Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pay Your Dues.

People mean well. They do. I think that’s an underrated virtue in the long list of virtuous things people do. For the most part, people like when other people are happy and will act accordingly. The people who don’t - the people in the minority? Fuck ‘em.

So it is this virtue that I have to remind myself of on a nearly daily basis. It has become some what of a personal mantra to me.

You See, my career-choice invokes curious reactions from people. It eventually boils down to three groups.

Primarily, there’s the group of people that constantly shoot me comedic advice. I would venture that 50 – 60 % of my conversations now start with the words “so I thought of a great idea for a joke…”

This well-meaning individual will then rattle off a personal anecdote or observation that they think would be killer material for a bit. I respond to each person in the exact same way: I nod accordingly and smile intermittently so as to appear to be listening intently (I do this like a pro) and then give a light guffaw at what I assume to be the punch line. I then give each one the confirmation that, yes indeed, that might make a good joke and then promise to see what I can do, like I’m trying to get someone invited to a party.

Stand –up comedy, for all its worth, is a low-discipline art form. It appears very “doable” to the average onlooker, and it a lot of ways, it is. Look at a beautiful piano concerto. Anyone watching a performance or listening to a record can tell that an immense amount of work went into the creation. It’s clear that not just anyone can do it. The same goes for a painting, or a sculpture or a dramatic performance. There is an obvious craft on display. But stand-up comedy doesn’t have that gravitas. For every George Carlin or Chris Rock, comics whose mastery is so apparent it dares you not to call it art, there is a Gallagher, a comic who became a millionaire smashing fruit.

(For what it’s worth, I believe that comedy has the ability to be art every bit as important as Beethoven or Michelangelo. It’s just that it can so easily not be art that people get confused. It’s the artist not the art-form. Hell, I could blow into a tuba every day of my life but I promise you, art ain’t coming out the other end of it.)

I hope all of this doesn’t sound like I don’t appreciate people trying to help me out. I really, really do. I think it’s wonderful that people think enough about me to share their humor. And, it must be noted, that on at least one occasion this helped me write a joke that I actually have used. But so often the joke I am bequeathed is so ridiculous or so downright offensive, that it boggles my mind to discover these people are sincere. Sometimes afterward I have to just shake my head in disbelief. People mean well. People mean well. People mean well.

If they aren’t giving me material, then perhaps they belong in the second group. I call this group the joke archeologists because they like to dig through my life and point out which experiences could be ripe for material.

Almost every time I complain about anything, group two responds by shrugging their shoulders and telling me: “at least you got some good material out of it.” And that’s an interesting way to look at comedy, and life in general. Every terrible event I have to endure can be mined for comedy gold. With this logic, I can’t tell if I should be pissed I’ve lived a generally blessed life. But comedy is great because it doesn’t have to be true. You may have to pay your dues to sing the blues but you really don’t have to pay your dues to tell jokes. You really don’t have to do anything but make people laugh. Such is a benefit of a quasi-art: since people don’t take it so seriously, the stakes aren’t as high. This relaxed atmosphere could encourage people to take more risks, which in turn could lead to truly artistic material. It’s actually kinda cool.

If they aren’t giving me material or helping me find my own, then they might be group three: people who want me to prove my merit. Comedy is one of the only professions where a practioner can tell a stranger what they do and then immediately be asked to prove it. The response usually is “Oh you’re a comic? Say something funny.” These people are maddening; they are the minority who doesn’t mean well. I usually get very upset at their audacity, until I realize I do this all time. Every time I meet a dentist or a doctor, I immediately ask for a mini-checkup, or use the occasion as the perfect time for someone to take a look at this bothersome rash. Everybody’s gotta pay their dues sometimes, I suppose.

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