tig notaro

Yesterday, with the absurd ease of the internet age, I bought Tig Notaro’s book, having learned of its existence less than five minutes prior to buying. It will be on my doorstep tomorrow. I know exactly where it’s going — we have a cube in our giant wall of cubed shelves devoted to female comics — but I don’t know when I will read it.

Maybe this year, maybe not.

The fact is, I’m hording it for a rainier day. I did the same thing with her legendary set, the recorded version of which which I own but have yet to listen to. I’ve watched other bits of hers, yes. I’ve heard her interviewed, and heard others interviewed about her. But I haven’t listened to the set. Because I might need it more later. When things get worse.

I’m well aware that it’s not a fool-proof plan. What do I expect her to do, make everything better? I’d hate for someone to tell me that they were so sure something I’d written would move them that they were putting off reading it until they really, really needed something moving in their life. Way to oversell something, right?

But it’s like with authors. How I deliberately saved Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky for the week I had to go down and move my mother into a dementia facility (and bathe her and lift her up and down and — and leave here there, amid a clot of vicious screaming octo- and nonagenarians decades her senior). Or how I put off reading Patrick Rothfuss’s second book for years, because based on the way people talked about him I thought I might need an ace up my sleeve when sorrow came knocking. I understand that I am asking a lot, probably too much, of these books. These authors.

What, though, is the proper thing to do? To become addicted to some substance instead? To become addicted to a religion — which, while comforting, would offer me only someone else’s answers; some hackneyed phrases passed down a hierarchy inevitably employed, at some level, to oppress people? It’s not even six one, half dozen the other here. I risk no outraged or sheepish follow-ups; no one is going to contact me and say “hey, it’s just a story lady; find your good feels somewhere else.” Because, after all, they did want to move people. They wouldn’t be doing what they do, whether it’s stand-up or writing, if they weren’t trying to affect people in some way. My treating their creative efforts as a precious commodity that must be horded — a tincture of the possibility of feeling better, to be carefully stockpiled — doesn’t change that. My writing about their writing doesn’t change that, either. I’m invisible. I’m invisible, but that’s not my problem.

My problem is that my mother is gone.

None of these people can fix that, I know. But they might at least be able to make me laugh. Mom was never dour. Even last month, when she thought I was her own mother, washing her hair and toweling her dry and lowering her down onto a bed and dressing her, I could make her laugh. When even her laughter is gone, I will need someone else’s. Stockpiling the hope of more is the best that I can do right now.


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.

stop sheathing your wit, stephen colbert


We tried to watch Friday’s Late Show. We failed. Here’s why.

My husband is more forgiving than I. He’d been doggedly trying to keep up with Stephen Colbert’s new show for weeks. I, meanwhile, had abandoned it the week of the show’s obsession with the Pope’s visit. Less because of the presence of religion than because of the infantile fanboyishness attendant upon that religion as trotted out in the show. I kept hoping for him to turn a leaf and to have some useful critique or commentary on the Pope, but no–it was all unicorns, rainbows and choirboy anecdotes. Kthxbai.

However, we tried, last night, to make watching Colbert part of our routine again–namely because it would be better (I thought) than wrestling with the database I had to normalize by midnight. But it was awful. I’m just going to focus on one bit to explain why, though this unrealized potential is a hallmark of the entire hour, day after day, week after week.

The show turned its gaze to several recent revelations delivered by author J.K. Rowling about the Harry Potter series–that she wished she had paired Hermione with Harry, for example, or that Americans would call muggles non-mags. What the show could have turned its gaze to, and only made a half-hearted attempt at, was the ridiculousness of the media’s response to these revelations. In a brief montage of various too-excited morning talking heads, we got to see all sorts of people feign jaw-dropping shock at what were pretty empty epiphanies. “Mind. Blown,” they kept repeating, sometimes miming the explosion going on between their ears. It was ridiculous, and the show could’ve pointed that out in more than a 15-second montage.

