I Killed is mostly an easy, fun, light read. In first person anecdotes of three pages or less, dozens of stand-up comedians tell their favorites stories of their life in the business. Some stories are better than others, and just about all of them would be more enjoyable to hear the comedian tell than to read in a book, but enough of the stories are funny enough to render this a winner.
I was somewhat more into stand-up comedy twenty or more years ago and would have been familiar with at least most of the “big names,” but I’ve barely followed it in the years since. Over half of the people in this book I’d never heard of.
The majority of the stories have to do with alcohol, drugs, and sex. A surprising number of them involve violence or a serious threat of violence.
I was struck by just how shady and genuinely dangerous life on the road on the comedy circuit apparently is. The places they tell about aren’t just dives but several levels below that—the kind of establishments that exist largely outside the law and without much semblance of civilization. Many of the stories are about run-ins with Mafia types, gang leaders, and random drunk rednecks. (Frankly the last seem the most dangerous and least amenable to reason, especially when acting as a mob. A lot of these Southern places that have live comedy sound horrible.)
Though the stories are intended to be funny and mostly succeed, I admit I also experienced a certain amount of empathic anxiety at all the tales of comedians’ panicky sprints to the parking lot to try to get to their vehicle before the angry drunks can get them. Never mind conventional stage fright and the anxiety of performing in front of people; I’d be a lot more unnerved just being around so many creepy, violent people.
And the accommodations are shockingly bad too. Generally the club owners put you up somewhere for free if you’re performing for them, but it might be at some scary, filthy place with roaches scurrying around and bullet holes in the walls. Or, in one case, comedians stay in the club owner’s attic. I’ve stayed at very cheap motels in the middle of nowhere on the road many times, but even those places were well above what is described here.
Speaking of the dangerous gigs, Carlos Mencia tells of getting into an exchange of insults with some front row hecklers who turned out to be the famous rappers and gangsters Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and The D.O.C. Things got ugly when one of them angrily called out—with no hint of humor—“I’m gonna bust a cap in your fuckin’ ass!”
I started to get scared, and then from the other side of the room I heard a deep voice: “Naw, you ain’t, bitch. You started that shit, view it.” I looked over, and there was just this mass of darkness. It was just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. When I finally got to focus, I realized it was Shaq, who then told them to shut the fuck up.
Years later Dr. Dre initiated a friendly chat with Mencia and told him matter-of-factly that they absolutely would have shot him that night if Shaq hadn’t intervened.
Among the other highlights is one where Rodney Dangerfield (who appears in many of the stories) takes a young comic under his wing, bringing him on the road with him to Florida and then Vegas. At one point, after they’ve been drinking and gambling at the Aladdin, Dangerfield says they should take a walk up the Strip to the MGM, but they find it’s dead when they get there. Walking back to the Aladdin, Dangerfield decides he can’t make it back to their rooms to go to the bathroom, so they circle behind the hotel and proceed to urinate together behind some giant dumpsters.
Rodney turns to the lad and says “Welcome to the big time!”
I was pleasantly surprised by Jeff Foxworthy, someone I’d heard of certainly, and seen a few moments of here and there, but never really got into, or saw enough to get into. I found his style—in writing at least—to be as funny as anyone in the book. I laughed out loud multiple times at his contribution. Example: “All I really knew about my future wife’s father was that he wore suits, both to his job and to church. My family didn’t even wear long pants to court appearances.”
The overwhelming majority of the stories are slapstick, wacky antics of—as I say—booze, drugs, sex, and violence. But once in a while there’s something a little more serious, a little deeper, intended as much for the heart as the funny bone.
Like the story of George Wallace taking a young comic aside who has just bombed and is distraught about it, and telling him, “Tonight was the best thing that could have happened to you. You will now either get out of the business and lead a normal life, or you’ll work so hard this will never happen again,” a lesson the young comic repeats fifteen years later to a still younger comic after a particularly demoralizing failure.
But really there’s very little of the uplifting or heartwarming stuff until the very end. The book then closes with multiple contributions in that vein, and they’re wonderful.
Co-author Mark Schiff contributes a moving story about how his father, who loved nothing more than watching his son perform, insisted on going to his show when he was on the verge of death from cancer, to experience it one final time.
The daughter of Moe Howard (of the Three Stooges) recalls bonding with her father on the road, and returning decades later to a spot where they shared a particularly memorable, simple day together. In a sense the story seems to go nowhere—the expected payoff doesn’t materialize—but you realize that the point of the story isn’t in the details but in the mere fact that she wanted an opportunity to bring back to her mind a cherished relationship. It’s an honor to be present when she gets that opportunity and shares it.
Vicki Barbolak tells of being hired to perform her comedy at a funeral of all places, and how paradoxically it went very well and taught her a lot about the compatibility of laughter and grief, especially when celebrating the life of an extraordinary woman who had lived her life with great joy and humor.
Finally, Bernie McGrenahan recounts the life-changing experience of performing for the troops in Bosnia, especially their last stop:
We were informed that there were twenty soldiers atop a mountain, guarding an electronic tower, and they would be there for three months. They had no stoves or sleeping facilities, just tents and sleeping bags. Food was picked up twice daily from the next-nearest camp, two and a half hours down the mountain via Hummer, the only vehicle tough enough to drive over the unstable terrain. Isolation doesn’t begin to describe the situation of these twenty-year-old soldiers.
He and his fellow comic do their routines, and the soldiers absolutely love it and couldn’t be more grateful. Then they must leave, and they are overwhelmed by the contemplation of the barren life the soldiers will now resume.
I realized, then and there, what it was for me to be a comedian. It was not about having your name on the marquee in Vegas, or getting a standing ovation from two thousand, or having your own sit-com on a major network. Being a comedian was about the sound of joy and laughter coming from those twenty young American soldiers on a hilltop somewhere in Bosnia.
And so I Killed ends.
I’m very glad the authors took the risk of including contributions that some might find hokey or incompatible with the general raunchy humor of the book, and in fact closed with them. It lifts the book from one I could comfortably recommend as having a decent number of laughs to one I can recommend with greater enthusiasm for also including some beautiful depth and humanity.