The Beards Are a Joke
Four stand-up comics, one trashed SUV, nine cities, 3,020 miles, three Icelandic beauties—welcome to the serious business of being funny.
By Justin Heckert
The journey wore on them. The road wore on them, as it curved into the mountainside. For five days, the Beards of Comedy had stared at the gray of the highway, and the cold and the dark had worn on them, too. They’d eaten potato chips and CornNuts, Big Macs and Subway footlongs, candy bars and cookies that left crumbs in their facial hair. They’d whizzed in the stalls of a hundred rest stops, devoured two loaves of white-bread sandwiches made with honey and Walmart peanut butter. They used luggage as pillows, bags of dirty clothes as armrests, discarded their refuse into the seat pouches and door slots and onto the carpeted floor of their rented Tahoe.
Three out of four Beards were overweight, and in the backseats they fidgeted, repositioning their arms, their elbows, their necks, their butt cheeks. Every night before their stand-up performances on their first West Coast comedy tour, they read ideas they’d written in pocket notebooks and considered their material in silence, listened to the same jokes, shared the same stories, were so familiar with the words of each other’s sets that they could practically recite them verbatim. They were barely getting paid. They shook hands with the DJs, the club owners, the bartenders. They threw their words at drunken patrons and sold their comedy CDs and T-shirts out of a suitcase. Long after the applause, they collapsed onto queen-sized motel beds they had to share, snoring themselves to sleep, farts rippling like midnight trumpets beneath the comforters.
When they were clean, they smelled of motel hand soap and Pert shampoo. When they were not, they bore a bouquet of Mountain Dew, orange rinds, and feet. They dressed in different variations of the same outfits—hooded sweatshirts and blue jeans, Dockers and moccasins, dress shoes and button-ups, tennis shoes and flannel—because they hadn’t stopped to do laundry.
Halfway into this odyssey, the only things that had not begun to wear on them were their jokes. They talked comedy, sometimes for hours. They listened to more-successful comedians’ albums on an iPod plugged into the dashboard, dissected what worked, how it worked, filled the inside of the truck with howls of approval. Other times, when the Modest Mouse or Delta Spirit trailed off, with the windows half-down and the fresh air stirring their beards, the four of them sat in silence, passing little towns with old farmhouses, empty billboards, mountains and scrubland, brown fields with faraway cattle, the buttes of Arizona and the ridges of Nevada, staring at these things in wonder.
They were on the road because they loved the craft, loved writing and the process of creating. After four years of doing stand-up in and around Atlanta, they were at the top of the scene. But what did that mean? Not enough to pay the rent, much less buy a house. They were getting older. Some of their friends had kids, had a lot of money, had mortgages. It was time to test their local success with an unfamiliar audience, raise their profiles, see if they had what it takes. It was time to be serious about being funny.