This was originally written on April 20, 2018. I set a fuse on it to publish exactly one year later to avoid the discomfort of publishing my personal thoughts and feelings in real-time.
March 29, 2018 is the five year anniversary of the first time I performed stand-up at Winston’s Open Mic in Ocean Beach, San Diego. I can’t say that I remember the day or the event very well at all, but I am glad to have it filmed as some form of record of my comedy origin story.
What I do remember well is the meeting with my therapist two months prior where I decided I would take the stage. We discussed the incremental steps I could take to lead up to actually performing at Winston’s. I would spend a month or so writing material, I’d first perform in a distant town where I could be ‘anonymous’, and then I’d try it out at my local neighborhood mic around the day of my birthday (St. Patrick’s Day). It would be some sort of a gift to myself.
I forget what convinced me to skip over the “perform in a distant town” part of the plan and go directly to Winston’s Open Mic. It may have been because they had a portion of the open mic called the “lightning round” where you anyone could go up and do 1-2 minutes which seemed a lot easier than coming up with five minutes of material that most open mics require. I also liked the idea of performing in Ocean Beach because it was a place where anyone could be free to be weird, so I felt comfortable exposing myself on stage there. It was also a neighborhood where I’d once stripped naked in the streets on a Sunday afternoon screaming at strangers, so I just told myself, “If I can do that and still show my face in this town, telling jokes should be easy.”
When people tell me they want to try stand-up, I usually give slightly different advice than my own path. I usually say: “Go to an open mic in a faraway town. Don’t even write jokes… just go up on stage and read the phone book for five minutes. That way you won’t expect any laughs, you won’t have to worry about memorizing anything, you know in advance it will go horribly, so you won’t disappoint yourself… BUT you’ll officially have gotten over the hump of starting. That’s the biggest challenge: getting started. Once you’ve started, you can improve incrementally from there.”
My “real” first time
A confession: though I call it my ‘first time’, performing in Ocean Beach in 2013 was not really my first stand-up performance. In fact, I performed in Boston over a decade earlier when I did a five minute set at the ripe age of 16. Unfortunately, I have no recording of it.
The Boston performance wasn’t the disaster you might expect from a 16 year old. I was a junior in high school and spent about a year writing and memorizing the jokes I performed. My dad and my friend drove two hours to Dick Doherty’s Beantown Comedy Vault in Boston. I’ve forgotten the details of the set, but I remember it involved talking about relocating to the North Pole to escape terrorism and school shootings, having a jerk circle with a group of eskimos, and making a living exporting cum-cicles to American grocers. I like to think this was pretty progressive stuff for a 16 year old in 2002 living in our post-9/11 and post-Columbine world.
I remembered being very excited while writing the material for that set. I loved the creative process. The problem is that I did not enjoy performing at the open mic. After the set was over, I remember thinking: “Performing is supposed to be the fun part and it was disappointing… damn… stand-up comedy must not be for me.” I did get some laughs, that wasn’t really the issue. I think the problem was that I was a 16 year old kid performing jokes for a room full of adult strangers. It didn’t feel natural or make sense to me. I didn’t have a purpose.
So I stopped.
In college, I joined the “BU Stand-Up Comedy Facebook Group” and never once went to a meeting. I was scared… not sure exactly what I was scared of. I remember they held a “Funniest Student at BU” competition and my friends encouraged me to enter it. I wrote a 5 minute set that afternoon and performed at the competition. It was mostly hacky jokes about my girlfriend and I was not up to par with the other contestants who were actual comedians.
The judges ripped me apart for my being inappropriate for a college audience and I didn’t make it past the first round. Despite this performance being for my peers instead of a group of adult strangers, this performance did not rejuvenate my interest in doing comedy.
The Ocean Beach “Resurrection”
I consider the performance in 2013 in Ocean Beach to be my “first performance” because that’s when I decided I would really “go for it.” This time things were different.
This time, I had a purpose.
I hate admitting this to other comics, but I got into stand-up because I thought it would be a valuable tool to change the way our cultures thinks about mental health. That motivation gave me more of a purpose than simply making people laugh. That’s not to say that making people laugh isn’t important! If people don’t laugh, it’s not comedy. There have been plenty of discouraging times I’ve walked off stage thinking, “Great TED Talk, Jim,” and I imagine audiences have thought that too.
