I met Mayer briefly last December right before Christmas, when he brought his girlfriend at the time down to the Olive Tree Cafe and Comedy Cellar to see the comedy side of his life. Paparazzi stalked the snowy sidewalk with bright lights and cameras, just to snap a pic of them and yell at them in hopes of getting a quote. Back then, he was talking about launching his own comedy/variety TV show for CBS. He still is, by the way. "I was all ready, but then I had to do the album," he said, which was and is "Battle Studies" -- debuting in November at the top of the Billboard charts. "I had no idea how long it takes to put a television project together," he told me. "It's still in the pipeline, and that's what cool about it. It's such an evergreen idea."
In the meantime, the Grammy-winning musician, celebrity and aspiring comedian went outside of his comfort zone on Tuesday night in New York City, and found himself in an uncomfortable and strange place. Trying to tell jokes without any of his metaphorical safety nets. And in one weird sequence, hopping back onstage to banter with a comedian he knew nothing about. It's my experience that when two comedians who do not know each other trade barbs, it's not always as fun as when friends roast each other at the Friars Club or on Comedy Central. Instead, things get weird. By all accounts, that's what happened at The Slipper Room.
This is his story.
Mayer called me two nights later to tell it.
If you've seen him tell jokes before, it has been as witty banter between songs in concerts, scripted bits for TV shows, riffs on the red carpet, or one-liners penned by him on his blog or his Twitter page. A few select crowds have seen him try stand-up as an unannounced guest at the Comedy Cellar in New York City's Greenwich Village, always introduced by one of his closest comedian friends.
Mayer wasn't even planning on performing on Tuesday. He said one of his comedian friends, Jordan Rubin, invited him along to check out Sweet, Seth Herzog's weekly comedy showcase at The Slipper Room in the Lower East Side. Rubin was supposed to have been that night's DJ sidekick but bailed. The show has a rather loyal following that includes creative types, hipsters, anti-hipsters, actors, actresses and fans of Herzog and his mother (who has a recurring bit on the show). It has a decidedly different feeling from the gruff and gritty vibe at the Cellar.
"Here's strike one as to why the night didn't work," Mayer told me. "I've never introduced a comic to the stage who didn't introduce me to the club. If it was uncomfortable, your friend is up there (afterward) and says, hey, 'It's John Mayer, that's tough to do.'"
This was the first time Mayer didn't know what he was getting himself into onstage. "I'm blind and I'm an idiot. I go in and I smash things wth my big, dumb Hulk hands," he said. "I don't know how to do it yet. I don't know how to bomb. It was combative in the sense that the crowd didn't really accept the fact that the jock, the guy who gets the girls, was at a place where the guys go who talk about how they don't get the girls."
He said he loves having the opportunity to try comedy. "What I don't like is that I have to wait...that the bomb that I made onstage doesn't become the bomb that makes it on the Internet. That's always tough for me to go onstage. The idea that I have to wait and it might become a conversation with my manager, becomes very uncomfortable for me."
He said he didn't think he bombed when he took the stage for his surprise stand-up set (and others in the audience agreed that for a celebrity in an "alt" room, the set probably pleased as many as it displeased), but knew that things went wrong when comedian Kumail Nanjiani went up next instead of Rubin. Rubin didn't even end up going onstage that night. Instead, Nanjiani acknowledged the weirdness in the room and Mayer's performance. And the next thing anyone knew, Mayer was getting back onstage in the middle of Nanjiani's set.
"I'd never met Kumail," he said. "But I'm also in performance-mode, and in barrel-ahead mode, and with not enough information. I think it's just as uncomfortable for me to bring onstage someone who I don't know as it is for someone to follow me who doesn't know who I am."
"Performer to performer, I felt like, he's having trouble transitioning. They always think the other guy is the bigger guy. I'm just trying to tell them I'm John. Once I go out up there, I'm an amateur comic. In my state of vulnerability, I thought, it's not moving forward, and he said to me, 'Why am I doing stand-up?' The whole thing was so odd. It was off-kilter from the moment I'd gotten onstage. I'd seen so much collaboration onstage, between Seth and his mom, that I thought I could go back up. These are misfires on top of misfires. You're standing in front of the train and you're not going to be able to stop it. So I get onstage, and I didn't know he didn't want me onstage. I'm the exact opposite of a ham when I go to a comedy club. I'm just a dude trying to pick stuff up (learning from everyone else)."
Mayer has shared the stage at the Cellar with comedians such as Dave Attell, Jeffrey Ross, James Smith and Sherrod Small, but they've all gotten a chance to know and interact with him offstage. "There's always this level of trust," Mayer said. With Nanjiani, Mayer didn't know what to do.
"I'm trying to go for broke," Mayer said. "When you're that flustered, your references are off."
It didn't help matters, then, that Nanjiani is an immigrant from Pakistan. And that Mayer referred to him as Kabul at one point.
So was this a Kanye-style backfire interruption? Or worse yet, a Michael Richards-style backfire? Not exactly. "I don't think of this as Kanye and Taylor Swift. I think of this as some little Star Trek episode," Mayer said. "I said, 'This is like "8 Mile" where neither person can rap.'"
"I felt really bad. I felt like I ruined his set," he said, so he sought Nanjiani out afterward to apologize. Nanjiani, for his part, agreed that it was a weird, surreal experience and would just as soon move on.
Mayer said he leaned a tough lesson, and acknowledged: "It'll probably be a minute before I get up there again." Although he added: "Maybe we could have a potluck dinner at The Slipper Room next Tuesday night."
See you then?