Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Great White Dope

The only way I can be of service to humanity is as an example of what not to do. I have made many mistakes, piggybacked on those mistakes, then waited until it was too late to try correcting them. Here is one blunder you might learn from:

I moved to NYC to advance my comedy career. This was before YouTube and social media platforms were catapults to fame. Industry gatekeepers mattered. In comedy, the "industry rooms" in NY and LA were essential to getting management and/or TV and comedy festival auditions. I knew someone who regularly played one of NYC's industry rooms. He got me an audition there. I'd been doing comedy about eight years, and was beginning to think my quest for comedy success was Pickett's Charge with a two-drink minimum.

I crammed in several spots on crappy open-mics in the days leading up to what in my mind was the most important performance of my life.

"All right, please welcome Mike Payne!"

I hit the stage running. Had a great set. I didn't quite destroy in the five or so minutes of my audition, but it was probably an 8 out of 10.

I alighted the stage quite pleased with myself. I figured I'd at least start doing the low-rung, late night Monday spots that newly passed comics were granted at this club. I approached the club manager with tremendous confidence and relief.

His assessment, "I've already got a lot of white guys."

Comics I'd consulted before my set warned me I might hear this, but like every creative wannabe, I fancied myself different. Sure, other comics heard that, but I wasn't just any white guy comic! All I had to do was perform well and the rules wouldn't apply to me!

The rules applied to me. I didn't pass, and was given the very reason I'd been advised me to expect.

I recall waiting on the subway platform after the audition, my stomach and chest tingling a bit. I had a long train ride ahead of me. My reaction wasn't so much "HOW DARE HE!" There was a tiny gremlin in my brain murmuring "Unfair," but that didn't predominate my thoughts. I was frustrated, deflated, shocked, but my internal response was, "Well, all I can do is work even harder until he gives me another chance in a year or so."

That response was entirely useless. Of course I would have to work hard. If he'd passed me, I also would have had to work hard to stay in the rotation. It wasn't a question of effort. The question was: what was I going to work hard doing? Getting a tan? If I turned a little beige, was the booker going to make me the house emcee? Unlikely. Instead of developing a new strategy for my career, I made the unbelievably asinine decision to double down on the strategy that was failing me. Moronic!

What I should have said was, OK, I have no near-term prospect of passing at any industry rooms. Instead of working harder at being funnier on the shows I'm already doing, I'll start some of my own shows. I'll approach some bars, tell them I'll set up a microphone in the corner, and we'll book a show each Monday or Tuesday when bars have nothing going on and need a way to yank in customers.

Eventually, some bar would have said yes. I knew plenty of funny comics in the same purgatory I was in and could have booked them regularly. If the show was at all successful, I could have pulled in some bigger comics, who might have reciprocated by getting me onto some bigger shows. If nothing else, I would have expanded my comedy network. Had I done this, perhaps I would have found a backdoor into one of the industry rooms.

The odds would have been against me, as they are with all entrepreneurial endeavors. Had the show failed, at least I would have known I'd tried a fresh approach. Instead, I kept doing what hadn't worked and a few years later flamed out of comedy while waiting bitterly in the wings for another shot at advancing. Moronic!

I could have tried something as simple as sporting a new look. Purple hair, breast implants, something. I could have worn a spiked glove and sold myself as some kind of "punk comic." I would have felt sheepish, but the industry might have seen me in a more marketable light.

Hard work without a plan is masochism. If you have been working studiously in one direction for eight years and haven't gotten anywhere, working harder in that same direction is downright Calvinist. Unless you're an attractive woman, your life will always have a lot more no's than yes's. When the no's really start stacking up, you need to change the question.

My blunder was comedy-related. I have seen plenty of people make the same slip-up in the romantic arena. Someone rejects or dumps them, and instead of finding someone else, they work fiendishly trying to become what they believe the person that rejected them wants. Never works.

Comedy isn't the only line of work where this applies. If your employer has a framework that makes it crystal clear you can't advance, the least savvy reaction is working harder. Try another company or another career or start your own business. Otherwise, five stagnant years will pass and you'll be doubly frustrated, because not only did your career stand still; it stood still in the face of increased effort.

When the structure you're trying to conquer makes it clear it doesn't want you, you try a more entrepreneurial approach to conquering it, or you try doing something else altogether. The structure doesn't care that you're sweating more as you work harder to overturn its rules. That sweat will end in tears for you, not the structure.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Truth about Truthful Comedy

In stand-up, only "socio-political" comedians are deemed truth tellers. You might say the Mount Rushmore of comedy truth consists of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks.

