The Sophomore Slump: My Second Year in Comedy

In September 2014 I started taking a standup comedy class, now two years later comedy has become an integral and basically daily part of my life.  The journey hasn’t been all sunshine and candy corn, it has pushed me to explore a lot of subjects and thought paths that I wouldn’t have normally pursued.  I have found myself bouncing from top of the world to rock bottom, unbridled excitement to just going through the motions, riding the roller coaster of happiness, sadness, anger, and many other emotions.  I have tried to approach comedy as a chance to meet new people and have a fun outlet, so it makes sense to take a realistic look back at the past year and see what I have accomplished and have I need to improve on.

During my first year performing I fell into two big tropes, the promising newcomer and the guy who would go to great lengths to get on stage.  I was moderately talented and was very comfortable with public speaking which gave a better stage presence than I had earned or rightly deserved.  I was also living in Middlebury and driving to Rutland or Burlington every time I wanted to get on stage, which was a level of commitment that most people appreciated.  Knowing that someone is burning 2 hours on the road to get 5 minutes of stage time is something that you have to respect and knowing that someone is willing to go anywhere to perform in some sub optimal venues is also a desirable trait in a comic.  I was also writing prolifically, culling over past experiences and facebook statuses trying to squeeze every joke possible out of my life.  I was also branching out by taking improv classes and performing storytelling.  All these factors lead to a very productive year where I was able to perform very often and had high hopes for my comedic future.

Now looking back it isn’t surprising that I burnt out a bit, but it is surprising that it took so long to happen.  I was working more than full time, and grinding it out on stage 2-3 nights a week, trying to pursue several types of comedy, all while trying to live a real life.  Luckily I learn well from failure.  I thought that I was a shoo in to be a finalist for Vermont’s Funniest Comedian, and was pretty crushed when I didn’t even make it out of the preliminaries.  This Icarus moment spun me out a bit, I stopped going to as many open mics, stopped going to people’s shows, stopped enjoying producing my own shows, and withdrew a bit.  This combined with a lot of other outside issues with work and moving to Burlington while trying to have a real life lead to me spending most of my winter holed up in my apartment.  Throughout the spring I was going through the motions, not writing much, not performing well, not doing improv, not going to other people’s shows and not being supportive to other members of the community.  I went on vacation and planned on at least doing some exotic open mics, but I was so burnt out that I wanted nothing to do with comedy.  Instead of comedy being something that enhanced my life it became something that held me back, which is not a good place to be, but it was the type of place that forced me to do some soul searching.

This time for self reflection finally allowed realism to creep into my thought process.  Comedy is a very hard thing to pursue, Louie CK worked his ass off for almost 30 years before he got to where he is now.  Every successful comic says that you just need to keep working for 10 years before you realize that you have the chance to be good, so the unrealistic idea that after a few months performing comedy in Vermont I would be able to pursue this as a career.  In fact I realized that there is no way that I want to pursue comedy full time.  I don’t want to move to a big city, I don’t want to spend all my time in dark clubs, I don’t want to learn acting, and I certainly don’t want to give up my good job to pursue something with much more elusive financial prospects.  I respect anybody who wants to make the jump, and thoroughly miss a lot of my friends who headed to NYC or Boston to pursue their dreams, and will do everything in my power to support them, but it just isn’t a path that I want to pursue.

I suppose that leads to one of my internal dilemmas, why do I do comedy to begin with?  I do it because I enjoy it, not every second, but as a whole.  I enjoy spending time with funny people, and meeting new comics who I would not have met in real life.  I like the fact that my pharmacy friends tend to admire that I am stepping out of my comfort zone and doing something different.  I like it that my family now sees me in a different light.  I like that my comedy friends come to me with all their medical questions (you are constipated, eat more green things and drink more water).  I like being the type of person who you can run jokes past or have a beer with.  I like having a guest room that I can put out of town comics up in.  I like that my boss asks if I have a gig before asking me to cover a shift.  I like expressing myself, and having something to obsess over when I am bored or neurotic.  I like that feeling of having my heart in my throat before a challenging show or audience.  I like telling stories.  I like what I do in my free time, and I might as well keep it up.

I don’t want to sound like the whole year was nothing but pain and drudgery.  I started my own show, which allowed me insight into the business side of entertainment, and the complications that come along with running or doing anything worthwhile.  I hosted a lot, securing a skill that allowed me to command and audience.  I had the opportunity to perform at a brand new comedy club and tons of other venues all over the state and make a lot of people laugh.  I got to perform in benefit shows that raised money for good causes, and allowed me to give back to my community.  I am proud of the fact that even when I wasn’t fully engaged I didn’t become bitter.  It would have been easy to point to the successes of others and say that I was entitled to that, but I was able to frame it as those people worked hard enough and are talented enough to have those successes.  This mindset allowed me to support my friends through their successes, and while I was envious I never felt angry at them, or thought that I should be doing it instead.  I suppose that this is a mark of a good and supportive scene, which is the main thing that makes performing in Vermont fun.

