I typically hit a minimum of six open mics a week here in Chicago, which is still considered a slow week to some of the more veteran Chitown comics. A goal of mine is to do a new four minutes of material every week, until I hit writers block, so that I don’t have to repeat a set that a particular mic has already heard me say before. Also, this gives me an entire week to work out one four-minute set to help my delivery and phrasing. Since my return from an improv gig in Gunnison, CO, last week, I’ve devoted my most recent four minutes to retelling an embarrassing story that happened to me on that trip.
And I mean embarrassing. Shameful, in fact. Before I found the proper phrasing for this bit I think I was making my audience more uncomfortable and appalled than anything else. And I’ve been uncomfortable performing the set, which I think is a sign that I should definitely be talking about it (or in this case, writing an essay about it). But maybe I shouldn’t hype this story up too much.
Anyway, here’s what happened.
I’m performing improv comedy at a church camp for around 30 minutes a day along with another improviser named Dave–that’s the gig. Dave and I bring the students and their counselors up on stage do some silly short-form improv games. Y’know, make them fill in the blank to a sentence one of us starts, have them move us around like we’re human puppets, give them opportunities to make goofy sound effects into a microphone during a scene, and so on. It’s very fun, and I’ve been doing shows like that for several years now. So I had an idea to switch things up.
I wanted to play a game at the beginning of one of our sets to pump the kids up. Well, not so much a game, really, as a chance to make the kids yell and get the band involved. Yes, as church camps are wont to do, there was a praise and worship band that played each morning and evening for the campers. The students and leaders alike adored this band, and for good reason, too. They were hip, genuine, funny, and incredibly talented, regardless of how you feel about “Christian” music.
Anyway, this “game” is called Apes VS People. I experienced it at a They Might Be Giants concert, so of course I was inclined to recreate it (and if you know your TMBG trivia, you know that they are keen on referencing The Planet of the Apes). The “game” is very simple: the band splits in half–the rhythm section versus the, uh, not-rhythm section. So, bass and drums versus the guitars and keys. The crowd is divided, too, and when one instrument section plays, their side of the crowd chants “APES! APES! APES! APES! APES! etc”, and then the other section will spontaneously start playing, and their half of the crowd will chant “PEOPLE! PEOPLE! PEOPLE! PEOPLE! PEOPLE! etc.” It’s a competition that no one wins because it is too much fun to have losers, like the parachute game in elementary school gym.
I explained this game to the band.
“So we’ll split you guys up,” I said, “the bass and drums versus the rest of you guys. So DJ and Eric against Daniel, Alex, and Michael.”
Now, for the sake of the story, you need to understand that I just unintentionally segregated the white members and black members of the band. [Maybe you can already predict what I’m about to say, and if so you can understand how awful it is.]
“Daniel, Alex, Michael [white guys], whenever you guys play your improvised stuff, all the kids will chant ‘PEOPLE! PEOPLE! PEOPLE! PEOPLE!’ OK? And then DJ and Eric [black guys], whenever you guys play, all the kids will chant ‘APES! APES! APES! APES!’ How’s that?”
Let me reiterate: I was completely unaware of the racist implications of my explanation! I’m not a bad guy! I had no idea what I was saying! I was just stoked on talking about They Might Be Giants!
The band just rolled with what I said, and didn’t let me know about my apparent unconscious, unintended hate speech for like 12 more hours! “Hey,” I said to Daniel, the frontman, “are you guys still down to do Apes VS People tomorrow?” “Yeah,” said Daniel, “we need to talk about that…”
I felt terrible. I collapsed to the floor in embarrassment. Just a few nights earlier I had a big discussion with the band about the racism they’ve experienced or seen from living in Memphis or from traveling around the world. And then I did that thing that I did. They all just laughed at my ignorance (racism is normally caused by ignorance, but I found a special subcategory of ignorance that isn’t even aware of how unaware ignorance’s lack of awareness is). They knew I was only being the worst on accident.
And we didn’t even end up playing the game.