My brother did stand-up for the first time last night, and the results were slightly less disastrous than I, and perhaps he himself, had anticipated.
It was part of what was dubbed “Comedy Virgins” night at a bar near the city, and the theme of the evening was non-comedians getting out of their comfort zones and trying their hands at that most untamed of beasts. Comedy is a funny thing, no pun intended. It looks relatively simple to get up on a stage and rant endlessly about whatever happens to be on your mind in that moment, but as the deer in headlights please help me stare took hold of many of the acts last evening, it became clear that what might make your friends and co-workers laugh may not necessarily translate very well to the stage. There is definitely an art to being a convincing comedian.
Bully to them for trying though, they are certainly bolder than me. I love comedy in just about every form, with improvisation being the lone exception (unless Larry David or Christopher Guest are at the helm, then it rocks). My earliest comedic memory was with my dad. He would play old Rodney Rude records and I would laugh along with my family at jokes and songs that I had absolutely no understanding of. I clearly recall a moment when my parents had friends over. I was maybe eight or nine, and at one point my father’s friend asked in front of everyone if I had a girlfriend at school. I told him that I didn’t and that women gave me a soft-on. I had no fucking idea what it even meant, I just know that Rude used it in one of his routines and it got a big laugh from the crowd. I, in turn, got the laugh I was searching for as well. Of course, years later I came to understand that it was obviously meant as the opposite to hard-on, or penis in a state of arousal. So there you go.
From there, I would seek out comedy in any form I could get it. Films, TV, stand-up on VHS. I watched Eddie Murphy’s Delirious at probably twelve or thirteen. I was far too young to get a lot of the jokes, but the few that I did get were endlessly funny to me. I discovered Robin Williams around this time, and scored myself a VHS copy of a gig he did in San Francisco. Williams was impossibly hilarious, a (presumably) coked-up, wrecking crew of one-liners and comic banter. There was some heart too, which grounded everything perfectly. Comedy and drama, when correctly handled, can be a most fantastical thing.
Growing up in the same environment as my brother, obviously we shared many interests. This ranged from sports to pro wrestling to music and cinema. Comedy was always at the forefront to us. I’ve chosen to funnel my comedic inclinations into the books that I write. My take is, if you’re funny why not use it to express yourself in other forms? Write a funny screenplay, write a funny book, and so on. I love stand-up, but to me it always feels like the first stage of comedy. It definitely has its place in the culture, but something about always feels unfinished, unformed.
That said, there are some great stand-up comedians. Louis CK springs to mind immediately. Stewart Lee. Dylan Moran. Dave Chappelle. Dave Attell is fucking great.
Which leads me to my brother’s performance last night. I was nervous for him, more nervous than for just about anything I’ve ever done myself. I’ve had people tell me that they admire the courage it must take to write a book and send it out into the world, and in doing so leave yourself open to criticism and comment from all corners. But there is nothing overly courageous about this at all, not to me at least. It’s not the same as standing up there on a stage under a bright light as a roomful of strangers expect you to provide them with laughs. The level of pressure and anxiety must be overwhelming. I know my brother felt it. Upon greeting him before the show it looked like he was on death row and about to enter the gas chamber. I bought each of us a beer to calm the nerves. His face was an odd grey color, the mask of fear. It was horrible. You know those nature programs, the one where the deer goes to take a drink from a lake and you just know he’s seconds away from getting the fright of his life from a predatory crocodile snapping at his head? My brother had that deer’s look in that moment.
The first act went on and my nerves were gone immediately. He went well, but this guy was truly horrible. He was a rambling, incoherent mess. There was not a joke to be found in the five torturous minutes he was up there. It definitely instilled confidence in me, and no doubt in my brother too.
My brother was on fifth. He looked nervous and got off to a wobbly start, but he landed a decent joke about being a stay-at-home father to a one year old and got a positive reaction, which seemed to steady him. From there he was a strange mix of anxious and angry that, for me at least, worked somehow. I told him later that he owned the awkwardness, which is important. He got mad at the crowd a couple of times, as he felt that they weren’t getting his jokes, which only seemed to entertain the crowd more than put them off. It reminded me of a slightly more aggressive Larry David.
The tone of his set was very dark, perhaps a little too dark in some spots. He expressed frustration over being a parent and being out of work, and at times it seemed like he needed a hug. But he was funny at times, and the darkness was actually refreshing compared to the tone that some of the other acts used.
I hope he sticks with it, I really think he has the chance to be great at stand up.