W. P. Johnson

Standing Up To Die

In Uncategorized on September 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm

In Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, he says that there’s a reason comics say they killed whenever they have a good night. That’s because sometimes the audience can kill you.

You can consider me officially killed.

Here’s the set up.

About a year ago I took a writing intensive taught by Mark Vanderpool on the art of the short story. During that time I wrote about four stories in the span of about 3-4 weeks, one of which was entitled “Mouse”. Without going into every detail, the story was about a man who takes over an art studio that was previously rented by an insane person who gauged his own eyes out, seemingly without explanation. The narrator, however, is intrigued by this and keeps the studio, deciding he will use the disturbing nature of the previous owner’s vacancy as inspiration. When the narrator starts his first painting, he blacks out and wakes up to a completed masterpiece. He also starts to lose the very memories that were used in order to create the painting.

It was a decent story, though a misguided attempt at writing about something I know nothing about, which is art. Yet, the idea wouldn’t leave me and in planning out my first novel, it started to feel like it was an idea that I could expand upon. Problem is, not only do I know very little about art or artists, I don’t really care about art. Even worse is that the whole idea of researching art ad nauseam in order to accurately write Mouse left me despondent, dreading the writing of this novel to begin with.

I do, however, know and understand comedy.

At least, I thought I did.

Hence my first night of research wherein I performed stand-up comedy. And let me tell you people, much like the rabid sports fan who knows intimate knowledge about his favorite team, who shouts and screams at the television when a coach makes any decision contrary to what they feel should be done, there is a huge difference between understanding something and doing it.

Comedy is an art that I’ve always respected and appreciated. For years I had felt the urge to try it myself but could never get the nerve to go on stage and just do it. Jokes, while funny in their moment of conception, lose all their luster when you sit down and write them out, carefully planning every word, painstakingly pinpointing moments of emphasis or a change in cadence. It got to the point where I found myself writing multiple versions of the same joke just to see which version was funnier.

Ex 1: What’s the deal with vampires only eating pussy once a month?

Ex 2: Hey girls, does it bother you that your vampire boyfriends only eat pussy once a month?

Both are kinda funny in their own ways. The first one, for example, catches you completely off guard and is just a weird thing to say. Under the right circumstances it might get a delayed laugh when the joke clicks for a person. Problem is, it sounds Jerry Seinfeldish and with zero set up it’s too out of left field. If you aren’t paying attention, you won’t laugh at all and any follow up punch lines related to the initial set up will be lost on anyone that was too busy texting to know that you just told a ‘vampire eating a bloody pussy joke’.

The second version is riddled with its only problems aside from the fact that it’s kind of a hacky joke to begin with. It prompts some kind of set up since I’m addressing the women in the audience; I need them to pay attention before I can deliver the joke. And even if the girls are only half listening, they’ll respond literally, thinking that I just asked if it’s annoying that their boyfriends don’t eat their pussy that much. Never mind the vampire part.

By this point you might be asking yourself: Did you really go on stage and tell these jokes?

Oh, you bet your ass I did.

I arrived at The Raven Lounge at 8:30 to sign up to perform. By this point there were only ten names and I was sure that this meant I’d be the eleventh person to go on, however the list clearly stated that names will not be called in the order of sign up. Considering this, I assumed this meant I’d be called at random.

I sat towards the back of the bar on a cushion chair, hunched over my beer while reading the set I had emailed myself verbatim with planned pauses for laughs as well as several out points where I could leave the stage depending on my timing. I had also written out my set on a notepad using key words as reference points in case I forgot what it was I wanted to say and needed to pick it back up again. I met another girl there named Rose who was also performing stand up for the first time and we commiserated over this fact while waiting for our names to be called out.

The first part of the show came and went and neither of our names were called. The second part of the show came and went and neither of our names were called. My back started to hurt from sitting on the cushion chair and I was getting a migraine. I felt old and worn out. Whatever anxiety or performance jitters I had at the beginning of the night were long gone as exhaustion started to settle in. I was three beers deep yet painfully sober because I had to drive home after the show.

The third show came and went and neither of our names were called. It was nearly one in the morning. I had been there since 8:30.

It’s at this hour that I stopped caring, stopped thinking of my set. More than thirty comics had performed and by the time the last part of the show started there was maybe a fourth of the amount of people left. I couldn’t laugh anymore, even if the person was good. I was just too tired to listen.

At around 1:30 Rose was called on stage. She told her story, went over time. I don’t remember what she said, not because she wasn’t good, but because I was just so burned out and exhausted. I had been there for five hours, listening to people try to be funny. I just couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

At 1:45, my name was called. I went on stage. I did my set for ten people, several of which were only hanging out to pay their bar tab. Rose and her friend were polite and stayed to watch my set, laughing at a few jokes. Without the expected laughs I had planned on in writing my set, I panicked and forgot most of what I wrote down. I abandoned punchlines,  tossed concepts, completely skipped segways, and just plain petered out after a couple of set ups because I couldn’t remember why the idea was funny in the first place. Suddenly my notes were illegible. My brain was chasing after the set I thought I had learned verbatim like it was a runaway bus I was late for. I lost complete confidence in any of my jokes as the other comics made snide remarks about how weird I was, or so I assumed because I was sitting next to them as they made such remarks about the comics that went on before me.

After three minutes of performing in a comedy vacuum, having only gotten maybe five seconds of laughter, I cut my set short and walked off stage feeling neither victory nor failure, only a sensation of emptiness, a sense that I had performed for no one, had accomplished nothing.

Still… I did it. I performed three minutes of stand up comedy. Want the evidence? You got it people, which brings me to the newest category of this blog, that of live recordings of my stand up. That’s right folks, I’m gonna document this miserable journey to nowhere and you’re gonna get to hear every significant moment. Out of respect to other comics, I will not record their sets nor will I post every set I perform, but I will post the first night, the first time I bomb, the first time I kill, the first time I deal with a heckler. I’ll post the first time I try new material and the first time I try that material after it’s been polished into something decent. And maybe with time, I’ll be able to post my first ten minutes if I manage to hang in this shit.

Maybe someday, I’ll be the one that kills instead of getting killed.

Until then, here’s to being scary.

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