Last Saturday night I did stand-up at The Shark Show. The show is run by a group of very funny, very nice guys. My set was odd, and kind of bi-polar. There were moments of great faith and enthusiasm on the part of the audience, followed by moments of marked indifference. It's kind of hard to stay on balance when you have a set like that. It's like being on a date with someone who leans in to kiss you goodnight and then whispers in your ear, "please never call me again. Now come upstairs and touch me over my bra."
The audience response to one joke, in particular, really threw me. Here is the joke (don't steal it!):
"My mother has always been a scared and cautious woman. For instance, she was in her high school marching band – she played the rape whistle."
It's an extremely dumb little one-liner, I realize, and I'd only told it once before – to great, misleading approval, I guess. But when I told it on Saturday night, to a room full of young people with nice haircuts, it received a collective "gasp!" followed by tongue-clucking censure. Did I say my mother was raped? Did I say I was raped? Did I say anyone was raped, or was interested in raping someone else? I didn't even joke about the act of rape. It's interesting how people are programmed to hear a certain word and just flip out. It seems silly to defend my stupid one-line joke, but audiences really fascinate and confuse me sometimes. It's strange how people won't even try to contextualize a word; how they're just programmed to hear a word – like "rape" or "suicide" or "holocaust" or "Seacrest" – and just turn pale with disgust. (Please note the way I tried to conceal the very bush league "Rule of Three" in that list, by extending it to four items. That is the kind of misdirection that makes me the "David Blaine of Posting Funny Things on a Web Site." –– Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine, April 20th, 1999)
The whole incident caused me to do something I generally dislike in other comics – though I understand the tendency fully and completely – which was challenge the audience's indifference, right from the stage. I told them they were mistaken, and that the joke was actually very cleverly crafted and deserved more of their positive attention. I literally defied their united opinion of my joke – I think I even used the word "defy" as if I was Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Monkey trial, fighting for the separation of church and State, instead of a Jew with poor posture trying to convince an audience of 40 that rape whistles are hilarious. I did this until a single person in the back of the room applauded the joke. And, of course, that pathetically isolated bit of applause was the milk-giving nipple where this giant, crying baby's mouth didst find purchase. Sated, I continued to terrorize the audience with jokes about pushing crippled children down stairs and whipping a sack of kittens against a telephone pole.
I have tried to be diligent about recording my comedy sets lately, to hear what I did right and wrong, with the faint hope of correction or improvement. However, more often than not, I mess up the recording. That evening's show was no exception, but in the process of screwing up, I accidentally recorded a bit of banter with another comic – one of my current favorites, Rachel Feinstein – just as I was returning to the back of the room after my set. I think it perfectly captures the excruciating self-loathing many comedians experience from time to time (or, in some cases, always), even as they spend their free hours trying to make others briefly happy:
>> CLICK HERE TO LISTEN <<
If the audio was difficult to decipher, here's a transcript:
ME: "I didn't have a very good time."
RACHEL: "Really? You were so fucking hilarious, they loved you."
SHARK SHOW SKETCH: "...Holy balls!!"
Please try to remember this exchange occurred immediately following seven minutes or so of desperately seeking validation from a room full of strangers. You'd think it would end there, or that I would walk offstage, pleased that I managed to make them laugh a bunch at least 75% of the time. Or that I'd be happy to have someone from the audience grab me on my way back to my seat to tell me she thought I was great. Yes, you'd think. I love how, unconsciously, I require further validation, from my own peers. I would expect at comedy shows this exchange of dialogue is about as common as the following soul-soothing exchange between two cavemen:
CAVEMAN A: "Aiyeee!!! Druul make sun go away!"
CAVEMAN B: "No worry. Druul put sun back in sky in 10 cave-hours."
CAVEMAN C: (overheard) "HOLY BALLS!!!"