New York City is known by many names that signify its size and strength: “The Big Apple,” “The Metropolis,” “Gotham,” “The City That Never Sleeps,” and “The Concrete Jungle.” To live in New York, means to adapt to its toughness without any excuses. However, the true strength of New York City comes from its generations of citizens. One particular citizen, stand-up comic Joey Gay, learned early you need to be tough to survive the city, but you didn’t need to use your hands.
“Part of living in a place where you’re not totally safe is figuring out a way to use what you have to traverse it,” says Joey. The Midwood, Brooklyn native knew that (as he describes it) being “slight of stature” meant he couldn’t necessarily physically fight his way out of a confrontation. “So, for me, my tongue became my weapon. If guys picked on me, I made them look stupid,” quips Joey, “I ended up honing my skills as an orator as opposed to a boxer.” With his distinct Brooklyn accent, Joey Gay uniquely articulates learning to channel difficult life experiences into become a successful person. Being a former owner of a Virginia topless bar, Joey was able to see firsthand how vices and addictions can lead a person down the wrong path. That, the loss of his father, and growing up on violent streets in Brooklyn during the 80s and 90s, influenced Gay’s decision to become a comedian. “I remember being really, really young and watching David Brenner do a joke on the Tonight Show [which made] my whole family laugh. I said to my dad, ‘Is that a job?’ and he said, ‘Yeah,’” Joey explains, “[So]… it was always in the back of my head that that could be my job.”
Gay’s first couple of years in stand up saw him performing at a lot of open mics on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as well as the Boston Comedy Club on West 3rd Street. It wasn’t until approximately his third year in the business, Joey would step onto the stage of the country’s oldest comedy club known as Pip’s in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. “My first paid booked gig was at Pip’s and I will never forget it. I was booked during the show that was absolute lunacy. There was a fist fight that spilled out of the place onto the street,” Joey remembers.
To some, witnessing a fight during the show can be shocking, but to the people living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, it was more commonplace than desired. Still, that didn’t deter Joey Gay from continuing his comedy career. To be able to perform at a place like Pip’s meant that you were following in the footsteps of some legendary comics. Rodney Dangerfield, David Brenner, Brett Butler, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen are just a few of the greats who pass through the doors of Pip’s. Performing there also meant you were to go through the wringer of some of the toughest crowds in the business. Woody Allen himself was rejected as the house emcee! As Joey describes it, “It was nicknamed the ‘White Apollo’. It was a savage room. If they didn’t like you within 30 seconds, they wouldn’t cheer for you to get off. [Instead], they just ignore you or talk over you. It was a place where the owner and the bartender heckled.” Clearly, if a comedian could adapt to that type of crowd, he or she would gain skill as a true stand-up comic. Gay knew it was the type of place he could gain his “sea legs.”
After learning how to handle the Brooklyn crowds at Pip’s (which, on any given night, would include members of organized crime), Joey Gay developed his on stage persona. He performed with very high energy and spoke loudly out of necessity. Joey came to understand the importance of style during a gig at The Fat Black Pussy Cat on West 3rd Street. Joey recalls, “There was an NBA playoff game going, and it was the last five minutes of it when I got introduced. I had just been performing so much that I was incensed that they weren’t paying attention to me talking. So I just began screaming and throwing kicks at the people around me to kind of get my space. And I won them all over in the last 4 minutes of an NBA playoff game.”
A valuable lesson was learned that night for Joey: a comic must command the attention in the room. “I kind of felt like I had figured out something by default; that I wasn’t going to ask for attention anymore, I was gonna demand it,” he realizes. This realization was key for Gay’s ongoing success. He saw that he had won over a lot more rooms than he would have performing in an average tone of voice. As Joey puts it, “We’re not here [as comics] to ask the jokes. We’re here to tell them.”
