Sunday, November 08, 2009

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

My wife’s Grandmother is 100 years old. She has a very weak heart, any sudden shock could be it, so every year we wrap her Christmas presents in Saran Wrap.
I wrote and edited, worked in front of the mirror, went over and over bits as I drove to and from work. It had been a long odyssey of self-doubt and reaffirmation, but I thought I was in a place to pull it off.

I should have sensed something wrong when the afternoon of the show, I finally got around to timing out my routine. I had relied on my page length calculations and did not actually figure out how long I was running. When my first set clocked in at twenty-three minutes, I realized something needed to be done. I had to cut about a third from each set. But I had segues leading from section to section and references back to earlier jokes that only made sense if the earlier jokes were still in.

I figured out where there was fat and tried not to chop out too much content, but got it down to size. Sloppy and unprofessional, I chastised myself. How could I not have done something as basic as timing out my sets? But I had rescued it and sat confidently eating and chatting with the band before the show.

Leaving the green room for a visit to the men’s room, I noticed some of the staff moving benches in from the lobby. They had run out of chairs. It was going to be an overflow crowd. I gave them a hand hauling in more benches and looked up in horror at the arrangement. It was a dance, how could I not have realized that there would be a dance floor? The distance between the stage and the first set of chairs was huge. If a single empty row of chairs was a chasm for comedy, the vast wasteland of a dance floor was a region of astronomical proportion, a black hole that would suck in my entire set. There was only one solution, I had to bring the stage to them. I needed a wireless mic to use the dance floor as the stage. I was told they didn’t have one, but the terror in my eyes led them to search.

By the time they found it, the set up was the least of my worries. I looked by the door and there they were…mom, dad, and their daughters, one about six and the other probably eight. This was a full set, forty-five minutes of jokes written for an audience I thought would be drunk college students. I ran and got a member of the planning committee with whom I had become very friendly, northeastern Jew who loved having another member of tribe around. I ran through my routines for her. Oh, she laughed, joke after joke, “That’s great, you can’t tell it.” I looked down at my book. After spending months to get a tight forty-five minutes of strong jokes, my entire routine was twelve minutes at best with only a few minutes before Showtime. I had signed the contract. I had already been paid for the show. What could I do?

The crowd was a mixture of families with young children and a lot of senior citizens. I was in the South. I am a secular Jew. These were very much not my people. I was on their turf and was expected to entertain them. I started to feel the old fear resurface. If ever there was an appropriate time for a meltdown, this was it and I braced myself for it.

I had developed a couple of jokes about Cajun food while I was in town, that would work. I could do a bit I had cut about the similarities between Baltimore and Lake Charles. It wasn’t as funny as the rest of the stuff, but it was clean. Along with what remained of my original material, it gave me enough to get me through my first set. So, the bandleader introduced me and I launched into it.

Interestingly, it was the best thing I could have done because it showed that I was not just a performer playing yet another show wherever he happened to be, but displayed deference to their much maligned hometown. Now I was not some Yankee, but a cousin from out of state. The audience had embraced me and they were laughing at lines I thought were just ok, but not my best work. They were with me and having fun. They wanted to laugh and I realized that I was nowhere in my head, I was surfing.

But I had two more sets I needed to spontaneously generate. For the second set, I remembered advice from my buddy – tell stories. So, I took an old dinner party favorite about the time I tried out for “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” embellished it and with a couple of TV jokes as an intro took it out to fifteen minutes. I was always a punch line guy, I’d never tried the Bill Cosby narrative approach. Here I was, on the fly, realizing that my job as a comedian was not to keep them continuously laughing, but to keep them engaged, entertained. By the time, I got to the final pop in the story and hit a quick segue back to the band, I could sense that I had made a roomful of friends.
As the Cajun music started up, an older gentleman in a plaid flannel shirt came up and spoke to me in Cajun French. Reaching back to high school, I got a little bit, enough to know he asked at the end “Do you understand?” When I replied “Une peu,” a little, in a terribly rusty accent, he grinned and slapped me on the shoulder, and went off two-stepping off with his wife.

I had one set left and knew what to do. I had created a pretend religion, Comedism, in which that which is holy is that which is funny and had developed a set of schticks I tell in my classes when asked about it. I’d pull that out and end by inviting people up for a joke telling contest offering automatic entry into comedy heaven to the winner. So there I was talking about our Holy Scripture, The Comedist Manifesto, and explaining the central tenet of the religion that life is a joke. You see a joke has two parts, a set up that leads you to think of a situation in a particular way and a punch line that forces you to realize that you need an entirely different understanding than you first thought. Laughter comes when your brain is stuck trying to reconcile these irreconcilable interpretations. Jokes require you to see the world in more than way at the same time.

As I was getting laughs, I realized that these folks who were not my people, were, in fact, my people. I had found my voice and it was, in fact, my voice. What started as an attempt to avoid a midlife crisis had become a full-blown search for identity. In the end, the Comic religion was actually right. The stage is the ultimate confessional where your flaws and sins are not absolved, but in being brought out into the light become invisible because you have no more need to hide them. The connection that you make in bringing a laugh to a stranger bridges any divide as long as there is not space to separate you from each other. My life now made sense as a joke. The set up took an entire year, and here in the joy of the room with the mic back in the stand I finally got the punch line.