Rockets is a stand-up comedian. I first met him in his capacity as the genial host, maître 'd and sergeant-at-arms at the Red Bar on Manhattan's upwardly mobile Lower East Side. A position he has since vacated. I saw a few of his early performances at Laight Again where he was the M.C. for a late night cabaret. He was very funny. His timing, his gesture and his, shall we say, distinctly different presence had the audience roaring and asking for more. I talked with him in his fashionable Loisaida apartment which he shares, as he says, not with rats or roaches but with tiny junkies who yell at him to "Shut out the light, man," whenever he opens the refrigerator door.
Mark Magill Rockets, you say there’s a lot of bad comedy out there. What is bad comedy?
Rockets Redglare Bad comedy is the stuff that makes you sorry for the comedian. You are embarrassed for this person. Which is exactly the opposite reaction that somebody would want to get. If you go to see a comedian, you’re saying, “Wow, I’m going to laugh and have a good time.” When someone gets up there and gets really bad and they get a little bit vicious because they’re trying to grab the laugh or they get really banal . . . you just say what are they rambling about? But then there’s a certain point where you go, “Oh my God, why doesn’t this poor guy just fold up and go?” And you really feel embarrassed for this person. That’s the exact opposite of laughing. Where you feel horrible just to be of the same species as this character.
MM So the audience has no alternative. They can’t even laugh at how badly the guy’s doing. Their backs are against the wall. But how is that different from other bad performances?
RR I think comedy is a special kind of performance. I mean the pure form, the pure stand up comedian, where all you need is a clean shirt, it’s where you have a very special communion with the audience. When you’re really working and you’re rolling along and you’ve got them—it’s almost like cooperation. You’re communicating with them—they’re communicating with you. It’s part of the audience’s job to make that chemistry work, too. The audience knows when to sustain their laughs.
MM When it’s expected of them?
RR Exactly. Once you’ve got them going—then they’ve got to sustain their laughs to keep the feel, to keep the rhythm right. I’ve heard people roaring and it suddenly becomes a split second thing, where in another two seconds it’s going to be too late for me to give the second punch line of the joke. They start to know when you’re going to hit them with double-barreled humor. When you’re going to get them laughing and then you’re going to hit them with something that’s going to really get them. They’ll be in the middle of a guffaw and they’ll stop dead so they can hear that second punch line. That’s when you’re really communicating with them. That’s the stuff that makes you keep getting up there.
MM Is that why you do it?
RR I think it’s the one kind of performance I’m good enough at to have people realize that I was meant to do it . . . I’m completely comfortable doing it. I’ve been acting for years and years but I think because of my physical stature, I’m very, very limited—to playing character type parts. But as a comic I can get up and do anything. Comedians, usually have to be very ugly or fat or whatever. Only because if somebody is a really stunning human being and gets up and is really funny I think there is a natural backlash.
MM That’s a strange inverse picture that you’re painting. You’re saying some guys, because the fact that they are so handsome, have to overcome their physical limitations.
RR It’s easier for the audience to accept someone who has some flaws. They are not as threatened as they would be by some guy who looks like he has everything. Some Greek God who can tell jokes, too.
MM It sounds like you have to give them an image they’re comfortable with. Someone with at least some of their weaknesses, someone as human as they are.
RR Oh, yeah. You have to state your persona. Once they accept that persona and they buy who you are, you become their friend. This is my funny friend. You’ve got to get them to a level where you are not threatening to them. The worst thing that a comedian can do is to come off like he’s hipper than the audience and he’s laughing at them. There’s a certain kind of thing where you lasso the audience but you have to throw the lasso around yourself, too. In other words, we are like this; they are like that, ha, ha, ha. The people in the audience will always realize that we and they are the same thing.
It’s a temporary hipness that you’re selling them. Like, we’re so hip, we know what’s going on—no one else does and when we get out of here and go back into the hustle and the bustle and join the population we’re going to have that little inner knowledge; and maybe they’ll have a chuckle about it later.
MM Are there any comedians that are threatening?
RR Okay, take Don Rickles. He fulfilled the fantasy of the devastating heckler-killer that people have. When somebody heckles you they want to get on stage with you—and they want to be decimated, invariably. But after he’d finish devastating everyone in sight Rickles would turn to Carson and say, “But Johnny, I’m so lonely.” Then he’d come right back and nail someone else. But he’d shown you his weakness.
MM I read a scientific study about laughter once. They think that laughter is an emotion between fear and reassurance. If the mother makes a strange face—the child is momentarily afraid but then it’s reassured that it’s the mother and responds with laughter.
RR Yeah, you give them doubts and then you assuage their doubts. Someone said that with every joke, someone is being hurt or someone is being made a fool of—that there is no joke without some kind of pain.
MM I suppose tickling is something of the same nature. It feels like an attack but your brain tells you it’s not. And you respond with laughter. You could say that humor is an exquisite torture. Conducted with the violence of wit.
RR But you can’t be the James Chance of comedy. There’s nothing funny about physically punching somebody. I think, when my jaw got broken a lot of people thought that because it happened in a club that I was doing a routine and got somebody so insane that they got up and punched me in the jaw, and broke my jaw. That’s the fantasy that a lot of people have.
MM That’s your persona operating.
RR Yes, instead of the actual fact of the matter, the persona is working there.
MM Mostly I see you out doing field work between the hours of dusk and dawn. How did you end up in this line of work?
RR I remember one night my mother brought me into the old Bickford’s, on 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. This was when I was 11-years-old and we lived in the Village.
It was about five o’clock in the morning and she was there to conduct some business. I’m sure it was illegal. I was sitting in one of the booths when these three guys came in. Jazz musicians. They had their tuxedos on and one guy still had his saxophone strap around his neck. They had just come off a gig.
Up until then I had always wanted to be a priest; but realized this stuff was so much cooler.
MM The night life?
RR Yeah, they have this uniform like a priest but they get to hang out. My mother used to hang out with artists and she was something of an artist herself. That’s what she liked to do.
I had always wanted to be “John Upright” but at that point I realized there was a way to do anything and be upright, as long as you deal honestly with it. I think that’s when I knew wanted to be a night person.
I think this is why I feel so comfortable with it. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. This is my forte. This is what I’m good at. I’m good at hanging out. If I was just a straight guy that hung around and didn’t drink and just kind of observed, nobody would trust me enough to let themselves relax. They wouldn’t let me see what’s funny about them.
MM It’s that friendly persona you mentioned, not the Greek God.
RR Right. They have to trust me. And they have to trust me enough not to turn around on stage and say guess what so-and-so said. That would make the comedy much too personal. It has to stay in the realm of all in fun.
Being a comedian affords me the opportunity to be someone who hangs out, finds the funny stuff, and then reports about it.