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Polk doesn't do open-mic nights at Bela Dubby anymore. Tonight is an exception. "Let me go up there and eat it for your story, it'll be good," he e-mailed earlier.
Stand-up as a whole is something you can tell Polk has a conflicted relationship with. For the fifth or sixth time, he reiterates that he's terrible at it. If anyone wants to know the names of better comics to see, he can provide them. He's not very good, he promises. His live stand-up CD actually begins with the same assurance.
No One Is Even Listening, taped on a recorder straight from a big-box office store, was the brainchild of a friend who "tries to motivate" Polk. It's uneven but it's funny, and "Three Letters to My Student Loan Officer" is exceptional.
"I still have never listened to it, but it's out there," Polk says. "I forget that it happened, but every month I'll get a check for like $53 from iTunes and an e-mail from someone in Canada that says they liked it."
Polk doesn't play the Improv every time he goes out, though he does play the Improv from time to time. His stand-up world is centered primarily around neighborhood bars.
"Most of my gigs take place in a building connected to a laundromat and a Dots," he says. "But it builds character. I did a gig two months ago at Elyria Quaker Steak and Lube in exchange for all the wings I could eat. I assure you I got the better end of that deal."
There are 10 or so comics — all but one of them dudes — waiting to perform at the Lakewood coffeehouse, and 20 more folks on hand to watch. Open-mic comedy nights are a bit like karaoke, without the convenience of a back-up track or material written by someone else. Working comedians are there to try out new jokes, newbies are there to grab the mic, and Mike Polk is there to eat it for the sake of a story.
"This room is really pretty rough, frankly," he says. "Hell, it's rough when I'm doing it. I'm not blaming these guys. I'm just spouting crap. I don't even go up there anymore. One guy asked me for advice once. I said, 'Number one, don't ask for advice from a guy 10 years older than you who just did the same open mic you did."
The evening's performances are a mixed bag, from the trio from Jacksonville in town for a birthday party to a series of other random young folks stumbling forth and racing to their punch lines.
But it's fascinating to watch. You can study, if you pay attention, when a punch line has gone a beat too far, when a phrase has been repeated one too many times, when they should have waited for the laughter to stop, when they should have forged forward with another joke, when the clatter of bottles is louder than their voice.
"The youngsters, when they score with a joke and it hits, they love that feeling," Polk says. "They want to go back to it immediately. But it's like trying to go back to your high school after you graduate." Or sticking around college one year too long.
Polk's mini-set is by no means a barn-burner either — but it is more polished, confident, and, well, funny than anyone else's.
Some recent Facebook updates to start: "I wonder if teen vampires read fantasy novels about the lives of heavy middle-aged secretaries as a form of escape."
Then a riff on cats: "I buy the cheapest cat litter. They shit in it, for fuck's sake. So I'm at the pet store buying the cheap cat litter when a woman stops me and says, 'Don't buy that.' I'm thinking maybe she found some cheaper cat litter."
Then a ditty on Red Lobster's perfectly good thrown-out furniture, followed by a bit about dating women his own age: "It's like shopping for pumpkins the night before Halloween. Eventually you say, 'I'll take that lopsided one, or that rectangular one, or that black one with three kids.'"
And finally, a tune from his Break original "The Ex-Girlfriend Song" — which, incidentally, didn't fare so well online.
Applause, applause. Then jokes from the next comedian about having to follow Mr. Cleveland. Polk takes notes after his five minutes are up, jotting down what worked, what could work better with some changes, and what not to do ever again under any circumstances.
Then he sits back and belts out raucous laughter the rest of the night — and not pity laughter either. You can tell in the tenor of his voice. It's honest.
Afterward, one of the Jacksonville comics stops him and chats for 15 minutes. Polk is warm, receptive, friendly, and hands over his card, slipping into completely non-sarcastic ambassador mode. Yeah, the next time you're up here you should try this room. They cater to out-of-towners. It's a good crowd, a good room. Just sign up and you're gold. Yeah, e-mail me the next time you'll be around. What's your comedy tour going to be called? Oh, that's clever. Nice.
And with that, open-mic night is finished.
"Do we have to drive into the lake so you can have an impressive story?" Polk asks.
"Or can we just get one more drink?"