This has created a problem for me the entire five years I’ve been performing… this uncomfortable feeling that I’m “doing comedy wrong” by trying to use it as a social activism tool. But the truth is, that’s what motivates me to keep going up despite all the bombing. While I consider Dave Attell to be the funniest comic alive, it is guys like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, or Russell Brand that inspire me to actually get off the couch and get on a stage.
Specifically, its guys like Chappelle and Rock that inspired me, because I feel they raised my own awareness around the discrimination and oppression of the black community and I set out to do the same for the community of people discriminated against for having psychiatric labels.
It feels shameful to admit openly that I got into comedy because I thought I could change the world by making jokes. I’m not sure why I am so embarrassed by that, but that’s my truth. That’s why I started.
My first year doing stand-up was really spent getting comfortable with telling revealing stories and opinions on stage to strangers. Some of them were funny, most of them were not.
I’m grateful that I was in Ocean Beach to start, because it was a place I felt pretty comfortable being myself. Very soon after I started, I was forced to adapt to a new, less comfortable environment.
Three months into my new “comedy career”, I was kicked out of the startup company I co-founded in San Diego and experienced some serious cardiac problems. The incredible stress combined with a heavy habit of coffee, Sunkist orange soda, gummy bears, perpetual bong rips of tobacco and Cali weed, and a cocktail of psychiatric medications had done my mind and body in. After two trips to the hospital within a month, I quit smoking weed/tobacco, gave up all the sweets and caffeinated beverages, and decided to move back closer to my family in the northeast US.
The culture in the northeast is quite different. I no longer lived in the kind of open, expressive playground that I felt in Ocean Beach. I was back where I grew up in the land of judgment, coldness, repression, and shame. I immediately felt odd and out of place.
It was around this time that I became uncomfortable performing using my real name due to a combination of professional (I was teaching high school physics) and family reasons (didn’t want them finding out about all the crazy shit I was saying on stage). It was at this time that I took on the pseudonym, ‘flim jannery.’
Years later, I still use that name, which I’ve grown to have mixed feelings about.
Introducing “flim jannery”
Today, I’m completely open personally and professionally about doing stand-up. There’s nothing to hide there. I like that using this name reinforces to the audience that my performance is an ‘act’, and I’m not expected to be that same personality off-stage. Yet I also wonder if the fake name is some kind of crutch.
I’ve got this weird contradiction going on, where I feel like being on stage is when I am my most honest because I’m talking about subjects and stories I’d never otherwise get to share… yet I also stretch the truth a lot, which is basically lying, so I’m also my most dishonest on stage. It is this paradox of simultaneously being at my most honest and dishonest that matches with the ‘flim jannery’ name. It’s a fake name, but its also very clearly a fake name, and someone could pretty easily deduce that my real name is Jim Flannery. There’s a poetry to this that I like and don’t feel like getting rid of (yet).
Funny thing about my “stretching the truth” is that many people think that I exaggerate all my crazy stories. Most of the time, I’m actually understating the truth. The 100% truth is usually more ridiculous and embarrassing than the way I tell it on stage. I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable telling the absolute truth about my crazy experiences, so I sugarcoat the stories into something more palatable for myself and the audience. If I didn’t do that, I don’t think these stories would ever get shared.
As for the actual origin of the name ‘flim jannery’, that came from one of my college roommates who called me Flim Jannery once. There’s no long story behind it, just something I heard once that stuck in my head.
Back to my first year of comedy…
A few months after moving back to the northeast, I started smoking weed again. I managed about 6 months of sobriety post-heart issues, which was a long stretch for me. I continued to stay clear of caffeine and sugar, and somewhat avoided immense stress (teaching high school physics for a semester did not help there), but weed was really hard for me to kick.
As I approached my one year mark of doing comedy, I decided I was going to actually invite people to see me perform. Until now, comedy was my ‘secret life’. I told people I did comedy, but never invited anyone to watch. So, I got put on a ‘bringer’ show to do a five minute set and invited a few family members. It was weird having them watch, but it was a decent set. The next step was to ask around to some comics and get on a ‘real’ show (‘bringer’ shows are bullshit).
The show was scheduled for March 27, 2014 which was almost exactly the one-year mark of my starting performing. Since I had friends coming to this show (in addition to family), it felt like a big milestone which added a lot of pressure. It’s strange how I’m so much more comfortable performing for strangers than I am for people I know.
