The Crooked Frame: S.M. Shrake

Hello there again! Thanks for stopping by for another edition of The Crooked Frame, wherein I ask a pal to describe their most “memorable” live experience. If you want a better idea of why I put “memorable” in quotes, check out the inaugural post of this feature, which also contains an excellent tale of rock hubris from one Franz Nicolay (story especially recommended for lovers of Kings of Leon-based schadenfreude).

Today’s tale comes courtesy of S.M. Shrake, who is the co-founder and leader of The Story League. We story-told on the same bill back in March for The Show and Tell Show’s St. Patty’s Day evening and I can say you should go check him out if you have the chance. And you will have that chance on September 8 at Busboys and Poets down in DC (14th and V) for the League’s next Story Contest. His tale unfolds after the jump.


The title does not refer to the MOVE disaster in 1985, which to date is history’s only instance of a U.S. city dropping a bomb on its own citizens, but to something that happened to me in Philly 25 years after that.

Flash back. I lived in PHL for six long years in the 1990s. During those years, which I will never get back again, I befriended the guys at, a cool pop-culture and humor blog that was founded in 1999 and is still around, making it ancient by Internet standards.

Speaking of ancient things, when I turned 39 I started performing stories and things on stages. One of my earliest performances was with UsedWigs at a show they put on at World Café Live in University City in Philadelphia in 2010.

Stage fright is for babies. But in those early performances I suffered from stage fright. Everything had to be right, all conditions, for me to be able to walk onto a stage. (Not like now; I’m a trouper now—a pro’s pro! Total professional). So I took the train into Philly early on the day of the show. I had rented a hotel room at the Sheraton nearby, checked in early, took a nap, then awoke for a glamorous shower, primped, preened, didn’t drink any alcohol but put some champagne on ice for when I returned to my room after the show…

I had decided to present a slideshow of photos from my most recent crashing of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. I live in Washington, D.C., and “nerd prom,” as it’s known, is one of the few high points of my life here. Each year I put on a tuxedo, bring my most voluptuous girl friends (wearing their deepest-plunging, décolletage-showing dresses) and shamelessly get my picture taken with all the celebrities, who assume I am “someone” because I am wearing a tux.

Fool that I am, I had thought that any audience would enjoy some amateur celebrity snapshots. Right?

Another mistake was that I brought written notes, in a binder, onstage. I then read my presentation aloud. Now, David Sedaris can get away with reading from his book and still keeping an audience. Not a beginner no one has heard of.

When you look up “sitting on their hands” in a dictionary, there is a picture of this Philly audience I was facing. One by one, I read my “laugh lines”—to deafening silence.  The photos I thought would get a large “Ahh!” or “Ohh!” got nothing but a titter or two from a sympathetic friend in the back of the room. I was dying a slow, agony-filled death inside.

Turning to one of the last pages of my presentation, I interrupted myself mid-sentence and made my final mistake. I said something mildly disparaging about the audience. Something like, “Well, not that you guys will care about this or get it or anything…” Looking back, with what I know now, it was an invitation to heckle me.

“That’s because you’re boring,” said a sharp, loud male voice in the front row.

I remember wondering if I had really just heard that or if I was imagining it. I retreated into my safe space momentarily. My next thought was to wonder if anyone else had heard the heckle, which was stated very matter-of-factly. Of course, they must have. This series of two thoughts took one second, during which I did not outwardly react. I just kept going.

Alone on the train back to D.C., thinking about what had happened, every inch the post-mortem showbiz victim, others could be forgiven for assuming I had Tourette’s: Every 5 miles or so my face, which was sunk onto the window glass, would suddenly raise up and yell out into the Quiet Car air in front of me things like “FUCK you!” or “How fucking DARE YOU?!”

But slowly, as we passed Wilmington, Baltimore, BWI… I realized that it was all my fault. I have never read aloud off of a page onstage again; it disconnects you from the audience. And I totally respect the power of an audience to kill you. It’s kill or be killed. There’s no humiliation like humiliation onstage.

The upshot was that instead of resolving never to put myself in such a mortifying circumstance again, instead of that: I could not wait to get onstage again as quickly as possible to replace that most painful memory—my first heckler—with something nicer. And bless God, I have done that. I’ve performed over 25 times in 7 different cities in the last year. And I’ve even gotten some laughs in Philly since then! Though I was afraid to tiptoe back onto one of their sacrificial altars (stages).

Those Philly audiences… they know what they like, boy! And what they don’t like. And they share that information with you bluntly. It’s the best place to dunk your head in the fire and see if you survive.