Kill or Be Killed

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I grab the mic. No longer an Everyman, another face in the crowd, a safely indistinct unit among the species, I’m on stage. In a microsecond their eyes focus and it’s Them and Me. My job is simple: to entertain. But really it’s, as show business terminology puts it, to kill and not be killed. So I deliver the lines I’ve practiced a hundred times to get it just right. With as much confidence and command as I can summon, I deliver the lines. And nothing happens. The room is silent, the faces without expression. I have died.

Nothing could be more untrue than the notion that stand-up comedy is easy, but the great ones make it seem effortless. I dabbled, but I never had the hunger. I’ve performed on stage many times, as a musician and as a public speaker and as a talking head. Any time you are on a stage, you are performing. Television, radio, auditoriums—I’ve put myself in front of a lot of eyes in a lot of ways. Yet nothing has terrified me as much as this inexplicable business of trying to make strangers laugh.

You learn quickly that a joke always, always has a victim. The television show Frasier had the best formula, in my opinion, of all time. Frasier and Niles Crane are educated and polished, wealthy and enviable, but also perennial, hence miserable, fools. For the purposes of catharsis, nothing can touch an occasion to laugh at someone who is better than you and the worse for it. Most comedians intuitively arrive at a self-deprecating persona. It’s hard (but not impossible) to make people laugh at their own expense. It’s easier to make them laugh at yours.

I’m on a steady diet of memoirs by stand-up comedians. I just finished Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, which was preceded by Alexei Sayle’s Thatcher Stole My Trousers. Next up, Norm Macdonald’s Based on a True Story: A Memoir.

My fascination with stand-up isn’t difficult to explain. It’s the purest form of terror the entertainment world can offer. There you are, in front of an audience, with nothing but your wits and words. No backing band, no elaborate special effects, no tag team. The occult psychology that propels a person toward the stage is presumably to be found in its most potent form among the oddballs of comedy. Stand-up is performance mainlined.

As late as 1975, Steve Martin had decided to quit. He’d spent over a decade failing to make money, and failing to fill rooms. Only months before he was a superstar, he was dying before his bewildered and not amused audiences. Fifteen appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show hadn’t made a material difference in his career. He’d soon be a rich celebrity, booked solid for years ahead, selling tens of thousands of tickets in every city he visited. But the diary he kept speaks only of his self-doubt, depression, and self-pity.

Every memoir I’ve read is a variation on these themes of failure, struggle, hunger, and adrenaline rich moments of elation punctuating the persistent scourge of self-doubt. In the 1970s, when pioneers (among them Martin) were working out the “new comedy,” there were no comedy clubs and no comedy industry—at least, not as we today think of it. Stand-up remained dominated by the Vaudeville-era’s recycled, family-friendly one-liners, scripted by teams of writers and delivered on the talk-show circuit to rim shots.

People like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and Steve Martin were determined to blow up the old comedy. George Carlin began as a conventional figure of the variety-show circuit, reinventing himself in the early 70s. The new Carlin was new comedy, confrontational and frantic and, above all, anti-establishment. You watched the old comedians on TV, with your parents. Not Bruce and Martin and Carlin. Their material was consumed on LP record, in your bedroom with friends. With the door closed.

Difficult, unpleasant, irreverent, outrageous, shocking, fun, anti-establishment comedy changed the world. Not all of it was stand-up. Having grown up on a steady diet of Mad Magazine, I find it impossible to take authority at face value. My brain has been soaked too long in satire and raspberries. Early stand-up practitioners like Carlin, Pryor, and Bruce, and later ones—from Robin Williams and Alexei Sayle through to Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, and Louis C.K.—have all influenced my outlook. I must also include the early, surreal years of the David Letterman show, when necessity compelled this former weatherman to blow up the late-night television talk show format, just as stand-up comedians had blown up comedy itself.

The life of a stand-up comedian is a study of courage and creativity, commitment and determination, and above all else of the stubborn human will to push on when failure feels inevitable and all-encompassing. Comedy distills our tender existence to its raw necessity, to kill or to be killed. We’re all going to die on that stage. The point is to stubbornly go on living.

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