Barking at Strangers
"Free comedy show right across the street featuring today's best...OYSTERS!!!"
“Hey ladies, what is this? Model row over here?”
A brief reflective pause, then continuing to the rhythm of “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley: “Stand up for your comedy! Stand-up comedy, right a-cross the street!”
Noah Savage calls it verbal diarrhea. He’s standing beneath the yellow awning of Jaja Deli on Bleecker between Sullivan and Thompson, shouting or singing at every fifth or sixth person who walks by. It’s just after six on a Thursday evening, and this portion of Greenwich Village is flush with pedestrians.
“Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Go to a show tonight!”
Savage is looking for particular kinds of people—high school students, tourists, those who appear unsure where they are headed—but anyone will do. At one point, he runs over to three older women and begins telling them about the comedy show; unfortunately, the women don’t speak English. Undeterred, Savage continues in cobbled-together Spanglish: “Across la calle, el comedia, ocho y medio.” When I asked him later if it makes sense for three Spanish-speaking women to attend a stand-up show that will be conducted wholly in English, Savage seems unconcerned. He just needs to get asses into seats.
Directly across the street, two comedians outside of the Village Lantern are performing similar feats, though with noticeably less gusto. There are a few prime targets walking up and down the north side of Bleecker, but Savage remains on his half of the street.
“What year of Princeton?” Savage asks a woman wearing a T-shirt from the university.
“O-eight,” she replies with a dismissive smile.
“We’re classmates!” Savage says, extending his arms in astonishment. Six-foot-seven and 26 years old, he would strike an imposing figure if it were not almost instantly undercut by his warm, jovial manner. In a way, he’s reminiscent of the actor Jason Segel, though with sharper eyes and softer features. “I swear to God. I’m Noah Savage. I played basketball there.”
The Princeton woman stops walking and asks Savage if he knows her roommate. He tells her the name sounds familiar and invites her to the comedy show, but she declines. They exchange goodbyes, then the woman is back on her way home and Savage is back on his grind.
“Go to the show, go to the show!” he says to a young man walking up the street. He had spoken to the stranger, who looks to be one of the legion of New York University students in the neighborhood, at the same spot about twenty minutes earlier.
“I just lost a tooth,” the NYU apparent claims.
Savage jumps at the chance: “That excuse is so awesome that—”
“—Nah, I really did,” the young man says. “I have no idea how.” And with that, he pulls back a cheek to reveal a bloody gap between his teeth. Savage commiserates, and the man walks off, hopefully dentist-bound.
Halfway up the block, two young women are looking through racks of clothing outside of Hamlet’s Vintage. Although Savage doesn’t want to irk the store owner by soliciting his customers, he takes the chance. He walks up to the women and asks what their plans are for the evening. Turns out they’re Scandinavian tourists who are waiting for a friend, then getting a slice across the street at Pizza Booth, but they have nothing to do beyond that. Savage tells them about the stand-up show happening right next door to the pizzeria, at the Village Lantern. It’s free, there’ll be alcohol and, best yet, Savage himself will be performing. The girls agree to check it out, and Savage has his first haul of the evening. It’s around 6:30. He has two more hours before he takes the stage.
* * *
“Who the Hell is This Guy?”
Although Savage didn’t begin seriously pursuing comedy until moving to New York City, his interest in performing was first piqued during college. At Princeton from 2004 to 2008, he studied sociology but focused primarily on basketball. He first realized just how funny he could be in the locker room, rehashing late nights and outrageous antics.
“I would always be telling stories,” Savage recalls, “and the whole room would be listening, twelve, fifteen guys. And they’d be laughing at these stories I thought were kind of funny, but they were rolling.”
Savage also cites as a turning point his first experience seeing Louis C.K.’s stand-up on television.
“I was watching it alone in my basement in college at some point and I was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” he remembers. “This middle-aged, red-headed, half-bald dude was making me roll. I didn’t know anyone could be that funny, and I was like, ‘Man, if I can ever even be close to that funny…that would be the greatest thing ever.’”
Despite these revelations, Savage continued concentrating on what he did best at the time—playing basketball. The distinctions he collected as the Princeton Tigers’ forward (including team MVP., co-captain, and top ten in the league in scoring) all suggested a sterling post-college career, and in 2008, he was signed to a Swiss team. Unfortunately, his professional days did not last long. After playing in Europe for a year, Savage was not re-signed. He returned to the United States and moved to New York in September of 2009 to be close to his mother. In the city and unemployed, he figured he might as well follow up on all that locker-room humor.