Nobody likes to hear about anyone else's fantasy football team. But we'll make an exception for Polk. His is named Los Diablos Blancos, so coined because he drafted only white players. Why?
"1. I thought it'd be an interesting sociological experiment," he wrote in a blog post.
"2. I'm an asshole."
Tonight his opponent has Ray Rice going in Monday Night Football against the Jaguars. Corky's in Lakewood is just around the corner from his house. No one will be there, they have TVs, liquor, and as Polk points out, it should be "especially miserable and loud for no reason at all." If Rice manages only a few points, Polk's crazy band of honkies will lose.
The bartender waddles in from her cigarette, and in between drink orders, which takes longer than it should given the four patrons currently in the bar, hears Polk exclaim, "Fuck! Son of a bitch. Ray Rice can't get another first. That's how tenuous the situation is for my Los Diablos Blancos."
This naturally begs her to ask if he's rooting for the white team — the team wearing white jerseys, that is.
"No, the color of their skin. Their race."
She casually moves away, but not before asking, "Not a big fan of the blacks?"
"It's a joke," Polk explains. "I wish I could have black players. I cherish black players. They are good at sports. I have guys named Wes, Danny, and Jordy on my team. It's a mess."
The waitress responds with numb silence.
Corky's, incidentally, is the sponsor of Polk's kickball team, a squad that is surprisingly embarrassing considering "it's a game invented to make retarded grade-school children feel like they're being included."
But that's not the point, nor is it particularly politically correct. The point is Mike Polk is sitting in an empty Lakewood bar, as has been his choice for years, since the very first viral hit, despite his bosses and other creative types asking him to head west. Such is the life he's deftly crafted for himself.
"Everyone would love to have Mike in L.A.," says Fran Shea, the former HBO Labs chief. "I can't tell you the pressure he's got to move out here. A lot of people come out here and do less work by trying to do more work. He never seems to have to try and get work. It's a value system for him, one that's not possible out here. I admire it."
"I'm sure the CEO begs Mike to come here," says Danila Koverman, Polk's boss at Break. "But he loves his family. Every time he's out here, we ask him to stay. Sure, he'd have different opportunities here, but he's choosing a different balance and quality of life."
Some in the Last Call family say Polk's not really down with fame. Not scared, that's not right. Just not a fan. Different man, different ambitions.
"The whole fame thing wasn't his thing," says Zumock. "Much like me, we're both Northeast Ohio guys. We love being here. We love our families. That's more important to him than anything. He doesn't handle that other stuff well, as talented as he is. He doesn't like it."
Given Polk's inclusion of Michael Stanley in his comedic repertoire and the perceived uncanny similarities between the two — Polk could grow a dynamite mullet if he wanted to, just so you know — folks like to wonder if Stanley's past and present is Polk's future. As in: destined to be a fringe celebrity in a one-horse town. It's the sort of lazy comparison that is a hallmark of every Polk interview, including this one.
"It's an angle that many people like to take. Including writers looking for an angle in an otherwise pedestrian and dismissible story," he says. "And I can't blame them. Because otherwise, what is this really about?
"I don't pretend to know Michael Stanley, but from what I understand, he really wanted to break out and be a big star. And to aspire to that and not make it could be perceived as tragic, I suppose. But I really have no such desire," Polk says.
"I don't want to be famous or want to make a billion dollars or anything. That's not all that important to me. And you can't fail to realize your dream if you don't really have one. When I'm in California for work, I don't stare at the Hollywood sign at night and tell it that 'someday I'm going to own this town!' I haven't written myself a check for ten million dollars and post-dated it five years. I don't have that drive or that desire. For better or worse.
"Besides, when you look at it, Michael Stanley has had a pretty good run. He got to be a rock star for a few years and he's been getting paid good money to play Golden Earring's "Radar Love" eight times a day ever since then."
Ray Rice runs for another first down. Los Diablos Blancos are done. One more Jameson from Corky. Then goodnight. After all, gotta be up earlyish to write taglines or a new song, or to empty Macduff's litter box.
"You know, the first time I was here I saw a woman getting fingered on the pool table," Polk offers. "No joke, right there. I was the only other one in here. Some white-trash couple. The guy made eye contact with me like, 'Yeah, this is happening.'"
Odd selling point for a bar.
"Eh, this place is my speed."