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.
Dave Stone had a serious beard. He was thirty-three and had a beautiful beard, the best beard, and received the most compliments of the four Beards. It was dense, and it augmented the oval structure of his face by forming an Elizabethan point beyond his chin. It was not something that just happened, either. God, no. He brushed it. Conditioned it. Snipped its stray hairs with scissors every couple days.
On the first night of the Beards of Comedy 2011 West Coast tour, at around 9:30 p.m. in a ballroom on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, Dave chugged a Red Bull and took the stage. He shuffled up a flight of wooden steps, where a thick, green curtain parted. He turned to his right toward an audience of 342 students and stopped, placed his hand on the microphone stand. An hour earlier, when Dave had peeked out of the greenroom while eating a baby carrot dipped in ranch dressing, the ballroom had been empty except for rows of temporary folding chairs. Now it was packed.
“I’ve been working out, as you can plainly see,” he said, tapping an index finger into his healthy gut. “Look at that one giant ab.” The crowd laughed.
Dave was raised in Canton. He used to be a DJ at 99X, and he joked to the students about that, doing his impersonation of the ridiculous tone he used on the air. He was blessed with a powerful voice, deep and resonant, a real radio voice. He was good at projecting it, manipulating it, doing vocal caricatures. He worked at seven stations in five years, then quit because he was bored.
In 2002, Dave took $3,000 and bought a trailer and a lawn mower and started Excel Lawn Care. He had been writing jokes in his spare time since he was twenty-one, but he thought they were lame and didn’t know what to do with his material. He began his lawn business with one customer, advertised and handed out flyers, and wound up with more than fifty clients. He hired five people to help him, bought edgers and trimmers. Other Atlanta comedians joked that Dave had lived, that he had literally picked up shit from other people’s yards.
One day he said, “Fuck it—I’m going to try this.” He sold the business and jumped into comedy full-time. And he loved it. In just a few years, Dave shot to the top of the food chain in the mainstream Atlanta comedy scene. He started with open mic nights, then graduated to feature work—thirty-minute sets locally and nationally, schlepping himself in a fifteen-year-old Lexus he bought from the grandmother of another comedian. Last year he put 57,000 miles on it.
Success was relative, though. He cleared barely $1,500 a month. He lived in the spare room of a friend’s house in Powder Springs. Dave had his budget down to a science, knew exactly how many times he could afford his favorite spots, like Eats, in a given month. He harassed comedy club booking agents, sending his resume and video clips, trying to fill his calendar. He put T-shirts over motel pillowcases to cut down on the risk he’d catch a cold. He’d sacrificed for his career. He’d given up on a relationship with a woman he’d been with for nine years when she told him it was either her or comedy.
Younger comics in town looked up to Dave. They sought him out, gathered around him in the cigarette haze outside the Star Bar in Little Five Points or Comedy Gold in Buckhead. They asked his opinion of their material and were often sensitive to his blunt honesty. That was a cross to bear that Dave didn’t love hefting. But he did love comedy. More than anything else.
When the Portales set was over, the Beards made $2,300 from their take of the door. Everything went into the Beard Fund, their cash for the trip. After the show, at least half the students stuck around to meet them, so they put their T-shirts and CDs on a folding table and took one last picture onstage.
It takes balls to get onstage. It takes balls to stand in front of an audience and try to connect with them, make them understand, make them want to laugh. There’s a reason Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps America’s most beloved comic, said more people are afraid of public speaking than they are of death. It’s not an easy thing to do. There are a ton of comics who have died onstage in Atlanta, metaphorically speaking. There are fewer comedians who have killed their share of crowds. The Beards of Comedy—Dave Stone, Andy Sandford, TJ Young, and Joe Zimmerman—have all killed, but they’ve all died plenty, too. There’s some great comedy in Atlanta, but there’s also a lot of bad comedy. Because while it takes balls to get onstage, it takes something else entirely to be good. It takes real work—years of practice. Years of getting up every night, of trying, failing, getting up again, taking a beating in the silence of the spotlight.
