The Fatal Van Halen Joke - Thanks to Mike From The Misfits And Apologies To Beck
By John Saleeby
July 16, 2004
The Chameleon was this cheap dive on East Sixth Street between Avenue B and Avenue C or A and B or C and A, I dunno - I spent so much of the late eighties and early nineties drinking in the horrible place I can't even keep the alphabet straight in my head any more. They used to have an "Open Mike" there on Thursdays and I'd go there to work on new jokes for my stand up act and get snot slinging drunk. Kind of a "night off" from the usual round of comedy Open Mikes I was usually dragging my surly self into. The Chameleon Open Mike was different cause it was a bunch of folk singers rather than a bunch of stand up comics. Folksingers got on my nerves pretty bad but turned out to be okay once I'd gotten drunk with 'em a coupla times. But stand up comics? If I had ever gotten drunk with a few of those shitheads even once in all the time I was doing stand up right now I'd be in prison for killing at least one of the sorry bastards. As usual, all the stand up comics were following me to The Chameleon every Thursday once my heroic efforts had brought stand up comedy into the nether regions of the East Village (Sorry 'bout that, East Village), but by then I was MCing the Open Mike and practically owned the place so it was cool.
What did I think of folksingers? Well, I'm not quite as unpleasant about folksingers as I am about stand up comics, but my unpleasantness about folksingers isn't really that much more pleasant than anything I've had to say about stand up comics, so I'll just keep it to myself. But first I'll go outside and beat up a few anti-war protesters, draw a picture of Bob Dylan in the dirt with a stick, and laugh while I piss on it. Hey, I gotta do something if I don't write twenty or thirty pages of really nasty stuff about folk singers - Don't you know that if you keep that kinda thing bottled up it'll give you cancer? It's true!
The Chameleon was run by a guy named Lach who was a Singer-Songwriter-Bartender-Weird Little Dude who had created a new form of music called Anti-Folk which, in his mind, had become one of the dominant genres of American Popular Music like Country, Disco, and Car Alarms. Sounds pretty dumb to you reading this today, but Lach had enough power of persuasion (i.e., free drinks) that he could go around talking about this Anti-Folk stuff all over Downtown Manhattan without anyone demanding to know what the hell he was talking about. Downtown Manhattan was the kind of place where if anyone had to ever explain what the hell they were talking about EVERYONE would have had to explain what the hell they were talking about and then we all might as well have been back home in Louisiana or Wisconsin. Yeah, Lach was a nut - But he was quick with a joke and to light up your smoke and probably will be for life or however that thing goes, I'm only throwing a little Springsteen in here to make Lach and all the other Chameleon songwriters sound good by comparison.
In time I became positively addicted to the excitement of doing stand up comedy to a packed house of folk music fans who didn't want to hear stand up comedy any more than they wanted to hear good music. Getting one laugh - Just one - in that situation felt better than ten minutes of nonstop laughter in some comedy club. Getting one laugh in a folk club full of disinterested dipshits felt, for at least one moment, like somebody really thought I was a funny guy Ten minutes of nonstop laughs in some comedy club meant now I was obliged to spend every night of the rest of my life hanging around the stupid place fighting fang, tooth, and nail with every other cornball schmuck for another chance to get up and try to do it again - Screw that!
The worst thing about doing stand up in "The Village" was the constant pressure to do Socially Conscious Left Wing Liberal Material. The old hippy who ran The Speakeasy way over on McDougal Street offered me a regular gig doing topical material tailored for "The Folk Audience" and I ran straight home to spend the next week and a half in the shower scrubbing myself with a hand towel until I looked like Kevin Bacon in that movie where he was turning into The Invisible Man and everybody was going "Oooohhh! Lookit his inner organs!" One time I threw out a coupla easy Dan Quayle gags and after someone compared me to Dennis Miller I threw myself in front of a steamroller so I looked like Kevin Bacon at the end of "Animal House" when he was trampled by the stampeding parade goers and flattened out like a pancake. I didn't want to do that wussy Mort Sahl nonsense! I wanted to . . . DANCE! I was FOOTLOOSE! FOOTLOOSE! Kick off your Sunday shoes! . . . Sorry.