Instead, we cut to a kitschy scene involving a camera filming up from the bottom of a cauldron in which Colbert, with the sprinkling of magic dust onto a staged Hedwig-delivered letter, further revelations about the series. The scene was filmed live, not pre-recorded and then played at the key moment, so it may have just spawned from a desire to break out the desk camera. But such desires, if backed up with nothing creative behind them, should be squashed.

Which did not happen here. Instead we got to listen to Colbert expound upon all sorts of harmless fake revelations about Potter, from Snape’s full name (Snapple, har har) to the news that Harry Potter had been seen kissing his own patronus (okayyyy). The flaw here isn’t that these revelations were harmless. It’s that they weren’t funny. They read as some middle schooler’s list of Weird Things That Might Happen in Harry Potter, doodled on notebook paper in front of the lockers before class started for the day. Nothing funny enough to put on national TV. Not by a long shot.

The toothlessness of the jokes was made worse by the inclusion of two lines that were far from toothless–and which showcased all the more keenly what the show could be doing. In criticizing one anchorwoman’s comment that the “t” in Voldemort had been revealed to be silent, “like Colbert,” Colbert listed a bunch of similarities between Voldy’s imagined evil empire and America, stating that they aren’t so different–“after all,” he adds, cutting to a map of Cuba with Guantanamo Bay clearly labeled, “we have our own Azkaban.”

“Holy shit!” I cried, turning to my husband. “This show just became relevant again!” A beat later, Colbert glanced at the map and waved a wand, lilting “Arabo disappearum!” Holy shit indeed.

That is what they should have been doing the entire time. That cuts both ways. That provides meaningful critique, to somewhat counterbalance the feckless jaw-droppery of the newspeople in the earlier montage. Why would you not do that the entire bit? Why would you not put whoever came up with those lines in charge of the entire cauldron routine, and put something with actual weight in there? Colbert is pulling his punches, time and again, trying to appeal to a demographic who the network seems to imagine is too old, tired or dumpy to appreciate biting humor. I don’t know who these people are supposed to be, but I doubt they’re watching.¬† Familiar with the Colbert of old, they likely never tuned into the new show in the first¬† place. And this attempt to appeal to them, to bring them back with lame jokes and gimmicky camera angles and utterly shit amounts of social critique, is ruining the show for the people who poured over in droves for the old Colbert.

It is true that there are a number of biases working in me already–a preference for stand-up over improv, for one, and strong affinity for gritty confessional humor instead of third-party point-and-laugh fluff. My husband tended bar in a comedy club for six years; I grant that it (and the free tickets that came with it) colored my expectations in the humor department. But you don’t have to keep it clean and still say absolutely nothing. Look at Jackie Kashian. She should be the polar opposite of Amy Schumer (whom I adore), avoiding as she does next to all talk of itchy assholes, unseemly communicable diseases, or the questionable endowments of previous ex-boyfriends. It should be too clean for me. And yet then, in the middle of your laughter, Kashian can suddenly be referencing–reaaaally delicately, keeping the focus only on her to the point where trigger warning obsessives should hold their damn tongues–the act of being molested as a kid on a bus, and the lasting upset that results from that. And the first time I saw this was definitely a “holy shit” moment. Because the way she does it, I’m still laughing at the bit, but I’m also laughing a little hysterically with relief because she’s talking about being groped by some piece of shit on a bus and I was too and she’s okay so that means I should be too and and and. And it’s NOT toothless. It’s clean but it’s not toothless.

Colbert used to be able to do that. Now he won’t let himself. No, I don’t blame the network; I think he has enough power to push the envelope if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He’s content to keep pulling his punches. To sheathe them in the bubble-wrap of shitty jokes.

And I’m not taking an hour out of my day to watch that. I’d rather go see Jackie Kashian or watch Amy Schumer or Louis CK on HBO.

People with guts. We need them.