Comedy In Purgatory: Hell Gigs

by Andrew King

Every comedian I know has a great story of a really bad gig. The better ones have several. Hell Gigs are a rite of passage in the comedian community, an integral part of the journey of being a stand-up comic. There are many ingredients to a Hell Gig, they can have a combination of,  or all of these things:

[_] Heckler (You suck!)

[_] Oblivious/Bad Audience (What? Comedians? WTF is a comedian?)

[_] Awkward Set-Up (So here’s a milk-crate you can stand on… What? No, the TV’s will still be on.)
Now this particular gig had all of the above…

It was a benefit show for a guy who had cancer. I say “had” because he died before the show. So the benefit changed goals and now the proceeds would be going to a cancer charity. The show itself took place outside of a biker bar in East Moline, Illinois. Already there are enough signs to know that it’s going to be rough.

The stage was a Semi-truck’s flatbed trailer. There was a ladder nailed to it so you could get onto it. The trailer faced the brick wall of the bar and the audience was at an angle eating curly fries. I’ll try to illustrate below:


\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\
I[Audience]II \[Motorcycles\\
\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\

\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ \\\\
\\[The Bar]\\\ * \\\\ <– [Stage]
\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\ \\\\
\\\\\\\\\\\{}\\\\\ \\\\


That’s a rough example, but I’m using WordPress. Like how I made doors for the bar eh? Eh? Anyways..

We started the show, all of the other comedians are standing and sitting at the brick wall, watching their comrades go down in flames. We knew what this was and laughed as we all went down. The audience didn’t know there would be comics, and even if they did know they must have been expecting the Blue Collar variety. The microphone would fade in and out, bikers would drive behind the trailer revving their engines just in time for the punchline, it was beautiful.

I managed to get one laugh from behind the trailer, from a gal who was setting up band equipment. There was also a guy on the trailer with me setting up a drum set… I don’t think he laughed.

Now the star on the diagram above was the heckler (that was a given, wasn’t it?). Just an average drunk biker, these guys had been drinking since 1pm, show was at 7ish, it was bound to happen. I think he was trying to take his pants off before the emcee dealt with him.

After everyone was finished we said our goodbyes and parted ways, it was much like that Toad The Wet Sprocket song, Walk On The Ocean. It was a gig that wouldn’t be forgotten. One of the great things about the whole thing was that no one was discouraged, we went up there and put on a show. I know a couple people who’ve called it quits for less, and when these kinds of gigs come around you get to see who really cares about comedy, and who really needs it. We all walked away with a story, something to tell people on the road, “You think that’s bad you’ve gotta hear about the time I did a benefit show.”  That’s one of the few perks you get being a comedian. No matter what happens to you if you can walk away with a bit or a story at least you were being productive.

This is the business we’ve chosen. ~ Hyman Roth (Godfather Part II)

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