The Park Bench
Every Friday, we discuss, debate and dissect the week’s themes and stories here, on The Park Bench. It’s a place where we take you behind the scenes with our journalists and subjects; where we curate the comments that you post on the site, as well as your longer reflections that you send to us via email.
It All Started With a Guy Named Roger
Vinnie Rotondaro expands on the colorful cast of characters he met over his two years researching former Red Hook pizzeria owner Roger Dean Fischer.
Writing about Roger Fischer wasn’t easy. He was and is a complex character, a man of many angles.
There was a cocky, waggish side to him. In reviewing my notes and interviews, I was struck by the sheer number of priceless things he said, lines that sometimes reminded me of the comedian Danny McBride. For instance, in talking about “getting out” of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, he once remarked: “There was a couple who got out, but they’re not really doing anything. They’re just nine to five. They don’t care about Lamborghinis, Ferraris and yachts. They just play the lotto and hope they hit.”
On the other hand, Fischer is no joke. There is something deep and essential to him—something uniquely human—an almost prehistoric yearning to bust out of the ordinary, to kick life’s ass.
In 2011, I spoke with one of Fischer’s best friends, a 28-year-old Bushwick resident named Nelson Claudio Jr. At the time, Fischer and Claudio Jr. (whose hip-hop moniker is Pyro) were busy promoting their music label, Regulate Records. In the interview that follows, Pyro sheds some light on Roger Fischer’s character, his enthusiasm for work, his love of hip-hop and his sense of mortality:
We’re sitting at a bar in an Asian restaurant under the subway tracks in Bushwick. I’ve already ordered the “Zombie,” a heavily alcoholic cocktail. Pyro is still deciding.
“Are you gonna get a Miami Slammer?” I ask. “These names are sweet.”
He can’t figure out what he “used to get.” I point to a drink called the “Wet Pussy.”
“Ha ha, no,” he said. It wasn’t that one though.”
“You know,” he said, putting down the menu. “We’ll just do Zombies. When in Rome.”
“Ah wait, that has rum,” he said. “I thought it had vodka. Ah, it was the Kamikazes. Do you want one of those?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I trust your judgment.”
Pyro told me about the first time he met Fischer. He was working as a salesman at one of Jack Stella’s companies. He had heard about Roger beforehand, he said. “Nothing but great things.” But the first time he actually laid eyes on him, he was perplexed, perhaps even amazed. Fischer wasn’t what he expected.
“When I first saw Roger, and he came from all this jail time, I was like, ‘Really?’” he said.
“I remember the first thing he wanted was pizza. He said he missed eating pizza. So the first time I met him, if I remember correctly, I got him a slice.”
“I guess the rest is history. After that we went into business and opened glow creations—that’s glow-in-the-dark shirts. We had an eBay store. People bought it. Smiley faces, peoples’ names, kids’ stuff, like ‘Happy Birthday Jason.’ And we sold at a reasonable price.”
“At this time he didn’t know I could rap. It was just a business relationship. Don’t get me wrong, he was my friend. But it was business. We didn’t have anything with the music yet.”
“A little bit after his pizzeria went under was when he heard my CD. Now, I’ve been making CDs for a while. Me and my friends. But he didn’t know. And I didn’t know that he was into that. I just knew him as a friend from work. We were making money with the shirts so hip-hop never came up.”
“But then when heard the CD, he looked at me like, ‘That’s you?’”
“So he brought a CD to work. A couple songs. I was playing it in the office. He just wanted to see what people thought of it.”
“I said, ‘Listen, you wanna’ do something? Let’s do something.’ I knew it was going to be successful, because any business with Roger really isn’t bad business. As far as my experiences go.”
I jump in.
“I have to say, at first, I thought Roger was full of shit.”
Claudio Jr. starts laughing.
“Everything he told me, I was like, ‘This can’t be real.’ None of this is real. I mean, glow-in-the-dark paint, bombs. When you take it in all it once, you’re just like, no way.”
He continues to chuckle.
“Well,” he said, “because you know what it is, it’s because you’re looking at regular little Joe Schmo. But like I said, if you really know him, and really sit down with him, everything he tells you is the truth.”
“If he’s in charge of something and you’re on the team that has to do it, it’ll get done. He’ll flex his muscles. He’s not a pushover. Just because he’s short and little doesn’t matter.”
“I have one hundred percent faith in him. He’s a lot smarter than people give him credit for.”
Pyro recalled a story about Fischer going out of his way to help an employee. There was an instance during their work in the glow-in-the-dark paint business when they were about to lose an account. A worker of theirs had made a bad mistake—he carelessly splattered paint everywhere—and the building manager was ready to cancel the contract. Roger was site supervisor.
“So Roger, he publicly bitched out the dude who messed up and said he would fire him. But then privately he just took him aside and put him at another job site.”
