I remember discovering the meaning of existential nihilism when I was booked to do comedy in Reno, Nevada. I think you would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate setting for such a discovery.
So I get booked to do standup for a week at Catch A Rising Star at the Silver Legacy Casino in downtown Reno Nevada. Considering most of the paid gigs I got booked on at the time were at indistinct wood-paneled function rooms of bygone hotels or old VFW halls in rural parts of New England, that quite possibly sprung up from another dimension serving up buffet food and cheap wine, I welcomed the idea to get out of dodge. Funny because Dodge City might be what you would think Reno may be like, but au contraire and even though it isn’t near Reno, it’s definitely cut from the same David Lynchian setting.
Flying to Reno is not as awesome as flying to Vegas, mainly because it’s considerably more expensive. Also, when you get off the plane, you’re in Reno. I’m not saying it’s not an exciting place, in fact, I relished in the retro signage and time-capsule feel of the place. I’m not sure if it ever had a heyday, but it’s known for where people used to go to get a divorce. Since I technically got divorced twice, and my wedding song (Cole Porter’s Night & Day) is the main number in The Gay Divorcee which quite frankly should have been a red flag (but there were so many I missed), and of course this is back when gay meant happy, Reno seemed a completely apropos place. I was living in the moment.
I get my airfare, pack a huge suitcase and I feel like a road comic again. Leaving Boston in December at the time was exactly what I wanted to do. On the plane after being up in the air for some time, peering out beyond the clouds, the vegetation begins to change dramatically. By the time you’ve crossed the second time zone, the landscape looks like another planet. Everything has changed from green shrubbery and giant emerald pines to a flat desert of burnt sienna browns and beiges. After five hours, I land at the airport and right away, the contrast is staggering. There’s a life sized sculpture of several bighorn sheep in a realistic wildlife setting right there on the carpet. I’m thinking, I just want to get my bags and maybe a drink. I wasn’t ready for fake animals. I’m an artist. I specifically went to school for drawing and painting, but taxidermy at the airport is more perplexing than any abstract expressionist shit I’ve ever seen. There’s more disturbing sculptures and paintings as I make my way down the long, narrow hallway that leads to baggage claim. I pass a few slot machines, get my bag and then head outside.
The casino has a free shuttle. Because of this I have gotten spoiled and have been dismayed to find out other airports don’t have free shuttles to the gig. It’s exciting to fly to the big show though. A lot of what I had done up until that point in standup was host and feature shows wherever I could get booked. The most exotic places I’d worked were Vegas and Florida, so Reno follows suit, in that it’s the type of town if you’re heading there, you should pack a gun. When you feature (which means you go on after the host and before the headliner) you do about a half hour. There’s something about getting out of your usual digs and traveling. I’m elated to be in the desert even with the eerie sculpture welcoming. Plus, Catch has a legendary history including discovering and/or nurturing the careers of guys like Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld, so this adds to the elation. After checking in, showering and spraying my hair, I head down the elevator through the lobby and down an escalator to the club.
The room is set back in the peripheral of the ground floor of the Silver Legacy casino. You walk in and it’s carpeted with rows of chairs all facing a rather large, well-lit stage with a piano. The emcee is Barry Gibb. Not literally, but he could enter and possibly win a look-alike contest, if there were such a event. Although I was born in the 70’s, I never have, nor since, seen this hairstyle coupled with a beard in real life. He ends up being the nicest guy in the world. You couldn’t ask for a room to be warmed up any better. He plays the piano and jokes with the audience for a good 20 minutes before bringing up the comedians. I’m so thrilled to be performing on a real stage, with real drinks, sans wood-paneling.
I persuaded my friend Christian who was the manager to take me to The Sands after the show. Its legendary title suggests Vegas swank and old school charm, as in jazz and beehives. But the Reno version is anything but. He reluctantly agrees. We walk about four blocks west by a large parking lot through snow to get to the infamous tower. The worn carpet of the lobby sprawls the peripheral of the casino and judges us as we meander toward alcohol. The bar’s aged decor reflects the grimaces on the women’s faces that seem like something from a Hunter S. Thompson novel. The waitress’s suspicious stare made me wonder what we were in for, but as a writer I had to confess, “This is perfect !” Christian on the other hand, is about as excited as cat about to get a bath. We both agree with just a nod that this is fertile ground for people-watching, but we try to play it cool even though we’re secretly fascinated, or I’m fascinated. We ordered drinks and began to talk shop; comedy, writing, etc..
We talked about life, wine, the Smiths and The Cosmic Trigger whilst taking in the view of extras from My Name is Earl that peppered the room. The brightly lit counter of libations held the same amount of glamour as a bingo game. There wasn’t going to be any rat pack crooning at this trailer park. I loved talking with Christian because he is really smart. We talked real shit. I wish that dam gig was still around. I talked about my family and how I’m dark. “Dead inside?” he asked. I laughed. He is funny too, by the way. I told him I felt like it’s all a big nothing. Christian explained that Existential Nihilism embraces cause and effect in that all feelings and bad experiences are from prior causes. As a result, there is no free will and nature v. nurture is bullshit too, which confirms life’s futility.
“Basically,” he went on, “the world lacks meaning or purpose. All existence; actions, suffering, feelings; is senseless, nothingness. It literally is all a big nothing.”
“Oh my God !!! That’s it ! ! ! That is exactly how I feel ! ! !” I exclaim with exasperation. I’m so excited to receive validation of what had been simmering inside of me. The brooding, the apathy which naturally I was experiencing as a result of divorce, had a name ! This is nothing short of a revelation, I thought. Just then, the guy next to Christian, clad in a wife beater with a drug dealer hoodie and Adidas shorts, fell completely off of his barstool.