This ends with me standing in the atrium section of a New Orleans venue, simultaneously crying, smoking, laughing and drinking while a good chunk of the 2014 Hell Yes Comedy Fest stared at me like I just performed improv without wearing a plaid shirt. Here's how I got there:
I started doing stand up somewhere around 8000 beers ago at about 1000 beers a year and somewhere during that time I dropped out of college and really gave up on the whole math thing. I was 19 ish. When you start doing stand up you try on a lot of hats and what you don't realize is that you're eventually going to end up sounding like is yourself, hatless (i repeat, hatless). This was way back in 2006, before attractive people went to open mics and while Marc Maron was sitting on a stool in the small room of Cap City, delivering a sermon about how iPods were turning us all into zombies. Oh the irony, Marc. I didn't even really think comedy was that cool until someone hipped me to Stanhope, Hicks, comics of that ilk. Dark comedy instantly turned me on. I grew to love watching the vanilla greats: your Brian Regans, and your Andy Kindlers, and a third thing, but they didn't make me want to do stand up. Watching Lucas Molandes shred through his own blood and guts to a half filled Velveeta Room audience in Austin, that's what made me feel a little twinge of magnetic compulsion to really try to use jokes to sepuku myself and see what spilled out.
A lot of comedians attempt dark comedy. Watching a comic do it successfully is like watching a musician use heroin. It will definitely kill them but it looks really cool for the 5 to 7 years that it's 10 percent of their blood. It lends itself to a sexy, mysterious identity. It's fragile and difficult to wield, though. At every open mic there are 2 or 3 ex trench coat mafia dorks trying unsuccessfully yet again to cross the wires between rape and jokes. There are also 2 or 4 hacktresses going for that whole "I'm cute and I say really messed up things" angle. It's popular to blog about how these people are destroying the world, but rather than run them out of town I think it's important to understand that they're just attempting a kind of joke that is just outside of their range of skills or comedic voice or whatever. They're just lost. Darkness is the hardest thing to major in, comically. I know because I did it for a long time in Austin and I was a pretty forgettable comedian. I accomplished some things, but I spent a lot of time almost connecting with audiences and then having to go home and rethink my voice. I only started getting good at it in the last couple of years. Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely still learning.
I live in Brooklyn now and I went back to Austin for a week long run of shows culminating in a set at Fun Fun Fun Fest. I've been gone for a year and I received a welcome home equivalent to being shot in the face with fireworks made of whiskey. I can not BELIEVE the respect I was given. I performed 9 times in 6 days in between frantically trying to squeeze in old friends and family for face time and staying up all night to finish writing assignments. Most of this was fueled by alcohol and adderall in lieu of food and sleep. The shows went (mostly) great. I feel like I've hit a good timbre between sad and stupid and whatever else I'm vomiting into microphones these days.
I then shoved off for New Orleans to perform at Hell Yes Fest.
Manic depression is hard thing to understand. You know when you feel depressed because it feels numb and weak. Mania just feels like you're having a great time. If you ever look down and you're wearing a Hawaiian dad shirt and you can't remember what happened 3 hours ago but you know it was "right and tight" in your own words, yooouuuuu *Jeff Foxworthy voice* might be having a manic episode. You also might just be having a great time. You also might just be drunk. It's hard to figure out in that moment. Manic depression, alcoholism, these are the only diseases that result in you destroying at karaoke. And I fucking destroyed The Boys are Back in Town that night. I ate a Cosby's feast of Jello shots and a Cosby's date's feast worth of drugs that week.
Saturday morning I woke up to a text message that there had been a death in my family. I'm not particularly close with most of my family, but this story contained some details that made me feel a familiar twinge. I had to perform that night. I attempted to bury my thoughts in the garbage barge that I had spent two weeks turning my mind into. No one gets to be sad in Margaritaville, right? I had been killing on stage for two weeks and knew all of my material by heart so no big deal right?
Somewhere around 7pm I was on stage at the Stand Up! Records showcase and rambling about death and the irony of trying to perform comedy after hearing news like this. It was kind of funny to me and only me. Halfway into this I realized a room full of people were staring at me, confused, scared, and uncomfortable. I was drunk and sloppy, crying and oversharing. I was on stage talking to strangers in the middle of a full on manic swing. My eyes felt huge. I went into normal material autopilot and people laughed at the punchlines where the laughs were supposed to go. I closed, got off stage, and went to the side of the room to smoke a cigarette. It only fully hit me how crazy I looked from the outside when JT Habersaat walked up to me and asked me if I needed to drop off the second show. He was right. I needed to go to sleep. All of the adrenaline drained from me. I was staring at this blurry room full of a show I wanted to do but couldn't. The party was going to go on without me. I'd felt this before. It's bad. I found my ride, went back to the place I was staying and tried to sleep through tremors and wheezing.
Sunday night, the fest was over but there was mic at the Hi Ho Lounge. Everyone still in town was going up, doing a few minutes before going home. Josh Androsky asked me if I wanted to go up and I sheepishly agreed. My confidence was shot. I was embarrassed.
Then this guy went up and changed my mind. He told about ten jokes about murdering women and was greeted with icy silence. He navigated the set poorly, insisting on doing his big "woman murder" closer. It was a classic bomb. When he finished, John F O'Donnell followed him and delivered to him a severe verbal beating. John saved the show by masterfully returning levity to the room and berating the guy for alienating so many members of the audience (which he did). I watched Woman Murder Comedy guy bolt for the door and I recognized something in his eyes. He had to be on some level, mortified. He ran out the door without talking to anyone. Whether he'll ever understand it, he had just tried to take his set to that dark part of the universe where serial killers overlap with sunshine and laughter, and he fell on the spike of poor execution. I'll never know what happened to that guy and there are too many comics in the world for me to care.
I spent the next 700 sets of this open mic thinking about what it is to connect with audiences, what exactly it is that I get out of doing stand up. Most of us are never going to be rich and famous or even successful. A lucky few of us are going to land somewhere in the middle to low end of the business. I think when you're on your way out you're going to realize the best part of this whole ride was these brief moments of catharsis that happen in half filled venues at 3 in the morning.
So I went up at Hi Ho, very late in the show and started off like "Look, this is gonna get weird because I'm gonna talk about this guy dying, but you have to stay with me because I swear this is funny..." and after that all I remember is being consumed with the loving vocal approval of a bunch of comedy freaks in the night.
Comedy = tragedy + at least 24 hours.