Wednesday, November 04, 2009

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

It’s a good thing that Jesus’ last miracle wasn’t to turn himself into a chicken before ascending up to heaven because then you could not serve the wafer with red wine. Jesus, the other white meat.
The second ten-minute module came together. Start with meditations on “truck nuts,” the fake rubber testicles hanging off the trailer hitches of pickup trucks and what gender equality might mean for them, move into the PMS navigator bit, a few license plate jokes that segue into new age kids in the backseat on a car trip, and end with accidentally staying at a hotel for the elderly (instead of a Continental breakfast, they had an incontinental breakfast where the apple juice was served in little specimen cups). I wanted to road test it and went to the rib joint.

The MC for the night did some strong material and brought up a couple of performers who clearly had worked the mic before. A much better class of comics, they fell in four categories. First are the pros who get up and coast. They pull some stuff out of mothballs to tighten up the delivery and do some better material by request of fellow comics in the house who want to hear favorite bits. Second are those trying to ascend into the ranks of working comics. I was surprised to see these guys walk on stage and work directly from their books – the notebook every comic keeps of carefully worked out bits and ideas for new jokes in development. The third group is comprised of folks like me in the early stages of learning the fundamental mechanics: using the space and the mic, working the crowd, finding balance without training wheels. The fourth class are the rookies, but you didn’t see that many here.

That night there was only one and he was first, a tough spot for anyone, but as a fiery wreck of unfunny, he did nothing to help himself out. Our cultural idea of a comedian is shaped by those we see and we generally only see the best of the best. By the time they make it to The Tonight Show, HBO, or Comedy Central, they’ve been honing that same routine in clubs, delivering variants of the same jokes every night for months, if not years. Comedy is flux, a full time job in which you write, edit, throw out, resurrect in a new form. We see comedy as a product, but like all art forms it is actually a glacial process, a craft. The rookie learned the hard way.

The third spot – a coveted position because the crowd is warmed up but not yet restless – was Jay, a rising insult comic who opened by pointing to the new kid and telling him that he sucked so badly that his friends couldn’t even lie to his face and pretend that he did well. He then congratulated him, welcoming him to the club. “You are now a comic, my brother,” he said. “Anyone who claims to be a comic and says he’s never died on stage as disgustingly as you just burned is a damned liar.”
I smirked with a hubris that surely mocked the comic gods for I thought that the failure could be avoided with wisdom. I loved comedy enough to have a sense of what makes a tightly worded joke, timing to guarantee successful delivery, and how to take a single line and place it in the rhythm of a larger bit. But I had gone further, reading technical literature about the nature of joking and teaching a semester-long independent study course on the linguistic structure of humorous utterances. I succeeded in my initial flight, the YouTube video getting good reviews on my blog, even from a working amateur comic, commenting that it took him a year to be as polished as I was my first time.

But behind this arrogance, I had also begun to feel strangely insecure about my material. Somehow, I seemed different from everyone else. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I started feeling nervous about my routine, which just an hour ago I had been quite proud of. This caught me off-guard. I’m a college professor. I speak in front of people every single day. My teaching style in the classroom and even my delivery of professional conference papers is based upon my stand-up heroes and had gotten me praise for years. I was almost cavalier about getting up and ad-libbing, challenging my students at the beginning of every class to ask me any question from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. But now I was getting the jitters. But my time came and the second bit was well received, so rationally that should have been the end of it.