ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: My So-Called Stand-Up Career
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
One more week until the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Gypsy of the Year performances, Dec. 3-4 at the New Amsterdam Theatre! I'm hosting for the fifth year in a row (!) and I'm very excited. The excitement is tempered with nervousness that all of my comedy bits will get crickets.
Speaking of comedy, I've been going through old videos of my past performances because I'm adding a new section to my online TV network (SethTV.com) called "From the Vaults." It's going to feature benefits, comedy shows and concerts I've done throughout the years, and that means I have to sit and watch my old performances before they're uploaded. I feel a little Norma Desmond-esque but it's bringing back fun memories. I saw some stand-up performances. I thought I would share the story of how I got into stand-up as an inspirational tale to struggling actors.
Back in the '90s I was subbing in the orchestra for a lot of Broadway shows (Grease, Les Miz, Phantom, How to Succeed… etc…) and also doing sketch comedy with my friend, Jack Plotnick. Jack wound up moving to L.A. because he got a pilot with Bob Odenkirk (who later went on to co-create "Mr. Show") and Janeane Garofalo. Suddenly, I didn't have a comedy partner. While Jack was in L.A. he did some stand-up and he kept telling me I should try it. I saw a listing in Backstage about a contest called "The Stars of Tomorrow," and I decided to give it a try. It was at 11 PM at the Duplex on Christopher Street, which was perfect because I had started playing Grease full time at that point and it ended at 10:30. I asked my friend Kali Rocha to come with me for moral support and when I got there, I got the whole spiel from Amanda David, who ran it. Each comic was given three minutes to perform. At two minutes, a red light would shine near the back of the house indicating there was one minute left. She had a list of names and I was scheduled to go on around halfway through. Kali and I watched a string of comics, some funny and some quite the opposite, and I was finally called to the stage. I decided that my act was not going to be joke-based, but I would base it on how I made my friends laugh, AKA I was going to tell a story.
I hauled out one of my classics that happened to me when I was 22 years old and living in Brooklyn. It was 2 AM in the morning and I decided to take a shower because I didn't have air conditioning. As I was toweling off, I heard loud clicking and clacking right next to me. I thought someone was typing in my bathroom or doing a solo version of the opening number from 42nd Street. Turns out, it was neither; the clicking/clacking was coming from a giant water bug walking across the bathroom tiles! It was so large that I literally heard its footsteps! I quickly put on my underwear (in case it was one of those waterbugs that can fly, if you get my drift) and I started chasing it through my apartment. I picked up one of my sneakers so I could smash it but it had the nerve to sneak underneath my front door and into the hallway of the building. I followed it outside my apartment, feeling triumphant that I was about to corner it, but soon my triumph turned into devastation. Why? Because I heard my apartment door close behind me. And I had one of the doorknobs that automatically locks from the outside. Yes, I was locked outside of my apartment. In Brooklyn. At 2 AM. Wearing only underwear and a sneaker. And, if I recall correctly, a gold necklace because it was 1989.
Anyhoo, there's more to the story, but suffice it to say I got laughs and at the end of it, Amanda told me that I made the semi-finals! I didn't even know that "Stars of Tomorrow" was a contest, so I was extra excited. Well, I came back for the semi-finals and this time I was extremely nervous. I knew what it felt like to do well and I desperately wanted to recreate my first time. And I made the bold choice of not practicing because I thought that would ruin my spontaneity. Suffice it to say, the only thing that was ruined was the audience's expectation of seeing someone funny. I clanked. And I mean, clanked. Nary a laugh in the house. Mortifying. Amanda read the list of the finalists and my name was decidedly not said. I went home (and herein lies the first lesson) and I thought, "You know, I definitely didn't do well tonight. But I saw the comics who did do well and I know that they're not funnier than I am in real life. I just have to figure out how to be funny in performance."
I knew I had to keep practicing to perfect my act. But the only place I could go to do my newly formed act was The Duplex, and I was way too mortified to have to face Amanda again — as well as all those comics who saw me bomb. However, I didn't know where else to go, so I forced myself to show up the following week. As soon as I walked in, I ran into to another comic who saw me bomb. I thought to myself, "It's all in my head. I'm sure he didn't even notice how horrible I was." Instead he looked at me and said, "I thought you quit the business." Anyhoo, I was apparently now known as a terrible comic, so Amanda put me on way late in the show, hoping that most of the audience would be gone by the time I soured the room. Since it began at 11 PM, I wound up going on after 12:30 AM. This happened week after week, but I began to get better. Each week helped me understand how to make my set work. Suddenly, after a few months, Amanda came up to me after a set and got asked me back to the semi-finals! Another chance! At the end of the semis, Amanda read the list of the finalists and this time, I was on it! I came back to do the finals and at the end, there was a 3rd prize winner, a 2nd prize winner…and I wound up winning the Grand Prize!
Broadway-wise, I interviewed cast members from Chaplin at Seth's Broadway Chatterbox and it was super fun. Michael McCormick (who plays a variety of roles in the show including Mack Sennett) told me that he did the tour and Broadway companies of Oliver! when he was a kid! I asked for a stage mishap and he gave an amazing domino-effect story. In the show, Bill Sikes (the villain) climbs up a ladder and gets shot. When he's shot, he's so high up that the audience can't see him and a fake body falls to the ground. Michael said that during one show, Bill got to the top of the ladder and the shot rang out as usual. But the actor playing Bill had been drinking between shows and he wound up being so unsteady that before the fake body fell, the actor himself let go of the ladder and plunged to the ground! Thankfully, he wasn't hurt but right after that, Bill's dog is supposed to come out and look for him. Well, that night the dog came out all right, but decided to use his foray onstage as a substitute walk. That's right, he literally pooped in the middle of the stage! There wasn't enough time to clean it up or to warn the cast, so as the kids came on for the next scene they were all stepping in it. And, the dog had done it while standing on the part of the stage that was a turntable so when it started spinning, the dog's "present" got into the grooves and the stagehands couldn't remove it for days. Please sir, I don't want some more.
This week's Chatterbox (details at SethsBroadwayChatterbox.com) features one of my favorite composing teams: Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. I'm obsessed with so many of their songs. Watch this Playbill "Obsessed!" video of Liz Callaway revealing the way her signature song from Baby used to end.
The most amazing news? The Patti LuPone concert is about to go up on SethTV.com. You will not believe how amazing she sounds! And come see Gypsy of the Year on Monday and Tuesday. Go to BroadwayCares.org for tix.
And if you're Down South in Louisville, KY, on Saturday night, come see me do Seth's Big Fat Broadway Show! Tix at . And now, peace out and go work out that Thanksgiving bloat!
(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)
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