Ha! I quickly dropped that “post every week” thing, huh? On the plus side, it’s not because I’ve been lazy or depressed (but both! (just kidding fans!)). I’m just almost done with a 37-day stretch of having only two days off from comedy, which has been the best! I’m doing more improv, fewer mics, and more shows with audience. And I got my first paid gig as a musical improv coach! In fact, I’m going make the equivalent of half my career earnings in stand up in about 5 coaching sessions (not counting all the beer and reduced-price appetizers I’ve been paid in). I feel funny and happy. I’m sure writing the words “funny” and “happy” in the same sentence have doomed me to some precipitous downfall, but fuck it. I am.
Read this book: Fail Fast, Fail Often. “Tom…are you recommending I read a self-help book?” No. But if I was that’s fine because some self-help books are great, and some suck, like all genres of anything. People get all worked up about getting mental healthcare to the people who need it…maybe we all need it! Maybe implying that there are normal strong people, and weak people who cowardly ask for help with problems they aren’t experts in, is problematic. You can tell I went to liberal arts college because I use the word problematic. I’ve been to therapy before (see how I threw in “before” so everyone knows I’m sane now? And I’m writing this!), and it takes a lot more courage to see a therapist than to not. But all that is beside the point.
Fail Fast, Fail Often is based on science, or at least social psychology. It’s not just some successful guy’s affirmations and anecdotes. It’s a fairly well-explained collection of great mental approaches for achieving goals. For example: imagine twins with the same genetic ability. One tries do stand up by himself, maybe writes and rewrites until he has something perfect for the stage. Only goes out when it feels right. The other just gets out there and bombs, learns from each time, asks other comics for advice, bounces ideas off friends, has an eye out for people who might be able to help him, explores other things that excite him as well. Who will be more successful within the industry? That’s not the exact example in the book, but you get it. Seriously, go out and buy it. Or wait until I finish it and see how my year goes.
Improv weirdly exposes your psychological flaws, and I love that. Today, I got personal notes from my Magnet Level 6 improv class, which is pretty much a three-month audition for the theater’s house teams. I was told the same thing I keep telling myself in life: you have great instincts, just make a choice about who you are. I could probably not read into it, but so often in my improv scenes, I wait until the other person’s done something, and then I respond (super hilariously!).
Too often I define myself relative to others, in improv and in life. It should be simple. Pick an emotion, say stuff, respond to stuff, discover what’s funny. But there’s no responsibility if i just react to them. To their scene. If I merely add to their idea, and it fails, I did my best to make their idea funny. No fault of mine. Because I fearfully made them make the first move. And I think that’s true of a lot of things that aren’t going the way I’d prefer in life. I’m waiting to react. I want someone else to make the first move. So I’m working on first moves.
The first 2-3 years of stand up are very fun. All that exists is possibility. We imagine ourselves on television, onstage in front of adoring, open-mouthed fans, unable to suppress their joy-sounds upon hearing our thoughts. We challenge ourselves and tally the number of times we perform, rather than the quality, or how we do relative to others. When you start you’re not supposed to be good. You’re not supposed to obtain accomplishments or credits. In fact, anything you do is great because you’re doing it. Every new mic or show you get to do is a small victory. You’re following a dream that other people are afraid to try. You can’t believe you’re a “comedian.”
Then the comics you started with start getting noticed and you don’t. A show, a festival, maybe even television. That’s when things start to become less fun. You’re happy for your friends, but you’re not much different than them, maybe even working harder, and you don’t understand why the comedy Gods don’t want you as well (if not instead).
That’s when “reality” hits. Better buckle down and get good. So you start trying to do what the successful people are doing, but often times the successful people are just more confident, concise, and maybe even actually funnier. Suddenly you forget any great shows you’ve ever done, and start asking unhelpful questions: am I actually funny? Will I ever be able to support myself or a family? Maybe I should quit and just study computer programming? Writing becomes arduous because you should be writing stuff that’s funny. Performing becomes more difficult because you’re not writing with the same fun. The exciting mist of possibility seems to burn up in the sobering sunlight of reality (suck on those allusions Emily Dickinson).
But reality isn’t a thing. In the sense that no one’s ever perceived and conveyed it perfectly. I don’t know what qualifies as real or not. I do know that believing you’ll do something makes you statistically far more likely to do it than if you don’t. That’s a fact. Contrary to most of our comedic sensibilities, it makes far more sense to be optimistic than to “see how things really are.”
