Ever see an old person trying to catch a bus? It’s as uncomfortable to watch as it is fascinating. I’m talking about a very old person, seventy-five and up, hauntingly tottering down the sidewalk as they deliberate between catching that 9:15 bus and the natural state of their decaying body. It’s as far away from an actual jog as you can possibly get. You can see the osteoporosis salivating at every fragile hobble.
This is what performing standup comedy is like. It’s an eternal struggle between loving stage time and hating everything that it involves.
To clarify, I’m not talking about the stars, well-known comedians and comediennes headlining shows and writing for critically acclaimed (and at times not so much) series. I’m not even talking about the countless of other comedians hauntingly tottering on stages across the country. And really more of stage-like-areas and designated performance corners of bars. I’m talking about myself.
And that’s not to say those that “made it” have it easy either. Most of them have worked, and continue to work, very hard to be where they’re at. At this point, I can only imagine getting paid for writing and/or performing comedy. And I imagine it’s an experience only comparable to the octogenarian making that bus without one of her hips giving out. Victory.
Standup comedy is tough. You have to be funny, a good writer, and a good comedian. And yes, all three of those concepts are exclusive. The first is a great precursory skill to have, the latter two you learn and study and rehearse and perfect. Forever.
My humor evolved from a defense mechanism. I moved to the United States from Russia at 11 years old and was instantly thrust into the perilous world of a public middle school. Kids are fucking mean. They’re especially mean to immigrants with funny accents, Goodwill purchased clothes, bowl haircuts, and non-traditional showering habits. But a joke can break the ice. A good joke can build friendships. A great joke kills, the entire classroom, laughing their 6th grade asses off.
My writing I’ll attribute to reading. And reading I’ll attribute to being an immigrant with a funny accent, Goodwill purchased clothes, bowl haircut, and non-traditional showering habits. I didn’t have many friends, so I read. Mostly fantasy and science fiction novels. Immersing myself in far off worlds and planets that didn’t exist, because reality was solitary and lonely. Escape was always just a flip of the cover away. Even as friends eventually materialized, I continued to read – by then I was hooked.
And I’m a shitty comedian. I haven’t figured it out how to be a good one. Yet. I give up on jokes that frustrate me. I don’t have the work ethic to sit and write and write and write. I haven’t figured out my voice, my persona. I still get stage fright, and I’ll drink entire too much to alleviate this and be too drunk by the time I go on. But slowly, agonizingly so, it’s getting a little bit better.
I only do it because I love the laughter. When something you wrote hits well enough to part someone’s lips, that’s the reward. And I want to share everything. I want to talk about very bit of knowledge, and stories, and experiences that I have. If there was a career to go in front of people and just yammer on and on about those things, I would pursue that. Except no one wants to hear that shit. Until you hide it in a good joke, then people listen. The joke is really just an illusion, the delivery vehicle. My thoughts, my feelings, my emotions are riding on it.
After about three years of steadily performing comedy I took my first extended break. Two months of not performing. Not even writing, although I’d lie to anyone that asked. Not that anyone did ask, because no one cared. Those that did notice, loved ones and friends, would not bring it up in fear that I’d start again. And they would be dragged to see more shows, and pay covers or drink minimums, and have to sit through other comedians’ sets. It was as much of a break for them as it was for me.
Last night, I finally did a local open mic in the backroom of a bar. Around 10pm I put my name on a piece of paper and threw it into a bucket from which it’ll be drawn. Two hours later, after half a pack of cigarettes, at least one too many beers, and in front of five strangers waiting for their turn (plus the host and a friend that drove me), I finally got to go onto the stage-like-area. I walked up to the microphone, which I really did not need, they could hear me just fine without it. Rituals.