There’s this somewhat infamous story about me and a run-in with a vending machine in Billings, Montana. It was the first night of the Big Sky Comedy Competition. Big Sky is one of the hardest festivals to get into and it hosts some of the biggest gatekeepers in show business. Most of the late night television bookers are there, most of the bookers of the “A” comedy clubs in the country are there as well as people in casting from all of the major networks. It’s a huge deal. I didn’t get in the first year I submitted but got in the second time I submitted by the skin of my teeth. One of the producers told me that he really fought for me to get in but what my alcoholic brain heard was “you’re not good enough to be here but we made an exception”. My brain has been telling me that my whole life. It has nothing to do with how my parents raised me or even the environment I grew up in. It’s just how the alcoholic brain works. It’s as if your best friend in the whole world is trying to get you fired or even worse, get you killed yet you still consider him your best friend. Every time I knew some booker or gatekeeper was at a show a seed of doubt would creep into my head and I would get nervous and not have a great set. I remember once I was in the finals of the San Diego Comedy Competition and someone said to me right before the show “I’ve got my money on you!” Oh great, I thought and finished last in the finals. For a lot of people, its natural. You don’t necessarily have to be an alcoholic to get nervous or anxious about an opportunity that you’ve been working so hard to get but for an alcoholic, failure is almost a foregone conclusion since now I’ll have a reason to not only drink but wallow in my own self pity. That’s when I do my best drinking!
As a sort of ice breaker to kick off the festivities the first show is known as the “Drinking Show” where comics go up and do a set then get drunk and do another set. I wasn’t even picked to be one of these comics but seeing as there was free tequila in the green room and the seed of doubt that I had no right to be there in the first place had already taken root, I BEGAN TO DRINK. The show ends, the drinking continues and we decide to go to the casino to play poker. Drinking and gambling are not a good combination for me. I am highly competitive and a terrible loser and I start to run my mouth off at the table. I lose all my money and I leave the casino blacked out. I remember it was raining and I walked by myself to Denny’s and I sit down at a table and nobody comes up to serve me. I leave in a rage. I’m drunk, I’m soaking wet, I lost all my money, I can’t get anything to eat and I don’t deserve to be here. It’s me against the world. A catastrophic series of events is in motion and I am powerless to stop it. I am an unmanned train with no functioning brakes.
I get back to my hotel. There’s a tiny room with vending machines next to the lobby. I open the door to the vending machine room and the door is lighter than I realize thanks to my beer muscles and rage and I swing it open and immediately put a hole in the wall. While attempting to purchase some Peanut M&M’s I’m confronted by a hotel security guard who wants to know why I put a hole in the wall. Super fair question. He’s standing in front of the door and and I’m boxed in. I don’t really remember the conversation we had but I think it ended with me saying if he didn’t get out of my way so help me God blah blah blah… I’m pretty sure he laughed at me. I wake up the next day in my room covered in peanut M&M’s and no memory of any of this happening.
My roommate for the week, who I don’t think I had even formally met yet, tells me that the Producers of the festival would like a quick word with me. “That’s odd”, I say as I’m pulling M&M’s off my torso. I get dressed and find them downstairs. They told me to pack up my shit and catch the next flight back to LA. I’m out of the festival. They retell the story of my behavior the previous night. I beg. I plead. I swear on my nieces and nephews. I’ll be good. Guys it’s me, Ken, the super nice guy! After an expert level of groveling they agree to let me stay as long as I write a letter of apology to the hotel operators and the security guard. I was beyond humiliated. You did it again Garr. Mission accomplished.
Later on that day we all go bowling and I’m excited because I finally get to meet the booker of “The Tonight Show”. My lifelong dream has been to perform on “The Tonight Show”. As a kid I always begged my parents to let me stay up and watch the comics on Carson. Here’s my chance! I’m going to use every skill I’ve ever learned in sales to wow this man. I’m going to be charming and intelligent and interesting and he’s going to beg me to do no other show before I do “The Tonight Show”. I spot him putting on his bowling shoes from across the room. I’m confident. I’ve rubbed elbows with CEO’s and CFO’s of Fortune 500 companies for years. Surely I can put on my game face and win him over. Watch and learn people! I extend my hand and introduce myself and he replies, “Beat up any vending machines today?” I want to die. At a minimum I’m going to quit stand up comedy but I may just jump off the roof of the hotel that I just wrote an apology letter to. He was 100% busting my balls but in my throbbing, hungover head my life is ruined. My career is over.