I was scheduled to do 10 minutes while all of the stage time I’d had so far was spent at open mics in the 5-7 minute range. It doesn’t seem like a huge difference to non-comics, but it was different enough to worry me a lot.
The night of the show, the host came up to me and one of the other comics was running late and to ‘go for as long as you’d like.’ Every other time I’d been on stage, there was a set time limit which I needed to adhere to. Suddenly, I didn’t need to worry about the timing. Instead of feeling pressured to come up with a bunch of extra material to fill the extra time, I slowed down my pace, and the set ended up being 15 minutes.
This made an enormous difference in how I performed. I felt so much more present without worrying about a clock. I told jokes for 15 minutes and the audience laughed at pretty much every joke. Not to say there was non-stop laughter – but people laughed everywhere I thought they were supposed to.
I was wicked proud of this set and decided to post it on YouTube. Immediately after I uploaded the video, I convinced myself: “That’s published… I can’t tell those jokes anymore… time to write new jokes.”
I do have one joke I regret from the performance: a hacky joke about prison inmates having butt sex. It wasn’t particularly funny and it’s a bit of a punch down at two groups that I have no desire to harm. I’ve told plenty of shitty jokes like that while experimenting at open mics, but it really sucked that this was included in a real show. That was the first time I ever reflected on the idea that I could actually be harming people instead of helping them with my jokes. I’m not sure how to reconcile that issue for myself. I just do the best I can and try not to get too down on myself when I unintentionally hurt people.
After my first “real show”, I felt pretty good about my skills. I’d “done it”: I prepared a real set, for a real show, and made real people laugh the entire time. Of course not every audience is the same, and I had friends in the crowd bringing a supportive bias, but I believed I was actually able to be a funny comedian. I also felt like I did a really good job in that set of discussing some of the mental health issues I wanted to bring up.
So the question was… now what? Keep at it, I guess!
Around this time I was living in Northampton, MA which was an unexpectedly great place for comedy. They have an interesting culture that is appreciative of art and creativity, yet is also uncomfortably politically correct. I figured that if I can be my raw and unfiltered self and make these people laugh, I can probably make any audience laugh.
While comedy was going alright, this year was rough for me personally. I had a lotta issues with smoking shitloads of weed and dealing with psychosis, police, and psychiatric hospitals. I remember going to open mics and telling some of these wild stories and sometimes the room was completely silent and very awkward. These experiences didn’t feel like TED Talks, they felt more like a therapy session which weren’t very productive. But I kept at it, not exactly sure where the material would go, but trying to dig deeper.
What do I mean by ‘deeper’? I’m always reminded of this story that Louis CK told during George Carlin’s eulogy about throwing away old material after filming a special and starting over with new material:
“When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, and you throw those away, what do you got left? You can only dig deeper. So you tell some jokes about your feelings and who you are. You do those jokes… and they’re gone. So you dig deeper. So you do jokes about your fears and your nightmares… then you do those and they’re gone. Then you start digging into your real weird shit…”
It’s fascinating to see myself evolve. In Year One, I was just getting used to sharing about my experience with psychosis and being given a psychiatric label. In Year 2, I found myself sharing about all my run-ins with authority during my visits to jail or psychiatric hospitals… then sharing about my fears and concern about government surveillance and the National Security Agency… and then sharing about the problems with our education system.
It’s a lot of fun seeing where things organically developed without it being planned.
Around Thanksgiving of Year 2, I quit smoking weed and haven’t touched the stuff since. People suggest that drugs give you some kind of an edge in being creative or writing but I’m not sure if that’s accurate. I feel like writing comedy happens in such a non-linear manner, that it’s impossible to do a perfect apples-to-apples comparison of one’s ability to write both on and off drugs. I think one thing is true… I get myself into a lot more trouble when I’m on drugs, and people do tend to laugh at stories of my misfortune. But that’s not necessarily writing or performing comedy, that’s just living a shitty life that people will laugh at. So maybe I’m better at having a shitty life when on drugs.
As I started to hit the Two Year milestone, I felt an obligation to do another show. This one, naturally, had to be bigger and better than the previous one. I realized that it’s impossible to guarantee myself a set where I have “unlimited time” like the show I did at the One Year milestone, so the only solution I could come up with was to organize the show myself.
