I’m on a plane to Austin to perform at Cap City Comedy Club, a club generally held to be one of the best in the country. It’s my first time headlining there. The last time I was at Cap City it was 2009 and my then-girlfriend and I were in Austin to visit college friends.
I had just opened for Tig Notaro during her run in my hometown of Chicago, and she happened to headlining at Cap City the weekend I was in Austin. Since it was 2009, I used the most futuristic technology available to me and sent Tig a MySpace message asking if she’d consider allowing me to do a five-minute guest spot during one of her shows. She gave me spots on two.
I brought my girlfriend and my college pals to both shows to watch me do five-minute sets. Both times I struggled to finish five minutes strong at the several-hundred seat club—it was a much larger audience than I was used to—and both times we stayed to watch Tig’s set.
In my memory, Tig killed so completely that I couldn’t even laugh. My girlfriend and friends laughed their heads off—the whole audience did—but I could only stare. This was years before Louis CK would produce Tig’s album Live, years before she appeared regularly on This American Life and Conan. After years spent doing improv, I transitioned into stand-up just three years before watching her that weekend. I hadn’t yet seen many comics perform a full hour.
As I watched Tig, the question “How is she doing this?” replayed again and again in my mind. It was followed by, “And how do I do this?”
The way her jokes were crafted, her command over the stage, and her ability to connect so completely with the audience—I couldn’t wrap my mind around any of it. We were playing the same game, but she was at boss level and I was blowing into a Nintendo cartridge to see if I could get the game to work.
That’s the beautiful thing about stand-up: You get to see what you are working toward. You get to see who you are working toward too. You watch comics you love from afar, then you get to open for them and then you get to work alongside them. It never stops being cool to unlock an achievement you watched a comic ahead of you handle with ease—to grow into your career.
Of course, you don’t get to see the path you’ll take to get there.
It’s 2015 and I’ve beat enough levels to take the headliner spot. An hour of stage time is easy to fill; my only frustration is in not writing new material fast enough to sub out all the jokes I’m tired of telling at once. Sometimes newer comics will ask me for advice and the number one question I hear is “How do I do this?”
It’s a question I not only remember asking silently to myself at show’s like Tig’s but also sometimes directly, to a comic I respected and to whom I felt close enough to be a bit vulnerable. Because rest assured—it’s a risky question to ask. Stand-up rewards invulnerability, and there’s nothing more vulnerable than a stand-up admitting she doesn’t know how to be a stand-up. If you are a newer comic and you’ve asked me this question, I take it as a huge compliment. I guess you trust me. And I’ve got good news for you—“How do I do this?” is an easy question to answer.
To do stand-up, you just begin. You get to an open mic, you tell a joke, you write a new joke and repeat. You start your own show, invest time getting to know your fellow comics, and you try to get a good tape of you telling jokes to send to bookers. You meet people involved in the comedy scene—producers, bookers, comics. You meet more people. Repeat.
Unfortunately, I’ve got some bad news, too. “How do I do this?” isn’t really what you meant to ask. I know this because it’s not what I meant, either. If you do stand-up, you already know how to do “this.” You’re already writing jokes, going to open mics, doing booked shows.
When I watched Tig those years ago I wasn’t trying to figure out how to do “this.” I’d gotten booked at those shows in Chicago, asked for guest spots, and done my five-minute sets. I was playing the game. What I wanted wasn’t help figuring out how to do stand-up; I wanted to level up, become viable, Pinocchio myself into a real comic. I wanted to know how to do what I was watching her do. I wanted to know how to do “that.”
“That” is the impetus that drives us. It’s the reason any of us started doing stand-up. “That” is what we saw on television growing up, or what we experienced watching our favorite comic live for the first time. “That” is what we saw when the kid we started doing open mics with writes a joke better than what we’ve though possible, and “that” is what we heard when someone got a manager or agent or books a big festival or a television spot. “That” is the microphone-shaped carrot just out of reach.
The thing is: You never reach it. You never do “that.” You might get to headline at clubs where you used to open and you might develop hours of material to replace that first five minutes you wrote, but you never get to catch up with the comics who started before you and you never get to the point where you understand what moves you’ll have to make the get to the next level. An hour onstage becomes easy incrementally; one five-minute set at a time, and the same is true for the rest of the goals you’ll work through.
Writing this column has helped me to polish my voice and from it I got a book deal. I had no idea how to write a book. I read Amy Poehler’s book and Tina Fey’s book and Sarah Silverman’s book, but none of that reading taught me how to write one. I did the reading but I’m taking the writing word at a time.
My live stand-up dates helped me to hone my viewpoint. That viewpoint has gotten me TV spots and those TV spots are helping me develop a television show. I had no idea how to create a television show, but I put in the reps to hone the viewpoint the television show will be based on. In both cases—with the book and with the TV show—I just kept doing what I was doing. I just kept doing “this.”
And the crazy thing is, while you’re working on “this,” it eventually becomes yesterday’s “that.”