In the beginning

I have to write this down before I forget it. My first month doing standup comedy in New York was one of the most exhilarating of my life.

I’d spent years in the improv scene, and it was great. It was missing something, though. Everyone was so well-intentioned and nerdy, and for the most part, adorable. But there was also a slightly dishonest edge. Despite all the lip service to “group mind” and “make the other person look good”, most people were very ambitious. A lot of people approached improv in a very professional, political way. Everyone wanted to be on a UCB house team, and didn’t do much to hide it (I was just as guilty of this). I don’t hold it against anyone. New York is an ambitious place, and the genuine selflessness of improv takes years to cultivate. No one really gets it for half a decade. But the atmosphere had weird side-effects. The scene sits in a desperate fog of permanent forced niceness, like the people Stallone and Snipes meet in “Demolition Man”. No one ever criticized a choice, or a show, or a performer, because who knows how that person could help you later down the road? Everyone told everyone they were great, even though 99% of us were terrible.

I started doing standup, and it was the perfect opposite. No one was “professionalist” in outlook. All standups harbor dreams of being stars, but it’s hard to bullshit your way into anything in standup. Comics (and audiences) can smell that desperate triangulation a mile away, and they hate it. At the open mic level in New York, everywhere you looked were people whose highest goal that day was to be the funniest, most profane pirate possible. Most of the time, they died on their ass. But they were taking real fucking risks. Niceness was refreshingly non-existent. The currency was respect, not empty compliments. If your jokes worked, you were funny. If they didn’t, you bombed, and people laughed at you, but hey: you had the balls to be up there. Props to that. Come back next week.

In that first month, I saw some genuinely unhinged performers. I’ll tell you about three.

1. The female performance artist who sang-spoke acapella rants against two targets. A) men who couldn’t satisfy her sexually, and B) the government for taking her kid away. She performed in a one-piece black thong bathing suit and stripped naked during her act. “Why?” she would scream, “why did you take away my fucking child, Mr. FBI?” (Probably because they saw your act. And the FBI don’t take away kids, you lunatic.)

2. The Japanese comedian who told hacky jokes about shampoo or sandwiches, and capped every single punchline with “Ahhhh, Who Let Da Dogs Out?” (read it in the most stereotypical Asian accent – it’s funnier). He said it at least twenty times in five minutes. By the end he was murdering, each laugh bigger than the last. An early lesson in the power of repetition when you want to get a reaction.  Haven’t seen him since, which is probably a good thing. That magical night can stay special.

3. The 40-something bespectacled white guy who claimed to be a “chemical rapper”. He rapped the Periodic Table in a perfect monotone for ten solid minutes, without telling a single joke, doggedly reading through all 117 elements. By the end it was like a Gregorian Chant, and we listened in awkward, respectful silence. The cheer at the end was one of relief…and disbelief that this had even happened.

These people were unhinged and delusional. It’s a fringe subculture where genuine oddities get as much stage time as “the next big thing”. Ironically, these weirdos were exactly the kind of freaks the improv scene thought they were, but really weren’t.

In addition to these weirdos, I shared stages with the funniest young comics in New York: Mark Normand, Chris DiStefano, Leah Bonnema, Bryson Turner, Michelle Wolf, Monroe Martin… just murderously funny people. Mix that talent with the totally depraved, delusional nutbags? I was hooked immediately.

I’m not done with improv. I think it’s a life-changing thing. I just wasn’t good enough at it, and approached it the wrong way – as a tool to somehow “make it,” or get validation. I’m older now. I realize that was foolish. Next time, I’ll approach it like standup. Where the only instruction is “just work hard and get good.” It’s life greatest lesson.