Monday, November 30, 2009

Why The "Climategate" E-Mails Do not Mean What Conservatives Seem to Think They Mean

Many on the right are up in arms over a set of stolen e-mail messages among some of the bigger names in the political climate debate. Accusations of fraud and deception abound and the inference they draw from these conversations is that the case for global warming is flawed and therefore that nothing needs to be done. Of course, that is not what they mean at all.

It is as wrong to call it "the" debate over global warming as it is to call it "the" debate over intelligent design. In both cases, there are two conversations: one scientific and one political. The scientific conversations in both cases are not as controversial as those on the right would have you believe. In both cases there is clear consensus with a few outlier researchers opposing that consensus. In every case there are such figures. Ernst Mach and Henri Poincare, two of the biggest names in turn of the century physics, both denounced the theory of relativity and the existence of atoms. There will always be figures who disagree with the mainstream scientific beliefs, but that does not mean that those beliefs are flawed. Dissenting voices are always there in science, occasionally these dissenting voices are right, usually they aren't. They play a crucial role in scientific discourse, but their existence in any given case does not imply anything special. The scientists in both of these cases have good reason to believe in the likely truth of the hypotheses.

That does not mean that there is not rousing and passionate disagreement among them. Again, of course there is. There are competing hypotheses and models within the research program, but that does not mean that there is a problem with it. to the contrary, it means that it is live. Scientists disagree with other. That is what they do. Evolutionary biologists duke it out over all sorts of questions. That does not mean that speciation by natural and sexual selection is in doubt. similarly, there are many open question in climate science, but their existence does not throw the central working hypothesis in a skeptical light.

But these debates, the ones between scientists, are not the only debates occurring. The other completely distinct conversations occur in the body politic. For decades, scientists shunned these discussions arrogantly believing that in the division of intellectual labor, their specialized knowledge made them the sole legitimate source for insight and that the rest of society would simply shut up and listen. This didn't happen. indeed, when the message they conveyed stood contrary to powerful and wealthy corporate interests, they found themselves minimized, all but shut out of the conversation. The public is scientifically illiterate thinking that "experimental error" means scientific flaw. Those with financial interest in moving public opinion away from scientific consensus realized that this ignorance was an advantage for them, that they did not need to win the scientific battles, only muddy the waters enough, create sufficient doubt in the non-scientists' minds that they could believe whatever was most convenient and desirable.

The tobacco industry was among the first to realize this and created the Tobacco Institute which housed scientists who were willing to say things (especially in court) that the industry liked for a nice fat paycheck. Other corporate interests follwed suit, especially after the Daubert decision. It had been the case that scientific testimony in a court of law was limited to qualified scientists explaining scientific consensus to the jury. but in a case brought against manufacturers of vaccines, the plaintiffs -- the little guys -- argued that they should be allowed to bring scientific witnesses who held views contrary to the consensus. When they won, the corporate fat cats saw an opening for them and they nurtured corrals of dissenting scientists willing to do their bidding. Not long ago, a similar call went out to academics -- earth scientists and economists (although somehow I received it as well) -- who would be willing to speak out against global warming for remuneration.

The strategy that had been used successfully by the tobacco industry was formalized for the global warming debate by Frank Luntz, the conservative mastermind who gave us the phrase "death tax" for inheritance tax. he realized that language reframed debates in ways that left certain presuppositions of limits to debate. It was he who coined the phrase "climate change" because it was much more friendly than "global warming" which sounded dangerous. Climate changes, that's just what it does, so there's nothing to worry about here. Move along. He explicitly articulated for conservative and corporate interests that they did not need to win the scientific debate, just muddy the waters in the public mind. If they could be perceived to have fought to a draw, they win -- whether they did or not in the scientific debate. People don't want to be responsible, so if you cast even a shadow of a doubt, people will think that the question is unsettled and opt for their preferred, more comfortable beliefs which is "do nothing."

