Comedy In Purgatory: Catharsis

by ANDREW KING

Writer’s block. It happens to everyone. I’m experiencing it right now. Mine is a combination of indecisiveness and lack of motivation. I can’t decide what to write about: the legendary comedy boom of the ’80s, hecklers, alt comedy, idols, maybe a personal story or two… I don’t know. Can’t decide.

I have screenplays that need work, stand up material that needs to be refined, hundreds of recordings that I can salvage a few good ideas from, and, worst of all, an abundance of free time, but I just can’t do it. I don’t think it’s laziness or procrastination, though I am a master of both. It has to be something else… but what?

It might be that I can usually rationalize the wasting of time.

When it comes to screenplays, I tell myself, “Well, I have one finished and a couple others are mostly done. That’s enough considering where I am.”

The hundreds of recordings are a little intimidating to go through. I have over 500 recordings collecting virtual dust in my computer. They contain stand-up premises, story ideas, daily memos, tag lines, rants, and it’s just a mess. I tell myself, “I’ll get more serious when I’m closer to leaving, I’m not getting out of here for at least another year, what’s the point?” Which is terrible. All I’m doing is hurting my development as a comedian by doing that.

On the other side of that, however, is, Okay, what if I did go through those recordings? What if I went through them? I probably have a good 10 minutes buried in those archives. Even if I found it all and worked it all out I’d have a hell of a time trying to find a place to test it. You can’t count on the reactions of bars and coffee house open mics, and since comedians are constantly writing new material, that newer material is going to take priority over older, unfinished ideas when you go to a comedy open mic.

Plenty of comedians (myself included) have thrown away jokes because we tested them in the wrong environment. There are bad crowds. The ghosts of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks could appear and say unto me, “There is no such thing as a bad crowd,” and I would say, “Fuck you, there are bad crowds,” with total conviction. I’d sleep like a baby that night even though I told the apparitions of my two heroes to politely go fuck themselves. Nine times out of 10 (at least here in Purgatory), a bar crowd wants blue collar comedy. Seven times out of ten a coffee crowd wants something witty — perhaps, dare I say, edgy — though nine times out of ten they just don’t care. Jokes can take any amount of time to complete. I’ve heard of bits taking several years of refining and tuning. Never give up on an idea.

Stage time is so sparse here in Purgatory. It’s hard to experiment when you’re afraid of wasting time. People in places like LA, NY, and Chicago can get on stage every night, multiple times a night. It’s like The Grapes of Wrath: “I hear over in them there cali-forn-I-A they have a whole mess o’ open mics!” We’re starving to death, and people in those places are bitching about getting bumped. You’re getting on stage! Multiple times a night! You’re able to develop more than five minutes of material a month! Oh my god… *sigh* I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent. I seriously didn’t… I got off course.. I was talking about my recordings… Yeah I, uh, gotta go through those…

With stand-up, I’m a bit more disciplined. I enjoy the process. I can work on the structure, tighten it, cut off the fat, manipulate the flow, see what other jokes can connect with it, etc. I’m building an arsenal. Like third world countries stockpile weapons, I stockpile jokes and bits. That way, when I get out of Purgatory (if I ever do), I can make more of an impact.

Comedian Marc Maron said it very well in his podcast “WTF.” This is from Episode 65 with Scott Aukerman at about the 32-minute mark.

“I’ll tell this to you now — and this is the secret gift I’m giving you if you are a stand up out there in the Midwest or wherever you are if you’re not in LA and you’re not in New York. The one thing I can tell you is that being somebody who’s got 15 minutes of material, and no one knows who you are is an incredible power, because you’re only going to have that once, and you will be seen. The thing about comedians is that despite however bad they are or whoever they are, if they’ve never been seen by industry, if you show up here as a comic with your shit together, they will come see you, and you’ll have a shot, but you only have that one once.”

I hope to have a solid hour by the time I leave this place. That’s a really difficult goal. I’ve only been doing stand-up for a year and a half, which is nothing. In that time, I believe I have a solid 30 minutes. I’ll have to go through my notebooks and time it all out, but I remember believing that I had a good 30 half a year ago, so I should logically have at least 30.

There are comedians ten times more experienced than me out there in the cities who have been doing this as long as I have. Comedians that have been doing it for a year and a half in Chicago have been able to get on stage every night, whereas I get on stage for stand-up maybe twice a month. Comedians in Purgatory are on the front lines… no, behind enemy lines… no, wait, we’re tangled in the barbed wire — yeah, we’re tangled in barbed wire, bleeding all over each other, and trying to make the best of it.

Comedian Bill Burr called the Quad Cities “the most depressing place to do comedy” in one of his podcasts (still trying to find the clip). We agree… but this is all we have.

“Of all the inhabitants of the inferno, none but Lucifer knows that hell is hell, and the secret function of purgatory is to make of heaven an effective reality.” ~ Arnold Bennett

2 Comments to “Comedy In Purgatory: Catharsis”

  1. This post makes me angry. I think you are partially using this cathartic moment of reflection to jerk yourself off about how much your have already accomplished. I have seen you perform, and while I think you are a funny person, there is no way you have a half hour of stand up. You can’t even kill for 5-7 minutes, you are not gonna be able to even have a cohesive 30 minutes, let alone a solid 30 minutes. I will get into what it takes to make a solid set a little later, which will prove that there is no way you have a solid 30 minutes now.