Over time, Pyro said, he learned about Fischer’s roots in West Virginia.
“He said he was a knucklehead,” Pyro recalled. “Always on the wrong side of the law. I’m not gonna hold his past against him. What a person does is what a person does. I can’t stand what New York cops get away with.”
He also talked about coming to an understanding about what he perceives to be Roger’s biggest fault.
“I’ll tell you what his biggest fault is: sometimes he fucks with the wrong people. He trusts the wrong people. In my opinion, people tend to see Roger as a pushover, which he’s not. But still, somehow I feel like some people have gotten away with using him. Anselmo’s was the perfect example. He didn’t nothing but uphold his side of the deal and she ultimately ended up fucking him over. And I met that woman, the landlady, she’s not all there. In my opinion she doesn’t have a full deck. She’s kinda weird.”
“Roger’s the type of guy, you don’t need a written contract with him. If he really trusts you and he fucks with you and shakes your hand, he’ll stay by his word. It’s as simple as that. You shake his hand, it’s 50-50. You don’t need signatures. But not everyone’s like that. And that’s where he sometimes gets the shit end of the stick.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Pyro told me about the first time he bonded with Fischer over their shared love of hip-hop.
“When I told Roger, I was like, ‘You into hip-hop?” And he was like “Yeah, I’m into hip-hop.” I’m like, “Yeah, so who the fuck you listen to?” He’s like, “I listen to Old Dirty Bastard and the Woo Tang Clan.” He’s like, “Yo, I like Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre.” He’s like, “I listen to TuPac.” So then he went, ‘Bitches don’t know me!’ Yo, I was dying laughing. Dying laughin’.”
“He was listening to hip-hop, man. Not the new shit that we call hip-hop today. He was listening to real hip-hop. And he was a fan of it.”
With that we downed the last of our drinks and left the bar.
I recently caught up with Nelson Claudio Jr. He believes Roger Fischer to be innocent of the charges facing him, and expects that his name will soon be cleared.
A Stand-Up Knocks the Hustle
Arvind Dilawar’s profile of stand-up comedian Noah Savage made some of our readers see Times Square comedy barkers in a different light. Not so for Dave Siegel, a comedian himself, who wrote in with his own thoughts about barkers.
Imagine this…you’re walking along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. A stranger comes up to you and asks, “Do you like baseball?” You feel like playing along and you’re only a few miles from The House That Ruth Built (or at least its sequel) so you reply, “Yeah, I like baseball.” The stranger than tries to coax you to come watch as he and his friends play a pick-up baseball game in a nearby bark… er park.
If this sounds at all enticing to you, then by all means, check out a comedy show that you got “barked” into seeing—because the level of comedy you will see will be exactly the same as the level of baseball in that park.
I have nothing against Noah. In fact, I can only assume from this story that he is an intelligent, hard-working comic. But if we’re going to call a spade a spade here, “barkers” are the telemarketers of the comedy world—and they should know this. It places them one notch above the “bringers” whom my colleague Sean Connelly recently called “the Ponzi schemers” of comedy. But barkers are counting on that 1 percent cold-calling success rate and dismissing the 99 percent whom they are annoyingly “catching during dinner.”
By no means am I famous. So it would make sense that on occasion, while walking to a do a set at Caroline’s in Times Square, I’ll get stopped by a barker inviting me to a show where there will be “guys from Comedy Central.” Rather than explaining that I am a guy from Comedy Central, I walk on…annoyed. One particular time, a guy stopped me and asked “Do you like to laugh?” I retorted, “Do you?” Apparently appreciative of any type of response, he replied, “Yeah, I do.” I then pointed to my headshot in the window of Caroline’s, three feet behind him.
Noah, and other barkers, might say, ‘Well, what’s the alternative? Performing in front of empty chairs?’ As he mentioned, the working comedians who are headlining and getting paid each night were once at the same echelon Noah currently sees himself. Those guys all performed in front of empty chairs and fellow comics. And guess what? When they try a new joke in front of 200 people who paid $25 per ticket and it bombs…they don’t care. Because they’re there. And it was that hardening they suffered that gave them the thick skin and bravado to take a risk in front of a packed house. And when it works, the pay-off is huge. They’ve performed in front of empty chairs and fellow comics. Noah’s right. It is trial and error and one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.
Louis CK recently sold out a show in Brooklyn that was marketed as “Louie tries out new material.” He had his pad on stage. Noah is doing the same thing. He’s trying jokes out to build to thirty minutes of material. If that means empty chairs, than that’s where you are right now, Noah. Tricking tourists who barley speak English into listening to these jokes is not going help you hone your act. Use that time and energy to write, watch comedy and meet other comics. Start a room. Book a room. Time Out NY is filled with comics who have done this. You went to Princeton! Figure it out.