So, scientists found themselves in an odd spot. They saw a need, were the experts in determining how to fix the problem, but were being shut out of the policy debates that would lead to the implementation of those measures that would fix the problem they knew was there. But what happened because of the Luntz strategy is that the level of support they needed to bring was not what was needed in scientific debate -- reasonable belief based on evidence -- but something utterly unattainable in any scientific case -- near proof, virtual certainty. Luntz knowingly raised the bar above what they could deliver. so, know scientists changed from merely being scientists to being scientist politicians. The scientific question was settled, now they needed to do battle in the political arena according to the political rules. And so they had to give an artificially inflated interpretation of the evidence for political reasons, one that exceeded the needs for legitimate scientific belief may have been inflated beyond the limits of the data itself.

And THAT is what we see in those e-mails. Look at internal discussions in any situation, on any side of any issue and what you see is exactly what you see in those e-mails. It is not scientific malfeasance, but political machination. The e-mails have no bearing on the scientific case, one that has never been effective in moving public opinion because we don't understand it and sadly, scientists suck at explaining it to us.

But scientists' political power comes in part because they are seen to be "objective" and the idea that they are part of a political movement seems to damage this objectivity. This, of course, is an equivocation -- the same one that keeps reporters giving equal weight to the views from left and right even if one is demonstrably wrong. What is meant by objectivity in science is that one tries to falsify beliefs and follows inductive inferences from the data. It does not mean that once the data has a reasonable interpretation, that one does not lobby on behalf of solving problems one has uncovered. If I see a baby being stalked by a coyote, I need to do what I can to save it. The scientists saw exactly that and so they cried wolf, not because there wasn't a threat, but because they needed to draw enough attention to get the problem solved.

And there is a problem. There are almost no glaciers left in Glacier National Park. The peak of Mount Kilimanjaro is no longer covered in snows as it has always been. Venice is having to build a sea wall to protect itself against the rising ocean. We are losing chunks of the arctic ice shelf the size of states. E-mails or no e-mails, we need to be responsible. We need to clean our room. We need to do what we need to do.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

More Smart Jokes

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we do more smart jokes. Good brother 71 sent us this:

and it reminded me of a question I've been meaning to ask the congregation. Been working on my roll of smart jokes and have two new ones:

I went to the doctor yesterday because I had inflamation in one of my eyes or the other. He said I have disjunctivitis.

Last night I had non-abelian group sex, at the end of the evening everyone you claim to have slept with denies having sex with you.
But I'm stuck on the phrasing of one punch line. The set up is: What do you get if you cross Sophocles with James Bond? The punch line is either (a) Oedipussy Rex or (b) Octopussy Rex. I've been using (a), but am not convinced it it the better phrasing. Thoughts?

Oh, and the Cosmic Comic will smile upon all contributions of smart jokes in the comments.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 27, 2009

Meditation on Black Friday

So once again, it is time for our holiday dedicated to overcomsumptive consumerism. It is a little bit hard to take seriously any givings of thanks when no sooner have they left our lips than we turn around and become petty, pushy, and selfish about all the things we want and don't have. We move from one day of unhealthful nutritional overindulgence to unhealthful financial overindulgence.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Origin of Species and the Historicization of Science

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, a book that changed our view of biology, ourselves, and of science itself. What is interesting about it is that it was a book that was never meant to be written. Darwin was working on his "big book" on natural selection when fellow naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace independently arrived at the idea of descent with modification, that is, Darwin's theory of evolution. With his hand forced, Darwin wrote The Origin as an introduction, an abstract to the more comprehensive work he intended to produce.

The ways it changed our views of the natural world and economic life are legion, but it also changed science itself. Before Darwin, the picture of science was mechanistic. Going back to Rene Descartes, the physical world was seen as a machine whose governing principles were absolute and mathematical. In a given situation there is a completely deterministic outcome that is absolutely determinable. It was a view that Isaac Newton found deplorable as it removed God from the workings of the world, but it was a picture Newton's three laws of motion and law of universal gravitation cemented in place. Newtonian mechanics and gravitation explained so much so well that it became the touchstone, the template, the epitome of what science was to be.

Newton's laws treat objects as mass points and for any arrangements of them, give us with absolute certainty the arrangements that follow for any time in the future and allow us to determine their arrangement in the past. This view was coherent with both an atheistic materialism providing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena and with theism and deism, providing rational principles of the sort one would expect from an all-rational Creator.

Darwin's theory in The Origins of Species, however, is different in a very important fashion.

