Performing a real stand-up comedy show in front of a usual sold-out audience — as compared to a virtual Zoom show — isn’t apples and oranges to John Heffron.
It’s apples and hand grenades.
“I think reality has changed. Comics now have to adapt — but I’ve put off Zoom shows. They’re hard to do,” Heffron said. “It’s a different muscle. Some guys are really good.”
Heffron capitulated to join five other comics this Saturday in a live-streamed and Zoom virtual comedy show based out of the Empress Theatre in downtown Vallejo in a fundraiser for the nonprofit Wednesday’s Gift.
While host Michael Pritchard and San Francisco comic Michael Meehan take the stage at the Empress — with no audience — Joe Klocek, Don Friesen, Paula Poundstone and Heffron stare into their laptops for a Zoom set.
If Heffron appears to be kicking and scratching, he is. And on Saturday, he’ll be doing it from the back room at an Atlanta club before hitting the stage for a real live audience.
“I’ve been doing comedy 30 years. I like seeing faces,” he said. “The younger guys are making that transition easier. It’s like the silent film people who were pissed when there were voices. It’s all setting us up for doing holograms.”
It was Tuesday afternoon and Heffron talked from his car, minutes from providing a shoulder for his girlfriend, who had her dog euthanized. Heffron had the same merciful act on his own pooch recently. Toss in a recent divorce and a devastated entertainment industry — and turning 50 — and, well, it’s been that kind of year.
It all brings back the memory of when Heffron was literally minutes from going up on stage when he heard his mother was close to death.
“It was tough,” he said. “At the time, I had so many ‘mom jokes.’ I got emotional just talking about a ‘mom haircut.’”
And now, a pandemic and “knowing all my friends who work in the service industry are all trying to figure out how to get people back. It’s just weird,” Heffron said. “The industry as you know it completely wiped out — literally. It feels like my career is over and I didn’t even have a drug addiction and a chance to implode. I played by the book. There’s a lesson somewhere.”
COVID-19 was a quick adjustment. Take the whole mask business.
“I’m OK with it. I’m from Michigan. I was ski-masking and scarfing it up since day one,” Heffron said. “I don’t know why people complain.”
As a sworn germophobe, Heffron is thrilled with the mask edict.
“I was hoping we’d be wearing masks on airplanes 20 years ago,” he said.
Adjusting to the financial impact of a pandemic is another thing, Heffron said.
“I definitely did a money shift,” he said.
A divorce seven months ago surely didn’t help the bank account.
“That wiped me out more than COVID ever could financially,” Heffron said. “And it was right around the same time. COVID slapped me in the face and showed me how much money I wasted. I keep going back to that. If only I didn’t buy this or that, I’d be way better off.”
Heffron did relocate back to his home state of Michigan recently, fleeing the heat and cost of California. He realized he didn’t need all that space in California — or anywhere.
“I think I’d be happy with 400 square feet. As long as I have the internet,” he said.
Almost forgot. As if losing a dog and a wife — and gigs and cash — the same year isn’t bad enough. Heffron turned 50 on July 19.
“I had a bigger thing planned even a year ago. There was going to be a ‘Footloose’ party in a barn with all these people. That didn’t happen,” Heffron said. “I think the older you get, the least amount of people you want around you, anyway.”
Heffron surely has enough credits to impress even the strangest of strangers. A 2004 Last Comic Standing victory. A former radio show co-host in Michigan with Danny Bonaduce, the old Partridge Family kid. He’s appeared on The Tonight Show, Chelsea Lately, The Late Late Show, and has taped two Comedy Central specials, a stand-up rarity.
And now it’s down to Zoom shows from his basement. Actually, from some back room at an Atlanta club.
“When everybody is muted, it’s so weird,” said Heffron, agreeing that perhaps a cardboard cutout audience a la Major League Baseball “I think would help. I do know people who do really well. But the timing is weird. I tell those people, ‘You’re used to not getting laughs anyway so it’s not a big switch for you.’”
Today’s attempts at a stand-up show may be odd, but it’s gotta beat that corporate gig in Canada a few years ago when Heffron was nothing more than background jokes for oilmen playing poker.
Yes, playing poker.
“The booker told me ‘Don’t talk to anybody.’ I thought, ‘Surely, I’m going to be the comic that wins them over.’ He said, ‘These are oil workers who have been in the wilderness for seven months. They will literally kill you.’ So I go up and just talk.”
He lived to joke another day. Unfortunately, that day was not a Washington, D.C., gig, when Heffron made the heinous error of uttering the word “condom.”
The woman in charge pulled him aside and chastised Heffron, who said, “I didn’t say what you did with it.”
“The woman said to ‘go sit in this room and we’ll do a de-briefing’ and I remembering saying, ‘Unless you’re kidnapping me, I’m leaving. It was a funny visual. I think she was from Switzerland.”
The 8th Annual Evening of Comedy and Wellness benefit for Wednesday’s Gift is Saturday, 6 p.m. For information and for tickets, visit wednesdaysgift.org or empresstheatre.org.