W. P. Johnson

Standing Up To Die: The Things I Carry With Me

In Uncategorized on February 19, 2014 at 6:51 pm
Photo by Brian Friedman

Photo by Brian Friedman

It’s been six months since I’ve done stand up.

I miss it. In the interim, I’ve attended shows and gone to open mics now and again, but when the question comes up as to whether or not I’m doing time, I always explain that I’ve gotten all I can out of stand up as far as my novel’s research is concerned. The reactions to this vary. Some comics are surprised that stand up hasn’t sucked me in completely, especially after having consistently performed once a week for an entire year. Other comics are indifferent, forgetting that I was ever a part of the scene to begin with (albeit, a very small part). A couple comics tease me about my research and this elusive book I’m writing. After all, it is all too common to hear someone seeking attention go on and on about the “book they’re writing” without ever producing a single page. I’ll admit it: I roll my eyes when I hear the phrase. Writing a book is hard work and most people quit once they find this out.

Which is why I quit stand up. In light of the other research needed to finish the book and my other writing commitments (a short novella about my band years), being a faux comedian had become even more demanding. It’s hard enough getting up early every morning to write, let alone getting up early after staying up all night drinking just so I can get three minutes of stage time that no one will see or remember.

There were other reasons of course. For one, I don’t know if I’m particularly cut from the same cloth as comedians. The demands are seemingly endless with results varying day to day, bombing one night, killing another, often times with the same exact jokes and the same exact crowds. There’s the excessive drinking, late nights, broken relationships, the loss of ‘normal’ friends, and the eventual cynical outlook on what these aforementioned friends find funny compared to newly acquired comedian friends. This isn’t to say that I never found any success on stage. For the most part, anyone that is willing to put in the time will eventually get good at performing stand up comedy. But as I’ve said before in previous articles: you need to do the work.

When I first thought of writing a horror novel about comedians, the idea of actually performing stand up was nothing short of scratching an itch that was already there. However, now that I’ve gone through the motions, I’m finding that its not a glove that fits me very well. My creative life demands solitude and the consistent routine of getting up early, bleary eyed with cup after cup of black coffee while I bang out a thousand words before work. Certain art forms speak to specific hearts, whether it be art, music, words, or stand up comedy. There is a reason someone picks up a guitar instead of a paintbrush, and there is a reason I find the energy to continue writing.

I daydream alot about this novel I’m working on, seeing snippets of scenes, bits of dialogue, faint images of my main characters. Before trying stand up, I had always assumed my delivery would be loud and angry with a tinge of surreal silliness, somewhere between Louis C K and Bill Burr (with a heavy dose of Patton Oswalt). After all, this is the voice I hear when I think of my main character, an angry white male in his mid thirties with a drinking problem and alot of emotional baggage from his childhood. I am, of course, none of these things aside from being a white male in my thirties, and the more I performed stand up, the quieter my delivery became as I shed all the things I thought I was and slowly became myself.

Still, I cannot go against my instincts when it comes to writing. My main character is still angry, depressed, drinking, and whenever I think of him, he’s still on stage telling a bachelorette party in the front row to shut the fuck up. Having interviewed nine comics I paid close attention to their personalities and tried to find this person I dreamed up by adding up the parts of other people, creating a comedy Frankenstein of sorts. Some comics came very close to looking and sounding like my main character, but the closest I’ve come thus far in finding this voice is my interview with Joe Derosa.

“How did you get into comedy?”

“Inadvertently,” Joe says. “I had been playing music in various bands which, at the time, all of the musical things I had been a part of or whatever had moved past that level of being a local kind of thing where you play the local spots everybody plays. I decided that I really wanted to make a go at playing music full time.”

Joe Derosa is thirty-five years old and has been performing comedy for about twelve years, starting in Philadelphia before moving to New York City. In the early days prior to stand up, Joe had worked a short lived career in politics in Austin Texas. It was during this time that he visited Pennsylvania and, while there, went to an open mic with a friend to play music. They were the last to go on and, as one would assume, they performed to an unattentive audience of drunk people.

“They weren’t really listening to us, so we just started ad libbing all of these songs about how much the audience sucked… it was pretty funny and they started to laugh at us and by the end we were really killing. It was weird,” he says.” I just remember getting off stage and we met some girls. You would’ve thought that we were there to do that.”

“So it’s almost like, you were so used to playing in bands, but that had been the first time you were just funny on stage?”

