Thursday, November 05, 2009

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

What’s solitary, nasty, brutish, and enlarged? Hobbes’ prostate of nature. Why did the Freudian chicken cross the road? She was envious of the cock.
A few days later, I got word of a new room in town asking for people to play its opening night. I got my name on the list figuring I’d hone this second module. Arriving early but still learning the protocols of this new world, I checked in with the host late and ended up at the end of the night’s menu.

The bar, a small oblong room in Fells Point, the obnoxiously alcoholic district of Baltimore, was odd. Under previous ownership, I had sat in with college buddies whose garage band played there about ten years earlier. In the meantime, the bar had new owners who decided to make it a strip joint, building before they realized that they would not be granted the permit for nudity. Now it was a flailing sports bar with a mirrored stage five feet off the ground.

It was a metaphor not lost on me as I took the stage and stood there nakedly dying in front of that audience. I climbed the steps and quipped that I had not been this high in Fells Point since college, a line I thought clever at the time. But my ears didn’t match my mind.

Stand-up comedy is hard for many reasons, but chief among them is that it requires a combination of two very different skills. First, you must be a good writer, finding clever, insightful, and sharp new angles on things and being gifted in taking a funny idea and shaping it into a well-worded joke. Musicians can develop their chops playing covers, but comics start from scratch working up their own material.

But you not only have to have the funny, you need to bring the funny. Delivery and presence is paramount. The amateurs I was among were influenced by Chris Rock; they were loud, big, and in your face. Several of them were quite good at it, limited only by their material. They were talented with the mic, but didn’t have anything strong to say through it. They didn’t seem to understand the craft of joke writing. This, I thought in my arrogance, would be the strength that would carry me through. My stuff was so witty that it could walk on its own. Or so I tried telling myself repeatedly as I sat at the bar.

The sound system was built behind the stage to boom out rhythms to facilitate the undulations of strippers, but now I heard only the sound of my voice. Everyone who is not James Earl Jones knows that moment, hearing your voice as others hear it. It was higher and squeakier than in my head. It sounded so small and they sounded so big. The thumping, the cold sweat, the stomach, the shaking hands with their death grip on the mic. The jokes I told just days earlier were gone. Tripping over words, voice quivering, timing gone, I blew punch lines. The sympathetic faces that looked at the guy before me my first go ‘round were now looking pityingly at me. I had stage fright and was dying up there. The comic gods had struck me down.