That was a pain. I organized and promoted a show where I was the headliner with five other comics, just so I could put myself in a situation where I could be flexible with my own time slot. What a control freak, right? As I came to learn, organizing and promoting your own show where you’re the headliner isn’t exactly the norm… usually people are organizing and promoting shows where other people headline. That reciprocity of putting shows on for one another and promoting one another is part of the comedy game. So it was pretty awkward to be so self-promotional, which I’m still not super comfortable with.
Putting together the show turned out to be quite stressful and distracting from actually performing. Fortunately, as soon as my “entry” music started, all the stress of putting the show together seemed to wash away into the background and it was a fun and solid show.
Year One produced 15 minutes of material, Year Two produced 30 minutes… Moore’s Law would predict that Year Three would produce 60 minutes of material. Wrong.
During Year Three, I continued working on new material, but felt a little lost on where to go with it. One thing I realized, was that the closing material from Show #2 where I talked about the school system felt incomplete; there was much more to be said. I also felt with the mental health stuff from Show #2 didn’t really go deeper than Show #1, it merely repeated a lot of different variations of the same story: I go “crazy” and get into trouble.
I wanted to go deeper but wasn’t sure how.
At some point, I decided my goal was not to spend Year Three developing material, doing a show, filming it, and posting it to YouTube like my previous shows. I felt like once I posted material to YouTube, it was ‘retired’, and I couldn’t repeat the jokes. Instead, I wanted to develop a seriously amazing hour-long show that I could tour with. Ambitiously, I wanted something worthy of Netflix or Comedy Central’s attention, but mostly something that I would be proud to sell tickets to on a cross-country tour.
I definitely wouldn’t have been able to create a full hour of new material anyways, because Year Three involved a lot of life chaos, though nothing involving police and psychiatric hospitals. I relocated a bunch of times, had money/job issues, relationships troubles, and then my childhood best friend died. Meanwhile, I had no drugs to fall back on for comfort.
At the end of Year Three, instead of doing a big show, I released my debut album: The Flim Trilogy, which combined all the material from my Debut, Year One Show, and Year Two show. This was a great way to collectively call all my previous material a ‘completed and finished work’.
I felt a little out of place releasing an album of my first two years of material, since many comics say you shouldn’t publicly release anything till you’ve been performing for 10 years.
But fuck it… there’s all of these “supposed to” and “shoulds” that I always hear about in comedy – these unofficial rules. I try not to pay attention and focus on following my own path, but it’s hard to ignore these criticisms. I think that’s another reason I feel so awkward around other comics, because I try to do things ‘my way’, which I fear people perceive as arrogance but is actually rooted in a combination of stubbornness, fear, creativity, and naivety.
I hope at some point in life I end up being more comfortable around other comics, I’m not sure what will bring that transformation.
I feel uncomfortable saying “Yes, I believe I’m good enough at comedy to be performing alongside you” and that feels arrogant if other comics don’t think I’m funny. I have a different mentality regarding performing, work ethic, and such. I am definitely a hard working person, but I don’t devote all my energy to comedy… I’ve got a handful of different passions I pursue in parallel. Comedy is always a piece of it, so I can relate to people who are in this for the long haul, but I don’t feel I match their comedy-centric work ethic.
I try to get on stage once a week… occasionally more, rarely less. I almost exclusively perform at open mics. So I’d still be considered an “open micer” even though I’ve been doing this for years. I prefer open mics because I struggle with putting dates on a calendar. I experience a lot of emotional mood swings and don’t know how to handle the pressure of being “forcibly funny” when I’m not in a good mood. If I’m planning to go to an open mic in the morning, and am not feeling up to it in the evening, I can say ‘fuck it’, and not go. You can’t really do that with a scheduled show.
So I definitely know there are people who put more time/energy into comedy and feel like I’m a slacker compared to them. But I also know that I’ll never burn out on comedy because I’m always doing it for fun and passion… it never becomes forced. My theory has always been “If I stick at this for 10 years on a fairly regular basis, I’ll get somewhere with it.”
As Year Three became Year Four, I started doing freelance web development full-time, which helped get my money issues under control, and also gave me the gift of location-independence which allowed me to travel a lot.
I spent a good chunk of the year on the west coast doing a lot of comedy in California where I felt really comfortable again and took my humor into some weird, adventurous places. That fall, I returned to the northeast, was now dealing with a breakup, and all the new material that I’d developed out west just wasn’t vibing with the northeastern audience. I wasn’t getting laughs and my mood was off. I was feeling kinda depressed.