My first set is later that night in front of some really important people. I’m hung over, I’m embarrassed because I’m already the talk of the festival and not in a good way and I don’t have a good set. By my standards it’s a bad set. When will this nightmare end? The next night feeling completely defeated and completely blanketed in victim mode where I am most comfortable I call my buddy, Jay. “I don’t know if I should do this joke or that joke. Should I keep it clean? Should I open with a closer? Tell me what to do!” He says, “You’re at a bar show in Billings, Montana, right? You’ve done a 1,000 bar shows. Just be yourself. It’s just another bar show.” He’s totally right. I crush. I feel some sort of vindication but at the same time I know that, yet again, I have shot myself in the foot. I have squandered a huge opportunity and in my head, at the time, I would never get another opportunity this big again. I didn’t drink the rest of the weekend but the damage had already been done.
I miss the finals because of my mediocre first set and I watch as my friends crush and get their accolades. I still didn’t get sober until some time after this event but it was my “inception moment”. A seed had been planted in my head. An idea that would grow. It was after that weekend that I realized that maybe, just maybe, I had a drinking problem. Soon afterwards I went back and read some old journals that I had kept when I was getting divorced and found countless entries where I had begged and pleaded with myself to quit drinking or at least take a break for a while. A year or two later I finally quit drinking.
One of the assumptions that I made when I quit drinking was that everything would line up and my career would take off. I would finally get out of my own way and quit self sabotaging myself. I would embrace that next big opportunity that would take me to the next level, (whatever that is) but it didn’t happen that way. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a ton of success since I quit drinking but only after putting in a lot of work to improve myself and focus on my craft. I’ve worked my ass off. But it wasn’t this overnight spiritual awakening that happened that gave me self worth and self esteem and the skills and confidence I needed to “make it” in show business. I still had to work hard and hustle and learn and fail and grow but being sober has helped me stay focused. It gave me back time that I would have otherwise spent on a bar stool or recuperating on the couch. It gave me time to prepare for the next opportunity that might come my way.
And in a very weird way that opportunity came last Friday night.
I got booked to be on a show at the Ha Ha Comedy Club. I love the Ha Ha because it reminds me of the clubs I started in. The audience is very blue collar and you don’t get the same pretentious “LA” crowds there who are just waiting to see famous people from TV and movies. The owners have been so good to me over the years and I’m so grateful to them for the greatest gift you can get in Los Angeles; stage time. But on this night my buddy Mark booked me to be on the show. He sent me the flyer the week before and on it was Bill Burr, Pablo Francisco and Doug Benson among other great comics. It’s pretty common to be on the same line up with some heavy hitters and I was genuinely excited because I knew the show was going to be sold out and electric. I asked Mark to put me on before Bill, if possible, not because I was afraid to follow him but because I don’t think Bill had ever seen me perform and I knew if I went right before him that maybe he would check me out and give me the old “ya did good kid” head nod after my set. And in my delusional, fantastical, ego-driven alcoholic brain he’d be like “you’re gonna go on the road with me and I’m going to open all these new doors for you and your life is going to be perfect. Stick with me kid!” but that’s not how it works in the real world and also he doesn’t talk like an old vaudevillian comic from the 20’s.
Now earlier that night I got a text from a friend of mine who asked if I could close her show so I got to do a set before the one at the Ha Ha. Batting practice. I raced to the Ha Ha after my set to get there on time to go right before Bill and the audience wasn’t even seated yet. The emcee tells me that Bill has another set to get to so he’s going to go first. I’ll have to follow Bill Burr. One of the greatest comedians in the world. And for the first time in my life I’m excited. Doubt is not creeping in my head as it normally would. I’m ready. I’m not afraid. Fear does not exist in this dojo. I’m genuinely excited because I know the crowd is going to be straight fire. Show starts and Bill crushes because that’s what Bill does. He leaves to furious applause and the emcee brings me up right away and I make the slow walk up to the stage. Believe it or not my favorite part of any show is usually that brief walk up to the stage. Your adrenaline is FIRING. You have no idea how you’re going to do and it’s both terrifying and euphoric at the same time.
I’m ready. I’ve done probably a thousand sets since that week in Billings, spent years hosting Lab Work at the Improv on Sundays which is one of the toughest rooms in the world, and doing late night sets after the marquee names have already left has led me to this moment and I’ve learned two very important lessons over the years, 1. don’t rip on the emcee and 2. acknowledge the comic who just crushed before you. (Thank you Brad Garrett) “Can you give it up for your emcee please?” I begin. Part 1 done. “And how fantastic is Bill Burr? Right now every one of you has a look on your face like, ‘well, can we leave now? Drink your two drinks, let’s go!” Part 2 complete, and we’re off and running. The next 7 minutes are a blur. I didn’t even see a light to indicate my time was up but I did what I planned on doing and I ended on my closer and got off stage. I didn’t get greedy. Pablo Francisco, a legend in his own right, was waiting to go next and gave me the “ya did good kid” head nod and fist bump. Burr, I’m sure, was long gone and didn’t see any of my set. The consummate professional was off to his next crushing set. There were several high fives and pats on the back. Audience members sought me out and shook my hand. I was one of the last ones to leave of course while I milked all the compliments I could get. I was so happy. I said goodnight to the staff and got in my car. I put the key in the ignition, started the car and began the short drive home to crawl into bed with my new bride and then it started.
