Friday, January 4, 2019

Nine Years

Huh. Today's an anniversary of sorts. One I'd almost forgotten.

On a winter night, nine years ago in Greenville, SC, I stepped out onto the No Expectations open mic stage, ending a 25-year break from stand-up comedy.

I came straight from work, and I was wearing a trenchcoat and black, leather gloves with the dress clothes and tie I worked in. I caught Jason Farr, the night's host, aside and asked him if he could work me in. He found a spot for me.

I remember a little stage fright, and I did bits I'd never said out loud, mostly just thought about as the no-comedy years had passed. I got laughs, and, as I walked away from the stage, one of the evening's other comics complimented me, sincerely, on my "costume."

I called my wife on the way home. I was electrified. Ecstatic.

Fast forward nine years. I travel regularly for comedy. From last Friday to tonight, I will have performed at bookings in Huntsville, Asheville, Wilmington, and Charleston. I have many good friends, and a handful of very close ones, all of whom I'd never have met otherwise.

And tonight, after doing Keith Dee's Charelston, SC show at Sportsbook, I'll go back to my hotel and tell my wife about it.

...and I'll be electrified. Ecstatic. I promise.

Tonight, I will be funny. Thank god.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

“By God...”

I once read a non-canon Sherlock Holmes novel, whose climactic scene still comes to mind from time to time.

I can't remember much about the story (or, in fact, which one it was), but Sherlock was in a fight, and Watson was somehow sidelined, first-person ruminating about his role as perennial sidekick. It's been more than 35 years, so I bet I'm not being fair to the author, setting up the scene so clumsily.

Anyway, Watson decides to break out of his "box," and become a man of action, not just its powerless object. He says (or thinks?) the words, "by God, I shall act!"

I remember saying "YES," out loud, when I read that.

For decades it's been the thing I think of when I'm trying to move from "I should" to "I am." I think it, or sometimes, mumble it aloud, at those moments, to shove myself into the fray. And it helps.

All this is to say, if you're ever around me and overhear those words, that's what's going on. And also, If you sometimes find yourself battling inertia's insidious grip, you might find it useful. Help yourself.

This morning, Dr. Watson's declaration of empowerment transitioned me from coffee and pointless iPad games to a workout and stretches, and now there's a run in front of me. A run I will love being in, but dread starting. And I'm writing this, instead. So... God, I shall act!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Crowd Work

Last night, I did a “crowd work show.” I accept these invitations every time they’re offered,  because I rely heavily on writing, practice and performance, so crowd work is my weak spot.

Here are some epiphanies that come from last night’s attempt:

• it’s not about you (the comic). It’s about them. Well, it’s really not about them, either. It’s about the interplay between you and them.

• some degree of sincerity is required. You have to be yourself, at least a little, to have meaningful interactions.

• don’t fall in love with a bit. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Sometimes a track will be really going somewhere, and you’re having a ball with it. Then the room will take it somewhere else, and you either go with them, or stay with your beloved bit while it dies on the vine.

• they’re not passengers on your train; you’re all riding a wild horse together.

I don’t think spontaneous crowd work is better than material. And I don’t think material is better than crowd work. I think they’re both tools that belong in a comic’s kit, and I’ve neglected this one for too long.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I often hear the words, "I need to video my set, so I can see all the things i screwed up." They're usually born of a genuine attempt at accountability -- a need to realize you're imperfect and be willing to improve, while studiously avoiding self-aggrandizement.

I'd like to suggest an alternative for watching your set: self-aggrandize. A lot.

Try to catch a good set. Play the best parts over and over. Relive the fun, the joy. Try to figure out all the things you did right, so you might have moments like those again.

Maybe it was a tag that should be a punchline, or new wording, or timing. Maybe it was an approach that allowed you the freedom and confidence to improvise.

Whatever it was, you have the Art Sturtevant Seal Of Approval® to relive it, learn from it, and enjoy it.

I'm not saying you shouldn't spot the occasional gaffe and file away a quick fix while you're watching your set. I'm just saying don't watch the set for the gaffes.

Watch it for the good stuff.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Alien: Choose Your Own Adventure

I woke up this morning from an incomplete dream in which I was alternately watching the new Alien movie at times and a character in it myself at others. Which happens to all of you at times. Admit it.