“I started doing it right away,” he says of stand-up. “And just kept doing it.”
* * *
“If You Want More Shows, Just Bark”
There is one essential struggle in making it as a comic. “All comedians are constantly looking for more stage time,” Savage explains.
Without time on stage, comedians lack exposure and, more importantly, the opportunity to test their material. After all, the only way to find out if a joke is funny is to tell it—to actual people. But stage time is a sparse commodity even in a city like New York—with its plethora of comedy clubs and bars. And like other commodities, it must be bought.
Some of Savage’s first stand-up shows were “bringers,” in which comics bring five to ten friends and acquaintances in exchange for stage time. With this arrangement, the venue earns money from the cover charge and the exorbitantly priced two-drink minimums, and the comedians have an audience. But bringers have two flaws—they are unnaturally sympathetic and unsustainable. An audience full of friends is kinder and more supportive than a real audience made up of strangers would ever be, and even the most supportive friends will spend $12 on a Coors Light only so many times.
It was while participating in a young comedians’ contest (a bringer) in the fall of 2010 that Savage first agreed to try another method of earning a few minutes on stage.
“I placed second two or three times,” he says. “And every time, the guy at the club would say, ‘If you want to get more shows, just bark.’ Finally, I was like, alright, I’ll do it.”
The proposition for Savage, and for flocks of aspiring comics before him, was simple:
Arrive at the club at six p.m.; receive a badge designating your association with the club; receive tickets for that night’s eight o’clock, ten o’clock and midnight shows; pound the pavement around Times Square for four hours selling tickets; repeat.
The rewards incentivize volume. Sell two tickets, get five minutes on stage; sell four more, get seven minutes; sell ten in all, get ten minutes. Even if you don’t sell any tickets, you’ll get some time if you show some hustle. Additionally, if you can sell the tickets for more than $10 (each one has a $30-price printed on it, but barkers are encouraged to negotiate), you can keep the difference. Savage recalls one especially enterprising barker who was able to earn $200 a night. Still, to Savage, the money wasn’t the allure.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you get paid for that?’” he explains. “I’m like, ‘Paid? Ha!’ That’s the last thing on my mind. Paid? No, who cares about paid? You want to spend time on stage. I saw it as a way to get more time in front of a crowd. You can do bringer shows, but then you’re doing jokes in front of your friends. I want to do jokes in front of strangers to see if they work.”
* * *
“You Can Pry It From My Dead Cold Fingertips”
Savage started barking during the fall of 2010. He hit the streets and unleashed his antics. He flirted with women, he danced, he helped tourists take their photographs, he tried to get into tourists’ photographs.
“I just try to be funny and keep it light so I’m at least entertaining myself by saying ridiculous stuff or singing or talking to girls,” he says. “You can’t take it too seriously, it’s just a numbers game.”
It helps that Savage was never a shy person. Even in his current day job at a commercial real estate firm, he relies on the confidence and ease with which he’s able to speak to people.
“The way that we generate business in real estate is by calling companies and trying to see if we can help them out with their next space acquisition,” he explains. “A lot of that is just cold calling, so it’s the same as getting a guy who’s walking by to end up going to a comedy show when he didn’t even think of it. It’s the same as a company that’s not even concerned about real estate, but maybe you can find a way for them to save some money… Just going up to somebody who’s never talked to you and trying to get them to do something or to at least hear you out—they’re very similar skills.”
The reactions to Savage’s shenanigans are mixed. In a city where pedestrians are regularly confronted with belligerent solicitations, heart-wrenching poverty and mental illness, often on the same stretch of block, most New Yorkers simply ignore Savage. He quickly learned to avoid native New Yorkers and even transplants, instead focusing on tourists. Still, the conversion rate is low. When he first started barking in Times Square, it was common for an hour’s work to yield just one sale—out of one hundred attempts.
Turf is also a concern. Once, while barking for one club in front of another, he was told to get lost by a police officer. (He suspects the club had complained.) Another time, Savage had a confrontation when he followed a customer across the street onto a block where a barker from a rival club was working. After the transaction was complete, he was approached by the barker.
