I still remember the day I met Barry like it was yesterday. New to comedy I was getting up anywhere I was allowed. There may have been rules but I was breaking them all. The only thing I knew was I had to get onstage. I was hungry. School was during the day, performances at night. Slowly the basements in town became my second home. Older, male comedians believing I was dumb smelled blood in the water and attempted to jump on it because well, there is a disrespect for female comedians. To them I was just another pair of open arms and open legs. Some were subtle, some were blatant. Most just made me laugh because they were either wannabe or washed up losers.
It was raining outside, and I ducked into a joint in the West Village for some abysmal Laugh Off type thing. Barry came in and introduced himself. He was sort of lanky, and seemed kind of humble. The competition started. While I was mediocre, everyone else pretty much sucked. I thought I was going to win. May and I had it in the bag. And then Barry took the stage. With more natural talent that I have seen in many of the comedians I have encountered, he more than stole the show. Barry won first, and the win was fair and square. While I was the first place loser, I got a prize. Barry, being a gracious winner, gave me a huge hug. I didn’t mind the hug or losing to him, he was talented and I actually was flattered to have shared the stage with him.
Quickly, Barry and I became friends. We saw each other frequently, and I recognized him as one of the good guys. The hugs weren’t malevolent like many other male comedians I had encountered. Rather, they were more of an older brotherly nature. We talked, we laughed, and we drank whiskey. Those were the days.
Young and stupid are a deadly combination and I was both. Dumb as a box of rocks fits well actually. On a dare from an audience member at a rowdy show I stripped to my bra and panties and killed. Up to that point I had been a clean cut kid. The maneuver killed and made me the talk of the night. During this time I debated making it a part of my act. I was encouraged by Art Star types as it was groundbreaking. One comedian and radio show host told me he could get me on Howard Stern. This could be a gimmick. Everyone that I spoke to liked it. Goodbye clean cut girl from Pittsburgh. Hello Penthouse Club. Hello Vegas. Presenting April Brucker: Stripping Ventriloquist.
One day, during my usual rounds I ran into Barry. He asked how I was. Stoked about my new career move, I boasted. Instead of encouraging me, Barry gave me a cold, hard look. Not letting his eyes move from mine he said, “April, you are a comedian not a stripper. Keep your damn clothes on.”
I managed to sputter something awesomely stupid as I always did in those days. My twenty year old brain was dangerously stupid and I am quite surprised I am not dead actually. Barry tried again. “April, seriously, you are funny. That’s not what you are going for. Keep your clothes on.” I nodded and left. His response was different than the horny male populous I performed with. Maybe I would try to focus, try to be less daring. Try to keep my freaking clothes on.
We went to an open mic probably two days later. May and I joked about how Barry wanted me to remain clothed. The rest of the male comedians called him a killjoy. One who was very funny asked if I had cottage cheese. Barry stood by the fact that he put his foot down. Sure, he wasn’t biting on the blood he saw in the water. That was unheard of and weird for me. On the other hand, a friend is someone who tells you what you need to hear and not what you want to sometimes. At that moment, I needed a friend more than anything in the world and I didn’t know it. However, he did.
Sure, I appeared bubbly to the outside world but again I was a stupid kid. Inside I was a confused mess. On the one hand, family members were encouraging me to have a Plan B, a career. Then of course life was pulling me to standup. Of course, there were my professors encouraging my art and thinking. But my art made me dizzy because I cared about it so much. The boys wanted a hooker and a housewife. The shoes hurt my feet and I was a lousy cook. The world wanted me to be skinny and pretty. For as much as I tried crash dieting I always ate, and speed diet pills made me kooky. As for pretty, the more makeup I put on the more I just wanted to hide. The world was making me crazy. I felt so unsure yet legally the state could put a needle in my arm. I could vote and did which is frightening. Some wrote me off as just nuts, the girl who cried when sets didn’t go as planned. Barry somehow was undaunted by that and was unafraid of my crazy.
