It doesn’t always come across in my self-loathing or self-congratulatory writing, but I can be a pretty funny guy. However, my humor comes from either conversation or reference. I can make my coworkers laugh by imitating an executive or make friends laugh by relaying stories that we all experienced. But I could never make a room full of strangers laugh on demand. Stand-up comedy is an incredible skill, one I’ve never even pretended to have.
My wife and I used to go out quite a bit. We sampled most of the great restaurants in Philly and experienced many of the things that wonderful city has to offer. One of those things is Helium Comedy Club. Located in downtown Center City but on a quieter block a half-block away from a busy corner, it is a perfect place for an comedy club.
One of my close friends used to work as a bartender (and another friend was the manager) there, so we would often wind up at Helium even on nights when there was nothing really going on or after hours, when every other establishment was closed. These connections also allowed me to secure tickets to see virtually any comedian I wanted, most of the time choosing our seats as well.
One night, in 2009 or 2010 (I believe), Greg Fitzsimmons was doing a weekend set of shows at Helium. Aside from the all-time greats from years past (Richard Pryor, George Carlin) and even more recently (Bill Burr, Louis C.K.), Fitzsimmons is probably my favorite comic. He has an arrogant, acerbic wit that I love, but he’s also extremely smart, peppering his jokes with references that prove he’s well-read. (He’s also a prolific writer, having contributed to numerous shows, most notably winning four Daytime Emmys for his work on Ellen.)
So when it was time to be seated, my friend sat us in the second row, dead center in front of the stage. After the warm-up and middle acts, Greg came out and immediately began to kill. Then, as he’s prone to do, he began working the crowd, interacting and riffing on anyone and everyone.
On each of our tables were little cards that promoted the comedians that would be appearing at the club in the coming weeks. Fitzsimmons looked at one of these and noticed that one of them was Paul F. Thompkins. He then made a reference to something they had done together of which apparently very few people were aware and I said, “I remember that.”
He looked at me and said, “Why would you remember that?”
I told him that he was one of my favorite comedians.
He then turned his attention to my wife. “Wow, look at you!” he remarked. She looked great and was wearing something that accentuated her physical attributes. He joked with her for a bit and then asked me what else he had done that I had enjoyed and I mentioned several things. Seemingly satisfied, he said, “Do you want to come up here on stage?”
I was hesitant, but I said, “Of course!” and stood up. As I did, my friend brought over a chair and placed it on the stage to the side where I sat down. It’s only when you’re on that stage that you truly realize how bright those lights are. It is jarring.
Fitzsimmons handed me a crumpled, sweaty piece of paper, and said, “Okay, here are a bunch of jokes I’m working on. I’m going to let you pick which ones I do. Just call them out.”
I couldn’t read a word of it. I blamed his handwriting, but maybe it was being on stage or maybe it was the beers I had had. After a few times in which I tried read one of them and he looked at me like a disappointed father before making fun of me mercilessly and making the room repeatedly erupt in laughter because I failed to get a single word correct and was yelling out nonsensical combinations of words, he said, “You know what? Don’t worry about it. Just sit there and enjoy the show. Actually, can we get him another beer?” So I had a beer delivered to me on stage. Not too bad. When he was nearly finished, he told me to return to my table and instructed the audience to give me a round of applause.
After his shows, Fitzsimmons hangs out in the lobby, selling DVDs and talking to patrons. We waited in line and then spoke to him for a few minutes, even taking a photo together on my old flip phone. (I think my wife has the picture somewhere, but I can’t be sure.)
Not wanting to take up any more of his time, I thanked him and left, taking my comedy career with it.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, including the brand new In Defense Of…, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.