I grew up on stand-up comedy. It helped that it was everywhere; when I was 12, MTV started its Half-Hour Comedy Hour. I stayed up late to watch Carson and Letterman every night -- back when they featured comedians -- laughing at things I only vaguely understood. There were also shows on A&E (remember when it was Arts and Entertainment?); I watched all of it religiously. I followed comedians like other children follow sports figures. When I was in high school, I fantasized that in college I'd write bits for Letterman's monologue and Top Ten list in the morning, which would give me time to go to class all day and front a rock band at night. That fantasy came after I decided that fantasizing I would marry him was just a little too unrealistic for me -- if even Merrill Markoe couldn't make it work, I had no damn chance.
Of course, none of that happened. But in my last semester of college, I got it in me to finally try stand-up comedy. My roommate Marc and I went down to a little comedy club in Chicago and did their open-mic night competition. I had what I will generously call a 4-minute set, after which I pretty much ran from the stage. And I won! It surprised me most of all. After that I did it one or two more times, as part of a group at my school. I got caught up in the intoxication of writing bits and decided, as a 21-year-old will, that I was going to quit journalism to become a stand-up comedian. I actually stopped sending out resumes. I even went so far as to tell my dad one day on the phone. He said, "Good. You're funny." Beat. "Need money for the rent?" I can tell you that I learned everything I know about timing from him.
Anyway, it was the end of my senior year, and I was heading down to Miami for a design and graphics internship at The Herald. That was a big deal to me, and I like to keep my word, so I figured I'd go down there, do my internship, and then make my life as a comedian.
So, a few weeks into my internship, I was at a 4th of July party with some of the designers. I was talking about my plans, and I did my little set. Mark, the husband of one of the designers, said, "Yes, you're funny. But what are you really saying?"
It hit me like a brick (one's enough, don't you think?). I thought, what *am* I saying? Is there truth? Is there voice? Is there meaning? Or is it just funny?
I decided it was just funny. And you know, maybe it wasn't even that funny. So I stopped. And I became a serial journalist.
In the intervening couple decades, I've thought about doing it again, just for fun. Periodically I'll carry around a little notebook for any bits I might have. And I often think of Mark's words when I write anything; sure, I'm not a bad writer. But is there truth to what I'm saying? Not reality, but actual truth? Is there meaning? Or is it just fun? It makes writing very, very hard for me.
Part of me thinks of course I should hold myself to this standard! All writing should be held to this standard, or it's frivolous!
But part of me wonders whether, if I let go of the standard, I could hit it anyway, more often, and more relaxed.