Joe Zimmerman was from Asheville, twenty-nine years old, had been performing for five years. Onstage, the soft way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he held his arms at his chest—all projected an air of harmlessness. His set could at times be like a confessional to a group of bunnies gathered at his feet. He joked mostly about himself: his problems, his chronic fatigue syndrome, his fear of horror movies.
“Women have their types,” he’d say onstage. “You always hear, ‘Oh, I go for the rebel,’ or ‘the athlete.’ Just once, I want to find a woman who’s magnetized by my personality type. One time, I want somebody who sees me to go, ‘Oh, my gosh . . . Who is that goofball?’”
Backstage, before every show, he took off his glasses and put in contacts—which required sprinkling drops into his eyes—because he thought it made him look better. He walked around, eyes puffy and blinking, until he took the stage. He was the best-dressed Beard, with his ironed oxford shirts and black pants and black dress shoes, had established himself enough to get gigs all over the Midwest and South, featured for more established comics. He had a respectable haircut and a respectable, middling beard; he had been clean-cut his entire life before growing it two years ago in order to become a Beard. He was happy it had filled in pretty well. The Beards were his idea.
Joe made some of his bones in Atlanta, because there wasn’t a big scene in Asheville, or one in Charlotte for someone who didn’t joke about NASCAR. With about 150 comics actively performing, Atlanta has the biggest comedy scene in the Southeast, and maybe the biggest, depending on whom you talked to, outside of New York, L.A., or Chicago. It has two mainstream comedy clubs, dozens of other places to see stand-up, plenty of open mics—at the Laughing Skull Lounge; the Star Bar on Monday night, where all the serious stand-ups go to hone their chops; the shows at Relapse Theatre in the wee hours; Comedy Gold; Cheyenne Grill.
In 2007 at the Star Bar in Little Five Points, in the dark and the smoke, Joe met Andy, who introduced him to Dave. TJ met Dave the same year, when they were both emceeing and doing spots at the Funny Farm. Joe met TJ at a show in Atlanta at the Warren Comedy Club. TJ met Andy in Athens one night, at a comedy show at the Loft. A few months later, the four of them were sitting at the Grill in Athens, eating french fries and feta cheese, when Joe said, “You guys should form a comedy group and call yourselves the Beards of Comedy.” No one took him seriously until he said it again the next time he saw them and vowed to grow a beard, too.
It was meant to be a joke. A parody of a hook, like Patton Oswalt’s well-known Comedians of Comedy. They were essentially making fun of the “comedy” genre by picking something arbitrary that they all had in common. But the funny thing was, once they started to tour, a lot of other comics wanted to join them, and had either grown beards or hinted, by stroking the one they already had, that they’d be interested if the Beards were willing to add another. No one ever really got that it was a joke. People would ask, very seriously, what would happen if someone shaved?
Six people showed up to the second show, including one of Joe’s friends, a guy he played Division I golf with at Davidson College. The show was at this place called the Martini Ranch, a nightclub in a tony Scottsdale neighborhood. Joe’s friend and the other table of people sat in the very back of a room that could hold 150, so there was an entire floor of empty chairs. At one point, Joe practically begged his friend to come and fill one seat up front. He was speaking into the microphone, which whined, his voice echoing in the empty room, the cord wrapped around his feet. His friend refused at first, but relented. So there was one guy sitting beneath the lights. It was funny, but it was weird, and also a tiny bit sad. Before the show, the Beards sat in the greenroom just outside the bar, Dave reading an advertisement for the show in the local alt weekly, Andy looking at a notebook, Joe strumming a guitar. They ate pita bread and hummus, and the bar owner kept apologizing to them. Did they want to cancel? No, they decided to go ahead. The guys took turns standing at the microphone in front of the empty seats, going through their material. At times, each would turn to his left, to look at the bartender, just so he’d have someone to talk to. They made $50. Total.
Joe got gas from something he ate along the way. For a solid day, every few minutes he’d roll the window down, then roll it up, then roll it back down, and the other guys would pull their T-shirts over their noses. He was also forced to take about a thousand naps because of his chronic fatigue, so he never really drove. He was one of those guys who ended everything with the word “dawg.”