You couldn't even make fun of that stuff without getting in trouble. I had a bit about going to see a comic who was known for his bad ass lefty liberal political satire - "This guy was supposed to be soooo funny. So I get to the club and this guy comes out and he's like 'REPUBLICANS! Stupid goddam no good piece of shit REPUBLICANS!!' and the crowd is like 'Delicious! Fabulous! Magnificent!'. And then he goes 'GEORGE BUSH! Stupid goddam no good piece of shit GEORGE BUSH!!' and they're like 'Entirely too sophisticated for the David Letterman show! Brilliant!'. 'AMERICA! Stupid goddam no good piece of shit AMERICA!!' 'You'll never hear Eddie Murphy come up with an insight like that! Bravo!'". That usually went over okay, but it was asking people to laugh at themselves and when you live in as delicate a little fantasy world as your average drug addled hippie sitting in a folk club on McDougal Street that is really asking a lot.
A similar routine nearly got me murdered. I break out in a sweat just remembering the experience - Writing it down like this for you is as difficult for me as writing about losing both of his legs was for Ron Kovic. No, it's not as bad as losing both my legs, but at least he got to be a big shot, get played in a movie by Tom Cruise, and never had to do an honest day's work for the rest of his life (Gee, too bad I never thought of THAT one at The Speakeasy!). but here I go -
One night I was onstage at The Chameleon telling jokes and drunk off my ass. It was a slow night but, for a nightclub that featured The Stand Up Comedy Of John Saleeby And The Musical Stylings Of Any Damn Fool Who Walked In Off The Street, that was nothing unusual. So's I decided to do a comedy routine that was a particular favorite of mine, a little thing that I liked to call "A Serious Social Statement". And it goes like this - "And now I'm going to go out on a limb and I'm going to make a Serious Social Statement. This is always a risky kind of a thing to do. Back in the fifties it took a lot of guts to stand up in front of everybody and say 'Hey! This thing about Joe McCarthy and The House Un American activities Committee is a lot of crap and we've got to cut it out right now!' And then in the sixties it took a lot of guts to stand up in front of everybody and say 'Hey! This thing about drafting kids and sending them to fight in Vietnam is a lot of crap and we've got to cut it out right now!' And now today it takes a lot of guts for me to stand up in front of you all tonight and say 'Hey! This thing about Van Halen with Sammy Hagar being better than Van Halen with David Lee Roth is a lot of crap and we've got to cut it out right now!' And History will prove me right!"
Pretty goofy little comedy bit, right? The Ol' Switcharoo - Just when you thought I was gonna say something really Bold And Controversial I said something Incredibly Silly And Meaningless - Get it? Too bad at that moment The World's Biggest Sammy Hagar Fan was sitting at the bar and I was in as much trouble as if I had been up there saying we oughta round up all the blacks, jews, and homosexuals and send em off to the death camps! Forget about Lenny Bruce getting lead away in hand cuffs by the FBI for joking about the JFK assasination, no wise guy in the entire history of stand up comedy had ever gotten in as much trouble for offending someone's delicate sensibilities as John Saleeby did for making fun of Sammy Hagar at The Chameleon in the late nineteen eighties! I couldn't believe it, this guy was jumping up and down and screaming and yelling at me about Sammy Hagar so much even Sammy Hagar would have told him to sit down and shut up if he had been there.
I was tryin' to kid around with the guy until he stood there and said with all seriousness "Man, do you know who I am?" Like he was some kinda Big Shot or something.
"No, Man - Who the hell are you?"
"I'm MIKE FROM THE MISFITS!!!"
"Ooooohhh, Mike from The Misfits!!!" I said just like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton going "Oooohhh, Haaaarvey!!!" when the little pipsqueak in the pool hall told 'em his friend Harvey wasn't going to be very happy when he came back and found that they were being mean to him.
But Mike from The Misfits - Whoever the hell that was supposed to be - wouldn't settle down and I was in no mood for this silliness. And, if we're really going to make a big deal out of it, all that stuff about Van Halen with Sammy Hagar being better than Van Halen with David Lee Roth really was a lot of crap and HISTORY HAS PROVEN ME RIGHT so if he wanted to fight about it, Hell, I'll fight about it . . .
Down from the stage I came as Mike from The Misfits came up from the bar, eye to eye, toe to toe, and . . . And then I realised that EVERYBODY in the place was SCARED TO DEATH. Huh? Lach was suddenly at my side with The One Thing That Could Distract Me From Masculine Combat - A Drink! "Drink this!" he said and after it turned out to be a glass full of straight vodka I collapsed into a chair where you can still find me sitting to this very day. While I was flopped out thinking about Bunnies And Chysanthimums Mike from The Misfits was hustled outside by Mayor Dinkins, Jimmy Carter, and all of the people who's careers peaked with "We Are The World" and persuaded to express his rage through the artistic medium of ceramic pottery (There were coin operated kilns on every street corner of the East Village in those days).
