I was driving west on the Sunset Strip when I got a text. I was headed into the Comedy Store. It was Monday, almost two in the afternoon. I was going to pick up my paychecks for last week’s spots and give my avails for the coming week. The sky was clear, and so was the traffic. The first week of September. Billboards for the Christmas blockbuster movies had just gone up. The weather was still warm and the women were dressing lightly. Ah, California. I was driving my Miata and had the top down. After I stopped in at the Store I might drive all the way to the beach just to look at the water.
I had just rounded the curve by the Chateau Marmont when I heard my phone buzz from its perch next to the gear shift. I couldn’t see the message but the area code was 702. In my line of work, that meant only one thing:
Vegas, baby. Vegas.
I pulled into the parking lot of the Comedy Store just minutes later where I’d done a spot not even twenty-four hours ago to a Sunday night crowd.
I checked the message. It read: “Kincaid, I need a headliner tonight. You free?”
The answer was yes, especially for the kind of money that comes with closing the show. There was just one problem.
I had no idea who texted me.
I played a couple of places up in Sin City. I could run the number through my email, but if there was a fallout and I wanted to snatch it up I needed to move fast.
I stepped inside the back entrance of the Comedy Store where it was cooler and darker and called back. Four rings. Voice mail.
“You’ve reached Rick Partino, talent booker for the Comedysino. At the sound of the tone, you may leave a message.”
“Rick, it’s Biff Kincaid,” I said. “I’m definitely available.”
Then I hung up and texted back a single word: “Yes.”
Hopefully one of those two missives would get to him before he found another act.
Rick Partino booked the Comedysino. The Comedysino was a club located inside the Buckingham, a gigantic British-themed hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip. I’d been there less than six months ago.
I had a number for the Comedysino in my phone, but it was the box office, not Rick’s cell. I dialed it.
“Comedysino,” a male voice answered.
“Rick?” I asked.
“No, but may I ask who’s calling?”
“Biff Kincaid,” I said. “Rick Partino’s trying to reach me.”
“Oh! Great! Biff! It’s Dave! Hold on. Let me get Rick.”
“Great.” Who was Dave? I couldn’t remember. Did he run the door?
I held for the briefest of pauses while listening to a snatch of Buckingham Muzak in the form of British ceremonial marches, then Partino picked up the phone. “Kincaid! Thank God you called. My phone just died.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I need a headliner,” he said.
“Two shows. I know it’s short notice, but can you make it?”
I checked the time on my phone. It was now seven minutes after two o’clock in the afternoon. Las Vegas was two hundred and eighty miles away. I ought to know. I’d driven every one of them. “When’s the first show?”
“Seven-thirty,” he said.
“Second show still at ten?” I asked.
“Right,” Rick said. “You do this for me and I swear I’ll book you back for two weeks headlining anytime you want.”
“I can do the when and where,” I said. “How much?”
“Three hundred,” he said.
“Maybe I’m not your guy,” I said. “I got more than that last time.”
“Yeah, but that was for all week. Okay, three-fifty.”
“That’s gonna cover my plane ticket,” I said. “But even on Southwest out of Burbank, with a same-day purchase . . . ”
“Four. Cash from the bar. Plus room and board and two drink tickets.”
“Done,” I said. “You got yourself a comic.”
“When can you be here?”
“Last contract you gave me said a half hour before show time,” I said. “Showered, shaved and ready to perform.”
“Why the one-nighter?” I said. The Comedysino usually booked for a week solid. “Someone get sick on you?”
“Uh, yeah. Something like that. He’s in the hospital.”
“I know Tiger,” I said. There, in the back of the Comedy Store, I found his picture among the hundreds of comedians’ headshots that hung there. Tiger had a thin face, with large eyes and an eagle nose. His blonde hair was in a buzz cut. His ears stuck out from the sides of his head. In his headshot he was making a face, as though the camera had surprised him.
The first time I’d seen that photo was five years ago, when Tiger and I had been booked together at a club in Topeka, Kansas, called the Comedy Classroom. There’d been a few more gigs together since, all of them a good time and a good show.