"We can understand why a species when once lost should never reappear, even if the very same conditions of life, organic and inorganic, should recur. For though the offspring of one species might be adapted (and no doubt this has occurred in innumerable circumstances) to fill the place of another species in the economy of nature, and thus supplant it; yet the two forms -- the old and the new -- would not be identically the same; for both would almost certainly inherit different characters from their distant progenitors; and organisms already differing would vary in a different manner."
For Newton, the same conditions entails the same result, not so for Darwin. This is not to say that variation follows no rules, although Darwin had no idea what they would be. This is not to say that selection follows no rules -- Darwin gives us two, natural and sexual selection. But it is to say that we can no longer think of the world as a machine, it is instead an organism. To hold a scientistic view before Darwin was to hold that the world was completely graspable, a clockwork mechanism whose principles and initial conditions simply needed unraveling. But for Darwin, it was much more complex, it was historical. For Newton, you just needed the laws and the state at any time, for Darwin, you needed the laws, the state, and a full accounting of the past. Where you are going biologically is not just a function of where you are, but where you come from. You inherit your past and you never lose it.

This was a completely different scientific stance. The world had a memory. Such a notion would appear elsewhere in science. Embryology would contain it. The recapitulation hypothesis of Serres that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that as an embryo develops, it goes through stages of all of its ancestors' ancient forms is a version of this approach. Freud takes it from nature red in tooth and claw and puts in our heads neurotic and raw. People are not point masses, put in the same situations they react differently. Your mind contains its past and changes uniquely because of it.

While neither of these historically important positions held up to critical scrutiny, what we see in Darwin is an early notion of chaos, that the world may be deterministic, but in being so it is also extremely sensitive to initial conditions. Indeed, so sensitive with so many independent variables that we cannot treat it as a simple machine. This complexity may not take it beyond our comprehension, but it does make it more beautiful and awe-inspiring. It is what it is, but what it will be is a function of what it was.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Romanticizing of Outlaws

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid. He was not the serial killer that his legend holds him out to be and, indeed, was not well-known until Pat Garrett, the sheriff that ultimately did him in, wrote a self-aggrandizing account.

But the legend lives on and that leads to today's question: why do we find outlaws so romantic? The great advances in society, the ability to live long and fulfilling lives, the heights of science and culture are all predicated on there being order. Without a social contract that allows us to be fairly confident about our ability to live without fear of one another, we couldn't do or plan and these projects are what make us who we are. All of this is threatened by by the outlaw. Yet, we love them, are drawn to them. Why?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Comedist Apostate's Day

My Fellow Comedists,

Good brother Ron asks,

"What is the unfunniest day on the calendar? Is it December 7, a day that will live in infamy? Sept. 11? Aug 6 (Hiroshima)? That list seems distinctly American, but I'm having trouble thinking of others. The Jewish calendar has Tisha B'av, a day to remember the destruction of the Temple. Other historical Jewish catastrophes (the Nuremberg Laws, etc.) are shoehorned in as well."

He gives us a link to Newsweek's vilification of certain big name comedians. Their list of 12 unfunny comedians:

Larry the Cable Guy
Carlos Mencia
Howie Mandel
Dane Cook
Gallagher
Andrew Dice Clay
Emo Philips
Jay Leno
Jeff Dunham
Paulie Shore
Carrot Top
Yakov Smirnov

The list, to my mind, is a bit suspect. A number of these guys were decent stand-ups whose fame outran their standing.

Dane Cook is no Carlin, but he's a good comic, not as good as the press he gets, sure, but he's got a "The Price Is Right" sketch that is well written and he knows how to work a stage. No, that stage shouldn't be as large as it is, but, hey, jealousy is unbecoming. Ditto for Larry the Cable Guy. Yes, the least talented of the blue collar guys, but he's got a schtick. No, he's not as good as the reception he gets, but, then, someone gave me tenure.

Gallagher and Carrot Top are hack choices. Everyone busts one them. Carrot Top is an anti-comedian, his schtick is to be unfunny and over the top. Gallagher was smart and clean and comics see him as not having had an edge at a time when Eddie Murphy was reshaping the art form. But as a smart kid who loved comedy, I enjoyed his linguistic/observation stuff (same for Emo). Yes, sledge-o-matic was obnoxious, but you could tell he hated it, too.