“Exactly. And then I went back to Austin and a few weeks later the bar manager got in touch with my friend… and he said something like, ‘hey yeah, you guys were really funny… why don’t you do a comedy show here?’. And that’s how it started. We were going on every monday night and doing fifteen minute routines during Monday night football games… but then after five weeks of the same six people being there, my buddy was like, ‘I’m done, I’m not doing this’. So then I started to do it by myself. And that’s how I started doing stand up.”

The unreliability of musicians if something I very much relate to. Music and playing in bands have been a part of my life ever since I was fourteen. The exhilaration of playing a good live show is nearly high inducing, the kind of thing that makes you want to get in the van and tour the country, sleeping on floors and living off of cheap food and free beer. In contrast to this, bands themselves can be extremely frustrating. Drummers come and go, bass players don’t learn their instrument or even bother getting a bass to begin with. Egos clash over song structures and, generally speaking, it’s very easy to burn out and stop caring when your band doesn’t find an audience within the first three years. And even if everything works in your favor, there’s the stress of weekly practice, promoting shows, and the lugging around of heavy amps and drum kits.

“There’s alot of ego that comes along with the arts period,” Joe says. “So it’s particularly hard with music because you have to get into a situation where four or five egos have to mesh and work together. Ego is all about someone saying, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’. It’s funny… there’s quiet ego, there’s big ego, there’s small ego. And at the end of the day it just comes down to people thinking that they know how to do something. So I was really attracted to comedy…”

“Because it’s just a solo venture?” I suggest. “You have the freedom to have your ego and not worry about anyone else being offended.”

“To be perfectly honest,” Joe says, “I was just a lazy guy on top of it all. I love not having to lug equipment anywhere.”

Artists tend to have a central theme to their work. As to my own writing, I am often drawn to the themes of identity and the unrelatability  of the human experience. For Joe Derosa, the basic idea of expressing oneself through their work is appealing in and of itself regardless having a consistent narrative. He talked a bit about his influences, naming Frank Zappa and Bad Religion as two of his favorites, and at the peak of his musical expression, he had become very interested in the idea of creating social commentary through his work. While skilled musically, he admits to never being quite good enough to develop music in a way that could hold a torch to his heroes. Stand up presented a new avenue for this compulsion to express himself.

“The idea of comedy really excited me because you just get up on stage and say to people ‘this is what I think’ and as long as you make it humorous, that’s all that mattered.”

“What was your first night of comedy like?” I ask.

“Stand up wise… the first time I ever did it was in the sixth week and it was horrible. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

“And you can’t hide behind an instrument either,” I add.

“No,” Joe says. “There’s no hiding whatsoever. You’re in it and that’s it. That was a painful lesson to learn.” He later adds,”Stand up at the beginning was really scary. I used to physically shake and was just riddled with turmoil.”

For new comics still cutting their teeth, there is probably a reassurance in reading that statement. We all love knowing that successful people also dealt with the same fears and anxieties  that we deal with on a day to day basis while struggling to create our art, whether it be music, writing, or stand up. To this day I still read Stephen King’s On Writing now and again, reminding myself that this national icon was, at one time, living in a trailer with two children, no money, and no real sense that things would ever get better. Comics also have those stories of the early days. Barking for shows, sleeping on couches, being broke, hustling day after day just to get ten minutes of stage time at a club that doesn’t even really want you there.

“Can you talk about going from Philadelphia to New York?” I ask.

“It was tough. But it wasn’t as tough as it was for other people because I had some help. Jay Oakerson really helped me out. I moved in with him.”

“How many years ago?”

“Like ten years ago. I wasn’t in Philly that long. I was in Philly for like a year and half. And then I moved in with Jay… he took me around and vouched for me and got me through alot of bullshit and that helped, that helped alot.”

In my single year of doing comedy, I’ve seen several comedians make the move to New York City. While the value of moving to New York is sometimes debated by the comics left behind, its often understood as a rite of passage. In Philadelphia, the scene is smaller and it’s easier to become a well known comic if you make the rounds long enough, but when you leave for New York, you have to start all over again.

“In New York,” Joe explains, “you have to hang out and show your face or whatever just to get a spot at the Village Lantern for free. That was like a whole new thing. I just have to sit here for a few nights. I gotta hang out at Carolines for a year and maybe they’ll start giving me something. I’ve gotta do free spots at this place for a year or two before they start paying me and I don’t have a manager. And you’re broke. You’re fucking broke as fuck.”

