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RIP The A/A Meeting

25 Apr

We stopped doing our podcast.

For a little while I had a weekly thing with my friend Alex, called “The A/A Meeting,” that we would put on iTunes, and despite doing it for almost a year, we never got beyond 30 listeners an episode. We got the message.

I had the idea of doing a podcast because in my first year in New York I was not very active. I hadn’t really broken into the scene yet and wasn’t getting any bookings, and since I had moved to NYC with the idea of creating this important comedy career, I wanted to feel like I was doing something. Since podcasting is such a DIY affair, I decided, “Hey, I could do one and create an internet fandom!” I had just started hanging out with Alex at that point, and we had a kind of comic chemistry where our conversations were naturally funny. I thought, hey, if I get this guy to be my podcast partner, I have an excuse to hang out with him every week, and if we invite other comedians, I would get to know all of these people I’ve never talked to before.

In short, I was confused and scared, and the podcast was an excuse to make friends.

Like most things, at the beginning, we were super-motivated. I would pick out topics to talk about and Alex and I were writing sketches for us to record every week, thinking we could make a sort of audio portfolio to show to agents and producers. Then, after a while, we decided that was too much work and relied simply on interviewing other comedians. That, for a while, was cool, but then I got too side-tracked into trying to be a “good interviewer” that I would try and ask intense, liberal-arts questions that just didn’t fit the situation. When you’re talking to another open-mike-er, they don’t have a lot of experiences that will yield the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking answers you’re looking for.

Then there were times I would try to get my guests to talk about shit they simply weren’t interested in talking about. I cop to tanking the Brian Jian episode because I so wanted to get a harrowing account of the Asian-American experience, when he just wanted to talk about what kind of comedy he liked without having to make it racial.

We did have some GREAT episodes, though, with guests that we really didn’t deserve: people like Erik Bergstrom, Josh Gondelman, Sean Patton, and my professor Norman Steinberg.  When I wasn’t trying to be Ira Glass or Marc Maron, we had some really fun romps with friends like Reid Faylor and Brandon Beck. Nick Naney and Brett Ossinoff said the N-word a bunch of times to make me uncomfortable, to the point that they would punish any bad puns I made by saying it. Even some of the very last episodes we recorded I enjoyed, like when I got disturbingly into talking about sex with Katherine Williams and made Alex uncomfortable. We definitely recorded some moments that I feel proud of.

After a while, though, a lot of people started to get podcasts. Other comedians, and even non-comedians who were just doing it as a hobby. As a result, I started to feel ashamed of doing one. I always frown upon people who think they are SOOO interesting when they have nothing to say, but seeing how many other people were starting up podcasts made me reflect on myself and think “Wow, is that ME? Am I just part of this wave of ‘me, too’ band-wagoners?”

There was also the aspect of so many podcasts being “two or three guys just talking.” That what we were doing, and we weren’t bringing anything new to the table, ESPECIALLY after we stopped doing skits. We weren’t trying to give our unique perspective, but were just doing it for the sake of saying we were doing it. We DIDN’T have anything to say anymore.

Then something else happened: I started to get somewhere in stand-up. I started getting booked on shows. I became a better comedian. I started making friends and networking connections. Somehow the podcast started feeling superfluous. Then Alex got too busy to edit the episodes in a timely fashion because his life sort of blew up with shit, and we both realized it wasn’t our top priority anymore.

Now we’re gonna focus on just being good comedians, since we realized A) we’re not yet famous enough for anybody to give a shit about our podcast, B) we don’t need a podcast to justify feeling like real comedians. I AM glad to have 45 hours of recorded comedy content to our names, but I think it’s time we move on and try and mature a little more before we try it again, if ever.

But if you want me to be on YOUR podcast, I’ll gladly do it!

P.S. A moment of silence for the three lost episodes of the A/A Meeting:

1. Alex, and Reid, and I in a car driving up to Dartmouth last May.

2. Deepu Gil and Hormoz Rashidi

3. Two editors from Marvel Comics that was really great but I had to take down because their office nixed it.

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I hate when I can’t hate!

15 Feb

A couple of weeks ago I was disappointed because I wasn’t disappointed.

