Essay: Some Jokes Will Kill You

Some people respect athletes because they know that professional sports is something they will never be able to participate in.  That kind of reasoning is at least a part of why I respect comedians.

I used to want to be a stand-up comic.  This was between the ages of about 10 and 14.  I don't know what I was thinking.  Probably that it is nice to be funny.  And it is nice to be funny.  But being funny and living the life of a comic are two concepts that only overlap like a very marginal Venn diagram.  I still appreciate comics, probably even more than I did throughout those formative years, when I listened to George Carlin cassettes nonstop and checked out Steve Martin, Shelley Berman, Nichols & May, and Bob Newhart records from the library. 

Now I understand the horrendous burden of being a stand-up, the naked exposure of the profession.  The emotional risks outweigh those associated with most other creative fields.  If you make a bad film, you can easily be spared the experience of seeing it in a theater with an average audience.  If you write a bad book, you aren't going to see your readers throw it against their living room walls.  If you are a visual artist, you'll likely catch wind of your peers' analysis.  For stand-up comedians, the metaphor of death carries more than just a kernel of accuracy. 

When a comedian has a bad night, or a bad audience he or she is said to "die" onstage.  This is something I've never experienced, but can only imagine as potentially feeling worse than death itself.  One thing I understand about comics is the personal nature of the material.  Stand-up places you in front of a (usually) paying audience who are there to hear what you have to say.  It's just you and your words, with only a microphone to amplify them.  There is no medium between you and the crowd.  It's just you.  So just imagine doing that, first of all.

Next, imagine that your act incorporates personal experiences, anecdotes, values, and opinions - all of which are part and parcel of any comic's routine, even if they are radically exaggerated or altered versions of the truth.  But a comic's usually not funny if he's not telling some kind of truth, so it's always safe to assume that stand-up material is in some important sense "personal."

Next, imagine that on top of the nakedness of the performance itself, and on top of the personal nature of the act, there is an "acting" component.  Every comic has his or her own persona.  Surely this comes out of the comic's own personality, but it's a version of their own personality and most likely does not reflect their own conversational manner. 

So there are three things I can never do: stand up in front of people and entertain; make personal ideas and stories deliverable in an amusing and oral fashion; and shape an onstage "character" for the purposes of delivering said ideas and stories.

Imagine constructing this multilayered act over a period of several years (many comics don't gain widespread visibility for decades - or ever), only to meet with unreceptive - or outright hostile - audiences.  Imagine what it really means to "die" onstage, to have your work torn apart by the silence of an unresponsive crowd.

Not that every comic deserves acclaim.  Many don't.  But having recently seen several major comics live - including David Cross, BJ Novak, Maria Bamford, and Brendon Small - as well as a number of less-successful ones, I have a renewed understanding of what it means to be a comedian.  It's far from easy, despite the potential for very lucrative rewards.  As a writer, who does his work in solitude, I cannot fathom the kind of pressure I would feel if I had to translate my written words into a live act - and I have extraordinary respect for those who face the risks of doing so.  I could never boo a comic, no matter how bad the jokes.

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