standup as the most complex text adventure

I love watching stand-up comedians work.

I don’t mean the specials on Netflix, HBO, etc. Those are entertaining, but with all the different camera angles (and maybe also the confidence that comes from getting far enough in one’s career to be so exposed?) you can’t always see the process going on in their heads. I mean live stand-up, smashed up close to the comedian in a basement somewhere.

You can see their eyes tracking the people closest to them (the only people visible up there in that blazing light) but also questing off into the distance as a side-effect of straining to hear in that direction as they throw off test jokes. Not always because they’re testing out new material, but because they’re testing the audience. Is this too risque for them? Are they with me? Are they willing to come down this road any further or no? Do I have to detour or risk totally flaming out? Is it a lost cause?

At the basest level these tests are oblique: “Are there any married people in the house? Who here is a vegetarian?” But they get more subtle as you go along — you don’t want to keep asking such initializing questions deep into your gig, after all. You want there to be a pace, and to have pulled people along far enough where they’re buying into your stories as comedic truths, one after the other. You can’t stop in the middle of that to check. (Though admittedly, one great way to do this is to jump from addressing the audience to addressing one of the poor saps in the front row, as though you’re only interested in the weird expressions they’re making or in how your jokes are affecting their lives — and in the larger audience’s reaction to this interaction you can gauge the room without it seeming gauche.)

It’s like they have a comedy meter that they want to keep continuing to fill, joke after joke — room after room, NESW — and they have to check the meter each time they enter a new room. Do I have enough to go East up the Diabolical Tower of Debauchery? Or are they a little divided on that last political joke, and should I detour down Ridiculously Relatable Road? Or do I need to take a quick jab at myself to get that meter back up and reassure them that they don’t even need to relate to me, by careening south down the Street of Self-Deprecation? Am I performing for an audience of grue?

I couldn’t do comedy because I’d take the setbacks way too hard. I pay a ton of attention to how people react, both vocally and visibly, and the learning curve to actual funny (if “actual funny” is even an option for me) would wreck me. But I love love love watching other people do it. It’s so technical. There are so many factors you’re trying to keep track of — not the least of which is remembering all your options. If this joke didn’t work, what do you fall back on? Have you already mentioned that one? (Have you already been to that location?) If so, then what? That pressure is enticing — it’s like the race I ran through too-crowded orchards; the track was muddy and people walking and running were all mooshed together; clawing my way out of that mess was immensely fun — but I’m not built to handle the spectacular failures that are inevitable in live standup the way I can handle a faceful of mud if I trip and fall in a race.*

But dang do I enjoy watching others take that on.

*Totally did that, by the way. Second grade. Was in first place, then tripped and came in last. Our Russian exchange student devotedly (and erroneously) claimed I’d been sabotaged by a competing relay team. From Russia With Love.

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