“What’s black and white and red all over?” you asked your dad.
“I don’t know, what?”
“A zebra reading Pravda.”
Blank stare. Not even a pity laugh from your mom. The first joke you ever wrote got crickets at the kitchen table. You learned a good lesson about knowing your audience that day. Both Mom and Dad worked for a major defense contractor and the Iron Curtain was still draped across Eastern Europe. Yakov Smirnoff wasn’t yet a household name. Your dad gave you a stern lecture about the perils of communism, the reality of the world you were living in and some general admonishment about what was and wasn’t proper conversation. Then he sent you to your room to think about the Domino Effect. In parents’ kitchen, joke bombed you.
It didn’t get you down though. Even at eight years old you knew that premise was gold. You just needed a different audience. You tried it out the next day at recess and got blank stares. Soviet propagandist publications didn’t seem to be in the average fourth-grader’s wheelhouse. Undeterred, you told a couple more jokes that you had memorized from a joke book you had on perpetual loan from the library. You killed. It was the start of a successful career as a class clown. You got all the attention you wanted, positive and negative. Classmates loved you. Teachers not so much. Your parents, you were convinced, drew one step closer to abandoning you in a mall with every day they had to take off work to come meet with the principal. The last straw came when you stood on your desk (rather than hide under it) during a nuclear bomb safety drill and launched into a diatribe on the stupidity of such drills. Your teacher carried you out of the room to the chorus of a duck-and-covered ovation, but it was the last time you ever played for that crowd. After the resultant expulsion you were sent to live with your uncle in another state.
Your uncle turned out to be pretty cool. As long as you kept your grades up and kept out of serious trouble, you were treated as an adult, more or less. He didn’t hide his Playboy collection from you, nor did he blink an eye if you were watching Richard Pryor on HBO. Those few years at his house were formative. You were able to explore comedy and entertainment that your parents would never have allowed. You watched Eddie Murphy Raw so many times you wore out the tape. On any given Friday night you could be found in your room watching anything from Spaceballs to Porky’s, though you preferred not to be found out in the case of the latter. By the 7th grade you were telling jokes at a 12th grade level. You made an effort to stay out of trouble at school because you needed a place to practice your material. You even started rising to the top of your class because you understood that a good comic is an informed comic.
After high school you enrolled in community college without a major or a goal. You wanted to be a comedian, and college wasn’t going to give that to you. You languished for a semester and a half before you were put on academic probation. You took it as a sign that you weren’t meant to be on that path and packed a bag, cleared out your savings account, and caught a Greyhound to New York City where you were going to become the next big star.
It turned out that simply living in the Big Apple was not a ticket to riches. You managed to get a single room sublet in Brooklyn a mere 15 block trek from a sketchy C train stop, but you only had enough savings to carry you through for a couple of months. You weren’t so naïve as to think that you’d hit it big as a working comic in mere weeks, so you did what all good larval-stage stars do and got a job as a waiter. You were determined to use this experience wisely and started telling jokes to your tables. When you could get a table laughing the tips were great. When you couldn’t, getting stiffed was the least of your worries. There is no shortage of wannabes in Manhattan looking to wait tables to make ends meet, so customer complaints to your manager could put you out on your ass. You were a quick study in the art of reading the room and managed to keep yourself out of any serious trouble.
You started hitting the open mics with a vengeance, oftentimes paying for the privilege of doing a six-minute set. There were times you even left in the middle of your shift to do a quick set and hustled back to top off drinks at your tables. What you soon found out was that your prepared material wasn’t getting the same response as your off-the-cuff waiter banter. You struggled to coax laughs out of crowds with such gems as:
- What’s going on with baby powder? Who are these parents letting their babies get pulverized into cosmetic products?
- Did you ever notice that the 6 train smells like pee?
- Did you see the news that Obama is demanding to see Donald Trump’s barber’s birth certificate?
- Did you ever wonder what life would be like if you had followed through on the dream jobs you had as a kid? Spoiler alert: bad!
The feedback you got from club managers was always the same: good stage presence, no writing chops. At first you ignored this information, discounted it as people not “getting” you. But after a few years of spinning your wheels on the open mic grind and not landing one paid gig out of it you started to think that the problem might be you after all. You knew you were funny, you just had to figure out how to be funny on demand, consistently. You looked back at all the times you’d gotten laughs and realized that you were never really doing material, at least not since you graduated from reciting knock-knock jokes on the playground. From cracking wise at the bar with your friends to milking another 5% from your tables with a well-timed witticism your strength was in spontaneity. You were at your strongest responding to what was going on around you. Armed with this epiphany you hit the next club with just a handful of talking points from which you could leap into a stream-of-conscious rant steered only by the mood of the room.
You didn’t realize that the average audience of an open mic night is not there to hear unrehearsed diatribes about the debt ceiling or musings on the merits of marriage equality. In retrospect you were foolish to think you could keep up with a 24-hour cable news cycle that could barely keep up with itself. If you identified anything funny in the morning paper you had the 12 intervening hours between then and the Daily Show to put your own spin on the material. It was a losing battle.
You kept plugging away, but you couldn’t seem to catch a break. It never occurred to you to accept that there are a lot of funny people in the world and not all of them are meant to go pro. Every time a new rising star got a special or half-hour variety show on Comedy Central on the strength of half-baked pothead material you got a little more cynical and a little more self-destructive. You started heckling other comics at clubs, calling them hacks, accusing them of stealing jokes nobody had ever heard you tell and just generally causing mischief. The list of establishments where you were banned grew by the week, and it wasn’t long before you couldn’t get a drink at any club in town, let alone get on stage.
The last time you ever saw the inside of a comedy club you were at the tail end of a three-day bender and decided to sneak in through the kitchen. The emcee recognized you in the crowd and started tossing some light comic abuse in your direction as part of his warm-up. Drunk and enraged you rushed the stage and threw a wild punch at him, which he was able to dodge by leaning slightly to his left. You missed, and your momentum carried you off the stage and into the tables in the front row where you received a broken wrist for your efforts. You were sobbing like a baby as the bouncer manhandled you out the door. It was the biggest laugh you ever got.