TJ was the biggest Beard, and when he wasn’t driving, he was constantly working on his laptop, tapping the keys, keeping tabs on the Beard Fund, figuring out the cheapest prices for where they were going to stay, checking Priceline, e-mailing other comedians about possible guest spots. And because the power outlet was in the very back of the Tahoe, he often sat in the smallest seat, floating his questions to the front, smooshed like a steak in a piece of Tupperware.
Dave nodded off, his iPod headphones dangling over his beard, and began to snore—real soft at first, like he was trying to whisper, but when his head lolled back and his mouth opened wider, the snores got more ambitious, until they slightly flapped his lips like a cartoon duck as they exited his mouth. He drank warm cranberry juice because he’d had kidney stones three times in the past two years, had gone through unbearable pain while he was on the road, performing.
Andy would take a pen cap and swirl it inside his ear to get the wax out. He’d put his fingertip up to one nostril and fire snot rockets out of the other. He’d be in the middle of a thought, a comedic rumination, and stop to hock a loogie.
They endured each other. They put up with each other. They were whittled down, their layers peeled away—the road did all that for them. It provided a mirror to who they truly were. Men. Friends. Neurotics. Diehards. Dopes. Geniuses.
“I still don’t have a punch line,” Dave said. “I have a setup. The same thing that happened to Andy at Arby’s happened to me at Krispy Kreme.”
TJ was behind the wheel, just north of the Hoover Dam, and the evening sun looked like a single coin flipped into an empty sky. The other Beards were playing a game called Joke Machine, which was a way to brainstorm.
“With my four dollars, I went to get four doughnuts,” Dave continued. “I had just enough money for four doughnuts. And I placed my order, and the lady rings me up, and then she says, ‘Would you like to donate a dollar to St. Jude Children’s hospital?’ And I was like, ‘Naaaaaaaah.’ And she looked at me like I was a shithead. I could’ve gotten three doughnuts and donated a dollar. But no sir, I needed four doughnuts. Tell those sick kids I’m sorry, but I needed the four doughnuts.” He was almost shouting now.
“That’s really all I have, just a setup,” Dave finished.
“It’d be funnier if you’d get into your own head. Was there a conflict? Did you think about it for a second?” Joe asked, leaning against a backseat window.
“Nope, not even a second. I came here to get four doughnuts. That was what I’m leaving with.”
“Most people would hesitate,” Joe said. “But for you, it didn’t even cross your mind?”
“Nope, didn’t even cross my mind. I needed four. It was the number.”
Andy, in the front passenger seat, piped up. “What’s the analogy? You don’t go to someplace and get a five-pack of beer. You need some equivalent, like, ‘No, dude, I need four—that’s why I was there.’ It wasn’t a give or take.”
“You can do a lot with that—the inner monologue, dawg,” Joe said. “Weighing the sick kids, not weighing them. Dealing with the lady judging you.”
“How ’bout the angle of, ‘What the fuck can a sick kid do with a dollar?’” Andy asked. Everyone cracked up. “I mean, the only thing worth getting for a dollar is a doughnut. What can a sick kid do with it? You can’t give a doughnut to a sick kid. So I’ll just eat it. It’s circling logic. Can’t have sick kids eating doughnuts, so I’ll take it for them. Like, somehow you’re helping them.”
Joe: “You could be eating the doughnuts, one at a time, thinking about it.”
Outside the Beauty Bar in Las Vegas, the Beards barked to draw a crowd. Barking required standing outside the venue, handing out flyers, talking to passersby, coaxing them to see the show. It was 9 p.m. in Vegas, so the foot traffic had only begun. There were a lot of tourists, a lot of young people, a lot of the middle-aged, a lot of beautiful people, a lot of weirdos, a lot of leather pants and short skirts, football jerseys, an insufferable number of sunglasses, a lot of mumbling and disoriented dudes, a lot of women walking two- and three-by-side, holding oversized, plastic beer bottles, aimless wanderers floating beneath all that flickering neon, begging for something interesting to gobble them up. TJ stood outside the bar, holding the flyers.
