Disclaimer: Persons and events depicted in this story have been reconstructed from fallible human memory and therefore cannot be trusted and furthermore will not be sued. This disclaimer feels legally binding.
“Everything you do or say up there should tell the audience something about who you are.” Luke pointed at my chest looked into my eyes with an intense but friendly stare. He lurched onto the table, leaning on crossed elbows, back to the stage.
“So, no one-liners, then?” I asked.
“Eh.” He shrugged. “It’s not my style. Some people can get away with it though. Like Matt. Look at Matt.” He turned around.
I looked to the stage to see Matt ensconced in the fuzzy red glow of the stage light, staring into his outstretched hand.
He was talking about German chocolatiers.
“See? It doesn’t all have to be true stories,” Luke said.
“Do you mean to tell me that Matt was never a German chocolatier?” I asked.
“You know what, he probably was. But even if he wasn’t — let’s say he wasn’t — his jokes still let us know how he thinks.” He dug in on the word “how.”
We both glanced at Matt, who was swooping his arm up and down in an arc that began at his shoulder and terminated at his crotch. He looked like an after-dark It’s-A-Small-World-After-All machine. Or just a guy directing air traffic into his balls.
He kept it up for three seconds of silence. “Jeez,” I thought. “He’s bombing.”
Then he exploded into laughter, and so did the audience.
Luke smiled and swiveled back to me. “Your comedy doesn’t have to be real, but it has to be authentic.”
(What he really said was “…but it has to be you,” which sounded a little too Christmas-y for our purposes here today.)
“That’s who Matt is. He’s insane. His jokes are just portals into that insanity. And that’s where he gets his laughs,” Luke said.
The room applauded, so Matt was done. Either that, or he’d gotten an applause break.
No — he was done.
Matt stepped off the stage and brushed passed my shoulder.
“Try to follow that,” he said, close to joking.
A friendly, small man with wild grey hair jumped up on the stage: Rob Crean, one of the co-hosts of The Middle East Corn(er) open mic. He gripped the stand with both hands, leaned back, and donned an enthusiasm that somehow remains unbroken despite the night’s consistent torrent of horrible comedy. “Next up, please welcome to the super-tall stage …” Rob peered down at his table to scan the long column of names: “Zach Russell! Zach Russell, everybody, give it up for him.”
I jogged and jumped on the stage. I’d read or heard somewhere that physical enthusiasm gets the crowd on your side. I could have also made it up.
I grabbed the mic and untangled the cord as quickly as I could, yelling with enthusiasm:
I’ve never understood the phrase “Beating a dead horse.”
Here we go, baby.
It’s a useless idiom because it’s not reversible.
Here it comes.
Never once have I seen a dude on the side of the road actually beating a dead horse and thought, “MAN! … He’s really belaboring a point!!”
I think one person laughed.
“Where’s the raucous applause?” my moist palms asked my hemorrhaging brain. “Why did only Rob’s girlfriend laugh? What did I do to make these people hate me so fast? Should I have sprinted up? Yelled louder? Is it my face? My collared shirt? Still my face? Am I sweating did I fart did someone else fart should I quit should I die, onstage, oh, this is my Nagasaki.”
I nervously snickered to mask the oppressive silence of a bar full of people.
“Moving on!!!” I yelled as I retreated to the onstage sewing-machine-turned-table to glance at my notes:
— Clearing History
— Getting Off on Killing the Mood
— My Dad Has Cancer
— Certain Native American Tribes
“Oh my God, this is all shit. This … it’s shit. I am on safari with NO Jeep. Fuck.”
Four quiet minutes later, and I say my goodbyes (“Thanks. I’ve been Zach. Sorry.”) and jump off stage for my sheepish return to Luke. One year my junior, he is intangibly my comedic senior.
He somehow finds a part of my set to compliment (not all heroes wear capes) and tells me to forget about it.
“Everyone bombs at the Middle East, man.” (ey.) “Just keep doing you, and you’ll figure it out,” he assures me.
Just keep doing you. Was that the key? I’d sure been getting a lot of keys lately, but maybe this was the one. The final piece of wisdom I needed to unlock the Secret of Comedy.
But after a few months of doing stand-up, the keys I’d been gathering from newcomers and veterans alike had turned into a mess of metal teeth:
Say everything up there like it’s your first time saying it. – Luke Touma.
It’s your job to have fun. – Nick O’Conner.
Execute the dissidents and feed and clothe the people. – ISIS.
Just be memorable. – A man at Sally O’Brien’s.
Don’t worry – they only remember the people who ruin the night. – Someone at the Middle East.
