Author’s note: The column is a bit serious this week. Sorry about that. I’m feeling a bit serious.
You started this job to be alone. That’s part of the reason you love it. You started this job to stand onstage by yourself and speak. It’s a ridiculous job to have, really, to be a stand-up comic. It’s a job for people who haven’t felt heard. It’s a job for someone who spent their childhood thinking, “Oh, you think I’m fat/gay/cross-eyed/irrelevant because I’m a woman? Well, you don’t have to listen to me now. But in a few years, you’ll pay money to hear me speak.”
You start at an open mic. You start alone. You get a laugh. You get none. You do it again. You do it for years. You start your own show. You book the people you look up to the most. You fail in front of them. You fail a lot. You use the failure, you forget the failure, you don’t even see it. You fail again.
You get on a booked show. You invite your friends to the show. They come and they laugh and they’re happy for you. And they come to the next one. And the next. Then they get married, they get jobs, they stop going out at night as much. You stay single, you quit jobs, you start to stay out later at night. You run out of things to talk about with them. You get on a booked show. You try to think of friends to invite but you can’t. You invite no one. You go alone.
You become close with other comics; you see them every night. You talk at the back of the room. You watch one another. You make plans during the day, and you spend that time talking comedy. You talk about the local scene, you gossip, compare notes, compare yourselves to one another. You root for each other. You are jealous of each other. You work together, but they’re your friends. You travel, you see new comics, new cities, new audiences, new scenes. You begin to feel some validation. “Maybe they do want to hear my voice,” you think. You get emails that confirm that. You try to ignore the emails that don’t, but you can’t.
You are angry. You started angry. You stay angry. Angry that you haven’t been heard; angry that so many people still don’t want to hear you. You talk about that anger, it makes your jokes better. You learn to leave some of that anger in your jokes. You become more honest. You become embarrassed by the things you used to say onstage; you realize that will eventually be true of the things you say now too.
You meet your hero. You meet your heroes. You do shows with them. You realize they are people, that they haven’t figured it all out, that they are still moving forward. That makes you happy, to know they are real, and that makes you sad, to know that there isn’t an end point.
You move. You start over. You travel. You start over. You do larger venues. You start over. You feel a sense of calm that things are moving in the right direction; you feel a sense of panic that things aren’t moving in that direction quickly enough. You wonder if things are moving forward at all. You talk about that onstage, and it feels self-indulgent. It is self-indulgent. You stop talking about it onstage. You keep thinking about it.
You think, you write down your thoughts, you try them onstage. You can’t find the replacement for that one great joke you have. You’ve told it so often you now hate telling it. You keep trying to replace it. You can’t yet. You build a longer set, you build a tighter set, you use them up, you start again.
You get on the plane. You get in the cab. You check into the hotel. You go to the show. You are friendly. You talk with the other comics. You get heckled. You get applause. You shake hands afterward. You take pictures with audience members. You tell them it’s nice to speak with them, and it is. You wait to see how long the other comics will stay. You leave when they do. You go back to the hotel. You get a drink at the bar. You go up to your room. You get ready for bed. You can’t sleep. You pace. You look out the window. You eat stale $8 hotel pretzels. You take some NyQuil to see if that will help. You watch television. You see your friend in a commercial, or on a late-night show, or on a sitcom. It’s nice to see them. You leave the TV on and fall asleep to the sound of your friend’s voice.
You wake up. You get on the plane. You go home. You unpack. You get dinner with your fiancée. It’s nice to see her. You watch television. You see your friends in a commercial, or on a late-night show, or on a sitcom. You go to bed and, beside her, you can actually sleep. You wake up and repack. You get on the plane. You started this job to be alone, and so you are.