Friday, October 3, 2014

The Live Comedy Conundrum

This past week, I have been flirting with the idea of possibly producing a live event. Without getting into detail, I have my pick of spaces. One is a cabaret venue, a legendary one, that I have a longstanding relationship with. The other is an Off-Broadway Theatre on restaurant row, one in which show that begin there end up on Broadway at some point, or are critical favorites. I have earned the right to consort with both. Dealing with which one I should pick is six of one and half dozen of another.

In the end, it is the same storm of bullshit and the same red tape. The question is, in the end which storm of bullshit and red tape do I want to deal with? Well kids, what I am trying to say is welcome to the wonderful world of live theatre in any capacity.

There is nothing like live performance, whether it is comedy, cabaret, or theatre. You are in the moment, and anything can happen. Applause is like an orgasmic response or a drug, and sometimes both at the same time. It is a high when a show goes well, and like a heroin addict you only want more. The actors are feet away, and then your scene partner forgets a line. You make it work, and together your effort almost makes it better than what you rehearsed as the audience is glued. You get a heckler, and your one the mark comeback is better than any joke you ever wrote as you get a round of applause……There’s no business like show business.

When I started in New York, I did a lot of live performing. For most Saturdays, I performed as a part of a children’s show at an Obie Award winning theatre, both legendary for it’s talent and the eccentric members that lived there. I also performed for a short while doing improv, but improv is not my gift. Then was my stint in a weekly Off-Broadway dinner theatre show where I played a meaty, fun character role and moved up to a lead. Add in my Saturdays with a puppet show at Green Acres Mall for the children where I was head puppeteer and voice artist. I also did a few variety shows and play readings during my NYU days. So I do appreciate the lore of live theatre.

Then in addition, I spent my younger years performing comedy, and quite a bit of it. I spent most nights in basements either soaring or dying for various crowds, and then my food money on subway fair. Sometimes, I would be up onstage six times a night. Comedy at it’s core is in the moment. Like acting, it is based on the truth we are all trying to get to. The audience can tell if you are so full of shit you can’t see straight. Comedy makes a performer real honest real quick, because comedy comes from that place of being uncool. This is why a comedy club is so magical. Right there, in front of a crowd of strangers watching, you can make a discovery that is not only funny, but the root of who you are as a person.

While acting was what my degree was in, and I did both acting and comedy in college, standup was where the doors ultimately opened after I graduated. I found myself on the road most weekends, and became rather good at hosting and middling. When I got the chance, I started hosting my own weekly mic in the basement of a taco joint. The ceiling leaked and most of the time the stage made out of something akin to plywood was a safety hazard, and the mic almost never worked. We got crowds of tourists to watch us, and we all were baptized by fire. After that, I hosted another mic and produced show wherever they would let me.

And then slowly, I began to burn out.

Around my mid-twenties, I found myself on the road most weekends. While the audiences were sometimes good, the money was awful and was eaten up by gas price. Sure, I was getting experience, but burning my paycheck was getting old, especially if they paid me shit for ten hours up and ten hours back. I made comedian friends, but most of the time they weren’t going anywhere except gigs that were 50 bucks and a burger. I also ran the open mic circuit, but as each mic had inside jokes and I found myself consistently performing for the sick fucks that are comedians, I didn’t find myself getting better let alone funnier. Then I hosted and produced for one club and it’s sister, and the manager I worked under was an abusive, tired, embittered frustrated actor who had never risen above student films. Most of the time, I did check spots, being bumped for male comedians or those who somehow were just luckier than I was in that setting.

Then in order to get stage time, it became a rat race that made me ill to run. It was like a thousand rats, literally, going for the same tired ass piece of cheese. What, a spot in some basement for three people because the producer won a shit award? Bitch please.

On top of that, the combination late nights, long mileage from travel, stress, and poor eating habits were making me sick. Sometimes I would vomit because I ate bad food. Sometimes I would vomit because I was so exhausted. Sometimes I would be too sick to vomit, I would just collapse at random times in my apartment. My body was tired and I couldn't feel it because I just kept going. Yet the more I kept going, the more I felt like a rat in the same rat race on the rat wheel going crazy. 

Frustrated and unfulfilled, I began making my own puppet videos. May Wilson and I interviewed celebrities or just did skits, sometimes with other puppeteers, but sometimes on our own. When I made my videos I found I had more fun, and I found I wasn’t as bitter, angry, or tired. I also found more opportunities opened for me with my writing in conjunction with my videos. As I was getting money to blog and make videos, I began to question why I was even still pursuing standup comedy, an art form on life support. 

I produced shows several more times before hanging up that towel for a few years. During that point, I went through lowered attendance, possibly because my videos were getting all my energy. I started to haggle with the space and then didn’t care. In the end, when as one producer, a small time comic who I will not name, aggressively tried to steal my people for his audience. That is when I knew I had to go in a new direction. So I made more videos, helped pitch a possible television idea, and drafted my book.

A few months later, my puppet children and I got a television opportunity that changed our lives forever. I put the club I had done so much work for on television, giving them more exposure than they had gotten elsewhere. They thanked me by firing me from my job. I figured a flagship club would scoop me up. Didn’t happen. So I was back to square one with no home.

