Drinking at The Movies

Last night my wife and I went to see a movie in Downtown Brooklyn at the new Alamo Drafthouse. Give us a movie theater where we can also order dinner and dessert, and we’re in. Usually for this kind of night we go to Nighthawk in Williamsburg, another cinema with a menu. Would’ve ended up there last night if the movie we wanted to see wasn’t sold out. So, Alamo it was for a 9:30 show.

We found our seats and pretty much immediately decided we’d be coming here from now on. Mainly for the seats. They’re full on recliners that kick back at the touch of a button. A few minutes later we met our waitress, Kim. 

Since we said it was our first time there, Kim explained their ordering system in great detail. Basically, if we wanted to order something during the movie, we were asked to write it down and put the order card in a stand on the table. They respect the watching experience and they don’t want talking. We were familiar with this system already from Nighthawk, but we let her give us the rundown. She went as far as explaining that the room was currently in “Restaurant Mode” because the lights were up and they were playing weird vignettes on the screen that relate to the feature presentation. Then Kim took our orders.

Ross got the jerk chicken sandwich and a club soda.

My turn. “I’ll have the chocolate-peanut butter milkshake and a black coffee, please.” 

I hadn’t had ice cream (or any dairy or sugar) in 26 days, and I decided that last night I’d allow myself a cheat dessert.

“Do you want to make it an adult drink and add a shot of Black Seal Rum to that shake? It’s just three dollars extra and makes it a little more adventurous,” she said. “It’s really good that way, that’s how I drink that one.” 

Once she got a few words into her up-sell, I started to try to say “no thank you” but she powered through her pitch. I had to wait until she stopped talking to respond.

“No thanks, not tonight. But I will also take a glass of tap water.”

“Wow, three beverages,” Ross said, making fun of me. Well, I always did like to drink. 

I’m an alcoholic who can’t stop drinking when I start. After several years of struggling with it, I finally quit on August 23, 2008 when I was 27. It’s been almost nine years without the stuff. So when Kim asked if I’d like to make my shake “a little more adventurous,” I had to kind of chuckle while I declined. More “adventurous,” huh? Sure, Kim. Please do bring me a chocolate peanut butter milkshake infused with delicious rum. Sounds almost like what a Friendly’s take on a White Russian cocktail would be. Yeah give me one of those and go ahead and put a refill in right away. I will have drank the first one too fast to savor the sensation of the slight burn of the rum on my throat and in my nasal glands while enjoying the ice cream simultaneously cooling my esophagus. Hopefully I can take all that in while nursing the second one through the next seven minutes of the film or so. And man, dairy sure is an odd pairing for booze, so I’m going to need a pint of your lightest beer to wash it down. Oh, you only serve local craft beers? None of them are really “light”? Well gimme two of the lighter ones and I’ll test ‘em out.

By the start of Act II, I’d be four drinks in and heckling. We went to see It Comes at Night, a psychological thriller set in a creepy house in the middle of the creepy woods. So if I did decide to be “adventurous” and make it a cheat-night in more ways than one, I’d be the guy hollering, “Don’t go in there, ya fuckin idiot!” Or “that would never happen!” Or “Hey… what just happened?” Anyway, thankfully, I didn’t drink. Besides, even when I was still drinking, I’d made myself a “no more drinking at the movies” rule. 

It was late 2007 or very early 2008 and I was in Fort Worth, Texas. I was working as a camera operator / field producer on a story for MTV’s True Life. We were documenting a few days of this kid’s life who had just recently come to The US from Myanmar. We shot with him looking at a college, going to work at the pickle factory, meeting with his missionary counselor, and lots of footage of the apartment where he lived with several family members (one detail that always sticks out in my mind is that his mother was using cabinets to store cooked meat because she was skeptical of the refrigerator). I didn’t shoot his whole story, and I was only in Fort Worth for these few days, but it was a challenging shoot. I remember we only had access to him for an hour or two in the very early hours and then a little bit at night because he worked such long days at the factory, where they did not want us to come film. His new life in America was clearly very challenging and it was stressful trying to figure out how to capture enough material to tell his story. 