I haven't actually seen the new film, but my dream's version seemed to be focused on a couple who were being harassed by one of the films' eponymous xenomorphs. The woman was deliriously happy because she was now expecting their child, but I (as alternately viewer and potential father) was concerned that she might have been implanted with an alien instead.

...and I woke up.

I woke up groggy, and -- I swear -- reached for my phone to look up the film's plot in Wikipedia to see how things turned out for the two. Somewhere between hazy phone-grabbing and navigating searches, etc., i woke up enough to realize my dream plot wasn't going to be part of the online summary, but I read it anyway. No resolution for my couple.

I thought about it again, later, as I was cooking breakfast. I fretted for a moment over never knowing how it worked out for the pair. 

...but then I realized THIS WAS MY DREAM, and I get to decide how things worked out for the troubled potential parents.

So, if you're worried about them, let me ease your mind: the last I checked in with the two (now three), they stood among the corpses of many dispatched aliens, more than a few of them dispatched by a precocious newborn human baby, victory fanfare swelling in the background.

They're gonna be fine.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

If you can, you should.

Occasionally, a comedy friend will come to me, frustrated, and confide they're thinking about giving up comedy. Stand-up's costly, it's hard to develop your work, and it's hard to get booked once you've become good. There are moments you feel like you're rocketing ahead, and there are moments when you look around and feel like you've gone nowhere.

My instinct with those folks is always to rush in and convince them to keep at it, but that instinct is wrong. The right answer is if you CAN quit comedy, you SHOULD quit comedy.

Now, I don't mean that in the "fine -- go ahead and quit" vein. I don't want you to quit. What I mean is the only reason for anyone to romance the cruel, sweet bitch-goddess Standup is that you can't live without the intense, indescribable joy of a room full of strangers laughing at your stuff. There's no strong argument other than that in its favor.

You probably won't make it big. Most don't. You probably won't even make a living at it. If you're lucky, you'll pull in more than you spend, making your momentary laughter fixes free to you, as you get better and better over the years.

There will be dry spells, both in opportunity and in your own creativity. There will be unfairnesses -- perceived and real (as a white male, I've had fewer of the real variety than many others in the field, but we all get them).

None of those negatives are overcome by the likely benefits of stand-up, unless you're a person who can't not be funny. If you can't not be funny, you owe yourself the sound of a room full of strangers laughing, and you'll move mountains to get to those moments any time you can.

If you can't not be funny, there are positives. First, of course, you get the laughter you can't live without. You also get special friends, who become very close because they inhabit the same splinter universe with you and share the same struggles and rewards.

You get the ability and self-permission to look at the worst life events with perspective and humor. You get a sense of competency that can, occasionally, bleed into and help market other areas of your life.

None of those positives can tip the scales, if you're not that person who can't quit stand-up. Being the person who can't survive long without the crazy thrill of a nuclear set is the only way to wring any success out of the field and the only way to make sense of the accompanying cost / benefits ledger. It's also your only shot at being one of the few who do make it big.

So please don't quit stand-up, if you can't quit stand-up. But if you can quit stand-up, well, you probably should.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


If you know me for any time at all, you'll eventually figure out I'm horrible at goodbyes and will go to some effort to avoid them. I couldn't avoid the evening's goodbye, because over the weekend, I lost a friend to bipolar depression.

Depression is real. Folks suffering with it can't 'get over it,' 'snap out of it' or 'walk it off.' While it can sometimes be caused by life stressors, it is very often an unsolicited gift from one's DNA. In either case it's a matter of brain chemistry, not lack of character or poor attitude. In fact, my friend had the most aggressively positive attitude I've ever seen.

From what I can gather, it's not sadness either, not really, although it can sometimes come from sadness. Depression's more like a gray, hopeless absence of feeling, especially the tiny little joys you barely notice until they're gone -- the ones that propel you through the day.

What can you do  for a depressed friend? Listen. A lot. For days and weeks, if necessary. Encourage them to get professional help, or just get them that help. Help them stay active, because that's beneficial, but avoid climactic, curative, one-off events meant to cheer them up. That just puts pressure on them.

...and hope. My friend had better folks than me in his life actively helping in all these right ways, and still it wasn't enough.

One last thing, while I'm thinking about reducing goodbyes. I hear the good folks at NAMI Greenville do wonderful work supporting folks with mental illness -- maybe throw a few bucks their way, if you have it to spare.