‘Be undeniable.’ – Jim Gaffigan. – Pete Holmes.
Stand-up started to feel like a clusterfuck of keys, a cabinet filled with so much nickel silver the nail was starting to bend.
During the first six month of performing stand-up comedy, bombing (i.e. quiet-time for the audience) is so painful, and so frequent, that everyone’s looking for some combination of edges and grooves we can tie around our necks to keep us from sucking. It doesn’t exist, but when has that ever stopped anyone from looking? (Answer: never. See: El Dorado, Atlantis, and The Burial Ground of Christ Nat Geo seems to stumble upon every two years.)
Only one year in, I am but a little comedy fetus: ignorant and constantly vomiting.
To be honest, I really don’t know that much about comedy.
All I know is that my baby hands aren’t developed enough to carry this many keys, let alone open any doors with them. (Stick with me. We’re going to get through this analogy together.)
So a few months ago, I walked my little baby hands over to my itty bitty furnace and with my Fisher Price smelting kit banged out a key of my own.
Make yourself laugh.
That’s what you and I waded through this metaphor to find.
Was it worth it? I don’t know. What else were you doing today?
Really? Well aren’t you hot shit. I wish my dad took me bowling…
Realizing the importance of making myself laugh onstage is perhaps one of the biggest milestones I’ve reached performing stand-up comedy. (Let me clarify that I’m talking about genuine, earnest laughter and not scripted, mechanical chuckling. That’s some creepy shit don’t do that.)
If you can make yourself laugh onstage, it means that you actually believe in your humor. Aside from evangelicals and the band Skillet, there’s nothing worse than performing material even you yourself don’t believe in.
Of course, to believe in your material, you must have good material, and good material comes from tight writing, which comes from taking the time to sit down and write on the ground or perhaps at a desk. But it’s the making yourself laugh that tells you what you should, and should not, write down.
Were you to press your ear against the thin walls of my apartment on any given day, you would hear one of two things.
One: Silence, which means I’m not home so please go away.
Two: Muttering, which means I hopefully am home and presumably writing something. If you really commit to listening — and you might as well seeing as you’re already pretty skeevy in this scenario — you’ll hear sometimes a giggle followed by the tickity-tack of a keyboard.
No giggle, no tickity-tack. Now there’s a T-shirt.
My friends make fun of me for enjoying myself (it’s mostly whackin-it jokes), but if I don’t enjoy it, then how the hell will anyone else? This seems obvious, but it deserves to be said repeatedly, folded over, doubled down, and re-packaged into hundreds of other nuggets before it even starts to sink in.
Like most people (I think), I can’t just will myself into subscribing to an insightful quote, no matter how densely wise or wisely dense.
It would be madness if people could.
Imagine walking down the street, you hear someone say “Be the river, not the fish” and suddenly your whole worldview is turned on its head. That’s no way to keep steady employment.
The real draw behind keys — words to the wise, advice, call them what you will — comes from the fact that someone had the brains to put it so precisely.
When I see a particularly powerful line I think “Wow, that’s concise.” Not, “Wow, I can’t wait for an opportunity to apply this new-found perspective.”
Full disclosure, make yourself laugh probably won’t work for you, if you are indeed looking for a key of your own, because you didn’t come to it on your own. You’ll probably just say, “sure, okay” and keep on living your life. But that was never the point of this piece.
What was the point, you ask?
Well, if I’m keeping it one-hundred, the point was to give younger comics one master-key of advice that eliminates the need for any other keys, which is probably exactly what older comics thought about their keys when they gave them to me…
I think about Matt a lot. (He’s not dead, but I do think about him a lot.)
His explosive laugh, the sincere pride he takes in each of his joke and non-jokes. I’m not sure if he’s getting anywhere in comedy, love, or life, but he’s enjoying himself as much as the audience — if not sometimes more — and I admire the hell out of that.
Confusion over idioms like “beating a dead horse” used to make me laugh, which is why they used to work.
I haven’t done that joke since May 4th of 2015 — the day of the bomb– really because I fell out of love with it.
I didn’t believe it was funny when I yelled it into that microphone, so neither did anyone else.
Looking back now, it’s actually a little clever.
It’s not like it’s not funny.
I’d go as far as to say it’s decently funny.
Honestly, it’s not a bad joke. It’s concise, well structured…
And really, it is a dumb phrase. “Beating a dead horse” is an objectively stupid phrase that everyone knows is shit, and under the right circumstances a crowd could be persuaded to enjoy seeing it stand trial.
It’s back in.