Karma Comedian (The Big Issue – 2011)
When people ask me what I do I’m reluctant to say “comedian.” The job-title carries with it certain social ramifications. In Australia, the land of the larrikin, it seems such an audacious claim. Mate I know everyone’s a comedian, but I’m foolish enough to expect someone to pay for my services. When I do own up, it’s met with a surprised smile somewhere between delight and pity. First comes the line “So tell us a joke” followed by the awkward pause when I fail to launch into a diatribe comparing Julia Gillard to April O’Neil from Ninja Turtles. If I’m lucky I’ll be asked “where do you get your material?” to which I’ll answer “my life I guess.” If the person hasn’t been put off by my passionate aloofness, they may close the interview with the lightly patronising “Gee you’re brave to get up there.” I note this polite awe isn’t enough to draw them to my next gig.
Australia has a love/hate relationship with comedians. In one sense we are genuinely impressed by those who dare walk beneath the scorching sun of judgement to elicit laughter from a shady audience. Too often though I cop a tone of resentment and disrespect. In December, a major festival booked Tom Gleeson as a headliner and wrote on their website: “Love him or hate him, you would have laughed at least once.” This for one of Australia’s most acclaimed comics. While we worship musicians for their ability to operate an instrument, a skill most people don’t possess, comic ability seems superfluous when everyone is funny around their friends. Watching the audience for Sam Simmons, I note a group of young boys yelling out nonsense in a bid to dissuade this new threat to their laugh pack. The culture of heckling has always perplexed me, as if trying to amuse a group of strangers isn’t difficult enough.
I’ve died a successful stage death a number of times. The hot lights drill me like interrogation beams. My mouth dries and the microphone feeds back like an alarm. Inside, trains of thought derail and nervous systems short-out. Worst of all is the wall of silence which has never been so deafening, as the faceless audience sit in protest against my punchlines. Nothing compares to the walk of shame for the bombed-out comedian. Backstage you stew in a fog of shit, everyone making a special effort not to talk to you lest they catch it. Your insides are awash with self-loathing, the sediment of adolescence brought painfully to the surface. Muso’s might be ignored and actors reviewed poorly, but nothing compares to the blunt stab of not being funny.
There’s a cliché that comedians are depressive off-stage, which bemuses people. It makes sense to me. To write stand-up you need a hyper-aware mind, constantly observing society and drawing parallels and juxtapositions. As most creatives will attest, this crafty brain is prone to backfire and turn inwards, launching scathing attacks on your self-esteem. Unlike other artists who have a sense of humour to fall back on, comedians can find theirs tapped dry. For someone who mines ones own life for material, it’s little wonder that a feeling of sheer emptiness takes over on darker days. A lack of humour means you start taking yourself too seriously and this is the bacteria from which depression breeds. Learning to build up a thick skin while replenishing your stocks of self is a trial and error period that lasts years and takes true grit.
Why would we do it? For the warm shot of endorphins and adrenalin that a roomful of laughter brings. No sooner does it subside than we work towards the next affirmation fix. It’s a jaunty meditation, the brain and mouth synchronised, tossing up the ball of an idea and slam-dunking the punchline. I see stand-up as binge communicating. A series of one-sided conversations you’ve had a chance to prepare earlier. It’s a liberating walk along the precipice between brilliance and disaster.
It is – Extreme Therapy.
As funny as it sounds, I don’t think we take comedians seriously enough. This attitude is reflected in the media, which struggles to critique it appropriately, making it difficult for artists to hone their skills. There are no comedy specific arts grants and apart from the Gala, it’s near impossible to find straight stand-up on TV anymore. I’d like to feel proud to be a comedian, but how can I be self-deprecating at the same time? I guess you can’t have your cream pie and wear it too.