Thursday, March 22, 2012

Quitting Comedy

I started performing as a standup  comedian in April of 2010. Two years later, I’ve now finished.
It was a complicated decision, but at the end it was an easy one to make. I had my great moments, my successful shows – but there were also plenty that I was not satisfied with, and some that were downright terrible (though this is a normal part of the process in most comedians’ careers). The question I asked myself was: suppose I become successful at this. Do I actually want to be a full-time standup comedian? Do I want to do this for a living?

Hell no.

Starting up in Estonia, on the ground floor of a brand new upcoming standup scene was a different experience from what most people go through. For all intents and purposes, Comedy Estonia was (and remains) the only game in a couple of very small towns. With a single circuit and a loyal audience that largely came back every month, the emphasis was on producing a five to ten minute set of new material every month, and almost no opportunity to polish the performance in smaller venues before taking it to the show that matters. To succeed in such a system, you have to be completely dedicated to comedy. I had months where I came up with killer sets, but more often only a few of the jokes got a good response. Standup was only a part of my identity, not the most important thing in my life.

Nor was I completely dedicated to making people laugh at any cost. Much like my blogging history is based on a sense of someone is wrong on the Internet, the original appeal of standup was the fact that I would be on stage, and people would listen. The method was to wrap things up in humor, but the purpose was to spread my opinion, my perspective. I believed there were things that desperately need to be ridiculed, which most performers avoid; and I believed that there were common punchlines that ought to be avoided on general humanist grounds. This is a common enough form of comedy, but it’s not the kind that Comedy Estonia’s audiences necessarily want to hear. They’re there for an easy good time, for entertainment, not philosophy. Even if I honed my craft to perfection, however, I needed only to look at my heroes of this genre. Marc Maron, the headliner of the first standup show I’d ever seen, at the Comedy Cellar in NYC (and whose set I don’t remember at all, so sleep-deprived I was). Stewart Lee, who I saw in London, and who gave the most raw, personal and passionate performance I’d ever experienced. Aron Flam, for whom I opened at two separate Comedy Estonia events. Successful alternative comedians are by definition – really, by necessity – unhappy. I don’t have the secret formula for happiness, but I’m quite good at not letting myself be miserable.

Miserable is what I was, for most of the time I spent on standup-related activities. Oh, I loved it when I was on stage and doing well. I also loved the satisfaction of writing out a really good set, or thinking of a great twist on a premise. But I hated the travel – whether taking the ferry to Helsinki, or catching the 11pm coach out of Tallinn after a show, because I had to be in the office at 9am for my day job, and it was still better than spending the night at in a dorm bed at a cheap hostel. I hated spending time in bars and pubs with the type of people who normally hang out there – it’s just not my scene. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not bad people – but they are people with whom I would otherwise not hang out. Not the kind of people with whom I become friends. And certainly, when my carefully prepared thoughts of the day found no response, I deeply resented being judged by people whom I didn’t care about. Whether it was the audience, who was not there to be forced to think, or the majority of other standup comedians, who were almost always narrowly focused. Successful comedians are either always looking for material, or are always in public relations mode. In my mind, not everything was necessarily a joke.

I stayed with Comedy Estonia for two full years, though I’d been thinking of quitting for more than half of that time. Why didn’t I do it before? Part of it was the challenge and rigor of coming up with new material every month: as you can see from this blog’s posting schedule, I tend not to write unless I have something forcing me. That skill of not letting myself be miserable is largely based on creating a cocoon of numb comfort, an environment where I can fall into emotional hibernation and stay there for a long time. The necessity of creativity on schedule seemed like a good way to improve myself overall. Another part, let’s be frank, was the money. Having been part of Comedy Estonia from the start, and working on the production/promotion aspects as well as the actual performances, I was in a better position to be paid than the resident performers that came out of the open mic nights. It was never a lot, but my freelancer instinct means I’m loathe to let go of any revenue source at all. Another part, certainly a big one, was ego – the desire to be on stage and be admired, something I acquired as a child actor in theater and apparently never lost. Then again, a big part of it was also sheer stubbornness: I just didn’t want to quit.

Until I asked myself that one question, and understood that even I were to succeed, I would not enjoy it.
To be a great standup comedian, you need talent and personality, you need hard work, but above all, you need the drive to keep going in the face of inevitable disappointment, bitterness and depression. I’ve had plenty of that early on in my life. Long before Comedy Estonia came along, I learned how to structure my life to avoid it. If there was a standup scene in Estonia back then, maybe I would have clung to it, made it my outlet and my purpose, seen it as my only way to deal with what’s inside my head.

Successful comedians often say that standup is addictive, and getting on stage is like a dose of heroin straight into your vein. For me it was always methadone.

Time for me to go cold turkey.


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