The solo show

by david

Jacey asked, “what’s it like performing a full length solo show?”

Hmm. I’ll write around it a bit, and see if I end up answering the question. But first, a superficial answer: it’s awesome. I do these shows I do because they’re the project I can take on that has the best proven track record of making me happy, the best proven track record of success, and the best proven track record of getting positive response from people with opinions I value. People like to compare pleasures to food and to sex and to great art or a huge laugh, but I think these shows provide a type of pleasure that’s comparable to none of those, that’s maybe more comparable to skydiving, or getting a well-earned and long-awaited promotion while skydiving, or getting a well-earned and long-awaited promotion from the President while skydiving.

A couple posts ago, I wrote about procrastination. One of the major incentives to procrastinate is that as long as you’re not working on the major project, you’re not failing at the major project. I mean, you’re failing, but you’re failing in a way that provides an excuse and a cushion: “I just didn’t get to it. It would have been awesome if I’d made the commitment.” The thing about working on these solo shows is that I want to do the work, even though I know that most of the process will be an excruciating failure, a slog through bad ideas, terrible drafts, wooden delivery, and immense self-doubt. For some reason, I’m determined to get this right. For some reason, I can buck procrastination for this. I can not compromise for this. I mean, I still procrastinate, but not like with say, the novel. I’m not going to lay down on a couch here and explore my childhood, but there’s something about the opportunity to get on a stage and talk to people in a way that is both honest and funny…well… hold on there.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT. There are people who instinctively fear attending one-person-shows. I am one of those people. Bad solo shows are exactly as Fred Armisen portrays them here:

and in this SNL sketch about another terrible one-man show. I love these scenes and they make me cringe.

Look, I’ve seen these shows. Usually the promotional material is radioactive, and you know to stay away, but sometimes you end up in that theater, and ever after, you want to strangle people who have the nerve to put on a solo show. I honestly think I say “solo show” because “one-man show” and “one-person show” are tainted by decades of abuse by people with no self-awareness, who believe every thought they have is original and must be shared. These shows are excruciating and unforgivable and if I performed one I’m not sure how I’d ever recover enough dignity to stop hiding under my bed.

If you have the nerve to ask people to sit in an audience and listen to you, alone, for any length of time beyond a 10 minute standup set, you have to understand two things:

1) Your audience wants some combination of good entertainment and good art.

2) Your audience is not attending your therapy session.

I question my scripts and ideas as if they were the work of somebody I loathe. I beat the script up. I ask every question I can imagine being asked. I write far more than I need, and I cut until I’m cutting out things I love. I obsess over jokes and tags and callbacks that should work but aren’t working and I wake up at odd hours to write down new versions of them as I realize why they were never working. I work with a director who is unceasingly honest and relentlessly critical. I push the script until it is like an essay, but with the joke density of stand up. I rewrite and I rework delivery until I’m in the green room. Between performances, I rewrite some more. Even after good shows, I rework it.

I’m never certain it’s going to be a success, but I know for certain it isn’t going to be THAT type of failure.

Most of the improvisors I know have heard me say that I don’t do improv because I’m terrified of my mistakes making somebody else look bad. That is 100% true. I plant myself like a tree around talented improvisors because I KNOW they’ll be OK if I don’t step in, but I know they might look terrible if I step in and screw it all up. That’s a terrible mindset for improv, but it’s where I am when I’m there.

It didn’t occur to me before, but there’s an inverse or converse or counterpoint or some such thing to that. Maybe I prefer solo shows not just because it frees me from that situation, but because it also frees me from having others make me look bad. If I’m going to fail, I can own it entirely, and if I succeed I can own it entirely. It’s something I can do where I can have that level of control, a high level of risk, an immediate reward, and the ability to act on my own discretion, tweaking and changing on the fly without worrying about anybody else’s expectations. I don’t have to trust anybody.

There is a serious high when it goes well. I don’t sleep for many, many hours after a good show. And it lingers in a way that the low of a bad show doesn’t. A bad show is instructive forever, if you’ll study it and learn its lessons (I don’t think people who perform the Fred Armisen-hated shows are capable of that study. If you are honest and it was funny but flawed, you’ll eventually be able to see the good in it, and build from there, while building yourself processes to avoid that type of failure again.). I mean, I still kick myself for certain bad shows, but it’s nothing like the positive kick I still get from a handful of great shows a decade ago. I’m not sure what it takes to create a neural connection in the brain that triggers that sort of lasting pleasure, but I suspect that people who love what they do, whatever it is, have similar moments in their past, moments where something in their brain happened a little differently, and a little curvature was created in their neural pathways, a little valley that thoughts bend towards, like a heavy object in space pulling other objects towards it, and forever after when they’re doing that work again, or doing something parallel, or just thinking of something tangentially related to it, they fall into that curvature, and for just a moment they get a hint of that moment again. I don’t think it’s possible for a healthy brain to recall the actual sensation of past physical pain, and we’re lucky for it. But we’re immensely lucky that our brains are configured to goose us with a little bit of whatever hit us the right way the first time around. I can’t speak for others, but now that I’m onto that reality, I don’t know how to stop chasing more of those little neural bonuses. How much better would life be if your brain was densely pocked with little clusters of happy-making memories. For me, for whatever reason, I can make them by going through the slog and the mire and the seriously hard work of making these shows the way they turn out.

I’m not saying they couldn’t be better. They could certainly be better. That’s part of the challenge. I’m proud of my last show, There Is No Good News. I also know that it could have been better. I see flaws in it and errors in the process leading to it. I could do it better if it were available to me as new material.  But for what I was capable of at the time, I have no regrets. It was a good show. Dumber Faster will be better.

So, Jacey asked “what’s it like performing a full length solo show? I don’t know if I’ve answered that. So here’s one more try:

Until I get the first big laugh, it’s terrifying. After the first big laugh, it remains a little bit terrifying until I’ve got that next one. And then I settle down and find the rhythm that’s going to work that night, and it stops being terrifying until the almost inevitable moment when a laugh doesn’t come where I expect it, and then, well, previous two sentences. The seconds between laughs are minutes and the seconds during laughs are both eternal and immeasurably quick. I’m not entirely after laughs: there are other reactions I’m going for. But the laughs are critical (There’s a British comic named Stewart Lee , who talks frequently about building a reservoir of good will with the audience, which he can then strategically drain when he needs to, or intentionally digging a hole with the audience that he has to climb out of by winning them back over. I frequently do the first. I don’t yet have the talent or the nerve to intentionally do the second.). The laughs are like the heart rate monitor on the patient in the critical care ward. If they don’t come when they’re supposed to, somebody’s in danger of dying.

In my best moments on stage, it’s going well, and my brain is completely in the moment. I’m just talking with the audience, and my brain is in my ears, eyes, and mouth. Those are some great moments. I do my best to stay in the moment, to keep my brain roughly in my face. That in itself is a major accomplishment for me, and something that makes the whole thing worthwhile. We (well, I) spend almost no time focused on the moment. It’s crazy to go to such lengths to create the opportunity, but hey, whatever works.

But mostly, like 99% of people who get onstage, I like attention, and this seems a way that is socially acceptable, makes use of whatever minimal strengths I have, and gives me something approximating a social life. All of the previous paragraphs are true, but if I had deleted them, the previous sentence could have stood in as an honest answer.

That do it for you, Jacey?