As fun as it can be to spend night after night with comedians, I don’t envy the process. Generally speaking, I’m not much for small talk and I do a terrible job promoting my work through social media, let alone in person. At last year’s World Horror Convention in New Orleans, I made one contact that I still keep in touch with, spending the rest of the weekend glancing at my cell phone now and again just to look like I wasn’t completely alone. And it’s not like I didn’t belong there. I’ve had about a dozen stories published. some in well known magazines as far as the horror community is concerned. My work has been positively reviewed. It’s just that there’s so much further to go in my writing career and I’m still in the early stages. I’m already exhausted and burned out, wondering when this will all turn into something worth while, wondering when I can approach another horror writer at a convention and have them actually recognize me without having to name drop where I’ve been published. There are ways to network, but some of these approaches lack integrity. In the end, all I want is to create and be read.

“Patrice O’Neal told me a long time ago, if you want to walk the ethical road in this business, you’re going to take alot of loss. It takes sacrifice,” Joe says. “And some of those sacrifices will cost you money.”

I talk to Joe about my struggles as a writer, relating it as I often do to the struggle that comedians face. As a writer, you have to work for close to a decade before you start to write anything worth publishing, and then after that another four or five years before people start to recognize your name. The most I’ve made off of a story is around two hundred dollars, which is practically nothing considering the time I spent writing it. As of today I have eleven items that I’m featured in on amazon, with five more stories to be published later this year and another ten currently in submission. Yet even if all of these stories sell, I’ll still be bartending for a living.

“I know it’s going to take me another five years to get a book published,” I tell Joe. “And then another book, and then probably another one after that before I even begin to make a living. When I meet people that say they want to write, I almost want to tell them ‘don’t’. Don’t even bother. Unless you want to spend the next fifteen years being miserable, just walk away from it. So… if you knew how long it’d take to become a working comic, do you feel like you would have gone through with it?”

“I don’t know. That’s a tough call,” Joe says. “I think so… because you only realize how tough something is after the fact. Also, you can’t understand the ambition of the next level until you proceed the level before it. Cause when I first started out I used to think, ‘man, if I could just supply fifty percent of my income from comedy and then I’d just supply the other fifty percent working at a pizza pace, I would be happy doing that’. That was enough for me at the time. Now I’m like… of course I want to work fulltime as a comedian and I do. But the new goal came quickly after achieving the first goal. And then there’s another goal after that, and another goal after that. I don’t think you can really understand what the next goal is until you achieve the goal before it. So I think I would’ve done it anyway. If you told me where I would be right now twelve years ago, I would’ve been like, ‘oh my god, I can die a happy man’. But now I’m like, ‘god damn it, I’ve gotta get something going’.”

The first story I ever sold was a story called “The Stench” to a magazine called Kzine. It sold for twenty dollars. It’s not a particularly amazing story, especially compared to my current work, but at the time, I remember feeling like I had gotten as good as I could as a writer and that the next step was to write my novel. Since then I’ve written more than thirty short stories. It’s odd to remember the person I was, so unaware of the road ahead of him, completely naive to the lesson that he would learn. Even in the short time between now and my interview with Joe Derosa, I’ve managed to sell another five stories. The person I was wouldn’t believe who I am now. And sometimes I think the person I become will be grateful that I was too stubborn to give up.

“I was broke as fuck for two years,” Joe says, relaying his early days in New York. “But you gotta understand, if I had like a thousand dollars save… not even that, if I had seven hundred dollars saved in my bank account, I thought I was rich. So when you have that little, and then all of the sudden you were able to pay your bills for the month and feed yourself and you have seven hundred dollars left over and it all came from comedy, you can’t believe it. There’s a very specific memory I have… I was eating at Applebees for lunch with Jay and his girlfriend and Kurt Metzger. I was going to Applebees for lunch and going to see Hellboy. I’ll never forget that day because it was the first day that I had gone out in a year and half or something like that, because I finally had enough money that I could go and get lunch at Applebees… I remember that happened and I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever forget this day’. And I haven’t.”

“Lunch at Applebees,” I say.

“Yeah…”

“That is sad and beautiful,” I say.

But mostly, it is beautiful. I wonder what moment I will carry with me in the years ahead.

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