Sometimes people ask me why I quit doing standup. I tell them the truth but they never believe me. I got tired of trying to be something I wasn’t. There were other drawbacks, of course. Performing in bars, driving hundreds of miles between gigs, the loneliness of being on the road. The worst part for me, though, was driving around the country talking about things I didn’t care about.
Most jokes are based on the premise, “Don’t you hate it when this happens.” Then the comic goes on to complain about whatever he’s upset about it. So when I sat down to write material I would hunker down in the corner of a coffee shop and think, “What do I hate today?” My job was to create the opposite of a gratitude list.
This was not a good way for me to start my day. Not only was it depressing but it also made me realize that I didn’t hate nearly enough things to be a great comic. Plus, what I do hate nobody else cares about. I hate it when people say, “I could care less.” No, you couldn’t care less. Or when someone says they’re going to flush out an idea. You don’t flush out an idea you flesh out an idea. Flushing is for toilets. Ok, some ideas need to be flushed out. Bottomless french fries could probably be flushed out to the Sea-of-Things-That-Are-Destroying-The-World and we would all be better off.
But you know what? Most of America loves the idea of an endless river of fries flowing into their mouths. So it’s not ok for me to stand onstage and be upset that the waitress at the Cooter Patch in Kansas City is trying to kill me.
This went on for years. I’d try to think of something to complain about (The buttons on the remote control are too small! Damn you Sony!) and then find out America couldn’t care less (America would say that they could care less but I maintain that they could not care less.) In the end I would end up writing about what I saw other comics writing about. So my act ended up being about the two subjects I could always count on to get laughs: sex and poop.
Trust me. Nothing is funnier than sex and poop. Those are the humor chakras of human existence. At least in the rooms I played.
Every night was emotionally and metaphorically a crap shoot. Some audiences bought it and some didn’t. Comics liked me but they’re generally a pretty sick bunch so you can’t really count them. My last night onstage as a comedian was in 2007. I was booked to do a show in a strip mall casino somewhere in Mountlake Terrace. I knew it was going to be a special night when I got there because the stage was 10 feet from the kitchen and you could hear the cook yelling, “Order up!” over the MC. It was also the night of the Apple Cup where the Huskies were playing the Cougars and there couldn’t have been more than 10 people in the whole place. Everyone was home watching the game.
Halfway through my act where I was pretending to be angry about online dating or my broken down car I caught a flash of something behind me on the other side of the stage. I turned around just as a young man walked up to me and held out his hand for the microphone. He didn’t say a word but I knew that’s what he wanted.
I was speechless. Not because someone ran up onstage. I was shocked because the features of his face were all melted together. He was a burn victim. What made it even stranger was that he was dressed like Mr. Spock. He had on the yellow shirt with the Star Trek patch, the black capri pants with the leather boots. He even had a skinny belt with a phaser on one side and a communicator on the other.
I don’t believe in Vulcan mind melds but in that one moment we stared at each other on stage we both knew that it was time for him to take over. And that is what he did. I gave him the mic, sat down in the audience, and watched him do 15 minutes of Cougar jokes.
“How do you get a one-armed Cougar fan out of a tree? You wave at him!” Boom! Huge laughs.
“Did you hear about the Cougar fan who locked his keys in the car? He had to use a coat hanger to get his family out.” Boom! Even bigger laughs. I thought the walls were going to cave in. Mr. Spock was killing. Each joke was worse than the one before but the crowd was going nuts.
Fifteen minutes later he finally runs out of Cougar jokes and hands the mic back to the MC. The headliner goes up and I leave the building. You’d think this would make me rethink my comedy mission. Not in terms of material but in terms of honesty. The audience wasn’t laughing at Mr. Spock’s dumb-blonde-turned-Cougar jokes. They were laughing because there was a man onstage who was completely comfortable with who he was and his only goal was to tell some silly jokes and make people smile. He was fearless and grounded and 100% himself up there He was everything I wasn’t. The audience knew it and they loved him for it.
Is that what I thought about on the way home that night? Of course not. I was completely incapable of seeing how that guy’s honesty and vulnerability was what the crowd was reacting to.
Two days later I had another show at the Tacoma Underground. I hadn’t spent two seconds thinking about the true meaning of what I saw in that casino. All I knew was that something crazy had happened and that I now had a story no one else had. I spent 48 hours writing dozens of jokes about the show, Mr. Spock, his outfit, all the Cougar stuff. I couldn’t wait to tell the next audience about the one man Star Trek convention in Mountlake Terrace.
Ten minutes into my act in the Tacoma club I launch into the story about how I was attacked onstage by a crazy guy with a phaser. Before I can get two words out, a hole in the ceiling opens up and gallons of brown water of unknown origin rains down in the space between me and the first row. The universe did to me what I was about to do to that audience. The show as over and so was my career as a comic.
It’s strange that trying to be someone I wasn’t was actually my comfort zone. For most of my life I believed that no one would want to love or even be friends with the person I was when I walked into my bedroom and turned off the light. If I had possessed even the tiniest bit of courage I would have written about the things I cared about and in the end found people who wanted to listen.
Luckily, in 2010 I discovered storytelling. I decided that I was going to do something that scared the hell out of me. I was going to write about my life as honestly as I could and to do it in a way where I wasn’t pointing the finger at anyone but myself. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past five years. I’ve been telling stories about all the things that make me feel awkward and scared. In fact, you could say that my new comfort zone is wherever I feel most uncomfortable.
And that is what I’m asking you guys to do at the next Fresh Ground Stories. Tell us about a time where you did something that made you uncomfortable. Was it good? Did you learn something from it? Why’d you do it in the first place?
The rules for stories are below but you know the kind we’re looking for: true stories that happened to you that still mean something to you days, months or years later.
Remember to practice out loud on friends or pets and keep it under 8 minutes.
I hope to see you at our next show Thursday, September 24 at 7pm at Roy Street Coffee and Tea.