Comic Paul Frisbie has embraced the life of a traveling comedian, with all its warts. “When you’re not famous, you earn it every night.”
By David Murray
Most comics want to be Jerry Seinfeld. After paying his dues traveling around doing stand-up comedy, Seinfeld got a sitcom, got famous and made millions. He still does stand-up, but he travels in luxury, stays in only the best hotels, plays to appreciative audiences, and makes more money in a night than a typical comic makes in a year.
Paul Frisbie feels sorry for Seinfeld.
The Chicago-based comedian, who is one of hundreds of nameless stand-up comedians roaming various regions of the country playing big-city comedy clubs and small-town hotel bars, believes big names like Seinfeld and Ray Romano and Jeff Foxworthy and Paula Poundstone have lost something precious that they can never have back: the ability to know, for sure, whether they're still funny.
When an audience pays big bucks to see a big-name comic, they want to laugh and they feel they should laugh, he reasons, so unless the celebrity is absolutely dreadful, they do laugh. By contrast, every time a no-name road comic gets up in front of an audience, Frisbie says, "you're daring them not to like you. You have to make them like you. And the nice thing is, when you're not famous, you earn it every night. It's a wonderful rush."
Frisbie is not yearning to get a sitcom like Seinfeld's. He's not trying to make it big and get rich. He's just hoping to continue to earn a living making people laugh.
The humility of this ambition separates Frisbie from other road comics, according to industry veterans like former club producer John Cantu, who runs a speakers bureau for humorists. Cantu says 99.9 percent of road comedians are working "to build up an act and then break out in either New York or in Los Angeles." Cantu says that comics who commit to a life on the road for any period of time eventually begin to think that every year "is the year that they'll get discovered. They haven't adjusted emotionally to the fact they are working at their highest level of competency."
And they certainly haven't adjusted to life on the road as Paul Frisbie has.
To understand why this 45-year-old man likes his life as an itinerant comic worker--and to see why few others would--all you have to do is accompany Frisbie on one of these road trips to a place like Aberdeen, S.D.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Omaha; Ames, Iowa; or Muncie, Ind.
One recent weekend the destination was Eau Claire, Wis.
On a Friday afternoon, Frisbie pulls out of his Independence Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side onto the nearby Kennedy Expressway and settles in for the 5 1/2-hour drive. "I chose my location for the intersection of the three interstates, north, south, east and west, and the proximity of the Blue Line to O'Hare," Frisbie says. "This game is all about travel."
Frisbie's 1988 GMC Jimmy has 320,000 miles on it and serves as a mobile apartment. "A lot of comics won't admit to themselves that they live on the road, and they don't bring anything with them. They travel light. I take the reverse approach," he says.
Frisbie packs an entire office in duffel bags, including computer and backup hard drive, color printer, scanner, fax and cell phone. He also has a whole kitchen on board: a hot pot, an array of spices, cooking utensils, a can opener, silverware, plates and dish soap. In a protective carrying case, he brings a 250-watt light bulb to replace the dim and depressing 40-watters that energy-saving motels favor.
As he pours tea from a thermos with his right hand and steers with his left--"I've got a professional quarterback's peripheral vision"--Frisbie explains that his gigs differ wildly in the quality of the audience and pay rate. "Every night is a different amount of money and a different kind of fun."
But essentially, there are three venues for comedians: corporate gigs, weeklong appearances at full-time comedy clubs in big cities like Chicago, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, and one-nighters in smaller cities. Corporate shows are the most lucrative, usually paying in the low thousands per appearance at sales meetings or awards banquets. Club gigs, at places like the Funny Bone and Hilarities, pay less--low thousands for a four-day stand.
And one-nighters pay the least. Frisbie will get $350 per night for his two nights in Eau Claire. The profit margin is so thin that if gas prices go up any more, Frisbie says, he won't be able to take a faraway, low-paying job like this. As it is, he passes up a big truck stop south of Janesville, Wis., in hopes of finding cheaper gas farther down the road.
No job is too low-brow for Frisbie. "I'll work the crowd at a car wreck," he says. But he is pained by the fact that his audiences usually demand a lot of obscenity. "I'll work as clean as they'll let me," he adds. "But I'm not afraid to get down in the trenches and mix it up."
Though he's known as a reliable comic to club bookers such as Bert Haas, from Zanies in Chicago--"he's professional and consistent and funny," Haas says--Frisbie freely admits that he doesn't play well with urban black audiences and he doesn't like to work in the South, where audiences demand a lot of "potty humor."
Frisbie is a funny guy even when he's not performing. At one point he mixes up a phone number and comments, apparently absent- mindedly, "Isn't it unfair that dyslexia is so hard to spell?"
But as the Eau Claire gig will demonstrate, being funny isn't half the battle.
Frisbie, who grew up in Arlington Heights, has been an entertainer since adolescence. "When he was in [Arlington] high school, he ran a nightclub in our basement," recalls his father, Richard.
A voracious reader as a child, he coasted through high school and college. As a student at the University of Illinois, he managed and later bought a "rock 'n' roll honky-tonk" bar in Champaign. He was a showman bartender who could do magic tricks, juggle and sing original and funny folk songs with a guitar. He became a local celebrity and didn't finally get his history degree until he was in his 30s. "I'm still a cult figure in Champaign," Frisbie says.
But that life was wearing thin as he approached 30. Around that time, he started a comedy open-mike night to compete with a cross- town rival. He started participating in the weekly event, "a couple years went by, and all of a sudden I was ready to go on the road."