“Hey, want to come see a comedy show tonight?” TJ barked. “It’s only ten bucks! Beards of Comedy. Comedy show?”
He managed, during the course of an hour, with his sweet voice and pleasant approach, with his interested laughter, with his ginger beard, with his little glasses slipping off the edge of his nose, to entice several people—including a couple from Ohio who had just filmed a spot on Pawn Stars—to actually pay money and come in.
When the show began, things went bad quickly. It was a dark scene, with the stage barely illuminated by these sinister lights. The stage was just across from the bar and was behind some tables, from which it was nearly impossible to see the Beards. It was not a place for comedy, or a comedy crowd.
It was also too loud, mostly because of the regular patrons, the Beards assumed, who sat in a long row down the bar, oblivious to what was happening on the stage. As it became clear that the crowd wasn’t into it, was never going to be, the three Beards who weren’t onstage sat in the back by the retro hair dryers and the photo booth, waiting to march to the gallows.
Right at the end of the show, as Joe considered whether to even take the stage, two guys dressed in suits and three voluptuous, high-heeled women came through the door. The main guy had curly hair and shiny shoes, wore a suit and light blue shirt with no tie. When they approached Joe, he had barely been onstage a minute, had stepped up to the mic and said that he wished the Beards had an electric guitar so everyone would pay attention.
“That’s George Maloof Jr.,” someone said. Maloof, an owner of the Palms and one of the owners of the Sacramento Kings, approached the stage. Everyone looked very red beneath the light. The people at the bar were not paying attention. Maloof said something to Joe, and Joe stepped closer; then Maloof’s hand came out of his pocket, extended toward Joe’s hand, placed something inside of Joe’s palm. This happened in what seemed like exaggeratedly slow time. Joe looked down. He smiled. He looked back at Maloof. Joe got off the stage. Maloof took the mic. The three women, dressed in short, black skirts, an Icelandic pop act called the Charlies, took the stage as a group and sang a song, a cappella. It was impossible to tell what they were singing about, only that they sounded pretty good. Some people at the bar started to dance. The Beards, at the back of the bar, fawned over what Maloof had given Joe: a $100 bill.
In L.A. something magic happened: The Beards played in front of a full house. The show was in the back of a comic book store in Hollywood, a place called Meltdown Comics & Collectibles on Sunset Boulevard, a store packed with plastic action figures and shelves stocked with books painted in brilliant colors. It only held about forty people, but there was “industry” (the term for important people) in the crowd—in this case, representatives from Levity, a big-time management company, who’d heard about the Beards’ show in Portales. These were people who could put the Beards on television, maybe hook them up with some Comedy Central airtime, which would be a big break. One of the Beards’ favorite comics, Kyle Kinane, did a guest spot in the middle of the show. Kinane was starting to get a lot of national buzz and was not far, in the Beards’ eyes, from something huge. He had recorded his first Comedy Central Presents, which meant he could pick and choose his venues to headline. His comedy album, Death of the Party, had reached number one on Amazon in 2010. He’d been performing for a decade. Kinane was a skinny guy with a few strands of brown hair on the top of his head, but a formidable beard of his own took away from the fact that he was almost bald. He and the Beards drank Tecate beer before the show. The Meltdown crowd was an affirming crowd. Andy and TJ got a huge laugh when they did their “Morgan Freeman reads Wu-Tang lyrics” bit, TJ playing bongos, Andy reading from a piece of paper, doing his Freeman impersonation: Cash rules everything around me. Cream. Get the money. Dollar, dollar bill, y’all . . . Do you want to get your teeth knocked the fuck out . . . ? Well, do you?
The comedians threw large shadows on the white walls in the room. The audience followed them, listened. The Beards made $200 from the door and sold $80 worth of merchandise.
Later that night, at around 11:30, they drove on to San Francisco. This was an idea that sounded relatively bad a few days before, but when the Beards walked out of a bar they’d gone to with Kinane, and faced the six-hour haul, it was pretty much the worst idea of all time. They were all tired. A couple of them had been drinking. They had to be in the city for a four-minute bit on a TV show at 8 a.m. Andy drove for an hour. He held both hands on the wheel. He stopped around midnight so everyone could get an In-N-Out burger, but they’d just closed, and then a few miles up there was a traffic jam on the 5, the line of red taillights twisting into the distance. It was decided through process of elimination that Dave—who was as tired as anyone—would drive. TJ was already passed out in the back. Joe was asleep, too. Andy had tried his best, but he didn’t think he could make it any longer.
