NEW YORK — So there we were with nothing to do on a Monday night in Boston except maybe eat another lobster and talk about Bill Buckner’s spring training when I suddenly turned to Mary Schroeder, our ace photographer, and said, “Say, Mary. I’ve got a smashing idea. Let’s jet on down to the Big Apple for the premiere of that hot new comic sensation that everyone is talking about. Won’t that be a stitch!”
And Mary said: “Spiffy!”
And I said: “James, call the limo!”
Actually, we didn’t say any of that, but I figured that’s what you’re supposed to sound like when you go from sports writer to theater critic, which is what I did for one night, Monday, in New York, sort of, if you think about it. Actually, I was reviewing the stand-up comedy debut of a 7-foot basketball player, which is kind of redundant since, if John Salley stood up any more .
. . he’d need an elevator to tie his shoes!
Now, right off the bat, let me say that Salley was funny, even if he kept adjusting the microphone, and all the other comics who followed him . . . had to bring boots and a rope!
This was a pleasant surprise because, personally, I was a little worried about Salley when, after flying down from the Tigers’ opener at Boston, hopping in a cab, racing to the club, pushing past the crowd of people and working my way inside, I finally found Salley pacing nervously near the stage, and he looked at me and this is the first thing he said:
“Yo, you know any good jokes?”
But hey, maybe that’s how Billy Crystal warms up. Of course, Billy doesn’t often pepper the audience with giant people like Dennis Rodman, David Greenwood, Scott Hastings and William Bedford. And they all sat together near the stage. When people yelled, “Down in Front!” . . . they turned and said
But this was an unusual night. For one thing, Spike Lee, the famous director, was in the audience. His advice to Salley before the show was memorable, and every comedian should remember it.
Spike said: “Be funny, man.”
This was also an unusual night because all the money was going to benefit David Auponte, a 12-year-old boy from Brooklyn who was severely burned by drug users when he refused to smoke crack cocaine. Salley had visited Auponte at a hospital during the day. That was the hard part.
This was the easy part.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Salley said before the show, as people filed in, and he greeted every one. “Comedians are my favorite entertainers. I’ve wanted to try this since I was 16 years old. But I’m nervous, man. Look at my leg. It’s shaking.
“I’ve been worrying all day long about how I should open the show. They had this program on Showtime with all these young comedians, right? And I was thinking what if I just used one of their jokes? But then someone in the audience might yell out, ‘Hey! I heard that joke on Showtime!’ And I’d have to say, ‘Yeah! So did I! That’s why I’m using it!’ “
He looked at me. “What do you think?”
I told Salley not to worry, he could read the menu and it would probably come out funny.
See, I know what some people do not: that Salley, 25, has had to do this
his whole life. Stand up. Be entertaining. Critics say he does more of that than basketball.
But hey, when you grow up that big and gangly, you better learn to make the jokes first. Besides, by the time Salley was 10 he was going door-to-door in Brooklyn for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which matured him in a hurry.
“I’d knock on the door — this 6-foot-6-inch black kid, right, ringing your doorbell — and I’d say, ‘Hello, my name is John Salley and I’d like to
“WHUMP! Right in my face.”
So he was prepared for a rough crowd. And remember, he plays for Chuck Daly, who cracks a smile during a basketball game as often as Dan Quayle gets a standing ovation. The other afternoon, Daly and Salley got into a shouting match that was captured on network TV.
“Socks,” Salley said now. “We were arguing about . . . his socks. Yeah. That’s it. I said you can’t wear pink with green, Chuck. Get with it.”
A good comedian can think on his feet.
Back to the show. More people filed in. Salley seemed to know every one of them. Or he did by the time they sat down. (“Hello, how are you, you gonna laugh at my jokes tonight or what?”) When Rodman walked past, Rodman asked if it was OK to use his video camera.
“You’re DENNIS RODMAN!” Salley bellowed. “You’re an ALL- STAR! You can do ANYTHING YOU WANT!”
“So it’s OK then?” Rodman said.
Stricken with a sudden fear that no one would get his jokes, Salley rushed over to Spike Lee, who hadn’t moved from his place at the center table.
“Spike, man, what should I do?”
Spike said: “Do the funny thing.”
But enough of my blabbering. On with the review. Salley took the stage at the Stand-up NY Comedy Club to great applause. He waved and yelled, “WHAT’S UP?” And then he said. . . .
Well, I can’t print that.
After that he began to talk about his friends in the audience, especially this one who —
Um, I can’t print that.
He did introduce Scott Hastings. I can’t print what he said. Oh. He did ask one guy with big ears to stand up, and Salley said, “I just wanted to show Dennis Rodman he wasn’t the only one with ears like that.”
Everybody laughed, except Rodman, who was still trying to figure if it was OK to use the camera.
That’s a joke.
And then Salley said —
Oops, can’t print that either.
Anyhow, as the evening progressed, he got more comfortable and after a while he was ad-libbing, which has always been his best sport. Personally, I liked it when he announced that Magic Johnson was getting married, and some woman let out an “Awwwwwww,” and Salley glanced at her and said, “Yeah, like you had a chance.”
Also there was the time he identified a Detroit News sports writer in the crowd and said, “You gotta learn to stop writing in crayon, man.”
In between Salley’s bits, the real comics came up and did routines that included a lot of basketball humor. One said that the New Jersey Nets “are really making progress on that 25- year plan, huh?” He added that the sign in New Jersey where the team plays now reads: “INTERSTATE 95, Nets 91.”
I thought that was good.
But then, I laugh pretty easily.
And then Salley did his closing monologue.
But I can’t print any of it.
And so it’s time for our four-star review: I give John Salley . . . three stars! Run and see it!
(By the way, it’s not that the routine was dirty, it’s just, well, think about Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams or Richard Pryor in concert — think about printing some of that in a family newspaper. It’s damn — uh — darn tough.)
For his part, Salley seemed relieved it was over. He said he might try again sometime, but not for awhile. Too taxing. “It’s like being at the free throw line all by yourself, down two points with one second on the clock. I’d rather be laughing with my teammates.”
And thus, as theater critic, I cannot recommend you buy tickets to this show since it was a onetime-only performance. But you can go see the Pistons play at the Palace. Maybe Daly will wear the pink socks again.
By the way, after the show, I asked the club owner, a bearded man named Cary Hoffman, what he thought of the Pistons’ power forward as a comic.
“He was great,” Hoffman said. “He’s a natural. I’d give him 20 minutes any night.”
Hmm. That’s about what he’s getting from Daly.