Saturday, July 21, 2012

Intellectually Dishonest Argument

It's Friday afternoon. I'm coming down with the flu as I sit here in St. Paul, Minnesota wondering how the shows are going to be tonight. My Facebook page is ablaze with debate and commentary about the shooting at a Batman movie in Colorado.  It's comics, fan of comics and people who support the right to own guns. They're all missing my point when I tweeted: “If you're a comic making jokes about the Batman shooting you're an idiot. You're not making fans, you're loosing them.” People make the usual points about gun violence in America, stand up comics’ right to free speech, different senses of humor and how joking about tragedies is a release. 

Frankly, I'm a little disgusted with stand up comedy lately. We just had the debate about rape jokes thanks to the Daniel Tosh incident, and now comics want to whine about their right to make gun jokes how they want, when they want, however they want. That is absolutely true. Everyone has the First Amendment right to say what they like. However, people do not come to a comedy club to see comics exercise their First Amendment right. They come to laugh. You make people laugh when you make them feel good. 

I consider myself a social commentary-style stand up. That means I want my audience to think when I make them laugh. Comedy doesn’t have to be dumbed down. That means my jokes have to be constructed like a mathematical formula: 1+1=2, or premise + setup= punch line. You don't have to share the same opinion the joke is written from to laugh if it's written well. Most importantly, I never forget what my first job is: it is to make people laugh; and if I am very good and a little lucky, I can make them think second. Saying you're an artist and then arguing for the right to make a stupid and tasteless joke that doesn't shine light on any of the more important social reasons why this happens, but just about the incident itself, is an intellectually dishonest argument to make. 

An artist struggles to make sense of things, not point at them and say, I think this is funny. This never seemed more true to me when the rape joke debate overwhelmed the Internet last week. Over and over I read comics saying: “I have the artistic right to joke about whatever I find funny.” Wow! That's what you're going to hang your hat on to be an artist, your First Amendment right to make rape jokes?  Some art. Also, enough with the First Amendment argument! Let's save the right to free speech for civil rights leaders, oppressed minorities and those telling us unpleasant truths we need to hear. I know, I know, comics will say: “That's exactly what I am doing! I am expressing unpleasant truths that need to be heard.” 
No. You aren't. You aren't making a wise and thoughtful joke about society’s ills, you are making a sick joke at the expense of people who were murdered by a deranged man. If that's your style of stand up, good luck getting booked with that shit. 

Last night, I told one of my favorite stories as my closer. It's about doing a gig in a bar with a Confederate flag. After the show a guy who laughed during the show came up to me and said he has a Confederate flag in his home because it represents states rights. Here we go. It does represent states rights; states that wanted the right to keep other humans as slaves with no rights. He explained that you have to look past that. Bull shit. It's another intellectually dishonest argument. It's a symbol of racism and the flag of the side that lost. Period. Maybe it does represent states rights but when those rights are about denying other people’s rights, it's a symbol of denying rights. You can't be ignorant to the fact that the vast majority see the Confederate flag that way. It's like the Nazi swastika. It started as a spiritual Tibetian symbol but when a government bent on committing genocide adopts it as their symbol you can't use the swastika as anything else. Charles Manson didn't carve it into his forehead because it represented magic and luck, he did it because it represents evil and fear. To me, claiming the Confederate battle flag can be used as a modern symbol for individual states to proclaim their sovereign right over the federal government, is the same bullshit argument comics make for tasteless jokes about a tragedy and then claim they are artists with a First Amendment right. Give me a break. 

Stand up comics have the right to tell any jokes about any subject they want but few have the skill. 

That's the point. When the audience is in a comedy club and they hear something wildly offensive they don't stop and think to themselves, well that comic has the right to express himself no matter how disgusting and inappropriate I think it is to poke fun at the tragedy on the same day it happened rather than attempt a smart and thoughtful joke that makes me think and gives me comfort. No! What they're thinking is: “What an asshole! That's not even funny.” That's what the audience is thinking. I don't know when stand up comedy became dislodged from empathy. Many times you hear comics complain that society has become too sensitive. In fact, I think we have become too jaded. Speaking as a comic that has gotten into trouble with audiences, bookers and club owners about my content for various reasons -  too dirty, too smart, too political, too whatever - I can tell you that finding the balance between what I want to say, making audiences laugh and getting paid has never been more tricky. The political climate in this country is the social climate of America. We are divided and shouting over each other. 

Stand up comics taking to the Internet to explain why they can make rape jokes is something else. It's stupid. If you want to make jokes about tragedy then you need to ask yourself why you want to be a comic, because those jokes should be seen not as a effort to make people laugh but as a warning sign from you. 

Then again, what do I know? I've just been a comic for 20 years.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Opening For a Comedy Central Special

Comedy Central filmed four, one-hour specials at the Fillmore in San Francisco, California. I got to open for three of them. Kyle Kinane, Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman. It was fun, exciting, frustrating, depressing and profitable. Fun, because I got to open in front of 500 people at a beautiful venue. Exciting, because I got to open in front of 500 people at a beautiful venue. Frustrating, because I was opening. Depressing, because for those three days I got to feel exactly how small I was in show biz. Profitable, because it paid really well.

I showed up at the theatre on-time at 5:30 p.m. Why I had to be there at 5:30 p.m. for a show that didn't start till 7:00 was never explained to me, but when showbiz calls you show up when it asks you to. I went to the security gate and gave the guy with the clipboard my name. Anytime I'm in this situation I completely expect to not get in. He flipped a page and then looked at me and said: "You're the warm up act!" I smiled and said yes, and just like that I'm past the gate and walking up the stairs to a side entrance of the Fillmore. 

