I think I’m a comedian. You’ve probably gathered this if you’ve read any of my other posts.
I was 10 or 11 when Comedy Central first came out. For a while it shared a station with VH1 before it got it’s own spot on the dial. For the first half of the day you’d see Collective Soul and The Proclaimers, but the second half of the day was all comedy. Mind you this is WAY before South Park and The Daily Show. Most of the programming was stand-up comedy, and I was hooked instantly. I watched every comedian talk about anything and was totally enraptured, no matter their style, point of view, content or delivery. No matter what they said or did, people would laugh. I guess to me they seemed popular, which is a status that has always eluded me.
Even before this I’ve always tried to be funny, but as a little kid this came across as more goofy or weird, or more often just plain frustrating. I’ll talk more about my childhood weirdness another time, but in any case I always liked making people laugh. I liked, and still like, the big smile on someone’s face when I say or do something that makes them laugh, as long as they’re laughing with me of course. But this was the first time I’d seen anyone make people laugh professionally, and I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I devoured any scrap of stand-up comedy I could get a hold of from then on. I read articles, watched interviews and TV shows and watched every comedy special coming across the air waves. I came across a VHS tape of Bill Cosby’s legendary special, “Himself,” when my parents took me to the local video rental store, and renting that tape was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My mom had to come up to my room several times over the next week to see if I was alright as I watched Cosby over and over again and laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. I still can’t contain myself when I hear him describe going to the dentist.
I wanted desperately to be a stand-up comedian, but more I learned about the process, the less likely it seemed that it would actually happen. Comedians develop their material by performing over and over again in front of audiences. It’s not something you can get good at by practicing in the mirror at home or joking around with your friends. Writing your material out can help and is a very good habit to get into. George Carlin gave young comedians the advice that whenever they had an idea for a joke or bit, to write it out completely, at least a page of material. It wouldn’t matter if they would ever use that material, but it would get them in the habit of thinking and preparing and developing ideas a certain way that could translate to their performance. But writing by itself won’t make you a better comedian either. Youhave to get in front of crowds as often as possible or you might as well not even try. Comedians will tell the same jokes over and over again night after night, but each time tweaking them just a little. Changing a word here, adding inflection there, trying to get a better economy of words and getting to the point more quickly and clearly, trying the same jokes but in a different order, all in the pursuit of making people laugh and having the best set possible. But here I was barely a teenager and very sheltered, partly by my parents and partly by my own fear of the unknown. I’m not Dave Chappelle; I knew I wasn’t going to start visiting comedy clubs at that age no matter how badly I wanted to fulfill that dream. So I came up with what I thought was a pretty good solution.
I would randomly think of something I thought was funny, some idea or turn of phrase I could build a bit around. I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to get up on stage in front of a crowd, so I started trying out my material in conversations with people. If a subject came up I had a joke about, I would use it on them and try to hone my material like real comedians would. I would change up my phrasing, or try different metaphors to paint the best word picture, put emPHAsis on different syllABles, or whatever I could do to make my point more clearly and as hilarious as possible. Of course I would try to be mindful to not use the same “material” around the same people over and over again so I wouldn’t get caught. I would wait for a fresh audience before I tried that particular joke again.
As ridiculous, and kind of sad, as that may be, I still do it to this day. I have jokes that I’ve told for 10 years or more that I still use today, and as far as most people know everything I say is off the cuff. I’ve worked hard to not sound rehearsed, but my effectiveness might be called into question, especially once I’ve revealed this particular aspect of my weirdness. Of course, some jokes are better than others, and some I really love that no one else seems to think is funny. I have a bit about the actual gender of dogs and cats that I’ve been working on since high school, but it hasn’t gotten the appreciation I think it deserves which is TOTALLY FRUSTRATING.
My wife is trying to encourage me to actually perform on stage this year instead of just talking about it, but even thinking about what I would say to a crowd of people like that makes my palms sweaty. I think I will actually try it out, though; I just have to work up the nerve first. There are a few comedy clubs where I live that have regular open mic nights, so I think I’ll try to come up with 5 minutes of material and just see what happens. If I actually do it, I’ll let you guys know how it went, but I plan on it being kind of a secret at first. I’m not going to tell any of my friends and/or family about it and make it a giant deal. I’ll probably try to go to comedy clubs as often as I can until I gain some confidence and actually develop a finished joke, then I’ll have people come watch me. Hopefully I can do this in the next month or two.
I don’t expect to become famous, or even a professional touring comedian. I just want to see if I can do it. I wonder what 12-year-old me would think about that.