EDITOR’S NOTE: Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this one. To capture the depths of the suffering, The New York Times teamed up with local news organizations across the country – including the Herald-Tribune – to document the lives of a dozen Americans who found themselves out of work.
SARASOTA – “Naked, I look like the letter Q. The big Q, not the little squiggly.” A pause to let the image breathe. “Men will get the joke every time.” A smattering of chuckles from listeners clustered in groups of twos and threes in the parking lot. He makes no apologies: “I love women. But I love ham, too.”
Month four of the pandemic, infection rates going north again, Fourth of July weekend, a socially distanced audience of maybe 120 at the gated 55-plus community of Island Walk, Venice. Professional comedian Al Ernst, all 300-some pounds of him, gazes down.
“When I knew I was gonna be a big guy, and I knew it wasn’t gonna get a lot of activity, I said I’ll build it an awning. I call it the outdoor recreational area, and when I take a deep breath, it has a retractable roof.”
This isn’t exactly how Carnival Cruise Lines’ former Entertainer of the Year envisioned celebrating this 30-year anniversary of chasing grins for dollars – at an outdoor show, the steps of a clubhouse his stage, with scores of aging boomers spaced out in lawn chairs and golf carts. Beeps for applause, a world upside down in the midsummer dusk.
Out of Work in America:Americans have endured economic crises before but none quite like this one
“Y’know, I’ve been big my entire life, and when you’re big, I only wanted to meet that special person – someone with a good sense of humor,” he says, “and big breasts. That’s all I wanted. And then I realized, I was that person. It did save me a lot of money.”
Truth: Al Ernst has actually been married for 37 years; he and wife Lorrie live with a puggle named Mia. Truth: He really does have an 88-year-old mother who lives in a retirement home.
The coronavirus has imposed its reckoning upon the world, across every world, including the world of comedy. Thirty years without a real job, without having to deliver pizzas or wait tables or mow lawns or drive strangers to and from airports. Thirty years of writing jokes, of life on the road, life at sea, getting paid to make people laugh.
And now, as a random Independence Day eve bottle rocket crackles and pops in the distance, Al Ernst has a course adjustment to announce:
“I work at Publix No. 5825 on Cattlemen and Bee Ridge,” he proclaims. “And you, ladies and gentlemen, see right here the chief of the cart sanitizers – right here!”
This is not a joke.
Could you ever go back to the way things were?
Imagine, now, trying to get in and out of foreign airports as a citizen of a nation whose COVID-19 infection rates have made virtual pariahs of American travelers. Air travel was already degrading enough after 9/11, and Ernst was a first-person witness the day it hit rock bottom. It was a shakedown by Transportation Security Administration agents in Asheville, North Carolina.
“I said, sir, if I take my belt and suspenders off, my pants are gonna fall down. They said you need to take it off and put your hands out.” He tells the story at lunch over a platter of wings at Miller’s Ale House. “Down go my pants, down to my ankles, and I’m standing there in my tighty-whities. I’m not making this up.
“’Sir, you need to pick up your pants.’ ‘You told me to hold my hands out, I can’t do both; you need to make up your mind.’ Then the airport police came up. I said if you want me to pick up my pants, I can’t hold my hands out. So the cops lead me away in handcuffs like I’m coming off the toilet, but I’ve got an audience that’s cracking up, and I thought it was the greatest moment in my life.”
So long ago. Today, with Carnival and every other vacation ship in coronavirus limbo, catching a flight to an overseas port of call to join a fresh entertainment shift in Aruba or Cozumel isn’t even an option. Until recently, cruise ship gigs constituted maybe 60% of Ernst’s bookings. But not now. Maybe never again.
“It’s over,” says the rookie cart cleaner. “How are they gonna come back now? For them to make a profit, those ships have gotta be asses and elbows. They have to be. Think about those buffets.
“So yeah – I’m in the seventh inning of my career, and I’ve got to adapt somehow. I’m either gonna hit it 600 feet into the stands, or Al screws himself into the ground in the batter’s box with a mighty whiff …”
“Nothing big’s happening until we get a handle on this virus, I can tell you that.” Les McCurdy, who’s been running his eponymous Comedy Theatre in Sarasota since 1988, says the coronavirus has spewed a cold shower at every wiseguy who ever dreamed of making a career of being funny. “You can say stuff’s open all day long, but that doesn’t mean anybody’s coming out.”
McCurdy, who gave Ernst his first local headliner spot more than 20 years ago, says the chances of making it in this corner of showbiz are on par with becoming a professional athlete. And that was before COVID-19. But he’s not worried about Ernst. His longtime buddy has bucked all odds in the past, and will no doubt continue to do so amid this seemingly endless plague.
“Al’s a hustler. He always has been, and he’ll do what it takes, he’ll adjust. He’s rock solid and he can work clean. When you get guys who can work clean, they have a lot more options.”
