W. P. Johnson

Standing Up To Die: Laughing in a Terrible World

In Uncategorized on October 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm

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I’ve been to therapy before. It was an ultimatum of sorts, a last-ditch effort to salvage a failing relationship. At the time I was experiencing night terrors, acid reflux, canker sores, the occasional panic attack, and just plain anxiety about nearly every aspect of my life; all of these were adverse reactions to being in an unhealthy relationship, but in retrospect I think I’ve always had a deep-rooted sense of anxiety as far back as I can remember.

As a horror writer, it’s strange to think back on being a kid and how horror movies, for the most part, made me feel very uncomfortable. While my friends were sneaking in an afternoon viewing of Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street, I was watching cartoons and innocuous ‘80s movies like License to Drive or Adventures in Babysitting. The only thing in my viewing repertoire that was even remotely scary was Monster Squad, and even that kind of freaked me out; there was something about the Scary German Guy’s Holocaust tattoo that made me feel vaguely apprehensive.

In the years prior to my disastrous relationship and the short stint in therapy, I had been assaulted by a group of teenagers while riding my bike home in South Philadelphia. The next day, while searching for a safer route, I was doored and thrown off my bike, fracturing my pelvis in the process. This incident only further fed my deep-rooted anxiety, creating a level of post-traumatic stress that made me literally sprint from my car to the inside of my apartment whenever I got home from work at night. The dark was suddenly filled with terrible, unseen things lurking in the shadows, and all of them were out to get me.

Despite all this, I developed a taste for horror during my early- to mid-twenties as a means of coping with fear (it also helped that my friends were horror buffs). Instead of running away from the monsters, I gravitated towards them, dissected them, and tried to analyze every aspect of horror. When I decided to write genre, I simply confronted my fears by creating them.

Similarly, it’s been my experience that comedians typically laugh and joke about the things that hurt them: being broke, being single, being fat and ugly. Recently, one of the comics I befriended in Philadelphia was diagnosed with cancer only to go on stage and joke about it; ultimately, she ended up having one of the best sets I’ve ever seen. It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine, but for comedians it’s the only medicine that makes life bearable. When interviewing comedian Chris Cotton, who has been doing stand-up for nearly eight years, I was struck by how his life story fit the way he performs. Chris’ delivery can be brutal; he’s the kind of comic that will go out of his way to make the crowd hate him, only to ensure that the very same crowd loves him by the time he’s finished.

“I grew up in South Philly and it was a horrible neighborhood, and I’d bust for hours,” Chris says, rehashing his early adolescence. “Busting”, to put it simply, is making fun of your friends, and for comics it’s considered a display of affection. “I remember coming out at eight and we’d play basketball… I’d come back home at like eleven o’clock and I’d be busting for maybe like ten hours? And I was good at it. It was to the point where…”

“Just effortless,” I suggest.

Chris nods. In discussing his earliest attempts at stand-up, he admits to leaning hard on crowd work, so much so that he would frequently approach the stage with no material, essentially wing it or wait for someone in the audience to catch his attention, and then focus his energy on them instead of telling jokes.

“I would’ve just been a crowd work guy,” he says, “but the reason I started telling jokes was because I had a friend… and it wasn’t a friend, it was a kid who lived down the way and he was older than me. I was thirteen and he was eighteen. He was a buster,” he says. His warm tone suggests nostalgia for simpler times when he was young, with none of the responsibilities and hardships of an adult life.

“He could talk, he could just bust for hours,” he continues. “And one day, I was getting good. I was just hitting my stride and one day him and me were busting… and people were around and saying, ‘Yo man, Chris you funny’. And the next day he was at the store and he was like, ‘Yo man, you funny as hell man’. And that was it. Because I won yesterday and I was thirteen and he was eighteen. But then, no lie, an hour later, I came back outside, and someone said he was busting with some kid on the corner and the kid pulled out a gun and shot him…”

It chills me to think about the pointlessness of this, but having lived in Philly for nearly a decade, it isn’t at all surprising; after all, the nickname “Killadelphia” isn’t a totally undeserved moniker . It’s a world I only know through television, I tell him. It’s an atmosphere that is intense, frightening. It’s an environment that I didn’t have to experience while living in a rural Pennsylvania countryside, vast and untouched by Philadelphia’s darker, urban grip. Yet, it’s a world that I thought about quite often despite never having truly experienced it. It’s the darkness, the terrible things lurking to get me, the lion crouching over my shoulder in the shadows.

“It changed my whole perspective on things. Like life… people are getting killed over jokes? So when I was in school, instead of busting on kids, I would joke… instead of talking about a kid’s sneaks until he started crying, I would make up a joke about his sneaks,” Chris says.

“Do you ever get anxiety about it?” I ask.

“For a while I did,” he admits. “I didn’t bust for years. And you know what really, truly broke me out of it… I’d turn everything into a joke. Like, I’d say ‘Look at your sneakers’ and then I would tell a story or a joke about it.”

