About a dozen people learned more about sleep apnea, narcolepsy and cataplexy than they might have reasonably expected on a Friday night at a Hollywood Boulevard bar/improv comedy club. They also gleaned insights into the joys and sorrows of American health care, the Los Angeles metro bus system and the precariousness of low-wage jobs.
All this real-life stuff, a poignant contrast to the flashy human wildlife swirling outside iO West Theater, was proffered by stand-up comedian and one-time journalist Carl Kozlowski. In another setting, his act, Asleep at the Wheel, a monologue delivered as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, might have — should have — bombed. Resoundingly. All the makings of a well-earned crash-and-burn were in place: a sparse crowd, a late start, constant access to drinks, a heckler.
And we haven’t even gotten to the overweight, bespectacled comedian’s delivery. He rushed speedily along his story; he closed his eyes at times to remember his place; his inflection sounded like he was running through his lines; the man was nervous. It didn’t help him any that the wannabe heckler, a lone man in the balcony (looking down on our floundering hero, no less) seemed to savor Kozlowski’s discomfort, laughing out of proportion and letting loose the stray smart-ass comment.
But Kozlowski forged on. Spittle collected in a corner of his mouth. (He’s a mouth breather.) The waitress brought more drinks. The crowd laughed sympathetically. Kozlowski’s act was punctuated by a singer-guitarist who crooned thematically-related cover songs throughout like Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” and who strummed a gentle accompaniment to the monologist’s story.
Then Kozlowski lost it. He stopped in the midst of a story about being perpetually cranky and tired from sleep apnea — he had lost his place. He earnestly apologized, stepped over to stage right, read from a script on a table and returned to center stage and resumed. This happened two more times. The third time he lost his place, he simply held the script in his hand for the duration. See? All the elements for being royally booed off a stage.
Except for Kozlowski’s stories. They were humane, deprecating, more interesting and quirky than outright funny, and starkly, extraordinarily real. They seemed to paint a picture that said: “This is what it’s like to be the human being that I am.” The storyteller won us over with those stories.
His father was a doctor at a V.A. hospital and it was normal for young Kozlowski to talk baseball with veterans who had just received their prosthetic legs. He got fired a few times for his narcolepsy; his employers thought he was on heroin. He was hired by the publisher of an alternative newsweekly, who thought his sleep disorder was entertaining. He reviewed, among other things, films for that paper, though he often fell asleep toward the endings. While interviewing Carlos Mencia, Kozlowaski fell asleep as the comedian was telling the story about his grandmother dying. Mencia was not amused.
Kozlowski’s story writing at iO West was strong and detailed. He described sleep apnea as the “body at war with itself.” He described the fluids leaking from the car he crashed in his sleep as a “vile rainbow.”
The laughter grew in poignancy. The audience applauded and encouraged Kozlowski through his flubs. “Take your time!” someone hollered as he went for the script the second time. “You can do it!” chimed another. The heckler went silent. Kozlowski plowed on without grace (or pretense), stumbling and apologizing as he went, but he got better, gaining momentum toward the end, maybe bolstered by our encouragement. An exchange occurred between us and this endearing, charming and unintentionally funny man who insisted, against so many odds, on telling us stories. Polish be damned, that’s a powerful thing.
Asleep at the Wheel, Hollywood Fringe Festival. Friday, June 17; Sunday, June 19.