Going nightly or weekly makes stand-up tough because you don't have the chance to sharpen your material on the road like other comics. You have writers who give you a regular monologue and your routine suffers. I think Leno and Mencia get a pass for their regular contributions to comedy.

Yakov Smirnov caught a moment. His line in Vegas -- I was walking through a casino and saw some people playing roulette, I like your version a lot better -- has always been one of my favorites. No, he's not one of the all-time greats, but making light of the Cold War was a good thing. No one would compare Dexie's Midnight Runner to The Stones, but why begrudge them their fifteen minutes?

The others, o.k., I'll give them to you. Andrew Dice Clay was the Ronald Reagan of stand-up and Jeff Dunham is the Dick Cheney. Paulie Shore is the Kato Kaelen of comedy.

So, who do you find unfunny or not as funny as their reputation?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Effectiveness of Book Cover Blurbs

TheWife last night said that if she picks up a book and sees a positive blurb from someone whose books she likes, she is, in fact, more likely to buy the book. I, on the other hand, have never read a jacket blurb before making the purchase. How much do you find book blurbs to be effective, helpful, relevant?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why Do You Know That?

Let's do this one again. It's the converse of "Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics" where you provide everyone with those tidbits of useless knowledge you have stored away for no good reason.

My contribution:


New Haven, CT has the greatest number of Dunkin' Donuts per capita of any city.

B.B. King's real name is Riley. B.B. is short for "Blues Boy."

William Whewell gave us the terms "scientist," "physicist," "ion," "anode," and "cathode."

So, what do you know?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Animal Consciousness

I'm teaching a seminar on The Origin of Species this semester with a colleague who is writing on animal consciousness and it's generated a bunch of conversation around these parts, so I figured I'd raise the question here.

At what point do we attribute consciousness to animals? Surely goal directed behavior is not sufficient. Electricity "seeks" the path of least resistance. Heat flows from hot to cold. Metal is attracted to a magnet. Yet, no one will want to grant consciousness to these objects. At the other end, complex mammals like elephants, dogs, and apes clearly have some sense of self and awareness of their surroundings and what they can do to them. Where do we draw the line? Bees complex dances tell other bees where food is. Ant colonies have incredible differential roles for individual members. Fish schools have helpful functions. Where do we draw the line between conscious and non-conscious? Or is there a line to be drawn at all?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Contranyms

The shorties have had some good ones lately. The shorter of the short people asked me if there was a name for pairs of words that spell each other backwards like "pots" and "stop." Anyone know if there is such a term? I came up with "contranym" where palindromes would become autocontranyms.

Five letter ones are easy enough to come up with -- parts and strap, for example, or snaps and spans. Can we find ones that are even longer?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Short Ethics Questions

This weekend, the short people had some very good questions. The taller of the short people asked whether doing a number of good acts made it ok to do a bad one, whether we save up ethics points that can be redeemed on something we know we shouldn't do.

When I asked whether that was right, the response was that it seemed better to do something bad after a number of good things than to do a number of good things after the wrong act. The second seemed like bribes to get one out of trouble, but that when done in the opposite order, it was more like a good person making a mistake and we all make mistakes.

The shorter of the short people then asked whether being good meant that you had to do good things or whether you could be good by just not doing bad things. Is ethics necessarily about actively making the world a better place or abiding by "thou shalt not"?

I responded, "Good question. Let me put it up on the blog and see what people think." They were excited by the prospect of starting an adult conversation. So, for the shorties, what do you think?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Feast of Saint Will

My Comedist Brethren and Sistern,

Good brother Ron reminded me that last weekend was the Feast of saint Will. It was the birthday of Will Rogers, the man single-handed made political satire in America an art form. When you watch Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, you are watching the great-grandchildren of will Rogers. Armed with a newspaper, a gee-golly style, and a quick wit, he became a comic superstar before there was such a thing.

Here are some Rogerisms good brother Ron has supplied:

An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what you have just found out.

An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh.

Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate; now what's going to happen to us with both a Senate and a House?

Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for.

Diplomacy is the art of saying 'Nice doggie' until you can find a rock.