Plenty of comics claim those icons inspired them towards truth. Nine million stand-ups have this story: "I was doing bits about weed giving you the munchies and then I saw ___ telling the truth and I thought 'I can't keep doing the easy stuff. I need more than just laughs.'"

Nothing wrong with attempting profundity in your jokes, so long as there are jokes. When a comic decides to become "socially relevant," it usually doesn't take long for the jokes to vanish.

The Mount Rushmore comedians weren't immune from this.

From at least 1999's You Are All Diseased On, George Carlin's comedy was scant on comedy. Lots of predictable left-wing declarations regurgitated through clinched teeth, but few jokes. His early whimsical material was far more perceptive about humanity than his late, misanthropic stuff.

Bill Hicks. Arizona Bay and Relentless have huge laughs on them, including laughs from bits that "make a point." Rant in E-Minor and Bill Hicks: Revelations (especially); heavy on the didacticism, relatively light on the humor (to be fair, some of Rant was recorded after Hicks knew he had cancer, which invites bombast). I have heard stories of Bill Hicks telling crowds he was a poet. The only thing worse than a poet is a comedian who thinks he's a poet. In my mind, Rant and Revelations were steps in that direction.

The hardest thing in comedy: consistently writing funny, concise material. As a "politically aware" comic, crowds expect you (and you expect you) to discuss whatever the day's news is. Most people can't create new material that fast, and because they can't always write enough jokes to catch up with the news, their act simply becomes preaching about the day's news. Once you get into "truth telling" mode, it is almost inevitable that the joke writing won't continue because it is too tempting to say, "I'm here to make a point, and if I can't make 'em laugh, I'll make 'em think."

No thanks.

A right-wing version of this is Dennis Miller. Once highly respected (late 80s, early 90s he was among the absolute best), after 9/11 he began doing right-leaning political material, usually heavier on cheap applause lines than punchlines. The difference for Dennis is that reciting hackneyed conservative talking points gets you criticized by other comedians. It doesn't get you added to the list of truth tellers, even though the formula is the same.

"Truth" comes in many forms. Jerry Seinfeld tells truths. Brian Reagan tells truths. Norm Macdonald especially tells truths (Norm illustrates the problems with "serious" comedians here). Seinfeld and Reagan might focus more on micro truths* rather than macro ones, but their acts far better illuminate homo sapien absurdity than almost any of the comics who aspire to be "social critics." Yet they don't come up in conversations about comics who "tell the truth."

You wouldn't settle for a songwriter who just punched his guitar and said, "Lotta people be homeless." Would anyone care about Bob Dylan's social commentary if his songs didn't have melodies, if his words didn't at least aspire towards lyricism? There were thousands of other folk singers. Most of them thought it was enough to say "Big Steel Steals," which might explain why no one cared about them then, nevermind now.

Simply bringing up an issue isn't automatically satire. Stating facts is for news anchors, not comedians. The point of comedy is to make something funny. If highlighting Darfur is your thing, fine, but going onstage and saying, "Darfur is a mess, am I right?" isn't truthful comedy. It is a verbal awareness ribbon. The fact that you're saying it in a comedy club doesn't make it comedy. Wiping off a table in a comedy club doesn't become slapstick humor simply because it happens under a comedy roof.

A comedian has to make crowds see "issues" in a new way. You need analogies, you need to put us in someone else's shoes. Otherwise, you're a less funny Sunday School teacher. Most "political" comics hammer priests and pastors (but never imams, I'm sure it's just an oversight), while being as moralistic and humorless as a cable access televangelist. There is a reason it isn't called stand-up sermonizing.

* Chris Rock's Bring the Pain is an all time great special that combines macro and micro truths, and anchors all of them with killer punchlines.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sometimes an extinguished match is just an extinguished match

When an artist dies young, it is typical to hear analyses like, "He was just too smart for this world."

You know the cliches: He was like a comet who shot across the sky for a moment and disappeared. The brightest stars burn out fastest. How could someone so brilliant endure such a mediocre world?

This begs the question, should brilliant people be expected to die young?

