The Weird And Wonderful World Of Standup Comedy

My favorite thing to do as a kid was playing my dad’s standup comedy albums when he and my mom would leave the house.  He had albums from the greats of the time like George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams and I must’ve listened to them each 400 times.  I had them all memorized at one point so I’d grab a microphone and perform each of their acts as the record played in the background.  How horrifying it would be now to see a video of 11-year-old me pretending to be Richard Pryor.

In the 1980’s we experienced the “standup comedy boom” and television was littered with shows featuring standup comedians.  I watched every single one I could.  I was in awe of how their brains worked and how they were in control of every moment.  They decided when there was silence and they decided when there was laughter.  I was just along for the ride and I loved it.  

At that time Jake Johannsen was one of my favorites and I’m actually friends with him today, which is one of the things I love about standup comedy.  Once you become a comedian, the community is very small.  In the grand scheme of thing, there isn’t that many of us.  Standup comedy differs from other forms of entertainment in that way.  If you’re an actor, chances are you’re never going to work with or hang out with Robert Deniro.  But as a comedian, you have a chance to meet or even work with just about any comedian, regardless of their status.

Every headlining comedian needs an opening act so you have the chance of being paired with them through an agency or venue even if you have no connection to them at all.  I have friends that have opened for Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, etc…  I have not had that privilege but I’ve opened for Tom Green, Tim Meadows, Bobcat Goldthwait and a few other people that I grew up admiring.  Oh and I got to hang out with Joe Rogan once!  That was awesome!

Most of you don’t know Jake Johannsen but he holds the record for most appearances by a standup comedian on Letterman and I was his biggest fan.  I probably still am.  I had the privilege of being part owner of 3 comedy clubs for a few years and through that I got to meet and work with a lot of funny and amazing people.  Jake Johannsen was one of these people.  Gary Gulman is another.  I had watched Gary for a long time as well and always considered him one of the greatest comedians I had ever seen.  He also happens to be an amazing human being and I value my friendship with him very much.  I don’t see him often but he’s been a guest on our podcast Heartland Radio 2.0 several times and I think I’ll always maintain some sort of relationship with him through comedy.  That’s how most comedy friendships work. 

But occasionally comedy friendships become more.  I also met my friend and boss, Pat McAfee through standup comedy.  Pat performed at my club once.  Shortly thereafter, he started coming to shows and hanging out.  I can’t speak for him but when I first started doing comedy I wanted to hang out with other comedians because their brains worked like mine and I wasn’t use to that.  I suspect it was the same for him and that was kind of incredible to me because Pat was a big deal in Indiana.  He was the best punter in the NFL, he was a hilarious addition to The Bob & Tom Show (appearing as a guest host every Tuesday morning) and he was a standup comedy prodigy selling out theaters across the state.  He was by far the most famous and popular person in the state, yet he found himself hanging out with schmucks like us.  Why?  Because at the heart of it all…he was a comedian just like us.

Most comedians grow up with an insatiable desire to be a comedian, even if we don’t exactly understand what that means.  It’s just something we’re born.  Something that makes us want to say funny things out loud and to hear people laugh at them.  The problem is there’s not that many of us.  So, chances are we didn’t grow up around anyone else that felt this way or that would even understand what we were talking about if we told them.  It was a secret we kept to ourselves because it sounded stupid to other people if you told them that’s what you wanted to do in life.  At least for Midwest kids.  It was like saying I want to be Superman when I grow up.  Our friends and family would be like “Well, that’s nice.  But how about we pick something that’s real.”  So, many of us stifled that passion and set out in life following the same pursuits as everyone else.

But sometimes life makes sure you end up where you’re supposed to and regardless of how or where we grew up, some of us actually ended up becoming comedians.  Like Pat and I.  I loved when Pat started hanging out with us because I was excited for him.  I was excited at the thought he might be experiencing what I experienced when I first started doing comedy and hanging out with other comedians.  The feeling that comes when you find out that you’re not alone.  The feeling that comes when you realize that there are other people that have this leaky faucet in their head that’s constantly dripping comedic thoughts into your brain whether you want them or not.

When people tell us a story, our brain edits their story in real-time with funnier phrasing and a better ending.  We visually dissect every person in line at the bank with what’s funniest about them in case we have to talk about them later.  We don’t realize we missed are exit until 12 miles after the fact because our brain was using 100% of its capacity to write a bit making fun of the Viagra commercial that played on the radio 10 minutes earlier.  We can’t turn this shit off!  It’s not normal!  So, when you finally get to surround yourself with other people whose brains work the same way…it’s very comforting.

Another weird and wonderful gift of standup comedy, at least for me, is the show.  I don’t travel to do shows as much as those who make a living exclusively from doing standup comedy but I do try to do at least one or two shows a month.  I don’t like travel but I do love the shows and I love meeting and hanging out with the people after the shows.  

Performing standup comedy in front of a live audience is a very intimate experience for a comedian.  The audience has made a financial investment as well as an investment of their time to be there.  That means they have put full trust in the comedian’s ability to provide them with a good time and puts a lot of responsibility on the comedian.  I like that.

I was a cop for 21 years.  My entire career, if something major happened, I wanted to be the person to handle it.  It wasn’t for glory or recognition after, I just honestly believed I would handle it better than anyone else.  Not because I was smarter or more skilled than everyone else, but because I cared more.  I honestly felt what the families of the victim(s) felt.  I felt what the other people involved felt and I saw things from their perspective and it was honest.  So, my effort was honest.  I just didn’t have it in me to let them down.  

Comedy is like that for me.  Every time I go up in front of an audience I honestly believe I’ll figure out how to give them the best experience  possible because even though I’m the one on stage, I feel like one of them.  If even one person that bought a ticket felt like they had wasted their money by coming to my show…it would hurt my soul.

So, an hour or so before the show I get this weird feeling that takes over my entire body.  An anxiety of sorts, but more intense.  I feel like a negotiator that has to talk some bank robber out of a bank full of hostages.  Whether this ends successfully or as a disaster, it’s all on me!  Everyone inside that bank is counting on me and I only get one shot at this so I have to get it right!  Then before I know it, they’re calling my name and its time.  I step up on stage, grab the microphone and it happens.

I’m not sure there’s another feeling like it.  There’s no tricks, no special weapons; just your brain, a microphone…and your connection with the audience.  It’s the most honest, vulnerable and rewarding experience you could ever hope for.  

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