Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Frankie Say Relax

For a little over a decade, from June of 1989 to about sometime in 2003 when I gave up the ghost, I did stand-up comedy. And I threw myself deep into that pursuit. When I graduated college in 1991, I was sharing a home with two other very funny aspiring comics, and most of my other close friends were also either full bore working in the business or trying to make their way like me. I managed to balance working a day job at an independent arthouse movie operation with doing as many open mics and road gigs as I could. I never made it past opening in respected clubs and occasionally doing feature work in dives on the road, but I was happy all the same. It was a great family to live among. When I took the plunge to move to L.A. in 1999, officially becoming a resident on this date in history 16 years ago, I had so much goodwill and help from the comedy community it made such a leap feel like a brisk walk.

Between hanging out at the local clubs and doing the various rooms that I would beg, plead, and cajole Sharon Rearick, Tom Sobel, and the Funny Bone to work me in (and the rooms that Donnie Lee Diamond would beg, plead, and cajole me to do against my better judgment), I got to know the really great road comics - those performers that may not have had TV visibility or wide familiarity otherwise, but if you haunted a comedy club on a regular basis you saw them pass through once or twice a year and you knew they were hilarious, and you eagerly anticipated their return visits: Mark Eubanks, Dak Rakow, Monique Marvez, Jay Scott Homan, Georgia Ragsdale, Rahn Ramey, Paul Kelly...In the days before the internet could bring you an instant following, comics passed along their favorite bits of these workers and others to amuse themselves and spread the reputation around.

And then there was Frankie Bastille. I never got to directly open for or work with Frankie on a gig, but we got to know each other and got along well; Columbus was one of his favorite stops when he was working, and he spoke highly of most of the comics located there. Frankie was the comic that almost every headliner or promoter had a story about, usually shared in the bar after the public went home and the performers and staff were enjoying the privilege of locked doors and free drinks. We knew of at least a couple of girlfriends he had stashed in certain cities, and his bad marriages were a staple of his act. He was a notorious user of just about every herbal, liquid, and chemical alterant there could be found, once vividly describing gobbling Percosets as if they were salad croutons. I've only done LSD twice in my life, and the final time was with Frankie. There were plenty of tall tales about Frankie circulating among us. How he reportedly did an entire half hour special for Showtime only to have the network shelve it due to his erratic behavior. How he supposedly fleeced Jay Leno out of hundreds of dollars by claiming he was dying of cancer. How he trolled a juggler he was working with (a "boat act" as he derogatorily called middling comics with gimmicks) by having him summoned to the men's room to witness him simultaneously shooting heroin and receiving oral sex from a friend and growling, "Now THIS is a juggling act!" (You can read of a verifiable Bastille incident if you scroll to Question #11 of this interview with Lord Carrett.)

Columbus was also apparently a good place to lay low when he needed to stay out of sight. I remember him calling me up on a Saturday morning, asking me to pick him up from the bus station and take him to a mutual friend's place. I may be fudging the details of this preceding incident, so correct me if I am, but as I recall, he had served some days in jail but ultimately beaten a prosecution further north in the state, and part of his defense was proving that he was indeed a comedian by doing a set before the judge; he proudly told us that this put him in company with Lenny Bruce as one of the only comedians to have their act recorded in a courtroom transcript. He didn't stay in town long, just enough to get breakfast, share some writing he'd done, make a couple phone calls to friends, and wire some money elsewhere, which he did under the alias "Louis Dega" before hopping on another bus to...wherever...and that's the last time I saw him.

Lest the legend get ahead of the man, it must be stressed that for all the rumors, when he was performing, if any of those wild stories were true, the sets he would deliver would be worth the hypothetical chaos. He took charge of an audience from minute one, and while his persona certainly teased the idea that things could go off the rails, I never saw his energy flag or his momentum flounder. Even if he was doing some sort of ubiquitous punchline, such as ridiculing the then-craze of albums with backward messages ("Play any record backwards, all you're gonna hear is, 'Ha, you just fucked up another album!'") or pulling the mic stand up and down to simulate keg tapping ("Fuck, this party's all outta beer!"), he sold it to you as if you were hearing it for the first time. Whatever destructive affectations he engaged in off stage, he never let them impact his job.  Keep in mind that if someone goes to one lame sporting event, they'll still support their favorite team, and if they go to one bad movie, they'll still probably go to another show, but if most people see one bad live stand-up show, often times they will never, EVER, go to a comedy club again as long as they live. That is what comedians, the good ones anyway, have to remember every time they stand in front of a Z-Brick wall to tell jokes. And a Frankie performance usually guaranteed that crowd was going to come back to that club. His antics could be a shock to the system, but his results were money in the bank.