We all have a point of view, and all of them are flawed in some way. Otherwise there’d be no comedy for us to do. So I write this to myself and to you: re-find that youthful, endless possibilities mindset. Re-connect with your dreams and follow new ones. Try stuff, and challenge yourself with the goal of learning rather than being good. Maybe it’ll make your reality even better. Or if you fail, at least you’ll have a killer new 3 minutes. Or not. I can’t control or predict my reality, and I’ve finally realized how freeing that can be.
Until recently, I’ve been afraid to write in this blog. I was embarrassed of where I was in terms of comedic accomplishments. I’m ashamed to use “accomplishments” as a defining value for my writing, but 2013 has been a challenge. Comedy feels different moving from Boston, where it’s easy to get shows and even get paid, to NY, where I’ll often pay to do an open mic. It’s like losing a mansion to move into an apartment: you’re still fine, but you can’t help but remember how easy your life used to be. How you could mostly get what you wanted. It’s hard to fight off the demons of entitlement that tell you, “I’m better than this! I deserve more.”
2013 was a very up-and-down year for me. That said, I’m happy to have lived it in New York. For the first time in years I experienced moments near-clinical depression. For the first time in years, I also experienced exuberant glee. Here’s my year: It’s the tale of New York City. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
January: Moved to NY! Having a wonderful time! Doing improv during the day and stand up at night. Being paid as an “actor” to pretend to be sick for medical students on weekends. Doing 15-20 mics and several hours of improv per week. Dream come true!
February: Same as Jan, except I’m starting to run out of practiced material, and not coming up with new material as quickly as I’d like. Also, I assumed other comics would put me on their shows by virtue of doing well, which is barely happening. I did get myself booked on Kabin(!), which is a big deal for comics coming up around here.
March: Things are getting more difficult now. I’m 2 or 3 months from being out of money, and putting too much pressure on myself to do well on the Kabin set. I’m trying to practice my 7-10, but it’s not going as well as it should. I’m not getting many shows so I’m practicing mostly in from of people who’ve already heard it, and I’m clearly desperate for it to go well. Starting to have some mild mental breakdowns onstage at mics, which doesn’t help me relax at all.
April: I do Kabin! It goes well, but was not hugely fun because I was so nervous. One day after it’s over I get a fever, but have to travel to Rhode Island to host the Comedy Zone. The Monday I get back, I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night with a bad fever and end up fainting. I’m outta money, sleeping on a living room futon, and unable to leave the house for the next 10 days. I’m still on and off too sick to go out the next 20 days. For the first time in my life, I wear the same pair of underwear nine days in a row. The underwear part turns out to be not that bad.
May: Out of money and still sick, I somehow find a dog-walking job, which is a big reason I stayed sick for so long. I’d get close to being healthy, and then become sicker and sicker as I walked dogs from 8am-5pm all week, get a little better over the weekend, and then repeat. I’m rarely doing stand up the whole month. Only really go out for work and the few improv classes I’d already paid for. Once I finally get over the illness, I immediately injure my knee and hip from going straight from being bed-ridden to constant dragging around obstinate beasts all day.
June: Now unable to go out at night because of injury, I start furiously teaching myself computer programming, vowing I’ll never be so sick or injured again without having the ability to go to a doctor. Only fate knows if this was a giant waste of time. I kind of like programming as a hobby. I applied to a programming boot camp, and was on the path and was on the path to gaining acceptance before coming back to my senses.
July: I’m finally close enough to full health to do comedy every day again. It’s difficult to feel funny though, because I’m very poor and constantly exhausted. I was under the impression my job would be paying me between $500-700 per week, and I end up getting paid much less than that because most families bring their dogs on vacation for the summer. I can’t afford to pay for the mikes I used to, and am mostly living on coffee and peanut butter bagels that I carry around in backpack so I don’t buy anything. I’m not getting much sleep from a mix of getting up early, worry, and constant construction every day DIRECTLY outside my window. Like after not getting sleep all week, jackhammers would wake me up at 7:45am on weekends, which were eventually replaced with electric saws, hammers, and reggaeton.
August: See July. And I decide I’m gonna do everything I can to make a Magnet Theater Musical improv team. I really enjoy it, and more than that, I just need to accomplish a goal. Any goal. I need to not feel like I’m drowning in a city that almost seems like it’s conspiring against me at this point. I need someone to tell me I’m capable at something (if you can’t tell, I’m super demoralized at this point). One of the dogs I walk pees all over my backpack.