There often seemed to be this disconnect between my ability, willingness, and comfort in exploring new topics while traveling versus when I was “home” in the northeast. I tried visiting some open mics that weren’t comedy-focused in an effort to try to mix things up and test new waters. Out of frustration I took a couple months off entirely from comedy and traveled to Mexico and Peru.
I came back quit invigorated and ready to re-focus myself. I decided I needed to go through all the material I collected over the last two years and start working on building out the skeleton of an hour long show.
Year Five involved a lot of “packaging up” what was done in Year Three and Four.
I spent a whole lot of time in front of a Word Doc. For a solid month, I started every morning by going through my material and re-arranging it and cutting things out. In the end, I actually managed to organize the previous two years’ worth of material into a reasonably organized work. It wasn’t great, but it existed, and was far more than an hour worth of material. It really needed to be trimmed down and edited to be an hour-long laugh-fest rather than a draining and tiring two-hour bore-factory. But I had something to work off of.
I realized the subject-matter evolved a lot from my first two years.
I found myself re-visiting the mental health stuff, but now focusing more on discrimination, stigma, and disempowerment rather than just my stories of being a nutjob. I also built up a considerable amount of material about the education system, which made sense given that I’d been spending so much time over the last few years advocating for self-directed learning opportunities for teens and building Open Source High and the Peer Unschooling Network. I also found myself actually making some political jokes, which I wasn’t super comfortable with in the past, but which fit into the context of the new show.
A big moment came in the spring when I got asked by a mental health activism organization to perform an hour long set at the Oregon Country Fair!
This was really incredible. I’d gotten into comedy to create some sort of voice for people stuck in the mental health system and now was going to get to perform a full hour show for a like-minded group. This gave me about four months of time to edit my two hours of crapola into one hour of gold.
Fortunately, an improv comic friend of mine in San Diego was willing to let me go through my entire two hours of material while she listened and laughed occasionally (thank you Jackie!). It was really more like I was reading to her than performing since I was zipping through the material at lightning speed to try and avoid it taking super long, but that experience really helped me see where the wasteful topics were, what was a distraction, and what was just plain boring and unfunny.
I also found myself archiving chunks of material about certain topics.
For example, I eliminated a section about religion because I realized I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about religion to begin with. It’s easy to make jokes poking fun at religion, but as I have become more interested I spirituality over the past few years, I’m not really sure where I stand on the matter. It something I’ll continue to play with at open mics but not something I feel compelled to focus on in a show.
I also removed a huge chunk of material where I talk about my family and ex-girlfriend. I am not really that comfortable telling jokes that will be recorded and posted online that single out individual people. The jokes are still funny, and I tell them when I’m doing open mics and just getting things off my chest, but it doesn’t feel appropriate to include them in what would be a “final product.” It seems unfair to publicly insult people who didn’t ask to be a part of my comedy show… I chose this path, not them. At the same time, a lot of great comics really explore their family relationships and it’s meaningful and valuable to the world… I guess maybe I’m just not in that stage of my comedic evolution yet.
I also found that some of the political humor felt too much like preaching and not enough like comedy… or was sometimes just a distraction. Things work a lot better when I talk about my own personal experience instead of making claims about the world as whole.
Finally, in July of 2017, I performed at the Oregon Country Fair. This was the worst experience I ever had doing comedy.
They asked me to do an hour, but the band playing before me was running late and they asked me to cut my set to 30 minutes. It became apparent that my show was considered an ‘in between’ act for the ‘real’ acts which were musical. That bothered me a lot. The stage setup was also not ideal, with people walking in front of the stage the whole time. It also didn’t seem like the audience was a group actually interested in mental health, it was just random folks from the fair who happened to wander by at that moment. They also had Patch Adams listed on the schedule for my time slot (apparently I was filling in for him) and so some people showed up expecting to see Patch, and were quite disappointed.
About 10 minutes into my set, a man wearing a tutu who worked at the Fair started yelling at me that I was being inappropriate and needed to stop. If he was just an ordinary crowd member heckling me, I’d feel fine shutting him down, but he was an actual staff member. So I looked to the audience for the woman who booked me, who yelled ‘Just give us your G-rated material.”
I’m not sure that exists.