Dave got out of the Tahoe at a gas station. His face bore the mingling expressions of exhaustion, anger, perhaps hatred. He bent from side to side, stretching his legs, and got his duffel bag, which was stuffed between suitcases behind the backseat. He did something then that was like a hallucination: He brushed his teeth by the gas pump. He spat the toothpaste onto the ground. Then he got in the driver’s seat, fastened his seat belt, and turned up the band Clutch.
Around two in the morning, the Tahoe entered a thick bank of fog. Dave cursed and leaned halfway over the steering wheel, let off the gas, slowed the truck to 30 miles per hour, squinted his eyes. He could barely see fifteen feet in front of him, the highway chalky from the fog. To his left, semis roared past. Deeper into the fog, the defrost broke and the windows filmed up. Dave yelled something at Andy, who gave him a dirty T-shirt. Dave wiped vigorously to clear the windshield, to little avail. Andy tried to figure out what was wrong with the defrost, and the Tahoe skidded over to the right shoulder of the road. He turned on the heat, full blast, and put the windows down; he then turned on the air conditioner, while cold from outside poured into the truck. Andy frantically worked the dash buttons. He finally rigged a solution: Clear the windshield by turning the heat on high and keeping the windows down. Joe and TJ were still asleep.
In the morning, Dave sat glued to the driver’s seat. His eyes didn’t move. He stared in the rearview mirror, looking at the harbor of the most beautiful city in the country. Something floated in the sky, possibly a gull. Dave said, very calmly, very purposefully, “Next time, we need to make sure this doesn’t happen, guys. We need to stay awake, take turns. Because I’ve just driven the most dangerous drive of my life.”
Andy stood onstage at the Purple Onion comedy club in San Francisco, an hour before the show, the happiest he’d looked the entire trip. He was beaming, practically bouncing. It was a place he and the other Beards had dreamed of playing, one of the most famous comedy clubs in the country. They were paying $500 of their own money just to get the stage time, to say they’d been there. One of Andy’s favorite albums, The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Onion, was recorded on the very spot he was standing, in 1961, twenty-two years before he was born.
Andy was a guy who obsessed about jokes—fretted about them, agonized over them. He was a joke machine, talking nearly the entire trip when he was awake, doing impressions, burbling witticisms. He had a response, a quip, a take on everything. He was kind of a comedic savant. He was a literary guy, too, and on the trip he’d brought Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man and was reading a book of poetry by Philip Larkin.
“My favorite thing,” Andy said, “is thinking of something, a premise, and making a joke from it that I think is really tight. Taking an interesting angle that’s not pedestrian and writing good wording, good lines, and getting a reaction. That’s the second half of being original: scoring the point with it. You can be the most random or abstract thing in the world, but it has to be received.”
Andy liked the impermanence of comedy, the malleability of a joke, because it could always be changed, tightened, made better. He worried about the tiniest bits, the shortest sentence, the individual syllable. He planned to record an album of just his material, release it on vinyl, and call it Seven Inches of Andy Sandford. At the Purple Onion, in front of a tiny crowd, he told one of his shortest, darkest jokes:
“I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and at one point, he turned to me and said, ‘Andy, I gotta ask you—what’s your secret?’
“I was like, ‘Uh, okay, my secret . . . Well [lowering his voice] . . . One time I killed a little girl, with a shovel.’”
He stared at the audience, letting an awkward laugh build.
“He was like, ‘Dude, I meant, like, the secret to your success.’”
Andy widened his eyes: “Oh, okay, well, you probably shoulda specified that.
“The secret to my success—okay. [Raising his voice.] Never let anything stand in your way . . . no matter how small.”
