April 12, 2018
There was one awkward moment in the interview, where he lowered one eyebrow and I raised both of mine in mild confusion.
“So…what is your…what is your plan, living in here…are you trying…(quizzical pause)…to be a bartender, full-time?”
“Oh, yeah yeah, looking to build towards that.”
It seemed like Casey wasn’t really expecting anyone to come in and absolutely crush this interview for weekend barbacking shifts at his vibey neighborhood dive bar, and I don’t think he believed my tepid claim that I moved to New York to become a bartender.
I’ve only recently become comfortable telling friends and potential employers that I moved up to New York to pursue stand-up comedy — it sounds better than “well, because I could.” At worst the response is an apprehensive “good luck with that.” Regardless of whether they believe me, mentioning comedy is a conversation-starter: what I’ve gleaned in less than a week in New York City is that anybody who is anybody knows somebody who does stand-up. And that somebody hosts an open mic in the basement or attic of some bar somewhere.
I left the D.C. just as I was starting to figure out the stand-up scene. On weekdays there are a handful of open mics to frequent, most of which begin at a predictable hour — 7, 8, 9 p.m. Consequently, you find the same group of people there every week: everyone has their weekly comedy hustle, they go to some rooms to try new material and others to strengthen an already solid act. Audiences are the independent variable: if it’s too cold or wet outside you can count on no one showing up; unseasonably warm, and suddenly an adventurous happy hour crowd pours in from the sidewalks of Adams Morgan for a couple hours of free entertainment.
The first thing I’ve learned about New York’s scene is something I could have predicted: there are many, many more comedians and many, many more venues to bomb in. On Tuesday I spectated a 6:30 mic at an understated bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Its band of comics with legal pads and notebooks and quirks of all flavors and sizes felt familiar — as did the absolute lack of an audience. Then I discovered that this basement lounge hosts three open mics daily — yes, three mics, seven days a week. While it’s doubtful to count on a consistent crowd in such a saturated market, you can bet there will be comics there every single night, at 6:30 at 8:30 and at 10:30, putting $5 bills in an envelope for 5 minutes of spotlight.
Stand-up comedy is very “in” right now, which is why I often feel bashful expressing the sincerity of my interest to others. Aside from being asked if I’ve checked out The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime, the most frustrating question I’ve encountered in these last few months is why I do it. Not that it’s a bad question — it’s a good question with nothing but bad answers.
For me the real answer is that my interest in writing jokes evolved from my interest in writing poetry, which is about as pretentious a statement as one could make. And a statement that poignantly reminds me of how little time I’ve spent telling jokes on a stage and how long I spent grappling with my identity as a writer.
This same time last year I was debating whether to accept an admittance offer from Colorado State University for their M.F.A. in Poetry Writing– not coincidentally, that was also around the same time I last tried in earnest to compose poetry. In the months after eschewing grad school I went through a short-lived period of fashioning myself a freelance journalist/columnist/essayist/just-please-publish-my-shit-ist: for one “assignment” my “reporting” involved visiting about ten greasy spoon burger joints in and around Portland, all in a span of about a week. This odyssey resulted in a piece I titled “Chuck Change: Searching for the Best Burger Bag in Portland.” I assumed the city’s alt-weekly newspapers would gobble it up in their scramble to find buzz-worthy summer content — it did not even whet their appetite. But I did get to enjoy a week of burgers under the guise of journalism, so it wasn’t a huge loss.
(For those of you who have made it this far, here is a bonus easter egg: my draft of “Chuck Change,” an attempt to make #burgerbag a thing)
What I’ve always disliked about the act of writing is that it isn’t physical enough — I was about to write that I hate sitting behind a laptop, then I realized that I don’t mind it at all while I’m making animations, or editing video, or even manically responding to Craigslist want-ads. And I do love writing when the idea’s momentum is so strong that the words are pulled into place following a logic I could not summon before– so strong that it carries me in and out of the bathroom every few minutes as I repeatedly add and subtract distance from my own thoughts, attempting to surprise myself. That is when writing becomes physical; otherwise, I’ve come to think of it as a chore.
Comedy demands performance. You don’t know a joke is funny unless it makes people laugh, and often too much tinkering on paper will lead to a bit becoming too verbose and stiff. This dynamic of writing and performance is what creates entertainment; I love to entertain, and be entertained. Poetry is not entertainment, and the attempt to make it so via poetry “readings” is one of the most misguided experiments in the history of art (if you’ve ever stood silently in the rear of a stuffy, crowded bookstore and listened to someone whine through four consecutive poems about shitty apartments and chronic anxiety, you’ll agree the last statement isn’t hyperbole). The only tolerable poetry readings involve poems that are funny, because the setup-punchline structure of a joke is the only form an audience member can truly engage with in the absence of printed words before their faces. This realization prompted me to do stand-up, and now you understand why I never attempt to explain why I started doing stand-up.
For Christmas my sister gave me a goofy-yet-insightful book called The Comedy Bible — early on, the author Judy Carter invites the reader to make a pledge: “I will quit doing stand-up comedy after ______.” It prompts a deceptively challenging and vital strain of introspection: what do I expect to get out of anything that I spend my hours doing? I assume that everyone who starts doing stand-up wants to be successful and famous– but how many people feel confident writing “I will quit doing stand-up comedy when I’ve made a career of it and I’m dead”? I’ve yet to complete this pledge.
My goal in New York City is to entertain people and get paid for it. Many people share this goal. What is most seductive about stand-up is that it represents both an exciting hobby and a lofty, nebulous career path: with each open mic you feel like you are advancing further from the latter to the former, even when you are most likely running in place. It’s a scary thought, and one best not to linger on. Yet while I’m still not sure what to expect from New York City or stand-up or whatever job I end up landing, in all this rambling I think I’ve arrived at a much better answer to the “why do you do it” question:
Because it’s fun. Years ago, during college, I became obsessed with an hour+ interview with the late, great artist Mike Kelley that I found on YouTube. The moderator asks Kelley why people make art, and without a moment of hesitation he replies “oh, to amuse themselves.” That simple. People make art because it’s fun.
I will quit doing stand-up when it’s not fun anymore.