I went to a local open mic comedy night here in Sydney on Wednesday night, to get up and do a four minute set.
There is plenty of angst on display by the comedians on the night for the audience's entertainment. The MC leads the charge with a series of acrostic poems clearly displaying his disdain and resentment towards his stepfather. I didn't even know what an acrostic poem was, so it turned out both enlightening and educational. He also does several bits in between other comedian's sets, about his experience of depression, and of ironic conversations with his therapist.
Several other comedians also speak about being depressed, taking antidepressants, seeing psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors or therapists. Most of the stories sound funny, most of the time. But these people are clearly suffering.
I get a strong sense that a lot of comedians, deep down, are very angry. We're putting on a brave face, smiling and joking around about some pretty serious issues. I sense that there's a lot of primal rage going on, that we've been taught to suppress. We are using comedy to express that rage; or perhaps to mask it. Maybe both.
When it's my turn, I get up and do a set about anger, focusing on my recent experience learning Tai Chi: the teacher who did more talking than teaching, and the woman that hassled me about the way I spoke one day after my practice down at the local beach. The stories I tell our literally true, but the deeper truth is that I'm not nearly as angry at my Tai Chi teacher as I am at, say, my mother. But I'm not ready to talk about that on stage; it's still too painful for me to see the comic side of yet.
The other comedians are pushing boundaries when they start doing suicide jokes. They're talking about their own potential suicides, and most of them are doing it in a way that is making us laugh. You've got to wonder what it is about human nature that make something like that funny. Actually, I know what it is: laughter is a stress relief. We laugh because we're vicariously experiencing someone else's pain, and the stress relief comes when our conscious mind realises that it's not ours.
But the audience is not always laughing tonight. A female comedian ends her set by saying that since nobody finds her funny, she is leaving Australia to go to Europe where she can kill herself in a place where her mother won't find her body. Part of me thinks she could well be serious; I don't think anybody has laughed at any of her material tonight. I've heard her before, and I didn't find her funny then either. Apparently that's important if you want to be a comedian.
What to do? Tell her to call Lifeline? Call an ambulance and get them to come and pick her up as she comes off stage? Confiscate her passport? Or remind myself that the stories that most comedians tell onstage are distorted versions of the truth, exaggerated for our entertainment. I placate my discomfort by leaning to the attractive woman seated on my left in the audience and saying "Well, that was awkward!" to which she replies: "I know!"
I never did end up getting her number. The attractive woman beside me in the audience that is, not the suicidal comedian. Well, actually I didn't get either of their numbers.
The MC gets back on and starts doing a suicide joke of his own, which prompts a middle aged woman seated in the centre of the audience to yell "Not funny!"
I have no idea what is going on for her; she looks old enough to have lost a son to suicide. Who knows.
The comedian launches into an angry tirade towards the heckler: "You have no right to judge me, or my suicide joke!" He starts yelling back at her.
I think "Wow, this guy is clearly in a lot of pain." He's reacting like a tiger with a thorn lodged deep in its paw.
Now most comedians hate hecklers, especially up-and-coming comedians who go to open mic nights like this. We don't have the experience to handle heckling in a way that's fun and engaging for everyone, we get triggered by the interruption, and it's easy to lose track of where you're at in your material.
Plus, maybe this guy is like me, and has a history of being criticised by older women when he is speaking his truth as best he knows how. Perhaps his suicide joke is an unconscious cry for help, and it hurts to get that met with criticism. Or maybe I'm just projecting myself into his situation, when really it's completely different. Who knows.
Down the track, I suspect that dealing with hecklers just becomes part of the fun of it all. But when you are still new at this game and the heckler hits one of your hot buttons; that's no fun for anyone.
My set tonight gets a few laughs, and certainly holds the audience's attention. I feel heard. I also feel proud of myself for getting over my initial fear of even getting up on stage in the first place. I don't really end with a bang; my final punchline doesn't get any laughs at all. Which leads me to finish with a statement of fact that does get a laugh: "Well, I can see that wasn't a really great ending."
A bit like this post, actually.