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Comedy Night in Ashley, Kansas
In July and August 2011, I was on tour across the southeast with two other standup comedians. Our hour-long show opened with Chuck, a likeable family man that had a talent for getting the audience on our side.
I would feature, going after Chuck, playing my bass guitar and delivering one-liners. Doug would headline, since he’s the most experienced. Doug has tattoos up and down both his arms and a ponytail jutting out from the back of his head; he had no problem getting hecklers to shut the hell up, no matter how drunk or violent they were.
Half our shows were pre-scheduled, the rest were “Guerilla Stand-up” shows as Doug called them. We would stop by a bar, ask if we can do our show, and pass around a tip jar at the end. All we needed was an audience, we had everything we needed in Doug’s van (microphone, sound system, we even had lights). Guerilla shows were generally rowdier than planned shows and didn’t do much for us financially, but they helped cover for gasoline.
In mid August, I believe it was the 16th, we were driving through North Carolina. We didn’t have a planned show that night and were just looking for a place to perform. The highway we were on was featureless, just one lane heading each way and dense forest hugging the road from either side, the smell of smoke hanging mildly in the evening air. We weren’t sure whether or not we were even on the right road because neither the GPS nor Chuck’s smartphone was getting any signal. It was ‘the middle of donkey-balls nowhere’ according to Doug. Finally, we saw a sign:
Farms started cropping up along the road as we entered the small town. A faded wooden sign welcomed us to “Ashley, Kansas” and invited us to “Stay a while”. There are several states between North Carolina and Kansas, there’s no way we went that far. We contemplated the oddity as we rolled into what looked to be some sort of historic downtown district, complete with a roller rink and soda parlor. We were all impressed with the effort and attention to detail put into making the area look authentic. The smell of smoke was rather strong, there was probably a large fire recently. We found a bar a few blocks away, with a poorly lit sign above the door, Elmo’s.
We pitched our show to the bartender, who was happy to let us perform. “We don’t laugh enough around here,” he said, his voice calm like a dose of Quaalude, “I’ll let everyone know.” We had a few hours to kill before the show, so we sat in the bar and wrote material while drinking some beers (they had old brands, some that I didn’t even know were still being made, like Schlitz)
The place was perfect for comedy writing, there were no TVs and the music was all jazz and oldies, very few distractions. The bar had great lighting and a small stage area that was great for comedy. We set up the microphone and sound system and went to wait in a large closet near the stage; that would be our Green Room for the evening.
We looked out the door a few minutes before the show. The house lights were off and the stage lights were glaringly bright. I could faintly make out the silhouettes of what seemed to be a large crowd waiting patiently for the show. As far as we saw, the bartender had made no attempt to tell anyone about the show while we were writing jokes for that entire hour, how did so many people know to come? The crowd was quietly waiting for us to take the stage, which was very unsettling. There was no pre-show chatter, not even a cough, just 50-plus people waiting in silence.
“Let’s get this shit-train a-rolling,” Chuck told us before waltzing up onto the stage. He was met with modest applause, a stark contrast to the usual hooting-and-hollering of southern bars. The crowd was very bi-polar, buzzing with laughter at some jokes while being completely silent during others. Near the end of Chuck’s set, I found the main factor between good and bad jokes for this crowd.
They did not get jokes involving references to popular culture. Were we this far out from society? Chuck thanked the crowd and left the stage to polite applause. I took the stage, plugged in my bass guitar, and strummed some simple notes. The first thing that hit me on that stage was the overwhelming smell of smoke, it had been lingering for the past few hours but now it was nearly overwhelming, distracting even. I had to address that elephant in the room.
“Is there a fire in town? Too bad Ashley’s one-man Fire Department is getting plastered at a comedy show.” The audience laughed. I tried to keep my jokes simple, I even had to use crappy jokes from way back in my first year of comedy. The jokes with references to modern culture were falling flat, just like I predicted. The audience seemed to have two reactions, either total silence or a consistent buzz of modest laughter.
It was my job to bring up Doug when I was done. “Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s my time. I’d like to bring up to the stage, a very funny man, Doug!” Instead of his usual energetic smile-and-wave to the audience, Doug took the stage and pulled me aside with a serious look on his face.
“On the count of three, run for the back door and get in the van,” he whispered to me with a clear quiver in his voice.
“What about the speakers?”
“Fuck the speakers, we run like hell on three.” I could hear audience members getting out of their seats as he counted down, and once he finished counting I ran as fast as I could to the back door. They ran after us. I still had the microphone in one hand and the bass guitar strapped across my chest, the cord popping out of the mic and the bass disconnecting from the amp not far down towards the door. I was almost out before one man grabbed my arm, and it burned like hell. I looked back at him, and he was on fire. Not in any figurative sort of way, literally covered in flames. I ripped my arm away from him just in time to dodge the heavy metal door that Doug slammed down on my assailant’s arm.
Chuck was waiting in the van outside. We dove into the van, and Chuck peeled off into the road. “They drugged us, man. They slipped some shit into our beers,” Chuck yelled, the angriest I remember ever seeing him. I looked out the window and saw the patrons, bathed in fire, file out the bar door and watch us drive off into the night. The entire town was turning into ashes around us, the smell became unbearable. The last thing I heard before passing out was Chuck choking on smoke and Doug roaring curse words at the bar disappearing into the distance.
I woke up not too long later to the sound of Doug punching the dashboard in anger. Chuck asked if we should see someone about the hallucinations, but they appear to have had worn off. I could still see a faint orange glow in the sky behind us as we entered the city limits of Greensboro, NC, a far cry from Kansas.
We continued touring for about a week, no more “Guerilla Comedy”. We still talk about that night whenever we see each other at local open mics and shows.
I never told them about the package I received in the mail on August 16th, 2012, a year after that night, containing the charred remains of my amp and the tip jar with thirty-six dollars and seventy-five cents in it. I never told them about the burns left on my shirt where the fiery man had grabbed me before getting his arm crushed. I didn’t tell them about the note inside the package that read:
“Thanks for the laughs! We hope to come to one of your shows again soon!"
- Return address: Elmo’s Bar, Ashley, KS.