One night, to blow off some steam, myself and the producer who I was working for decided to go see a movie. I can’t remember whose idea that was, me or my new boss, a woman I had just met in the days prior at the airport right before the trip. Working on the road in TV production, it’s pretty common to socialize after hours as a way to process the job. We went to the Movie Tavern, a theater with a full bar and food menu, and ordered beers at the bar. Then, when our movie time came, we found our seats, and then ordered a plate of nachos and a pitcher of beer. It was my first time at a place like this where you could (legally) drink at the movies. 

We were there to see P.S. I Love You with Gerard Butler and Hilary Swank. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really, really sad. I don’t know who chose the film, me or her. I believe the basic plot is made obvious in the trailer, so I’ll briefly explain it. Basically, Hilary Swank’s character’s dead boyfriend (Gerard Butler) is sending her letters from the grave that all end, “P.S. I Love You.” She’s trying to move on with her life, but the grief is too strong. It was an emotional roller coaster, and by the end of the first pitcher of beer, I knew I’d need to order a second.

At that time, my own relationship was rocky. I was coming up on a year with a woman I met at work and everything was a challenge from the start. Working on the road I often had breaks from dealing with quarrels back home, but sometimes a movie like P.S. I Love You kicked up all my emotions. And that night, the more I drank from the second pitcher, the more emotional I got. The film’s twists and turns and performances felt so intense. Hilary Swank was incredible. The voice overs of Gerard Butler reading those letters broke my heart. Before I knew it, I had tears streaming down my face. I was drunk and sad and crying in Texas. 

The producer was also drunk, and we just kind of laughed it off. The movie was definitely an emotional hostage situation designed to be a tearjerker. I do wonder what it would be like to go on a work trip in any other field and drunkenly cry one’s eyes out in front of a new boss. 

Long story short: No thanks Kim, I’ll just have the chocolate peanut butter shake without the rum. I don’t drink at the movies. 

Ringleader of The Gang

Mr. Fried was the art teacher and he biked to work. He carried canvas tote bags and had coke-bottle glasses. He was bald on the top of his head. Whenever I see photos of a young Bernie Sanders, I’m convinced they were the same man. Mr. Fried was our Mr. Rogers.

It was probably first or second grade that I had art class with Mr. Fried. I remember him teaching us how to cut perfect circles out of construction paper. He told us not to cut long pieces of “spaghettis” with the scissors in a circular track, but to cut the corners of a square piece of paper gradually and repeatedly until you whittled yourself a nearly perfect circumference.

We’d come into class and he’d say, “Ok gang, let’s do some painting today!” Or, “Alright gang, make sure to close your paste tightly so it doesn’t dry out!” 

“Gang.” He loved to call us Gang. I started to notice how often he addressed us using that word. It didn’t hurt my feelings, it was just something odd and repetitive enough that I became obsessed with him addressing us with that word.

I decided to use it as ammo. One day I gathered all my friends at lunch, and I set a plan in motion: The next day in art class, the very first time he called us Gang, we’d all respond at the same exact moment with the same reaction.

The next day, Mr. Fried welcomed us as we sat down. He took attendance. Then he stood up from his desk and walked to the chalkboard to begin class. As he picked up the felt eraser and his lanky frame swayed back and forth while he cleaned the slate in a cloud of white dust, he announced, “Today, we’re going to talk about shading. How does that sound, Gang?” His voice reflected off the surface of the chalkboard and back at us. 

In that instant, time slowed down and we sprung into action. His back was still turned when all my classmates looked at me, waiting for a cue. There was a beat of silence and I just went for it. I cued everyone to begin the phrase I trained them with at lunch the day before: “MY NAME AIN’T GANG!!!” 