When word started getting around in the late '90's that Frankie had died, while most of us probably never actually saw an obit or a sourced record of his passing, we all just sighed and figured it must be true. In researching this essay, I did find a documented source from Evansville, Indiana, confirming that fate gave him the light in January 1997. From an archived message board conversation initiated by his sister Jean, apparently Frankie had finally gotten clean for a significant amount of time, but had residual health issues from all those years of abuse, and upon leaving a booking in Tennessee to fly to Arizona for the funeral of his father, had a fatal heart attack prompted by high blood pressure compounded by stress and grief.

By the time I was firmly ensconced in L.A., I was also mostly ensconced in a much less flexible situation with the employer I became most associated with for 14 years, and even though my "BEAT THE GEEKS" notoriety revived some notions of people being willing to spend money on cover and two drinks to watch and listen to me crack wise, I had to call it a night on my stand-up. Thankfully, I still have almost all those funny friends from back in the day, and I am lucky to have the company and respect of some of the best names in comedy working today. I do still write material, if you follow me on social media I frequently offer lots of the kind of jokes I would have done on stage. I sometimes still even contemplate wrangling my way to a free mic and going for it again. But then I also ask myself would I be doing this because I feel like I have a legitimately interesting comedy voice to offer, something I would go back to driving and flying to clubs and colleges across the country, counting mileage and collecting receipts to account for my business, or would I be doing this just to get myself cast as the wacky neighbor on a sitcom or third chair on some satellite radio show, and taking stage time away from some younger, hungrier, and better individual who more deserves the boost? As the sagely and often downright saintly Paul Williams has observed, there are fewer things sadder and pathetic than standing before show business with your hands outstretched and saying, "Please, sir, may I have another cup of fame?"

I heard a lot of unusual things come out of Frankie's mouth offstage, but I never heard him bitch about his station. Never heard him complain about about someone being more successful than him, or not being on TV, or any of the whines you could be subjected to from lesser comics. Sure, he would take amusing jabs at those damned "boat acts," but he would also respect that they wouldn't be working if they weren't in demand. And he knew he was way funnier than them anyway, so as long as he got to do his time and trump them, it was all good. He didn't seem to care about getting famous, he just wanted to tell the jokes as often as possible. Which he did. Effectively, that's what I was lucky enough to do for a while as well.

I never forgot about how much I loved comedy, and I never forgot about Frankie. But it seems so much of the comedy world has. Nowadays, if you've heard of him, it's likely because Marc Maron immortalized him in an episode of Comedy Central's "THIS IS NOT HAPPENING" series in 2013 and in his book ATTEMPTING NORMAL. It's a poignant testimonial Maron offers up. But if you google Frankie's name, you'll get Maron's story, maybe a few messageboard posts, references from other comics like Brett Leake or Kevin Lambert, and that's it. No quotes, no video. That apocryphal Showtime special sits dusty on a shelf somewhere in Viacom's bunker. Maybe there's a truck stop in Dustyfuck, New Mexico still selling bootleg cassettes of standups for long haul drivers that may have a Frankie bit or two on 'em. It took multiple pages to find that obituary I posted above, and yes, I ganked that photo from Historic Images just like Josh Matusak did. After I turned 33, I joked that I outlived Christ, Hicks, Belushi, and Bangs. But until I found the actual obit, I never knew that Frankie, that old salty dog of the Comedy Caravan, was only 44 years old when he passed, and thus, last year, I outlived him too.

So, for that fella who treated me like an equal when I was really not even close to his level, I feel the most effective thing I can do to keep his name alive is transcribe one of his sets, so that all of us who remembered him (and the intrigued that may still hear the tall tales) can relive a little of that mind of his we enjoyed. I would normally never do this, preferring you seek out the real thing on tape or on video, but in light of the scarcity of finding anything from better sources, I think this is a justifiable exception. Hell, if he liked being immortalized in courtroom transcripts... It's a small sampling of his repertoire of course, and you're not going to get the full effect unless you can hear his voice that sounded like Dr. Teeth if he spent years of binging and got exiled from the Electric Mayhem delivering the jokes, but at least until something more substantial surfaces, the Bastille can stand again.

