Because I don't perform stand-up every night of the week – I am what serious comics might call a "tremendous pussy" – my successes onstage seem much more precious and my failures much more more viscerally painful. The nice thing about attacking the stage – any stage, really – with great frequency is that it makes your heart all tough and leathery. (like Run DMC) In my case, it might also serve to remove some of the "ums" and "likes" from my delivery. (I used to think that constant stammering was part of my charm, but I realize now I was deluding myself completely. Jesus, sometimes I sound like Porky Pig onstage.)
The point of all of this is that sometimes, because getting onstage is still very fresh to me, the audience is treated to something they didn't expect. In the case of a show I did last Thursday that something special was A COMPLETE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, amplified through a microphone. It was pretty extraordinary, actually. I had a set of material – mostly jokes and stories I've done before and about which I am generally confident – but something weird set me off that day and I decided (well, "decided" is a strong word because it sounds like it was actually within my control rather than a forced act, at the mercy of misfiring synapses) I would put aside my material and improvise five minutes of material about how ugly, fat, and stupid I felt that day.
I wish I were kidding. I started with my hair ("aggressively, unapologetically jewish"); moved quickly to my filthy glasses ("they look like i just picked them up off the ground after a two-hour game of 'Keep Away' from the elementary school kid with a cleft palate and corrective shoe"); spent a few minutes on the tremendous pimple on the side of my nose ("it is so big it's threatening to secede from my face"; "i am a grown man with grey hair and acne - i look like i just stumbled out of a broken time machine"); then finished up by talking about how I was so fat my t-shirt didn't fit me ("you can see inside my bellybutton through it") and, out of self-consciousness, had to borrow a t-shirt from a female friend of mine. In case that wasn't enough negative information for them at the top of my set, I supplemented it with an unprecedented level of uncertain stammering while I fiddled with the microphone in a manner that would suggest, depending on the audience's point of view, either the sad effects of an intense obsessive-compulsive disorder, or an impression of a Good Vibrations employee at a free customer seminar demonstrating how to massage the penis shaft while never forgetting to playfully handle the scrotum.
They say you should make the audience like you. I gave them every reason not to. Eminem used this technique to excellent effect in the finale of 8 Mile but the difference was he got to walk offstage when he was finished. I had to spend another five minute with this audience, trying to convince them I have a couple of funny jokes, too.
It's crazy. The audience really did want to laugh. They were kind and generous and, on the few rare occasions where I did tell them jokes, they responded well despite all prior indications that they shouldn't. And I could have bailed on my vigilant self-criticism early and segued right into my material, to spare the audience the ordeal. I knew what I was doing, and why it was failing, but here's the thing: I couldn't stop myself. It's like dropping into a tailspin. You know you have pull your nose up but at a certain speed of descent that becomes impossible. I turned a very good show into the world's worst open mic room in 8 grueling minutes. It was a miserable but fascinating experience, honestly, especially since my peers (other comedians) had to witness it.
When I tell people I perform stand-up comedy sometimes, they invariably tell me they could never do it. I realize they say that because they imagine being in a situation identical to the one I placed myself in last Thursday. Given how crazy I felt and vulnerable I felt that day, putting a mic in my hand was like handing a clinically depressed person a handgun loaded with Never Miss® bullets.
[this post was meant to be a formal apology to the audience that evening, in case any of them were tremble readers. however, it occurred to me that most of them will probably never read this site again after witnessing me that night.]