What do you think? Are barkers noble up-and-comers or just annoying hustlers?
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On the Road
Responding to Arvind Dilawar’s profile of comedian-cum-barker Noah Savage, fellow comic Mike Rogan wrote in to Narratively about his own days hustling for a laugh…and a dollar.
At that point in my life I had never had any reason to be in Long Island. No family, no friends, and I certainly wasn’t planning on moving there. But when a friend of mine uttered those words every comic loves to hear, I now had a reason.
“Wanna do a road gig with me?” he asked.
“He” was a friend of mine we will call Thomas, because that is his name. A comic who had at that point been doing it for about 5 years already. I can’t figure out what tense to write this is in, it already happened but I’m tempted to write it in the present tense. You guys cool with it going back and forth? Thanks, I never went to college. Anyway, he asked me to come to Long Island with him to do a show at “like, a restaurant type place” that his promoter-friend set up. You’re paying me a hundred dollars? I will perform literally anywhere.
Here it was, my first road gig. I was excited about the money but I think I was equally excited to casually mention to fellow comics that I was “on the road the other night, sorry I didn’t stop by.” So we piled into the third guy’s minivan, who hadn’t been doing comedy longer than a few months, but hey, he had a car!
The address the promoter had given us brought us to a very small, tight bakery. So we must have been given the wrong address. When Thomas got off the phone he said that the promoter assured him that if you go through the bakery, there is a “real classy” party room in the back. So through the back we went.
When he said “real classy” my thoughts went to circular wooden tables spread out with a clean white cloth thrown over them and a small candle set in the middle. A nice handmade wooden stage in the center with a rustic brick wall behind it. To the right, a green room full of snacks and leather couches and a bathroom so clean and roomy you wonder if you’re more comfortable there then in your own home.
As we entered the room I suddenly realized my definition of “classy” and the promoter’s were a bit different. We set our eyes on a cramped room with long plastic picnic tables, mismatched chairs and an oil painting of the “Goodfellas” cast on the wall. The green room was a broom closet. Not the size of a broom closet, I mean the actual broom closet to the restaurant. There was a popcorn machine shoved in there that didn’t work. (Thank God, I was worried it might.)
The show started. I can’t help but watch the comedian who goes before me, trying to gauge how well he is doing, what kind of jokes are getting the big laughs, which is a terrible thing to do as a comedian. You have to just go do your thing. I can’t help myself though.
OK, it was my time. My name is uttered into the microphone with the credit of “very funny guy who performs all over New York City (lie) and clubs (lie) and colleges (lie) all over the country.” Truthfully I don’t remember my first line or joke. I remember I said it with such little confidence that they immediately gave up on me. I lost them almost instantaneously. Sounds hard to imagine but sometimes you just know a minute in that these people are not going to buy what I’m trying to sell. What kept me going was the idea of that fresh one hundred dollar bill waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. I tried to get them back on my side but it just wasn’t working. These were pretty terrible people but it wasn’t all their fault. When you do a five-minute bit on the ‘Mighty Ducks’ trilogy, you’re kind of asking for it. But seriously, these were terrible people. They seemed to collect every dude from Long Island who can’t refer to a stranger by anything other than “faggot,” and all the girls who respond to that by saying, “Oh God, you ahh too much. ”
At one point a woman stood up. She was dressed in all leather. Leather pants, leather vest, leather jacket. I think she was trying to match her leather skin. But who knows. She stood up in the middle of my set, turned her back to me and then proceeded to tell her own joke to the audience. The worst part wasn’t even that it was one of those “whattya call a black guy who…” jokes. The worst part was she got a fucking laugh! The crowd, which seemed to be made up mostly of her friends and family, all started laughing. Then she punctuated the whole thing by turning to me and saying “there ya’ go hunny. That’s how ya’ do it.”
I thought of the time when I was playing hockey when I was young and a kid gave me a cheap shot. My mom came down outta the stand hollering at him. I was so embarrassed then, but I genuinely wished she was there to do that to this woman.
Finally I got the light. The sweet, sweet light. No need to wrap up my last thought. “Thanks for nothing!” I said into the microphone, which had no effect on them—they were all turned towards each other at this point, having full-on discussions. I tried to get back into the broom closet as quickly as I could without it looking like I was running away. I saw the looks on the other comics’ faces. I felt worse for them than I did for myself. They had to leave with me.
Waiting for the money was painful. As I stood there waiting for the promoter to reluctantly pay me out in tens, my attention shifted toward the front of the room. After the show ended a DJ started playing music. Really bad house music. That same woman who got up and told her own joke was now on the very stage I had bombed my face off on. Dancing. Alone. Drunk. Just then the booker put the money in my hand. I looked at the money. I looked at her. I looked at the money again and just thought to myself, “Huh, I guess I win.”
Follow Mike Rogan: @roganmike
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