I’ve been performing, either drums or stand-up comedy, fairly nonstop since 2001. I haven’t made a “living” at either, always tethered to a “real job” to make ends meet and, in fact, fuel keeping the show on the road, so to speak, paying for rehearsal spaces, drum sticks, drum heads, actual, literal fuel, more alcohol than probably necessary.
It’s been an irregular ride, with dry spells of nearly no performing punctuated by multiple days, weeks, months on the road. But I’ve been out frequently enough to have sometimes been out when tragedy strikes and forced to deal with it however necessary to get through the day, and then get through a show.
This morning I watched the trailer for the documentary, Love, Gilda, about the life of Gilda Radner. A clip of her and Gene Wilder made me remember that, when Wilder passed, I was, in fact, on the road, in between comedy shows on a week-long tour of Florida with Austin’s JT Habersaat.
I remember approximately where we were when the news came in. I-95, somewhere between Pompano and Jacksonville. It took the wind out of the sails. We were both fans. It was, in short, a real bummer. I’m sure we talked about Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Willie Wonka, and the work. And I, for one, as I always do, quietly, maybe out loud too, spiraled into thinking about life itself, and death, how one can go from being such a loud, joyful, integral part of so many people’s lives to … nothing.
That night, maybe ten hours later, our own show would happen. We would each take the stage with the singular goal of making a room full of strangers laugh. Any heaviness of the day, the death of an inspiration or otherwise, would have to take a backseat, and not only sit there but take a long, quiet nap. We had a job to do.
Live performance is a strange thing altogether. A group of people gather and stare the same direction, watching people they don’t know do something. The very act of it is bizarre and has existed probably as long as groups of people have existed. And whether you’re singing a song, being a character, telling jokes, dancing, reciting a monologue, teaching a class, the crowd has expectations you’re expected never to deviate from, lest you run the risk of “losing” the crowd.
Going to a show is an escape and the performer can’t facilitate that escape for others if they can’t escape their own brain.
I had shows to play the days Michael Jackson and Robin Williams died. Jackson was basically my generation’s Elvis and I remember getting to the bar and all the TVs were aimed at the news. Patrons perched on bar stools staring in disbelief, swapping stories about the first time they heard Michael Jackson, which songs they loved, etc. It was a frozen-in-time rain-or-shine parade of nostalgia under a dark cloud. Our show that night was upstairs above the bar. I don’t remember very many people coming up. I couldn’t blame them. They’d lost their Elvis. For us to play at all felt blasphemous.
The death of Robin Williams punched me in the gut harder, probably because — no disrespect to Jackson — it was less expected and the way he went was shocking and heartbreaking if your only experience with Williams was public persona. “Not Mork! Popeye! Not Peter Pan! Patch Adams! Not ‘Seize the day’!”
We were on our way to Gainesville when we heard. I had drums to play that night. I was out of it. Head was a fog. It felt surreal, like when Elliott Smith and Mitch Hedberg passed. But I didn’t have shows to play those nights.
I was grateful for every distraction when we got to the bar. The drinks themselves, the friends I didn’t get to see very often, any joke someone told, any game of pool or tiny chore to prepare for the show. I remember often staring down at my snare drum during the set, my brain thousands of miles from the stage, floating in disbelief, arms and feet going through the motions like good little soldiers trained to be unaffected by lost limbs and bloodshed. Just get ’em to a medic and get back to the field.
A lot of comedians will tell you comedy is their therapy, and that’s great. Everything’s a different thing for everybody. But, for me, it (and drumming) is a distraction, a temporary escape. It’s exactly what it is for the people in the crowd: a four, six, eight, ten, thirty, or sixty minute break from the real world.
And it’s also a bizarre “job,” one in which the “clients'” satisfaction and, to that end, your satisfaction is 100% dependent on how capable you are at stifling your actual feelings, anything that’s bothering you, any questions you may have. You have to shut that shit off or else risk being completely useless.
