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Monday, October 20, 2008

Where I am now

Audiences either have no idea who they are coming to see or they are all about the Headliner. If they are coming for the headliner it is obviously because they dig what that person is doing. The crowd that shows up is a reflection of the headliners comic sensibilities. You wouldn't expect a crowd that enjoys Sarah Silverman to show up for Carrot Top. Its apples and oranges.
Lately I have been an Apple for audiences that have come to see Oranges.
Another way of saying it, I have been drowning in a sea of Vanilla expectations.

I have had an embarrassment of riches in Bookings lately. Last month, I had back to back weeks in the city. Cobb's then the Punch Line and now Rooster T. Feathers.
Don't think I am not grateful for those gigs. Its just that I am not a Jay Leno Comic and lately those are the headliners I have been placed with. The problem? Those crowds aren't showing up to hear a guy with long hair pierce their safe suburban outlook on the world. They are not coming to hear social political commentary with Punch Lines. They are coming to hear about the differences between men and women. They are coming to hear wacky stories about married life and impressions of actors doing equally wacky stuff. So, it has felt a little bit like an uphill battle at times. Last night, after a particularly good joke fell flat on the second show, I told the crowd to visit my web site where they could watch that very same joke destroy. Then I told the crowd I wanted to see other audiences and I thought they might like to see other comics. Thats right, were breaking up, crowd!
I am starting wonder if there really is a place for me in the stand-up family tree. It seems there are two main branches. One branch is the heard it all before from other straight white males about the trials and tribulations of married life and every day observations that start with the Senifield type question, have you ever noticed?
Even though the crowd has heard all of this before from any number of other comics, they seem to have not noticed.
The other branch is dominated by the hipsters who all seem to deliver everything in a monotone I don't give a fuck manner. Its not so much about making the audience laugh as much as it is about saying outrageous things that are just this side of ironic but could easily be racist, homophobic or just plain mean.
If I had to pick, I would definitely be closer to this branch.
But I feel out of place with either group. Yes, I have noticed that men do things differently from women. We all have. It's not the 80's anymore. I get it. Lets move on comics. Please?
But pointing out with stereotypes that black guys do things differently than white guys has also been played out. An example of hipster comedy in this case might be that the difference between a black guy and a white guy is that a white guy has a job. Now, on its own that can be a bigoted statement. But when delivered in that flat monotone delivery that screams, Get it? It's ironic! It becomes a "joke."
When a comic does this its not because they believe them. It is to provoke a shock reaction. Yeah. We get it. Under the guise of irony a lot of shitty things get said that are neither funny or ironic. But that delivery. That droll L.A., stand perfectly still at the Mic in a T-shit with some 70's band on it or irreverent saying, has become almost as hack as the white guy in a suit exclaiming with mock indifference that he doesn't get his wife.
I am not saying that I am so original that there isn't a group for me. I am not saying that I am a genius either. But where are the Lenny Bruces, the Bill Hicks, the Richard Pryors and George Carlins? Is there only room for Louis Black and Chris Rock? Why is it such a fight with the crowd? In times that demand a messenger we are flooded with Vanilla. Sure, we have the Daily Show with Jon Steward but live on stage, where are the comics talking with sincerity about the history we are all living in? We are a country at war and drowning in debt. I understand that people want comfort in the known like guys and girls are different, but come on crowds! You have heard all of this before from any number of comics over the years. The other turn is right into the arms of dark ironic comedy where one joke is not connected to another joke. There is no theme or message or anything like depth let alone a coherent act. It is just a litany of jokes designed to provoke a response and if thats laughter, cool. If not laughter, then fuck you!

