As many of my readers know, all nineteen of you, I spent several years in the 1990s performing stand up comedy. Many people I tell today don’t believe me, but it’s the truth. I did a lot of shows around the St. Louis area, everything from open mic nights to charity gigs, some corporate events, and paid gigs as an MC and feature act. I did a little bit of traveling for shows as well. My comedian friends and I put on our own DIY shows so we could do things our own way, just like punk rock bands were doing a decade before.
I became a student of all things comedy, from stand up to vaudeville, television shows, movies, radio performers, everything I could get my hands on to study the art. That’s what comedy was (is) to me, an artform. Perhaps not the noblest of art, but an art nonetheless. The greatest comedians can make you laugh in numerous ways. Some tell stories, some do one liners. Some have the presentation of a lecturer, some come across like your buddy after a few drinks. The style doesn’t matter, it’s the substance behind the jokes that makes a comedian’s material worthwhile. That’s where it stops being jokes and starts being art.
Artistry is ultimately why I stopped doing stand up. My goal was always to come at the material in a different way, to take the joke into an unexpected area, push it for all it was worth, and with a bit of surprise and unorthodox thinking, get that much sought after laugh. I felt like I had to earn the laughter, anything too easy was put up front in the act so I could get the cheap laughs out of the way and get audiences on my side before I hit ’em with the good stuff. Like my heroes before me, I believed there was no topic you couldn’t joke about, depending on the extent and intent of the joke. I also prided myself in never talking down to my audience. I refused to tailor my material to lowest common denominator settings, and I took it for granted that my audiences were smart enough to handle whatever I threw at them. Again, I was chasing “art” for the sake of it.
This turned out to be my undoing. During the ’90s stand up boom, comics were a dime a dozen, but most of them just wanted to be famous, even here in the Midwest there was a feeling that you could work hard enough to get noticed and “make it.” Trouble was, most of the people doing so were either just aping whatever they saw on Leno or Letterman in order to become America’s friendly comic next door, or going the other direction and trying to be as filthy as possible and get famous for being the next X Rated comedy bad boy. Any artistic notions, if these people had any at all, were secondary to the goal, whereas for myself and a few of my friends, artistry was the primary goal, and everything else, we naively thought, would come along after. Turns out we were SO wrong.
That fact didn’t change my ideals any. I would love to say it inspired me to get better at my craft, and at the time I thought it did, but it really just made me angry. Every single hack comic had an airline bit ( “Ever wonder why they call it…the terminal? HYUCK!). Or how about that classic cringy line: “That’s the difference between men and women”? Yeah, yeah, we all know the difference, Chuckles, we’re adults. Can we move on please?
And all the while I had agents and professional comics telling me my stuff was “too original”, and “too off beat” for me to be successful. That really stung.
It wasn’t just stand up either. Television and, especially, film comedies were changing as well. The change here was more subtle, but to anyone who took their comedy seriously (a weirdly pretentious stand to take, looking back) it was undeniable. From their very beginnings comedy movies had often focused on the “dumb guy” trope. Everyone from The Three Stooges to Steve Martin to Johnathan Winters to Monty Python and beyond used this character to great effect. The difference is, it had previously been done with a bit of a “wink” to the audience. In the past, you always felt that the writers and performers were actually smarter than the characters they portrayed. No longer the case come the mid ’90s. Sadly, this trend has mostly continued, though it has gotten a little bit better in the last 10 years or so. Or maybe we’re all just used to it.
Anyway, it all became too much. I was tired of banging my head against the wall for what felt like no recognition and little validation. Look, I’m not about to claim myself the “great lost wonder” of American comedy. My material was far from perfect, a lot of it was average at best and much of the stuff wouldn’t fly today. Heck, I only ever had about 1/3 of the room with me on any given joke, fortunately, each joke was a different third so I evened out pretty well. Sure, there are some bits I regret writing/performing. The fact is, I was an obnoxious little jackass in my 20’s and deserved to be knocked down a peg or two. I just never made my way back up.
So I stopped. I got as far away from stand up comedy as I could. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it on television for years, much less set foot in a comedy club. It hurt too much.
What I didn’t know was that there were a lot of others like me, but not making my way out of the Midwest, I just didn’t get to see or hear them. Nowadays, there are many successful comics who share my comic sensibilities and have amazing careers. If I had been able to keep going…if I would have moved to a larger city….would I be among them? I don’t know. I’m not about to put myself in the same league as any of today’s greats. The odds are that I would not. Yet sometimes I can’t help but wonder.
So I didn’t become a professional comedian, which was my one goal. Sitcoms and movies didn’t interest me much, as I thought stand up could be an end in and of itself. Turned out to be an end before it began. Honestly, I am still a little bitter about it and I have some regrets about what I did and didn’t do. I chased this thing for the better part of ten years, eating, breathing and sleeping comedy. I don’t think anyone with a crushed dream doesn’t have at least a few regrets.
However, here’s the thing. I am finally beginning to get a better perspective on the whole thing. The results may not be what I wanted, but at least I did it. I got up on stage in front of a room full of strangers and made them laugh. Mostly. I bombed a lot, too. But I did it. I met a lot of cool people, and had a lot of fun. I got some good stories to tell, and a few I never will. These are experiences many people will never have, and I take some solace in that.
For a brief period of time, I lived my dream. I stood on a stage and expressed my ideas to an audience who were there to listen. And that, ultimately, is really what it was all about. Somewhere in me, I have that need. Communication. That’s why I auditioned for the school plays, and became a “theater kid.” That’s why I did stand up. That’s why I got into the local music scene. It’s also why I do this blog. Because that need, that part of the dream, never goes away. I know that as a middle aged man, there is very little chance of any project I do really taking off, and my audience will be limited. But I still have to feed the need.
In the end, I am still a dreamer. Dreams get crushed. Dreams change. But they never truly die. So I’m going to keep on doing what I do, in whatever form that takes, for whoever is willing to be there for it.
One more thing. I don’t want anyone thinking that I am dissatisfied with my life as is. While I would still love to live my dream full time, I have built a life with a wonderful family and would not trade them for anything. I see my kids taking an interest in the arts like I did, and it makes me proud. Keep living the dream, kids.
Keep living the dream.