Andy didn’t like his set on the Beards of Comedy’s Comedy for People album, because he thought he spoke too fast. He hated some video footage that had been filmed of him performing—“I want to burn it”—because he said one word too much or moved his arms around wildly, had made exaggerated gestures because of nerves. He had these small compulsions, too, like cleaning his glasses with the tail of his shirt every two minutes, shaking his wrists and hands when he was walking around, wheezing and gritting his teeth when he laughed. He was the only Beard who smoked, and his beard was red, a different color than the brown of his head hair. He didn’t like when people brought that up.
When he was six, Andy heard his first joke. It was told by his father, who ran a mortgage company. Andy recounted the joke this way:
“I was with my dad, and there were ducks flying overhead, and he was like, ‘Hey, Andy, see those ducks? See how they fly in a V formation?’ I was like, ‘Yeah?’ And he was like, ‘See how one side’s longer?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he was like, ‘You know why that is?’ And I was like, ‘No, no.’ And he goes, ‘Because there are more ducks on that side.’ And he just walked away.”
Five years ago, Andy was a courier, delivering legal documents around Atlanta. He had a nice boss and made decent pay. But he was not happy. One night he got really wasted, drinking beer and doing cocaine. When his friends left, he was still drinking. The next day he woke up in a Publix parking lot with a broken bottle in his hand, bleeding. This scared the hell out of him. He went to the hospital where a psychologist asked if he loved himself or not. He responded, “Would you do that to someone you love?” He was placed in a mental hospital for nine days, where he decided he had no outlet for the “jumping jacks” in his brain. “I get obsessive,” he said. “And for the last four years, I’ve been obsessed about comedy. I’ve found that if I don’t do comedy . . . Well, it keeps me from being severely depressed. I’m anxiety-ridden anyway.”
Joe performed at a club in Lansing, Michigan, a few months ago. Jon Lovitz was the headliner. The cranky funnyman had not been nice to Joe. Joe, congenial Joe, who took his glasses off and put his contacts in because he was self-conscious, who was just a road comic trying to get ahead, who smiled a lot, who was an honest, likeable guy, who told a great joke about the vitamins his doctor just prescribed him, vitamins called Zoloft. Well, when Lovitz went onstage, Joe noticed that he’d left his cell phone in the greenroom. In fact, it was just Joe, who was eating a sandwich, and Jon Lovitz’s cell phone, together, by themselves, and the way Joe told the story, there was an almost magnetic force that became palpable in the room. Joe did not think, I’m going to take celebrity phone numbers out of this phone, but then the phone was in his hand. He put the sandwich down. Then he thought, I bet it’s locked. Then he thought, Holy shit, it’s not locked. I better see his contact list. In Jon Lovitz’s contact list, the first name was Criss Angel, the famous magician. And then Joe thought, Oh, I need that number, and wrote down Angel’s number. Then, phone still in hand, he thought a little more, and it occurred to him, I need to get some better numbers. So he scrolled down with a trembling thumb and got J.J. Abrams’s number, In case I need to call him about Lost. And then he scrolled down faster, thinking maybe time was running out, thinking that maybe Lovitz would come in and kill him. Eventually, Joe found a young comic’s ultimate prize: the cell phone number for Lorne Michaels.
Then Joe accidentally called Michaels from Jon Lovitz’s cell phone, and hung up before anything happened.
The only Beard who had a day job was TJ Young. He worked as a graphic designer at the University of Georgia, so he lived in Athens. He had a bright red beard, which he shaped with a Norelco trimmer to lengthen his face. Everyone always asked the Beards what would happen if one of them shaved, and the answer was: nothing. Again, hardly anyone got that the name of the group was a joke.
TJ had broken up with his girlfriend, on the phone, during the trip. After this happened he turned quiet, introspective, sometimes sat on the edge of the hotel bed silently, staring at his phone, at the wall, then at the floor.
He used to be the drummer in a band called Hey, Revolution!, until it broke up. He was thirty-four and liked having a reliable income, but he also had bigger dreams he couldn’t ignore.
