a priori/a posteriori

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Building vs. Destroying, or How I Learned to Love Hating Comedy

I haven’t really written much the past few weeks about the flaws I see in stand-up comedy, and I think this past week, I realized why: It’s because I haven’t been performing much.

I remember back - I think it was decades ago now - when Barack Obama was being inaugurated. It was a hopeful time for our country, and I miss those 36 hours or so when things seemed to be looking up.

I was at that inauguration, and I remember one of the things he said in his address that really stayed with me (I swear, I’m going somewhere with this).

For me, this quote stood out (from 3:12 until the applause dies down around 3:28).

“...Know that your people will judge you on what you can build - not what you destroy.”

They were powerful words at that time, and at least for me, they’re relevant not only in a political context, but in an artistic sense, as well.

I have no problem being critical of anyone or anything that I believe is deserving of criticism. Because I’ve found humor - and specifically stand-up comedy - so interesting for most of my life, the odds are I’m going to have more passionate opinions about comedy than most topics. That means that when I get excited about a comic I admire, I’m going to be really enthusiastic, more so than I would be with, say, a great trumpet player. And conversely, when I see someone that I think is representing comedy poorly, that’s going to elicit a very high level of passion from me.

I think my level of passion for stand-up comedy comes from the same place that gives me a chance to one day be a great comic. I give a shit about comedy, and I give a shit about how I represent my art form. So I hope I never feel bad about being critical of stand-up comedy. Like a great nation (in theory), people being allowed to be ruthlessly critical of stand-up is what helps lead to improvements and changes that need to be made.

And so I think criticism is fine. But don’t just be critical. If you’re being critical but not doing anything yourself, then to me, you’re just being a douche. Remember that quote from above? That’s what I try to keep in mind whenever I’m being critical of other comics. Am I building anything? Or am I just destroying?

That’s why I haven’t been blogging much the past few weeks. I’ve had a ton of thoughts on comedy, and I’ve wanted to put a lot of my thoughts down...but I haven’t been getting onstage the past few weeks. And so I haven’t felt justified in being critical of anyone else, because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything myself.

That’s why I’ve been so willing to be critical of traditional stand-up comedy these past six months - because I’ve really felt like I’ve been building toward something pretty damn cool. I haven’t known what I’m building - but I know I’ve been building. And as long as I’m building, I feel totally justified in looking at other stuff that’s already been built and figuring out what I think is wrong about it. When I’m building something, that feels necessary in order to build mine as well as I can. But if I weren’t building anything myself, there’d be no reason to be critical, and it would kind of be a dick move to just be criticizing the things other people have built.

I could go on with this analogy forever, but I think saying the same thing 8 times is enough. Basically, that’s what I realized this week: I’m almost excited to be critical of other comedy when I’m working really hard on my own comedy. Because it helps me figure out what I think really matters onstage, and it makes me realize some of the weaknesses in what I’m doing, too. It’s not just calling out others - it’s calling myself out, too.

I’m sure I’m going to say some pretty critical things about a lot of comedy for however long I do this - I hope I do, because it means I still give a shit about where comedy is headed and how it’s thought of in our culture. But I also hope I don’t just turn into one of those guys that blogs all day about what people are doing wrong, and never actually shuts up and leads by example.

I started this blog post with a quote that stuck with me from two years ago. Here’s another one to close it - from nine years ago, when I was a senior in high school - that I learned from the best coach I’ve ever had, Bob Miller.

“I’d rather see a sermon than hear one.”

Here’s hoping I give people something to see.

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