September: Finally, the dogs are back and I can start saving money. Wrong. Because of the strange way my company pays us, they actually overpaid me by over $1000 in the month of August (because of their pay system, it was hard to realize how little I was actually making). Therefore, my company is going to take that money back out of my Sept and Oct paychecks. While all this sounds super sketchy, it was the result more of miscommunication than them taking advantage of me. That said, I had paid for the improv classes that I didn’t know I couldn’t afford, and have to borrow money from my parents to stay afloat. I’m ashamed of borrowing from them, even though everyone does it at some point. I also tell my boss I’m gonna quit eventually if I have to keep getting up so early. He says he’ll see what he can do.
October: I make a Magnet Musical team! Thank sweet Jesus! I can still do something! My teammates are great, and the shows are fun. I can’t tell you how badly I needed this. I was going to move to San Francisco if I didn’t make a team, just so I could be around audiences with more excitement than dry wall. I’ve even been mentioned in the “Musical Highlights” a few times (Yes, we have highlights for ourselves, my disgusted stand up friends…and they’re NICE. We’re all allowed to feel good about ourselves on occasion (Who am I talking to? (ME!!!))!).
November: A separate musical improv team I was on got accepted into Rochester’s Fall Back Comedy Festival. We get up there, and the pianist they promise will play with us doesn’t show! We do a well-received acapella musical (none of us have ever performed without music before), with a story that discovers McDonald’s french fries are pre-cooked in baby fat. There’s also a dance break to no music. After the show, one of our cast says, “That was my personal Vietnam!” To which I respond, “Yes. That war was a lot like singing without a piano.” We were together for about 36 hours, and I laughed every time I wasn’t asleep.
December: I have to be vague about this, because I was asked to, but…
A comedian who’s been on tv and in movies found me through Twitter, and invited me to write a web series pilot with him. He took me backstage to the SNL’s season finale, where I watched the cast enter and exit along with guests Paul McCartney, Jimmy Fallon, Justin Timberlake, Barry Gibbs, ex-Mayor Bloomberg, and Madonna (Madonna’s security team is larger than Mayor Bloomberg’s). Then I went to the after-party and the after-after-party, where I got to shake Jimmy Fallon’s hand and sit at his table. The most interesting parts of all of this (to me) cannot be mentioned at this time.
Again, I wish I didn’t need accomplishments to feel like I’m doing alright, but dear God do they help!
2014: My boss is getting rid of my early morning dog walks!!! For the first time in months, life doesn’t feel like a constant struggle. That said, those months have helped me realize how I have to let go of a lot of my worries, and stop taking comedy so seriously. It’s not worth it. None of my fears come true the way I expect them, and typically I make it through after a while.
2013 was a very up-and-down year. I was depressed, joyous, and grateful to have learned from both emotions. The older you get, statistically you become happier from improved perspective, but the giddy, child-like surprise of unanticipated joy gets rarer and rarer. Elation and despair both result from risk-taking. We’re saddened by failure, but we eternally regret what was never tried. Here’s to hoping all our 2014’s are the best of times, the worst of times, and the we’re-proud-to-look-back-on of times.
I’ve moved! I live in Astoria and help dog sit a fun, 8 month-old pug. A pug I’ve already yelled at — in human language — several times. It’s driving me mad and I wish I could punch it in its minimally functional face, but sometimes it sleeps on my lap and that’s nice. It’s one of the few relationships I haven’t left as soon as got frustrated with them! Progress.
Since I’ve moved to NY, it feels like I’ve started over. Comic friends with shows will recommend me to their bookers, and their bookers won’t return my emails. Then again, I’m trying to contact more people about shows. Like most comics, I hate the mundane and non-creative nature of asking for spots (because I’m a smarmy sprite who thinks he’s above it somehow), but you have to ask. There’s too many capable comics, and sadly we’re not nearly as irreplaceable as our mother’s may have told us. Open mics will help you with pieces of an act, but you need shows to put them together. The adversity of NY is sort of a positive: it forces you to grow up and adapt, or lay fetal in a pool of your own misery.
I’ve been in NY since Jan 1st, and in the past 23 days I’ve done 53 hours of improv classes, 3 musical jams, 6 regular jams, 31 open mics. I’ve also gotten sick twice, and only worked 3 days, which may become problematic in the future. But I figure if I can keep pounding out shows, remain a decent person, and gather the courage to be myself around the people I want the approval of (or maybe even become man enough to not need their approval!), I’ll end up just fine.
