When people find out you’re a professional standup comedian, they invariably ask, “What’s the worst gig you’ve ever had?” I never mind the question, because I have such an obvious answer: the one with the Nazis and the plague of frogs.
Yes, a literal plague of frogs.
What you need to know about the business of standup is that, at the highest echelon, it’s recording an hour-long special at Carnegie Hall, while at the grimy rung at the bottom of the ladder it’s one-nighter bar gigs. Somebody hooks up a microphone to a sound system and shoves it into the corner between the men’s room door and the Golden Tee machine.
The most low-rent bookers cold-call bars in states they’ve never been to and promise to send them all the components of a build-your-own comedy show for a few hundred bucks. These bookers don’t care much about the specifics of the bar other than that they get a set commission, regardless of whether or not the venue has any capacity to promote or put on a decent show… or if, say, that random bar they called turns out to be a hangout for white supremacists.
That was the case in the tiny, quiet Midwestern hellscape of Missouri Valley, Iowa, where I was scheduled to do a show just a couple years into my career.
Dozens of bloody frog corpses in the road is pretty much the definition of a bad omen, but I drove right over them. The still-live ones bounced off the bumper of my Hyundai as I went down the frontage road off the interstate exit to a shabby roadside bar on the edge of town, located across an unmowed field from the C-shaped, one-story motel where the booking agent had finagled me a room.
Not one to let a little reptile infestation stand our way, the other comic on the bill, the fantastic John Conroy, and I rallied to walk across the field from the hotel to the bar. That field shimmered like a sea of green–shimmering because it was moving, teeming with more frogs, hundreds of them of all sizes.
The inside of the bar was sparse and shoddy, like a set design for a horror movie with a three-figure budget. The men’s room was literally torn apart: fist-sized holes in the drywall, stall doors yanked off the hinges, a paper towel dispenser lying decapitated on the pissy tile floor. The bar owner noticed my wide-eyed expression as I walked out and blithely explained, “Oh, my nephew is just back from Iraq and them boys love to fight.” (Need I even clarify she pronounced it “Eye-Rack”?)
“Okay, but what’s up with the Biblical number of frogs everywhere?’ I asked her.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “There’s some frogs.”
The show started with as little fanfare as possible. I was telling jokes in a corner of the room that was perilously close to a dart board. A guy and his girlfriend walked past a few rows of empty tables, sat at the one directly in front of me, and began having a loud conversation. “If you talk to me or look at my girlfriend, I’ll fucking kill you,” he told me.
I looked down at his bare arm–of course it was bare, this was not a guy who would tolerate effeminate affectations like sleeves–to see a big “88” inked onto his bicep (the “8” is a stand-in for “H,” meant as a coded abbreviation for “Heil Hitler”) amongst a collage of other white-power jailhouse tats. That prompted me to notice, as I sputtered through my little schpiel of observational yuks about the foibles of modern life, that the crew of bikers shouting at me in the back had a similar theme to their garb —a yearning for the missed opportunities of WWII, shall we say. And these guys weren’t history buffs.
Ah, the bar is full of Nazis, I realized five minutes into my half-hour set. I’m being stared down by a roomful of Nazis.
The reality of a tense situation like this one is: You don’t want to keep going, but you can’t really stop. There’s a precarious balance that’s keeping the gleefully hostile crowd happy yelling out physical threats without acting on them. And this isn’t the kind of bar where you want a contract dispute.
I did my allotted time like I was on some strange combination of America’s Got Talent and Squid Game, and then I handed the mic over to Conroy. As we passed one another we nodded with the tacit understanding that the second we fulfill our contractual obligation we will get. The. Hell. Out.
And so we did, hustling back across that field, fat frogs squishing underfoot. When I opened the door to my motel room, the frogs rushed in toward the light. I wound down the evening by scooping the little bastards up with my notebook and flinging them out an open window next to the door, which I’d barricaded with a chair like a suspect in a noir film.
I split at first light, speeding my Hyundai back toward the interstate to the sounds of yet more frogs, always more frogs, thunk-thunk-thunking off my bumper, which would be smeared pink with cold reptile blood by the time I got back to the safety of Minnesota.
The silver lining of a hell gig like that is, for the rest of your career, you know it can’t get worse. Boozy bachelorette party gabbing through your set? Tough crowd at the Saturday late show? You’re not dancing like an organ grinder’s monkey for 15 angry drunks who all agree there was one too few Reichs, in a town where just being there means you’ve already technically disappeared.
The memory makes me a little nostalgic. Not for the frogs, and certainly not for the town or the bar or any of the people in it. Nostalgic because I remember that night after the show where Conroy and I, then naively ensconced in the middle of the Obama administration, said to each other, “Well, at least we’ll never be at the mercy of fascists again.”