Thursday, April 3, 2008

"Why I Can't Be A Comedian"

It’s a new series, Kids. I’ve got “Story of a Writer”, I’ve got “Saddle Up!”, I’ve got Uncle Grumpy; today, I initiate the first chapter in the “Why I Can’t Be A…” series. You’re gonna love it.

I got a million of ‘em. Things I’m certain I couldn’t do. Why not? Because “Negavity ‘R Me.” My attitude is so relentlessly non-positive, it’s amazing I accomplished anything at all. Sometimes, though not often, I imagine how many more things I might of accomplished if I hadn’t been so sure I couldn’t do them. Then again, if I’d been upbeat, bold and optimistic, given everything I was afraid to try a shot, said “Yes!” to every opportunity that came my way

I wouldn’t be me. (Therapists, back off!)

And I wouldn’t have all these wonderful “Why I Can’t Be A…” stories to tell.

Okay. Here we go.

Number One:

Why I Can’t Be A Comedian

Did I want to be a comedian? I thought I did. Not the joke-telling kind, but a Truth-teller , with comedy. Kind of lofty, but there it is. The fact is, if I’d taken a moment to consider what was actually involved in being a comedian, I’d have realized that job was really not for me.

I’d have hated the travel. I’d have hated the loneliness. I’d have hated the cheap hotels, and the crappy food. I’d have hated waiting till forever to go onstage. I’d have hated the smoking and the drinking, the clattering cutlery and the chattering people not paying attention. I’d have hated the other comedians, bitter and fiercely competitive, “bonding” in a fabricated “us” versus “them” brotherhood, which evaporated into resentment the moment another “brother” got a break. I’d have hated sitting around at three o’clock in the morning with gangsters.

It just isn’t me.

If I’d thought about it, I’d have realized that I really didn’t want to be a comedian. What I wanted to be was a successful comedian. It’s not the same thing.

All comedians – even the ones who end up successful – have to start at the bottom. They have to learn their craft. And there’s the sticking point. Comedians have to practice in front of a live audience. Strangers. People who have no interest in you whatsoever, and wouldn’t care if you died. I don’t mean “died” on stage. I mean really died!

Practicing in front of strangers is the unique agony of becoming a comedian. No other learners have to go through that. Medical students train on cadavers; if they mess up – no harm, no foul – they’re already dead.

Comedians have to develop their craft – being bad before they get good – in front of living, breathing human beings, human beings who can “boo” and heckle you while you’re learning the job, people who can tell people who weren’t there that night how bad you were, people who can bump into you the next day at the supermarket, and no matter how polite their words might be, their eyes are saying, “You suck!”

I couldn’t handle that.

For me, there was an even bigger problem. There was a strong possibility that I hated the audience. Now who knows, maybe hating the audience is natural for a comedian. I didn’t know any comedians personally, so I couldn’t check that out.

I thought you should like the audience. I thought liking the audience was the best chance you had of the audience liking you. I felt, like with fear, the audience could also smell hate. I was afraid they’d smell mine. And then, they’d kill me.

Why did I hate the audience? Well, I didn’t hate all of them, of course. That would be too anti-social even for me. But there was a sector of the audience – this imaginary audience in my “Why I Can’t Be A Comedian” fantasy – I did hate. Their prototype looked something like this:

He’s a guy. Great looking. Beautifully groomed. Perfectly proportioned features, impeccably styled hair. Fashionable outfit accentuating a gym-toned physique. Penthouse apartment, top-of-the-line electronics. His car gets girls all by itself. He’s got money. A glamorous, power job, and he’s rapidly moving up.

His name is Greg.

Greg has it all. Including a female companion, his ideal fantasy counterpart in every way. We’ll call her Julie.

Greg and Julie look like the perfect couple. They met through friends. Or at a bar, tossing darts. It’s their first real date. Greg’s a shoo-in, certain to get whatever he’s looking for. But like everyone ever born, there being a compassionate Creator, Greg has a flaw. There’s one thing missing.

Greg’s not funny.

It’s understandable. Perfect people do not need to be funny. Comedy is essentially about complaining about what you don’t have. “I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have equality….” Whine, whine, whine. Perfect people have everything, hardly fertile comedy soil. Did you ever hear a comedian open their act by saying,

“Things couldn’t be better for me. Lemme tell ya….”

Perfect people don’t need a sense of humor. Not surprisingly, they don’t have one.

Okay, so that’s Greg’s flaw. He’s not funny. The trouble is, in order to get Julie to…fill in the blank here…Greg has to get her to loosen up. Alcohol helps. Drugs too, but that’s, you know, illegal. There is another – totally legal – way, however, to get Julie in the mood.

You make her laugh.

You make her laugh. The one thing Greg has absolutely no ability to do. Ironic, isn’t it? So what does he do now?

Two words:

A comedy club.

It’s perfect. Not being funny yourself, you lower your date’s resistance by taking her to a reliable, comedy surrogate – a professional comedian. Possibly, me. The plan is simple. The comedian makes Julie laugh, and Greg gets what he wants.

The problem for me is this. I hate Greg. Greg kicked my books down the hall in High School. Greg played football. Greg dated the girl I had a crush on and was afraid to speak to. You see my problem here? If I can’t stand Greg, why should I help him with Julie, by making her laugh, so that Greg can get what he wants?

I used to fantasize that I’d been really terrible one night, and I ended my performance with this closing:

“For me, it’s win-win. If I make you laugh, I’m happy. And if I stink it up, like I did tonight, I can leave the stage with one deeply consoling thought: (POINTING DIRECTLY AT GREG) I did nothing for this guy!

Admittedly, I had an abominable attitude. Nevertheless, I did try, for a while, to become a comedian. I moved to New York, lived in a crappy hotel where rust came out of the taps in the bathroom, and I went to “Open Microphone” nights at famous comedy clubs, like The Improvisation and The Village Gate.

I went on twice in five weeks, the first night I got there, and the night before I decided to go home. The first time, I was terrified. At the beginning of my performance, I literally told the audience, “Don’t scare me, okay?” The response was polite, but not good.

The last night, knowing it was over and I had nothing to lose, I relaxed, and scored big. I got huge laughs, and a manager of comedians offered to represent me. I appreciatively declined and returned to Toronto.

I never tried to be a comedian again. Though I did do a handful of standup performances in protected settings, like my daughter’s school’s fundraising show. I did pretty well. Once, really well.

I suppose it’s not too late. Maybe I should try it again.

Who am I kidding? Greg’s still out there.


Anonymous said...

Astute posting. Today, I'm supposed to start mentoring a (young!) kid who wants to be a comedian. I wonder if I should read him your piece. It might dash his hopes a bit, but someday he'd be grateful, I'll bet.

growingupartists said...

Hey, I thought your name was Earl.

Anonymous said...

You are wrong about comedy being the only profession requiring its practitioners stink it up in public before they get good. Try being a new lawyer and trying your first case in front of a jury while having no idea what you are doing.