McCurdy’s closed in March. Getting back to normal isn’t likely to happen without a vaccine. And to all those water-cooler cut-ups at the office contemplating standup comedy as a solution to the midlife crisis – think again.
“A lot of people go, ‘this is so much fun, I would never quit doing this.’ The problem is, you may never quit, but the clubs are gonna quit you,” he says. “Eventually they’re not gonna hire a 65-year-old person, you’re gonna age out of this business – that’s really the deal when you get down to it.”
His weight and the cardiomyopathy make Al Ernst more vulnerable to the virus than most. But it is mid-July now. And in between wiping off supermarket shopping carts, the man is on the road again, lining up outdoor comedy gigs at fallow minor-league ballparks in the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia.
The lack of spatial intimacy is weird and stilted. There’s at least one rainout, and several venues cancel due to escalating infection rates.
Just days before the sky fell in, back early March, Ernst got a glimpse of his future – and it didn’t involve cruise ships. It was at The Villages, the central Florida retirement mega-enclave filled with what he calls “the most underserved, entertainment-wise,” demographic in America – the 50-plus, disposable-income crowd. His stage was an indoor church sanctuary, and it went like this: 2 nights + 479 paying seniors = a $12,000 payday.
“I felt it, man. All the way home, I’m going, I’ve done it. Here I go, I’ve got the formula.”
Then it was over. Even the ships were gone.
Ernst got his stimulus check, but not much else. As a gig worker, he didn’t expect much else. He tried going online with the state for unemployment benefits in April, making phone calls, waiting for hours, getting disconnected. He gave up in June.
The good news: Ernst is on his wife’s health insurance policy; as a nurse, Lorrie’s job is secure. But they cut back on everything: health club memberships, media subscriptions, cable, thermostat settings below a balmy 78. Funny, though, the resources available if you know where to look.
“I’m a great pursuer of clinical trials, I’m always reading up. If you can get into some of these studies,” Ernst says, alluding to medications for his heart and other afflictions, “you can get your total health care for almost 100% free.”
One afternoon, when he was 11 or 12 years old, as he bicycled to catch the Chicago White Sox’s winter league action at Payne Park, Al Ernst was rammed by a station wagon. He went over the hood, banged into the windshield, hit the luggage rack on top, and landed in the emergency room. Next thing he knew, the players he looked up to were at the hospital, wanting to know: “Where’s Groceries?”
A chubby little kid at Alta Vista Elementary, young Al had ingratiated himself with an organization renowned for its tightwad purse strings. He showed up every day after school and chased down every foul ball for recycling. They all called him Groceries, even Bill Veeck, the most famous wooden-legged baseball owner in America. Whenever the chain-smoking Chisox boss needed someone to empty the butts from his prosthetic right leg’s ashtray – “Hey, Groceries!” – the kid came running.
Groceries’ loyalties to the club were rewarded with a dream come true. He was given a uniform, No. 61, and spent a couple of teenaged summers in the big leagues as a batboy at Comiskey Park. He was on the front row in 1979 for a cultural masterpiece, the “Disco Demolition” fiasco that triggered fan riots.
And, as with baseball, Groceries would also at a young age discover a worthy pursuit in comedy. He joined a record club, ordered albums by the late great Redd Foxx (credits including: “Jokes That Can’t Be Told on Television,” “Adults Only,” “Shed House Tales”) and hid them beneath the Bill Cosby records. Groceries went on to steal the oxygen from Alta Vista class bullies by telling fat-kid jokes quicker than they could.
Groceries had eclectic appetites, and he stuffed his head with unlikely combinations, from Enlightenment philosophers John Locke and Immanuel Kant to the Bionic Elbow of Dusty Rhodes. Seeking structure – his father died when Groceries was a year old – he joined the YMCA (“They had a snack machine in the lobby”), and he found a mentor at Big Brothers.
He contemplated joining the ministry and enrolled at a Lutheran seminary in South Carolina. He went on to study philosophy and religion in college. He pulled some time with World Championship Wrestling, first as a ring announcer, then as masked heavies “The Inferno” and the “Dark Shadow.” He would reconnect with the YMCA, first as a youth counselor, then work his way into leadership positions in Virginia, Louisiana and Georgia.
1990 found Ernst at a crossroads. He’d been doing standup at nightclubs for decent change when he was offered a plum job as director of a YMCA in Atlanta. He turned it down, the job, the pension, career security, the sure thing, for a chance to introduce the world to Groceries, the character who disarmed all those bullies at Alta Vista.
“I used to love riding the roller coasters at Busch Gardens and Universal. But it’s gotten to the point, for me, where the seat is literally half the size of an airline coach seat. And I’m thinking, this is gonna be a tough sell.”
