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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.