Isn’t It Ironic

I hate the word irony.  It just sounds like something terribly mundane that possibly involves laundry.  It is frequently misused and confused with coincidence, which is my second biggest wording pet peeve (If you ever say something about 9am in the morning and are within arms reach you should probably step back).  Maybe the word irony gets under my skin so much because while I hate it as a word I revere it as a concept.

Irony is one of those things that surround us and is so ingrained into our culture that when we see it we often don’t recognize it.  I am not just talking about the antiquated irony of hipster culture where people are pursuing counterculture for fashion, but the true irony of the world.  Hearing “Christians” who celebrate a god that we born in a manger because no one would open their lodgings to him pontificate about how we should not accept Syrian refugees during a week were we celebrate the welcoming that Europeans received from indigenous people is the pinnacle of irony.  But maybe it is coincidental because we did destroy those American Indians who welcomed us with open arms, so maybe I should cut people some slack for interchanging those two words.

Before I started doing comedy on a regular basis my domain was ironic wit.  It was a wonderful area to explore, using my normal quickness to pull out the funny aspects of any conversation.  It was so easy and fun, someone sets up the premise for me, others register and confirm their understanding of the premise and then I swing in with a quick quip to seal the deal and bring the conversation to a boil.  That was my role in the group, I may not be passionate enough to pursue the conversation with conviction, and I may not be great at generating ideas, but I can put things together and tie a bow onto it faster than most, and whenever you bring laughter into a situation you become a welcome addition to a group.  I think that many of my closest friendships have been started or fostered by my ability to make witty off the cuff comments, and I am perfectly fine with that.

Within my storytelling and comedy career my ability to notice irony and absurdities in the world is where I get most of my material.  I notice something and sit on it for a while until it sticks wording and structure work themselves out.  The key to this type of writing is that you need to embrace the ability to not only notice things that others will identify with, but that you need to repackage it and make it your own.  Since comedy is often a monologue you are responsible for the setup, the meat of the joke, and then tying it together into a punchline while also dealing with timing, crowd interaction, and facing expectations which is infinitely more complex than simply adding on a quip.

We all have these constructs of what we expect, and when we see something that doesn’t fit it is either refreshing or jarring, think of it as the Bernie Sanders effect.  Those moments where we are expecting someone to zig when they zag leaves us hanging and vulnerable.  In football it is the pump fake, in fighting it is the feign, in comedy it is the misdirect, and I love all those moments.  That is when you as the performer are completely in charge and as a control freak it makes feel powerful and fulfilled.  As an audience member I love knowing that the misdirect is coming and having that anticipation of having the rug pulled out from under my thought process which always leads to bigger laughter than the punchline that you are walked right into.

My favorite part of irony is the absurdities of our world.  Things are just so crazy and sometimes taking that moment to say “hey guys this thing is fucked up lets all laugh at it” feels great.  It is especially validating when you know that you opened someone’s eyes to something that they have glossed over and that they will never see the world the same way again.  Being that maker point for people’s journeys is one of my favorite things about writing or performing, and one of the motivators to keep doing it.  I have one friend who constantly confirms this theory by reminding me of things that I pointed out or joked about years ago that he still remembers, which validates not only the theory, but my role in our friendship and my attitude in general.

Beyond it’s applications irony is just fun for me.  I am totally against government, but in college every year I participated in legislative day where they thought it was a good idea to give me extra credit to visit with my state senator.  It was like bring your anarchist to the capitol day and I reveled in the absurdity.  In much the same way I did a comedy show in a church last night.  While my comedy is pretty clean it isn’t exactly geared toward hardy Vermont protestants, but I had a great show and the church folks loved me which is especially ironic since I am agnostic at best.

Embracing the ironies in life is sometimes the only way to deal with things.  Laughter is a great coping mechanism and being able to laugh at the absurdities and coincidences and whatever odd terms you want to add on make life a little less bleak.  But I must say that embracing the stereotype of a writer sitting stone faced in a coffeeshop writing an essay about how to have more fun by embracing ironies is more than a little ironic, don’t you think?

 

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Find Your Tribe

A few days ago I was reading an email with one of those supposed “live your life better” points and I came across an interesting statement, “find your tribe.” They meant it as a go forth and meet new people who like the same thing as you, but instead it got me thinking about the people that I already know.  I get a lot of these emails form various list serves and most of the time they are filled with fluff about how I should meditate, go to the gym for 6 hours every day, drink my coffee at a leisurely pace, and buy whatever product or course they are selling. But every once in a while you come across a gem that makes everything click into place, this was one of those times.

The concept of “tribe” may seem very foreign in our society, but if the nomenclature doesn’t fit then try substituting the word family. Most people have two types of families, the ones that they are born into and the “family” of friends and associates that they choose. I suppose that for me the term tribe works better, since my groups of friends are constantly moving, flowing and evolving like the American Indians of the plains. I suppose that it also works since I am closer to some groups than to others, and form alliances and associations with tribal type bonds. I have a huge tribe full of fraternity brothers, a good sized one full of professional associates, a small but powerful tribe of friends, a group of beer lovers, and lately I have been trying to build a tribe of comedians. The great part about thinking of these groups as tribes is that I can create new groups and connections without having to deal with the messy terminology.