I was at a a bar in the West Village for an open mike and ran into someone I knew from college. Usually in New York, when I think I see someone I knew in college, it turns out to just be some OTHER Asian person, but this time it was unmistakable. He came up to me and said hi, and we started catching up, and it was literally the nightmare scenario I dread every time I see someone from Dartmouth: he’s living comfortably working for some investment bank in NYC, and I had to try and not directly admit to him that, despite a diploma from the same school, comedy was the thing I was doing with myself, while I was putting myself deeper in debt and living in a cheap place in the Bronx. He wasn’t trying to rub it in my face in any way, but the difference in our situation was apparent, and I started flashing back to all the conversations in frat basements where drunken idiots were talking about the internships they were getting at Goldman Sachs where as I couldn’t get an internship at MAD Magazine, and I felt my teeth clench.

But then it got worse:

Him: “Are you doing the open mike here?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Him: “I think I’m going to sign up, too.”

Now I started to feel like I was being attacked. I saw it as some guy who was already doing better than me going “Guess what? That thing you do? The thing you use to define who you are as a human being? I can do THAT better than you, too!” like he was purposefully out to embarrass me.

Here’s my thing: I just assume that all of my non-comic friends don’t really respect stand-up comedy as a craft, because the way they talk about it shows they don’t think of it as something that takes talent and effort.

Case in point: last year, during my grad program’s winter intensive, after a late class a few classmates and I went to a bar nearby. By coincidence, it happened to be a bar where there was a comedy open mike that night. I decided to sign up so I could entertain my friends while they enjoyed their drinks. However, one of my classmates (I can’t remember if he had been drinking yet) decided to sign up as well. He had no previous experience as a stand-up, and had written no material.

Now, part of me wanted to look out for my friend and warn him against doing so, for his sake. However, the more sadistic part of me won out, and let him go up, knowing the shit-storm of embarrassment about to follow, only exacerbated by the fact that he and my other classmates had gotten so drunk and noisy that the other comics HATED them. I knew he was going to crash and burn like the Space Shuttle Columbia, but I didn’t want to be right there and laugh at how bad he was failing right in his face, so I hid in the bathroom and listened to him twist in the wind for five minutes to complete silence and heckles from the other comics.

And I got a real sense of sick satisfaction from it. I was glad it happened, because he needed that lesson, and I still wish that lesson could be given to everyone who thinks that what a comic does is just go up and talk off the top of their head and that absolutely anybody who’s ever said a funny thing could go up on stage and be funny for five minutes. Everyone should have it driven home into their head that no, it’s not true, as hard as it was driven home to my classmate that night. I probably should have been ashamed of how vindicated I felt.

But then later, when I talked to one of my other classmates who was there, and tried to explain why the other comics got mad, her response was that they weren’t being funny, and when I explained to her that they were working on material that may not be funny yet, she said “yeah, so fuck them.” So, I was right to feel vindicated, because some people still hadn’t learned their lesson.

Flash forward to the open mike with the college friend, and I thought it was going to be that scenario all over again. To me, it was some bro who thought he was so naturally funny he could just go up there and talk and be a comedian, and I was going to have the last laugh because he was going to bomb miserably and have his confidence broken, and I was going to get a hate boner from it.

So I go up, do my set to reasonable laughs, and hang out in the back waiting for him to go up, a smug shit-eating grin on my face. But then he goes up and… He has material. He actually attempted to write jokes. It was his first time on stage, but he actually came prepared! They were the jokes of a green comic, but honestly, they weren’t bad. He didn’t hump the stool or try to say “rape” for shock laughs. I was prepared for this guy to shit all over the room because he thought he was better than us, but he actually approached it with the humility, respect and effort that a comedy open mike deserves.

And honestly, I felt disappointed! I was so ready to just hate this guy and feel like I’d gained the greater existential victory and just marinate in my own smug self-importance because the finance guy couldn’t be as good of a comedian as me, but I was denied. I mean, he DIDN’T do better than me, but I just couldn’t find any reason to belittle or begrudge him his effort, and for some reason letting go of all that hate I had at the ready just made me feel empty. When it comes to anything that reminds me of Dartmouth or the white collar world that the Ivy League is supposed to feed, especially the finance, if I am robbed of the ability to feel hate, resentment, envy, or self-righteousness, I don’t know what or how to feel. I almost felt MORE angry at the guy for being nice and respectful and not giving me a reason to hate him, like he was fucking with me on some kind of meta-emotional level.