Don't gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don't go up, don't buy it.

Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.

I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.

I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do today.

I was not a child prodigy, because a child prodigy is a child who knows as much when it is a child as it does when it grows up.

I'm not a real movie star. I've still got the same wife I started out with twenty-eight years ago.

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.

Nothing you can't spell will ever work.

On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.

Our constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.

Politics is applesauce.

Take the diplomacy out of war and the thing would fall flat in a week.

The best doctor in the world is the veterinarian. He can't ask his patients what is the matter-he's got to just know.

The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself.

The only time people dislike gossip is when you gossip about them.

There ought to be one day-- just one-- when there is open season on senators.

There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.

This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.

We are all here for a spell; get all the good laughs you can.

We can't all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.

We don't know what we want, but we are ready to bite somebody to get it.

Rumor travels faster, but it don't stay put as long as truth.

There is only one thing that can kill the Movies, and that is education.

The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best.

The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.
Happy birthday, Will Rogers.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 13, 2009

What Is Superstition?

Between it being Friday the 13th and the Stevie Wonder kick I've been on all week, let's ask about superstition. Surely it's more than the line "when you believe in things you don't understand" because we can have reasonable beliefs about things we don't understand. I don't understand the triggering mechanism for the airbags in my car, but I have a reasonable belief that they will work if I need them. So, what is superstition, then?

Let's use some of the most superstitious people around as a case study, athletes. Four examples:

1) A soccer player always wears a particular pair of socks for big matches because he believes that they are lucky and wearing them increases the likelihood his team will win.

2) A devout Catholic baseball player always crosses himself before batting believing that the act will please God and make it more likely that God will look down and smile upon his efforts to get a hit.

3) A football player finds that in the several games this season, whenever he puts on his left shoe first, he has played well and whenever he has put on his right shoe first, the team has played badly. So, not believing it has an effect, but just to be sure, he puts on his left shoe first.

4) A lacrosse goalie who would later become a philosophy professor would always engage in a ritual in the last few seconds before every game by facing the goal and tapping the inside of all the poles of the goal with the back of his stick, turning around and reaching back for the right pole, then then left, spinning his stick while doing a deep knee bend, stretching his neck to the left, then the right, then running out and greeting his defensemen -- right, crease, then left. He has a naturalistic explanation about getting a feel for the goal he was defending, focusing his mind, and creating a bond with his teammates, but knows that he might play well whether he does this or not.

So, it seems pretty clear that #1 is a case of superstitious belief. Is #2? It is certainly religious, but is it also superstitious? Is #3 also superstitious if there isn't a complete acceptance of the potential superstition, but action in accord with it? How about #4? Does the existence of a naturalistic explanation mitigate its superstitious nature?

And, of course, any excuse to hear Stevie covering Stevie:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Can You Argue From Ignorance?

There is a standard reasoning error called "argument from ignorance" which is asserting that a lack of proof for something is proof of its falsity. For example, before I was about to teach this fallacy for the first time I came into the room to find the students engaged in an argument about the existence of God. The last thing said was "You can't disprove God's existence, so He must exist." This student turned beet red in the middle of class.

We ought to believe that for which we have good evidence, and that we do not now have evidence does not mean that such evidence doesn't actually exist, just that we don't yet know it. The proper stance of the ignorant is suspended belief, not to believe one way or the other.

The way one usually commits this error is by shifting the burden of proof. When you make a claim, it is now your responsibility to provide good reason for me to believe it, it is not my job to provide reasons why it is not true. Arguing from ignorance often occurs when you shift this burden of proof to me, where it does not belong. You made the claim, you support it.

But we do infer from ignorance all the time and sometimes it does seem proper. When someone pleads the fifth, for example, we generally take this as good reason to believe he is guilty. From a lack of evidence given to clear his name, we assert that we have a reasonable belief that he, in fact, did it. The lack of evidence of his innocence is what we base our assertion of guilt upon. But isn't this a good inference?

In this case, it is a shifting of the burden of proof, but in the context don't we have reason to suspect that this is a burden that he would gladly take up. We have reason to think that given the consequences of belief in his guilt, that he would do everything that would help him convince the jury of his innocence and not taking the burden -- even if if isn't required of him -- is odd and that oddity is best interpreted as likely guilt. He didn't explicitly tell us he was innocent because he probably isn't. He didn't explain away the charge because he can't.