“The guy was like, ‘So what’re we gonna do with the money?’” Savage recalls. “And I was like, ‘I’m going to keep it in my pocket unless you can pry it from my dead cold fingertips.’”
A third barker attempted to mediate and suggested splitting the money, but Savage wouldn’t budge. He had approached the customer on his own block, and conducted the sale himself. Regardless of where the deal was finalized, it was his and his alone.
“I was like, ‘You’re never ever getting a cent of that money.’ It was only ten bucks, but it was so infuriating.”
* * *
“Nobody Knows Who I Am and I Gotta Get on Stage”
During the six months after he first got started, Savage barked three or four times a week. He had some huge wins, once selling enough tickets to land him on all three of the night’s shows and even making $50 in the process. There were also a few fails. There were two nights when he didn’t sell a single ticket. There was a night when, after getting to the club at six p.m., it started to snow. Not one to be discouraged, Savage set out, talking to the sprinkling of pedestrians on the streets and warming up at the M&M’s store in between. By the end of the night, he hadn’t sold any tickets, but he had barked through a blizzard.
Understandably, these experiences have affected Savage’s views of other comedians.
It is frustrating, he says, “when you’re out there grinding and some schmuck walks in and does his time. “But what’re you doing to do? Nobody knows who I am, and I gotta get on stage.”
Though the resentment is undoubtedly there, it is also entangled with a newfound respect for more established comics.
“Whoever that headliner is, at some point, he did something similar to barking or at some point had to hustle to be at the top,” Savage says.
Some other comics are more skeptical of barking. One amateur comedian told me that the abundance of comedy venues in New York makes barking for clubs unnecessary. Another working comedian agreed that comics no longer need to bark in exchange for stage time, calling it “a barbaric ritual.” Meanwhile, Savage—who also currently guest-hosts a weekly open mic show at Pine Tree Lodge in Murray Hill—seems unwilling to rule out any legitimate road to more time on stage. He also believes that the larger comedy community has some respect for barking.
“I don’t think it’s looked down upon,” he says. “I think if you’re doing it all the time, people respect your hustle. Even a headliner will see you and say, ‘That was a good set,’ or, ‘You’ve gotten better in the last year,’ or, ‘Keep showing up, man, keep writing and writing.’”
As Savage sees it, a comedian is constantly working toward a level of success that, once achieved, will instantly be replaced by an even loftier ambition.
“The hustle is part of the game,” he says. “The bar’s always raised. If you’re a guy getting roadwork and headlining, then you want to be on TV. And if you’ve been on TV three times, you want to be more famous than this guy. It’s very competitive. That’s the thing that feels really similar to basketball. It’s always competitive.”
* * *
“Maybe I Can Just Buy a Flat-Screen TV and Watch Shows About Fat People on CBS and Order Thai Food”
Savage estimates that he has performed 300 to 400 times since beginning his comedy career three years ago. Throughout these performances, he’s had his share of coups. He’s been on line-ups featuring Amy Schumer, Jim Gaffigan and Judah Friedlander. He’s also had smaller, though more personally satisfying highlights, like a night at the Secaucus Laugh Lounge when his set was punctuated by two applause breaks for his impromptu crowd work. In a sense, the plan is to gather all of these wins to create enough momentum to propel a career that can then sustain itself.
“My goal is to be a working comedian,” Savage says. “The ultimate goal is to have that be what you’re doing all the time.”
At present, Savage is content with the pace of his progress. He believes that until he has thirty minutes of tight material, he needs to continue focusing on writing. Until then, he’s fine with barking because barking means stage time and stage time means testing out new jokes.
“For now, this is alright. I think that if I keep showing up and keep trying, I’ll get there.”
But despite his seemingly unwavering optimism, Savage does sometimes question this dogged pursuit.
“Some days you’re like, I want to go the Frying Pan and catch up with my friends or whatever, but instead you do three open-mics and you sit there, and it’s dark and depressing,” he says. “You get a little like, ‘Why don’t I just do something else?’ What’s the point of being funny at the end of the day? Maybe I can just buy a flat-screen TV and watch shows about fat people on CBS and order Thai food. I don’t know what normal people do, but sometimes I think maybe I should just do that.”
