Today marks the tenth anniversary of the first time I stepped onstage as a stand-up comic. Granted, I had done a couple of what would fit the description of stand-up sets at highly supervised coffeehouse-type open mics in college, but those were just me dicking around in the context of the sketch comedy troupe I was in at the time. While they were both (or all three? Maybe?) formative performing experiences, I’d feel weird if I counted them.
Anyway, I delivered what I can only recall as a highly mediocre newbie-set at Dr. Dremo’s in Arlington, VA (may that wonderful, gaudy bar rest in peace) on Wednesday, September 7, 2005. I can’t even attempt to quantify or qualify everything that stand-up has brought into my life in that span. At the time, I was a recent college graduate acting out an impulse that I was naïve enough to think I could squash. I remember thinking, as my sketch troupe dropped me off at the Providence train station after my final performance with them that summer, that comedy had been a blast but now it was time to move on to adulthood. I moved to DC that August with little solid direction, no apartment, and no job (you could actually do that back then). One Sunday (August 28, 2005, I believe), I was walking near the Ballston Metro and I saw a sign for a free comedy open mic. The idea of performing didn’t really cross my mind. I wanted to go see a free show, as much as I was tempted to spend the money to metro up to the Black Cat and see the band Clinic play that night. But, I chose the Comedy Spot, and here I sit, ten years later.
That night, I remember watching Tim Miller and Chris Barylick and thinking “hey, these guys are pretty funny” as much as I saw a number of bullshit comics and thought ‘maybe I could at least be funnier than these people.’ I’m still in touch with Tim and Chris. The venue stayed in my wheelhouse, too; four years later, Jake Young and I co-founded the Hot Broth all-ages mic in the Comedy Spot’s black box theater (Jake got that title from his soup at the Vietnamese restaurant where we met to hash out production plans). Contrary to all common sense, Hot Broth continued for six fucking years. I lost track of the number of nascent comics who got entrusted with the key and the list for it (probably at least ten over that span), but either way, it took the Comedy Spot closing down this past February to finally kill it.
I don’t want to stage this as a poor-man’s memoirs of my completely average “life” in stand-up comedy, mainly because there’s plenty that I don’t feel like sharing or nobody should necessarily care about. Also, I’m not famous and I’m not planning my life around being such. If something happens, something happens and I’ll be grateful, but that’s not what this is about. Also, my life in stand-up (or at least comedy at large) won’t be over until my actual life ends, so I feel no burning need to stop and reflect. I just wanted to let you know (yes, you, if you know me, or even are just reading this) that you’re all appreciated.
For years now, when asked what I love the most about stand-up, I’ve either given stock responses (“I love making people laugh;” “I love performing;” “I love the art of it;” “I’m lonely please hang out with me”) and/or just copped out. I’ve always felt the truthful reason was, in part, because stand-up is part of a highly informal, time-honored tradition. It’s the simplest form of entertainment: one person and an audience. I never really dug much deeper, though. But that thought came rushing back to my head on a flight to Boston this past January. I was reading Fred Allen’s autobiography Much Ado About Me, his accounts of his early life in Boston and vaudeville before getting into radio. He was still working on his memoirs when he died in 1956. At the end of a chapter about his experience breaking into show business, he shared a morbid anecdote about an old associate with whom he’d had a falling out. It bears repeating here:
One afternoon at a radio rehearsal, there was a long-distance call for me. I picked up the phone; the voice at the other end was coming out of a newspaperman in St. Louis. He said that he knew I had been a juggler years ago and that I might be able to help him with a story. There was a vaudeville actor who had been lying in the morgue in St. Louis for a week. Nobody knew who he was. The newspaperman said that he had learned the fellow had been a juggler. When I asked him if he knew the juggler’s name, he said “Harry LaToy.” I told the newspaperman what he wanted to know about LaToy and assured him that our office would arrange for the burial. Later, when we reached the proper authorities in St. Louis, we were informed that the body had been claimed and buried. A former vaudeville actor, who had become a mortician in a suburb of St. Louis, had read about the case. He didn’t know who LaToy was, but, realizing that another vaudeville actor was in trouble, the mortician, living up to the tradition of the profession, did what he could to help a brother performer in distress.
I had to stop reading and put it down. Eight decades, multiple comedy booms and busts, innumerable latent cultural shifts, exponential inflation, an irrevocably damaged planet, and one protracted dissolution of the American Dream later, we are still all in this bullshit together. I remember early on how easy it was to get jealous of other people’s success, but I only did because my definition of success was incredibly myopic and immature. As multiple friends I’ve made through stand-up have gotten those late-night TV spots, writing jobs, book deals, and (in a couple extremely rare cases) actually made money doing this, I can honestly tell them I’m ecstatic and they deserve it. Not that I nor anybody should fear dying alone like Harry LaToy did, but it does give me piece of mind to know that even if somebody in stand-up ever does, there will be someone willing to stick his or her neck out for them.
Who’s to say that vaudeville’s even dead? Every time I sit and watch a packed room of people laughing because a solitary performer said something, it feels pretty alive to me. Don’t try to tell me the hospitality I’ve been shown all over the country and world by other comics isn’t part of it. Barring the occasional basket cases (the asterisks of any social or arts scene ethnography), even comics who hate each other care about each other on some level. This began to occur to me within a few months of doing stand-up, and every show or mic (yes, even the shitty and painful ones) has reinforced that on some level. I can’t imagine the last decade of my life without it and the people I’ve met doing it.
And I’ve still never seen Clinic perform.
Knoxville, TN, 2015