|WHY DID THE FAILED STAND-UP COMEDIAN CROSS THE ROAD?|
What happened to Gaylord Dingler?
That's kind of a rhetorical question, really. Legend has it only two people truly know what happened to him.
But you probably didn't know that.
Gaylord Dingler was -- is? -- a stand-up comic. The world famous Comedy Store in West Hollywood, Calif., was his second home, assuming he actually had a first home. While Gaylord practically lived there on Sunday and Monday nights, in the eyes of the Comedy Store he only existed for six neverending minutes a week.
Gaylord was known by the Comedy Store as a "Potlucker," the name for someone who performs during the club's version of an open mic, routinely attracting 40 comics vying for only 20 spots.
What sets the Potluck show apart from the rest is that anyone lucky enough to draw a number from a weathered frozen strawberry bucket gets three minutes on stage. No actual qualifications are necessary.
The result of such a freewheeling policy is that the show ends up becoming the comedic version of a back alley Tijuana donkey show that's trying to pass itself off as the Barnum and Bailey circus. Think of the freak show that happens during the start of each season of American Idol. Now imagine those people trying to tell a joke instead of hitting the right note. It's that bad.
But for an aspiring comic with the ability to actually write and tell a coherent joke, starting out with the Potluck show is a rite of passage that makes the worst fraternity hazing look like a dance around the Maypole. Even for someone with legitimate talent it's not uncommon for the process of moving up the food chain from comedic plankton to becoming a paid regular at the club to take several years. Most hopefuls don't last long and stop showing up after few weeks, mentally broken from performing for empty seats while getting heckled by the employees (who are also comics, of course).
Since she opened the club in 1972, owner Mitzi Shore (mother of Pauly) has held the belief that anyone willing to stick out the Potluck will become a good comic; if they can kill in her room, they can kill anywhere. And she's right. A Comedy Store comic tends to be a cut about the rest: the funny version of a Navy SEAL.
Except for the career of Gaylord Dingler.
For 27 years straight -- doing the same material no less -- Dingler and his bizarre act were the very definition on delusional tenacity. Through five presidential administrations, Dingler watched as waves of comics passed him by. He did have a vital place at the Comedy Store, though. He was a living, breathing, example of every comic's worst nightmare.
Until one day he fell of the earth. Never to be seen again.
"I showed up at Store from Seattle in '79," recalls Chris P. Chicken, a longtime friend of Dingler's who recently returned to the Comedy Store after being on the lam. "(Dingler) had been there since '77 and was already bitter. He was holding a grudge against Jay Leno and David Letterman because they'd already made it before he did. Johnny Carson had Mondays off from The Tonight Show and would come down to the Store to watch Buddy Rich play the drums. He really took a liking to those two, and Gaylord hated that. Gaylord had the material. I think he was just too short on personality to really make it."
Later on, Dingler's bitterness would turn to Kevin Nealon, Gary Shandling, Andy Clay (as the Diceman was known back then), Sam Kinison, Jim Carrey and Eddie Griffin, all of whom got their start pulling tickets from the strawberry bucket along him.
However, Matt Fulchiron, a recent addition to the ranks of paid regulars at the Comedy Store, has a slightly different take on first meeting Dingler and his material.
"When I first met him at the Crooked Bar in the basement of the Coconut Teaser in the fall of '98, I didn't get it," he says. "He was doing jokes about his dog, and they didn't make sense. The bit didn't really hit. My dog flew in from Chicago and boy, are his arms tired. And it didn't stop. Seven minutes about his dog that I had a strong feeling did not exist. I didn't realize that he had been doing comedy for 15-20 years, and that sometime in the 80's, this shit was probably working. I mean, on some nights it was probably working."
Sometimes though, his act would click and magic would happen.
"Later, probably the winter of '99," recalls Fulchiron, "I caught a glimpse of how the Gaylord experience is supposed to pan out. Gaylord went up and did his usual routine, but this time, every time he said 'That's right,' the crowd said it back. It killed me. 'A guy I know just lost a 100 pounds at the gym. A machine ripped his leg off. That's Right.' Then the audience goes, 'That's right!'"
Even among longtime friends such as Chicken, Dingler's origins are mysterious. Popular consensus says he's either from New York, Boston, Delaware or Chicago. And his constant hundred yard stare suggested that he may have spent some time in Vietnam standing to close to the napalm, as comic Earl Skakel recalls.
"I saw him get into a fight at a show, and he did this really bizarre combat move making me believe he had some military training," Skakel says. "A lot of people thought he was homeless, but I think he was a crazy guy with cash. I mean he was always clean-shaven, never smelled and
This isn't Gaylord Dingler.
In fact, we have absolutely no idea what Gaylord Dingler looks like. You'd think a mysterious, failed stand-up comedian with a shadowy past, obviously fake name and few close associates would pop up in Google, but then you'd be wrong. So to help winnow down the process some and help you imagine what Gaylord Dingler looked like, we'll show you what he didn't look like. You know, the ol' process of elimination trick. So...