Einstein lived into his 70s
Bohr - 77
Newton lived into his 80s
Tesla, who neglected to invent any health-boosting smoothies, survived until 86. (once again beating Marconi, who despite his own burdensome brilliance managed to live into his 60s)
Edison - 84
Aristotle - 60s
Galileo - 77
Confucius - 70s
al-Khwarizmi - 70
Curie - 66 (the radioactivity her brilliance allowed her to study did her in, and she still lived more than six decades)
Schopenhauer - 72
Copernicus - 70
Buddha - 80ish
Kepler - almost 60

The people who figured out what comets are managed to live long and prosper, but not the people that are compared to comets? Speaking of burning, the inventor of the Bunsen burner died at 88.

Am I clouding matters by not focusing exclusively on artists? No problem, let's focus on those sensitive folks with the artistic temperament. After all, we know they're destined to flame out early.

Michelangelo saw 88
Frank Lloyd Wright saw his 90s
Matisse - 80s
Kurosawa - 88
Michelangelo - 88
Rembrandt - 60s
Tolstoy - 82
Franz Liszt, who lived like a rock star before there were rock stars, lived into his 70s.
Da Vinci - 60s
Picasso hit 91
Miles Davis - 65
Dante - 56
Donatello...79 or 80
Dumas - 68

Many of these people lived in eras where life expectancy was well lower than it is today, and they still lived far beyond what could be called their youth. Several dynamos who died youngish, Austen, Mozart, Chopin, Raphael, died of natural causes. Inconveniently, Mozart was not found dead in a whorehouse surrounded by opium and quill-penned suicide notes. Chopin didn't throw himself in front of a horse-drawn carriage because some asshole in a bar failed to "get" him. The evidence shows these gone-too-soons wanted to carry on.

Pythagoras dulled his brain enough to make it to 75, but Sid Vicious, a man so untalented the band stopped plugging in his bass, burned too brightly? Goethe suppressed his genius enough to fight through 30,000 days, but James Dean, a Keebler Elf who plodded through all of three movies, was too special to cut it in this world? Plato resisted the temptation to hang himself with his toga and died at 80, but Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose paintings are indistinguishable from a infant's bib after a spoonful of Gerber, had no choice but to call it a day at 27? Sounds a little fishy to this genius.

The average age at which Nobel Laureates receive their awards is 59. There is no 27 Club in the Nobel club (even if Nobel Laureates did die young, they still wouldn't leave good looking corpses).

The "brilliant people die young" idea seems a very rock 'n' roll, youth culture idea. We take for granted how much easier it is to survive nowadays, making early death more romantic. As recently as the 19th Century, an open window during the wrong season could snuff one out. When staying alive isn't a given, a person who dies at 27 is just an unlucky stiff, not an automatic Canon Enhancer.

It is poetic to quote Lao Tzu, "The flame that burns twice as bright lasts half as long," (Lao Tzu lived to be 74, by the way), but the myth doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The famously dead weren't too brilliant to endure. They were too damaged to endure. Not all damaged people are brilliant. If that were true, Mensa and Alcoholics Anonymous would simply merge.

"Hi, I'm Fred."

Hi Fred!

"I'm an alcoholic. And my IQ is 152."

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Biggest Conspiracy Theory of My Lifetime? Saddam has WMDs

The New York Times is bemoaning "conspiracy theories" generated by the Internet Age. It is true that technology makes it easy and cheap to spread the fraudulent and the half-baked. Trouble is, the NYT and other establishment media spreads steady misinformation too, and even uses the Internet to do it (Tom Friedman has a Twitter account, need I say more?).

The Iraq Invasion was built on conspiracy theories promulgated by esteemed outlets like the NYT (plus WaPo, WSJ, the Economist, etc.). Did the NYT's Tom Friedman, Bill Keller, and David Brooks or WaPo's Richard Cohen, or any of the other conspiracy spreaders get fired once everything they said was proven untrue? No. Other than the NYT's Judith Miller, no one took a fall. 

Joe Scarborough was on MSNBC then, is still there now, and is probably a bigger celebrity today than he was when he was spreading conspiracies about Iraq's weapons program. The list of misinformers is long enough to fill six Wikipedias. I think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert owe much of their success to the spectacular failure of the "respectable" media with respect to Iraq.

The legacy media loved social media and the Internet in '08 when it helped their candidate win. The very idea that Obama was an "outsider" organically foisted to prominence via grassroots Internet support is itself misinformation spread by outlets like the Times

The mostly imaginary "Arab Spring," with its goofy narrative of a grassroots, democratic Mideast revolution largely ignited by social media - was another Internet-focused conspiracy theory spread by the establishment press. I am not aware of any establishment hacks getting the boot for promoting that turkey-on-wheels.