“I’m really glad you said that,” I tell him. “Because my opinion about you as a comic is that you try to get everyone to hate you right away. You just go right for it, like you think, ‘I’m gonna try to get this whole fucking crowd to hate me and by the time I’m done, they’re gonna forget they were ever mad in the first place’.”

“Yeah,” Chris agrees. “Disarm them as fast as possible.”

When I think back to my first piece of fictional writing, it reflected a lot of the works that I was reading at the time. For years I wrote like Kurt Vonnegut, constructing absurd satirical stories with silly narrative choruses. Following that I went through my Palahniuk phase, writing Fight Club II, then my Bret Easton Ellis phase where everything was surface and my characters were vapidly depraved. It wasn’t until my late twenties following a bloated Stephen King period of writing where I finally found my own unique groove in the genre.

For most of my life I’ve lacked a concrete identity, finding myself unsure of what I wanted to say. I eventually determined that it was a focus on genre and the speculation of what could happen in life that helped me develop a strong narrative voice that was capable of actually saying something that mattered. Conversely, Chris Cotton’s earliest attempt at a joke was rooted in nothing short of a dysfunctional childhood and a harsh reality.

“Do you want to hear the joke I told when I was thirteen?” he asks.

“More than anything,” I reply.

“It’s a joke about my uncle because I had an uncle that was on crack,” he says, adding, “which everybody has.”

I start to laugh and interrupt him. “No, not everyone.”

“Well, if you were black you had a crackhead uncle,” he says, defending the relatability of the premise. “I had a crackhead uncle, and this is the joke I told when I was thirteen… I got an uncle, man, he steals. The thing is… I can’t leave him alone in the house, so one day my uncle was in the house and I said, ‘Don’t touch none of my stuff, especially the stuff in the fridge. Don’t drink the milk, don’t eat the spaghetti, and don’t eat the butter’ or something like that. And I left and came back downstairs. And he didn’t eat the milk or butter. But he took all the containers.”

I laugh. It’s not the best joke, but there’s a simplicity to it, something juvenile about someone stealing something as worthless as containers. Moreso, I laugh because I imagine a thirteen-year old Chris telling this joke to an adult, and that same adult is thinking, This little boy is joking about his uncle smoking crack and stealing from him.

“I told it again when I was older,” he admits. “I revamped it… added things.” He went on to talk about his early days of working the open mic at Laff House, which for many comics was considered the “black” comedy club of Philadelphia. In the beginning of my own foray into stand up, I had avoided the idea of doing the Laff House, assuming I wouldn’t be accepted due to my color, that it would be a harder nut to crack.

“Oh, but you get better,” Chris argued when I tell him this. “It’s easy after you get it. I was not accepted when I first started at the Laff House.” Having largely abandoned crowd work in favor of telling jokes for the reasons already mentioned, Chris found himself struggling in his earliest years of stand up, bombing night after night, improving, and then bombing again. His friends, who knew him from before when he largely did crowd work, would ask him why he was trying jokes when he could just fuck with people.

“…the first time I did actual comedy, everyone was expecting crowd work, just that I’d go out and keep talking to them,” he says. “Instead of doing that, I completely said, ‘No, if I’m gonna do comedy I need to do it. With jokes’.”

“You can only get so far fucking with people,” I say, agreeing with him.

“And I bombed… I bombed horribly.”

I laugh. Maybe it’s the accepted meanness of comedians, the “busting” that Chris mentions, but there is nothing funnier to me than a comic telling me about a time he bombed. It’s the commiseration of failure, trading war stories with a soldier when I’ve barely finished my first year of boot camp.

“I got booed by name,” he says,  derisively shouting “Chris, you stink!”. “And this is what made it worse… I got booed and the next day, I was in class at the library and guys were like, ‘Yo, why didn’t you just fuck with people?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m trying to do comedy and that’s not comedy’. And they’re like, ‘Nah, nah, that’s funny when you just talk. When you be talking Chris, you be funny.’”

“They don’t understand that you’re trying to cultivate a career,” I suggest.

“Yeah.”

“Well, was your first album gonna be ‘Fuck With People: Volume I’?” I joke.

“That’s what they want. That’s what they think they want, but they don’t know… you gotta have something to say. They can’t ask you, ‘Hey, what are you gonna do tonight?’ and you say, ‘I don’t know… hopefully they talk back to me’.”

“So where was your first night of comedy?”

“Cheyney University. And it was at the Homecoming show… it was in the auditorium. So it was probably like three hundred… no, more than that. Probably five hundred people.”

“So you bombed in front of five hundred people?” I ask, incredulous.

Yeah! That’s not the last time it happened because we did the show and they asked me if I wanted to do it again. And they thought I’d just get better, maybe the next show wouldn’t be so bad. On the first show, I did three minutes. I got booed as soon as I started. Second show… I did another three minutes, I got booed a minute in. So then I performed a third time and I didn’t get booed until the last thirty seconds. I did three minutes again, but I got booed the last thirty seconds and I thought, ‘I’m getting better’,” he says, smiling. “Then I started commuting to Philadelphia on Wednesdays for the Laff House.”

