeal. He could easily have been mistaken for an anti-comedian, but when he did a Seinfeld-esque joke about how crazy shampoo is (“Lather, rinse and repeat? Who are these people who repeat?!?”’) he believed it.
I saw Chester a couple of times at comedy night, and he was nothing if not consistent.
Sadly, the comedy night and spoken word night shows at Studio Roanoke were eventually cancelled. However, poetry night continued, in large part due to the support of a nearby women’s college.
Every month, about 20-30 women from the college would come out and read their poetry. Generally, these were empowering, heartfelt poems about being a woman, finding yourself in the world, that sort of thing. I tend to prefer poems about awful men killing other awful men on whaling ships, but I could dig some of it.
We did the poetry nights without incident for several months. And then, one night, Chester showed up, five minutes of new material in hand.
“Hey Chester,” I said, “I’m afraid we had to cancel the comedy night, this is actually poetry night.”
“Oh, I know, Benny,” he said. “I just really wanted to try out some new material. Do you think anyone would mind?”
Outside, I saw Chester’s parents’ car pulling away from the curb. He stood before me, his characteristic grin on his face, an excitable golden retriever in the body of a lanky young man.
I didn’t have it in me to break Chester’s heart.
“Nah, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I said.
The poets showed up, I announced the order, and the show began. I watched it from inside the light booth behind the audience. In front of me, I saw 30 young women sitting quietly, and seated in the middle of them like a looming tower, all 6’5” of Chester in his billowing black suit.
The women got up, one by one, and performed their poems. They were poems about finding your way in the world, poems about figuring out who you are, poems about moving on from bad relationships, poems about the complex beauty and beautiful complexity of this thing called life.
And then Chester took the stage.
“Hiya folks!” he said. “You ever go to the grocery store? I was in Kroger the other day, and I went to check out the produce section. You know how they got those little sprayers that keep the produce fresh? Well, in Kroger, right before those things go off, they make the sound of thunder! I’m like, hey, who’s this supposed to fool? Is somebody in Kroger turning to his wife and saying, “Jeez Honey, we better get outta here, there’s a storm brewing!’”
The women in the audience were silent. I could see their hatred for Chester radiating above their heads like the wavy effect on a hot desert highway.
Inside the light booth, I was hunched over and contorted, tears streaming down my face as I tried to keep my laughter at a manageable level.
I have seen good comics perform for a bad audience, and I have seen bad comics perform for a good audience, and in either case, the experience is unmemorable. But if a terrible enough comic performs for a wrong enough audience, the end result is one of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life.
Cheers to you, Chester. I’m sorry we lost touch, but I hope you’re still out there knocking them dead.