Three days later I awoke repeating "There's no place like home . . . There's no place like home . . . There's no place like him . . . ", everything was in black and white again, and I found out that Mike from The Misfits was Mike, the bass player from the punk rock combo The Misfits and Internationally Feared Two Fisted Tough Guy Psychopathic Maniac, who wandered the streets of New York City beating the crap out of five or six people an hour. Really? Guess everybody else in the world was finding out about Mike from The Misfits while I was studying up on Looney Tunes cartoon director Frank Tashlin's influence on the comic films of Jerry Lewis. It all woulda been kinda funny but, unfortunately, my girlfriend was there the whole time so I had to spend the next week and a half calming her down and she was too smart for The Glass Full Of Straight Vodka Trick.
And that was the end of any serious interest I ever had in Stand Up Comedy, New York City, or - For the next five years or so - that John Saleeby guy. So Thanks A Lot, Mike from The Misfits - You don't know dick when it comes to Van Halen, but you were The Right Man At The Right Time when it came to bringing me to my senses and getting me back on the path to . . .
What? I can't end the article yet? Aw, I don't wanna write about THAT! So what if I met the little creep at The Chameleon, why do I have to write about HIM? Ain't it bad enough I already wrote about Lach?! Eh, okay - Lemmee go get the stuff I wrote about it out of the glove compartment of my car . . . Shit, and it's raining out there, too . . . Gotta put my shoes on and everything . . . Sheesh!
Okay . . . It would be really great if I could tell you that not a single one of all the aspiring singer-song writers I was forever on the verge of knocking to the floor and beating to death with a chair had ever gone on to achieve any kind of success in the music business at all but, just to cause me even more grief and jealousy than the stardom of one particular stand up comic who was starting out right around the same time I was but shall go unnnamed - Oh shit! There he is on "The Daily Show" right now! Oh, he thinks he's so great with his fancy suit and tie, I could just die I envy him so much, lemmee go look at some porn and take my mind off of it all before I slit my wrists - one of the regular folksingers at The Chameleon actually did go on to become A Genuine Big Celebrity Pop Star - Beck!
Aw, come on and say "Beck? Beck WHO?" just to make me feel better. But nooooooo, you're so busy going "BECK!?! You used to know BECK!?! You knew BECK before he was famous!?! What was he LIKE!?!" right now that I can't even tell you any jokes about him. Shit, what's in it for me? Let me tell you some more funny stories about crazy stuff I did when I was drunk. One time I drank a six pack of Budweiser while on my way to The Chameleon from work and - (Saleeby, stop screwing around and tell us about Beck or I'll run that thing about how much you love "Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman" you wrote when you stopped taking your lithium - Wil Forbis, Acid Logic editor)
MEMORIES OF BECK
My strongest memory of Young Beck is how openly OFFENDED he was every time I was ever so IMPERTINANT as to ever speak to his Royal Majesty. I never gave it much thought at the time because when you carry on the way I was carrying on back then you get used to seeing "OH MY GOD! HE'S GOING TO PUT HIS HANDS ON ME AND I'LL HAVE TO BE QUARENTINED FOR A YEAR!!!" looks on people's faces but now that I've seen Master Beck interact with other celebrities on television - Amongst his peers at last! - I know that his expression wasn't one of alarm for his physical safety as much as shock that A Man Of His High Standing In Society had been directly addressed by as low a commoner as John Saleeby. If you read this, Sir, I humbly apologise for any trauma I put you through in those days and, believe me, now that you have enough money to hire big mean ugly people to beat dirty little nobodies like me to death if we are rude enough to even look your way, you certainly do not have to worry about me bothering you with such improprieties as "Beck, what's going on?" or "Hey, how are ya doin'?" again. He'll never read this, of course, but it's cool - I've never listened to any of his records.
Oh! I forgot to tell you that Paleface was a regular folksinger at The Chameleon, too.
"Paleface? Paleface WHO?"
John Saleeby wrote for The National Lampoon while he was in high school, was a stand up comic in New York, and has contributed to the net humor zines Schmuck.com, Campaign Central, and the legendary American Jerk. He's on medication now so he's probably a little nicer now than he was when you met him earlier. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org