I suppose for those that know me assigning nomenclature to disguise my connections is a bit out of character. I have never gotten into petty terminology of who is a “close friend” or a “best friend” but I have always been pretty clear with how I view people if not how I call them. I like most people work on a tiered system where as I get to meet people and they move through the stage such as acquaintance, associate, friend, and confidant or some such hierarchy. I suppose that the best way to move up this chain is to belong to intersecting groups that I spend my time with. It is a bit like having a Venn diagram of where I spend my time, those in the green area where the yellow and blue circles overlap are my closest friends. No real surprise that my closest friends are beer drinking fraternity brothers who like to laugh at my jokes.

For most of the past decade most of my friends have followed a similar pattern. They were at one point in time in pharmacy school, or dated/lived with/were close to one of my friends. Based on that distinction they were mostly white, middle class, moderate to highly intelligent, internally motivated, and probably a little full of themselves. Having only friends from the same mold is a double edged sword, since you are the average of the 5 people that you spend the most time with, buy it also limited my scope and made me uncomfortable when I met people who aren’t in that mold.

During the first few years after college I was so caught up in the work too much sleep too little cycle that I never took the time to develop new contacts in my new home towns. I would work 60 or so hours a week then run off to Albany to spend time with my friends or to camp to spend time with my family. While these trips were great release valves and gave some balance to my hectic and stressful life they prevented me from putting down roots. It wasn’t until I moved to Middlebury and got to know a few people and develop a few routines that I was able to expand my circle. Part of that is due to a more forgiving work schedule which allows me to go out and do different things after working a full day, but I think that part of it was because I reached the point that I no longer want to be as much of a nomad. Don’t get me wrong, we always want what you can’t have, and I still long for a life of freedom and a no responsibility, but I know that the best option is for me to settle in and develop a life for myself.

I have always been consumed by my passions. I latch onto something and pour every ounce of energy into in. Over the years most of these passions are solitary endeavors like writing or photography, but the ones that I have picked up recently have been more social ventures. Pursuing craft beer and visiting breweries gives me to opportunity to strike up conversations with interesting people from all over. Sometimes it is making small talk with someone while waiting in line, other times it is being the only one hanging out with the brewer. Since I am a middle of the road beer geek I have a lot more knowledge than the layman but a lot less than the brewers and serious geeks I can walk into every conversation either taking in or imparting knowledge which makes for great discussion and a worthwhile feeling. I pride myself on being a beer geek rather than a beer snob because I enjoy all types of beers and don’t feel the need to look down on others for their lack of knowledge or divergent tastes. I hope that this makes me seem like less of an asshole when referring to hop varietals or using terms like “catty” and “roasty” but then again maybe not. Most of my friends are into beer and we spend a lot of time discussing out of the box beers from far away breweries and bragging about how we have a friend of a friend who is able to ship us some. In the end it makes for interesting conversation and a welcome feel good atmosphere. Even the few beer snobs in our tribe are unobtrusive enough that they don’t put off the rest of us too much.

Over the past few months I have been lucky enough to meet a whole bunch of new and interesting people through comedy. I have always been a bit of a loner and putting myself out there is a step WAY outside of my comfort zone. Taking a chance and doing something new like comedy opened me up and allowed me to meet people in a comforting and easy going scene which has really been a blessing. Going from meeting 3 non work related people in the past 5 years to meeting dozens in the span of a few months is a big step. Simply making new acquaintances and starting the getting to know you process is a welcome step. Hopefully as I continue my journey through comedy I will continue to meet new people from all different backgrounds and walks of life and the tribe will keep on growing.

One of my favorite movies is SLC Punk. In part of the opening act they introduce a character named John the Mod who “moves between the tribes.” Set in Salt Lake City in 1985 the movie focuses on the rigidly defined class structure of the underground, mods, punks, heavy metal guys, new agers, the like. And though this brightly colored hierarchy never resembled my life, the sense of moving between groups and acting as an ambassador always appealed to me. As tied as I may be to a few groups I take pride in the fact that I am not a one trick pony solely locked into working with one set of people. Being able to move between groups and spend time with different sets allows me to maximize my time and keeps me from getting bored. Maybe because I have a unique appearance and a booming voice but people tend to remember me and readily seek me out, which in turns brings me into their group and allows me to form even more new connections.

The past year or so has been focused on personal growth and trying new things. Through that process I have been impressed with my ability to switch between personas. It isn’t a psychopathic thing, but embracing who I am when surrounded by different groups. I guess it is part of my development of a stage persona that is an amplification of myself. I have been able to work on making that mental switch in the same way my professional pharmacy attitude used to come on whenever I put on my labcoat. This grasp of self awareness and knowledge of who I am supposed to be when is different settings is something that develops with time and is something I keep striving to get better. As great as the idea of “just being yourself” is it doesn’t work for all situations.