I came here hoping I could look cool and make friends with a bunch of funny people. Well, the odd thing about trying to look cool or funny is that it never works. That said, even though I’ve felt like a real dipshit at some mics, and have had a few vague breakdowns onstage…some people still like me! Regardless of how terrible I think I’ve been. Take that my inner 15 year-old girl who’s listening to Billy Talent III right now!
I’m enjoying improv more and more. Particularly at the Magnet Theater. I love the focus on comedic humanity. Empathetic characters are my favorite. I like being forced to rethink my assumptions about people, who they are, where they came from. It’s much more interesting, to me, than the Neverending Story references I keep hearing (although those are fun!). I would recommend improv to everyone. It helps with…I feel like an unimaginative person to use the phrase “active listening,” but that’s what it is. And whatever you do in life, the ability to understand what people are saying beyond their words is an important skill to develop.
The biggest thing I’ve taken from these awesome first 3 weeks: comedy is difficult and takes a long time, and you might as well not take it that seriously. Be professional and take care of the basics, but I have to keep reiterating to myself this is fun. And when I remember that, it usually is.
I’m drinking coffee in one of the hipper places in Laconia, NH: the new McDonald’s. There’s a fireplace, chandelier, and multitudinous wood-framed pictures of boats. There was a Play Place when I was a kid, but this McDonald’s is more of a Starbucks than the childhood escape I came to know, love, and then hate myself for continuing to attend.
Everyone’s trying so hard to find something. From making their way in art, to finding time while having a relationship, to getting their kid to eat a Happy Meal BEFORE playing with the toy, so “Daddy can get back to work.” My goals are to be a masterful comedic performer, and be surrounded by people I love, and who love me. And ideally, we all nudge each other closer to who we ideal ourselves to be.
You look around the comedic world, and it’s clear being funny doesn’t necessarily lead to an amazing life. Comics who think so poorly of themselves, yet are much greater than they realize. I think very highly of stand ups. At best, we’re exposing people to new ideas, making learning fun, spreading joy. At worst, we’re chastising puppets when we’re being racist (that’s not really the worst, but take that anyway, infrequent reader Jeff Dunham!). George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Patrice O’Neill, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock and many others make it clear how you can get ideas to stick in the world with comedy.
The most eternal comedians are experts at sharing information with people. I believe that is the purpose of humanity (ooo, getting deep, Dunlap): it takes only one mind with one original idea, for infinite humans to benefit from it. And it takes interactions with parts of infinite minds, past and present, to form a person capable of original ideas. What I mean is, science has been built over thousands of years, by billions of humans compiling and comparing data. So too is a human mind.
From conception, we are observing other people; trying to recreate the behaviors that we like, and avoid the behaviors we find damaging. We absorb other people’s actions and emotions through subconscious “mirror neurons,” and create our own pastiche of humanity from friends, family, strangers, television, and everything else that resembles a sentient being. Our personalities are tiny pieces of every person our ancestors have ever come in contact with. In fact, interactions with other human beings changes our genes through epigenetics. I don’t know how epigenetics work, but a lot of scientists say it’s true!
Through comedy, or any wide-reaching art, you can put your ideas, your personality, your beliefs, in a lot of people’s’ minds. You make questioning and reason fun. This is a rationalization and glorification of comedy, a thing that has treated me both amazingly and poorly for several years now (if this sounds like the psychology of a battered wife or hazed frat bro, so be it). But I love comedy, and think it can be better than what’s accepted. These are my ramblings for today. Until I write again!
Read Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s changed the way I write. With stand-up, my writing has rarely translated to the stage. When I don’t have time to write, my ideas are often funnier off the top of my head, talking it out in front of people. Other times, I would write so much, I couldn’t remember all of the sequences of words I’d put together, and I’d lose connection with the audience while trying to recall my precious composition. Here’s the new plan:
1. Write 10 notebook pages a day. I’ve only been able to do this a little more than half the time since I first talked about it, but it’s getting more habitual. On a good day I’ll write seven pages early, and the rest in between sets at night.
1 a. Live my life. Lots of great writers and performers have a wife, kids, multiple jobs, etc. There’s time. I just have to stay off the damn internet. Technically this should be rule number one, but getting that writing done early helps me live my life, and having experiences outside stand up help inspire the writing.