“What’d he go to the hospital for?” I asked.
“I’d like to hear it.”
“Don’t you have a plane to catch?”
“Tell me when I get there,” I said, and hung up.
So much for the beach. So much for anything else. Now I had a gig.
I live in Beachwood Canyon, the hillside community right below the Hollywood sign. I stopped at my apartment on my way to the airport and packed a bag and my backpack. I went online and booked a last-minute flight to Vegas flying out of Burbank.
Bob Hope Airport in Burbank is my go-to airport in L.A., and not just because it’s named after a comedian. It’s about the size of a single terminal at LAX, and a lot easier to navigate. I parked in the A lot, took a shuttle in and printed out my boarding pass at the Southwest counter.
After shuffling through security I made a call for some unfinished business. I’d forgotten to give my avails at the Store. The call from Rick Partino had blocked everything else out.
“Manny, it’s Biff Kincaid,” I said.
“Talk to me,” Manny said.
“I just got booked for a one-nighter in Vegas,” I said. “Tuesday through Saturday, I’m open for anything.”
“Tuesday through Saturday. Gotcha, Biff. Call back Tuesday at five and I’ll have the schedule.”
“And drop my checks in the mail, would you? I have to catch a plane.”
“One more thing.”
There was someone who would want to know about Tiger Moore. “You got a number for Louie Baxter?”
“Uhhh . . . ” Manny said. “Let me see. He just did the Main Room two weeks ago so . . . hold on a minute.”
Louie Baxter was the latest success story to come out of the L.A. comedy scene. He had a sitcom--Baxter’s Place--that a broadcast network had prominently positioned on their Tuesday night schedule. He played a comedian who lived in the basement of his favorite comedy club and worked as a bartender. It was a top twenty hit and climbing. It even had Twitter buzz in its corner, but not always for the right reasons.
Louie Baxter was a big beefy guy from Chicago with curly brown hair, a face-splitting grin and a taste for food and partying that had made him tabloid fodder during the first season of Baxter’s Place. Over the summer he’d cleaned up and slimmed down. The second season premiere was less than a month away.
“I got his cell,” Manny said, sounding surprised at that fact. “You know Louie?”
“We played La Jolla together two years ago,” I said. “Before he got the show.”
La Jolla was just north of San Diego, a beautiful seaside resort. I play the Comedy Store branch down there at least twice a year. That weekend Louie was the headliner and he rocked the house with his quick-change characters and over-the-top physical comedy. The tabloids compared him to Chris Farley. He reminded me more of a chubby Robin Williams. He had a bit where he opened two beer bottles with his teeth while playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the kazoo. (He was pretending to be the world’s biggest football fan.) Then he stripped off his shirt to show his bouncing flabby belly with team colors painted on it and smeared himself with hot dog chili when he didn’t like the referee’s call.
This was his opener. This was the first thing he did onstage. He went on from there. The next night the manager made him use drop cloths.
Since then, Louie had dropped his props-and-food shtick for material, just as loud and boisterous. I hadn’t seen him much since he got the show, although I heard he still dropped by the Store.
“It’s area code three-one-oh . . . ” Manny said.
I entered the number into my phone.
I’d last seen Louie before the summer when he was honing his act to go on tour. He’d been playing the big clubs and casinos. With the show renewed for a second season, he was moving up to thousand-seat theaters. We’d watched each other’s acts and chatted out in the parking lot for about twenty minutes.
One of the topics of discussion was Tiger Moore. They were friends, buddies from the road. Things were breaking big for Louie and he wanted to see if he could throw Tiger some action. Maybe now Tiger was in the hospital, Louie’d give him some help.
“I got my other line going, Kincaid,” Manny said.
I hung up.
Louie had gotten Tiger a showcase at the Comedy Store within the last year. (I’d seen Louie’s name next to Tiger’s on the Sunday night lineup of new talent.) Not that it did him any good: I hadn’t seen Tiger around the Comedy Store lately.
Now I was filling in for him while he was in the hospital. Maybe I’d phone and see if he needed anything.
My flight was being called. I picked up my bags and started walking toward Vegas.