The Most Embarrassing Thing I’ve Done This Millennium

Last week, Levitt and I gave a lecture at a conference in New Orleans. The format was unusual: instead of just getting up and talking, the lecture was supposed to be a moderated Q&A, and the moderator was a guy named Greg Schwem.

About an hour before the lecture, we gathered backstage with Schwem and a few other folks to talk over the details. It turns out that Schwem is a professional standup comic who does a lot of corporate work as an emcee, moderator, or whatever the situation calls for. He’s a really nice guy, and we started to discuss the ins and outs of stand-up comedy, including the excellent Seinfeld documentary, Comedian. I told him that I’ve always thought that stand-up comedy must be incredibly hard: If you succeed, it looks so easy that anyone thinks they can do it; if you fail, it’s brutally obvious that you’re failing, and people start calling you names.

I then proceeded to tell Schwem about the worst stand-up routine I’d ever seen. It had happened about a year ago, when I was giving a lecture at a tech conference. The comedian who went on right before me did a 45-minute impersonation of Bill Gates. He dressed like Gates, talked like Gates, wore glasses like Gates, and gave a PowerPoint presentation that was meant to skewer all things Microsoft. The problem was that nothing he said was funny, not even a little bit. I stood in the back of the room watching the audience watching this Gates impersonator fail and flail, and it was just painful.

“I bet you hated following that,” Schwem said.

“Oh no,” I said. “I could have gone up there and shot myself in the head and they would have laughed, this Gates guy was so bad.”

We talked for a while more, then we completed our moderated Q&A, said our goodbyes, and flew home.

The next day, I got an e-mail from Schwem:

When you were telling me backstage about the comedian who did the lame 45-minute Bill Gates impression, it was very difficult for me to keep from laughing. The reason is that I was that guy!

You know how it feels when you’re having a bad dream, like showing up for an important test both ill-prepared and naked? Take that feeling and combine it with how you feel when you’ve just dropped your keys and wallet down the sewer. Now combine that with how you’d feel if you just backed over your child’s new golden retriever puppy. That’s how I felt as I read Schwem’s e-mail. What a jerk I’d been!

But Schwem’s e-mail went on: “I can laugh about it because you are totally right,” he wrote. “It was horrible and I’m sorry you had to follow it.” He explained that his ex-manager had come up with the idea because another client was doing really big business with a George Bush impression, and he thought Gates might be good for Schwem. So the manager hired someone to write the Gates material for Schwem — a departure for him, since he always wrote his own jokes — and started booking engagements:

I was resistant to the idea because I’ve never considered myself much of an actor, or an impressionist for that matter … Anyway, the project sucked from the outset. But my manager had invested a lot of time and money into it. Plus, he was convinced that, because of [the Bush impersonator’s] success, it was only a matter of time before it gelled. The first time I performed as Gates, the show wasn’t that bad. Unfortunately, it got worse.

I immediately wrote back to Schwem and apologized, told him what an idiot I felt like, and asked if I could buy him a drink next time I’m in Chicago, where he lives. Then he wrote back:

No offense taken so no need to feel bad. Like I said, you hit the nail on the head. But I’ll take you up on the drink offer. It will be very therapeutic for both of us.

I hope you never foul up as badly as I fouled up in this case. But at least I learned a few lessons:

1. Greg Schwem is a mensch.
2. Greg Schwem is probably good at what he does in large part because he is good at analyzing where he succeeds and where he fails. In this case, he knew that he wasn’t playing to his strengths as a performer, wasn’t working with material he liked or trusted, and had chosen to impersonate a subject who just isn’t that ripe for impersonation.
3. As a matter of course, comics apparently develop a thick skin.
4. I should learn to shut up more often.


se7en

GO BACK TO FREAKONOMICS.COM/BLOG/

NY Times is TERRIBLE.

lance_bergman@sarasota.k12.fl.us

Freakonomics.com weblog/site has moved to the NYTimes. Some good stuff, certainly worth rgistering (for free) with the Times. Hope you had a restful and enjoyable summer. See you next week

Lance

RJ Spector

OK, let's hope that's really The Most Embarrassing Thing You Do This Millennium. Many of us are probably thinking, "I've got him beat by a mile."

Welcome to the Times -- I'll be happy to keep an eye on your work here.

Stefanie

Please go back to your old blog!! This format is bad and I hate to click-through from my feed reader. This is inconvenient enough for me to stop reading.

Da

A similar thing happened to me in a job interview. I was asked about overcoming difficulties in the workplace and described dealing with an extremely unpleasant dept head who was widely disliked. I got the job and found out 2 months later that the dept head was my VP's husband who was one of my interviewers. Ouch...

Jay

Guys,

Why the partial feed?????????
You don't have any weasel ads either.

nick davis

Guys, your RSS feed went from full to partial during this move. Looks like I won't be able to enjoy your blog on such a regular basis.

Guillaume

No, the most embarassing thing you've done this milenium was moving your blog to the Times website. What a waste.

bruno

i agree that the change from full to partial feed is pretty painful :(

anyway its still a pleasure reading your stuff
b.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Perhaps that comedian really Was devastated, but putting a good face on things for you. After all, it really isn't so swift to admit: "hey, I was terribly devastated by your remarks about my pathetic act!"(And such an admission would probably seem even More pathetic, of course). You should buy him that drink, no doubt about it. But only if he really is funny (and the Gates act was a *freak*ish, abnormal display of bad comedy for him). If not, there's no point in rewarding habitually bad comedy. Mine is a harsh view, you might think. But someone's got to have it (and write it here).

Shahir

Please bring back the full feed

John

Could we please get the RSS feed back?

Chris Butler

Wow, so much hostility towards the move. Does this blog provide that little utility?

Peter Goldberger

The partial feed takes extra time to follow. Why the change?

Gary

I have to say, I'm sensing a pattern to these comments and it seems to say that the full-feed was really nice. Maybe you should write about why you think giving it up was worth the switch.

Todd

I began reading your blog today because I stumbled across it at nytimes.com: I expect I never would have visited your old blog site. I love the content. Thank you for making the move!

Chris

Disappointed in the move from full feed to partial feed

Max

My native language isn't English so when I (male) initially asked the female bartender in to "please give me a good head" I hadn't thought about the implications and misunderstandings I got myself into.

The moment I had uttered "can you please give me a good head" I realized that I had inadvertently asked for a lot more than a frothy beer - I tried to apologize but to no avail, I was shunned the whole evening by this bartender - who can blame her.

At least everyone else at my table though this funny...

Another John

I enjoyed this column quite a bit, very human, very real, very ironic. I agree with Rita that you don't know for sure what he really felt. On the other hand, you never know, so we might as well take people at their word and hope they communicate to us what they really want us to know. (Who is the loser when we are "polite" in that way? My opinion is both parties are poorer for it.)
I'm glad this column came to the NYTimes (otherwise I guess I wouldn't know about it). I expect I'll be reading it regularly (really enjoyed the book). But I am wondering what the "full feed" is. I don't know what I'm missing, but it sounds like I'm missing a lot. Could somebody let me know what it is? Thanks.

Jane Pearlman

I'm happy to see your blog at the Times. I'll read you regularly. You are consistently "dead-on". We moved to London 6 mos ago and have missed Yiddish in the vernacular. Now if I can only find authentic matzoh ball soup...
Jane