They Pay Us To Drive… We Do Comedy For Free

That’s what I tell people when they ask why we’ve come to their dinky little town to perform.  Comedians love an audience like crack addicts love a pipe.  I can only say that my biggest dream for humanity isn’t world peace or nationalized health care.  It’s Star Trek beaming technology.  Please geeks… Get on it already.

Last weekend I was gigging in the Pacific Northwest and my drive home was from Moses Lake, WA back to Milpitas, CA.  That’s a 16 hour drive, my friends.  I like getting out of the open road and seeing the country.  But it starts to lose its appeal at about hour 12.  It was a nice, uneventful drive though.  Let me tell you the story of a different kind of drive…

This was January 2010.  I was on the road with my good friend Candy Churilla, doing gigs in Idaho and Montana.  The early shows had gone well and we were headed off for our last gig in Glasgow, Montana.  I’ll bet you didn’t know there was a Glasgow, Montana.  It’s so far north that we saw a sign that said “Canada – Turn Left.”

The drive from Billings to Glasgow should have taken us about 4 hours.  That’s a walk in the park when you’re doing road comedy.  But on this day it was snowing.  And I’m driving my little Toyota Corolla.  So we’re moving really slow to keep from sliding off the road.

About an hour into the drive we’re passing through a relatively populated area on their freeway and BOOM! we’re sliding off the road into a snow drift.  Fortunately we didn’t hit anyone as the traffic was still pretty sparse.  But we can’t get the car out of the drift on the side of the road.  So I call AAA to send a tow truck.  No biggie, we’ll be back on the road in no time.

While we’re waiting, a cop car pulls over and the officer asks if we’re ok.  We said we were just fine and waiting for a tow truck.  He very kindly asked if we’d like to wait in his police truck to stay warm until the tow truck comes.  In my head, I’m counting this as the very first time I’ve ever been HELPED by a cop.

So we go get warm in his truck and chatting about the crummy weather.  The cop turns to me and says, “You know I have to give you a ticket, right?”  Me, being a professional comedian with access to a large vocabulary and stock of witty comebacks said, “Huh?  Why?’

He said I was obviously going faster than a safe speed to have slid off the road.  This despite the fact that I was going 20 miles under the speed limit when it happened.  He lost his helping credit in my brain officially bringing the total of helpful cops back to zero.

Not only does he write me a ticket, but now we have to sit there with him for another 30 minutes until the tow truck shows up.  He’s still trying to make small talk to which Candy and I are responding with “Hmm, yeah.”  I wonder if, had we not been alright, and taken away in an ambulance for emergency surgery, if he would have followed behind us to give me a ticket in the recovery room.  I think yes.

Eventually the tow truck shows up.  We wave farewell to Officer Dickhead and we’re back on the road.  No problem.  Plenty of time to get there.

It’s snowing harder now and my tires are sliding a little bit, so I jump out and put the chains on the tires.  Now with chains you can’t go much more than 25 or 30 miles per hour.  I was going that speed anyway so I figured we could at least stick to the road better.

And the snow keeps coming.  We’re really in the middle of nowhere now.  There are no significant towns of any sort between Billings and Glasgow.  Who am I kidding?  Glasgow isn’t even a significant town.

At one point we’re on a two land highway with what I assume are fields on either side of us.  I have to assume because I can’t see more than about 15 feet in front of the car due to the sideways snow.  It was like being in a weird dream sequence from a bad sitcom.  Everything was white.  I couldn’t see more than a few feet on any side of us.  I look at my GPS and it says we have 150 miles to go.  At this point I’m driving about 15 miles per hour.  Hopeless doesn’t even begin to describe it.

You may be thinking at this point, “Are you really that addicted to performing?  Why not just cancel the show?”  Well, the booker, who had been calling us all day to make sure we were ok, told us that was an option.  However, we were approximately half way at this point and totally in the middle of nowhere.  Which meant we’d still have to drive a bunch just to find a place to sleep for the night.  Not to mention we wouldn’t get paid for the gig.  So, on we drove.

We made it out of that nasty bit after an hour or so.  I decided to take the chains off.  One of them was already broken and I didn’t want to further damage them in case we really needed them again.  I had dealt with the chains many times.  Easy to take off.  Just unlatch them, lay them flat, then drive the car off them.

But this time it didn’t work so easily.  One of them got tangled up in the axle.  Crap.  Called AAA again.  They asked where we were and we had absolutely no idea.  We had passed a little town about 15 miles back so we tried to figure it out based on that.  Thank god for GPS and cell phones.  Eventually we got the general idea and 45 minutes later a tow truck showed up.  He was prepared with wire cutters and all kinds of stuff.  However once he jacked up the car the chain untangled easily.  Yeah, I probably could have jacked it up myself and untangled it, but come on.  It was like 15 degrees out.

So we’re off again.  It’s still snowing and now it’s getting dark.  We’re driving into the hinterlands of northern Montana and there’s not a soul around.  Apparently other people aren’t stupid enough to drive in this kind of weather.  Pussies.

About 50 miles from Glasgow we’re on another tiny 2 lane road, it’s dark, and it’s snowing hard.  My headlights are making a lick of difference in seeing the road.  Once again, thank god for GPS.  I was actually following the green line on my GPS to see where the road was going to turn.  Literally driving by instruments like a pilot in a storm.  And going slooooooow.

Finally we saw some lights up ahead and a semblance of civilization.  We rolled into Glasgow at 8:00pm.  A full 12 hours after we started our journey in Billings.  A 12 hour drive on a clear day is tough to do.  This was beyond exhausting.  And show time was in a half hour.  We got set up, Candy downed a beer and hopped on stage while closed my eyes for a few minutes in a back room somewhere.

My opening line was “I’ve traveled to Glasgow, Scotland in less time than it took to get here today.”  And we were off.

The crowd was good.  They laughed long and hard and Candy and I both had really good sets.  Had it been any other way we may have killed someone.

The moral of this story, kids, is when a performer comes to town, for god’s sake buy something from them and make it worth the trip. 🙂  You can see my upcoming tour dates here.

Leave me a comment and tell me about your worst drive ever…

Phil Johnson

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