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.