I wish I was a stand-up comedian.
I have trouble saying that, because I feel like the many or most people would reply with “you’re not funny.” And I’ve probably spent a lifetime trying to make other people laugh, and maybe I have, but the only thing that sticks in my mind are the too-serious people who reply with “you’re not funny.” And that’s probably why I couldn’t become a comic – it takes a certain amount of confidence to get up on the stage and talk to people like that. But lately, there has been something compelling to me about the whole comedy world.
Last night, I saw this documentary I am Comic on netflix. It’s sort of about comedian Ritch Shydner, who had a ton of old Carson appearances, and then graduated into bit acting roles and staff writing jobs. In the movie, he decides to make a comeback to stand-up after 14 years, and it documents his appearances at open mics and small gigs, both the horror of bombing in these small places where people are more interested in the pool tables and TV sets than the comedians, offset by the total high you get from running a show like that.
But the movie is more of a primer on stand-up, the process, the lifestyle, and the good and the bad, told through interview clips with at least 40 top-rate comics. The wide swath of appearances is awe-inspiring, from household names that we forget got their start in stand-up (Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Jeff Foxworthy, Tom Arnold) to the current a-list (Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Margaret Cho), and lots of other great cameos. It talks about middling, and comedy club condos, and life on the road, and jokes versus bits versus chunks versus sets, and worst shows ever. It’s a great movie if you’re a huge comedy nerd, and I am.
There’s a huge comedy boom going on right now. I can’t quantify it and show you a Gartner report with pie charts or anything, but all the indicators are there: there’s a whole world of podcasts and twitter feeds and web sites dedicated to stand-up; there are all of these shows like Last Comic Standing; there are tons of venues and shows; there are a bunch of stand-ups crossing over into movies and TV shows; there are something like 79 late-night talk shows now, every one employing a dozen staff writers and spotlighting a hundred comics a year. It’s huge right now, which in my pessimistic mind means that there are orders of magnitude more people trying to break into the business, and I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of unemployed actors and directors and agents who are thinking “I need to start doing sets at open mics so I can segue that into a line producer job at Two and a Half Men.” It also makes me think that if I decided today to become a stand-up and started writing jokes full-time, I’d just start to get momentum around the time 90% of the comedy clubs in the US shuttered and all of the trend-hop fans who are into Patton Oswalt today will move on to becoming professional salsa dancing fans, or whatever the hell the next trend will be.
I look at the huge growth of the comedy world as I look at the ever-dying world of publishing and wonder why the hell I got into a craft that’s so hugely unrewarding and impossible to crack. As I try to study how to make it as a literary fiction writer, all I hear are horror stories about how there are now more MFA candidates trying to sell stories than there are readers of literary fiction, and there’s no money in publishing. And yes, I could write genre fiction and make money writing hack murder mystery crap and publishing it myself, but you can’t choose your voice, it chooses you, and I can’t even read stuff like that, let along write it. I write what I write, and I try to convince myself that someday the trend will change and people will trade in their vampire and zombie books for Kerouac and Wolfe.
But comedy has such an appealing ecosystem. For one, you get up on stage at an open mic and go – there’s no trying to finagle blog followers and spamming your stuff to these lit e-journals in hopes that someone will pick it up. You get on the mic and go, and there is immediate feedback. I write a book, and maybe a year later, someone will read it and maybe I will hear back from them. But comedy is immediately absorbed; you tell a joke, a person hears it, they laugh or they don’t. And people seem to seek out comedy, go to clubs and pay money and see comics, and seek out these podcasts and XM Radio shows and live CDs. I think in any art, there are two different cycles: either you follow the potential fans, or the fans follow you, and I feel like writing is very much the former right now, and comedy is the latter. And maybe that’s not entirely true, and I’m sure a lot of comedians bust their asses trying to find Facebook friends and grow their mailing lists and post one-liners to twitter constantly. But there’s not a huge audience of literary fiction fans out there eager to snap up anything you produce.
I recently took a comedy writing class, to see if I could do it. And I found that I could and I couldn’t. I mean, one of the assignments was to write something like 30 monologue-type jokes, which was hard only because I had to actually read the news, and I hate reading the news. And after carving away at 30 jokes over the course of a week, I found that writers at Kimmel or Letterman have to write at least 40 or 50 jokes a day. And their pay ranges somewhere between dick and shit. I think I could hack away at being a comedy writer, or punching up scripts, but it’s probably as unrewarding as hacking away at user manuals all day. And I don’t mean to knock the tech writing career, which pays more than all but the top tier of fiction writers on amazon, and gives me health insurance and paid vacation and pays me every day, whether or not I scare up sales. But I remember that feeling when I hit ‘send’ and launched the final, final manuscript of Summer Rain to the publisher, after five years and a quarter-million words of pain and torture, knowing that it would be a 650-page chunk of my life and other peoples’ hands, and it was not the same feeling I get when checking in the final PDF of a developer’s guide for a software product that will literally sell a million times what my book does.
I wish there was a writing community more like the comedy community. I mean, I look at stuff like the people taking UCB classes who are working with each other and building their careers and doing awesome things, and then I look at any number of literary sites where people are talking about their head shots or whether or not they should change their names to market to the Young Adult romance genre. I’m slowly finding more authors that subvert this paradigm, but I need an order of magnitude of readers that do the same. And lately, it’s hard to get people to pay attention to 140-character updates, let alone 140-page novellas. But I think that will eventually change.
Oh yeah, I did standup once. It was 1988 and I was in the Catskills and I did a talent show/open mic in some bar in East Windham, in front of maybe 20 people. I don’t remember a single joke I did, but I vividly remember between the time I put down my name and the time I took the “stage” (really just the same floor as the bar), I went on this long walk in the upstate New York summer night, and listened to the bugs and talked to myself and tried to write a set on the spot. I remember the smell of the August night, and the cool feeling when it was like a hundred all day and all you could really do is sit in the pool or hide in the AC of the motel, and the temp would drop to like 75 at night, and it would feel almost cold. And I’m walking by myself, muttering “okay, no, start with that, then go into this, and then, no, then say this, and then mention I’m not from here, and go into that, and, and, and….” And the set completely bombed; I think one joke got laughs. But I did it.