In 2005, I appeared on an episode of Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam on HBO. It was an incredible experience. To hear Mos Def say “from San José, California, give it up for Mr. Mike McGee” at the beginning of the clip is still pretty cool. However, my first “appearance” on HBO actually came fifteen years earlier—and 30 years ago today.
January 5, 1991 was the dead center of my freshman year of high school and a week before my 15th birthday. I was in the midst of trying on my new high school uniform: class clown. There was nothing classy about it, pure and simple, as it required an obnoxiousness I had yet lowered myself into (much like Arnold did at the end of Terminator 2—obnoxiousness being a vat of molten metal that would kill some portion of my self-respect), but it was all I ever wanted. I was never going to be popular for sports, academics or good looks, which was fine since I had no patience for any of those traits, as it was. For many months, maybe even a couple of years, I had dreamed of being a well-liked funny person who gets paid to be well-liked, funny and a person.
On this particular Saturday evening, during a break from Desert Storm news coverage, my mom and I were watching Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold on a live HBO call-in special hosted by a very pre-Today Show Matt Lauer. They kept an 800 number on the screen and I had nothing better to do, so I set out to get stand-up comedy advice from 1.2 of the biggest names in comedy at the time. I sat at the phone, finger-dialing the push-button numbers over and over, a skill I developed through dialing radio stations for prizes. I was used to waiting for the busy-signal, hanging up and dialling again. After about 26 minutes and several hundred busy signals, it paid off and the sound of the line ringing on the other end was exhilarating. My mom’s eyes were bugging out of her head. After a dozen or so rings, a staffer answered, took my name and told me I had time for one question, so what was my question? I want to know how to become a comedian! They put me on hold and my mom’s head volleyed the tennis match between me and the television. The audio on the line switched to a live, undelayed feed of the conversation with the trio on TV. After a moment, Matt Lauer answered and prompted my question, “Mike from San José, California, you’re on live with Tom and Roseanne. What’s your question?” I am proud of and love representing San José, California however I am capable.
I could have sworn the conversation lasted about nine minutes. It was actually only 59 seconds.
Everything is on YouTube now, right? It had never occurred to me until recently to search online for video of a show that surely has no business existing beyond 2001. Well, thank you to the person(?) who made sure I could relive an actual moment of my life that has had a strangely wonderful impact. The video here starts a few seconds before my call, but the entire episode is there for your viewing… pleasure?
It has replayed so differently in my head over the years. I forgot that this call-in show followed Roseanne’s HBO comedy special filmed at T**mp Castle in Atlantic City. I don’t remember repeating myself so nervously or stammering at all. I only remember most of what they said to me on the phone. I realize now that I also never saw their reactions during our conversation because I was frozen, staring at our apartment wall the whole time. My mom tried to keep up with my live conversation and the tape delay on TV. They answered my question and hung up. I spent 30 minutes or so dialing that onscreen number and I only remember it because I got lucky and someone answered. These days, it is funny to think that, of all the people in this video, Tom Arnold is now the most likeable personality of the three.
I give Roseanne and Tom a lot of credit for boosting my my teen spirit. But at 14, I was probably already on my way to being a well-liked funny person.