The ultimate goal of most artists is for their work to have a palatability that can be easily consumed by the average person while maintaining a sense of dignity and communicating a statement that has meaning. Comics want to make you laugh, but they also want to connect with their audience. You can get far telling dick jokes and riffing on inane things, but ultimately the comics we consider the greats were the ones that really said something that mattered. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, they had their dick jokes, but at some point they bared their souls for the audience and it’s for this reason that we remember them.

“There’s that period of time where you’re not really joking about real things,” I tell Chris, assuming all comics take years to find the voice they need to truly express themselves. “You’re just talking about bullshit.”

“You know what the problem was… and this stuck with me for the longest time,” Chris says. “My roommate in college, he never came to see a show, but he was a barber. I would get my haircut and me and him would just talk a lot and we’d hang out… so I’d tell him some joke and he’d say, ‘I ain’t gonna lie, it’s funny, but why are you saying it?’. And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’. And he said, ‘You’re making people laugh, but why are you saying it, what does it do for them?’.”

“What’s the point,” I add.

“Yeah, what’s the point of talking about it… so after that I started bombing cause all the jokes I was telling, I was trying to link them to me some way or say something in them.”

“It’s good to bomb in a way,” I say, suggesting that bombing is sometimes indicative of trying something new or difficult. In my own experience doing stand-up, I’ve had the occasional success with a silly premise, but the most rewarding nights of stand-up have been the sets where I talked about the things that were really hurting me, the things that broke me. And the audience is laughing because they know that broken feeling too, they relate to it and it strikes a nerve.

“I almost got evicted from my place and I had to move in a week,” I tell Chris, rehashing the experiences that prompted one of my better sets. “We didn’t have any money. The stress of it… my girlfriend cried like four times and I just remember thinking that if one more bad thing happens, I’m going to cry.”

“You were just broken,” Chris says, laughing. “You were taking a nice whipping, as they say.”

“I just went on stage and talked about how I almost got evicted… and I’d never been that broke in my life. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to live in my car soon.’ And that level of bottom was funny,” I say, then asked, “So as a comic, where does that real material come from? What are the things that are hard for you that you kind of attack because it sort of disarms it and makes it easier to live with?”

Chris slows down and becomes quiet for a moment, which is rare. I start to wonder if I struck a nerve or asked the wrong question.

“Is it even hard to talk about?” I ask, preparing myself to change the subject.

“Nah, it’s not hard to talk about it. I rarely talk about it… I think now it’s weird because I’m talking more about it now. Comedy for me… stand up-comedy came from the fact that I have a sick mom,” he says. “My dad was always funny. My mom likes to laugh.”

“Your mom has MS, right?” I ask. It’s been no secret in the past year that his mother suffers from multiple sclerosis. Chris has participated in some MS benefit shows, openly acknowledging that his own mother is afflicted and this is why the cause is close to his heart. It’s a disease that takes its time, something that slowly whittles away at a person; for this reason I believe it’s one of the harder diseases to cope with when you are given the opportunity to witness a loved one slowly succumb to it.

“My mom has MS and I always saw how my dad made my mom laugh and thought, ‘Okay, if that makes her happy, I’ll try to make her laugh too’. And I was always just funny in general. But I tried to think of how I could make my mom laugh… that’s the main reason I do stand-up and the main reason why I tell jokes.”

During the lowest point of my life, I found myself contemplating suicide. It felt strange, not at all like I thought it would. I had always assumed that the temptation of suicide would be a longing for death, a reasoning with oneself that life was not worth living. Instead it was like having a stranger point a gun at my head, and that I alone had to convince him not to pull the trigger. The choice no longer felt like my own, that I was no longer in control of my life.

Writing saved me from that somehow. It took the gun out of the stranger’s hand and pushed him aside. To this day I write as much as I can to avoid those feelings in hopes that this stranger never finds me again. It’s been my opinion that most artists work best while hitting bottom, that art is birthed from tragedy and that it keeps us afloat. For Chris, he admits that his best material came about during Philadelphia’s darkest years when the murder rate broke three hundred. In the weeks following our interview, his mother passed away. The day it happened, he came out to Raven Lounge’s open mic and proceeded to have one of the best sets I’ve seen him perform. It was strange to see it, to know what was happening behind those eyes of his, to know that there was a lot of pain and sadness. Yet we were all laughing, we were forgetting the stranger in the darkness holding a gun to our heads.

“It got to a point where if I don’t make people laugh or tell jokes on any day, I feel like I did nothing,” he says. “I contributed nothing.”

For this, we are grateful.

50th Night

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  1. […] can keep up with W.P. Johnson’s “Standing Up To Die: Laughing in a Terrible World” on his […]

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