Is this legitimate reasoning? If so, when is an argument from ignorance acceptable and when is it fallacious?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Those Who Gave Their Lives

On Veteran's day, it is appropriate to think about those who gave their lives. There are those who died, lives of hope and promise terribly amputated from young people who hopefully understood the cause. But those who perished are not the only ones who gave their lives. Those who returned, too, have given their lives, lives they must continue to live.

I have mentioned my grandfather before, a member of the 82nd Airborne during World War II who jumped behind German lines before D-Day. He lived a full life, but in his last days, with his family around him, he was returned to Europe, returned to the torture that never left his soul. Sherman wrote truthfully that "War is hell," but we must remember that hell is not a tourist destination. The devil does not rent souls. You never leave hell and it never leaves you.

In Marshall's words, those in battle come "from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable...The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly — practically with his mother’s milk — that it is part of the normal man’s emotional make-up. This is his great handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint upon him." People are not the natural killers needed in times of war and so they must be remade, broken of their normal humanity, and reconstructed.

Then we sent these young people to witness horrors, live in constant fear, survive in an unnatural state of hyper-readiness, and experience loss at a personal level that is unimaginable for the rest of us. Surely, we are not so naive to think that this process and exposure comes with no cost after the fact.

Veterans come back to us with parades that end and even those who have been fortunate enough to have their bodies completely intact are left more likely to divorce, more susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, suicide, less likely to be able to thrive in an occupation. It doesn't end for them.

When you see a veteran, remember that the sacrifice he made is one he is still making. War changes those who witness it in a way that unalterable. Veterans continue to give their lives, even after they have have retired from service, even as they continue to live them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coins, Cookies, and Kindness

Been thinking about Isen and Levin's psychology experiments on kindness from the early 70's. In one experiment, a confederate handed out cookies to random students in a university library. Some time later, another confederate asked students in the library -- both those who received cookies and those who didn't -- whether they would be willing to give up twenty minutes to help with a psychology experiment. In the second experiment, a phone booth* was randomly stocked with a dime in the coin return. After a caller had completed a call, a confederate walking by the phone booth "accidentally" dropped a manila folder full of papers. In both cases, a statistically significant additional number of people agreed to help the psychology student and the person picking up the papers after having experienced good luck. When someone has done something nice for us or when the universe has given us a good turn, we are more likely to be thoughtful and kind.

If our behavior is so influenced by our surroundings, it raises a couple of questions. The obvious one which we've played with before is how much praise or condemnation do people deserve for being or not being thoughtful if we are not completely free agents? But knowing the effects of social psychology, should we set up society in a way that makes the best use of it? Of course, people who get used to having things done for them acquire a sense of entitlement and expect it, so the acts must continue to be thought of as random kindness. How could we harness this to make the world a better place?


*For younger Playground readers, a phone booth was a small closet-sized enclosure made of glass that contained a large telephone into which one would insert coins in order to make a call.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Testing and Stress

Guest-post today from Jim B.

Steve’s post from two weeks ago, “Campus Mental Health and False Urgency”, brought to light some interesting correlations between course work and an increase amount of mental illness on college campuses.

“That while students may or may not be coming to campus with higher rates of psychological concerns, we are creating them at a higher rate on our campuses”.
I do not believe this is a problem isolated to college campuses; having taught for ten years at the secondary level, I too have seen the amount of physical and mental illness associated with stress increase each year. The other day I took an informal poll of my classes, asking how many students have experienced some form of anxiety or stress prior to taking an exam. Nearly all students raised their hands. This did not come as much of a surprise, who has not felt the stress associated with a test? However, when I asked how many students have experienced more severe cases of physical or emotional symptoms related to school, resulting in their need to stay home or seek medical attention, over half of the students raised their hands. This I found to be an extremely large number of cases, after all, I teach twelve to thirteen year-olds.

