a priori/a posteriori

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Beginnings of a Manifesto...

"Stand-up is 1 percent what you do onstage, 99 percent why you're doing it."


As I've tried to evolve as a comic these past seven-plus years now, I'm always paranoid that I'm completely delusional, and that I'm not growing as a comic at all, and that I'm going to wake up in two weeks, or in three months, or in five years, and realize I'm pretty much the exact same as I was now. One of my greatest fears as a comic is becoming stagnant.

That's why it's pretty sweet when something proves I've grown a lot the past six months. That something happened tonight, as I was watching some bad comedy at an open-mic in Manhattan.

Now, let me be specific when I use the term "bad comedy." I don't mean people who are just starting doing stand-up, and so they don't know how to do it yet. I'm not talking about people a year or two in, who still don't really have their bearings onstage yet.

This was different. This wasn't people making bad attempts at doing stand-up. This was people doing stand-up comedy, but doing bad stand-up. These were comics totally comfortable onstage, who'd been doing it for years, really smooth, who were often getting great reactions from the crowd, but doing so with just terrible material.

Now, maybe you're a believer in the idea that a comic's only job is to be funny. Your job is to make the audience laugh, so shut up and do your job. The old "customer is always right" theory.

Here's a deal I'll make with anyone who believes that: Fine. You're right. Every time you get paid to do stand-up, your only job is to be funny. Cool. I'll give you that. But, if that's true, then you can never say that bullshit line that stand-up comics are different than everyone else. If you believe that first part, the second part is now completely out the window.

Why do some comics say that in the first place? Because we aren't like those suckers that have a 9-5 job, and have to answer to a boss, and who are just a part of the system. They don't think, they just do what they can to try to get that next paycheck. They're sheep, every last one of 'em. Not like us comics. We get it. We're wired different than everyone else.

If you want the "just make them laugh" argument, take it. But if that's your job, then you're no different than anyone at a desk job.

Maybe you're thinking I'm dead wrong, because you think stand-up is more fun than being an accountant. I would argue that your opinion of what's "fun" is subjective and therefore irrelevant. Either way, which job is more fun isn't the point I'm making. I'm simply pointing out that if you see stand-up as nothing more than a job to be done, and that money should be exchanged for your doing that job, and that people need a release sometimes, and they "just need to laugh," then your being a comic is simply fulfilling a role in our society, no different than an accountant doing someone's taxes, or a garbageman picking up garbage. You're no better, and no worse. Which is fine. But don't pretend we're more than what we are.

Personally though, I believe that stand-up can - and should - do more than that. And so if a comic is getting a laugh by encouraging ignorance - even if everyone in the crowd loves it - that's bad comedy. In fact, in my opinion, that is the worst comedy.

I think that's what's been so fascinating about New York. Is how many people here have it so spectacularly wrong. People have it this wrong in other spots, of course. But nowhere else do they say the wrong thing so loudly. Nowhere else are wrong comics so convinced they're right. In fact, that's the only way it could be - if they weren't so sure, they wouldn't have moved here in the first place.

It's hard to even describe. For a lot of comics here, it's as if one time they saw a great comic that had confidence, and they thought the confidence was what made them great, not the great comedy that gave that comic his or her confidence. There are an astounding amount of comics here that put that cart before the horse. To study the lack of self-awareness a lot of these comics have - the long-term delusion it takes to believe that against all odds, they've somehow been undeservedly skipped over and remain an unrecognized and under-appreciated genius - is legitimately fascinating.

Which brings us all the way back to the beginning, which is how I know that I am growing away from that, and headed in the right direction, for me, as a comic. How do I know?

Because tonight, when I saw that ignorant stand-up, it made me sad. I got really bummed out.

Which is new for me. In the past, I would have gotten angry. It would have pissed me off to see comedy done so poorly, because I'd feel like I could do better. And I'd feel like my stand-up deserved to be appreciated more than their stand-up.

I would be 100 percent sure that my stand-up was way better! But in making that claim, I didn't realize what I was admitting: that what they and I were doing was essentially the same. Maybe I thought my jokes were more clever, maybe I thought they had more substance...but my anger showed that I was competing for the same thing that those bad comics were, and I took offense that I might be screwed over if they got something and I didn't. I was, after all, an unrecognized and under-appreciated genius.

But tonight, watching the art form that I love be completely trivialized by hack bits about blacks and Indians and women being needy - all by comics utterly convinced of their own brilliance - I just got kind of bummed out. And I don't totally understand why yet. Maybe because I don't feel like my comedy is its own separate thing anymore. My stand-up is part of a collective. My comedy is a part of what makes up stand-up comedy as a whole. Which might seem like it ties me down to everyone else's work too, but also with that belief comes the realization that I don't have to beat anyone else or do something better than anyone else. The goal is not "Be what the audience wants you to be onstage." The goal is "Be what you want to be onstage." Which of course means that the only obstacle to my success is myself. There is no competition.

That. That's it. That's what made me sad. So many comics up here, so many comics I saw tonight - they all thought it was a competition. It was like they were all trying to win a trophy they've never seen but just assume exists. They think we're all fighting against each other to be the funniest, when really, the search is for each of us to find the funniest us that we can be. I think that lack of perspective is what bummed me out, and so I sat there, a little hunched over in my chair, listening to jokes I'd heard before that made points I'd heard before, watching comics not making themselves vulnerable in any way, and wondering if they'd ever have the balls to ask themselves what they actually think is funny.


  1. This was a very good blog. Any stories on your first open mike or being heckled?

  2. Thanks guys, I appreciate it. And Nate - I have a few classic stories of self-esteem-destroying heckles. I'll try to post a story of one of them this week.