The Dark Side of Comedy

Comedy is fun, and it is something that I truly enjoy, but sometimes it brings out the worst in people.  They say that comedy is tragedy plus time, and many comics get up there and recount some of the worst things that have ever happened to them night after night constantly picking at that scab and trying to wring as much laughter out of a terrible situation as they can.  Long after normal people have put things to rest in the back of their minds a comic will continue to examine those issues under a literal spotlight.  After just a few months of doing comedy it is very clear to me that one of the hardest aspects of being a comedian is dealing with your own issues and trying to stay positive.

Think of how many time you have heard about a comedian passing from suicide or drugs and thought “what a shame.”  Mitch Hedberg, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Robin Williams and many others, people who made us laugh and raised our spirits, who succumbed to their own demons.  They worked hard to build on their natural talents and became recognizable faces and names only to lose everything, in part because of what they did for a living.  Every day they got on stage and tried to make people laugh, often at their own expense, and sometimes playing the clown that makes others laugh can be the loneliest position of all.  Beyond the trapping of fame and the perils of celebrity there are thousands of unknown comics like myself who deal with many issues off the stage.

Maybe it is the type of person who is attracted to doing comedy that is the root of the problem.  Most comics are not the most well adjusted people in the world, which is part of what makes comics funny.  Nobody wants to go to a show and hear  someone brag about all the great things that are going on in their life, we want to hear about their fuckups and failures and insecurities so that we can forget our problems for just a few minutes.  Luckily most of the people drawn to performing comedy, myself included, have plenty of that material to work with.  I have heard the line “Deep down all comics are pieces of shit” and I really don’t agree with that since I have met some really great people who happen to be comedians.  I think that the type of people who like to make people laugh tend to be those who know what it is like to be hurt.  I developed my sense of humor as a way to deflect bullies and to make myself more acceptable when I was a very unpopular nerdy fat kid, many others draw from the darker pools of addiction, family problems, and mental health issues.

It takes balls to stand in front of a crowd of strangers and admit some of the bad things in your life, and it takes something special to take those things and find the humor in them.  We are hardwired to avoid that and to keep things secret and put on a good face, especially in today’s social media fueled society.  While most of my jokes focus on bad dates, or struggles with my weight, or the stupid things that I do when online shopping it still sometimes hurts to pick at some of those scars.  I can’t imagine what it is like for people who have suffered real tragedies and have come out the other side.

They say that a runners high is bullshit made up by people who have never been high.  I haven’t personally experienced a runners high but I have felt the stage high.  You do a set where everything clicks, one of those transcendent nights when everything goes the way you plan, time fades away, and you can have an almost out of body experience.  You leave the stage and strangers are congratulating you, other comics go out of their way to tell you what a good set you had, and you are king of the world… and then the crash begins.  All of a sudden everyone is paying attention to someone else, someone who may not being doing as good of a job as you had just done, and you fade back into obscurity.  Chasing that stage high is a part of why many comedians keep getting up there.  Those few minutes of glory are what motivates us to push through bad sets, inattentive crowds, grueling open mics, and the other rigors of the daily grind.  Good sets tend to push you to be more creative and ride that wave to better jokes and hopefully more good sets, it also makes you want to continue that high through other means if necessary.

Nothing tastes as good at that first sip of beer after a good set, you have done your job and made people laugh and now it is time to kick back and reward yourself.  This is where some comics can go too far, trying to prolong that stage high through seeking out other highs.  Even worse than coming off a stage high is dealing with bombing.  All you want to do is crawl up in a ball and medicate the crushing pain that comes from putting yourself out there and failing hard.   Beyond the ups and downs on stage comics tend to work late nights and can easily fall out of sync with the rest of the world.  If you add in the travel schedule that many successful comics have to endure it can make for an exhausted and lonely existence. I know that some of my most depressive moments of the past 8 months have come during the long drive back from a show either coming down off a stage high or doubting everything about myself that could have made me fail.  Living on this roller coaster is enthralling but it also takes you to places that you never thought that you would go in both a good and a bad way.

I have found that when doing comedy it is very easy to fall into jealous patterns.  I am generally not a jealous person, but sometimes when I hear about other people getting booked for shows, even shows that I can’t make it to or that I wouldn’t want to do I feel extremely jealous.  When several comedians who I have worked with a bunch and consider myself close to formed their own group I felt jealous and left out at first before realizing that my work schedule wouldn’t let me participate anyway and would hold the entire group back.  When I see people who don’t work hard enough to live up to their potential, or comics who make excuses or use qualifiers it makes me incredibly angry.  I realize that some people aren’t hard wired to work the way that I do but it still pisses me off that after working a 12 hour shift and driving an hour to a show I have to hear someone bitch about how they mismanaged their time and didn’t put in the basic effort necessary to do what they are there to do.  I also feel a good deal of schadenfreude wanting other people to fail, which is pretty tough to admit.  Vermont is a relatively crowded scene with not a lot of shows going on, and with the exception of a dozen or so comics who are talented, hardworking, and likable enough that I respect them no matter what they do I kind of hope that some of them fail and I can work my way up the totem pole.

No matter how angry and jaded this post has made me sound becoming a comedian has been of the the best things that I have done in years.  It has allowed me to meet new people, have new experiences, earn some praise, and define me better as a person, but it has also brought on crippling self doubt, extreme anxiety, brushes with alcohol abuse, and has forced me to look at some of the worst things about my life on a nearly daily basis.  Everything in the world has good and bad sides to it, the trick is to latch on to the things that have more upside.  I believe that comedy is a good thing for me, it helps to keep me sane and allows me to have fun, but there will always be those long and lonely drives home where I will fall into the darker parts of my thought pattern.  The key is to keep those visits to the dark side of comedy short and to realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel before becoming just another name lost to history.

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