This isn't Gaylord Dingler...
his clothes for the most part were always washed. Add that to his snakeskin wallet and fresh tennis shoes, he either had a little helper or hoarded his cash somewhere."
At the Comedy Store, no topic is ever taboo, and on nights when his act wasn't working, Dingler didn't think like other comics: The fault couldn't possibly be found in his material. It was never his fault. It was the audience's. They weren't laughing because, as Dingler like to point out, "It's hard to laugh when the entire audience is infected with AIDS."
Away from the Store's freedom, this lead to problems for Dingler, says Skakel, who once took him to the comedy show down the street at Trunks, a gay hot spot along Santa Monica Boulevard.
"I told him before the show, 'Gaylord, it's a gay crowd. Don't do any mean spirited gay jokes, don't call them fags or homos, just do your thing, but don't pick on them,'" Skakel says. "Sure enough, they loved him for 99 percent of his act, almost giving him a standing O, and then he did an AIDS joke that went over like a lead balloon. The bartender -- who was a HUGE bodybuilder type guy -- stops the show right there and, that was the end of comedy night at Trunks."
Despite his occasional show killing setbacks, over the course of 2003, Gaylord started to hit his stride. His many years of work were starting to pay off.
"The last year or so he was around, he was a huge hit at the Potluck on Sundays and Mondays," Fulchiron says. "It was great. Some nights the actual paying audience loved it. Some nights they didn't know what was happening and why every one was reacting to this guy. But it was always the highlight of the night for me."
Change came with Skippy Simon, who got his start outside with Dingler in 2000. Simon, who ascended to paid regular of host of the Potluck show by 2003, realized that while Dingler was crazy, he was also a genius and brought him on stage as so.
"I'd save him till the end of the show," recalls Simon. "I'd move him to the back and build him up and make his set an event. He'd been there so damn long I just wanted to give him a taste of what it was really like. Sure, he looked like a Civil War general, but the guy was practicing for something big. When I'd let him run the light (go past the allotted time) and just go off he was great. The time we went on a tirade about a midget taking big dick pills was just magical."
Sadly, Dingler's beer consumption and jealousy impeded his progress.
"At the end of almost every show," says Skakel, "he was pretty loaded by the end of the night and would start showing people his AIDS test, which was clean, in case any girls wanted to bang him."
"Every night for Gaylord was confetti, balloons and pony rides. His only back up plan was another case of beer," adds Simon.
And then he disappeared.
Just where did Gaylord Dingler go? Nobody knows for sure. He was probably gone from the Comedy Store for a good month before anybody noticed he wasn't around. Folks had just assumed he'd taken a much needed vacation or, God forbid, gone out to work the road.
Rumors swirled around the Store that there was something more involved. Mickey, another crazy and longtime Dingler companion, started to hang out with another crazy named Garth Wesser. For months both were tight lipped about just what happened to Gaylord, until one day Wesser let it slip that Gaylord may or may not have been bashed over the head and left for dead by either he or Mickey. Seriously.
The rumor of Gaylord's death could neither be proven true or false, but a dark cloud still hung over the Comedy Store for months. It was almost as if a gargoyle disappeared from the Notre Dame Cathredal.
"It's so sad," says Melissa McQueen, who started out at the Store in 2001 and now plays clubs around the country. "He was crazy, but he was a good crazy. He was a part of that place and its history. When I'd be in my head thinking, 'fuck this, when's it going to happen,' I'd see him there and he was just so happy even though he was there for years. And I'd remember why I was doing this. He didn't always get laughs, but he was always very thankful. Even though it has been more than a year, I still find myself saying 'thank you,' like he used to."
"He wasn't the best comic," adds Fulchiron. "Let's face it: He had no concept of what was funny to an audience. But I'll be goddamned if he didn't have a lot of personality. A lot of people made fun of him, but he did what every comic tries to do. He stood out from the rest of us an always got a reaction. I watched him every chance I got."
Still, a glimmer of hope remains that Gaylord is on the loose doing what he does best. "I saw him at McCarron Airport in Las Vegas in March," says Bob Oschack, another comic. "I guarantee you he's haunting open mics out there under a pseudonym."
There might be some truth to this. According to longtime Comedy Store doorman, Harris Peete, Gaylord Dingler was a stage name. Why anyone would pick that name is beyond comprehension. His real name was Jeffrey Allen Kaufman; a fact Chris P. Chicken didn't even know.
And it just so happens about a year ago a Jeffrey Allen Kaufman, who according to the manager at the Harvey Apartments was a standup comic, moved to Chicago with his brother.
That's all we know for now. (The reporting hit a dead-end at this point.) But the story still likely has much left to be told. To be continued...?
[Ed. Note: No, seriously, we weren't kidding -- click here!]
Todd Munson is a stand up comic in Los Angeles. He occasionally likes to show his mother that a degree in journalism wasn't a complete waste of time.