But by the time he sold his bar and hit the road, he was in his mid-30s--"too old for L.A. already"--with his dues still to pay. So Frisbie settled into the life of the road comic. Ten years later, he has turned it into a science.
As the Jimmy rolls by Madison, Frisbie is telling me between Nicorette chomps--he quit chain smoking several months ago--that there is one terrible frustration in his choice of career: His history degree is wasted in this job, as is his extensive knowledge of science, geography and literature. A comic must keep everyone in the room entertained, so the frame of reference must be limited to what the least-educated person in the room can grasp. The trouble is, Frisbie says, "People don't know anything anymore."
But what he has learned on the road could fill an encyclopedia. He can tell how drunk the audience is by its reaction to his first joke. He knows he must acknowledge anything odd that happens in front of the stage or he'll lose the audience's attention. And he's got a million ways to deal with hecklers, who come in four basic types:
1. The Bachelorette Party Animal. The comic must somehow deal with women behaving like "mindless, noisy animals that want to shriek," Frisbie says. "They're like guys at a topless bar." The bachelorette inevitably tries to upstage the comic on her big night.
2. The Drunk Guy on a Date. His girlfriend is laughing at the comic, and he becomes jealous, so he heckles the comic. "It's an alpha male thing," Frisbie says.
3. The Pretty Blond Who Can't Stand Not to Be the Center of Attention. She disrupts the show by talking loudly to her friends throughout.
4. The Insanely Drunk Guy. This creature shouts unintelligibly. At a comedy club, he would be bounced, but at a one-nighter at a bar, hecklers are often allowed to continue as long as they keep buying drinks.
The first three types can usually be defused, as Frisbie will demonstrate in Eau Claire. But the only way to contend with the Insanely Drunk Guy is to do your minimum 45 minutes, get off the stage, get your money and get out. "You don't have to like me," Frisbie loves to say at the end of such a show, "you just have to pay me."
Yet a true road comic must relish the bad gigs as well as the good, he says. "It's a sport: I'm going to stand here for an hour and you're going to laugh for an hour, but I don't know how."
The sun is down by the time Frisbie pulls into the Midway Best Western in Eau Claire, but he's still got time before he goes on around 9:30. The show is in the hotel bar, a brass-railed joint called Jericho's Lounge & Grill.
Standing in the back of the room casing the crowd as his warm-up act does her routine--she's a 30-ish Minneapolis comic named Elle K. who will make less than $500 for the whole weekend--Frisbie sees all the familiar challenges.
There's a table full of women that seems to be dominated by a blond who, Frisbie estimates, "isn't as pretty as she used to be but she doesn't know it yet." There are plenty of drunk guys, some of them on dates. And, lo and behold, there's a bachelorette party. The bachelorette is going around the bar shooting strange men in the chest with a phallic squirt gun. She's demanding that they give her a dollar in exchange for the privilege of extracting, by mouth, a lollipop from her chest.
Frisbie bursts onto the stage and talks loud and fast into the microphone, knocking the audience back a little with his energy and filling every second with sound. Right away, he makes a quick reference to the bachelorette party to bring the group into the fold, but it doesn't work because the bachelorette happens to be in the bathroom. Soon, she interrupts the show by marching up to the stage, brandishing the squirt gun and demanding that he play the dollar-for-a-lollipop game.
He puts her down brutally, shouting down from the stage to howls of laughter from the audience: "Don't you bring your penis up here. Sit down and shut up. . . . Are you going to give me a dollar? I don't get a dollar out of this? Then sit down and shut up. . . . Boy, I feel like I've died and gone to comedy heaven. My agent said, `You wanna go to Eau Claire?' And I said, `Where's Eau Claire?'--it sounded better than Las Vegas--and he said, `Well, it's up past Madison.' Well, it sure the [bleep] is past Madison. . . ."
By the end of the night, he has indeed stood there for an hour and the crowd has laughed for an hour at his boisterous delivery of lowbrow material, mostly unprintable, on such topics as drinking, sex and leaving the seat up on the toilet. The best stuff is a routine about drinking Schlitz beer with his South Side grandmother, who chain-smokes cigarettes but smokes them only halfway down "so she won't get cancer."
After a few Heinekens at the bar with appreciative audience members, he cooks a dinner of beef stroganoff and garlic bread and consumes it, with cognac, in his room at 2:30 a.m.
The Saturday night show goes slightly better, despite a determined heckler who forces Frisbie to engage once again in what he calls "road combat."
The sun is shining on the drive home Sunday. Frisbie is feeling good and talking a lot, waxing philosophical. "I'm a millionaire without the money," he says.
He says his father wishes he would get off the road. Frisbie understands why. Parents want safety and security for their kids, but even though he's a rare road comic with health insurance, "there is no safety and security in my life."
Does Frisbie really love this strange life so much that he wouldn't trade it for something a little cushier? He won't go that far, but he believes the hazards of fame are real.
"I call it the Beatles syndrome," says Zanies' Haas. "When the Beatles first came over here, the fans screamed so loud they couldn't hear themselves play their own music." Who knew if the show was good?
The same is true in comedy, says Frisbie. "Once you get famous, it's over. You never know whether they're laughing at you because you're famous or because you're really funny. Anonymity is fun-- fabulous fun. Would I give it up for money? Yes. Am I in a hurry to give it up for money? No."
Put it this way: The old Jimmy is on its second engine, and its driver is thinking of putting in a third.