Stand-up comedy is beautiful. Killing in a night club is like orchestrating a symphony or painting a beautiful picture. Sometimes it’s also like a dude telling jokes about his dick to total strangers for money. For the moment I’d like to reflect on what stand-up is and why I do it.
At it’s most stripped, comedy is the art of misdirection. Picture two men in a boxing ring, bobbing up and down with their fists up. The fighters touch gloves and the bell rings. The two charge one another in a rage and begin slap fighting like little girls. It’s all a matter of the unexpected. It’s faking a left hook then instead of hitting your opponent with the right hook you kiss’em on the lips. It’s the same in comedy: that’s the over-simplified mechanics of humor. If people don’t see it coming, they’ll laugh out of shock or discomfort.
More than that, comedy can be a catharsis. Audiences will laugh when they identify with an emotion. Say some guy cuts me off in traffic or can’t be bothered to push his grocery cart to the caddy or some other mundane slight. I can write a joke about it instead of running over and calling the guy an asshole. Hopefully the audience identifies with my annoyance and laughs at the shared experience. The comedy is intended to alleviate the stress of the audience and performer alike.
But comedy is much bigger than just expounding frustration at minutia or shocking a crowd. Good comedy conveys a world view or a philosophy. It deconstructs ideologies and preys on hypocrisy. It usually culminates in savagery or blunt attacks against the status quo. Good comedy is honest.
But performing it isn’t for everybody. So, What makes someone want to pursue a career in comedy?
I think the compulsion stems from trauma. Picture comedy as a tea kettle filled with water. The water is child abuse, neglect, violence or other traumas. The stove is pressure from life. It boils the water and it makes the kettle whistle. That whistle grabs someone’s attention to let them know the water has reached its boiling point. The water get’s turned into tea for people to enjoy; it makes them feel better. The kettle cools off until someone pours water in it the next day and turns on the heat again.
Modern comedy isn’t about telling jokes as much as it’s about developing a relationship with your audience. It’s crawling into the spotlight, reaching into your throat and pulling out your soul; exposing your flaws. It’s fearlessly showing your vulnerability.
But performing comedy isn’t for everybody.
It’s an energy you carry inside of you. I’ve always been the class clown, mostly to my detriment. Laugh after laugh I received detention after detention. Almost all of my report cards would say, “Is a distraction to others.” When I was six years old I remember crouching behind a counter in class and repeating a phrase I heard on a comedy program. “What the hell is wrong with you?” It made the other kids laugh, really hard. “Hell,” was a “naughty” word and we weren’t supposed to say it. The kids encouraged me to repeat it over and over, with a more aggressive and exaggerated delivery. “Say it again, do it again.” I complied and they laughed even harder. The teacher eventually overheard our revelry and she gave me hell.
Though the other kids didn’t get in any trouble, getting them to laugh was well worth my punishment. It gave me a sense of pride; I earned the laugh because I took a risk that they didn’t. Over time I learned that the greater the risk, the bigger the pay off and the more satisfying it is to get away with– if you get away with it.
In the end, perhaps it’s best not to worry about the whys and the whats of comedy. Life’s not something to take too seriously because you die in the end anyway: cancer, syphilis, or being eaten alive by rodents in your sleep. So have a few laughs and relax, see you six feet from now.