I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t know if I was inappropriate because I’d sworn or because I was discussing ‘adult themes’? I realized that nothing I had to say was not somewhat controversial. It was paradoxical, because I was doing jokes about how the mental health system silences people’s voices… and here I was being silenced. It sucked. I spent most of the set riffing about the awkward situation and making some random jokes, but it was a disaster.
Fortunately, that night, I went to a house party hosted by the co-founder of MindFreedom International who asked me to perform my material there. This was actually a group of psychiatric survivors who could connect with the subject-matter. All the mental health jokes got lots of laughs, my other material fell totally flat, but it was satisfying to at least have had a chance to share it.
While in Eugene, Oregon, I had trouble at two more shows. During each set, a single person in the crowd started yelling at me for being inappropriate and offensive. I wasn’t sure what to make of it… I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings unintentionally. I’ve had times where I felt like I crossed the line on stage, but never had anyone start yelling at me for it. I couldn’t really decipher between “is it me or is it them”.
I’m sure the reality lies somewhere in the middle. I think comics get a bad rap for being offensive and saying the wrong things. As Patrice O’ Neil pointed out in an interview once, “The attempt is what I’m trying to fight for. Funny and unfunny jokes comes out of the same birth. You don’t know if anything is going to be funny. You should be able to attempt to make anything funny.”
At the same time, I think comics also cop-out by saying “hey, it’s just jokes” and being surprised when individuals react strongly. Just as the comic has the ability to say what they want on stage, the audience has the ability to criticize their jokes. It’s kind of a two-way street. Where I think the line is drawn is when an audience member interrupts the show. I don’t think that’s appropriate, no matter what the comic says. If you don’t like what the comic says, tell your friends afterwards or write about it in your blog… but don’t interrupt the show.
I would think if you get good enough at comedy, you’d be able to communicate in a way that the message of your joke becomes clearer and clearer…. but your audiences also get larger and larger, which increases the likelihood of an individual taking things out of context and using your words against you. But sometimes, people aren’t taking things out of context, everything is clearly communicated, they are just ‘offended’ because they have a different opinion than you. That feels weird for people to be offended simply because they have a different opinion, but that is the polarizing world we live in today. Differing opinions should really bring people together out of curiosity to understand one another, as opposed to pushing people apart in a divisive, tribalistic way.
After the Oregon shows passed, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go next.
Fortunately, fate decided my next stop for me. While in Eugene, I was asked to work at Not Back to School Camp (a summer camp for unschooled teens) and performed as part of the staff talent show. I didn’t do many jokes about the education system since these kids don’t go to school, but it was really fun to be able to perform for young people. I felt a real connection during that performance, and was reminded of my first exposure to stand-up comedy when I was 10 years old and the effect that had on me.
I realized there are really no venues for young people to see comedy. They’re not allowed at bars or comedy clubs which is where comedy frequently takes place. Or if they are allowed, it is done somewhere like a college campus, where the kids are 18-22 and there are restrictions on what the comics can say. It just seems so paradoxical that in an era where most young people have internet access in their pockets, we are safeguarding public performances in such a manner.
In the fall, I continued doing open mics with a few longer sets in New Hampshire where I did about 15-20 minutes each time. These sets felt really emotional as I felt the audiences turn against me as I started revealing personal information about myself. It was pretty exposing and uncomfortable, especially one set I did at a hostel I was living at. It was really uncomfortable revealing my psychiatric history and then having the staff there treat me different afterwards.
Before wrapping up Year Five came to an end, I got two more chances at some meaningful performances.
The first was a spontaneous invite to do a 60 minute set in Mexico for English-speaking travelers at a hostel. I thought of this as a chance at redemption for the mishap at the Oregon Country Fair. I messed up quite a bit and forgot some bits, but it was a decent performance.
This was by far the longest I’d ever performed for. My prior maximum was 30 minutes. There were a few parts where the energy dropped down for what I felt like was too long and I had to work hard to bring it back up. I also had a real annoying heckler who kept talking out during the set and I wasn’t comfortable shutting him down aggressively since I was staying at the hostel and living with these people. I’ve gotta find a “polite” way to shut people up.
The closing material about the education system seemed to fall flat with this group. I psyched myself out a lot. I thought, “Ah, these people are not in school anymore, they won’t relate to this.” That voice in my head kept saying they were disinterested and wanted the show to end, so I cut it early at about 50 minutes. Overall, I viewed it as a success and a big growth show.
