When people learn that I perform stand-up comedy, very few of them respond “You are really cool” or “Here is some money.” Instead, the most common response is: “Really? Why?”
That question has always thrown me for a loop. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to perform comedy. The question of “Why do you perform comedy?” makes about as much sense to me as “Why do you eat Twix bars?” or “Why do you watch so much TV?” (The answer to both of those questions being, of course, “Because it’s AWESOME.”)
But that made me wonder: why DO people perform stand-up comedy? After all, it is arguably the hardest job in the entertainment field to master (see my later blog post about that argument); it has a negative financial return for most participants; and it is much more likely to end up in misery and shattered self-esteem than in any sort of sense of accomplishment. You have to be dysfunctional to do this job. And there are seven types of dysfunctional personalities that often become comedians.
The Rabble Rousers:
These people have VERY IMPORTANT political and cultural opinions that need to be heard. They’ve found that vitriolic letters to the editor offer little in the way of immediate feedback, and that marching through Market Square with a sandwich board and a megaphone carries too much risk of arrest. Via the stage, however, these comedians are sure their insightful quips and jibes will move a jaded audience in the right (or left) direction toward a better world. After all, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor changed the world, didn’t they? (Answer: no, not really.)
These comedians have serious, serious psychological and personal issues to work out, and they’re hoping that stand-up can be a suitable supplement to (or substitute for) expensive therapy sessions. Surely, they feel, the chronic nightmares, panic attacks, and impromptu crying jags will finally become a thing of the past via a rigorous regimen of telling dirty jokes to strangers in bars.
No one can stand to be around these people at home, at the office, on the bus, in Panera Bread, or anywhere else that civilized behavior and basic manners are expected. On stage, however, their racist, chauvinistic, sociopathic rants can be expressed with only the slightest chance that someone will punch them in the face.
These folks have performed below-average on every measure available: poor at school, uninspired in their careers, and with a pathetic inability to attract sexual partners. With their arsenal of self-deprecating jokes, they’re hoping to use the power of comedy to perform karmic jujitsu and transform a lifetime of failure into some sort of minimal success. (Aside: it rarely works.)
These people once overheard the term “Performing Arts” and said to themselves: “Hey, if I PERFORM stand-up comedy, then it must be an ART form.” Disregarding the basic tenets of logic or of commonly-accepted dictionary definitions, they are convinced that their hilarious descriptions of bowel movements are nearly on the same plane as the works of DaVinci and Michaelangelo
The Attention Whores:
Sometime in their youth, these folks finally realized that they could no longer dance around the living room screaming “LOOK AT ME!” at the top of their lungs. Not being able to say it, however, didn’t make the need go away. With comedy, they’ve found the perfect scenario: a microphone, a spotlight, and nobody else on stage.
Given the fact that most stand-up comedians make less per year than the average weekend lemonade stand, it is hard to believe that there are people who are utterly incapable of earning money through any other means. These folks have found themselves in the comedy business simply because of the industry’s willingness to treat as optional what other employers consider as requirements, such as showing up on time, wearing clean clothes, and being sober on the job.
“So, Mister Smart Guy,” you may be wondering, “which of these categories do you fall into?”
Generally, I would say that I fall into an eighth category: those who feel that they were blessed by their creator with the ability to bring joy to the world via laughter. As a member of this group, I’m simply following a higher calling, using the power of humor to give honor to the life-force that binds all of humanity together.
But if I were being honest, I’d say that I’m just an underachieving attention-seeking jackass.
See you at the next smoky, sparsely-attended open-mic night.