Throughout the past year there was never a time where I was going to make a dramatic pronouncement that I am done with comedy and will never grace the stage with my presence ever again.  In fact over the past month or so I have had an uptick in shows and feel myself getting excited about performing and putting myself out there.  With most slumps I have been in it is a purely mental thing, and getting excited and having a reason rather than just going through the motions is the best way to pull yourself out of a slump.  I hope that over the next year, and for many years to come, I can keep refining my craft and viewing comedy as something fun to do that makes my life better.

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Begin Again: An Exercise In Meditation

I love silence, not because it allows me to relax and experience peace, but because it gives my consciousness the chance to expand and fill the empty space space.  Being in silence gives my mind an excuse to race and fill the silence with thoughts or ideas, chase scenarios, rationalize the past, and build mental walls.  Chasing this silence pushed me to drive cross country, and survive college, and create physical and mental art.  The thoughts that inhabit this silence were my constant companions, and something that kept me sane, or as sane as someone with voices in his head can be.  As much of a benefit as this has been, it does have it downfalls, namely years of isolation and decades of lying awake and staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep to come.  Over the past few months I have fallen into a habit of trying to silence my mind during these quiet periods and instead of processing the past or envisioning the future I have taken the opportunity to explore a time that I don’t often inhabit, the present.

I have dabbled in meditation over the years, from breathwork to calm flying anxiety to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy lead by a psychologist to help fight my chronic headaches.  It was never traditional and was never anything that I fully committed to, but it did seem to give me a small respite in a turbid world.  Last winter I decided to forego the “woo woo” aspects of meditation and try to develop a mindfulness practice.  After listening to 150 episodes of the Tim Ferriss Podcast and hearing about two thirds of this high performing guests talk about their meditative practices I started thinking that it was something that I should try.  I downloaded the Headspace app and planned to give it a shot sometime in the unspecified future.

About a week before Christmas I had a terrible day at work in what I just knew was going to be a long and frustrating stretch.  I went home in a terrible mood and couldn’t shake it not matter how I tried. I grew frustrated lying awake staring at the ceiling, so I pulled out the Headspace app and gave it a shot.  After 10 short minutes I was able to relieve a lot of tension and anxiety and fall blissfully asleep.  The next day went so smoothly it shocked me, not because it was an easy day, but because I was so calm and relaxed, and the only thing that I could point to was the magic of meditation and I committed to giving it a try.

Unfortunately meditation isn’t always as easy as it seems.  Over the next few months I kept trying to use Headspace but got annoyed at the British voice that guided the meditation.  I tried just sitting and following my breath, but I found it incredibly boring, and since I find boredom maddening I would be angrier after a meditation session.  A friend suggested reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris, which is something that I now appreciate, but the first time I read it his descriptions of his past anxiety walked me right into panic attacks.  I tried to explore local mediation groups and events but those all verged into the religious and crunchy aspects which made me far more uncomfortable than the idea of secular mindfulness meditation.  I listened to talks by Sam Harris and Tara Branch but found both of them off putting for different reasons.  I struggled to even define meditation, constantly questioning if I was doing it right and wondering if I was supposed to hit some special place where I would be hit by a beam of cosmic light that would take me to nirvana.  Eventually after several months of hacking at it and trying to Alpha male my way into peace I got frustrated and just gave up, which apparently was all that I needed to do.

A week or two later I was getting ready for bed and felt the overwhelming need to meditate.  I downloaded a different app called Calm and was lulled into a meditative state by a nice woman with a pleasant voice.  And the next day I tried it again with the same results, and again and again before I decided to upgrade the app and pay for a subscription that would allow me to try different guided sessions.  For a few dollars a year I had access to sessions that covered self acceptance, forgiveness, non judgement, sleep prep, and a bunch of other topics that I need to work on.  The calm and non judgmental voice kept telling me that the point of meditating was that when my mind wandered and fell into the thought stream to just return to my breath and begin again.  And after all the fighting and battling from my previous attempts it was nice to just fall into a practice where I was fully in charge, yet not in charge of anything.  For a few minutes a day I just existed, and that quickly became my favorite part of the day.

A lot of meditation books talk about the benefits on and off the cushion.  When meditating (on the cushion) I found it easier and easier to find the moments of peace because I was exercising the focus “muscles” that allowed me to return to my breath or point of focus.  After years of multitasking my way through life I was purposely singletasking, and focusing on just one thing made me even more efficient.  Off the cushion I found that taking those few minutes a day had lasting after effects.  I felt more at peace and in touch with my emotions, and when I was in a bad mood or something angered me I found it much easier to detach and re-frame things for a positive outcome.  I found myself having more moments of spontaneous happiness and was able to appreciate more of the little things.  It wasn’t instantaneous, but over time I started noticing how I felt when taking the first sip of a coffee, or while stepping into the sunlight on my way to my car in the morning, little moments that had become part of the background were brought to the forefront and made life a little bit better.

Over time I worked my way into a daily meditative practice where I sit and meditate for a 10-20 minutes each day.  I also started making time to take a few deep breaths and find my center whenever I find myself losing control.  I found that to meditate you don’t need to sit on the floor in the lotus position while wearing an orange robe and anointing yourself with oils and crystals.  Instead I can take a few seconds to push the past and future away and appreciate the here and now.   And I learned to be ok with having my mind wander a bit, and to explore the reaches of my psyche, as long as I recognize that it is wandering, bring it back to breath, and begin again.