“We loved your act--would you consider doing a show at a prison?”
Deborah Tobola from the Arts in Corrections Department at the California state prison in San Luis Obispo had just seen my set at the Improv in Hollywood. “Nine shows, 45 to 50 minutes long, in two days.”
I was going to have to think long and hard about this one.
“We will pay you,” she said.
“Yes!” I replied, and so began my journey.
The prison--California Men’s Colony--was to become, as of July 1, a nonsmoking environment. So Tobola’s department thought a comedy show might reduce the nicotine withdrawal tension the inmates were experiencing.
All my material was to be reviewed and censored: No swearing, no drug talk, avoid talking about sex and race, yet keep it funny enough to make angry convicted felons laugh.
I knew I had to come up with some killer material (no pun intended) to avoid being killed. So I kept some of the drug-related gags and attached an “anti-drug” message to get by the censors. But I knew I’d have to use the terms and events of their everyday life because the driving force behind comedy is life--being human, being angry and afraid and understanding that these are all shared circumstances. So I decided to drive there and meet with some of the inmates and get a feel for their lives, what they talk like and about.
“You’ll be doing the shows out in the prison yards,” Tobola told me when I asked to see the room I’d be performing in. Generally, I like to be elevated so the crowd can see me, and with a projected turnout of several hundred, well, there was no way I could do my act on level ground, let alone with a mob around me--particularly one serving a life sentence for murdering a truck driver with their bare hands.
And take it from me: There really is not a “good” place to perform a stand-up comedy act in a prison yard, I don’t care what Cosmo tells you. I decided on the top of a picnic table.
Next I sat in a room alone with eight inmates and talked about prison life. In place of money, they said, “Here at the CMC we trade in soup.”
A soup-based economy. That’s the kind of material I was looking for. Two of the inmates started to argue about giving me too much inside information. I looked at the emergency alarm button on my belt. By the time the guards came in, it really wouldn’t be an alarm button so much as a come-pick-up-my-dead-body button. I wasn’t even sure who was supposed to push the button--me, or them after they beat me up.
The first show of the day was at 9:30 a.m. Just before I went on, Tobola said, “If the prison alarm sounds, all the inmates will have to lie on the ground.”
“Then I could say I had them rolling on the ground.” Always combat fear with comedy.
Tobola gave my intro and I jumped up onto the picnic table and the shows began. My opener was: “I have to say I’m a bit surprised to be here. My manager told me I’d be performing on an open-air stage in a gated community near the ocean, with lots of bars and a captive audience. She knows how to stretch the truth. I did start to get suspicious though when she told me I was going to be paid in soup.”
To my relief, the response was laughter. My biggest fear had been if the first show went terribly, I would have eight more shows to go, each more terrifying than the last. But that fear was gone--the first show was a hit.
Inmates hung around after the show to tell me how much they appreciated my coming. One guy even tried to give me a packet of soup. Another asked me to tell the guards to stop sending subliminal messages through the P.A. system. He was a hit when I told that story two shows later.
I knew I had to use the subject that was on all their minds: cigarettes. As I told this joke, I held up two packs of cigarettes (empty of course) wrapped in white paper with “T-shirts” written on them.
“A friend of mine said, ‘You know what you should do Bill? Smuggle in some cigarettes. And sell them.’ I said, ‘No way, I can’t do that. That’s illegal. I’d get in trouble.’ ... But I will be selling these nicely packaged T-shirts after the show.... They come in two sizes, regular and menthol.”
Then I faced my second-biggest fear: inmate hecklers.
What do you say to a heckler who’s killed 10 people? A safe response I came up with was, “If you don’t like the show, write up a 602.” A 602 is a complaint form for inmates and that joke got big laughs every time.
The last show was the 8 p.m. show in “A” quad. It had a lot of lifers, and the guards told me there was a rumor that “A” yard might “go off.” Going off means gangs will start fighting and stabbing each other and pandemonium will ensue. The worry was inmates grouping together for the show might cause them to go off. Others speculated that maybe they would want to see a funny comedy show, and if it indeed was funny, they might wait for it to end and then go off, or perhaps they would go off just for the heck of it.
“If this happens, just back against the wall and don’t run,” the guard told me. Apparently lifers are like the T. rex: They can only see you if you’re moving. “Great,” I thought, “if I’m not funny I’ll cause a riot and get killed.”
What happened was a mixed reaction: Some heckled and walked away before the show even began; others stayed, others stayed and laughed.
Maybe the guys who left did so because they feared the hope comedy can inspire. The guys who stayed and laughed were the ones who could still embrace it. Laughter is a motivating force and brings hope, and for some inside, hope is a frightening and soul-shaking thing.
As I worked my way to the yards with the inmates facing less time, the laughs increased in size and volume. I had some of the best and worst shows of my life in those two days, and I learned that what feeds the soul is not soup but hope. Hope and laughter.
Bill Devlin is a stand-up comedian and actor performing weekly at comedy clubs in Los Angeles, including the Improv. His next local appearance is Sept. 3, 8 p.m. at the Comedy Store, 8433 W. Sunset Blvd.