Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Column #2: My life as a stand-up guy

The first joke I told to a group of strangers, onstage, was about O.J. Simpson. The only good thing I can tell you about it is that it was in 1997, not last weekend. Well, the other good thing is that they laughed. A little. A little is enough, though, for a fledging comic who has been waiting for this moment for months, years or decades.

There are a few people who know what I did between 22 and 25, and they all want to know if I've seen the new movie Funny People. Are soldiers asked if they've seen G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra? Do cops get asked if they see cop movies? Do you assume that every teacher has seen Kindergarten Cop? Whatever your trade is, if Hollywood has made a movie about it, it probably has only a superficial resemblance to its reality.

I fell into stand-up by accident. I went to L.A. with a simple plan: Get a job writing for a great TV series, then move on to writing and directing movies.

Sounds easy, yes? I was 22 and didn't know anyone there except for some relatives, who, like your relatives, lacked clout in Hollywood. After years of being the weird one, suddenly I was surrounded by 100,000 other guys who looked, thought and talked more like me than I was comfortable with. (The fun house mirror is inaccurately named.)

Where does a writer go? When your task is to stay in a room, alone, producing universally beloved works of art, how do you transfer them from your thoughts into multiple Emmys, Oscars and... hey, do novelists even get awards?

I quickly discovered that in L.A., there are so many people desperate to be seen performing that anything can become a stage: a theater, bar, coffeehouse, book store, hookah lounge — even a laundromat. I also learned that a lot of performers were desperate in general, bitter and exhausting. I didn't want to be sentenced to that life.

I also suffered from stage fright. You know how public speaking is everyone's biggest fear? Imagine doing that in front of a hundred strangers, nightly, for years. It doesn't necessarily get easier. I saw myself improve as a writer the more stand-up I did, but was never able to perform my material as skillfully as it sounded in my mind.

Some people I came up with have had success. Why, only two months ago Zach Galifianakis became a movie star in The Hangover, after 15 years as a comic. Maria Bamford has been on TV a lot lately, thanks to The Comedians of Comedy. Who doesn't find Stephanie Courtney effortlessly delightful as the wacky gal in the Progressive Insurance commercials? Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Beckwith, Jimmy Dore, Martha Kelly, Jordy Fox or Manuel Gallegos? Neither have most people. After that, it gets even less glamorous. Three of the guys I worked with died young, from drugs or obesity.

Elizabeth had a roommate who was a young actress. Linda Cardellini soon landed the starring role in a TV series called Freaks and Geeks. Through her, I met most of the cast. Today, some of those people make a new Judd Apatow movie every month. And though I could see his latest movie, Seth Rogen will probably never again be as funny to me as he was in 1999.

A few hours before I went up onstage for the first time, on a Saturday in April 1997, I rented a movie called Punchline. Bitter veteran Tom Hanks is teaching suburban mom Sally Field how to become a comic. She tries out a joke involving 1970s serial killer David Berkowitz, and he shakes his head.

"Manson is funny - Berkowitz isn't funny." Then, as if I needed to hear his warning again, Hanks repeats, "Manson is funny! Berkowitz isn't funny!"

I don't regret trying, but I'm in no hurry to revisit that world.

c. 2009 Velocity Weekly

No comments: