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A Night to Remember

by Big Daddy Graham

As you all know by now I have been paralyzed since July 21 due to a freak spinal cord bleed. I spend about two-thirds of my day in bed and about six hours or so in my wheelchair, which leaves me a tremendous amount of hours to day- dream. This new spare time allowed me to come up with an answer to an interesting question from a friend. “How many shows do you think you’ve done?”

Let’s see. For about 10 years of my career I did approximately eight shows a week, and many weeks more than that. Then it was a decade of about five shows a week. Eventually I came up with the rounding off number of 8,000.

Then it was time for 8,001.

The last comedy show I performed was a private party on Saturday, July 20. Then came the spinal cord injury the very next day and it was all she wrote.

Every one of my dates that were booked for the remainder of 2019 were either canceled or postponed. That’s a lot of shows and a lot of dough. When I went down in July I had not booked any dates in the new year yet so January went empty as well. I just didn’t quite feel ready yet.

But I had targeted the “Two Funny Philly Guys Show” with Joe Conklin and myself at Pitman’s Broadway Theatre on February 15 as my return. We have put on a sold-out show there every year for over a decade. Plus I love the history of this venue. Granted, I’d be doing the show from a wheelchair but surely I would be ready by then.

Or so I thought.

Never a truer phase was ever uttered than when the immortal philosopher Iron Mike Tyson proclaimed: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

I had prepared my material for over a month. I decided to reimagine the last show that I gave, memorize it, and bring it all back to the forefront of my mind. One of the most popular questions that comics get after a set is, “Geez, how do you remember all that?”

And the truth is we don’t know. To write and develop a 45-60-minute set worth of material takes years. Jokes kill. Jokes bomb. Jokes are invisibly there like a spare tire to bail you out of a joke that bombs. Jokes get moved from the end of the set to the beginning and vice versa. Jokes are ad-libbed. Jokes are dropped. Jokes are forgotten, then brought back years later.

Then there is the audience. They laugh at this, they laugh at that, they laugh at everything. They laugh at nothing at all. Some nights they are tight at the beginning of the set, gradually warm up, and by the end of the night they are howling. A heckler may shout out something that leads to a new joke. Some nights you have to recognize that they may be tiring and find yet another gear to save the show.

Somehow it all blends together. It’s a mystery.

But there was nothing mysterious about the fact that I was waiting in the wings to go on for the first time in 185 days. I began performing under the nom de plume of Big Daddy Graham in 1982. If you don’t count the 49 days I missed due to throat cancer 10 years ago, the longest I ever went without performing was 10 days.

Ideally what I would have done was hit up various clubs the month prior and do 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there just to get my feet wet. But not only am I wheelchair bound, I don’t have my own wheels yet. Let’s say I want to drop in at the Comedy Cabaret or Club Sarcasm in Cherry Hill and do 15 minutes at 8:30. I have to book a ride with NJ ParaTransit to pick me up in Mullica Hill no later than 6:30. These rides come with a half hour window, which means they might not pick you up until 7. And what if the bus has to pick up three more passengers along the way and then drop them off before you? NJ Para- Transit is an amazing and generous feature that South Jersey offers. I’m just saying that if you have to be somewhere by a certain time, you really have to plan.
Then my wife has to hoist me out of bed into a special wheelchair and then push it into a half-ass shower with a hand-held nozzle. Then I have to be dried, put back in the sling, lowered into bed, dressed and then hoisted back into a different wheelchair. Before the injury, I was like most men. Give me 10 minutes and I’m ready to roll. But now this whole procedure takes about an hour and 45 minutes. So if I have to be at the theater by 8 p.m., I have to give it four hours.

Anyway back to the Broadway. It’s 8:23 p.m. and I am now behind the stage curtain. My wife and both of my daughters are there. A man I am proud to call my friend, NFL Hall of Famer Ray Didinger, is on stage and about to introduce me. What did I get myself into?

“Ladies and Gentleman, Big Daddy Graham!” I wheeled myself out to front and center stage. It’s huge and it takes me an eternity to get there. Or so it seemed. All the while I’m getting a standing ovation which I don’t even realize I’m receiving till I get to the edge of the stage. In a theater the size of the Broadway you do an entire show only being able to see the front row. After that it’s all dark. It’s very weird.

I let the applause die off, I pause and say, “You know I always wanted to look like Christopher Reeve.” A risky, edgy, opening line that a very funny comic by the name of Chris Rich texted me 30 minutes before the show. And it killed.

What followed was a show where I had many jokes score big, but it also had bits that evaporated into thin air because I couldn’t re- member what came next. But I have to admit, I turned those odd pauses into comedy gold and all in all it was a terrific set. And I’ll be even funnier the next time.

I did my time and then one of my dearest and best friends, Spins Nitely (a man I’ve been sharing stages with for 45 years)strolled out and introduced Conklin, and that was it. I did it.

Show No. 8,001 was in the books. Thanks to the Broadway staff and most importantly to the 1,000 fans who bought a ticket. I love you guys, thanks for giving me a night to remember.

To read the digital edition of South Jersey Magazine, click here.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 16, Issue 12 (March 2020).

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