Aug 24, 2009

Stand-up and be counted.

[NOTE: this is a very non-photographic post. It's a re-print from my article in Chill Magazine—that free Beer Store thing in the metal rack.]

"Rice is great when you're hungry and want two thousand of something."
-Mitch Hedberg

I'm pretty comfortable talking about things which I know nothing about — barbecuing, touch football, anniversary gifts —but I have mixed feelings about stand-up comedy. On the one hand, I know more than your average bear, having performed quite a bit. On the other hand, I kinda sucked wookie when I did it.

Straight up: I am not a comedian, nor have I ever been a member of the comedian party. I haven't held a microphone in almost four years and my career earnings amount to precisely sixty dollars and eight Molson Exports. (You could surpass both by gathering empties on the 401 for an afternoon.)

I first hit the stage in 1990 — and when I say 'hit', I mean impacted... cratered... still-looking-for-the-black-box kind of 'hit'. My bombing happened right before the Gulf War — and was about the scariest thing I've ever experienced. Getting married? Skydiving? Walk in the park. Making fifty complete strangers laugh? Well, as British actor Edmund Keene said on his death bed, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." I pretty much took the next decade off.

"The Four Levels of Comedy: Make your friends laugh, Make strangers laugh, Get paid to make strangers laugh, and Make people talk like you because it's so much fun."
-Jerry Seinfeld

Even when I got back to it, rare was the month that I did four sets . That is not enough for comedic mastery. It's like doing 100 pushups a day... once a year. The equivalent of trimming four Christmas trees and implying that you're somehow a lumberjack. Real comedians work every day. You gotta write, edit, practice, promote, and perform all the time. Seinfeld did stretches in the 70's where he'd go eighteen months without missing a single day on stage. And remember, he wasn't getting paid back then.

Don't get me wrong; you absolutely have to get up there — even if you're not in it for the long haul. If people say you're funny and there's a 'new talent' night in your town, put down the damn Wiimote for five minutes and write some gags. Even if nobody says you're funny, but you feel the itch, pick up the phone and leave a message at the club. Just remember, when they finally call you back, life is going to get very strange.

"Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things. "
-George Carlin

Once you're committed, people will treat you differently. The closest analogy would be if you happened to be a pretty good cook, then suddenly decided to open a restaurant. Friends and relatives who once raved about your culinary prowess now look upon you with equal parts worry and pity. "Dude, you braise a mean coq au vin, but your own bistro? Good luck with all that."

Another unwelcome development is that any time you're funny,  people will think you're "doing a bit". The worst part is: you usually are. Then comes the unsolicited material: "You should talk about that time we stole the lobster tank from Mandarin... What about doing a joke about Dad's bed-wetting... You should lip-sync the Mighty Mouse theme, like Andy Kaufman!"

Which brings us to the greatest handicap in stand-up — that which is also the core of its beauty. It's you, and only you. Musicians can play cover songs well into a professional career, but comedians are never, ever allowed borrow someone else's material.  This is why a guy on stage might say, "I'd like to do a little something by Eddie Money," but will never say, "I'd like to do a little something by Eddie Murphy." 

Trust me — the emcee will know you stole it, and you'll never work at that club again. You'd be better off expounding Micheal Richards's views on African-Americans. Yeah... maybe don't do that, either.

"The good thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chance of a date on Saturday night."
-Woody Allen

If you're a young, single guy who's considering a life in comedy, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you have no one at home who will get upset when you're hitting the clubs every night. The bad news is, it's a terrible way to meet women.

Women in the audience either come with a big, jealous boyfriend or a pack of co-workers who don't want your company. Also, since most comics are already uber-neurotic, consider the implications of two of them dating. All comedians share a trait called neediness. The need to make people laugh, the need to forge a bond with an audience, and the need to need to kill one other when they go out for more than two dates. 

"I believe in the institution of marriage, and I intend to keep trying till I get it right." 
-Richard Pryor

If you're a married guy, there's also good and bad news. The good news is, you already have lots of material to work with. The bad news is, you'll be out a lot, honing your craft. Here's a tip: if you're trying to sell this lifestyle to your significant other, don't describe it as a 'low-paying job', but as a 'free hobby'. Hopefully, your wife will be supportive. If not, you'll at least have a whole lot more material.

"Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?"
-Groucho Marx

So you wrote some gags; you practiced; you did the show. Maybe you even killed. But, hopefully, you bombed. Hopefully? Yes, because the only thing more dangerous than winning the first time you go to a casino, is kicking butt the first time you get on stage. You're going to have some tough nights, and if it happens sooner rather than later, it will save you a lot of future anxiety.

Oh, and memo to friends and family. The following is not a compliment: "You're brave. I could never do that."  What you're actually saying is, "If that was half as painful to perform as it was to watch, why didn't you just strip naked and smack your ass with a rolled-up newspaper for five minutes?"

It's not a life for everyone, but it's definitely a rush. Even if you only do it once, you'll be ahead of all those guys who die, never knowing that comedy was hard.

10 tips for aspiring comics :

  • Do it often. It's easier to nail your material and gain confidence with repetition.

  • Practice with the TV and the radio on. Learn to overcome distraction.

  • Figure out which way to twist the mic stand, before you're on stage.

  • Instead of cue cards, jot important words on your water bottle with a Sharpie.

  • Don't wear a funny t-shirt. It risks topping your material.

  • If you're nervous, look at people's hair instead of their eyes (unless Mr. T is in the audience, in which case you have bigger problems).

  • You shouldn't have to swear. It's like a "ninja using a gun".

  • When heckled, tell your mom to ease up a little.

  • Record your act, then smash the tape-machine when you realize how wimpy your voice is.

  • That blinking red light does not mean "fries are up".

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