During election week, I went to New York to perform my stellar Bush and McCain impressions at some edgy, politically-charged comedy shows we don't have enough of in Los Angeles. After I landed, I got a message from my manager saying I had been booked to perform an additional gig at the German consulate in New York. The event was an election night dinner for a group of German journalists. For five days I tried to get in touch with the consulate directly, hoping to find out the time and location of the event, but the Germans would only communicate to me indirectly, through cryptic forwarded emails and one mysterious phone message from a private number. It was clear that these secretive bureaucrats did not wish me to know any more of their plans than necessary.
Finally, on the day of the show, I received a detailed schedule. Their email had a cold third-person tone that made the whole arrangement sound ominous. "James will arrive exactly at five-thirty p.m.," they announced. "If he is late, the moment will have passed. If he is early, he will spoil the surprise." Many people have told me not to be late for something, or that I better not be fucking late again, but never before in my life have I ever been told specifically not to arrive early.
Their strict Teutonic itinerary continued: "He will go through security and proceed to the 23rd floor, where he will be
greeted by Dr. Blaumann and will enter the room when called." Dr. Blaumann! The appropriate image came to mind:
"You vill arrive exactly at five-zirty p.m.!"
I hastily got into Bush makeup and suited up, allowing a ridiculously generous 90 minutes to get across Manhattan from my friend's apartment in Hell's Kitchen to the U.N. complex, where the consular missions are. I arrived almost an hour early, well aware that I was in technical violation of their 5:30 p.m. ultimatum. Jumping out of the taxi and hiding my face, I scurried away down 42nd Street, glancing behind me to make sure that I had not been spotted by any arriving German diplomats.
For forty-five minutes, I hid behind a stoop, pacing, smoking and running over in my head exactly what I would say if discovered. At 5:27, I walked back towards the consulate with the uneasy feeling that if the timeline was off by even a minute, I would be chased through the city shadows and sewers as in the last act of The Third Man. I took a breath and entered the building at 5:30 on the dot. A dour woman behind the thick glass security window told me, "You do not need to say anything. I know who you are. You will please wait."
The consulate lobby was decorated in a crisp, angular style. On one wall hung a large, sad painting of an androgynous human or mannequin torso, surrounded by barbed wire, flowers and birds. Along the opposite wall, three wood carvings were arranged: one of a man inside a box, one of a man sitting on top of a box, and one of a man holding up a box. The German artist had pinpointed with maximum efficiency all three possible expressions of the man-box dialectic.
A dapper young intern arrived, smiling faintly. I found myself somewhat surprised when we shook hands that he didn't also click his heels. I was escorted up the elevator to the appropriate floor, whereupon I was offered carbonated water. The intern informed me that Germans will only drink water with bubbles, even during athletic events: "Taken with apple juice, it is quite refreshing after physical exertion!"
The show went well, though some of my clever Bushisms -- depending heavily as they do on mangled idioms -- were lost on their European ears. It turns out that even German journalists like to laugh when their schedules clearly allot a time for it, especially when you mispronounce their names and grab their shoulders in the way Bush did to Angela Merkel.
After my set, we took a few photos and I was handed several more sparkling waters than my body is conditioned to drink. Then an embarrassed functionary came up to me, blushing, and ushered me into a nearby hallway. Fumbling in her coat, she whispered, "I am sorry to violate protocol, but I'm afraid I must pay you in cash!"
Of course, fraulein. Unmarked euros, I assume?