Thursday, July 19, 2007

Standup comedy is unnatural

So I was having a discussion with a writer-turned-standup comic, recently. And we were both trying to make sense of our uncanny desire to get on stage. Essentially, we are willing to risk public humiliation, be secretly judged, and experience our 5-7 minutes of fame (in exchange for a one-drink-minimum), for what? And why? Why? Why? Why?

We both we went silent.

Him: It's unnatural.
Me: Right.
Him: It's perverse.
Me: Uh, huh.
Him: No other animal or specie subjects themselves to such painful and masochistic conditions.
Me: You said it, brotha.

And with those last words, we walked to the nearest train station and parted ways.

But his words stayed with me.

He's completely right. People run away from any form of public speaking, especially standup comedy.

Actors have lines written by someone else, usually about someone else. But this is all me. Nothing is hidden. This is all truth. When I get onstage it's me--naked, pure, and most importantly, vulnerable. The gloves come off, folks!

And for the same reason, that is why audiences are so fascinated. People are terrified of getting on stage and speaking their mind. (Unfortunately, this is a result of culture, our family construct, and our educational system.) So if someone else is willing to do it, you as the audience are happy you're not doing.

It's sort of like watching someone eat it while crossing the street. If they do a faceplant while in public, everybody watching is happy that it wasn't them.

Audiences are attracted to the raw truth and honesty. A standup comic is going to virtually read their most personal thoughts and dreams and present them to you on stage--ready for you to cut them down and make waste of them (if you so choose).

Every entertainer exposes themselves somewhat: writers/authors, singers/songwriters, dancers/performance artists, poets/painters, etc.
Standup comedians stand at the top of the heap when it comes exposure and humiliation. We're the Jesus Christ of entertainment when it comes to pain and suffering to lead people to a better path--only to get shot down at the end. (Did I go too far with that last analogy?)

Standup comedy is completely the opposite of what we've been taught as human beings. We all remember swearing never to fall in love again after that dreamy boy (or girl) at the playground rejected us for some other douchebag with the latest game on the Sega Genesis system. Well, take that experience and amplify it 100 times and add some feelings of guilt and sprinkle some familial exile for the next 5-7 years. "You said what about Mom on stage?"

The lesson we have since learned, "Protect yourself, remain strong, and keep your mouth shut!"

My standup comic comedy friend tried to then make comparisons to nature. Monkeys, Zebras, Whales, Kangaroos... none of these guys get on stage in front of their animal brethren and try to make them laugh! You don't see lions trying to make the entire pride laugh it up. What is that? What is this perverse mindset? What are we thinking?

We are not animals. We can reason. So shouldn't we reason our way out of this? Shouldn't we figure out the easiest way is just not to get on stage in the first place? Technically, we're putting ourselves in danger. That is the opposite of reason. So then perhaps the animals are smarter than we are.

Duly noted. But we still want it... however unnatural it is.

"Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit..."

"There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain..."


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Indeterminacy said...

This is true in some cases, but why does the comic's performance have to be personal? Can't he/she present an entirely different character? Or detach him/herself from the content?

Of course the advantage in presenting oneself on stage - it is easier to be honest. It's a role that you will feel and show just be being yourself.

The most powerful routine I saw was by Tina Dupuy (, on her DVD - it was personal and intimate in a way that went under the skin.

Lucy said...

You're right. It doesn't have to be personal to be good. But I have always admired and appreciated those comics that take the personal route (i.e. Carlin, Cosby, Pryor). I also believe that the comedy that stands the test of time is the comedy that is personal, just like music or any other entertainment medium. We love and appreciate Picasso because we knew how much he was dealing with. We love and appreciate Kurt Cobain because he touches upon something we all felt. It harps upon and resonates with what everyone is feeling or thinking. When the comedian chooses a character, I'm interested but not enthralled. Whoopi Goldberg and her many characters could be an example that hits upon both realms. Her characters happen to be deeply personal.

Tracy Kaply said...

Here's the thing- even though I have no desire to be on a stage, I still have a desire to make people laugh, and as is well known in my family circle, I will sell ANYONE down the river if I think it would be funny. Anecdotally, only, mind you, but for the sake of a funny story, oh yeah, baby, I'll make anyone, including myself, look bad.

It's almost like making people laugh, really, punch drunk laugh, so that they're almost crying and they're gasping for air, making people laugh like that is like a narcotic. Once you've done it, you just gotta keep doin' it.

I'm pretty sure that kangaroos don't have a sense of humor.