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Strange things always seem to happen to me in Bemidji, Minnesota.
I am semi-proud to announce that I am one of the few Americans who
can actually make such a claim. In a country of 270 million,
many can say, "Strange things always seem to happen to me
in Las Vegas" or "Strange things always seem to happen
to me in New York" but Bemidji, Minnesota? Hell, most Americans
can't even spell Bemidji let alone have odd stories
Bemidji is one of those places that I never would have visited
had I not become a standup comic. For one thing, it's in the middle
of nowhere and by the middle of nowhere I mean that if there was a
state of "Nowhere" Bemidji would be its capital. To be
more specific, Bemidji is located about half-way between Grand Forks
and Duluth on that thin red line known as route 2. To get there
it takes a long time to get in and a long time to get out which,
by the way, is not nearly as erotic and satisfying as I just made
"Bemidji, from the Chippewa word meaning lake with river
flowing through," (Hell, I have the AAA Tour Book I might as
well use it!) has a population of 11,200. Amazingly, with such
few people, Bemidji can still support a year-round weekend comedy
club. However, since it is virtually impossible to have a thriving
local comedy scene in a town with less than twelve thousand residents,
each week comics from all across this great nation must point
their cars North-- most of the U.S. is South of Bemidji-- and make
the trip to the ledendary home of mythical Paul Bunyan and
Babe the Blue Ox. (Beware of any city who's only claim to
fame has the words "legendary" and "mythical"
in their tour book description.)
To be fair, Bemidji isn't such a bad little place and yes,
I use the phrase "little place" with all the condescension
of a person who grew up in the big city. Bemidji has, much to its
credit, a thriving downtown with great thrift stores and specialty
outlets packed with over-priced merchandise that will eventually
wind up in the great thrift stores. In the various coffee shops
a waitress of Swedish heritage who sounds a bit like Jessie Ventura
will bring you what I think is one of the greatest culinary creations
of all time: a hashbrown omellete with a side of hashbrowns.
(I'm convinced that if the late Dr. Atkins had tried to push
his low-carbohydrate diet to the folks in the upper midwest, they
would have put his head on a stake in the town square to serve as
a warning to others.) I think Bemidji should just change it's
motto to: Hours away... Minutes of fun. Or how about, "Bemidji,
from the Chippewa word meaning killing time."
The first time I traveled to Bemidi I hit a deer. (Yup, I
just got out of my car and sucker punched him because I didn't
like his attitude. Who did he think he was staring at me out of
the side of his head like that?) It was mid-afternoon in
mid-November, my husband was driving, I was buckled into the
passenger seat while our Man vs. Beast opponent was in a ditch
on the side of the road doing whatever it is a deer does in a
ditch on the side of the road. Suddenly and without good reason,
the soon-to-be-dead deer decided that he would rather be in a
ditch on the other side of the road, but apparently he
never listened to his deer mother when she told him to look
both ways before darting into traffic. His snotty head hit
the windshield, he flew over the car and catwheeled down the road
like Evil Kineivel in his failed Ceasar's Palace Parking lot
The police told us that the adolescent male deer probably
behaved irrationally because it was rutting season. "Great,"
I thougt to myself, "our rental car has just been totaled
by a horny teenager."
But I learned something interesting that day. I learned that
the full emotional impact of barely escaping death doesn't hit me
until about 5 minutes before showtime. I told the crowd about my
ordeal but they had no sympathy for the qivering out-of-towner.
In Bemidji, the streets are like petting zoos and many locals
put snow plows on their pickup trucks just to minimize the inevitable
deer damage. As I left the stage, I had the same panicked look our
deer friend had seconds before he became a hood ornament.
On my second trip-- or return engagement as we in
the biz like to say-- I had the performance equivalent of being
hit by a deer: I had to follow a Frank Sinatra impersonator.
Unfortunately, he wasn't a very good Frank Sinatra impersonator.
In fact, he was a very bad Frank Sinatra impersonator.
To make matters worse, the crowd consisted mostly of underaged
college students who wouldn't want to hear the real Sinatra
let alone a pale imitation. "Let's hear it for our Frank
Sinatra impersonator," I told the shell-shocked audience.
"If you put your fingers in your ears, it was like Frank
was in the room"
Only later did I find out that he was a friend of the owner.
Amazingly, I found myself in Bemidji yet again. This time
we were sharing the hotel with the cast and crew of Garrison Keiler's
"Prairie Home Companion." Already there was a problem.
You see, we don't like Prairie Home Companion but since PHC is produced
by Minnesota Public Radio and since the residents of Bemidji are
secretly convinced that Lake Wobegon is really Lake Bemidji, it's
not something you want to say out loud. On the off chance that
somebody in Bemidji is psychic, it's probably not a good idea to
even think such a thing either.
It turns out that country music superstar Ricky Skaggs was a
guest on that particular week's show and he was staying at our hotel
which is also where the comedy club is located. About an hour
before our show was set to begin, Ricky and his entourage sat down
at one of the tables to order dinner. They didn't want to stay
for the show, they just wanted to eat and leave. But 20 minutes
after the scheduled start of the show their food still
hadn't arrived. The manager decided to start the show anyway.
I said to him, "That means Ricky Skaggs is going to walk out
on my set." He laughed. I said, "You don't understand.
That means Ricky Skaggs is going to walk out on my set."
As the bubbly bartender strolled onstage to do my introduction,
I looked around the corner to get a glimpse of Ricky Skaggs.
He was still in the room and immediately I noticed something
peculiar about him. The man has the largest head I have
ever seen. It looks like one of those paper mache heads
that are so popular at Carnivale. I felt sorry for the people
sitting behind him. Strangely, nobody in the crowd seemed to
recognize him. You would think that at least they would be staring
at the guy with the enormous skull. But he looked calm and
comfortable and I thought to myself, "Hey, this will be cool.
I'll get to entertain Ricky Skaggs.
I said hello to the audience and then somewhere between saying
"Traci" and "Skene" I watched in horror as
Ricky Skaggs bolted out of the room. Perhaps he wanted to be in
the ditch on the other side of the road. At that moment, as a
performer, I had a decision to make. I could say, "Hey,
Ricky Skaggs, you bastard! Where the hell do you think you're
going" Or I could just ignore the situation and go on with
my little act. I decided to go on. It was the wrong decision.
For some odd reason, I was completely deflated by Mr. Skagg's
departure. Maybe it's just easier to watch somebody leave if
they have a smaller head. But then I watched with an equal amount
of horror as his entourage slipped out one by one. In 5 minutes
I had somehow managed to walk one-third of the entire bluegrass
music industry. Talk about being a man-- ok woman-- of constant
I can't say with any certainty whether I'll be returning to
Bemidji any time soon. But I can say with complete confidence
that the next time I'm anywhere near a Ricky Skaggs' concert I'll
buy a ticket and stay just long enough to hear him say, "Good
evening ladies and gentlemen, I'm Ricky... " and then I am
out of there. I just hope I don't hit a deer... or a Sinatra
impersonator... on the way to the show.
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