A couple weeks later I got to perform for teens again, this time at the Project World School Family Summit (I was the emcee of the Summit). I wisely opted out of doing comedy at their Talent Show, but the teens requested I do a show just for them in the Teen Room. It was a weird set… there wasn’t a real stage, and the teens kept raising their hands and asking questions and interrupting like I was a school. Ironically, these kids don’t go to school, so they don’t really have experience with teachers… but they also don’t have experience with comedy shows either: young people are excluded from attending.
Despite it being awkward, it was a hell of a lot of fun and the next night, one of the kids asked me to repeat one of my jokes. Nobody had ever asked me to do ‘jukebox comedy’ before, so it was kind of a treat. It reminded me a little of high school when I would perform Dane Cook and Dave Attell routines in the cafeteria during study hall and people would ‘request’ particular bits.
After these two shows, I decided to take a couple months off like I did the prior year to regroup. As I’m writing this, I haven’t been on stage since that Teen Show.
Looking forward to Year Six
As I look forward, I’ve got a new plan for this summer and fall. I don’t like traveling to a new city every night, it’s not very comfortable and hard to swing financially. So I’m planning on doing a different city every week and doing some shows for particular audiences I’m interested in entertaining. In each city, I’ll do a show for teens at a public library, a show for elderly people at a nursing home, a show for psychiatric survivors at mental health residences, and then a general type of comedy show for any audiences. The last segment I’d like to perform for are people in jails, but I don’t quite feel comfortable with that yet… mainly I think they’ll look at me and say “What the fuck are you doing here” and I won’t have an answer for them that is funny.
I’ve also thought about doing a tour with a group of unschoolers that is more of a ‘variety show’ than a comedy show, where I can emcee and they can show off their talents in music, dance, poetry, etc. I don’t quite feel comfortable doing that kind of show yet, as I’d have to be the organizer and figure out a way to financially make it all happen. Doing a solo comedy tour, I know that I can manage to make it all work out in terms of money, though it will certainly be a challenge to do a full one-man show with no openers or anything. But it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to and think I’ll grow a lot from it.
One thing that always enters my mind is… “Am I wasting my time?”
If my purpose in doing comedy was to make a difference in the world… is it actually having that impact? Is it actually helping people? Or would I be better off actually doing work that ‘really helped people’ instead of making jokes.
I’m not sure the answer to that. I’ve considered going and getting a law degree and getting involved in the battles related to mental health and alternative education using the law as a tool rather than comedy. But I don’t think I can walk away from comedy. I’ve quit a lot of habits in my life, but comedy is one that seems to be here to last.
Even now, I still have a constant self-doubt and self-criticism running through my head. I’m constantly telling myself “You’re doing it wrong.” And I think to myself that other comics watch me and think “You’re doing it wrong.” This is both in terms of the way I write my material, the way I perform, the way I get gigs (or don’t), the way I market myself, the way I dress, using a stage name… all of it.
This is especially true of being 5 years in and still doing mostly open mics. This summer tour will be the first time I plan out a series of gigs with firm dates and have to trust that I’ll be in a proper emotional state of mind to actually perform consistently for audiences. It’s a little frightening to think of, but I’ve actually been relatively stable recently, probably because I’ve gotten myself off those shitty psychiatric medications. I’ve also adapted my lifestyle a lot to be more stable and filled it with exercise, sunlight, nature, yoga, meditation, good food, socializing, restful sleep, and such.
Even in planning this tour, I have posted on Reddit asking people for ideas and suggestions and I have caught some of that ‘You’re doing it wrong’ criticism. For example, people think it’s a bad marketing approach or even morally incorrect to do shows specifically for teens. Maybe… and that’s probably why I feel the need to do it all alone. I don’t have any other comics doing the tour with me, and haven’t even bothered asking anyone. Most of that is for financial reasons, I don’t know that this will make any money, and I don’t need it to since I can make money freelancing as a web developer. I’m not really concerned with making money from the tour, I wanna reach audiences, improve my skills, and improve the material. If I inspire and educate and get a lot of laughs… that’s enough for me.
So instead of telling myself “I’m doing it wrong” or even trying to convince myself, “I’m doing it right,” instead…. I just focus on the fact that: “I’m doing it.”