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A former coworker of mine is the kind of guy that radiates a sheer joy that acts as a magnet on the people around him. Perhaps understandably, that led to him crafting himself a niche in stand up circles.

I can’t go to every show, but when I do get to show up, I’m always impressed. But he’s also still in that weird place in comedy where he’s working himself to the top. So at any point, the people around him could be more talented or holding a microphone for the first time.

Tuesday night wasn’t my first night seeing him run through a set, but it was my first time seeing him surrounded by comedians who weren’t of the same caliber. One comedian in particular made the majority of the audience very uncomfortable: He was the same age as me (as addressed in his set), but his comedy was overwhelmingly depressing. Honestly, the hardest part for me was that he was staring at me as if it was my fault, even though my time in Crown Heights let me experience some of his complaints firsthand.

Unlike what he expressed in his set, I’ve already graduated from college and I don’t have a baby mother, but I kept trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. But if I’ve learned anything from years of watching and listening to comedians, one of the very essential tasks of a comedian is to take that sinking depression and craft it into something new, something that hints at a universal struggle we can all relate to and come up with something we can all acknowledge as truth and truly hilarious.

More often than not, comedy lies in the misdirect: “How about those Republican debates, huh? I’m not going to lie, I just can’t stop agreeing with the lot of them! I want Roe v. Wade repealed! I’ll never get to be a father to all the babies I made by raping my way across the eastern seaboard if they don’t fix that shit right now!” Take something we all know, present it with a different spin–whether it’s insightful or as terrible as that joke I just made up and am kind of uncomfortable about.

No one goes to a comedy show to wallow in terrible–we can all do that on our own. Our release at these shows is some sort of anti-catharsis: we’re all getting over it, laughing in the face of our tormentors, and (hopefully) moving on to the next issue.

It’s the very reason I rarely enjoy stereotypical stereotype jokes. Yes, I know black people are supposed to like fried chicken and talk during movies. White people are supposed to talk about dumb things and be uncomfortable everywhere except baseball games. Chinese people are supposed to be great at math and collect cans.

Fuck you! Those jokes have already been done! We’ve already come to terms with it and moved on; there are more pressing issues. For me to delve into the kind of laughs that leave sore muscles and spilled drinks, I need something a little more insightful and cutting than a complaint or eighteen about how hard it is to be a stand up comedian.

No. You chose to pursue this. Make like the rest of us and either figure out what you’re doing wrong, fix it, and improve or get the fuck out. It’s the art of storytelling, captivating, and understanding your audience. Stand up is the art of knowing what is going on, striking that chord, and responding in a novel way that captures the imagination.

To calm the fawning, I present a harsh critique because I have worshipped, for years, people who have perfected that art. And because I know it’s more than just standing in front of a group of people and listing things. It’s a kind of aural magic: guide the audience, present the object, perform the sleight of hand(iwork), and–BOOM!–a bouquet of punchlines from thin air! But leading everyone down the path to Sleepy Hollow then chopping their heads off while distracting them with a pair of pressed daffodils impresses no one. You can point out the creepiest path, but you have to bring everyone back to the laughter bouquet.


One Comment

  1. Excellent analysis and good read, Chris!

    You’re dead on when you talk about the craft because stand up comedy is such a unique art form. It faces challenges that aren’t relevant in other fields. For example, if you’re observing a painting, reading some literature, or listening to a new song, you can take a break from your enjoyment and come away with the same experience. Stand up requires the full attention of the audience. In order to appreciate the jokes, they need to be lured in a deep and alert hypnotic state.

    To put it in perspective, it would be like if I were reading this blog and all of the sudden the words at the beginning of the article started to vanish from the page like a cartoon bridge that had the ropes cut off on one end. Imagine how hard it would be to enjoy the article if that proces was unstoppable…if the words just kept disappearing from the page whether you were reading them or not. That’s the challenge of a comic. If you miss words, they’re gone forever. The waitress sneezes and BOOM…you don’t have a punchline.

    Also, that comic friend of yours must be a genius. A tall…bearded….genius.

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