I understand the same could be said for police officers, teachers, bank tellers, servers, retail clerks, the list goes on. The difference is, our “job” is to make a group of strangers laugh. Which, if you’ve been blindsided by anything unnerving that day, can feel like climbing a mountain blindfolded with your hands and feet bound. It can feel pointless. The irony being, that’s exactly the opposite of what it really is. Our personal, internalized reaction to whatever bad thing happened making it feel pointless is proof enough that it’s not. Escape is necessary. A break is necessary. A distraction is necessary.
The Twilight Zone bitch of it is: people are counting on you to be their break.
To that end, even if you’re able to squash whatever’s bothering you, the idea of that can be maddening. The opposite of therapy. An unfair, sadistic challenge: Your Hero, Friend, Pet, Marriage, Sense of Self Worth Died. Make Me Laugh.
A few days before I had to travel out of town to perform stand-up at a festival I’d wanted to even just attend for years, I got word that a former co-worker I’d done a mediocre job keeping in touch with had passed away. The day I had to leave town, I was told he’d hanged himself.
I drove like a ghost tourist, half taking in my surroundings while being completely unimpressed, or even aware, of any of them. I had a four hour drive to a buddy’s house I was carpooling with and another eight hours the next day.
Again, any little distraction meant the world to me: my pal and his girlfriend cracking jokes, a comedy album I hadn’t heard before, a twenty second interaction with a convenience store clerk while paying for gas, airing up the tires. Anything else meant everything.
Tons of friends and acquaintances were at the festival and under normal circumstances I’d have been at bars with them the whole time, throwing back more than a few, catching up, laughing like invincible idiots. This time I was grateful to have my own hotel room to isolate in and a channel on TV playing a marathon of Christmas movies.
I was numb and couldn’t shake it. My brain a projector of the worst images triggering painful reminders of other friends who’d died way too young, a few fairly recently. How unfair it was, every time, suffocating me like a hot, soaking wet blanket. It all seemed so pointless. And being here to tell jokes? Well that just seemed insulting.
In addition to choosing to be alone with all of these thoughts because I didn’t feel like I could function in a group, I was also texting a friend of this new friend who had passed, someone I didn’t know, trying to help make arrangements for someone to pick up his cats which, as far as they knew, were still in the house. Texts continued to come in and we went back and forth until about three minutes before I had to take the stage two days later.
It was the worst show I’ve ever done. I know I got some laughs ’cause I’ve seen pictures of people laughing, but I can’t remember what I said and, in fact, can’t remember feeling anything. I was on auto-pilot and an engine was down. I went into it looking forward to being through with it, having some drinks and making my way back to the quiet hotel room to pick up Christmas Vacation at whatever part it was at and sinking into it a third time.
A lot of people love to place a lot of emphasis on stand-up comedy being “the hardest thing to do,” “you’ve gotta have balls of steel,” blah blah blah. I don’t subscribe to this thinking at all. Stand-up is tough. It’s even tougher to get good at, as you’re required to practice live in front of strangers, mostly other comics, who don’t really give a shit.
But it’s not fucking neurosurgery. It’s not driving an ambulance. It’s not running into a burning building knowing it’s up to you to save a life.
It’s a challenging thing to do that can be a lot of fun that’s really hard to get good at. That’s it.
That said, even on your best days, when you wake up feeling great, everything goes your way, you catch every green light, when you hit the stage later you can still have a rough night where it feels like you’re drowning and no one wants to help. You’re in a pool, floundering about, looking around for any sort of reassurance, and everyone in their comfortable lounge chairs with their umbrella drinks and cheese fries just sits and stares, maybe sometimes laughing at the way you’re sinking.
So, on your worst days, when you’ve had to deal with something shocking or tragic or decimating, taking the stage can feel like jumping in the pool with a cinder block chained to an ankle no one else can see. And it’s your job, treading water, to ensure they never do. You kick and paddle and hope, distracting yourself long enough to distract others who have no idea what’s going on below the surface.
And, when all is said and done, you drag your anchor, chain and raw, bloody ankle out of the pool — like everyone, on both sides of the stage, occasionally has to– across the deck and off to bed, dumping whatever you see fit onto it — Neosporin, bourbon — and you lie down, grateful no one had to scrape you off the bottom.
But — and this is the most important part of this water analogy — when you wake up, the chain’s made of plastic, the block’s a bit lighter. Today will be better. Tonight will be easier.