In the end, though, I’m happy for him and I wish the dude well if he continues comedy. In fact, I hope I see more of him around the scene. I hope I can become better friends with him, and maybe that will help me get over this huge hot brick of resentment I carry in my heart for my negative college experiences and the white collar world, and I can just treat people like people, because he deserves that much in kind.

You know what? Every time I think other people are bad people, I realize I am even worse.

 

My triumphant RETURN to Public Access Cable!

1 Feb

Video courtesy of Brooklyn Independent Television, a community media program of BRIC Arts | Media | Bklyn

If you remember last year, some people from Brooklyn Independent Television did a segment about my grad program, describing how it works and how it came about. Now it’s a year later, and they decided to film a sequel segment during our week-long production intensive at the beginning of the month. I’m going to try and write a little more in-depth of a post about this experience later on (since I’m still recovering), but this gives you a good general idea of how it happened, and you get to see just HOW DAMN GOOD I am at being a talking head!

An Adventure in Open-Mindedness

4 Jan

I went to a small liberal-arts college where both the faculty and student body fought with all of their might to make sure you were as tolerant and sensitive to other cultures and ways of life as possible. In my experience, it has seemed that real life has subsequently challenged my tolerance on multiple occasions, as if on purpose.

One of those happened while I was studying in Beijing my sophomore year. Dartmouth had an affiliation with Beijing Normal University (“normal” in the sense of the French “ecole normale,” a school for training people to become teachers). Students from Dartmouth stayed in a BNU dormitory and studied Chinese with BNU teachers. All of the extracurricular activities were also programmed by BNU.

When I say programmed, though, I mean OVER-programmed. Every day we were not in class, we were herded into a bus to go to this temple or that tea house or that theater to see a kung fu show (seriously, we got shown a LOT of kung fu performances). Now, I did appreciate all of these experiences, but the fact that they were mandatory devalued them and turned them into a chore. So between the studying and the scheduled cultural immersion, when my classmates and I had free time, the only thing we wanted to immerse ourselves in was cheap hot pot and even cheaper beer (which was no problem for 19-year-old me thanks to China’s lack of a drinking age).

There was one hot pot place we liked to go on Friday nights, and one week we decided to go again as usual. It was a bunch of us Dartmouth people at our own table, and next to us was a nondescript Chinese family: two parents and some children. I don’t really remember many of the details because we weren’t paying attention to them. We were more interested in the fact that we could buy bottles of Yanjing for 2 RMB each, and the exchange rate at the time was about 8 RMB to the dollar.

But they eventually forced us to pay attention to them as one of the youngest kids, a little boy, went over to his mother, who was the one sitting closest to our table, proceeded to drop his pants, squat on the floor, and take a shit.

I’d love to say this kid was a toddler, like, 3, or something, but I remember him looking at least kindergarten age, maybe a little older, at least old enough to not do this. You can imagine if something like this happened in the middle of an Applebee’s, it would cause a bit of a scene.

But what happened was everything but a scene. As the kid was squatting, the mother was patting the kid’s head. When he was done, the parents calmly informed the wait staff, who then, just as calmly got a broom and dust-pan and cleaned up what the kid left. No scolding for the kid, no apologies to the wait staff, everything happened as if this was completely normal and okay, and since it was my first time seeing it, maybe it was!

Upon seeing it, I laughed. It was part genuine laughter because poop is funny, and part laughter of confusion, like a malfunctioning android would make after you show it that “The following sentence is true. The previous sentence is false.” paradox, because I had no idea how I was supposed to feel about the situation. On the one hand, if the Chinese people didn’t think it was weird, then I shouldn’t either. When it Rome, etc. Not too long before that, I had seen a father helping his kid take a dump on a piece of newspaper in the middle of the street. However, the streets of Beijing are filthy and nobody gives a shit (well, except for the little kid). This was inside a restaurant. Where people are eating. These are the people who are going to unseat America as the world’s superpower and their kids are shitting on the floor.

There was something about this whole scenario that just seemed orchestrated to challenge my open-mindedness, like the mother said “Ooh, look, American college students, they’ll accept anything so they don’t look racist! Don’t believe me? Look, let the kid shit on the floor… Look, they’re not saying anything!”

Perhaps that experience helped me get a bit of healthy perspective, because some Westerners tend to romanticize/fetishize Asian culture as being superior to us in every way, like the soccer moms who read an article about feng shui in Reader’s Digest then all of a sudden start covering their houses in Buddhas and wall scrolls. When someone who’s never left the country starts talking to me about “the wisdom of the Orient,” I always get an image of that little kid taking a dump.

