I have this friend who is completely blind. Loves to go to Hooters. They keep the restaurant cold for him so that he can read the waitresses’ t-shirts in Braille.Not only had I died on stage, I was sent to hell. My stomach tightened thinking about comedy and like your tongue searching the empty spot of a lost tooth, it couldn’t stop going there.
I was giving academic talks and cracking jokes with no problem in front of at least as many strangers as were in the bar that night. I was teaching and for all intents and purposes doing stand-up breezily. In my classroom, I could do the Lewis Black style rant, the Steven Wright word plays, the Steve Martin goofy bit all in the context of philosophy lectures and pull it off without breaking a sweat. But the thought of the stool and mic made me ill. It was the dark night of my humorous soul. I wandered in the comic desert. I felt like Moses led to, but barred from seeing the Promised Land.
As a philosopher, I could not avoid analyzing it. The only difference was the context, the place. What was it about the stage? I was comfortable in the company of other geeks. But to do stand-up I had leave the comfort of my little Nerdvana. Comedy is done in bars. Bars are filled with people who go to bars. These were not my people, this was the in-crowd, the guys who bullied me as a child and the girls I wasn’t cool enough to even have crushes on. It was their territory and I always knew that I was out of place among them. Now it was my job to be their court jester. If I was to succeed, it was because they would judge me funny enough by their standards.
Middle school had never ended. The revelation was sickening. I was writing the sort of jokes people with doctorates in philosophy would enjoy, but I was telling them to drunk people who laugh at one thing and one thing only. If I wanted to avoid the comic equivalent of this atomic wedgie, I would need to once again be subservient to the jocks and princesses I thought I had left. In the classroom, I had the red pen, but here once again they held the social capital. So, I was faced with a choice – give up the dream and surrender to the fear, that would mean the bullies had once again won, or else figure out how to play by their rules and entertain them, meaning that they once again held the power over me and won.
I tried to work more blue, but even my dirty jokes seemed too sophisticated. The fear ebbed and flowed. A good night was not one that got laughs, but just one where I wasn’t inside my head and they weren’t happening very often. I seemed more and more sure that I could never fake it. I wasn’t a comedian and I’d never be able to fool a packed room full of people for forty-five minutes who paid to see me that I was.
When both of the open mic comedy nights I was playing closed in a matter of weeks of each other, it seemed like an omen. The comedy gods were sending me a message, I had fallen from grace.