Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Applause

1987, when I was rather amusing for a living.

The first of a continuing series of thoughts about the crazy mainsprings of my life. Up next: drugs!

What would possess anyone to get up in front of others and try to please them, entertain them, grab their attention, dare them to laugh and inspire applause?

As far as I can tell, from personal experience, pain of compulsion. Need. Does it matter why? I have the usual balance of mental illness and addiction in my genetic heritage, which helps. As the old saw says, nobody got into comedy because they had a happy childhood.

On the other hand, Art Pepper put it better than anyone, ever, in his autobiography “Straight Life.” He wrote, “I think it was ten months that I was being analyzed. I began to understand my parents. I learned why they couldn’t get along. I understood why my mother didn’t want a child; it was a hopeless situation. I realized that. And I learned all this, but it didn’t change my feelings.” There is no cure for it, not even stark realizations.

So, years ago I stopped trying to figure out why I had to shoot my mouth off, make faces, dance a jig on the sacred altar, and pull down my pants in front of God and everybody. From whence comes that cussedness that makes me see the underside of every dirty setup?

Two key things: from early on, I knew that something was wrong, something that bothered me, something that made me want to say something about it. Comedy was a way to do that without getting censured . . . too much. A laugh forgives subversion.

And something about needing to be in charge. Not being willing to take orders, never being able to internalize those commands for long, not being able to just sit still and relax and wait for those in charge to decide what I should do, who I am, how I should feel, what I should think, . Couldn’t stand it. Made me crazy. It’s not surprising, really. There have been lots of preachers in my family . . . and what are comedians but preachers who tell dick jokes, de-inspirational speakers that try to pry minds open?

And then, all the art. Blazing through the local library. Devouring the books, music, movies. Comedy. Chaplin. Keaton. Marx Bros. Fields. I wanted to be as amazing as them. I emulated. I could do that. I could do that.

Pretty much the nadir of my entire life was when I saw “The Great Dictator” when I was 8 or 9 years old and decided I would try to restage that balloon dance as well. Caught up in my imagination, I asked my parents downstairs to watch me cavort in the basement. I went through my moves, they stood there in uncomprehending silence. After a few minutes of rising frustration, I finally screamed, “Never mind! Go away!” I stayed downstairs and sobbed.

Why does this stay with me? Why is it such a black, black moment? I don’t know. Maybe because at that point I thought, I will never perform for anyone ever again unless I know what I am doing, unless I maximize my chances for success.

I would have found this out sooner, eventually, but the 3rd-grade play accelerated the process. I must have had some kind of aptitude the teacher who cast us saw – big gestures, loud voice, some kind of vividness I suddenly took on when pretending. Somehow, I was the star – Winnie-the-Pooh himself. Being in front of people didn’t scare me; I loved it! My grandparents drove all the way out from Iowa to see the show. I was hooked.

Long before then, I was soaking up comedy as well. Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart’s first albums were in our record cabinet. I listened to them over and over again with fanatic focus. I soon had them memorized, down to the timing and intonation, and I would be happy to recite any or all of them to anyone who might or might not care to listen. A big fan of impressions, too, I worshipped “The Kopycats” on TV in 1972 – Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Marilyn Michaels, Fred Travalena, Charlie Callas, Joe Baker, and George Kirby – and began building a repertoire of over 100 voices, practicing listening to myself using a cranky, creaky old cassette deck I got for my birthday.

Unfortunately, my biggest audience wasn’t the older kids but the grownups. The kids had no idea whatsoever what my stolen routines were about, and couldn’t recognize my impressions of Clark Gable, Stan Laurel, Jimmy Stewart, or Moms Mabley. This incomprehension by my peers has pretty much continued unabated to this day.

And, truthfully, I found kids my age pretty damned uninteresting. Add to this other factors – such as my incredibly thin, and puny child-body, which disqualified me for any activities that might have made me one of the boys (years of verbal abuse from my elementary-school gym teacher didn’t help). My severe near-sightedness wasn’t even diagnosed until the beginning of third grade, long after my inability to see much of anything branded me as a “retard.”

So I clowned for the adults. I was a funny guy in class, but never got listed as the class clown – my humor was far too dark and pitched to the teachers and not the kids. I was a smart little guy, or at least I was a master at test-taking, and through school I kept cranking out As. I kept my head down. I hid in the music and theater departments. They saved my life.

Thank God I could sing! (I was told we didn’t have any money for instruments.) The universe that performing music opened up for me will take another essay to treat; suffice it to say that it was a vital source of spiritual nourishment for me. Likewise, my clowning needs made me a natural for the stage. Although I bore no resemblance to any leading man, my skills put me at the top of the list for stage roles in school.

Plus, we had a place to be. The cavernous stage of our high school held flyspace, a cyclorama, a costume loft, a makeup room, and all the tools and techniques to create productions on our own, with a minimum of funding. We would gather there and entertain and instruct each other, or pick up info from several very talented but completely unstable theater teachers, two of whom could have been charged easily with statutory rape, and another who showed up drunk and played cocktail piano during rehearsals.