I have always believed that the best comedy comes from an outsiders perspective. The adopted black girl raised in white suburbs. The Jewish kid teased for being Jewish growing up. The guy whose view of the world is slightly contrary to the accepted norms. The person who doesn't belong or the woman who is fighting for her place in a mans world. The kid who was picked on in school and now has the Mic. Comedy today, like Cable news, has become a refuge for people who only want to hear their own truths reinforced. You want your news with a heavy right twist, you turn on Fox. People want safety in their news and entertainment. They shy away from anything that contradicts their point of view or sensibilities. They don't want to be challenged or reminded of what ever it is they don't want to be reminded of. I understand that. People come out to comedy to laugh. Not to have their views explored. But can't we do both? Can't we stick a finger in the eye of the sacred and have dick jokes in a single act? I think we can. I think there are a lot of comics who get talked out of this for purely commercial reasons. I have witnessed it. I have seen talented comics let go of jokes that fail more often than work so they too could join the ranks of the bland earning good money.
Vanilla.
It can come in the purely bland been done before flavor and it can come in a darker irony laced flavor too. Either way, it is just as vanilla to claim a racist joke as ironic just as a joke about women's approach to relationships being different than a mans approach is also vanilla! Don't kid yourself hipsters, a joke about shit is still just a joke about shit. It is the equivalent of a drinking too much joke from Dane Cook. Each camp has its hack premises. Yet, its just comedy in the end. Right? Its just making people laugh. But man, it feels like a more difficult job lately. Maybe it is the times? Maybe I should be grateful for the Bookings and take the laughs in whatever form they come to me on stage. I just think we are seeing something happening in society. Something that we are only starting to feel at its edges. There is change and where you find that there is also fear. Stand-up comedy, when done as an art and not just as musack in the back ground to sell drinks, can give clues to where we are going. That sounds grandiose. I will admit that. But the best comedy has always been from canaries in coal mines. We are at the edges of social change and pop culture. We can be the reporters bringing back stories from the fringes. We can be the first ones to say something is not right and the first ones to call bullshit. The best comedy has always been rooted in something deeper than what goes on bellow all our belts. After all, when people laugh they are acknowledging a truth. Those are the best punch lines; the truth.

Perhaps I am so reflective because Roosters has inadvertently become a place where I judge myself against the man I was the last time I was here. The hotel and club have become places where parts of my life come to an end and also open onto new chapters. Weird how that happens. I have stayed in this hotel drunk, sober, in love, destroyed by love, the last bay area performance before moving to L.A. and the first bay area club to headline me. Each time I am here it makes me look at where I am. This time around I am here less than a month before I turn 40.
40 is just a number, I am repeatedly being told. Nope. Its not just a number. It is four decades of life on this planet. It is a very adult age. It is a marker on the way to being something I never considered would happen to me; becoming older. And maybe that is some of the problem I have been having on stage inside my head. I am no longer the "kid" in this biz saying outrageous truths to a crowd delighted to see a precocious comic break down what he thinks are the ways of the world. These days I am a man sounding like a kid upset at the world he is getting. I don't know. I only know that I don't want to be vanilla or Ironic vanilla. I also want a bigger career in this business that drives me crazy. I know that from where I am in my life right now, thats not going to happen. Not just because I am a non-entity in L.A. but mostly because of my internal architecture. There are things I need to let go of just as there is much I need to take in. My filter is broken. I am still a kid in the sense that wrong is still so seductive to me. Being told to not press a button only insures I will press that button. All the turns I have taken I have mostly taken so I could say, I didn't take the same easy path as everyone else. Where has that gotten me? Back at Roosters almost 40 and seeing posters in the window for coming acts I think are so far beneath me that it stings my ego. But they went to L.A. and stuck it out. They did the work I refuse to do only because it is hard. I can no longer tell people that my excuse for not pursuing a larger career is that I consider myself an artist. It has always been a cover for my fear. Now, at 40 I cannot give myself the luxury of believing my own bullshit. Who can these days? Change is constant but I have this feeling at the edge of my senses that what is about to happen in society will be as beautiful as it is catastrophic. I want a front row seat at that. I want to be the comic that comes back from the edges of these times and tells the truth with punch lines.
By the way, the last show of the week at Roosters was canceled on Sunday. About ten people showed up. Six of whom were one table directly up front. The average age of this group was about 70. Rarely do I feel good when a show gets canceled but in this case I was grateful.
Oh well. On to the next club and the next and then the next one. Its a ride I know well but I am starting to think its a ride that only goes in circles. I don't want off the ride, I just want to be headed somewhere grander than where I am now.

2 comments:

Dean said...

Just face up that you're an artist who can't help but resist being a mere tradesman. Artistic integrity's a bitch, eh?

If I ever make it big, I want to wear a tuxedo like Rickles or a custom-made 1960s style suit, complete with skinny tie and drainpipe trousers.

rubel said...

Are comedians really still the canaries of society today ? If they were once they earned it by winning the hearts of people one stage at a time, they cared about everyday people. Also they were smart! and had great wit. Even the least formally educated was adept at using language to convey and to connect, they had to be because their peers held them to such a standard. I think the jokes that you hear from soo many younger comics today are the canaries of our time. Something is seriously broken with the educational system. Not just because of how comics are unable to fully express themselves but how more and more its becoming evident that a short attention span generation just is not going to be bothered let alone inspired by literature.