I received some pretty terrible news today. My comedy godfather, mentor, and role-model, Mike Irwin, passed away today around noon. Mike had been battling Stage IV bone cancer for a few months, eventually contracting a staph infection among a myriad of other complications. If there ever was a guy who deserved to be ridiculously famous and live for billions of years, it would be him. I could try to be eloquent and try to come up with some grand metaphor about the circle of life and blah blah blah, but that just doesn't fit. The only thing I can say that feels right is:
This completely sucks.
There's no way around it. Fuck the universe, as my very insightful friend Brian Peek would say. And he always seems to be right.
If it weren't for Mike Irwin, I wouldn't have ever had the opportunity to pursue comedy. The summer after my freshman year of high school was a restless time. Even though I was barely fourteen, I felt a restlessness inside that wouldn't stop. My family had been in a sort of disrepair for reasons all two of you readers already know and I had just experienced the first year where I could actually notice a bit of social separation between my peers and I. I had been following comedy and various comedians since the time I had fully grasped language, and one night at a Fresno's restaurant while dining with my sister and brother-in-law something clicked.
"I think I could do stand-up comedy. Why not? So many ridiculous things have happened to me that it seems like something I have to do."
My brother-in-law was especially encouraging, but at the time I didn't think either of them were really taking me seriously. I went home and left them a voicemail at their apartment:
"I'm really serious about this. I'm going to do it. I'm going to. I have to. I'm serious."
The rest of the summer was spent e-mailing comedians and researching classes and clubs. The whole process was actually quite a success, and I caught a few comedians when they were stll answering their own e-mails. My favorites, of course, were from a one Mr. Galifianakis and I had an oddly lenghty correspondence with Jay Mohr who told me to "sin bravely."
Towards the end of the summer, I found the website for our local comedy club, The Comedy Works, which was then located at a Quality Inn in Glenmont. Mike Irwin was offering stand-up comedy classes there and I immediately e-mailed him my situation, about how I was a youngin' but I knew that this was something I was very passionate about. He was quick to respond and said he would check about things, making no promises but said: "If you really want to do comedy, you'll find a way."
I e-mailed the owner of the club to see what he had to say, and I later found out that he had suspected I might be a police officer posing as a little girl to conduct some kind of sting operation. So, like all kids do, I had my mom call. And then Mike Irwin got back to me with good news: the only thing I had to do was send in a permission slip, which I did right away. I was warned that there would be "adult content" and was instructed to prepare 2-3 minutes for the first night of class.
At the time, I was the goalie for my school's JV soccer team and went directly from practices and games right to class. Sweat, adrenaline, and all. I was so nervous before my first class, but as soon as I met everyone my large intestine sensed there was nothing to fear.
Mike did not treat me any different than the rest of the class, although the next youngest person after me was around 20. No one watched their language, watered their material down, or made me feel awkward about being there. It was from Mike I learned about stage presence, the basic joke forms, how to memorize sets, and how squeeze the most out of every single minute on stage. He taught us his "5 Rules of Comedy," which have always rung true. Comedy is almost impossible to pigeon-hole into various equations and explanations and organizations, but somehow Mike did it. Every week we were given assignments and writing exercises, many of which I still use today. One of my favorite assignments was when we had to make a list of things that were orange. By far, the best answer came from my pal Don: "Bougars mixed with blood!" I remember choking on my water from chortling. It's the best kind of pain there is.
The most valuable things I gained from the class were my "older comedian friends" and my relationship with Mike. Every teenage girl should have them, and they're the only reason I wish I could go back to high school, so I could spend time with them on a regular basis again.
Every week we each had to perform on stage for 2-3 minutes and even if we sucked, Mike would make sure to find something positive about what we did. But he wasn't afraid to tell us what didn't go so well. Sure, many comedians may end up bitter and jaded, but Mike knew that it didn't have to be that way - and that we weren't going to succeed if it happened to us. Later that year I took an improv class with him and some of my friends, and he opened up that world for me as well. He could have just said, "Go away, kid, get outta here. Come back when you're not a fetus." But he didn't. Honestly, I probably would have given up my quest. Without his belief in me and my potential, I think I'd have hung back more in my life. I don't think I would have pushed myself or accomplished anything near what I have. His instruction and faith gave me the confidence and tools to make the best of my situation that I desperately needed at that particular point in my life.
I don't think I have ever seen Mike get angry or badmouth another comedian. When I think of all the god-awful comedians (famous and not), managers, and Biz people he's had to deal with, that fact truly amazes me. It seems that no one ever got the best of him, and he was always ready to do favors.
When I started performing more, opening shows and going to open mics, he was always there when I had questions. He seemed to be watching proudly as I kept at it, and whenever I perform I perform as if he were there, because I know that's when I do my best.
Last summer I had the pleasure of doing a guest spot when he was headlining at The Comedy Works, which is now located on the corner of State & Eagle Streets in Albany. I got to hang out with him, his wife, and his son - and my friend - Carter. It was one of the best nights of that summer. Of course I had seen Mike perform, but not for a while. I've always admired how he never stopped writing and always had new bits. What sticks out in my mind about his performances, however, was the pure, unadulterated glee that you could tell filled him whenever he was behind a microphone. His smile and manly giggle were enough to make me smile and -yes, perhaps a bit masculinely - giggle.
Like many comics, he took his life's struggles as fodder for entertainment. But there was something twisted and sharp and endearing about his cadence and writing that never got boring. He was the kind of guy who wanted to win the lottery just for the interview. He wondered why the winners always want to buy a car when there's so much that can be done. Mike knew just what he would do: create a jell-o shortage. The man was a genius.
Of course, I saved my favorite joke of his for last. He used to talk about how one of his relatives had been on the wrong side of World War II, and the only picture they had was of him in his uniform. So whenever people would come over to his family's house, everyone would see all the normal, lovely pictures of the family. . .
"and then some fuckin' Nazi."
"Oh, who's that?"
"Umm...that's just Gramps. He was really into the theater."
Mike, all us comics miss you.