A look at the special education data demonstrates an increase in the number of students with cases of emotional disorders, attention deficit syndromes, operational defiant, anxiety or emotional disturbed. Now, it would not be fair to blame testing on all emotional and physical ailments, however, I am sure that there may be a little more than just a coincidental correlation. Some students relate this feeling of stress to the increase amount of testing pressure, compliments of the No Child Left Behind emphasis on nationwide assessments. The “pass or else” syndrome has taken over many of the schools. Teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, parents, put the fear of failure into the heads of their students or children. “Do you want to work at McDonald's your whole life Johnny!” “If you fail this exam, then you will be taking extra course work next year, therefore, you will not be able to take an elective course, and you may even have your lunch period reduced”. “If you do not receive a level three on this assessment, your transcripts will show that you did not pass, what college wants a failure?” These statements, told to students prior to the administration of a mid-term, final exam, or statewide assessment, can contribute to the amount of pressure testing brings. Now, in New York State, assessments are given as early as the fifth grade. That means, by the time students graduate (if they have passed all their assessments) high school, they have been exposed to eight years of assessment pressure, not including midterms and final exams.

Each year, high-stake testing becomes the focal point of primary and secondary institutions. Conferences, superintendent days, faculty meetings, and in-service programs continue to feed the machine of testing pressure. Since it seems highly unlikely the No Child Left Behind Act, or testing mandates for that matter, will experience dramatic revisions or adjustments, students need to develop coping skills to help reduce the amount of stress and pressure aroused by high-stake assessment performance. By the time students reach college; changing their thinking patterns and attitudes becomes difficult. Coping strategies should be taught at the primary and secondary levels. Much like curriculum grows with age so should the development of proper study skills and coping mechanisms. The question is, however, how do teachers find the time, or are they willing to find the time, to add the responsibility of teaching such skills on top of their day-to-day duties of classroom instruction? What are the data patterns for educators and physical and mental ailments? Are educators becoming overwhelmed, like students, with all the pressure associated with our current educational institutions?

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.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

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

David Vitter, the very socially conservative Senator from Louisiana, was caught in the DC Madame scandal. What makes it even more ironic is that the prostitute spoke with the press and told them that the Senator insisted on wearing diapers to their sessions. Apparently, it’s still family values as long as you call the hooker “mommy.”
But then it was as if my guardian angel was protecting me. Writing at the public library, I rifled through the comedy albums, finding a Mort Sahl disk. A routine from the 90s with a few good lines, the CD held minor interest until the end. He closed by saying that he was told that you had to play down to the audience to succeed in comedy, but that he had always treated his audience as if they had Ph.D.’s. The wording stung me. He paved the way for Leno and Letterman with that approach, I could do worse.

It gave me back a sense of power over my act. I would write forty-five minutes of material that even drunk college students would have to laugh at. I got a note from the organizer that the gig would be a combination of comedy and dance music called “Chicken and Beer, Music and Comedy.” I’d be doing three fifteen-minute sets during the band’s breaks. Fifteen minutes was the combined length of my first and second modules. I already had a third of it written.

Typed out, seven minutes of comedy was about two pages. So, fifteen minutes, I estimated would be five, allowing for the fact that things tend to come out quicker on stage because of nervousness. I would need fifteen pages of jokes that would entertain beer drinking, chicken-eating, college students. I could do that.

But I would also need to develop stage presence, at least enough to get by. Karen, a friend in the theater department, offers a class in improv comedy and she was graciously willing to let me sit in to learn the basics of stagecraft. I could begin to solve the problem in my own geeky milieu.

But I would need to confront the mic and stool and the drunks that came with them. The classroom was one thing, but if I was going to be a comedian for a night, I needed to be a comic for several hard months.

Looking for rooms to play, a friend tipped me off to a new place in Northeast. I showed up to literally play to an empty house. The bartender, house manager, and sound woman took the front table as I got up and told every joke I had ever written. The sound woman had minored in philosophy and wanted more smart jokes. Was she a prophet?
The only thing worse than playing an empty room is playing a room of comics... which happens often. Bars rely on comics to bring people, but since the number of friends who would come out to see your act is limited, you only invite them to big gigs. As a result many open mics are badly attended. Of course, without the open mics, the rooms close and then there is no opportunity for the better shows. The circle is vicious.

