What has two thumbs and is incredibly tired of hearing my stand-up comedy? This guy, who is pointing to his own chest with two thumbs, and using his third, supernumerary one to give the movie Soul Plane a single thumbs-up.
Last Thursday night I had an audition for a comedy festival, and spent the earlier part of the week assembling my 6-7 minute set and trying it out at various rooms around Manhattan. Rearranging the order into something reasonably organic, trimming the fat, adding and deleting jokes and beats, removing any local references to NYC-based hobos, etc. Even though auditioning makes me tremendously nervous and obsessive, I like that it forces my ADDled brain (see how I did that?) to hyperfocus. I've never gone through this process without improving both my writing and performance and, even if I don't book a festival or TV show as a result of my audition, I still do get something out of the experience. (Something other than an unrealistic sense of entitlement and embittered hatred for my more successful peers.)
Here's what I don't like: "working it out" in front of unsuspecting audiences. While I know it's necessary and ultimately makes me a better comic, it can still be a dismal, self-abusive process in so many ways. First, it requires reaching out to friends for favors I may be in no position to repay. (i.e. spots on stand-up shows they book.) It also means asking to be shoe-horned into last-minute spots on comedy shows where I know I might (and in all likelihood will) make a mess of the place, rushing through seven minutes of older material as I struggle to remember new segues and the correct set order. (This becomes especially difficult since set order is pretty fluid, changing from night as I make adjustments and try new things.) I worry about hurting the show, and I worry about hurting my own confidence during this crucial period of experimentation.
After learning about my audition I had my first warm up set on a show that coincidentally included one of my favorite comics on the lineup, one of my favorite comics hosting, and bookers from two separate comedy clubs in the audience. And I completely turded it up. Like, spent seven minutes working precariously arranging a great big, quiet Jenga turd pile. It was one of those lackluster sets where you don't want to even stand next to any of the other comics after the show, because it makes it that much more uncomfortable for audience members who want to heap praise on that person's performance but are afraid to make eye contact with you. I tried my best to keep my eyes to the floor, too, just to spare people the potential awkwardness of saying something they don't mean.
It can also be depressing to hash out older, long-traveled jokes. It's not because I dislike telling them. (mostly) But, because I'm not really a touring comic I tend to hit the same rooms a lot in NYC. Even when I perform at different rooms, they seem to attract the same audiences. I don't mean the same types of audiences, although I guess I do mean that as well, but the exact same audiences, literally. There are people who attend three or four or more comedy shows below 34th Street every single week, week after week. On one hand, it's comforting to know there are people who are that fanatical (patient?) about comedy, but it also means I'm sure to burn through my material more quickly in front of these repeat audiences. I can feel it, too, when I'm performing. There's a very specific, almost palpable kind of silence that follows certain jokes the audience has clearly already heard once or twice. The silence is rarefied, and very different from the kind following a joke that simply isn't working, or never will. It's kind of indignant, actually. When I'm onstage, already insecure and borderline apologetic about having to do a "showcase" set in front of a room full of people who want to hear something new, new, new, the audience's very loaded silent reception just confirms and amplifies all of those neuroses. It isn't their fault, of course; but it really is a special thing.
Obviously, telling jokes you've been performing for several years just isn't naturally invigorating, either. (I want to talk about how fame can speed this process, too, although since I'm not even remotely famous for what I do, it has no place here and I guess I'll just include it at as a post-script.*) I suspect even the most exciting, spontaneous moments become a little stale, or rote, upon constant repetition. There's that scene in the movie, Big, where Tom Hank's character is in FAO Schwarz, jumping about on a giant floor piano alongside his boss, the big-hearted CEO of a large toy company, played by Robert Loggia. That moment is incredibly memorable, and is a sort of fun centerpiece for the film.
Now, imagine if that really happened and follow it through logically within the "reality" of the film. Afterwards, Loggia promotes Hanks and brings him around the office, telling all their co-workers about all the fun they'd just had at FAO. He might even demonstrate their floor piano dance on his office's carpeted floor for a few of the shareholders. The next week, Hanks would receive a call from Loggia's assistant, requesting that he meet his boss at FAO Schwarz during his lunch hour, to repeat their dance again. This time, word has gotten out and a few other employees at the toy company show up at FAO Schwarz to watch. Additionally, the employees at FAO Schwarz are hip to this, too, so they assemble a crowd. People are snapping digital photographs and video on their cell phones, then blogging about it and posting the shaky, grainy videos on YouTube. Suddenly, the act has a new, thin layer of self-consciousness.
This happens again the following week. More employees, more crowds. By now Hanks feels a little weird about it. The returns are sort of diminishing. His performance isn't as inspired, and people can tell. Now they're not blogging as much or, when they are, some backlash creeps in. People are posting comments like, "I don't know why everyone thinks these guys are the next Glenn Gould. I saw them at FAO on the floor piano and it was 'meh'." Hanks finds one of these comments while Googling himself, and it makes him feel a little embarrassed. Pretty soon, Hanks is showing up at FAO Schwarz only because it's been demanded of him by his superior, and he wants to retain his job—a job with greater responsibility since his promotion and one he fears he is in jeopardy of losing because he is constantly being torn away from office, at a moment's notice, to have another stupid playdate with his boss. The joy and the spontaneity have been leeched from the experience, making the performance of "Heart and Soul" a somewhat professional duty, ironically devoid of either heart or soul.
Sometimes that's what it feels like to tell my joke about ejaculating gold coins night after night, just to get it ready for an audition.
But then you do the audition and, if you can manage to shake off the crippling crisis of self-confidence you've acquired over the course of your many warm-up sets, maybe you can remember that you didn't start performing stand-up because you needed the money. You started because, unlike many other time-consuming obligations in your life, this was sincerely fun. I had fun at my audition. It wasn't the best set of my life, and I have no idea if what I did was remotely relevant for this comedy festival, but the audience laughed a lot and I enjoyed telling a new room full of strangers some of the jokes I've been working hard on writing and improving over the last several years. And it was all over in seven minutes and thirty seconds, because I went a little long.
* When I hear about comics who have achieved an almost rock and roll level of popularity that audiences just shout requests for certain jokes, or scream the punchlines in unison, right along with the comics, I'm sure it feels cool for the performer and I guess I'm supposed to be a bit dazzled but really, it just depresses me. That kind of reaction honestly sounds like death to me. If an audience ever loudly requested a joke from me, I think I would become far too self-conscious to tell it. And if you do tell it, what is the likely result? Deep, crazy laughter? Probably not. More like thunderous applause and, really, I can't imagine performing for applause over laughter. Does that sound crazy? I guess I've always taken applause to mean, "we like who you are!" and that laughter means, "we like what you're doing." I hope my friends like who I am (and regularly applaud me) and that audiences like what I do. That seems like a pretty reasonable division to me.