Up to this point in Joey’s stand up career, he had acquired tools on how to be successful from his New York City experiences. The attitude a person must carry growing up on the streets of Brooklyn transcended well when dealing with the toughest crowds on the comedy scene. These tools came into practice again when Joey found out he was bumped from a comedy special on TV called White Boys in the Hood. Gay made a decision that after persevering in the business for years, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. So in true Brooklyn form, Joey pretty much booked himself. “For some reason, once somebody points a camera at you in our business, it legitimizes you. If you take no for an answer [or] if you’re polite, that’s the answer you will get,” Gay states. After being told on the phone he was being bumped, Joey informed the casting personnel, “Here’s what you need to do. Go to the next name on the list, and I bet that’s a weak mother f*cker who will take no for an answer. I told my mother about this. I will see you Tuesday.”
When Tuesday came, Joey went backstage to each department letting them know they left his name off the list until he reached the producer. He then told the producer, “Look, you can either call the police or give me a spot because I’m not [expletive] leaving.” Fortunately for Joey, the producer respected his decision. He saw that Joey was fighting for an opportunity and let him perform on the show, much to Gay’s triumph.
Joey Gay’s tenacity was paying off for him. He continued to perform at Pip’s and throughout the city. His skills became so good that he even became one of the top 10 finalists on Season Five of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. During this time of performing stand-up, Joey had been working on a side project. Because of his great admiration for the history of Pip’s Comedy Club, he had decided to produce a documentary about the club’s history. “The absolute bluebloods of stand up comedy walked through those halls,” says Gay, “As a young kid from Brooklyn, I wanted to be part of that history, and I kind of wanted to document my own walk through it.” The documentary is entitled The Owner Heckles and is made up of three parts: the history of Pip’s, the history of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and Joey Gay’s experience at the club. One important fact discussed in the documentary is that its owner George “The Ear” Shultz was mentor to David Brenner, recognized Andy Kaufman’s talent, and gave Rodney Dangerfield his “No Respect” tag.
Joey Gay himself was even a resident of the club literally by renting the room upstairs above Pip’s. Through much leg work, Gay was able to interview Pip’s comic veterans such as Woody Allen, Brett Butler, Dom Irrera, Colin Quinn, and Otto & George. When asked why Pip’s was worth a documentary of its own, Joey replied, “There’s something inclusive about working a place where Lenny Bruce and Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Lewis and Andy Kaufman all got on the stage. There’s something empowering about it. You think to yourself, ‘All these people have done what I’m doing now.’ It somehow [was a] kind of trial by fire. It’s so awful [at times, but even] the greats went through it. It’s one of those rooms that you are not a New York comic if you didn’t do it.” The documentary is currently in post-production, with hopes of being released in the near future.
Joey Gay came along way from a kid who was teased with recycled jokes about his last name, to a Brooklyn-strong stand-up comic. His style, humor, and tenacity are the epitome of the spirit of New York City. Not only did he overcome many obstacles to be a great comic, he passed the test New York City gives to its aspiring artists. Joey came full circle in 2005 by purchasing Pip’s Comedy Club with his childhood friend. He has since sold the club but continues traveling the country performing his high energy, hilarious stand up. A true student of the art form, Joey Gay has used his life lessons to fulfill his childhood dream of making people laugh for living.
“The thing that I learned along the way is if this is in you, it’s in you. You can’t be dissuaded. It’s not a reasonable exchange [of] risk versus reward regardless of how successful you are,” says Joey proudly. He follows, “It’s kind of thing that will always make you crazy. Which is okay because crazy is good for stand up comedy.” Comedy is a business where you both rub elbows and throw elbows along the way. If a new comic wanted to learn the toughness needed to get on stage, they could learn a lot from Joey Gay. Joey can be seen performing throughout the country and as a police officer on NBC’s Law & Order. For some great laughs and to contact Joey Gay, visit Joeygay.com, @Joeygay on Twitter, and www.facebook.com/joey.gay.
About the Author: Mike Sgroi is a comedian, writer, and film maker from the New York City/New Jersey area. He is also a hip hop music producer and a great American. @MikeSgroi21