Comedy is one of the few crafts where you have no choice but to fail — often miserably, cringe-inducingly — in front of an audience while you practice. For most sports, there are training camps to make you strong and exercises completed in solitude that enhance your skill. God only knows we don’t show our first drafts to our friends. And even acting can be experimented with in the safety of a class or private coaching session. But comedy? The only real way to sharpen your tool is in front of actual people on a random week night in some random club under a spotlight with nothing but scribbles on a notepad you fervently edited while you waited your turn. The first time, the second time, the third time, and so on... Is this thing on?
I've talked to a few veteran comics who assure me it gets easier. I believe them. They certainly make it look easier. One told me he used to get nervous the way I described (not able to eat, on pins and needles), until one day he went on stage and realized he was full of pizza. Huh, he thought, progress. The problem, and perhaps the beauty of it, is there is no shortcut. Despite the fact that I was on a hit TV show, have done panels and talks in front of thousands, there is no comparison to grabbing a mic with the sole intention, and expectation, that what you're going to say is something that will make people laugh. If not, you fail. I don't know if all comics feel this way, or did at some point, but I would venture to guess they do. Anyone I tell I'm doing stand-up who isn't a comic responds with, "That's so brave! I could never do that." Yeah, me neither. Or so I thought.
There are few times in our lives when it is completely acceptable, expected even, to suck at things. I'm talking about childhood, adolescence, and a few rites of passage that come later in life like deaths and births, but other than that, we're supposed to pretty much have shit figured out. This is a false belief. We shouldn't, and we don't, have shit figured out. But most people find something they're good at, develop that thing into a career or at least weave it into their identity, and that's that. No more sucking at stuff. Thank goodness! Right? Wrong!
Sucking at stuff, although uncomfortable, is, in my humble opinion, the key to happiness. It's not that sucking at stuff makes you happy per se, but in the process of challenging your confused notions of who you are and what you need to be, you get to develop a sense of yourself that's separate from all those things. If we were merely the sum of our parts, or the sum of our skills, we would be no more than biological robots (that's an article for another day). But we're not, we're humans. We're humans with dynamic personalities, interests, capabilities and potential. If we just stick to what we're good at, we never get to find out what that true potential really is. You end up with a tombstone that reads: "She found something she was good at and did that until she died." Boring!
I find comedy absolutely terrifying. Although most of my friends would describe me as "funny," getting on stage and commanding attention with the sole intent of inspiring laughter is a whole other story. I had never even watched stand-up until just over a year ago. I would see clips here and there, sure, but I had made up a story that I didn't like it and the whole idea challenged my perception of what was possible. Deep down, though, I knew that was bullshit. I knew that if I was given three wishes by an ethnically offensive stereotype of a genie, being able to do stand-up and do it well would be one of them. It just seemed impossible.
Thankfully, I have a supportive community of friends who encourage personal challenges and celebrate failure as the necessary path to success. Also, after my father passed away, stand-up was the only thing that cheered me up. Chock it up to the chemicals released from laughing, or maybe there was something deeper there, something about fragility of life and not wanting to let it to pass me by. Either way, I finally admitted to myself, and eventually others, that stand-up was something I wanted to do. Although it's probably the necessary order of things, I'm sad my dad can't see me perform. He was my most favorite comedian of all. He taught me everything I know about dark, dry humor and how to make puns out of absolutely anything. It’s all his fault!
So comedy is, now, not only a way for me to challenge my ego and entitlement to be good at things, it is a way to express myself and hopefully inspire others to do the shit that terrifies them too. When I watch comedians who are masters at their craft, I feel as if they have reached inside me and turned on a light. I feel connected with the world in a way that is so magnificently, painfully, and vulnerably human. They say laughter is the best medicine, but it's not just any laughter — it's the kind that happens when you recognize the sheer impossibility of perfection, of avoiding the messy parts of life; comedy is about celebrating that. Done right, it is a celebration of our shared humanity. Other forms of expression are too. Painting, singing, pottery, whatever it may be, I implore you to pick something. Pick something that moves you and terrifies you in equal measure. And celebrate the hilarious, humbling, and exhilarating feeling of sucking! Wait, I don’t think that came out right. Whatever.