* * *
“You Guys Should Come Inside”
At street level, the Village Lantern appears to be a typical pub, dimly lit with dark wooden furnishings and a long mahogany bar. It’s filled with off-hours businessmen, sports fans and packs of partygoers. To the left of the bar, there is a staircase that appears to lead to the stockroom, but in fact descends to the Village Lantern Comedy Lounge.
“Village Lantern Stand-Up Comedy Lounge: As seen on FX’s hit show Louie” advertises a poster on the wall behind the stage. It could come across as a star-studded endorsement—if, that is, you haven’t seen that particular episode of Louis C.K.’s television show. In it, Louie is reunited with an old comic friend, Eddie. The pair get drunk and go to what is supposedly an open mic in Brooklyn—but in actuality the scene was shot at the Village Lantern. The room is almost pitch black, paint is peeling off the walls and the stool on stage is in tatters. One after another, comedians are precariously ambling through their sets. Laughter is conspicuously absent. Despite all this, Eddie is excited and the few hard-earned laughs he wins from the crowd make everything seem worth it.
Tonight, Savage is on the same stage, possibly even holding the same microphone.
“This show’s got kind of a weird dynamic because we were like, ‘You guys should come inside, come inside,’” Savage riffs, as he looks down at the Scandinavian girls whom he ushered into the Village Lantern an hour ago. “And then as soon as we’re on stage, we just want to rip you apart and make fun of you.” Giggles from the crowd.
“But to me it feels really familiar,” Savage continues. “It’s like my Thanksgiving meals with my family. They’re like, ‘You should come over, you should come over, come over, come over.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ Finally I come over, and they’re like, ‘So you still have that shitty job, huh?’”
Hearty laughs erupt from the audience, which is made up of the Scandinavian girls, a handful of couples and three or four other comics.
Savage moves a lot on stage, gesturing with his hands, turning to face different audience members, walking from side to side, but he never looks nervous. His movements appear purposeful yet natural. They aren’t conducted to put him at ease—he looks comfortable despite the glaring lights. The nods, the grins, the extended arms with open palms are for the audience. They are to conjure hilarity from the dim, beer-scented ether and to drive it home, right through that spot between your stomach and lungs where honest laughs are formed.
“I actually got invited to a costume party recently, and I decided to go as my dad,” Savage continues. “What I did was I went to the party for a second, and then I left forever!”
Nothing. The damning silence lingers like the gaping maw of eternity.
“What I did was I went to the party for a second, and then I left forever!” This time, the entire audience breaks into laughter. “I’m just going to repeat my jokes until you guys laugh at them.”
Savage moves on:
“I hit the club sometimes just to dance a little bit, and I noticed that there’s been a shift in how the D.J.’s talk to you to get you excited. Back in the ‘80s, it was always something innocent, like, ‘If you got a $5 bill, put your hands up, dip dop dippitty do.’ It’s like, ‘I dunno, alright, whatever.’ But now they get really into your personal lives, like one thing they always say is, ‘Where my alcoholics aaat?’
Then, ‘Who ain’t gonna make they rent this mooonth?’
‘Who cheatin’ on they baby daddyyy?’
‘Where my closet homosexuaaals?’”
In all, Savage is on stage for less than ten minutes. His material meanders between jokes about his estranged father, observations about popular culture and current events, and poking fun at the crowd. Most of it goes over smoothly, to enthusiastic response, and even the odd dud or two is quickly brushed off.
“Alright, I’m Noah Savage, you guys have been great.” He steps off the stage to applause and some cheers. After the show, the headlining comedian and the host each offer him spots on future events.
Following a complimentary shot at the bar upstairs, Savage heads to a restaurant. Despite working at his real estate job from nine to five, then spending nearly three hours barking and then performing, he plans on going to another stand-up show after dinner—but just as an audience member. It’s not until later, at around midnight, that he’ll be back on stage. Then, he’ll be back at it tomorrow, singing in the streets like his career depends on it.
* * *
Arvind Dilawar writes mostly about the dumb things he’s done, but has somehow managed to have his work appear on TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Mail and, of course, Narratively. Go figure.
Elizabeth Ladzinski is a visual journalist and Southern transplant inspired by the social impact of documentary film and photography.
Charmaine Poh, a photographer and writer, was a Narratively intern last summer.