Monday, November 02, 2009

The Year of Living Humorously: A Stand-Up Philosopher's Pilgrimage - Part I

Maybe the whole midlife crisis thing is a myth, maybe it isn’t; but just in case, I was going to try to preempt it. Entrenched in my life as a tenured philosophy professor, the iconic routes were closed off to me. Being happily married (not to mention, teaching ethics), an affair with a younger woman was a non-starter. Two kids and a philosopher’s salary meant the sports car wasn’t an option, either – not that a Corvette would be anything other than ironic as I’m such a slow driver that I’ve been flipped off by the Amish. I’d already gone hang gliding, run class V rapids, and solo backpacked, so the adventure bit was in the “been there, done that” folder.

Then it hit me. I was doing a drive-time radio show on a rock station in Baltimore, an “ask the ethicist” segment, when the show’s host, a long time professional comedian, asked me during a break whether I had done stand-up. It was one of those moments you file away. I’ve been a comedy geek my entire life. Finding my dad’s Stan Freberg, Bill Cosby, and George Carlin albums when I was a boy, memorizing Steve Martin and Robin William’s routines as a teenager, I had always idolized comedians. Here was a member of the brotherhood asking me if I was in the club.

Recalling that moment sealed it, I would try my hand at stand-up comedy. Little did I know that what started out as a lark, a half-facetious attempt to avoid a crisis of identity would, in fact, cause one and lead me to a Comedic religious awakening.

I saw Elliot Spitzer’s rabbi interviewed on CNN. He was livid. A member of his congregation paying $4,300 to a prostitute. The Governor of the state, a pillar of the community, a seemingly upstanding Jew, and he’s caught paying retail. At least she could have given him a discount for being circumcised, knock off the cover charge.
There are nights that you will never forget. Close to where I grew up, a comedy club had a monthly new talent showcase just a week before my 40th birthday. The word “talent,” it turns out, does not always mean what it seems. It was a “bringer show.” You get the mic only if you bring at least five paying audience members. More than that increases your stage time – a minute per person – up to ten minutes. I brought more than triple, it was my birthday party after all, with family, friends, colleagues, former students, a sampling from my entire life ready to laugh whether I deserved it or not.

For bringer shows, the club doesn’t care whether the comics are funny, as long as they fill tables. This is not AIG-style greed, times are tough for comedy clubs. In the late 80s, when Jerry Seinfeld was a cultural phenomenon, comedy clubs were packed and the number of rooms exploded like microwave popcorn. All those stages meant acts were needed, and the rapid growth outpaced the development of talent. Many shows were no longer worth the cover charge and two drink minimum and eventually the whole game eventually collapsed. The number of places for comics to play now is miniscule and even those clubs are struggling. These nights help keep live comedy alive.

This is how I came to be fourth from the end of a twenty-seven rookie comic extravaganza that would stretch on continuously for three excruciating hours. Real shows have a structure – three comedians, first is the night’s MC who gets a short set and then introduces the opening act. The MC then introduces the headliner who does a longer set. MC is a yeoman’s job, it is the lowest rung on the comedy ladder, the way you pay your dues, getting to say that you performed with “fill in the name of the headliner.”

But it’s the opposite with an open mic. The MC is the most seasoned comic on the bill, gets the longest set at the beginning (to guarantee that at least something funny will be seen), and then serves as an anchor during the marathon doing quick bits between the newbies to keep those who have already seen their friend in the seats ordering drinks.
Sonny, the night’s MC, had his work cut out for him. A couple comics were regulars trying to add “winner of the ‘New Talent Showcase’” to their credits, but most were first timers who didn’t realize that you actually needed to have written material to fill five minutes, much less ten. Unfunny radiated from the stage in the form of staggeringly drunk frat boys, disgruntled, inarticulate factory workers, and a racist in a polo shirt. It was a preview of comic hell. The Cosmic Comic was warning us that sinful lives would lead to reliving that show for all of eternity.

There was Amos, whose opening line was that in elementary school the children called him “Anus.” It would have been mildly amusing if there had been more to his act. But for twelve interminable minutes, as Sonny in an increasingly urgent fashion flashed him the signal to get off stage, he continually repeated the ways in which he would be called for lunch, recess, and everything else by students and teachers as Anus. Have you ever repeated a word over and over again until it just sounds wrong in your head? I’ve not been able to look at a rectal sphincter in quite the same way since.

Refuting claims of telekinesis, the entire psychic energy of the hundred or so people in that club was simultaneously focused on levitating that Anus off the stage, yet he remained the immovable object, until he realized that he had a second joke. With his last stolen minute, he turned around, and pulled from a brown paper lunch bag, a foot and a half long marital aid and strapped it to his chin as he made uncomfortably lewd facial movements ten feet in front of my grandmother. Years of therapy gone in thirty seconds.

There is a reason for opening acts. Comedy at its best is like surfing, once there is a wave of laughter, it becomes self-reinforcing and you can ride it instead of having to swim against the tide. The opening act brings in the tide, getting the waves rolling. So, I had great hopes for the guy before me. Earnestly studying his sheet of hand-written jokes through furrowed brows, he was a nice guy and I hoped for both our sakes that the lines on his paper killed.

Alfred Adler argued that to be human is to be insecure and stage fright is perhaps the most explicit instance of insecurity. Watching someone wither, seeing self-image melt, is stunningly affective. He took the stage and froze. Starting one joke, he aborted. Trying another, he forgot its obvious punch line. When a compassionate stranger in the front row supplied it for him, it didn’t register. He left the stage prematurely, defeated, a somber pall trailing behind him. My opening act was Bambi’s mother getting shot.

Three hours, five glasses of water, and fifteen trips to the men’s room later, it was finally my time. You can tell when it’s a white guy’s first time on stage. They’re the only ones dressed like Jerry Seinfeld in sneakers, jeans, a plain t-shirt and sports jacket. There I was climbing up onto a real stage with nothing but the emblematic stool and mic stand in my sneakers, jeans, plain t-shirt and sports jacket. After months of writing, editing, re-writing, and working in front of the mirror, it was go time.

Placing my glass of water on the stool, I turned around to see nothing. The lights that made me visible to the audience made them invisible to me. You couldn’t play off of reactions because you could not see the faces. Your only cues being the sounds you could hear over the echoes of your heart beating in your head.

I started with some political jokes, segued into a schtick about circumcision, communion, and jihad, then ended with an extended bit on Eskimo kissing. A slight stumble over one line and accidentally leaving out one good joke, it was a successful seven and a half minutes of humor. I left the stage feeling good.

Walking back to the bar, a guy asked me how long I had been performing. When I told him it was my first time, he seemed surprised and told me in a hushed tone that if I wanted to continue, there was an open mic across town at a rib joint for working comics, a smaller but more workshop-like arena to test out new material. I took the compliment, but I had gotten what I had come for. I had done stand-up. I had a unique 40th birthday party, a story that I could milk for years, and a mid-life crisis averted. Or so I thought...