What I Do

by david

I’ve been asked again and again to describe my shows. “So, you do standup?” “So, you do improv?” “Are you a storyteller?” And I kind of shuffle and make weird noises and look at the floor. I blurt a non sequitur. I try to dodge the question by saying derogatory things about myself. Then I vomit and collapse.

It happened again yesterday. And so I think it’s time to give some definition to what I do when I’m not doing sketch comedy or stand up, both of which are pretty easy to define. Here goes.

The words that best describe what I do are sleep-inducing. They’re words that make for terrible marketing, and I don’t use them for that reason. But honestly, the way I think of it is “theatrical essay.” What I aspire to is a script and a performance that combine the joke density of standup comedy to the serious inquiry of drama and philosophy. I combine storytelling and stand up and character acting to grapple with and figure out what I think about issues that irk me, and to share a certain discontent and disconnect with an audience while also trying to make them pee their pants.

Really, for all the seriousness and blowhardishness of what I’ve just written, what I want most is laughs (I panic if they’re not coming when I think they should). I just don’t want them too cheaply. I think the best laughs come from tension and bewilderment and relief. Similarly, I think the best moments of self-discovery and learning come from walks into chaos and doubt and risk. There’s a reason why “The Wire” and “Twin Peaks” caused more  genuine, deep, painful bellylaughs than most sitcoms. Because the humor that comes out of the painfully real and the familiar-but-alien is much more satisfying than the setup-punchline-setup-punchline you expect from traditional comedy.

I don’t mean to denigrate any type of comedy by saying this. Making people laugh is hard to do. And people need it. I love slapstick. I laugh at an unexpected crotchkick in a movie. I’ve used both to get laughs and will surely do it again. But I am first and foremost a writer, and when I look back at my own comedy, I can’t help but see the missed opportunities, the clichés, the inconsistencies, and so on. The stuff a writer spends time beating themselves up over, and which the best writers sweat through before their work gets to an audience.

My hope is to get something to the stage that shows the results of that sweat and worry and polish, that seems effortless and natural, that exposes the rough edges of reality rather than the rough edges of my own grappling with it. I want to replicate some of my discomfort in the audience, because that discomfort is both an opportunity for relief and an opportunity for really satisfying laughter.

This is all after-the-fact analysis. My actual writing process is much more clumsy and grasping. I’m heavily reliant on serendipity and caffeine and distraction and deadlines and the Delete key. But in the end, as I’m refining and rehearsing and revising, I’m thinking about stuff like this: Am I telling the audience this because it’s important, or am I telling it because it’s a fact? Is this self-serving? Why did I actually say that? Did I miss the point of my own story? Oh, crap, I need to tell that from the other perspective! I wish I had another example of a time that… oh my god! Yes! Yes! That’s the right story for this! Wait, this show isn’t about what it used to be about… OK. That’s OK. That’s fine. yeah, this is better. Better. Right. Good. Am I fucking idiot?

But to revisit my original point, I need a way to answer the question “What do you do?”. Ideally 10 words or less. The simple answer is “I talk to the audience for an hour or so.”  But what I’d say if I had the balls: “Whatever it takes to make people laugh until they cry.” I’m working on it.