“Stung by Scorpions”
Modest Proposal was a zine sitting on the shelf at Eastside Records on University and Ash in Tempe, Arizona. This was the first location of the record store, years before it would move down to Southern. At this time as an upstart punk kid, it was my weekend hangout, sometimes the meeting place before the party, and sometimes it was the sole destination of the night. On this particular visit, I was surprised to see a local publication about comedy, especially the more alternative flavor I was as much fan of as I was of punk music. I reached out to Ryan McKee to see how I could help or even get involved. Ryan was no stranger to my state having grown up in Payson, but I still enjoyed my occasional role as ambassador and facilitator of introductions within our scene.
I had grown up in Phoenix and had my nose in all manner of odd shit, or what seemed odd to my family and classmates at the time. I performed and promoted music all over the Valley of the Sun, shot documentaries and sketches on video and film, built websites for bands, and emceed open mic nights. I even covered independent wrestling events, doing show recaps and interviewing wrestlers. I felt back then I truly knew everyone and did a bit of everything. My memories of this particular period: I shook hands with this kid named John Cena who drove in from California to wrestle as The Prototype in the lobby of Veterans Memorial Coliseum; I declined to butt heads with Wesley Willis at Modified on 5th and Roosevelt, but thanked him for his set; I laughed myself sore watching Neil Hamburger confuse the patrons of the now closed Phoenix Greyhound Park; I stood on a penthouse balcony with Jason Molina as he fiddled with a shortwave radio; I ended up in a warehouse space in downtown Phoenix owned by Scott Sanders, drinking coffee from a stand set up by Steph Carrico and JRC, and listened to Ron Babcock make a joke with a punchline about smoothies.
Ron and Ryan’s early shows were in Scott’s first space before he would move into a really nice theatre on Grand Avenue called Paper Heart Gallery. Steph and JRC would also expand, opening their own gallery and venue on Grand called The Trunk Space. I would start pitching in at both locations for comedy events and a local showcase we called Modest Proposal Musicomania.
A vicious malt liquor called Evil Eye and the Blue Moon specials that Scott offered, and any variety of what was on tap next door to The Trunk Space at a dive called Bikini Lounge, have served to blur some of those memories from nearly two decades ago. I do remember once paying an act $5 not to play a show that no one had shown up for, and just leave because they had been so obnoxious before they were scheduled to go on. It was one of their proudest moments as a band. But there are more concrete memories and higher caliber encounters, like drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label with Brian Posehn backstage at the Celebrity Theater, or watching Patton Oswalt dissect a heckler at a Mill Avenue bar. (I haven’t picked up a drink in quite a few years, as I clearly have had more than my share already.)
The memory I hold most sentimental is when I managed to double book myself as a solo act at two other Grand Avenue galleries and the shows happening simultaneously that night. One show had this electroclash duo called Triple Nipple. The two girls, from the Bay Area, were just about to move to Los Angeles. I ended up following closely behind and marrying one of them. Ron and Ryan, who also went west, were two of the first friends I met up with after I had moved there.
UCB Los Angeles had just opened, I started making friends and meeting people on a fan forum called ASpecialThing.com, grabbing a spot here and there to do musical sets at The Smell, M Bar, or Garage Comedy at El Cid, and I met a dude named Gene George with whom I would start a podcast called Shakeytown Radio. This was before the medium exploded and went real pro – I might be talking with Jen Kirkman in Gene’s kitchen one afternoon, James Adomian at The Dresden another night, or Kevin Pollak in his living room in Venice another evening. But one of the more fun episodes was Gene and I sitting around my living room with Ron and Ryan and talking about how our journeys had come full circle.
My time in Los Angeles took me on a different path than my comedian friends, paying my bills through behind the scenes work in television, but spending my free time outside of the podcast in the literary scene and having a toe in the revival of zine culture that began a decade after my fateful visit to Eastside Records. Shakeytown Radio saw its signal fade as the type of guests we were used to booking started getting paid for creating their own podcasts, and we could not compete. More of my time and energy was invested in publishing instead, and events organized around it. I was trying to maintain that same tempo of partying that I was used to in the Modest Proposal days, too. But it wasn’t carefree times with Scott smiling at me from across the bar anymore, and ten years removed from that double booked night on Grand Avenue, a kid named Ace had come into the picture.
I look back fondly on all my time spent on the precipice of counterculture touchstones. I don’t have a whole lot in my bank account or IMDb Star Meter to show for it. But that was never the point. I played my part, and I can look at photos, old flyers, and Modest Proposal Anthology to prove that, to appreciate that and give myself a pat on the back. I have come to realize art can manifest as an outcome from an adventurous life lived, it doesn’t have to be the job I clock in at.
You know that annoying phenomenon of the band that has played arenas too long and can only produce material about the hardships of rock stardom? Or the standup comedian who can only joke about his life on the top of the showbiz food chain? I am pleased to report that neither I, nor Ron, nor Ryan will ever have that problem. I can tinker with my own film projects, see a picture of Ryan holding an Emmy, or see Ron’s name in the credits of a cartoon my kids are watching, and know we found success each in our own ways that we define for ourselves. I am sure Ron and Ryan would have got there if I had never picked up that magazine off the shelf, but I don’t know where the hell I would be now if I hadn’t.
I don’t pick up zines much these days. I have been to one comedy show since leaving my beloved City of Angels after a decade to return to Arizona, Jen Kirkman hooking my wife and I up with a guest list spot so we could enjoy our first date night in ages when Ace was a year old. And the last show I played a set at was Scott Sanders’ memorial at the end of summer 2018, held at yet a third location for the unsinkable Trunk Space.
Baby Lou stayed at home with mama while her big brother Ace, not quite four, came with me. We’d had a scorpion in the house in recent weeks prior, and Ace was convinced that my departed friend Scott had passed due to being stung. I gently explained, no, Scott got sick and fought it but had succumbed. I told Ace that despite that, with the memories and photos and stories we would tell, Scott would always be with us.
Ace came up with me for my set, sitting at my feet onstage as I performed some of the same songs I used to play at Paper Heart. When I wrapped up my time eulogizing my departed friend, Ace grabbed the mic from out of my hands. “We miss Scott,” he said. “He is here with us. But also, he is dead. Stung by scorpions.”
That is, of course, how the story should end. I get upstaged by the upstart punk kid.