I made it my business to try to make an act, focus on jokes rather than being crazy. Instead, it began to kill me as I just tanked everywhere I got up for two solid weeks. Why did I take Barry’s advice? It was terrible. A manager who heard wonderful things about me put me up. I tanked and he gave me the burn on feedback. I went home and cried afterwards on that snowy night. They say comedy is growth, and I hurt all over. Somehow, for as insane as I felt, I was a fighter and I wasn’t giving up anytime soon.
About a week later I went up and I did a horrific set. I didn’t just die, I was massacred onstage. The emcee, who was a nice guy said something nice. Then they quickly brought the headliner up so he could kill and make them forget the terrible display they saw that was passing as comedy. I heard a few insincere “nice jobs” and then planned on ducking out. I wanted God to kill me but then realized I wouldn’t be that lucky.
Just then I heard a familiar voice, “Hey, get over here and let me give you a hug.” I turned around and it was Barry. I would take the free, benevolent hug from the only guy in the place who wasn’t goading me to strip. Then again, because he wanted me to keep my clothes on things were going badly in my opinion. I didn’t know how I felt about him, especially since I wanted to eat my feelings away more than anything in the world. On the otherhand, he was well intentioned so I took the hug.
“That was bad.” I said knowing I had tanked. My eyes fell to the floor. Suddenly I felt the impulse to let my tears spill. I couldn’t cry in the club though. That would be saved for the cab ride home because of the late hour.
Barry chuckled. “Look, April. We know who May is but we don’t know who the hell you are up there. You are struggling hard for the jokes. But this is what you need to do. Just figure out who April is for a little bit. When you do, it will be much easier to come up with jokes. So just be yourself, figure out who that is, and the jokes will come. And please remember, you are a comedian not a stripper. A lot of people will want you to take your clothes off but they are jealous of your natural talent and don’t want you to do well. Remember that. Now go home and get some sleep, you have school tomorrow.” Then he gave me another big hug.
While I cried during the cab ride home, I suddenly didn’t feel hopeless. I could do this. Without attitude and just humbling up, I did the work. I got onstage whenever I could, and made every set count. I had May down, but now I had to get April down. It was a task but I did. Sure enough, the jokes not only came but started to rain down. Before taking May out of the suitcase I did a few jokes and got the audience warmed up, another Barry innovation if you will. The work started to pay off. I went to a mic where a woman who scared me at the time got up because she was the tough, poetry reading type. She said, “Let’s hear it for April and May. Most people get up here and dick around while they are actually working on something.”
Barry was always in the wings cheering me on, ready with a high five and hug when sets were good and a hug and pep talk when things weren’t so hot. Either way, I knew I had a true friend. In the world of standup comedy where many are quick to stab someone in the back when things get good and jealousy is rampant, Barry was the welcome exception. He was happy when I got good and let me know he was proud of me.
Years later the career has been an interesting ride. With the exception of the Gong Show at BB Kings I have been fully clothed in my shows. While I am known as weird and different I am respected for my talent. Sometimes I am a fame whore, but in the end I am an artist. These past two years things have been good, and it is so easy to focus on the people who have hurt me, cheated me, or stabbed me in the back. Sometimes, the knives still stick out.
That’s when I have to refocus my energy on the positive people who have helped me and are glad to see me do well.
Barry sort of faded from view. He pops up now and again, but sort of burn out and the fact he is a father to a young kid have refocused his priorities. I do wish he would perform more. He was talented.
As I feel the bitterness towards standup and want to go on a rant about somethings mentioned in my past blog, I remember I now have fans that want to see me live. Fans who enjoy an act Barry helped create. As I want to throw a hissy fit and not do the work required to be good I can feel somewhere in the world Barry whipping up a pep talk for me. Somehow, that keeps me on the course. I can see his long stare, the shake of his head. I know he would want me to pound the pavement with my crazy puppet woman self.
Hitting shows, the younger folks know who I am. Sometimes they look up to me. Now I give a pep talk or two. Tanking is hard. I tell them it will be alright. Then I tell them the story of the night in the dingy basement with Barry. I tell them, “Figure out who you are onstage and the jokes will come…….”