It's 1990. Maybe '91. I get a booking on Long Island, NY, at one of the thousands of weekend (Friday-Saturday) clubs that dotted the country during the "comedy boom" (they've all been replaced today by Starbucks, Subway sandwich shops and vapor bars). It was actually in "the Hamptons," that world-famous summer getaway for the rich and famous. Plus the hotel had a tennis court, so Marsia came with me. It turned out the money wasn't great, the accommodations were pathetic, but what they heck? We played some tennis and we mingled with the well-to-do!
True to form, the club was basically a bad country song: "Don't Put on a Swimsuit Momma, It Ain't That Kind of a Dive." It was dark, dank, dingy and small, with the smell of beer emanating from the walls, but no matter! It was the hip place to be any given weekend 25 years ago, so they sold every seat for every show. And, quite frankly, that's the ideal room for comedy: small and tight so that laughs ricochet off the walls and the floor and the ceiling and the comic rides that vibe for his/her entire set.
There's a standard rule in the comedy club world: the toughest audiences are the late Friday crowd, which is usually tired from the work week in addition to being drunk. But the Hampton second show Friday was fun: a rowdy, loud, happy audience that was attentive and responsive. Hey! Gonna be an easy gig!
Saturday's first show was packed, but there was something odd about the people when I arrived some 10 minutes before showtime. There was a buzz, that pre-show 'glad-to-be-here-let's-have-fun' excitement you get at any live performance, but it was a little off. Something wasn't right. Not a negative energy, and certainly not threatening, just weird and un-comedy-like. As if they were there to see something other than a comedy show. I was uneasy as the announcement came over the crackling loudspeakers hanging from the ceiling: "It's showtime, ladies and gentlemen! Please keep table talk to a minimum! And now please welcome your host for the evening!"
And true to my instinct, it started out badly. There was a table in the front (why do they ALWAYS seat the worst audience members right by the stage in these joints?) that was not only loud and obnoxious, but nobody from the club - not the manager or a bartender or a bouncer - said a word to them. In fact, their waitress kept bringing them drinks, bantering with them as she took orders and served food and acted as if it was perfectly normal!
That group is etched in my mind. There were 7-8 people sitting around two smallish wooden tables pressed together. 4-5 stunningly attractive women in their early-20s dressed like music video models; a couple of young men wearing designer open-collared shirts; and a gentleman in the middle, wearing a sport coat and an expensive watch. He was quite a bit older than the group at his table, and much older than anyone else in the place. But he commanded attention. The focus, from the moment the emcee walked into the hot spotlight on stage, was clearly on him.
They weren't heckling the acts so much as they were kind of putting on their own show, mostly starring the older guy. My opening act, who was quickly followed by the middle act, had exactly the kind of performance you would expect: awful. The show format was typical for the time: the emcee "warms up" the crowd for 15 minutes; the "middle act" does 30, and then the emcee does a quick 3-5 before bringing up the "headliner" who does 45-50. Both men who preceded me bailed on their sets after just a couple of minutes, failing to gain any attention span from the audience. The table in front of the stage was getting louder and more confident with each failure on stage, and now I was introduced.
I can honestly say that nobody who was there remembers my name.
I walked on to nothing. No applause. No acknowledgement. No respect. (I wish I could say that was my last experience like that, but it still happens... and I still don't care.)
I stood behind the mic for at least a minute or two. Just watching this old guy with these young people telling inside jokes and passing finger food around. They finally responded.
"Go ahead," said the old man, "we'll let you do your show!"
I smiled - a difficult thing to pull off for a live performer, because in a situation like this your mouth has gone dry and the flop sweat is ignoring your hope it will stop forming on your hairline - but I held as big a smile as I could for a couple of beats before I said, "I'm sorry... you'll LET me do my show? How about I let you stay and watch?" I hit the big (fake, but they don't know that) smile again.
The entire audience - and I mean everyone in the place - gave an "Oooooooooh," sound, which I liked. It meant I had taken the focus.
The old man laughed. So I laughed too. "What are you even doing here?" I asked. "The limo got lost on your way to the mansion?" He laughed. He clapped his hands.
"I came here to have fun!" he shouted.
"Great," I said, "me too."
One of the young guys at the table said, "When does the show start?"
I beat him to the laughter by saying, "The show started when you people walked in here and sat up front. How much can I pay you to leave?"
I sat down on a big stool, the only prop on the stage, which prompted the old guy to say, "Why are you sitting down?"
I answered: "Because every time I sit down when I'm dealing with hecklers, I haven't been shot." This, apparently, is the funniest line the old guy had ever heard. He doubles over with laughter.
He's not the only one. The whole room is laughing. The waitress is laughing. Hell, I'm laughing.
"Who are you people," I ask. The room goes dead silent. As loud as it was a moment before, that's how quiet it is now. Then, from the back of the room, someone shouts, "That's Mr. Trump!"
The place goes up for grabs. He waves to everyone. It's Donald Trump, Sr. - and for the next 45 minutes I tell every joke I can think of about real estate and corporations and New York and his kid (including some comments about Marla Maples - Google her if you don't know the name). I get through the night.
The show is over. I'm standing by the bar nursing a cold bottle of water, and here comes the man himself, his posse following him. He walks right up to me. "Son, you could sell real estate. How about it?"
I look him in the eye. I give him the appropriate response, "Excuse me?"
He smiles and says, "I'm offering you a job, I think you could be very successful."
I nod and smile and look right back at him. "Thanks, but I have a job." We shake hands.
I met Donald Trump, Sr. He wasn't a bad guy. He had a good sense of humor. No, I'm not endorsing a candidate in the current fiasco that is our "presidential campaign." No, I'm not telling you who to vote for nor am I telling you whom I will vote for. I'm telling you a story about a small-time comedian some 25-26 years ago who performed in a long-since-gone comedy club out on Long Island and the commitment he made that night, and continues to make, to what can only loosely be called a "career."
Thanks for reading!