a priori/a posteriori

Friday, January 27, 2012

Montreal Advice 2.0, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love That I’ll Never Make It

The weeks leading up to my 2011 and 2012 Montreal showcases have been vastly different. My 2011 showcase was in Austin, even though I had already moved to New York by then. I’d spent the past two years in Austin, and I was going to be down there for South by Southwest anyway, so both myself and the people running the Austin showcase agreed that I should just showcase there.

Unfortunately for me, that showcase was in early March. And after my career-goal-shifting Quarterlife Crisis Comedy Tour ended the previous November, I lost all my momentum. A “brief” trip home for Thanksgiving turned into a month-long stay with my family, and then I was so intimidated when I moved to New York that I barely got up at all. The result was that I went into my Montreal audition pretty damn rusty. A total of 10 or 12 sets in 3 months will do that.

I remember being torn at the time over whether or not I should remove myself from the showcase. I knew I was rusty, and I knew I wasn’t going to represent myself in the way I wanted to. I remember being tortured over which would be more insulting to the people that had helped get me onto the showcase: performing at less than 100 percent, or not bothering to perform at all.

In the end, I decided to go on. And the set itself went fine, in comedic terms. But in Montreal terms, it was an insult. Because it wasn’t a tight set. And a Montreal showcase is all about showing respect to the process by being prepared, and by being efficient. Dress well. Don’t lean on the mic stand. Be a cookie cutter - but be a fun-shaped cookie cutter. But: the industry sells cookies. So don’t disrespect them by deciding you’re going to be a loaf of bread out of the blue.

I think I came off like a comic trying to be a loaf of bread. And I know of at least a couple bridges that I burned because of it. I respect their decision, and it makes sense how they interpreted my actions. But I can also live with how I handled the situation. Sometimes, you put yourself in a crappy situation, and you have to deal with the consequences, one way or the other. I made my bed by losing the artistic momentum I had. And I deserved the results I got.

That was the story of my 2011 Montreal Showcase set, in a nutshell.

This is 2012. My showcase set is here, in New York City, and it’s this Tuesday, January 31.

Things are a lot different this year. For starters, by the time I perform on Tuesday, I’ll have gotten about 80 sets in this month. I’ll have done close to 30 in the week leading up to it. So say what you will - I won’t be rusty.

Though, in a way, I still don’t feel prepared. I haven’t performed in a club in almost a year. This was by design, because I wanted to go back to the drawing board, artistically and motivationally speaking. But now, I’m struggling to prepare a “disciplined” set-list for the showcase. I love connecting in the moment, which is not the goal of a Montreal New Faces set. We’re told specifically not to interact with the audience much, and not to bring up current events that won’t be relevant in 6 months.

That makes perfect sense, because the Festival is in July. And they can’t control the variables of a given room. So they aim to judge on you, as a comic, and not on you, in that room.

And that’s what gives me that nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach, as I try to prepare for Tuesday. I feel like I’ve been working hard to find myself, and to become better at being a comic, in that room, on that day, in this moment. I really have been working hard at that. I swear.

But I don’t know how good a comic I am, as a comic. I’ve never been great at tight sets. Maybe I was when I first started. But that’s always been my weakness. Pretty much since I got started, nine years ago.

Really, probably since about 6 years ago. Since I graduated from college and moved to DC. My years in DC were super-formative. And I just remember being so jealous of the comics that could just be funny. That weren’t tied down to their material.

I worked at the DC Improv as a host, a sound guy, and eventually as a (terrible) waiter. And I remember the first 3 months I worked there, it was great. Some of the best acts in the country would come and perform there. And for me, it was great to see them perform the same set 7 or 8 times. You got a rush of adrenaline when you knew they were about to tell a punchline that was going to crush. It felt like you could see into the future, in a way. It was a great rush. It made me feel powerful, in a way, because I felt like I knew something about everyone in the room that they didn’t know about themselves. One show Wednesday, one Thursday, two Friday...by the time Saturday rolled around, I knew the future, for 90 minutes at a time. It was great.

I started working in July. It was a great summer. I was 22. I spent every night at one of the best clubs in the country. I got to meet great comics. I got a free meal every shift! It was a dream job, for a kid fresh out of college.

Then in October, Bill Burr did a week. Then in November, Patrice did a week. And then everything was different. For a week at a time, I was on my toes. I didn’t know the future. Anything was possible, at every moment. Everything was in bounds.

We don’t have words for it, but what they were doing was a different art form. It was a different thing. What every other comic did, and what they did, were both called “stand-up comedy.” But, when you looked closely, it was something different. In one, you can predict the future. In the other, you can’t. Two things can’t be any more different than that.

In a way, I still haven’t recovered from those two weeks, during the fall of 2006. I haven’t figured out how to balance those two art forms. Bill Burr has figured it out, to a large extent. He does annual spots on Letterman now, and they’re usually quite good. But for someone who has seen him live, it remains frustrating to watch them. Because I know that not everything is possible. There’s a limit to what can happen. He’s willingly clipping his own wings.

What Bill has figured out, probably, is that since he’s putting on those chains, he can take them off, too. He can do a disciplined, limiting Letterman set on a Monday afternoon, and then go into a club that night and pour his absolute heart out, in whatever direction he wants it to go.

That’s what I haven’t figured out yet. I still stubbornly insist on not limiting any performance, ever. And that’s something I really struggle with. At what point is being stubborn “sticking to your guns” and “believing in yourself,” and at what point does it become “I guess he’s just never going to get on television.”

I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess all I know is that I definitely don’t know yet.

The past few days, I’ve been trying to go onstage and be efficient. I’ve been trying to run through the jokes I think I should do on Tuesday. And I just haven’t been able to. I just haven’t been able to mail in a set, and not be present in the room. It feels torturous to me. It feels like I’m being shackled.

haha man. This started as a blog about Montreal. Then it became a blog about my experiences the past year. Then it became about me working at the DC Improv five years ago. Then it became about Bill Burr and Patrice O’Neal, and stand-up philosophy. Then it became about Montreal again. And now it’s becoming a blog about how I probably have some serious emotional issues regarding discipline and freedom.

I gotta end this sometime, right? I can’t just keep pouring out my fears and doubts onto the screen, and expecting you to interpret it as something that’s mutually beneficial. Right?

Once again, I’m glad this helped both of us. You’re welcome.


  1. Good luck on Tuesday. Just be funny (how you are). Sometimes the landscape changes around you, not the other way around.