Insider outsider/Outsider insider

by david

For over a decade, I’ve been a part of Boston’s comedy world. This comes as a surprise to many people in Boston’s comedy world. I’m absolutely not a known face or name. I’m an outsider insider. There are (at least*) five reasons for this.

1) I am not a stand up comic. While I have done stand up comedy and love it, I have not been a regular enough or committed enough comic to call myself a stand up. I have too much respect for the people who do it nightly and do it well to claim that title. When it comes to stand up, I’m an aspirational but lazy dabbler. I capital-L Love stand up. I think the best stand up is better than the best sketch comedy or the best improv by miles. I was raised on it, I love it, I do it, and will do it again, but it would be foolish to call myself a stand up comic.

2) I am not an improviser. I have been a performer, crewmember, teacher, director, and even an administrator at ImprovBoston at times over the past decade, but never as an improviser. I have never taken more than two levels of improv training, and am trepidatious and second-guessing when attempting to improvise in a group setting. I believe that taking more classes would break me of much of this, and that I could become a good, though not great improviser. There’s a criticism made of some improvisers, that they “can’t get out of their head.” I am so deep in my head that the drilling crew from Armageddon couldn’t find me in there. So I am not known or seen as an improviser.

3) I did a lot of sketch comedy, but never committed to it fully. What that means is that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on it, gotten fairly good at it, but never pushed myself to make something more than what came easily or with irregular bursts of enormous effort. Additionally, it’s an insular activity in Boston: there are few regular outlets for sketch comedy, no regular audience, and — relative to stand up and improv — not enough committed performers to guarantee a high level of quality. I know a few people who are working mightily to change that at IB, and I wish them the best. Boston could be a great town for sketch comedy. But hours put into sketch comedy do not currently make you a fixture in the Boston comedy scene, and even if they did, I’d be an advanced hobbyist, not a pro.

4) The type of comedy I love most, the type I’ve really committed myself to — these long, essay-like blends of storytelling, standup, and gutter rumination — have no venue, no ready-made audience, and no practitioners. I’ve been BLESSED that IB has let me do this thing for so long, lucky to have a director who gets what I’m going for, and thrilled to develop something of an audience that comes back every other year when I get a new show together. With no venues, no wider audience, and no community of practitioners, I’m kind of a novelty act: unfit for 99% of productions.

5) (and finally, the point of this post…) I am intimidated by comedians. I rarely hang out after shows. As a dabbler, an alien, a member of a rare tribe, and someone who works mostly alone, I don’t have a deep rapport with any of the core elements of the comedy scene. While I am on good terms with most people, and I don’t think I’m disliked anywhere, I haven’t really made the deep connections that come with being in a cast, or being on a lineup 100 times with the same comics. With this distance comes a bit of standoffishness on my part.  I feel like an intruder, and since I have neither the quick wit nor the competitive fury to keep up with the banter of those comfortable with each other, I tend to be awkward.

To quote our President, let me be clear: nobody has excluded me. This is not a “woe is me” post. My distance from the comedy world is a tradeoff, the result of decisions I made and don’t regret. I know I’ve been invited in more fully, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve not engaged. I am a resident alien in the Boston comedy scene because I failed to file the appropriate papers, not because I was harassed by the officials.

The fact is, I fell into doing all of this by accident. I grew up watching, listening to, and loving stand up comedy. In middle school, I found The Kids in the Hall and SNL and eventually much more. But getting into comedy wasn’t a goal of mine. I started doing comedy because of a chance event and a friend’s recommendation. For the first few years, it was so unstructured and luck-based and half-assed that I never even contemplated the idea that it might be something I’d be doing for years to come. I didn’t think of the community I’d stepped into as my community, but as a place I’d snuck into. As the guy who snuck in, I wasn’t seeing the people around me as potential friends, but as familiar quasi-celebrities. I didn’t get comfortable or learn how to get comfortable.

Now, years later, I know some of the improvisers and sketch folks quite well, and consider some of them my closest friends. But weirdly, I still get tense and awkward with them in actual comedy situations.  And the stand ups? Well, I’ve still got a lot of work to do with the stand ups (the fact that I’m too neurotic to be comfortable with stand ups is like an alarm bell ringing, isn’t it?). I’m still sort of a cousin visiting from out of town. I don’t do what they do, and I wouldn’t be right for the shows they book.  If I’m known at all, I’m known as a guy who comes around occasionally, and maybe had a good joke about SimCity.

So here I am, doing the best comedy I’ve ever done, about to launch a show more ambitious than any I’ve done before, and I’m talking like it’s junior high and I have to pick a lunch table.

And then I laugh, because I know most of the comics in Boston just well enough to know that they’re all probably equally uncomfortable all the time.

* I only numbered to 5, but here’s the critical #6: It could be that I’m just not very good. This is the honest, absolutely necessary thing to keep in mind. I could just not be very good. I don’t believe this. I don’t believe it for a second. But I’d be as much a fool to not consider that as to not consider anything else. I haven’t put in the work to be great. That’s honest. However, I’ve put in enough work to know good from bad, to know when I stink (and oh boy do I sometimes stink), and know when I’m doing real work, real work that’s making people really laugh. But #6 is there: I might just not be very good. I only believe that sentence with the word “might.” I believe I’m good at this. But I have to be willing to entertain the possibility that I’m wrong.