I lost all consideration for a backup plan. I didn’t want to have a “real” career. I had to perform. I auditioned for training at NYU – the furthest place from home I could apply to. Astonishingly, I got in! After one crazy, enlightening year (another story for another time), I returned to face disintegration, in my family and in my head. I dropped out, worked subsistence jobs, and started to get involved in the local theater scene.

Except I didn’t want that any more. I was beginning to figure out the JOB aspects of creative life, and that creative projects were just as fraught with idiots, maniacs, and the life-hating just as much as any mundane occupation. As an actor, I felt held hostage by the director, the skills of those around me. It wasn’t good enough.

So how about comedy? Standup is the narcissist’s Valhalla. It’s all on you. That many-headed beast the Audience lurks in darkness. No props (unless you’re that lower form of life, the prop comic), just you and a mike and whatever drugs you are on, if any. You literally walk out there into a spotlight, cold, win over the drunken audience in seconds, sustain their attention, and make those bastards laugh. There is incontestable, immediate, relentless feedback. You kill or you die. There is NO MIDDLE GROUND WHATSOEVER. So for me, a perfect setup.

As an “actor,” I started taking improvisational comedy classes as well. And it turned out, I was vastly better at that than standup, and loved it much more. Given the extremely high caliber of most of the people I worked with, I was able to do amazing things on stage that I never could have done in any other way. So many aspects of it fit me perfectly – the need for encyclopedic knowledge, intense listening skills, a fast mind, the grace of being fully present and alive on stage, and fearlessness. An art form that doesn’t just welcome audience participation, it DEMANDS it. I was unkillable, unstoppable, never at a loss.

Improv comedy and standup move in opposite directions. In improv, you are training yourself to continually erase the slate of preconceived ideas in your head, and constantly working up your mental agility and balance so that you can capitalize on any given stage situation. If you're lucky, you find others that aren't afraid to pass on the easy gags and try for something more substantial. At its best, it's raw creation live -- pretty damn exciting.

Standup is the patient accumulation of effective bits. There is a reason why a comic's work is called a routine. First, one successful joke. Then 2 solid minutes, then 5, then 10, 20, 30, an inevitable (hopefully) evolution into a closer. Individual gags are worked into sets on various topics, which are then woven together. Repeated night after night, honing them into material, meanwhile crafting a persona that the audience wants to spend time with. At best, a great standup goes beyond just entertaining folks; he or she can spout life-changing insights, and craft a vibrant, astonishing comic universe. Well, unfortunately I HATED repeating myself, and I didn't really care how "I" went over. 

So for 15 years, I lived for doing improv, and forced myself to continue doing standup, all the while as a single parent of my sweet little eldest child doing whatever I could to make money – lots of clerical work, phone sales, late-night delivery driving, waiting tables, and even a particularly nasty stretch as a financial broker, the last of which made me feel much worse about myself than any other thing I did.

So why did I end it? Many reasons. First and foremost, I was not that fucking funny. C’mon, folks, let’s get real. The market’s dictates are brutal. If enough people laugh at you, you ARE funny, even if me and my pals standing in the back of the club at the bar know you’re a hack. The crowd did not confer the title of world-beater to me, and after 15 years, even I could see that.

Second, it was painful. I was well on my way to crushing my soul flat with drugs and alcohol (another essay), I wasn’t making enough to live on – and I hated every single aspect of performing that wasn’t actually performing. Didn’t like the travel. Didn’t like hotel rooms. Didn’t like staying up all night. Didn’t like hanging with comics. Didn’t like the lowest-common-denominator mentality of the club owners.

And, finally, didn’t like the crowds. And when that happens, you better find the exit light and head toward it. I lost the need to get at least that form of approval, in that context. It not only wasn't enough -- it wasn't worth the effort.

And, hey, maybe I had something serious to say. Not gloomy, not self-important, just something that didn’t end with a punchline sometimes. I had stuck myself in a situation in which I had to please, once again. Now I was too serious-minded to be a comic, and too funny to be taken seriously or to take anything seriously. The stage was struck, and it was time for me to sit down and start writing.

Still, I don't regret it. We were all pretty much crazy and screwed up and whacked out, but there was a camaraderie unlike any other I have found anywhere. Where else could you find such an exciting group of super-intelligent misfits who were not afraid to articulate their insights, to act out in public, to intoxicate each other with inspiration and sheer stubborn love of life, stripped of hypocrisy and bullshit? Comey was my university, my combat experience, my unfinishing school.

20 years now after quitting I still joke compulsively, reflexively, to the consternation of many. My kids roll their eyes. My wife sighs. I don’t care. In some godforsaken corner of my soul I will always be a comic.

There are a few batshit-crazy people who want me to perform again, or who think the kids should see it, once at least. Fuck no. I do not miss it.

"I forgot everything, and everything came out. I played way over my head . . . I searched and found my own way, and what I said reached the people. I played myself, and I knew I was right, and the people loved it, and they felt it. I blew and blew, and when I finally finished I was shaking all over; my heart was pounding; I was soaked in sweat, and the people were screaming; the people were clapping, and I looked at Sonny, but I just kind of nodded, and he went, 'All right.' And that was it. That's what it's all about." -- Art Pepper, "Straight Life"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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