“Holy shit. Are you fucking kidding me? Are you going to cry? What the hell is the matter with you? It’s just another set. Be a fucking professional! You’re supposed to be able to follow anyone, knock it off.” I even do that ugly breathing thing you do when you’re trying to keep your shit together as my eyes welled up. Just then I get a text from the booker of the show who sends me a screenshot from one of those LA gatekeepers you always want to impress who was at the show who said, “My favorite part of the night was watching Ken Garr crush after Bill Burr.” Jesus. Keep it together Ken. You only cry at the end of Braveheart, Backdraft and occasionally Sea Biscuit for some reason. Deep breaths!
And that’s when it happened.
I get to the first red light and I look over to my left and there is a Police Officer shining his flashlight on a woman’s face. I know that look on her face very well. I’ve made the same face. I recognize immediately that she is taking a field sobriety test. Tears explode out of my eyes. My face is now a fucking waterfall. I am sobbing uncontrollably. I honestly haven’t cried like this in years. It’s what we call a God shot. I am completely and undeniably in the presence of a higher power I choose to call God. Emotions are gushing out of me like an episode of Dr. Pimple Popper only this pimple is made entirely of gross feelings that have been building up for 14 months since everything in my life halted because of a pandemic. This poor woman is having the worst night of her life. A night I have experienced firsthand myself as I begged with officers to not drag me to jail, bartenders to not cut me off, bouncers to not kick me out, people I smarted off to not kick my teeth in, Producers of festivals to not send me packing. “I didn’t have that much to drink! My father is a fire fighter! My best friend is a cop! That Security Guard was a jerk! I don’t live that far from here! I’ll park the car and walk! Do you know who I am? I probably know your boss! You’re going to regret this! Please, I’ll give you tickets to a comedy show! I’m sorry! I’ll write a another letter and apologize. I promise, I’ll quit drinking. I mean it this time. Please don’t do this. I’m a super nice person!”
I’m sitting at a red light and staring at my past and she is trying to touch her nose with her head held back just off the 101 per the Officer’s instructions. I wish I could giver her a hug. I know how scared she is right now.
The light turns green and all I can think about is how badly I want to hold Jen. I say a prayer for that woman and ask God to protect her. I get home. I park and fly up the stairs to my apartment and jump into bed and I cry REAL HARD while quickly reassuring my now fully awake wife that it’s a good cry. She holds me and kisses me because she’s the greatest woman in the world. She doesn’t ask what’s wrong or what happened. She just lets me get it out. I guess this is that intimacy thing my therapist was always talking about. I apologize to her profusely because I am a man and men shouldn’t cry according to every tv show and movie in the last 75 years and she dismisses it immediately as foolishness. I try talking but it’s not working. After a few deep breaths I finally say it.
“I did it.” I tell her. “I followed Bill Burr.” (I know, sooooo fucking dramatic. This is vintage Garr)
I assure you that nothing will change in my career as a result of one good set other than the knowledge I have that I can do it. It’s all about the small wins in show business that build one’s confidence. Because the truth is that everyone on the show did amazing. It was honestly one of the best shows I’ve ever been a part of. A lot of people follow Bill Burr every night and a lot of people crush after him. It’s easy to do because you essentially have the best opener in the world. It’s what’s expected in this highly competitive (yet supportive) dreamland we call Hollywood. “You did your job!” as Coach Belichick would say. But when I reflect on how far I’ve come from being just like that poor woman taking a sobriety test on the side of the road to being that scared and very angry drunk idiot at Big Sky who felt unworthy of anything good ever happening to him, I’ll take the win. I work really, really hard and I should enjoy the fruits of my labor and embrace the success I’ve worked so hard to achieve. Because I am worthy. I am a good person.
I’ve been doing this a long time and in my very humble opinion I believe that the hardest part about show business and maybe life, in general, is BELIEVING IN YOURSELF and it’s damn near impossible for an alcoholic, who basks in failure and tales of woe in order to drown their sorrows in alcohol, to not sabotage yet another opportunity. But for just one random Friday night in June in a small blue collar comedy club in North Hollywood for the first time maybe in my life I got out of my own damn way. For just one night, I stayed present and in the moment. I refused to let doubt and fear and self sabotage win as it has time and time again in my life.
With the help and the will of my higher power I kept my demons at bay for 7 whole minutes…
And I crushed that shit.