In 2006, he drove to Atlanta once a week for six weeks to take a comedy class. The specific purpose of this class was to learn how to take a funny, personal story, tap into it, and form a concise stand-up bit. TJ had been onstage before—when he was a kid, at church, and as part of an improv troupe at his small, Christian liberal arts college in Florida. He was certain he could make people laugh, and he was quick on his toes. As part of the comedy class graduation, he was assigned a four-minute set at the Punchline.
Before that set was over, “I knew I was going to be doing this for a long time,” he said. His set was supposed to be four minutes, but it stretched to eight because he had to pause so much for the laughs.
TJ, like any comic, fed off laughter, but he also liked struggling onstage. It was strange to admit, but he liked bombing, because there was no challenge in killing a crowd. There was an intense feeling in failure; bombing was a moment of discovery, finding something new about himself each time.
Two years ago, not long after the Beards formed, TJ got a call one morning after he opened up for the comedian Jim Jefferies. The call was from his sister, to say that his father had been in a motorcycle accident in Orlando.
He cancelled a show that night and drove down to be with his mother and siblings. His dad died thirty-six hours after TJ received the call. TJ stayed in Florida for two weeks. He didn’t know if he should come back. He had a gig booked in Asheville, a wedding performance. Dave was on that show; Joe was, too. They told him he could stay, that they understood.
“My head was saying don’t perform, it was too quick,” he said. “But my heart was different. I take very seriously the job of making people laugh.”
TJ’s dad had admired the fact that his son was passionate about comedy; he’d loved to hear TJ perform. TJ remembered his father telling him on multiple occasions, “I’m so proud of you.” He liked to do a combination high-five/handshake/hug and tell TJ, “You da man.” At his sixtieth birthday party, all he did was use his iPhone to show his friends YouTube clips of TJ performing. TJ’s father laughed at him, harder than he laughed at anyone else, even before his son became a stand-up. At one performance, the bar was so small that TJ could see everyone’s face in the audience—including his dad’s, in the back, surrounded by people. He noticed that his dad’s eyes were focused on him. He spent most of that set staring directly back at his father, saw that he was laughing and having a great time, spoke as though he were addressing him. That was the last time TJ saw his father before he died.
A few weeks later, when the Beards were taping their Comedy for People CD, when he felt like he had nothing funny to say, TJ put one of his father’s handkerchiefs in his pocket and went onstage.
The journey brought them closer. The road brought them closer, as it rolled through the fog toward Portland. There were orchards in Oregon, perfect lines of trees planted in the dirt, bare of fruit—or whatever they grew; no one was sure. Not even Dave, who knew his trees.
Near the end of the trip, the Beards sat together with their shoes off in a hotel room and ate cold Little Caesars pizza and watched Conan O’Brien. They drank Dr Pepper out of a two-liter bottle, burped and coughed, laughed at each other, shared a twelve-pack of bottled Coors, talked about L.A. and New York. They arrived in Portland around nightfall, parked the Tahoe by the famous strip of food carts downtown, ate Thai out of Styrofoam containers and had banh mi sandwiches on the street. In Kennewick, Washington, they got to meet one of the most successful stand-ups performing, someone they truly admired: a guy named Brian Regan, who asked them to come onto his tour bus to hang out. They would finish the trip paying $300 each out of their own pockets to go on the tour, but it had been an investment—in the group, in their own individual careers. They were going home, having met some important people, some of their favorite comedians, and some agents, with the hope of bigger things to come.
In his autobiography, Born Standing Up, Steve Martin wrote that one of the best times of his life was when no one knew him; when he was on the road, playing in front of tiny crowds, trying out his material in the grinding rhythm of each passing night; when he was driving from town to town and sleeping in motel beds, performing in places so small he could see the empty tables, hear individual audience members and the chairs squeak as they were moved.
Dave had always heard celebrities say that the best time in comedy was starting out, going on the road. Like Martin said, no one knew who you were. Dave was happy, could find pleasures in certain aspects of the road, liked the towns and hotels, the scenery—he once parked his car on the side of the highway and walked into a beautiful cornfield. He wondered if he would ever be happier, no matter what happened the rest of his career. This was what it was like to be doing something creative, to be serious about it, and he wanted to make the most of it, he told himself—while he still could. While he still had a journey to take.