I have a weird relationship with stand up. Carey has been doing it for years, and from what I can see, the biological effect of the constant practice of standup is a hardening of some egotistical side of your brain, while at the same time liquefying your soft chewy center. It's a rough thing. I've seen her peak and tumble and climb and chew, and be really good and be really bad. She was always the funny one growing up, being the middle child and therefore needing an arsenal with which to combat the constant attention suck of my high school black sheep antics. Compared with her sparkling holiday dinner table wit, I often felt slow and stumbling, boring. But I admired it so much. I love anything brave.
When I moved down here, I thought I would try it out myself maybe, a little. I was used to writing for other people, and those people told me I was funny. Fucking internet people will tell you anything. I wouldn't know anyone in town, so even if I bombed it was a good way to meet people. Honestly, after so many years of watching people I knew in Cleveland start off, and suck horribly, then get good, get better, my vanity was insisting. I think your vanity must be really insistent to do something like stand up. God knows how the plain little dorky fat girl from Cleveland got such an ego, but fuck it, there it is and therefore I might as well put it to good use by punishing it constantly, right? An ego's a muscle. When you've got a good one, it's fun to abuse it all the time.
There was one open mic downtown, at a place called Nutt St. My first week in town, my landlord took me there. It's in the basement of one of the few hipster bars in town, a dark brick space with actual rows of seats, tables set up behind, square low stage in the middle between two pillars, bright spotlights. On the wall behind the stage, every brick has a black permanent marker signature. To the side is a plastic banner advertising their sponsor, a specialty bra company. Open mic is Thursdays, Wednesday is Improv, Friday and Saturday they have ticketed shows. The open mic is packed, standing room only. There were 22 comics on the list that first night. I had no idea, and so drank at my usual pace at an open mic, which is to say heavily and only for an hour. This mic went three hours.
Two weeks later I was there 15 minutes before the list opened, and signed in to go up, penciling myself somewhere in the middle. That also meant I had about two hours after making those treacherous little marks on paper, till I actually got this over with. I was beyond terrified. I kept drinking, but it felt like the alcohol was having no effect on me. I had a little square sheet of notebook paper I had folded into a card and made notes on. This paper remained clutched in my sweaty little fingers for two hours. I kept staring at it and mumbling to myself. It was silly, I had memorized the entire bit days in advance. A facebook joke, some okcupid jokes, something about my cats, something else about prostitution, and then finally a political sex joke about my vagina. It wasn't stellar, but I felt like it was solid. I had written it out like a script, transitions and all. When I finally got up there, unable to see any of the audience through the lights, hyper aware of the 5 college girls sitting front row, glaring at me and refusing to smile, I ran through my script like a first timer auditioning for a phone sex job. I kept dropping the mic on my lines. It went ...okay. It wasn't terrible. People said they liked it. Not the other comics, of course they said that, because they were being encouraging. But people on the street I didn't know, they said it. It was probably their fault I came back the next week.
The next week, I was more comfortable. I had all new stuff, but I felt pretty good about it, and had even decided to forgo writing it all out. I was just going in with some notes and stories, and would try to be more conversational. Worst. Once again I got up and could barely register the audience was there at all. I barreled through the routine, incredibly aware no one was laughing, but unable to deviate from the mental path I was running down. I bombed. I decided audiences did not like to hear me talk about sex, it was not working. I took notes from the other comics. I tried to stay upbeat. My heart was just ripped to shreds though.
So I wrote all new stuff, non sex stuff, weird stuff. The kind of stuff I would write to you all here. I ended up writing 4 minutes that is nothing but cat jokes, seriously. I took it to the first night of a smaller mic, which was attended by 80% other comics. Once again, even though it was a smaller more well lit room, I still could not interact with my audience at all. I just can't look past the stage. I talk into a void. I have no idea how the new stuff was received, I couldn't even hear the level of applause as I left the stage. But I did feel better about the new writing. I didn't know if it was funny at all, but it felt more like me, and it felt smarter, and I've got till Thursday to funny it up, restructure it, rewrite it.
And so, as one of the guys here put it, I've got the bug, which honestly feels like a tapeworm, like it's just sitting there in my intestines chillin'. Because I stay home and stare at the ceiling and talk to myself, trying to find a punchline. I say the same sentence to myself 12 times in the mirror before getting into the shower. I wake up to write something down.
This has been so good for me mentally.
It's the writing that hooks me, the practice of writing down every weird thought I have, I love that. I never was quite able to do that with fiction pieces, I can't get my brain to obsess over them the same way. I'm sure it's the lack of immediate payoff. If I write a joke, I only have to wait a week to get some incredibly powerful social response, yay or nay. A story you work on for ages, only to never really be sure if anyone is ever going to see it.
I'm even thinking about majoring in creative non-fiction rather than fiction, which is a like "whoa" kinda thought for me.
The fear and humiliation and anxiety has woken my brain up. Also I'm drinking so much coffee.
As I was making my normal morning 5 cups today, I wrote an email to a guy I heard was moving to LA. It was standard good luck, let me know if you need anything crap. But also this guy is really funny and smart, and I think if he goes there and it wakes him up, he's gonna do really well. We're about the same age, and he's way more successful than me in a lot of ways, but in the city he was in, he had sorta peaked. For himself. He had reached a lull, and I do know the feeling of that lull. It can be overwhelming, it's not necessarily a mental depression, but a whole life depression. Everything is just sort of muted and tamped down, and the higher you try to go, the more fog you get lost in.
I don't know, maybe he doesn't feel any of this at all, but writing to him made me think about where I was at now, a month into this new city. School is great. I have actual writing and reading to do, all the time, it's annoying and also the best thing ever. I still need a job, I have to buckle down on that, this week. I think of LA as being a place where you go to get your doctorate in survival, and I feel like Wilmington is where I'm at to get my masters. The equivalent of your life college degree is the first place you live alone, which can be your birth city or the place you went to college. If that place is a biggest city, like LA or NYC, then you just move in between biggest cities. But most of us grow up in smaller mid sized cities, or smaller. So your first city is your BA. Then you move somewhere else, maybe a little larger, and you're a little bit older, and that's your masters. And then finally, if you're really making a career out of whatever hippie art shit it is that we all do, you go to a Biggest City. And after a few years there, it's up to you. You can live wherever. You can go back to your birth city, or pick random places for the rest of your life. You've faced the fear.
I wish more people thought of the world this way, as an infinite number of possible lives and an infinite number of fears to stare down.