    Andrew, I am sorry. I know this sounds harsh, but I am reading this post like a cry for help, and I care, I genuinely do, but I think you need to be honest with yourself.

    Don’t blame crowds. Even shitty bar crowds will shut up if you are demanding that they pay attention to you. And you don’t need to “play to the room” either. I watched a comic that has less experience than you and a similar approach to comedy do great in a bowling alley gig in Lincoln, IL. He was weird as shit, but he stuck to his guns and he had command of the stage. And you are throwing away jokes because you didn’t have any time or emotional investment in them. I have about 10 minutes of rough material that I love and it has bombed both times I have even nibbled around the edges of it in front of an audience. I know I can figure out the delivery that I need to be able to make that stuff work, but I just can’t do it yet. I will bail on the vast majority of other shit that I come up with though because they are just empty ideas that have no point of view behind them.

    A Solid Hour?
    Really? When are you planning on taking off? I hope not for a long fucking time. In order to really have a solid hour, you need to have a really shitty hour and probably 20-50 performances to work it out – and maybe a lot more than that since this will be your first hour. What you really need is a solid showcase set that fucking owns an audience and makes the next person say “I don’t know how to follow that.” Don’t get ahead of yourself is all I am saying here. Think of it this way, imagine your best friend that just likes funny shit but isn’t a comedian. Somebody you love. Now, imagine that person has a lot of responsibilities in his/her life, and next to no time to sit and watch a comedian. Now, say you write that “solid hour.” Is it so awesome that you want that person to make the sacrifices that it will require to watch you for an hour? Until the answer is yes, you don’t have a solid hour.

    A lot of what I am writing is advice to myself, because I can see the worst of me in what you wrote here, but I still think it applies to you. I really do think you are funny – I saw you in the Peoria stand up competition and have watched clips of you online – but I think we all suffer from way too many pats on the back in open mic stand up comedy. Hopefully you will take this as a bursting not just of your bubble, but a bursting of our collective bubbles as aspiring stand up comedians.

    And one last piece of advice, don’t ever use cunt as a tag line ever again. You did it in one of your videos, and it got a laugh, but it is by far the hackiest thing I have seen you do.

    I hope you don’t hate me now, but I understand if you do,
    mike mayberry

  2. I am sorry you didn’t enjoy my article. I assure you that the intention was not to “jerk myself off”, looking over it again I understand how it could be seen that way. The intention was just to vent the frustrations of being in a negative, soul sucking environment. Now with that said, I’d like to address your other points.

    -Killing

    I can kill. I have. It’s been done. Not all the time of course because (as you know) there are all kinds of variables that go into a show. And I’m not trying to be a narcissus or anything like that but I DO have 30mins. It’s not wall to wall laughs, but it’s solid material and some of it interconnects so there is a bit of a flow to it. Again it’s also a bit of an estimate. I remember thinking I had a solid 30 months and months ago. Since then my material has improved, some jokes I don’t do anymore, so logically with all the +’s and -‘s I have 30mins. A lot of material that I wish I could do I can’t do, like personal interesting stories that take a good chunk of time (with jokes peppered in).

    -Blaming Crowds

    Yes you can. I personally believe that there are bad crowds.

    [Funny Story: My first guest sets at Penguins Comedy Club was with Dan Telfer as the opener and Willie Fratto Farrell (sp?) as the headliner. Last night, late show, the emcee goes on stage. “How’s everybody doing tonight?”. Dead silence. The other comedians, (Dan and Willie) are laughing their asses off at the silence, pat me on the shoulder and said “Good luck”. Bad crowd.]

    There can be good crowds in bars and coffee houses but they are rare. I’ve never played to a room and no one ever should, I didn’t mean to say to (I don’t think I did). I always stick to my material and what I believe is funny. Maybe we’re doing comedy in completely different environments, [Side question: How often do you perform stand-up?]. The bars around here are blue collar, when they hear stand up they think foxworthy and the others, Jeff Dunham too. You put a comedian like Marc Maron in that environment I don’t think he’d have too different of an opinion. I would throw away a joke because it didn’t make the five people watching laugh and back then I figured that if it didn’t work on them then it’s no good, which is so wrong. That is great that you’re not giving up on those ten minutes, If you believe that there’s something there I hope you can crack it.

    -Solid Hour

    I hope to have an hours worth of material before I leave. A cohesive, flowing hour. It’s not a barrier holding me back, when I have the ability to go I’ll go with what I have. It’s just a goal to keep pushing myself forward.

    I appreciate the time it took you to write your message, and I appreciate the intent. I love honesty. I agree there is a lot of back patting, and despite what you may think, I am a very humble person. Which video was the cunt tag line? The one where I was wearing the green thing? I don’t use that tag anymore, I went backwards to bitch, might go whore. I don’t think it was hacky, I felt it was appropriate given how I felt about the situation.

    I don’t hate you.

    I hope that this explains..something.. but if it doesn’t.. well, I tried.

    Andrew King.

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