I was on Conan for the first time a few weeks ago telling four and a half minutes of jokes I have told many times before. Though obtuse Internet commenters would comment you otherwise, stand-up is built in repetition—in-jokes told and improved upon nightly in front of as many audiences as possible. If you’ve thought, “I’ve heard this joke before and now it’s on national TV!” you’re absolutely right. All jokes start as crap. Some stay crappy. Some can be P90Xed into a set ready for TV.
There’s a downside to all this. Repetition can kill material. There’s a sweet spot for each joke—a moment when the joke perfectly balances feeling against delivery. After this passes, emotional connection to the material fades. The feeling behind the joke is replaced by the feeling of performing it.
I was pretty happy with the Conan set—I’ve never watched my TV stuff as it aired, but I saw the clip the next day and thought I looked calm, cool, collected. I also heard I looked like a tiny half-person standing next to Conan, but our handshake/hug isn’t on the Internet version of the show, so I’ll never know. Maybe he looks very small standing next to me.
I do know that while onstage that afternoon (Yes, the show is taped in the afternoon! The moon behind Conan is a lie!) I was focused on speaking slowly so my words would sound clear at home and would connect with a studio audience that was still mulling over Conan’s chat with Kesha. And I was focused on keeping to my set time—you get four minutes, 40 seconds—and on wanting to make my fiancée proud as she watched from offstage.
This is why the repetition is necessary. Being on TV means paying attention to a hundred different details—in this case, catching the light correctly while staring down massive Conan bobbleheads. Your attention is being pulled in so many directions that to really be present in a room, you have to get through the set on muscle memory. You remember the words, perform the feelings and adapt to the current conditions of the show. Only jokes that have been honed into oblivion could work post-Kesha to a crowd of excited tourists in a soundstage that could double as an airplane hanger.
I closed the set with one of my oldest jokes. I probably wrote the setup for that joke six years ago. I told it A LOT for A LONG TIME. Then I put it away. About a year ago I changed the ending completely and began telling it again. And Jesus does that joke work in every room with every audience every time I tell it. It works so well, it actually pisses me off. Watching that joke work is like watching a perfectly svelte teenage girl rock a Speedo while housing five slices of pizza. “How are you pulling this off?!” I want to yell. “Do you even realize what the rest of us are up against?!”
The beginning of the set was rather new—it’s based on an experience I had opening for Anthony Jeselnik in Boston last September. I toured with Anthony a bunch last year, opening for him in over 30 cities. All were 1,000-plus seat theater shows, so the audiences were a bit larger than what I was used to. I’d do a half hour; he’d do an hour. Maybe we’d have a second show that night, or maybe we’d grab some food and chat until late and wake up in time to fly on to the next city.
We didn’t know one another well before setting out—just in passing, from shows in L.A.—and Boston was near the beginning of the tour. Perhaps you know Anthony’s comedy—controlled, dry, caustic, and so fucking smart—and imagine him to be a certain way offstage. He is, in fact, a truly kind man and really mentored me during the tour and after.
An example: Before I went out to open the first time he told me, “You know: You can’t fail. They’re here to see me and they’ll be focused on that. If you are great up top, everyone wins. If it’s tough, it won’t affect my time out there. You’re here because I think you’re great and that you’ll learn from the experience.” That’s a really lovely thing to say to an opener—that I could fail or succeed and Anthony would back me up.
We played Boston the same day as a Red Sox day game. At the early show it seemed a few people had been baseball-drinking. The late show was chock-full of jerseys. We were playing this beautiful venue, and from backstage I could see hammered dudes slumping over their chairs against the backdrop of several full balconies. I walked out. There was a table directly in front of the stage that was directly lit by the stage lighting. The intro music and applause quieted down and I reached for the mic. Before I said a word, one of the guys at the front table shouted out, “You look like a woman who doesn’t sleep with men.” The audience thought this was very funny.
I spent my opening set yelling him down—not because I don’t look like a lesbian (I am a lesbian. I look like a lesbian. No problem with either thing!), but because I was embarrassed that he had spoken first and that he got laughs before I could. I was mad that he turned the audience on me based on my appearance and that they would so easily get behind such a stupid and obvious non-insult. But with each jab I took at the guy, he shot back. I destroyed everything he said and the audience took my side, but I didn’t get to tell jokes and I didn’t control the room. I was second in command to some idiot in a ball cap.
After my 30-minute diatribe, I introduced Anthony. He walked out after me and calmly, evenly sought out the guy who’d yelled at me. Then, Anthony laughed at him. It was pretty beautiful to see. The same guy who’d puffed up as we’d exchanged heated words was completely deflated by Anthony’s laughter. Later that night, Anthony gave me a tip—a good one—“Laugh at them. Don’t yell at them. If you yell, they’ve rattled you. Remain calm and you’ve won.”
Several months after it happened, that story became a joke. I didn’t laugh at that Boston guy in the moment, but I did tell that joke on television and we all laughed at that guy together. Kesha laughed at that guy—something I think he’d be especially upset about. The feeling of that Boston show has been fully dulled by repetition; the story no longer hurts or frustrates me. It’s just a joke I tell. If it’s a joke you have heard before, it’s because I’ve been working it out. Working out the wording. Working out the feeling. Working it all out.