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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Becoming Viral




Cracked.com wrote an article titled “The 10 Most Satisfying Cases of Hecklers Getting Destroyed”. I was ranked number 5. Patton Oswalt, Jamie Kennedy and Bill Burr were also included in the list. Needless to say, I was in some very good company. I found out about the article the way anyone finds out about anything these days: on Facebook. I woke up to multiple postings of the link on my page. People congratulated me. There were 50 new subscribers to my YouTube page, along with a few dozen new comments on the clip.

The clip is a time capsule in many ways. It’s from around 2008. There are plenty of Bush jokes, and comments on the stupidity of the Iraq war. I’m skinny, have long hair, and was probably at the height of my abilities as a ‘comic who riffs’. I posted the clip five years ago, and it slowly accumulated about 300,000 views over the years. (Thanks mostly to hard-core comedy fans and insomniacs.) The clip also brought in a little bit of money, thanks to Google's AdSense program. It also got me offers for some gigs, but those were mostly in England. It would be cool if I could do those, but traveling to England for a one-night gig probably wouldn't be too wise. There the clip sat, and that was that. 

On the first day Cracked.com included me in that article, almost 25,000 new people saw the clip for the first time. OK, that’s impressive. I went to sleep that night pleasantly surprised, and sure it meant nothing more. When I woke up, I had hundreds of messages waiting for me from Facebook, email, and of course, YouTube. Overnight, another 25,000 people had watched the clip. One hundred new people became subscribers to my YouTube channel, and new fans popped up on Facebook. I had to turn my phone alerts off that day; it was beeping every time a comment came in from the digital ether. 

The clip was recorded at The Punch Line in San Francisco, at a Sunday night showcase. It wasn't a particularly memorable night. No one had grabbed the crowd yet; it was getting late, and was thinking the thoughts of every comic who’s had to close a show, in front of a tired audience: Shit. 
Seriously, I know I’m good, but so many times before I go on stage, my thoughts run something like: “This crowd is done; but I'm really good, so I’ll grab them; this is the night I fail completely; I've handled worse crowds on quieter nights; I’m not funny”. And so it goes, until the first real laugh comes. Luckily, that laugh usually does come. That laugh is why I’ve earned the right to close most of the Punch Line’s showcases. I'm not bragging. Not by any means. It’s work. Going up at the end of a two-hour show, when everyone else has brought their A game can be daunting. But here’s the thing: it’s made me a really good comic. Landing in front of an audience that thinks they've seen it all, and are just waiting to leave, means I have the potential to amaze. 

So, the Cracked.com article comes out, and by the end of that week, I had almost 200,000 new people view the clip. The number of subscribers and comments doubled. Stand-up comedy is still a very individual thing. I watched the views climb past 500,000, sitting in a $30 hotel room in Winnemucca, NV. That was an empty feeling. Here I am on my way to a gig I have little confidence will be fun, worried about paying the rent (like I am any month), and yet 500,000 people have seen me do my thing via this five-year-old, seven-and-a-half minute clip. Some of this is just the comic’s mentality of attacking anything good; but some of this is the never talked-about-truth of living in the digital age. No one said it better than in 1968, when Andy Warhol predicted, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." If everyone who viewed the clip sent me one dollar that might make a difference. If the comics on that list had decided to tour together, that would make a difference. It’s a hollow feeling to see the number 500,000 next to your name. I didn't feel any difference. 

I don't remember the circumstances of how the heckler and I started talking. People don't believe me, but a lot of times when I’m riffing, I’m not thinking. That’s the secret to riffing; if you think, you’re done. There’s just some Zen part of my mind that takes over. There’s no filter or pause, I just say what I say and keep moving no matter what. I think the secret is the same thing you learn in any improv class; you never say ‘no’ to a suggestion, and anything the crowd is saying is a suggestion. At some point this skinny kid, drunk and trying to be a little menacing said, “I'd like to talk about you for a while.” The audience awwwed like we were in a coliseum and a challenger had just thrown down an insult. There’s no way I would ever hand over my microphone to a member of the audience. No way. But then I remembered: the Punch Line always kept a backup mic on stage, ready to go. I grabbed it, brought it forward and said, “OK”. What followed next was beautiful. Honestly, if I’d scripted this, it couldn’t have turned out any better than it did. All my powers were in full effect, and the audience was so completely on my side, I would have had to TRY to lose them. With all the other comics on the Cracked.com list, you’ll notice they pretty much attack the heckler with insults, anger, and force of attitude. What I’m most proud of in this clip is how my style remains clearly different from that. I let the kid hang himself. I stay likable and never yell at him. I think of it as verbal Jiu Jitsu; you use your opponent’s words against him, without really seeming to attack him. It’s not always how I deal with it, but that night, with a drunk, unpredictable kid on stage with me, it worked. 

Part of what feels weird about watching the clip now, is remembering where I was emotionally at that time in my life. I had pretty much just returned from a disaster in L.A. a few months prior. In the six months I lived there, the girl I moved in with cheated on me, I went flat-broke, and realized no matter how big a fish I was in the small pond that still is San Francisco, I was just another guy telling jokes, waiting for stage time at shitty open mics in Hollywood; where dreams are indeed made, but the effort required means a lot of compromises, if you ever dream of being seen by wider audiences. When I got back to San Francisco I was hollowed-out inside, in a way few other things had ever done to me. When Molly, all around amazing person behind the San Francisco comedy scene, and Punch Line Booker, started putting me back up on stage we were both a little worried about how it would go. But the first time back on that stage I remembered who I am. I am a stand-up comic. It’s the one thing I do better than anything else I've tried in life. I’m better than a lot of other comics, and the fact that almost no one knows my name doesn't matter when I'm up there. I’m in the moment. I’m free in a way few people will ever be. And on that night, on that stage, with an adoring crowd realizing just how awesome this was - I got it on tape. I wish I was still that good. The last six years since my return from L.A. have been a mixed bag of soul-searching, other women confusing my relationship issues, and near-misses at a wider career in this crazy, stupid business called entertainment. 

As of right now the clip has passed 636,000 views on YouTube. I've made a little money, and have tons of new fans on the Internet. And that has to be enough.

2 comments:

Labyrinth Gal said...

I just saw your heckler clip on YouTube; so elegantly done! You could have been mean--some comedians are. You made it funnier by being the supportive mentor-type. Well played! :-) Hali

Dr. Dan said...

Wow. Thanks for blog-spewing your guts out, Joe. I like reading your life-of-a-comic posts. Personally, I would put your heckler takedown at #1 on the list.
Most of the other ones are just abusive.
The #2 slot should be Jimmy Carr vs Heckler, and Joe Rogan can stay at #3.