A Merry Christmas

28 Dec

Christmas was always my favorite holiday, thanks to the fact that I had a very comfortable upbringing. When I was younger, I would often try to sleep all the way through Christmas Eve because I knew Christmas morning there would be some particularly impressive present waiting for me, like a Nintendo 64 or complete set of X-men action figures or a bunch of Mexican wrestling DVDs (depending on the year).

As I get older, though, and as I start making my own money, the material aspect of Christmas starts to lose its luster. I can usually buy the things I want when I want them, so gift exchanges make me feel more and more like I’m just imposing on my people who have already purchased me an Ivy League education and now need to try and fund their own retirements.

In the time frame that Christmas has faded in awesomeness, both my mother and my aunt developed pancreatic non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With that added development, Christmas time over the last few years has felt more and more like the time when I go back to Miami every year to dwell on bad news. This either exacerbated or was exacerbated by my previously-mentioned preoccupation with death and mortality.

Thankfully, my mom is doing well and is very healthy. Unfortunately, this past week I learned that my aunt has been moved to hospice care. The cancer has spread to her spine and brain, and she’s not expected to last long.

This Christmas morning came, and the gift exchange was a modest affair. Whereas years ago we’d be unwrapping presents for hours and playing with the gifts the rest of the day, assembling and installing whatever, we exchanged a few simple gifts, mostly just the things we had specifically asked for. It was a satisfying reminder that we all care enough to be considerate and thoughtful for each other, but it wasn’t the kind of gasp-inducing greed bonanza of childhood.

Then, after unwrapping everything, we visited my aunt. I was pretty much prepared for all Christmas-like cheer to end as soon as we left the house. We were told that her family had decided not to tell her the true extent of her condition, and she thought she was just in another hospital for more treatment.  We were to respect that choice, and as such, I expected the occasion to be us just feebly trying to make small talk while gritting our teeth and blinking back tears.

Nothing really prepares you for seeing what cancer can do to someone. Seeing my mom go through chemo and radiation therapy was rough, but I’ve never seen someone who was on the way out with no hope of coming back. My aunt had always been a radiant and warm person. The typical older Cuban woman who has a plate of sandwiches ready when you come for a few hours of gossip. That day she was on the bed, pale and totally bald. Less like a person and more like a wax dummy that someone was going to paint a living person onto later. I did, however, notice one thing that seemed to fight off the pallor overtaking the rest of her person: a smile. It was a tenaciously present smile that refused to yield to the inevitability of her mortality.

Ultimately, the tenor of that kind of situation is decided by the person who is the center of attention. My aunt, despite acknowledging not feeling that well bodily, was unequivocally cheerful, enjoying the presence of us, her husband, his sister and brother in law, and the other visitors who had been coming throughout the day. If she had been going through “good” days and “bad” days like most cancer patients, I guess we had come on a good day, because my aunt wasn’t fighting through any kind of haze to talk to us nor was she languid. She was every bit the person she’s always been: bubbly, social, and dying to know what’s going on in the lives of her nieces and nephews.

In fact, her condition never really came up in conversation. We talked about what was going on in my life, my sister’s life, our cousins, basketball, flim-making, we even talked about the Large Hadron Collider. We were looking at pictures and telling stories. She was telling me how much I looked like my father. It really felt just like any other visit with my aunt, it just happened to be in a hospice.

As the visit progressed I realized this is what Christmas has come to mean for me as an adult: a celebration of memories, life, and an appreciation of the company of your family, grounded in the knowledge that those connections are ephemeral and have to be cherished.

Against my expectations, I left the hospice with some of my anxiety about death assuaged. Something tells me that, even though nobody is going to tell her, she knows her time is near. You know what’s going on in your body. If not on a conscious level, then on a subconscious level. Even still, my aunt was fully enjoying that day. She seemed, for all appearances, happy. That’s how I want to go. Ideally I would like to be told if I am dying, but ultimately I want to be surrounded by those that matter to me, and my last days to be a celebration of the fact that I was alive rather than a grim countdown to the end of my existence. If the end of my life yields a group of people who will walk me to the door with a song instead of a dirge, then I hope that will be a reflection of a life well-lived.

In a time of my life riddled with uncertainty, that measure of solace was the kind of Christmas present I needed the most.