Amazingly (but unsurprisingly), the traditional press was too clueless to recognize that the same tools they claimed were behind their preferred brand of popular movement could also be used to abet popular movements anathema to them. Such anopia might help explain why so many of them have been unprofitable for years.

On Twitter: @greatmikepayne

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

History repeats, historians are parrots

A historical work of any value should have more question marks than periods. Even then, its scope will be overstated.

Historians, who not coincidentally are often wannabe fiction writers, speak with bottomless confidence about figures who died centuries ago in countries that no longer exist. If historians stuck to recreating the simple, everyday details of those distant, sparsely chronicled lives, it would be daunting enough. That challenge isn't enough for them, however. They seem more driven by a desire to credential themselves as all-knowing psychiatrists, affording them license to assert the precise motivations, impulses, and fetishes of every King Tom, Queen Dick, and Emperor Harry.

With many historical figures, we can't even piece together all the bits of their outer lives (birth dates, birth places, burial spots, etc.), yet historians speak with clinical certainty about their inner lives. A historian will confidently gives us 500 straight pages on Columbus's innermost thoughts, meanwhile, we're not even sure about the color of Columbus's hair (possibly ginger, poor sod - he probably hoped he'd fall off the edge of the Earth). If these goofy suppositions stayed within the circular Hell of tenured hackdom, the collateral damage would be minimal. Alas, this all too assuredly composed historical half-fiction not only gets repeated by other hacks; it trickles down to the masses, sometimes helping shape contemporary opinion on how modern situations - allegedly analogous to past ones - should be handled.

Today some polls show just 6% of Americans trust the media. People don't even trust those reporting in real time on contemporary events. Why then do they trust the reporting on events of foregone millennia?

How many times have you met someone seemingly mousy and tame who said, "You should have seen me in my twenties! I was partying hard, living on the edge, I'm lucky to be here!"

Assuming that person, let's call him Sir John Doe, is telling the truth, had he died in his 20s while partying, a historian would likely profile him as a wild man, then look for clues from his youth about what led to his being a "wild man." If obvious, measurable clues were absent, the historian would simply infer wild leanings from Sir John's Doe's otherwise ordinary behavior.

Assume Sir John Doe survived to become that mousy 30-something and never told anyone about his wild days. Without photographs or arrest records documenting them, what would even cause a historian to dig for evidence of wild days? Unless he stumbled onto folks who knew Sir John Doe then and were forthcoming about his hi-jinks, that wild period would go unreported. The historian would search for other motives for whatever actions Sir John Doe took in his 20s. If Sir John seemed aimless during that time, the historian might assume lack of confidence (after all, he ended up mousy!), when in fact that aimlessness had more to due with being too hungover to accomplish much.

Consider how many different people you've been in your life. Are all those phases equally documented?

When Hillary takes office, the first thing she should do is make it illegal to release a historical film that isn't animated. At least then the viewer might realize the "historical record" is fantasy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Most Sanctimonious Game

I have never shot an animal, which is too bad, because there are many humans I'd like to kill. This means I've never hunted, despite being a meat eater.

I have encountered meat eaters who upon hearing the word "hunt" quiver with more feigned outrage than a white politician running for office in the inner city. In a certain respect, hunters are more honest meat eaters than the rest of us. They're willing to do the dirty work we can't stomach. Not only do we outsource the killing of those tasty vermin, we sometimes throw away meat without even cooking it. "You know, I bought all this chicken, but I just wasn't feeling it this week."

Thanks to your ADD palate, an animal died without even fulfilling the purpose of feeding someone. Talk about senseless violence.

I have sometimes contemplated visiting a farm to slaughter an animal, so that I can at least say I did the dirty work once. I never have, and likely never will, because I love meat and seeing the killing up close would probably turn me off to it forever. So I continue to ignore the means by which that delicious lamb reaches my plate. Pure trophy hunting may be indecent, but otherwise, it is embarrassing for a meat eater to act like hunting is some unfathomable pursuit. Frankly, a deer being hunted in the woods has a much better chance to escape than a captive farm pig grown specifically to complement your mash potatoes.

If you're a meat eater, hunting is not only more honest; it is better sportsmanship.