We nailed it. 25 kids, all at once, cheered, “MY NAME AIN’T GANG!” It was like when you're at a birthday party and everyone just knows the perfect moment to start singing Happy Birthday together as a unit, except our song was a four word retort shouted in unison— As if we were a gang.

The words were so perfectly enunciated by all of us as a single group, we had to laugh at our accomplishment. The timing and execution were just too good. I felt like I was some kind of genius captain and my troops followed my plan perfectly. I was the conductor of the most obnoxious orchestra.

As we guffawed with pure childish joy, Mr. Fried froze. You could see his posture change. His arms fell to his side and his shoulders dropped. He slowly turned around. We calmed down and got quiet.

“What did you all just say?” There was a long silence. No one answered.

“Do you not like being called Gang?” he asked. Everyone just kind of looked at their feet. It was obvious he was hurt.

“Kids,” he continued, tears welling behind the thick lenses of his glasses, “if there’s ever something you don’t like about my teaching, please tell me. You can talk to me. Don’t purposely hurt my feelings like this.” A few tears streamed down his face. Then he sat back down at his desk in the pure silence. 

I was so ashamed. I’d made my kindly art teacher cry. “Do whatever you want for the rest of class today,” he finally said.

This is probably the earliest time I can remember orchestrating a prank where one person would be the butt of the joke. There would be more. People see me as nice, quiet, and shy at first, but I've always noticed a mean kid hiding inside me, begging to play.

15 Years Since Day 1 At 30 Rock

On Monday, May 20, 2002— exactly 15 years ago— I took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan to my first day of my summer internship at Late Night with Conan O’Brien. My Junior year had just ended at CW Post College, I was 21 years old, and I was running late. Not a great start, but that's probably the smallest thing I'd go back and do differently.

I like to keep track of time and I love math. There was a time in my 20’s when I thought about going back to college to become a math teacher. I love numbers and systems and patterns and lists. I get excited about buying a new calendar the way my wife does about buying anything she can wear. In fact, the reason I know that first day at Conan was Monday, May 20th is that I still have my 2002 date book that says so. (It was a Gary Larson “Far Side” themed calendar, by the way.) 

15 years ago. Fifteen

How did this happen? How did I get here?

Let’s crunch some numbers: When I started that internship in 2002, Conan had been on the air for almost 10 years. Conan himself was 39. I’m now 36. This coming fall, I’ll have been performing entry-level standup comedy almost daily for three and a half years. It takes ten years to get good according to the experts…

When I run these values through my Regret Algorithm I always get the same instantaneous, demoralizing result: There’s no way you can make it in this business. You missed your shot. You’re too far behind now. 

How did I get here??

I majored in TV production and Conan was my second internship. The first was at VH1 in the summer of 2000 at 1515 Broadway in Times Square. A few times a week I’d walk past a restaurant called Hamburger Harry’s (now it’s a Planet Hollywood or Buca Di Beppo’s or some other enormous chain restaurant) and I’d see a sign in the window that said “Gladys’ Comedy Room - Open Mic Every Monday” or something like that. I had a secret desire to be a standup comedian since I was a kid and that sign felt like an invitation. Long story short, I “performed” (bombed) on that open mic twice or so, did the same a couple more times at campus open mics that following semester, and then, as a fragile, perfectionist 19 year old who couldn’t process failure, didn’t attempt standup again until I was in my thirties.

When the Conan summer job came along I’d already reinvented myself. I was in a band now. A silly band. I figured since I couldn’t be funny alone onstage, I’d do it with songs and backup from other people. We had lyrics about partying, girls, and Chinese food. I was one of the rappers of the group and I also shouted punk lyrics and played some sloppy guitar. I liked to think I had funny in-between song banter. I bought a velour suit by Enycé that I wore on stage. I was a cartoon character who convinced himself that he was a musician to avoid the pain of being a new comic.

