From 2012-2015 I did 40 plus comedy shows with the Million Laughs Comedy Troupe, bringing laughs to hospitals, nursing homes, halfway houses, veterans hospitals, woman shelters, recovery centers, and mental institutions across Southern California. The Troupe was made up of dozens of comics that would rotate in and out on each show, performing to cheer people up that needed a good laugh. People that were going through tough times. Looking back, those shows were some of the most gratifying, joyful and challenging shows I've ever been a part of.
The shows were produced by Will and Yvonne Morton. Will, a former electrical engineer at Boeing, would host the shows while Yvonne, one of the sweetest people I've met, was the behind the scenes producer. After every show she'd always quietly say to me, "Love the new stuff."
The comedians were an oddball cast of characters. Men and women, black, white, latino, 20 to 70 years old - all performing together. There were engineers, voice over actors, a former writer for Rodney Dangerfield, a couple of teachers, a cashier, a medical doctor, a lawyer, a burlesque dancer, a recovering addict all trying to bring cheer and laughter to others who needed it most.
The venues for these shows were often challenging. They were no 500-seat Improv with a $100K electronic video screen behind us. They were often a living room, an entry way, a conference room, or an EZ up tent. They were the kind of shows you would ask yourself, 'Why am I using a microphone'? The green rooms were never separate rooms filled with food or a live feed of the show, but rather a hallway, a kitchen or a frayed beach chair next to the audience.
These shows were often tough, but looking back they created great memories for me. While it's nice to perform in a club or a showroom set up for a big performance, I've learned that comedy can be done just about anywhere. Many of these experiences are etched in my brain including:
-The halfway house where the stage was an entry way and we were constantly interrupted by people coming home from work. Where comics joined the audience on the couch knowing it would help everyone.
-Or the senior center where twelve walkers were double parked just outside the room.
-Or the rehab center where one audience member asked for a copy of my teacher jokes. He said he was separated from his wife (a teacher) and daughter during treatment and said he would love to share those jokes with them over the phone.
-Or the blind unit at a veterans hospital where I listened for over an hour as one patient told me stories about being a producer for the Smothers Brothers.
-Or the mental institution where I had an escort to the bathroom, my clipboard wasn't allowed in, and the chairs for the audience were too heavy to be picked up (for safety reasons) and could only be dragged across the tile floor. The first time I did that location it was really fun but the second time it seemed like they were too sedated to react much.
-Or the youth center where I was heckled and called shaggy by a kid that got better laughs than me.
-Or the time I couldn't find the venue in a really shady part of Norwalk. I couldn't get ahold of anyone so I drove home only to hear later what an amazing show it had been.
-Or the women's shelter where the show was done under an EZ up tent with a floodlight doubling as a spotlight. I'll never forget how joyful the laughs were from 11 woman sitting under the tent in the rain.
-Or a senior center where I don't remember getting one laugh and I'm not even sure the audience could hear me.
-Or the homeless shelter where I took a wrong turn for the bathroom only to see a room full of cots and personal belongings. It's then when you're reminded just what people are going through.
These were special special shows. As a comic, you always want to kill and get the biggest laughs possible, but occasionally you realize it's not always about the laughs. More importantly, it's about the human connection. At these shows I would often hear: "Thanks for caring enough to come", followed by a giant hug. That connection was everything. The laughs were just a bonus.