Other doors opened. Because of my video making, I got a job as a talking head and other talking head gigs followed, sometimes online and sometimes various apps. While they weren’t perfect, they all paid. Not to mention my night wasn’t dependent on whether or not people showed up. If no one showed up, I could still do my rant or whatever else. On one site I could be booted off if I wasn’t liked, but at the same time I could perform for up to a few thousand at a time. Question: Why the hell was I worrying about a shit comedy spot for three fucking people?

Then there were more doors that opened. I had not only the opportunity to write my book, but to publish it. I also have blogged for some hoity toity blogs and magazines. In my simple days of being one of a herd of cattle, I never had these opportunities not would I have sought them out.

I also was able to do some things with acting, and was even in a television show, commercial, and movie. Not only did I realize how much I missed my first love, but more than anything, I discovered how much I liked doing film. I was able to go, do my job, and make a new discovery on each take. After filming a pilot for IFC, I came to believe there was more to be done in this area for myself not only as an artist, but as a person.

Of course, I was also able to do more with puppetry. I not only got to work as a ventriloquist, but also a hand and rod puppeteer. I did a weekly show for children, and served as head puppeteer in a short film winning accolades in festivals.

Lastly of course, not only did I start to record music, but also had a song that was number one on the internet charts for five weeks. Making the videos for these was fun, and recording was a blast. It seemed like putting standup on the back burner and exiting the club opened up a whole new world full of possibilities, creativity, and not so much tired ass bullshit. Getting fired from that club may have actually been one of the best artistic and personal accomplishments ever.

I told myself that if I were to return with the gusto I once had, it would be on my terms. So this past year, I figured I had gotten notoriety and was somewhat visible, I might as well. This past April, I produced and starred in my DVD taping. For two months I ran my set in my apartment, did publicity, and harassed anyone who would listen about the event. Day of the event, success. However, had a Rocky-esque meltdown afterwards. My friend, a fellow puppeteer, impersonator, and opening act assured me that it was all going to be okay pre-show. It was, but it almost killed me. 

Then I remembered that while TV appearances and such got me fans, there was a reason my live appearances were limited. It was because the planning, drama beforehand, and everything else leading up to it could kill a person. Sure, the payoff was wonderful, but was it worth all the shit? 

After that, I started to do more comedy again and remembered what had attracted me in the first place. And in what seemed like a call back to an era gone, I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t bitter that I wasn’t born a man. I was actually energized to get onstage, and had a tablet full of jokes. About a month later, I headlined a theatre for not one but two nights. I managed to kill both nights, and made a crowd of new fans. The first night the crowd was cute, but the second night the house was packed. Both shows made me remember why I pursued comedy in the first place. It was because I loved making others laugh. 

However, I also found myself frustrated with the promoter. He promised me my opener would pack the house first night, and my opener failed to do that. Second night, the promoter overbooked the show with every friend and comedian he felt sorry for. Thus it made my job harder because instead of a headliner show, it could well turn into a situation where the audience was tired of comedy and there was no way in hell I was having that. I let my grievance be known and was accomodated, but it was some frustration, and again, remembered why my appearances were limited. It is the before show drama that we must all face, novice to headliner alike. Sure, the show turned out well, but I hate having to turn into a diva on people. He was a good dude, but I know what works. I have been around too long. 

About a month afterwards, I did other spots and readied myself for a book signing event at a well known cabaret theatre. My dance card was full, and I did not anticipate this as I got the event date. Not to mention it was a holiday weekend, and the only time I could get my performers together. My boss Bruce’s assistant Laila helped me plan the event, and it ended up being a success. But there was some drama with the venue and confusion over the guest list and other details that nearly made me lost my mind. Actually, I think I was screaming in a bar restroom during one of my meltdowns. The event ended up being a success as I said. My coworkers were superb, my boss fabulous, and everyone enjoyed the show and my book. Yet it was another reminder why I stepped back from live performing and producing both.

For the last several months, I have done an open mic here and there and a show or two but nothing real serious. Organizing a DVD taping and a book release event will kick a person’s ass. Plus I hate having to pay for stage time. Call me a bitch but I am above it. Yes, I am above it. Not to mention the last month and a half I have been more on the broke end of things anyway.

It is also making me question which way I should go with my career. I love being onstage, but hate the bullshit that come with live events. Should I stick with film, go back to acting class, and run that way? Maybe it’s time I knock on that door again. I am finally old enough to start playing some of the roles I am good for. Plus I have comedic timing, life experience, and other skills I can bring to the table. If anything, I am ten times the actor I was ten years ago.

Or maybe I should do the whole writing thing. I love writing, and have enjoyed writing my blog and for other publications. Heck, I even wrote a book. Maybe I should get a steady freelancer or staffer position somewhere. After all, I can write in any and all styles. Plus like the whole acting things, I have comedic timing, life experience, and loads of other skills I bring to the table. I am ten times the writer I was ten years ago, when I first started blogging.

Then there is the pure puppet route. This year I ended up doing some hand and rod work, and becoming a student of the craft of puppetry, and not just ventriloquism. I want to do more and learn more, not to mention there aren't very many women who are good puppeteers to begin with. 

For some people, stand up comedy is the springboard. For others, it is the destination to film/television/radio, writing, producing, club management and every other goal. Maybe standup was just the mere springboard for me. If that is the case I accept it.

Should I swallow the sexism, bullshit, politics, and tired ass drama of live performance to chase a laugh? Should I concentrate my energies elsewhere as the doors continue to open there? I dunno, I’ll sleep on it.

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