Three days a week I’d go into my internship at Conan. According to my Far Side calendar, I called out sick a few times. I left early a couple other times. Clearly it wasn’t my highest priority. How could it be? I was in a band. I had a new girlfriend. My drinking was ramping up. The 30 Rock experience was cool and all, and of course I did the tasks I was assigned, but I didn't do much more than the bare minimum. I had rehearsals to be at and gigs to promote.

What. A. Punkass.

What an ungrateful, arrogant little prick.

What a crappy attitude.

If it were possible to flip the pages of the last fifteen years' worth of date books backward and travel through time, I’d have quite a few things to tell 21 year old me, but for now I’ll keep it to one message:

Be honest with yourself! Get real about what you want in this life. Admit the truth and just say you want to be a standup comedian. Tell someone. Say it in the mirror. Write it on a post-it note and keep it in your wallet. Whatever you do, don’t give up right away because it’s too hard. Don’t suppress your main aspiration by convincing yourself that getting onstage as an idiot rapper is close enough to what you really want. Bottom line: Don’t lie to yourself. Don’t live in denial. Denial is powerful and easy and comfortable. And a total waste of time. Before you know it, 15 years will go by and you’ll think “How did I get here?”

Try open mics again. Get comfortable knowing that you’ll suck at it for a long time. Power through the failure. Don’t overthink it. Do it 50 times before you decide whether you’re a comic or a musician. Hell, be in a band AND do comedy! Trust that there is creative abundance and you don’t have to choose one or the other. You will be a pretty crappy musician, so why not be a crappy comic at the same time? Perfect is the enemy of good. And you gotta be bad before you can get good. Plus, if you stay in the band, you’ll grow huge balls on stage. You’ll learn about crowd dynamics and how to be silly and have fun on a mic. You’ll get good at promotion and communications and many of the business aspects to being a performance artist. You’ll make friends for life. Plus you’ll know your way around audio and lighting equipment of all types. Yeah, that’s the answer: Stay in the band, be silly, get weird, but also keep doing standup. Allow yourself to bomb. 

Same with when you graduate: Yes, you will need to get a “real” job. But just because you get a job working behind the camera, doesn’t mean you need to hide your desire to be in front of it. You can do both. You can continue doing open mics while keeping a day job. Oh, and one more thing: This will all be much easier if you don’t drink so much. But that’s another speech for another time.

I wish I knew the opportunity I had back then as an intern at Conan. I wish I would've properly honored the chance I was given by my good friend who got me the position in the first place. I wish I recognized that many of the people who worked on the show all probably started at open mics. When I was there, the writing staff consisted of comedy legends like Robert Smigel, Mike Sweeney, and Brian Stack. Also Jon Glaser, Kevin Dorff, Andy Blitz, Allison Silverman, and Andy Secunda— accomplished comedians who have the kind of careers I hope to have some day. Maybe if I would’ve put my best foot forward and took it a little more seriously, I could’ve learned something from them. All I would’ve needed to hear is someone to say “yeah, no one is good at standup at first.” On an anniversary like this, it’s really hard to not look back that far and see it as an opportunity squandered and the beginning of a lot of lost time. 

Luckily, I’ve got lots of tools these days. I know it’s a waste of energy to wonder what my life would be like now if I stuck with standup from the start. There are lots of great clichés I use regularly to remind myself of that. “Everything is as it should be or else it would be different” or “Abandon all hope for a better past,” for example. 

In order to keep my sanity and to not fall too far into the pit of regret, I keep it simple. The last 15 years weren’t a waste. They were research. In order to create comedy, we need material. I may not have been honing my standup in my twenties, but I definitely cooked up some stuff to talk about.

Hopefully, one day, I’ll get to perform standup on Conan and it goes well. My last joke gets a big laugh and the band kicks in. Conan says my name one more time, goodnight to the audience, and after the cameras cut away to credits, I get yanked off my mark by stage manager Steve Hollander. Maybe on my way backstage I’ll get a quick moment alone to wonder, “How did this happen? How did I get here?”