This essay has turned longer than I anticipated, and I think that I could probably keep going. The net effect is that I am pretty happy at where my tribes have taken me and I am looking to find other tribes and to grow as a person. I like finding new outlets and pursuing new passions and meeting others who share some of those passions. I look forward to expanding these groups and having them overlap, as far as I am concerned the more I hear “So how do you know Owen?” the better.

I’m Funny How? Funny Like I’m a Clown, I Amuse You? I Make You Laugh?

This Post was originally Published on October 27th, 2014

For my entire life people have said that I am funny, and nearly every time Joe Pesci’s “Funny How? monologue from Goodfellas plays in my head.  I have always been a bit of a class clown and learned early in life that making people laugh was a great defense mechanism.  I was picked on a lot when I was younger and I developed a self deprecating style that allowed me to get laughs first and take the wind out of the sails of any bully.  While I love making people laugh I thought that my quick quips and bouts of wit were just inside jokes that could never expand beyond people who knew me.  I had a professor in college who kept pushing me to do standup, he stated that all humor is situational and standup is about making a story that allows the audience to envision the scenario.  I thought he was full of shit and that I could never be funny in the real world until I started hearing people repeat my jokes and get laughs from strangers.  At that point in time I decided to hell with it, I might as well give it a try.  I took a 3 hour comedy class in May and followed it up with a 6 week course that culminates in my first performance tomorrow.

I think that standup is one of the hardest things that I have done in a while.  It is terrifying to put yourself out there and do a monologue while at the same time convincing the audience to see through your eyes.  I have watched a few comedians over the years and always thought to myself “I can totally do that” but the reality is standing up there and laying it all on the line is super challenging.  Writing hasn’t been a problem for me because I am a bit of a lightning rod and experience a lot of crazy things.  I also am a pretty good storyteller and know how to explain things to people who were not there in a context that they can understand.  I think that the biggest challenge is editing.  The things that run through your head may sound downright HILARIOUS, but the minute you open your mouth they bomb.  I also have problems with compliments, so it is hard for me to deal with people giving me praise.  This kind of makes me sound like I am either depressed or have an inflated ego, but it is not because I am beat down or because I am faking humble, it is because I am always striving to be better.

The performance aspect of standup is going to be a challenge.  I am relatively comfortable doing presentations to small groups in a professional capacity, but standing in front of a dark room full of strangers is completely different.  I have a decent stage presence, and while I may be uncomfortable I don’t feel that it will be super noticeable.  This is not a huge thing for me, I don’t feel like I will have a panic attack or anything, but it is something that I know I am facing and will be able to overcome.  Timing and delivery are learned art forms and I am sure that I can perfect them as long as I start doing shows regularly but I feel that my pace is pretty much where I want it to be.  I have also been having time management issues, something that I timed at 6 minutes may run at 4 or 8 and not planning the set appropriately can cause time overages or underages.  These are all things that I can overcome with time and experience.

I don’t normally watch or listen to comedy that often because I am afraid of absorbing other people’s jokes and turning them into my own, which is a bad habit and can make you look bad to other comedians.  I have been watching the people at these shows with a more critical eye than I would in the past.  It is great to get the laughs, but as an added benefit I am able to see what people do that is good or bad and try to learn from them.  I love watching Louis CK or Katt Williams and try to emulate some of the things done by the masters, but I also enjoy watching these comics who are closer to my level and learning from their mistakes.  By putting a critical eye on the 2 shows that I have seen in the past week I feel much more comfortable and willing to give standup a go.  As a side note I saw my first improv show and am kind of in awe.  I really enjoyed the quickness and spontaneity but am absolutely terrible at voices and characters so I don’t know how well I would do.  Maybe that will be something that I can try in a few months.

Standup has been a really fun experience for me and I look forward to making it my new passion project over the next few months.  I have found that I am much more comfortable speaking to groups and despite the added work stress of the past few weeks I feel that I have been able to see growth on the professional side.  It is also a great stress reducer to get into a room with some very funny people each week, turn off your phone, and just laugh.  The old cliche is that laughter is the best medicine, and sometimes cliches are true, that being said if you have Ebola then please get real medicine.  Breaking into the scene is hard since everybody already knows each other and I am not really good with new people, but I feel that once I get out there I can start making the necessary connections.  I have already had the privilege of getting to know a few people and make a few friends, hopefully the growth will be exponential.

So now the time has come.  In a few short hours I will be up on the stage at a creperie performing to a crowd of strangers.  It feels a bit like the moments before a fight, I have worked hard and know what I am capable of, the key is taking all that training and translating it into results.  This has been a pretty great journey for me and I am glad that I gave it a shot.  Worst case scenario I suck.  I think that heading up to Burlington for shows and open mics will give me a chance to get out of the house this winter and help bring some levity into my life.  No matter what I proved to myself that I really am funny, not contextually funny, not inside joke funny, or even internet LOLz funny, just plain funny.  And as Artie Lange says, “The only people who get laid less than funny fat guys are serious fat guys.”