Winston’s is not where Jerry Seinfeld hangs out. But — hold on — it’s just like places where Seinfeld once did, back when Jerry was just a guy with a joke and a hope. And that comic’s dream is what motors our story.
Holding the mike at the moment, doing his five-minute shtick before he turns it over to the next five-minuter, is a short guy with the baritone pipes of a radio jock spieling some funny lines. His name is Dave Wright, and you can’t catch him on cable TV.
Halfway through his routine, a mouthy drunk with an early start begins interrupting with slurred and stupid comments to Wright. The guy is sitting on a stool next to his mostly sober girlfriend.
This is not a fair fight.
“Sir, I would guess you’re a happy drunk. Is that true?”
“Tell me: Do you realize that EVERYONE is really pleased when you get drunk?”
The guy gives that idiotic, pointless drunken laugh.
“I think I know why. Because with that beer glass in your mouth, you shut the hell up. Everyone in here would like you to have another beer.”
The guy mutters on.
“Sir, please keep drinking so I can take your beautiful girlfriend home while you’re face-down in the men’s room. Trust me, she’ll thank you for it later.”
Wright’s indignation is feigned, because he secretly welcomes the encounter. Comics appreciate drunks the way cats appreciate mice: first to be played with, then devoured.
The others in the audience are gleeful when a drunk becomes a foil — it’s someone else stepping up to play the fool. And for this night, at least, it’s not them.
Wright turns away from the drunk and slings one joke after another at the small crowd. People either laugh approvingly or walk toward the bar or washroom.
“A lot of people ask me if doing stand-up comedy is tough. I’ve had tougher jobs. I used to do door-to-door sales. I sold ‘no soliciting’ signs.”
Winston’s is where Wright shows up for work on this night, his toolbox filled with fresh jokes, prepared again to joust with his dreams. He would prefer a guest spot on “The Tonight Show.”
To Wright and other striving-struggling comics, Winston’s and other venues like it are steppingstones or tombstones. For him, open-mike is like batting practice: He just wants to keep his swing smooth. He normally gets an 8 p.m. slot at the Comedy Store or the Mad House Comedy Club. At age 40, he’s considered a step up on most of the other open-mikers who tend to be — and this is a terrible thing to say about a comic — not very funny.
“Bob Filner would make every woman on the elevator get off at the next floor.”
Wright came to San Diego from Delaware in 2000. He was without a car, so he rented a small place in La Jolla for $700, then got a job at a nearby restaurant. “It was me and my dog and a bunch of money, and the money ran away.”
He met a girl during one of his early routines and invited her out to a bar near his home because he didn’t want to admit he was car-less. The date clicked and he ended up taking her home on the handlebars of his bike.
“I thought, I’ve come full circle: I’m in my late 20s and I’ve got a girl on my handlebars, just like high school. One of the things she liked about me was that she was able to tell her mom she was dating a comic. Her mom had only seen one comic and that was Larry the Cable Guy, so her mom kept going, ‘Oh, you’re dating a Larry the Cable Guy.’ ”
Daytime, Wright earns an actual living as an admissions counselor for an online university, a job on which quip opportunities are presumably few.
“The message ‘coexist’ should not be used as a bumper sticker. It’s hard for me to support your cause in the middle of traffic. I’m in traffic! That’s the place where I least care about other humans.”
Wright says of his companions in comedy: “Comedy people are probably the weirdest, most unique, and in the same respect, most beautiful people that I’ve met in my life. We all have a unique view on how we see things. We all are a little twisted.”
How about the cliché that comics are sad and insecure people?
“Yeah. There’s a lot of truth to that. What I portray on stage is not who I am. I’m a very confident person on stage because I’m comfortable with the surroundings. I know how to get in and out of situations.
“I think it’s a matter of, this makes me feel good about my sad life for a moment, if I talk about it in front of other people. Well, I don’t really have a sad life, but I’m definitely not doing what I thought I’d be doing. I thought I’d be married by now, have a couple kids and a house with a white picket fence.”
“Young women are fun, but I want a woman who’s lived a little, a woman who’s made so many bad choices she understands that this — me — ain’t so (bleeping) bad!”
How much money do you make as a comic?
“Oh, not much at all, very little. I never got into this primarily to make money. I got into this because I love it and because I’m a little sick in the head.”
What’s your ambition?
“To get good. To get to the point where I can make a career out of this. That to me would be heaven on Earth.”
“I used to write my jokes on my hand. Yeah, great trick. Then I went to the bathroom and I started to laugh at myself.”
Are you thick- or thin-skinned?
“Onstage, I’m thick. Offstage, thin — about where I am in life, about what I want to be when I grow up, about how much money I have, about relationships that I’m in or not in.”
What is your purpose in comedy?
“My purpose? To make drunk people laugh. That’s really it. I’m not trying to change the world. I don’t want my words to inspire others to go off and climb a mountain or do great things and … come on, you’re drunk. The drunker you are, the easier I’ll get a good laugh from you.”
“When I was a kid, my porn was National Geographic and Benny Hill (old TV slapstick comedy). Yep. I got off on an old man chasing women in bras and panties.”
Just after delivering that line, he notices a young black woman in the audience enjoying herself, so he picks up on the National Geographic thing and directs his wit at her. He asks if she were dressed in a grass skirt and topless, would she mind teenage boys lusting and leering at her photo.
Sitting in the corner, I become a little tense and think, “Oh, boy.” The woman, however, laughs robustly.
Wright knows that such repartee is risky, but watches his audience and tries to select receptive members. And he’s always ready to back off.
“I know I’ve worked too many bar gigs when I flush the toilet at mom’s house with my foot.”
Wright knows he’s almost a senior citizen among local comics, but he’s not age-obsessed. He points out that most big-time comics don’t arrive on the big stage until middle age. He believes that a comic’s portfolio is enriched by life experiences that only come with time.
“My goal in comedy is to be good. That’s first and foremost. I enjoy the feeling of coming down off a stage, having entertained a group of people and having that high.
“I just want to make people laugh.”