3. Go to open mics WITH ONLY NEW IDEAS FROM PREVIOUS DAYS. Nothing I’ve written that morning, unless it’s a tag for something I’ve been working on, or it’s one of those rare ideas that’s immediately and clearly funny. Forgetting about the joke and coming back to it helps me look at it with fresh eyes, judge whether it’s actually funny, and help minimize wordiness.
4. “Kill your darlings.” This is King quoting another author, but its so true. Too often I try to force jokes into longer bits, where I start off strong and end up puttering out. I love a lot of the extra tags, but they’re often an unnecessary repetition of an idea the audience already understood. I’m not sure how to explain this well yet, but a joke is often a slight of perception. A tag, is usually a repetition of that, in a heightened way. More than one tag, should really lead to another slight of perception. Magic analogy: Pull rabbit out of a hat, pull two rabbits out of a hat, doves fly out of the hat. The rabbit out of the hat is a slight of perception, two rabbits is the tag. After that, more rabbits is predictable, but doves flying out becomes the new slight. Cut things even if you like them. Edit edit edit. See how predictable that last sentence was? But it’s advice, not a joke.
Hey super fans…I had a great show! IN New York! Applause breaks! Exclamations! People said I was funny. Several people even told me I was their favorite other than that friend they had on the show (so really I was their favorite). I have had better sets, but not in this city.
Now that strangers have said I’m their second choice, New York has hooked me. Sorry San Francisco, but I’m skipping you (for now). I may go to DC for January, then come back to NY before going to Chicago in the summer. I’d like my home to be in New York, but I need to collect road sets somehow. As my fervent readers have probably realized, my plans for the future change every 36 hours. I’m sure I’ll be crying into this blog again before the week’s out, but until then, suck it my-self-doubt!
It is 8 AM. I can’t remember what I’ve confessed into the cyber void of late (I’ve been reading “prose” recently, so I’m going to type this blog post like a real sprite). I’m in a Starbucks in Boston, after three and a half hours sleep. This has been my usual work routine the past 4 months: I get up at 9 AM in NY, and take an 11 AM bus from lower Manhattan on a 4-6 hour journey to Boston. I open the Howard Johnson’s Tiki Lounge at 5 PM, work until 1 or 2 AM, and then crash on a friend’s couch, or am allowed to sleep in a hotel room until 6:30 AM. I shower, get out by 7 Am, and then wander the streets until I repeat the 5 PM Tiki shift, catch an overnight bus back to NY, and try to catch up on sleep. Then I do comedy for 5 days and repeat. Needless to say, my body is dying.
Exciting news though…only one more weekend of it all! I’m moving back to New England for Thanksgiving through New Years, and I’m going to rest and see a doctor! Oh sweet slumber, how I would dream about you if I were sleeping. It’s really not that bad. I’m sure plenty of people have a rougher schedule than I, but I’ve always needed more sleep than the average person. I can feel my personality shutting down. Like a bent-over old man, shuffling from one task to another. Just concentrating on the floor until I get where ever it is I’m going.
New York’s done a lot of things for me, but one of the most important, is even there’s just one audience member at a show, I am SO grateful for that person. I will never take an audience for granted again. Holy God. I can get up more times per week in New York than I can in Boston, but I definitely get in front of more audiences in New England. This past Tuesday, I went to 3 open mics and watched a show. I only got onstage for one of them. I was last pulled last for two of the mics, one of which, all the just-comics audience left before I got onstage. It was just me and the host, so I said screw it. Then I was pulled last this late night mic I paid $3 to do, where I’d go up to no one at 3 AM. I used stronger language than “screw it,” and left again. You know…those heroic tales about comics giving up and then making it. Good work me. But again, I would gladly go on at 3 AM, if there were going to be any audience members there.
The point is, I don’t get funnier as I get sadder (I’ll say! (Got me!)). Ninety-five percent sure I’m moving to San Francisco in January. My plans seem to change based on how well I last performed, but I’m fairly certain.
I need to see the country soon if I’m going to do it, because for the first time in my life, I want to start dating someone. Which may seem weird that this is just happening at 27, but up to this point, I’ve only really ever wanted to have sex (Mom, turn away from the screen!). I want love and crap. Bleh. AND I’m smiling when I see little kids now. Dear Lord. I see children playing and I’m like “Awww. Look how cute they are!” Up until now, it’s been, “Get these disease-ridden, gnome-twinks away from me!” It can’t be too long before I dream about teaching someone to play catch. I must travel before that happens!!!