Dying Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard
I never wanted to grow up to be a comedian. To have people laugh, to be funny, to stand on a stage and be funny while people laughed? Sure. But there are many, many ways to do that without clocking in as a stand-up comic. Far less painful ways.
Because comedy is binary, and if comedy is all you do, the results are simple: Laugh or don’t laugh. All other forms of entertainment have no audience requirements, other than staying in their seats until the end. Hoped-for reactions, emotional responses, cognitive breakthroughs, everything and anything—these are vague and ill-defined, known when they’re known but not before and really, not known that much. Maybe there’s applause.
But comedy? Oh, dear God. You gotta have something special to take up that trade. You have to want to fight.
So, not for me. And by the time I was about 11, I’d focused my diffuse extroversion on acting. I wanted to be one of those guys, like Redford and Newman. Like Pacino. Like Brando. Laughs were a bonus. The play was the thing.
I loved the funny people, though, and I studied them. The old ones, the newer ones, all the ones. W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Keaton, Lloyd. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns. Didn’t matter. Studied, listened, watched.
And then my own guys, starting with the Cosby records everyone’s parents had to my own silent nights with George Carlin, listening through headphones and holding a hand over my mouth to stifle, lest Mom and Dad discover that I’m listening to those Seven Words being said.
Pryor. Seinfeld and Leno, Robin Williams, Letterman. Dozens of forgotten names, too. I knew them. I didn’t dream of emulating them. Not really, and not for nothing, either. I’m not that guy.
Comedians tend to have chips on their shoulders, rough edges that never get smooth. They grate against the world, and they see it as funny, too. It becomes a clash of sensibilities, then, all played out in front of a brick wall with a microphone in hand. I will make you laugh, they say. We say, do your best.
This was not me at all. This was never me. So I appreciated, but let my fantasies out to play in a different arena.
It’s just that I had this trick. I was a mimic, and a really good one. I always was doing that, as a kid, doing accents and funny voices, and then my voice deepened and I got very good at it. And then I discovered that this was an actual thing, that some people entertained other people by imitating voices, so I started working on it.
I don’t get it. Some people can wiggle their ears, or raise one eyebrow, or have perfect pitch. Some people are natural athletes, who swing a golf club like a pro the first time out. Some people make funny sounds. Bird sounds, animal sounds, nature sounds. Movie star sounds, politician sounds. No idea.
I could just do it, and I learned about all those guys, too. I studied, I copied, I taped and re-listened, and I got better. It was just a trick. I did it because it was fun, and sometimes I could make my friends crack up.
I don’t know why people love impressions, but they do. They love parrots, too. It feels like about the same thing, to me. A funny trick, an illusion. Software will soon be much, much better at imitating specific human vocal characteristics than an actual human, which is another thing we can worry about later. Humans only do a trick.
I don’t mean it’s not a talent. Whatever you want to call it, fine with me. It just wasn’t a big deal, only a hobby for a teenager who already leaned a little on the compulsive side. I had bags of audio cassettes with my attempts on them; I may still have some. I can’t think of a great analogy, although maybe an architectural student who paints watercolors in his spare time would be close.
In other words, training your body and your voice is Acting 101. My college classes included fencing, dancing, oral interpretation, voice and diction. Taking one aspect of this and wandering down a personal hobbyhole with it makes sense to me.
I rarely dreamed about performing my voices in an act, although sometimes, of course. And when I was 15, and saw that Dick Van Dyke was going to emcee and produce a local variety show as a fundraiser, with open auditions, I had to do something. So I became an impressionist.
A couple of weeks after my 21st birthday, feeling aimless and a little blue after a romantic breakup, I used a chance meeting with a friend from high school, who’d been in L.A. off and on over the past couple of years, to make a theatrical decision. I quit my job, gave up my apartment, sold a bunch of stuff, and drove across the desert from Phoenix to LaLa Land.
The rest is in the column, pretty much. If you read it and see it as a cautionary tale, biting off more than a mouthful, rising to the level of incompetence, having a funny story about how I failed miserably, I’d be pretty interested in that take, actually.
It seems to be the take of my editor. He asked me for a sample joke from my act (which kind of misses the point, of both my story and comedy in general), so I gave him my strongest bit, my opening. He responded by noting that he would have laughed at it, back in the day.
In the column I mentioned the book, I’m Dying Up Here. It was reading it, last year, that I discovered my place in this weird universe. The author noted that, during her 20 years or so of active time running The Comedy Store, Mitzi Shore personally hired all “regular performers,” as we were called (meaning we had scheduled dates and times to perform, although we weren’t always paid). It mentioned that this group numbered around 200. Two decades, 200 comedians.
And one of them was me. As I said in the piece, it was a mistake on Mitzi’s part, and I’m sure she had a few. I just fooled her because I knew how to write and act the part. I was an excellent actor, and I could play a standup comedian for five minutes onstage.
Not really for 10 minutes.
But it wasn’t an accident. I killed that night, had the place rolling. It might have just been my night, but I think it was just practice and an odd combination of factors. People laughed, though. The material was funny.
Eh. I don’t know what I want here. I just wanted to share what I thought was an interesting story, about being a civilian in a specialized field, about trying and realizing when I wasn’t a good fit, when I needed to cross something off my list and move on. When I grew up, a lot. When I did something, experienced something, that few people ever do. I thought it would be fun to share.
It has almost no meaning that I can discern. It wasn’t a significant moment in my life. I don’t look back with fondness, or regret, or anything, really. I just remember it. I’m glad I did it. It wasn’t ever going to be me, I found out, and I was right.
I’ve got plenty of failure stories. I got fired from McDonald’s for being incompetent (really). I was a horrible waiter. I spent 30 years, all of my adult life, working at jobs I absolutely hated. I spent 30 years of misery and didn’t end up in a good place. Lots and lots of failure here, including a lot of the time onstage.
But c’mon. You think it was a goof, a youthful mistake to move to L.A., sleep in my grandparents’ living room, and sprinkle my dreams on a cruel stage in Hollywood? I guess you could.
You’d be wrong, though, and to me that’s way more interesting than a fail.