Al Ernst is paying it forward. He is a Big Brother himself now. He mentors two young men, one 16, the other 17. The last roller coaster ride he took with one of them went like this:
“This is not fat, this is memory foam, OK? And when you’re a fat guy and you need to sit in a chair that tight, you don’t forget your can of Pam spray. So I Pammed the seat down and I moved the memory foam around and when I finally squeeze in, the only problem is pulling the safety bar down – I can only get two clicks into it.
“The guy with the pith helmet comes over in what I call the fat man walk of shame and he says sorry, sir, blah-blah-blah, and he gets on the microphone and says ‘Push team to car 3, push team to car 3!’ And three more pith helmet guys come over and they’re pushing the bar down like they’re doing CPR on it. I look like a Play-Doh funhouse and they’re pushing and pushing, like ‘Breathe in, sir, breathe in’ and I’m like, ‘I got nothing, every organ is either in my head or at my feet, and at that point suddenly I’m in – it clicks.”
As the ride begins, Ernst’s teenage sidekick “gets all talky-talky.
“And I’m like, dude, I have no oxygen, I’m about to squirt mucous and blood out of every cavity of my body, shut the hell up.”
The ride proceeds without incident.
“But I don’t click out because I’m still wedged in there. The pith helmet guy comes over and says ‘Tupperware team to car 3!’ and they’ve got this screwdriver-like key thing and they’re trying to unbuckle the safety thing and they’ve got another thing that looks like a shoehorn and they’re shoehorning me and the safety bar clicks up and my legs are numb and I’m being rolled out onto the platform like a marlin.”
His Little Brother says, “What are we doing next?” Groceries says, “That’s the parking lot, we’re going on a ride called exit.”
August, and the man who has warmed up crowds for the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Seinfeld, Kenny Loggins and Wynonna Judd is “40% into my savings,” and bowing to reality.
He hates digital media, but is resigned to its future if he still wants a career. He’s booking dates on Zoom, he’s taping shows for Les McCurdy’s webpage. He and McCurdy do masked-up shift-change performances for staffers at Doctors Hospital in Sarasota for free. During his downtime between outdoor road shows, he spends hours in batting cages, hammering 80 mph fastballs.
Meanwhile, the industry is ailing. And evolving. Ready or not.
Chris DiPetta, who opened The Punchline in Atlanta 38 years ago, laments the clubs that have fallen to coronavirus, nationally renowned operations like Dangerfield’s in New York, Cap City Comedy Club in Austin.
DiPetta remembers the excitement, more than two decades ago, when he and Ernst traveled the country, recruiting unknown talent for Carnival, the first cruise line to add comedy acts for seafaring tourists. As comedy club demographics got younger, the Carnival acts skewed older because the passengers were older. “I don’t know anybody under 40 working the cruise lines.” The ships were a sweet way to stay relevant.
They’re gone now. DiPetta’s own club operates at one-third capacity. Survival depends largely on switching gears to podcasts. “A lot of them are like what the old Zoo Crews were like on radio in the ’80s and ’90s. At least you can swear on podcasts.”
Even so, the new realities can’t hold a candle to the communal experience of a crowded room, and its contagion of laughter. What will comedy look like on the other side of the pandemic?
“Political correctness is killing a lot of stuff these days, but I think it’s real simple,” DiPetta says. “If you’re that easily offended, just don’t come.
“I’ve always said the comedy club is the last bastion of free speech in America. That’s where you’re gonna get the truth, from the stage, from the comedian that tells you what’s going on.”
September yields to October, and there is beaucoup news to report:
Al Ernst, who also does humor routines from New Life Lutheran Church, ordered an FM radio transmitter from Amazon. That means anyone within a mile or so of 92.1 on the dial can catch his act whenever he goes live, which bodes well for those parking-lot shows. Also: He has contracted with Sirius XM for two more comedy albums.
But here’s the biggie: Groceries is a brand-new salesman for Mary Kay products.
“I’ve had $2,000 in sales since Labor Day weekend, with a 50% commission,” he says. “Do you know how many hours of sanitizing carts at Publix that is? This is such a gift – it’s comedy gold!”
He plans to strap on a pair of boxing gloves, slip on a warmup robe, and become “The Defender of Your Skin.” He will have no competition for this niche. Mary Kay will be his cushion, not his target. His biggest target, as always, is staring him in the mirror.
Not long ago, Carnival informed Ernst in an email that a passenger belonging to an obesity acceptance group complained about his show. Groceries blinked back in disbelief. “I never go after anybody on a show, not unless they go after me first.”
“Do you realize,” he responded to his supervisor, “you just told me somebody’s offended about me making fun of myself?”
Maybe the coronavirus will get him. Maybe the heart thing. Maybe the age thing. But when he picked up the phone and called the woman directly, Groceries made it clear he intends to go down swinging:
“I said, get back on your three-wheeler, go to the buffet, and next time around don’t send a letter with gravy stains on it.”