4 May

If I tell you I’m a stand-up comedian, I’m sure the first thing you say to yourself is “yeah, there’s a guy who has a lot of arguments with himself in his head.” And your assumption would be 100% correct and factual. Often-times these are very harsh arguments where I say very hurtful things to myself that are only balanced out by the passionate post-argument makeup masturbation. Some of those hurtful things go along the lines of “You’re such a selfish motherfucker, wanting to be a comic. You just want to be the center of attention all the time!”

So this question comes up often for me: Is the desire to be a comic stemming from a selfish impulse or a selfless one? A lot of fingers point in the selfish direction. As a comic, you get to command the attention of an entire room of people for several minutes. You are completely in the right to be upset if anyone else starts talking over you or distracts from you. You are given a set amount of time to say what you want to say and other people are obligated to listen, and you hope they react positively. Everything you say onstage is about trying to get that positive reaction, which, if received, at least for me, feels like a validation of everything: what I said, the thoughts that lead to me saying those things, and me being the person I am who thinks these thoughts.

I’m of course, just speaking for myself, since last time I tried to cast general aspersions, I got into a big argument with a reader. My first instinct is to agree that it is a selfish impulse. I’ll let you guys in on a little secret: I am extremely paranoid that nobody likes me. It comes from years of people telling me so to my back, and less often, to my face, getting even more often going into college. It’s been amplified even more since moving to New York where I feel even more isolated from anybody I consider an actual friend. I rely way too much on other people’s reactions as a metric of my self-worth. If a joke I write on Twitter doesn’t get retweeted, or doesn’t get liked on Facebook, or my podcast doesn’t get a lot of downloads, or my blog doesn’t get a lot of views, or nobody makes any gesture of acknowledgment to something I put out there, I get legitimately disappointed in myself. I constantly compare myself to my peers who seem to get piles upon piles of people saying “Oh, I really like that thing you did, here, I drew you a logo” or “Sure, I’ll come to your show!”

Yeah, I know, I’m whining. I’m working on it. I’m in therapy. Maybe this is why my blog doesn’t get that many views. The point is, when I’m on stage and my jokes are working, that’s when I feel okay. That’s when I feel like I’ve successfully justified my existence and don’t have to compete with everyone else for attention. So it is selfish.

But, then again, what is giving me satisfaction comes in the satisfaction of others. Comedy doesn’t exist without both the give and the take. In order to get that positive, validating reaction, you need to put something out there that’s funny, and when you get on stage with the audience already feeling adversarial to you, as you often do, you’re taking a more concentrated effort to give them something they like and entertain them. Can it be called that selfish if you’re constantly engaging the audience, constantly measuring to see if you’re doing a good job for them or not?

I think it could be seen as more selfish to demand all the attention but remove the audience’s expectation that they will be satisfied and their ability to voice their satisfaction or dissatisfaction. I say sometimes that people who do one-man shows are people who were too afraid to do stand-up comedy. Not to say one-man shows are all shitty, I’ve seen and enjoyed many, but they have the luxury of the fourth wall. If you’re in a theater watching a “show,” then that means you stay quiet and are respectful no matter what. The performers can keep going, even if you’re nodding off, bored to sleep.

A comic is always expected to tailor for the audience. You can’t do too much material in an “urban” room, or you can’t do a lot of dirty jokes in front of an older crowd, it’s the responsibility of the performer to do what the audience wants. Do you think when Les Miserables goes on tour anybody tells them “Hey, this is a middle American room, try and tone down the French thing?” Hey, I bet when Jesus Christ Superstar plays New York City, they pull out their alternate version with no Jesus at all to get the liberal crowd on their side!

So, even though the comic can put the audience under his control, it’s only at the audience’s discretion. They will submit to him only if he’s worth submitting to, hence the most successful comedians have to be selfless, in as much as they can never believe themselves to be somehow greater than the audience. Some comedians, like Marc Maron, manage to turn their self-absorption into comedy, but again, he wouldn’t do what he did if other people beyond himself found it funny.

I want other people around me to be happy. That’s a by-product of growing up around a lot of anger, I suppose. So that’s selfless. If I’m willing to tell people on stage that I have man-tits if it makes them laugh, that makes it a selfless act, right? But then I get the satisfaction of self-affirmation from it, which is selfish. I guess, like more subjects where the question doesn’t boil down to a matter of mathematics, there’s no satisfactory answer one way or the other. I’ll make you happy so you like me back.


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