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 appearances. 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.
Anyway, here’s one of my assignments from this class. All of the jokes are months out of date, which in this news cycle is like centuries, and I’m not going to re-edit this, and in the real world, of this thirty, I would expect maybe two or three to be good, but you get the idea.
- After a security crackdown in the United Arab Emirates, Research In Motion assured BlackBerry customers that their data was secure. They did warn, however, that data is not secure when you’re yelling at the top of your lungs into your BlackBerry while in an airport.
- Fox TV executives have said there were no signed agreements yet for any new judges to appear on “American Idol” next season. They did announce they would disclose their final choices for new judges, but only after showing a week of clips from previous episodes mixed with fifteen-minute commercial breaks.
- Comedian Drew Carey has lost over 80 pounds since January on a new strict diet and exercise regime. In related news, stock at Jack-In-The-Box has dropped over twenty points since last January.
- A federal jury found two Guyanese men guilty on Monday of conspiring to blow up Kennedy International Airport. They get past the planning stage, because they couldn’t find an airline that wouldn’t charge them $25 to check in their bags of explosives.
- Nationwide Children’s Hospital released a study showing the number of kids age 5 and younger treated in household cleaning product-related injuries fell 46 percent since 1990, due to child-proof packages. The study failed to count the number of stress-based heart attacks in adults attempting to open child-proof containers, however.
- A recently-found natural gas reserve in the Medeterranean threatens to spark conflict between Israel and Lebanon. As a precautionary measure, both countries have agreed to temporarily close their Taco Bell franchise locations.
- An Alaskan comic book collector has listed for auction an extremely rare issue of Batman #1, which is expected to sell for over $40,000. The collector has said he will use the proceeds to completely redecorate his mom’s basement where he currently lives.
- The White House Correspondents Association is moving Fox News up to the front row in the briefing room, according to sources familiar with the process. They have also announced they will be giving premium seats to writers from Mad Men, Law and Order, American Family, and several other entertainment programs based on complete fiction.
- A vicar was found guilty on Thursday of conducting hundreds of fake marriages in Britain. The British records division was overloaded with phone calls and visits from men trying to determine if vicar might also be illegal.
- In a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for CBS, the network has secured subscriber fees for its local stations from Comcast for the next 10 years. Both Comcast and CBS affirmed that the deal was in no way negotiated to shore up Charlie Sheen’s legal defense fund.
- On Monday, comedian Bill Cosby posted on Twitter that he was not dead. Twenty minutes later, Carlos Mencia also posted the same exact thing to his Twitter page.
- Jersey Shore star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi is being scheduled a court date for her disorderly conduct arrest last week. The Seaside Heights courthouse is hoping to arrange a jury of her peers, hopefully during an upcoming class-action lawsuit for Valtrex.
- Lucasfilm Ltd is backing away from a previous lawsuit against a laser they say infringes on the trademark of their infamous lightsaber. The filmmaker has agreed to drop charges, provided the laser company provides a warning label and disclaimer stating the laser should not be used to cut open large animals for the purpose of hiding inside their carcass during a winter storm.
- On this day in 1981, Music Television went on for the first time. Roughly twenty hours later, the first person proclaimed, “do you remember when MTV used to only show videos?”
- China Daily said layers of garbage, up to three tons a day, floating down the Yangtze river threaten to completely block the Three Gorges Hydroelectric dam. The Chinese government is anticipating they will be able to begin cleaning the debris when China wins another Olympic bid in 2048.
- Dozens of North Korean mines swept ashore in the heavy rains this weekend near Yeoncheon, killing a man and seriously injuring another. The South Korean government said “it’s very tragic that the heightened violence between our countries has caused this, but at least BP hasn’t started drilling for oil in North Korea yet.”
- Police in California have seized over $1.7 billion dollars of marijuana plants in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In other news, the Sierra Nevada Sheriff’s department has met and exceeded their annual recruitment goal by 42,000%.
- On this day in 1923, President Warren G. Harding died of congestive heart failure. He died shortly after becoming the first US President to visit Alaska, where he went to shoot reindeer from a helicopter with a sniper rifle.
- Over 1500 people have died in massive flooding in northwestern Pakistan, causing shortages of food, freshwater, shelter, and aid. The Pakistani government has commented, “It’s very bad, but please don’t send Kanye West here to do a benefit concert.”
- Republican Meg Whitman has now spent over $100 million dollars on her campaign for state governor. She has also disclosed that the governor’s seat “has NO RESERVE” and is in “A+++ GREAT SHAPE!”
- The Princeton Review announced Monday that the University of Georgia at Athens was ranked the #1 party school in 2010. The administration at both Duke and Rutgers have announced plans to slash law enforcement and alcohol education budgets in an effort to become competitive again before the 2011 school year.
- Celebrity Courtney Love has started a new web site, WhatCourtneyWoreToday.com, which is a daily blog showing what outfits the wannabe fashionista wore that day. Also announced was a rival site, AbsolutelyAnythingButNewsOnCourtneyLove.com.
- Microphysicist Andrew Heymsfield and colleagues have found that aircraft aircraft can cause weather changes by creating supercooled cloud tunnels. In response, American Airlines has announced they will be adding a $25 weather surcharge to their ticket prices.
- Morrie Yohai, who helped to create the Cheez Doodle, died of cancer on July 27th at the age of 90. Instead of a traditional funeral, his body will be injected with BHA, BHT, and orange #2 coloring to preserve it for the next hundred years.
- Robert Murdoch’s Fox Sports Networks ended speculation Tuesday by stating that it will not bid for the Texas Rangers at the team’s bankruptcy auction scheduled for Wednesday. This ended speculation that the network would buy the team and rename it after former President George Bush, like pretty much every other thing in Texas.
- LeBron James has taken out a full-page ad in the Akron Beacon-Journal, thanking the city of Akron for their support through the years. Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic refused to comment, claiming he was too busy having sex with James’s mother.
- A New Jersey man was jailed for up to three months on Friday for making himself vomit on a fellow spectator at a baseball game, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office said. The man plans to counter-sue for $877, the cost at Citizens Bank Park of the two hot dogs and three beers he vomited on the other individual.
- A controversial mosque, planned for construction two blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan, has been given the green light for construction from the NYC Landmarks Commission. This has enraged local planning activists, who demand that the space be used to add yet another Subway sandwich shop or bank branch at the space.
- Author Joseph Yannai was indicted today on charges under federal human-trafficking laws for allegedly hiring European women as his assistants and then assailing them. His lawyers have claimed his innocence, stating that given the current state of the book publishing world, it’s absolutely impossible any published author could actually afford to hire an assistant.
- A study appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology claims the color red makes a man more attractive, more powerful and more sexually desirable to women. The study did reveal, however, that this does not work if the red clothing is a Target uniform.