In February 2011, my Brooklyn-based, French-language rock band, Les Sans Culottes, was asked to perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea. The band would perform a couple of songs between various improv skits and the main event was the presentation of a check for one million dollars to one of the Brigade members, comedian Craig Rowin. A couple months earlier, Rowin had posted a YouTube video asking whether there were any very rich people who would be willing to give him one million dollars. He specifically mentioned a few people like Warren Buffet and Steven Spielberg. Rowin reasoned that the million would be a mere drop in the bucket of the rich person’s wealth, but it would be huge and life-altering for him. His video got picked up by the mainstream media and went viral.
Not long after, Rowin announced that he had been promised one million dollars by a man named Benjamin and produced a notarized letter from his lawyer. When I heard about it, I thought, why didn’t I think of that? Some people are so rich they will just give you money if you simply ask! It’s true that they have a lot and I have little. It was like a polite Robin Hood scheme. Ask. Nicely. But that was the only way I was ever going to make one million dollars — and this guy had beat me to it. My sole opportunity now squandered, scooped by an improv comic. I supposed it was good publicity for the super rich person, just as the ridiculously rich, the Carnegies, Mellons, Geffens and Kochs, et al. often gave a ton of money to a museum or hospital in return for having their name attached to the building. Hey, he might have been a robber baron, but he did pay for a library. How bad can he be? That was how my college dorm had been renamed. Initially named after a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a rich alum had it renamed in his honor after donating money to the school. These truths were indeed self evident.
In fairness, I had never heard of either the founding father or the rich alum. But with Rowin and his generous benefactor the money was going directly to him — not to an institution. Sweet. The rich guy, Benjamin, presumably enjoyed the novelty of it, as well as the chance to publicize his generosity. I am not sure whether such a direct endowment had been done before. Frank Sinatra had sometimes generously given large amounts of money to strangers, but not one million dollars. (Frank counterbalanced those acts by allegedly being utterly horrible to people he met or knew personally.) Still, I found it weird that Craig did not offer to pay us anything. In the French rock n roll business, and music in general, I had encountered lots of people who did not want to pay anything for the band to play. Sometimes they’d claim that the “publicity” was a benefit. I always preferred money. I thought Craig should share some of his newly gained, easily attained fabulous wealth. Maybe he was going to do so. That would be a nice surprise. Or maybe the entire event was just a lot of bullshit, a sort of meta-comedy like that practiced by Andy Kaufman? Actually, that would be not too dissimilar to Les Sans Culottes.
We pretended to be something that we were not. Namely French. We presented as actual French people playing French music since it seemed like no one else would. That was our story, and we were sticking to it. We shared some qualities with Andy Kaufman’s humor, others had noted. The show was also a chance to debut our new singer, Marlene, and at a well-attended show where she would only have to sing on two songs rather than a full set of tunes. Marlene had joined after one of our previous singers (there were three of us) punched our guitar player at a Brooklyn bar at approximately 4 a.m. after an extremely emotional day. There’s lots of ways to leave a band, just like the 50 ways to leave your lover. Punching a bandmate and then throwing your beer in the air as you stormed out of the bar was simply a mic drop way to do it. And extra points for having the beer lodge in the bar’s drop ceiling. The guitar player quit too. I wasn’t there and did not feel I had anything to do with their argument but afterward he refused to speak to me for seven years. Rock n roll!
So, our new singer (and guitar player) would get a chance to do this show. I was excited to meet the generous millionaire. And we did. Benjamin was in the backstage green room the whole time with us as we lounged around drinking waiting for our turn on stage. The band surrounded him, practically laying siege, seemingly hoping some of his largesse could be directed their way. It was like they could smell the money. Benjamin told us that he had made his fortune in various inventions and was originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Our keyboard player was from Fort Wayne and immediately leveraged that geographical connection to put himself in first place for the next million dollar handout.
That must be how it is when you are extremely rich. People immediately want you to like them and aggressively try to ingratiate themselves. It’s exciting just to be around someone with so much money and to think maybe some of that can be coming your way. And Benjamin was nice, no snob. He patiently answered our questions and showed high tolerance for a fawning French rock band. It was suddenly apparent to me why rich people only wanted to hang out with other rich people. They don’t have to put up with the unseemly spectacle of courtiers constantly seeking a sight of their fortune. Of course, some find that enjoyable and keep a regular entourage around for that purpose. But they make them work for it.
Finally, it was time for the main event. Craig was seated on stage in his tuxedo and Mr. Benjamin was also in a bow tie and formal attire. As promised, Benjamin gave Craig the check for a cool million. The crowd went wild. Yay humanity! Then Craig took out a lighter and set the check on fire. He and Benjamin rose from their seats and exited through the curtain at the rear the stage. Then they left the building. Oh the humanity. I never saw either of them again. Good thing. The crowd was pitchfork-wielding angry. They did not see the humor in this comic stunt, feeling hoaxed. Both Craig and “Benjamin” might have been torn to pieces. On stage, a film played showing Craig auditioning Benjamin and rehearsing him for the part.
How naïve we all had been. What self-respecting millionaire would ever give away one million dollars to a stranger merely because he asked for it? Santa Claus was more real. The world did not work that way. We should have known that deep down. Like any con, if it sounded too good to be true…it was. And the crowd reacted like they were all marks and had been taken, even if it was only for the cost of admission. Their faith in humanity had been somehow undermined. Or perhaps it was their faith in their own judgment now seeing themselves as suckers.
I could convince myself that I wasn’t taken in. After all, I had been skeptical because we weren’t getting paid! And I had not acted obsequiously around Benjamin backstage. But I might have if there was not a favor-seeking crowd already in place. I was by no means sure it was a hoax. Like everyone, I wanted to believe it was true. The band collected our instruments, our lack of payment, our lessons learned, and took the subway back to Brooklyn. That was enough exposure to upright citizens.
Bill Carney is the founder and lead singer of Les Sans Culottes www.lessansculottes.com. He lives in Brooklyn.