The policemen were waiting for him when he showed up for his second night of a planned weeklong stint for a comedy club at Mall of America.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“There’s a mob of 20 people waiting for you at the club entrance threatening to beat you up,” they told him. “We have to take you in through the side door."
The year was 2003, and comedian Jeremy Essig found himself in Bloomington, Minnesota, escorted by uniformed police officers through grey-painted back hallways in the seedy underbelly of Mall of America, to get to their now-defunct comedy club, Knuckleheads.
“You know,” he told me, “because comedy clubs are always so classily named. Really makes you feel like an artist.”
(Knuckleheads eventually rebranded as Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy, by the way, named for Rick Bronson, whose IMDB bio describes him as Comedian, Magician, Taxidermist.)
Jeremy’s first night at Knuckleheads was right at the beginning of the Iraq War. He had worked up a couple of Bush jokes in the set. Nothing was said about the war itself; he was doing political jokes.
And he’d performed them in South Dakota the week before without any issue.
“I thought: If it worked in South Dakota, of course it’ll work in Minneapolis. And I forgot that I wasn’t really in Minneapolis, but in Bloomington, at Mall of America, performing for an audience of people who vacation at a mall.”
After he did a couple of the Bush jokes, he heard a woman from the back yell, clearly into a silence between laughs and applause: “YOU CAN’T SAY THAT.”
He stopped and said, “What?” — genuinely confused by the interruption. He was looking out over a sea of cafeteria-style tables, which meant that patrons weren’t necessarily seated with, or across from, people they had come to the show with. In many cases, they were seated among, and across from, strangers.
The heckler woman yelled again: “YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT THE PRESIDENT.”
Someone else in the audience yelled at her, a “shut up” or “sit down” or “the president’s a war criminal!” kind of response. And someone else in the audience responded to that person.
And so on.
Fairly quickly, everyone at each of the cafeteria tables was yelling across the table at their fellow audience members.
Jeremy stood on the stage, drinking in the bizarreness of being on stage and losing control of the audience this way.
He waited for a bit, in awe, just watching them scream and rail at each other.
Eventually, he interrupted the arguing horde, yelling forcefully into his mic: “Everybody shut up. If you’re defending me, I don’t need it, and if you’re mad at me, I don’t care. Listen, if you don’t want to hear my act, there’s a bar right in the next room, I’ll be offstage in 15 minutes, and the next guy fucking juggles. Okay?”
The audience followed instructions, and about half of them got up and headed to the bar.
He checked in with the audience that remained: “Right, no one here has any problems with what I’m talking about, right?”
No one responded. It’s crickets.
“Great. Now I’m going to talk about anything but that.”
And he began telling them a story, completely innocuous and completely unrelated, about a homeless person he knows.
Again, from the back of the room, the same phrase, same intonation: “YOU CAN’T SAY THAT.”
He stopped in disbelief this time.
When he told me about this next part, he looked a little sheepish over the video call, and he tells me he used a word that he’s only ever said twice in his life.
“I said, ‘Listen, you Bloomington c**t. I gave you your options: Shut up, or go to the bar.’”
“She yells back at me, ‘I’m not from Bloomington! I’m from Edina!’”
“So the issue wasn’t the terrible word I called her, but just that I’d name-checked the wrong Minneapolis suburb.”
The next night when he arrived, it was through the grey hallway with the police.
The situation quickly started to pick up press coverage. He got an email from his friend Matt with the subject line, “Dude, you’re famous!”
Matt had heard Jeremy’s name from some radio morning-show DJs who had gleefully covered the story. Jeremy can’t remember which show it was specifically, but he is good with proximate examples: “Something like, you know, Jimmy and Wacky in the morning, or Frank and the Hot Dog, whatever.”
(If he decides not to stick with comedy, he can definitely have a job naming radio-morning show DJs.)
Since this went on for an entire week, Jeremy apologized to the club manager at Knuckleheads for all the trouble on the final night of his residency.
In response to the apology, the club manager told him to stick his head outside. It was a Wednesday night, he remembers.
“And the room is fucking packed,” Jeremy said. “That when I learned there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
Jeremy’s been a touring comedian for seventeen years, and has seen a lot of weirdness, but nothing else that quite rises to the level of starting a riot at the Mall of America.
By all accounts, Jeremy’s lived an unconventional life.
He’s been giving interviews since college, where he says for his first interview, he “mostly just quoted Fletch.”
“But that’s the funny thing about being interviewed,” he says. “You can look at it and think, ‘That’s where I was in my life.’”
Jeremy’s been a lot of places. Figuratively, and also otherwise. He told me another story about saying yes to a request to re-wiring an entire comedy club. As part of his work with various bands and on stage doing comedy, he’s learned a lot about electrical work. “And like logically, yes, I know how to wire a club, but it’s like the difference between someone asking you if you can write a sentence, and if you can write a book in a week.”
He pulled it off, with help from some friends, but said there was one touch-and-go moment where the hydraulic jack he was driving threatened to tip over, lurching dangerously from side to side. He was about 20 feet up in the air, helplessly waiting to see if the machine would right itself. It was Christmas Eve; he was alone in the space. He thought, “Not only am I going to die here, but also no one is going to be in here for another three days.”
A writer named Jonathan Maberry saw Jeremy perform in Orlando, and asked if he could put him in a novel. He got interviewed a bit about his background, and there he is, eaten by zombies in chapter 11 of Fall of Night.
He worked as a journalist. (When we were in j-school, he scaled the wall at a source’s house to get away.) He wired the comedy club. He’s been in six bands. He runs and co-owns a record label, Helium Comedy Records.
“I guess that’s what I’m proudest of: thinking I could make it all work. And I walk over to my wall and flip a switch, and my electricity comes on. I’ve supported myself with this.”
In some ways, he says, he’s proud he’s gotten to do so many weird things, and not everything worked out, but a lot really did. At this point, he isn’t left with a lot of laments about what he didn’t try, or go for.
“If you had told me in college, here’s what the next twenty years are gonna be, I’d’ve said, well, that just sounds insane. It sounds fun, but it sounds insane.”
Jeremy Essig lives in Raleigh with his dog, Grieco. You can catch him in his bands Let’s Not, The Defeated County, and Minor Storm, or on tour, probably.