I'm nervous going up the stairs because my head is full of mostly unfunny stuff. Mostly, it's about a woman. The same woman who has been in and out of my life for more than two years has taken up residence in my head. Every day I have many conversations with her, without her being there. It's the same thing every time: I finally get to explain to her why her view of relationships is wrong, and how that has hurt me. Allow me to impart some advice to anyone reading this: if you're having conversations with someone who isn't there, stop. 

That's thing about being a stand up, you take all of this up on stage with you whether you want to or not. But the thing is, most of the time, as soon as I hit the stage all that is gone. Right before? Yes. Afterwards? Yes indeed. But that brief amount of time on stage is a relief from all that crap that ultimately creates everything that the crowds laugh at. It's weird. So that's what's going on in my head as I open the worn wooden doors at the top of the stairs and like Dorothy walking into a Technicolor world, I step into showbiz. There are 100 people, most of them with headsets on, moving around inside. The Fillmore has been transformed into a giant sound stage. At the back, on their own stage, are two massive cameras. Along one entire side of the theatre a camera on a crane, attached to a four-wheeled platform, quietly revolves around the heads of people pretending to be audience so the director can test the shots. On stage, Kyle is running through his set. A bunch of people almost bump into me. I seem to be the only one standing still. I call the number of the woman I've been trading e-mails with and she pretty much appears at my side. She shakes my hand and takes me upstairs to get credentials, the all important piece of plastic I will wear around my neck for the next three days that grants me access to this chunk of showbiz. There are special LED lights set up all over the place giving the aging Fillmore a dream-like, fuzzy quality, complete with artificial smoke drifting down from special tubes they've installed to create this illusion on TV. Cables run along walls and across the floor everywhere. I notice there is another camera in the other corner of the room, and later I will meet the two person team that run the roving camera. After I get my plastic I am taken back downstairs to meet the directors and the Comedy Central people. There are three or four guys who seem to be in charge but I can't figure out who THE guy is. We make small talk, they tell me to have fun and then give me some stage advice. I smile and nod my head, taking it all in. One of them also tells me: when you get a big laugh, try to let it completely fade before starting your next joke, so that if we want to we can use that audio somewhere else in the show. Wow. He just told me that some of the laughter my jokes might generate could end up being used for the other comics. Why do people become jaded in this business? But I just smile, nod and say: “Okay.” What would you do? 

Then I meet the executives from Comedy Central. They are two young, beautiful women; the exact demographic I have a hard time talking to in person, let alone attempting to network my way into my own special. One is impossibly tall and one is impossibly petite. They thank me profusely for doing this. In my head I'm thinking: “Of course I would do this - why are you thanking me like I just returned your lost dog?” Again, smile and nod. They also present me with a very expensive bottle of wine complete with a thank you card. The impossibly petite one then tells me that I should allow it to breathe for at least half an hour. Yeah. That's going to happen. The producers, the Comedy Central executives and the floor director were all warm and friendly, and that was the last time any of them made eye contact with me. Ah, showbiz. For fifteen minutes each show I was super-important. After that, I couldn't find a place to stand to get out of the way. That's how it went twice a night for three nights: be back stage ready to go on when they told me, do ten minutes and then get off, get out of the way and wait to do it again. 

Kyle Kinane was great, a true comic in every sense of the word. He was also cool to me. Considering that this was an hour long special for Comedy Central, he seemed very calm. He also had his manager, road manager, entertainment lawyer and a friend with him, not to mention the constant buzzing of assistants, producers and production assistants. He dealt with all of them like a regular guy. In fact, in between shows he offered me some of the sushi they brought for him. Me being me, as hungry as I was, I said no. Not just because I didn't want to risk having food fall out of my mouth but his manager shot me a dirty, “don't even think about having any of Kyle’s sushi” look.

Before the second show there was a big discussion about where the towel Kyle uses to whipe his forehead with when he comes off stage should be placed. Keep in mind, there is a two-person camera crew, the floor director, his manager, Kyle, me and a production assistant all crammed into a small space just off the side of the stage as the discussion unfolds. Finally Kyle puts the thing on a mic stand and says that's fine. The floor director then informs anyone else listening in on a headset: "Kyle has placed the towel on the mic stand just off-stage. No one is to touch it." I can imagine a hundred heads around the theatre responding with an affirmative nod. Two minutes later, when I am the only one standing there, one of the suits comes by and moves it. When I look at him he just looks through me like everyone else who seems to be in charge. It's not hurting my self esteem because frankly, it's weird. I am virtually invisible. I see the Comedy Central executives, floor director and producers many times over the next few days and each time it's not like we make eye contact and then they look away, they just don't see me. Then, each night, when it's about five minutes before I am to go on, the call goes out over the headsets: "Anyone have eyes on the warm up act?" and suddenly I am visible! 
My sets are the sets you dream of when you're a young comic. The audience is already super hyped to be there. A production assistant goes out and essentially scares the hell out of them by telling them don't eat, drink or go to the bathroom. Yup: if you get up to go to the bathroom, you won't be allowed back in. We are making T.V. here people, not giving you an exciting night out. After a five minute break I go up and get an applause break just for saying I live here in town. 

That's how it goes. The crowd is mine for ten minutes.  While I am up there I work hard to make them remember me, and then it's done. The last show goes as good as the first and five minutes after I was on stage getting laughter from 500 people, I am walking down Geary Street, in the drizzle, in the quiet, headed to my car and alone again. It's a weird sensation. I am high from the set but so completely alone that the silence rings in my ears more than the applause. 

The comedy life. I will do it again and again, whenever I get the chance.