Wissot: Deep in the heart of Texas
The elderly men and women were seated at 4 in the afternoon post-nap time and pre-early bird dinner. They were there to be entertained by comics, and the location wasn’t an assisted living facility but the showroom of a casino in Laughlin, Nevada. I was one of the comics there to entertain them.
For 16 years, beginning in 1988, I toured the country as a stand-up comedian.The country was in the midst of a comedy boom and there was a great demand for comics to take the stages in clubs, bars and hotel lounges. All it took was 15-30 minutes of minimally funny material and the foolhardiness to drive on ice slicked roads in the winter for paltry pay.
The boom lasted until the mid ’90s when the owners of the many bars and lounges hosting comedy shows realized they could make more money selling booze on karaoke nights than by using comics as shills to sell drinks. By the end of the boom, the owners of the rooms I was playing regularly told me that they loved my act and would be happy to continue booking me as long as I was willing to work for less money each time I came back.
Before the work began to dry up, I got to do comedy in some memorable venues. In Torrington, Wyoming, I did a show in the back room of a John Deere store and then drove to nearby Gillette to perform at Jingles for a bunch of rowdy miners really glad to be above ground.
Here in Colorado, I did a prison gig at the state penitentiary in Buena Vista and opened for strippers at the Bustop in North Boulder (the customers couldn’t wait for me to finish my little comedy skit).
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I worked college towns like Pittsburg, Kansas, and Kirksville, Missouri, where the shows didn’t begin until 10 o’clock, by which time the kids in the audience were either drunk or stoned. In Salt Lake City, I entertained a very sober crowd in an alcohol-free comedy club.
But my favorite gigs were in Texas. One of my tours began at Jolly’s on Paramount Street in Amarillo, followed by shows at Froggybottom’s on Indiana Street in Lubbock, before ending at the Velveeta Room on Sixth Street in Austin.
Texas audiences were like most in the country, leaning more often to the political right than not. For every liberal city like Austin, there were two conservative places like Amarillo and Lubbock. I made fun of the foolishness of politicians, but not the politics of the audience. If you want to piss off people, write a column. If you want to make them laugh, don’t ridicule their social values.
In the fall of 1990, I couldn’t resist the temptation to use my act to get into the thicket of Texas politics. Ann Richards was running for governor against an oilman named Clayton Williams who had a bad habit of not engaging his brain before he spoke. At one point in the campaign, Williams compared bad weather to rape by saying the best thing to do was “relax and enjoy it.” I made fun of the stupidity of that comment every time I did my set, and the audiences laughed. Ann Richards won that election. Texas politics was definitely as conservative then as it is now, but the Texans I met didn’t like politicians who said dumbass things about sensitive subjects.
My fond memories of Texas extended beyond the comedy clubs I played. One night in Austin, after my show at the Velveeta Room, I walked down Sixth Street to the Red River Saloon and stood on the sidewalk listening to a country and western group play music on a patio stage. Before I knew it, a big black tour bus parked in front of the bar, and out popped Willie Nelson and his band. They were there to try out some new music, and I got to see Willie Nelson perform live from a distance of less than 25 feet. Cool. Very cool.
Thirty years later, I still remember the massive block-long churches resembling college campuses in Lubbock; the cars with their grills buried in the earth and their tail fins pointing to the sky at the Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo; the bluebells dotting the highway roadsides in the springtime; riding through the streets of Dallas on Easter Sunday morning where everybody seemed to be going to church before heading over to Luby’s for a buffet lunch; the feeling that you were close to the Mexican roots of Texas when in San Antonio; the Gulf breezes cooling people walking and biking on the 4-mile long sea wall promenade in Galveston; sitting in the stands at the rickety old Texas Ranger baseball stadium in Arlington on a July night where the temperature on the scoreboard reached 106 degrees.
Deep in the heart of Texas is where you will find a big piece of my heart.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.