Well, don't just stare at me like I'm your Mystery Date! C'mon, loosen up! Don't be bummed out! You're not bummed out, are you sir? Nothin' bums me out, man! I've been married twice, been to Vietnam, and prison - who's left to fuck my life up? Oh they try, they try. Every year, there's always someone talkin' that the end of the world is coming - remember a couple years back, they said it would be, like, end of October? Yeah, I remember that date well, 'cuz I spent my rent money! {does a Pete Townsend arm swing} "And I won't be fooled again!!" Naw naw. 

So I'm here in Columbus, good place, like it here. But they got shit here that's screwed up. They got a bank in town called the Fifth/Third Bank! Who'd be dumb enough to put their money in there, man? They can't even convert fuckin' fractions! What's their gimmick - are they...two thirds better than Bank One? Shouldn't need an abacus to figure this out. I take math seriously, 'cause when I was in high school I had a teacher I couldn't take serious. First day, he gets up there and says, "Half of you are gonna pass! Half of you are gonna fail! And the other half..." and I'm thinkin, "What the fuck? Three halves equal a whole? What were you before you were a teacher, a teller at the Fifth/Third fuckin' Bank? You should be my drug dealer, how about a pound?" Yeah, I was a smart ass in school. You do that? Sure you have, we all have. "If A+B is equal to A-C, what do we know about A+B?" "I don't know, but X must be Phil Collins, cuz you just spelled ABACAB!" "Alright, Mr. Bastille, you're so smart: stand up and tell the class what Pi squared is." "Pi squared? Those are Pop-Tarts! What else wouldja like, the hypotenuse of a croissant? I brought a bundt cake, maybe we could do some radius problems?" "Last chance, Mr. Bastille, explain the Domino Principle." "That's when you get a free pizza in a half hour if they don't show up." And I know when that half hour is up - it's a joint and a six pack later, cuz you've gotta be loaded to eat a Domino's Pizza. That shit is like Cheez Whiz on a frisbee, man! That's how they get it to your house in 30 minutes or less, they're like {mimes spraying cheese onto a disc, flings it} "*spritz* WHAM-O!" I've seen dogs wearing bandanas in national parks that won't chase after that shit! "Ruff ruff - aw fuck no, man, that's Domino's Pizza! Let's go back to Burger King, wait for that Elvis dude to show up."

Yeah, I drink. I gotta quit drinkin' though. You know you gotta quit drinkin' when you wake up and see your stomach and bladder outside your body with picket signs. {marching around stage} "Aw screw this! Hell, no, this guy's unfair!" And meanwhile, my liver's looking at my kidneys and saying, "Awright! STONES!" {does Mick Jagger strut} I like all kinds of stuff. Like beer. 'Cept Heineken. Stay away from Heineken, man; that's Nazi beer. Serious. You finish off a six of Heineken, you're up in the attic lookin' for Anne Frank! {knocking noise/gesture} "I know you're in there! I read the book!" {knocks again} I can say that. I was born Jewish, went to Catholic school - what's your excuse? I like tequila, the really hardcore stuff, the Mezcal, with the ever eat the worm? I used to do that. And then I found out: Mexicans don't do that. They made that shit up as a joke! There I was, sittin' in a cantina in Tijuana, I'm gobblin' up worms like a robin in springtime! Should've just said fuck it and gone to a bait shop! And all the guys there are looking at me, sayin' to their friends, {spit take} "Juan, Raul, check out the dickweed gringo! Yeah, go on, drink the Spanish Fly, you'll get laid! Here, throw this hat on the ground, dance around it, it's a fuckin' custom!"

Cops, I got problems with cops. Highway patrol especially. It's 'cause of that fuckin' dumb ass hat they're always wearing. Man, if I've been gettin' high, drinkin', cop pulls me over, I see him comin' to the car with that hat on, I'm thinkin', "Aw it's cool, it's just Ranger Smith! Hey, Mister Ranger Sir, how's Boo-Boo 'n shit? What's up? Ya got a pic-a-nic basket for me?" "Let me see some I.D.!" "Lemme wear your fuckin' hat!"

I did Vietnam, did combat. Combat's real wild now, man - lasers, nukes, chemical warfare - but they still make all these soldiers work with bayonets and all this old shit. You mean to tell me with all the weapons the enemies got today, you're going to send me into combat with a *rifle*? Au contraire! Sending me into combat today with a rifle, that's like sending Captain Kirk to fight the Klingons in a Mercury fuckin' station wagon!

And that's what I can recall off my head. Of course, if you've been holding a Bastille stash of your own, please feel free to share...

Frankie Say...No More