Almost as vicious as the comics themselves. As a matter of policy, comics do not laugh at each other’s material unless it is to express derision. While newbies will get compassionate handshakes and nurturing backslaps, once you are seen as a regular, the best you can hope for is the comic’s attaboy, a flatly delivered “nice set.” You know you nailed it when someone comments that they had never heard the Mr. McFeely one before. A direct reference to a joke means it stuck in the mind and needs to stay.

Another room only gives you three minutes for your first set at the venue. The need to pack set ups and punch lines into such a tight time and the fact that a cable company was filming it for its amateur comedy specials combined to throw me back into my head and I blew it, but I learned a valuable lesson. The host made the comics sit in the front row until the room filled and audience members looked for those seats. No one wants to sit up front out of fear of getting picked on by the comedian, but if there is distance between the stage and the audience, jokes fall into the void never to be laughed at. You need to hit a home run, he said, to get it over the wall of empty seats.

Then I found a home at a club in Arlington, All-Stars Comedy club. I could get guaranteed stage time every week and a college educated audience. The regular comics were a good bunch and I settled in. Each week, I’d watch them hone their act making minor modifications while I’d take the chance to work through new modules. Some hit, some missed, but I was gaining back my confidence and adding to my time.

I figured that a college audience would have at least a few geeks, so I wrote some nerd jokes (I was part of a study testing the placebo effect, but I ended up in the control group. What do you get if you cross Sophocles and James Bond? Oedipussy Rex.) I knew that I had no business telling these jokes in a bar, but I had a roll of twelve and needed to practice the rapid-fire delivery in front of a crowd. They were going to fail. I was going to die on stage. I knew it and I accepted it. I was going to become a comedic martyr for my cause and I was at peace with that.

It was the day before April Fools’ Day and on that holy day the comic gods saw the new purity of my heart and my reverence for the jokes and they did deliver a miracle. A new guy, a recent graduate from James Mason, brought an entire table of twenty bright college kids and sat them right in front of the stage. They got each and every reference. Other comics were strangely complementary about the bit. The weather was getting warmer, time was getting shorter, the comic gods were smiling and I was feeling ready.

Friday, November 06, 2009

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

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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

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

It turns out that Eskimos really do kiss by rubbing noses. I dated an Eskimo woman once. Well, she was half Eskimo and half French, so when we would make out she’d stick her tongue up my nose.
Driving to work a few weeks later it hit me. “I just bought a new car. What I really wanted was one of those GPS navigation systems, but I couldn’t afford it. Had to go with the next cheaper version, the PMS navigation system. It has three settings: random explosion, constant criticism, and passive aggressive where you’ll drive for twenty miles and it’ll refuse to say anything.” It was good, too good not to use.

It was a fleeting thought, quickly dismissed as I focused on an upcoming presentation. It was a presentation relating religious modes of thought to the physics of Newton and Einstein. I was scheduled in the Banners’ series of lectures, concerts, and cultural events at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana where a good friend of mine teaches. Asked if I’d also speak to local schools, I agreed because I relish the chance to excite young people about science and it was nice to have more time to visit.

All went well and I found myself chummy with the folks running the series who invited me back the next year. When hearing of my comic adventure, they requested some stand-up when I came back. I knew a local bar had an open mic comedy night and I got a charge out of being able to pretend to be a real comedian playing on the road.

There was, however, a miscommunication. I had inadvertently agreed to a Banners event, a full show with an audience who would expect a professional comedian. Confronted with this by e-mail, I could have simply backed out. It was still floating in the ether of potentiality. It would mean writing forty-five minutes of quality comedy. That is a lot of jokes…a LOT of jokes. It would mean working them out in front audiences. That’s a lot of open mic nights. It is hard to be funny for ten minutes, three quarters of an hour is something else entirely.

But there is something magical about forty-five minutes. It is a complete set. In the old days, forty-five minutes of polished, rock solid material meant you could record an LP. That is where you transform from a comic to a comedian. This could be my only chance to emulate my childhood heroes. And I had an entire year. If I could do a fairly successful seven minutes with four week’s worth of preparation and no experience, developing five to six more short bits in twelve months shouldn’t be beyond me. So, I signed on for a year of living humorously.

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...