The Heuristic Squelch Comedy Show — Never Forget
Beginning in 1999, the Heuristic Squelch put on comedy shows at UC Berkeley. By 2001, the shows had gained momentum, and the Squelch had ended its contentious partnership with ASUC SUPERB, the arm of student government in charge of putting on entertainment, and the same people who paid Uncle Joey 10 grand to perform on campus. We had up-and-coming comedians lined up to perform, and we had a great venue in Blake’s on Telegraph (R.I.P.). Our first show would feature comics Jim Short and Rob Cantrell, along with our former editor Luke Filose. It would take place on a night free of competition from other comedy clubs, and early enough in the semester that students weren’t swamped. Yes, September 11th, 2001 would be a day that comedy fans in Berkeley would never forget.
I went to bed on the 10th after staying up late, furiously re-writing jokes and practicing my Young Sean voice. I woke up to early knocking on my bedroom door, with my roommate warning that I probably wanted to get up and watch CNN. “Get in the living room,” he said. “And bring the bong.”
There’s nothing profound for me to say about the actual events. I didn’t know anyone in New York at the time, so there were no frantic phone calls. At one point we solemnly ordered a vegetarian pizza and watched the same news clips over and over. What I remember was how quiet everything was. No one was out on the street, no planes flew overhead, and even the guys next door had stopped revving the broken-down Camaro in the back yard.
We didn’t know whether to cancel the show or not. Yes, this had been a national tragedy, but we had also sold tickets in cash, and our “records” were a notebook with a list of ticket numbers with “PAID” written in pencil. There was no way to give refunds, or alert anyone that the show was cancelled — we didn’t even have anything as good as MySpace for mess communication. So we showed up and hoped it wouldn’t be wildly inappropriate.
At Blake’s, the crowd was surprisingly large, albeit shell-shocked. I had some snarky material about the day’s events, Bush’s competence, and TV coverage, but ultimately, I decided to start the show with a simple disclaimer. I told the crowd that the day had been terrible, everyone was confused, and we all felt nothing but sympathy for the victims. But, no disrespect, we were still going to do the show, and we hoped no one thought we were assholes.
And then I started to do my act. When you go first at a comedy show, it’s called “taking the bullet”. I would say that talking about a massive terrorist attack is one of the toughest intros you can face as a comic. The first joke I told didn’t go over all that well. But a strange thing happened once I got going. When a joke succeeded, it got a huge reaction. It was as if all of the twelve hours of stress, fear, and compulsive CNN-watching had built up, desperately wanting some kind of outlet. And, damn it, jokes about little girls with T. Rex arms provided that outlet.
It also helped that the pro comics went out and kicked ass. Rob Cantrell was his usual stellar self, and Jim Short was flat-out amazing, doing a good fifteen minutes he must have written that afternoon, all about CNN and planes and racism. The bartender was impressed by my heartfelt speech and gave me a bunch of free drinks. Jim closed the show, I thanked everyone for coming, and I figured we’d pulled it off. But I’d forgotten about the open mic.
Yes, we had scheduled an open mic to take place ten minutes after the show ended. And because open mic comedians are the raccoons of the entertainment world, scuttling in the dark and foraging for scraps of attention, we had more than ten people sign up. And I, loosened by four whiskey-and-cokes, decided that I should do my new 9/11 material to lead off the open mic. Because young men are total assholes.
I started off by asserting that Blake’s might eventually become a terror target — there’s good beer, the music rocks, and you just know Bin Laden hates that shit. But then I got on extremely shaky ground by talking about how I believed we were all overlooking the most likely perpetrator — The Empire State Building. According to my set list, I also talked about Osama Bin Laden crashing cabs into the World Trade Center, so thankfully I was also being racist.
Luckily, most people left after the regular show, so it was mostly a few of my friends and other raccoons waiting to perform. Because it was a college open mic, I want to believe I wasn’t even the most offensive comedian on the bill buuuut I almost certainly was. The only consolation is that no audience members yelled “Let’s roll!” and charged the stage to take away my microphone.
I want to say that last line is too soon, but College Sean would say it’s actually 17 years too late.