My brother has a great story about the first time he tried standup. It was open mic night at our local comedy club, and John, a naturally gifted comedic actor who liked to write, figured it was time to give it a try. He worked up a short routine, went down to the club, and waited his turn. When that turn came, he found himself in new territory. In theaters, audiences sit politely through the stuff that doesn’t interest them and respond to what does. Not so much in comedy clubs. What’s more, the loneliness of the comic’s spotlight must be experienced to be understood. You are playwright, actor, stage manager, and director. Not only is there nowhere to hide, there isn’t even anyone else to blame.
John immediately knew why comedians speak of “dying.” The laughs weren’t coming, and he found himself listening to that awkward silence that follows a joke that has missed its target. Until, that is, he used “fuck” in a joke. Big laugh. In describing this night, he said, “Next thing I knew, Bill, I was screaming fuck all over Periwinkles.”
Obviously, comedians curse. But the question a comedian must ask is: Am I cursing because I want to or because I believe I must to survive? No audience member, even a heckler somewhere down in his blackened soul, actually wants an artist of any stripe to die. What an audience does want, somewhat selfishly, is to behold someone unafraid of dying.
The death the artist seems to suffer is quite simply this: “Nothing I am doing is working, therefore I am no good.” As soon as we think, “I am no good,” we commit a kind of mental suicide, extinguishing ourselves in the hope that we might be reborn as something better. Strangely, the only thing worth extinguishing is the belief that we are no good.
The comedian’s struggle, which is everyone’s struggle, is to ignore all evidence—such as quiet comedy clubs or date-less Saturday nights or piles of rejection letters—that we are no good. Someday we will all in fact die, but when that moment comes it will not be because the universe wished to erase us and start over with a better model. You are the only version of you that will ever exist. So stand up on your stage and speak. The audience that is the rest of the world will hear you all the more clearly the more you understand that no matter the criticism or silence or applause, you intend to keep speaking until the light goes out.