Recently, I've considered getting myself back into the dating game. I'm a young guy, decent odor, relatively disease-free. It's not unrealistic to think I'd enjoy myself if I gave dating some serious effort. I quickly shot the idea down though, when I stepped back to analyze what I saw as The Big Picture; "Well, if I did have a girlfriend, it's not likely that would last for long. Most nights I'm already doing stand up, and the rest of the time is usually devoted to writing or working on other comedy-related stuff. I'd probably neglect a girlfriend, now that I think about it. Besides, I can't afford to sacrifice my comedy for the sake of..."
...and it was at this point that I threw my hands into my face and cursed every God I could think of, realizing I had just placed my desire to do comedy over my desire to not be miserable. "I can't have a girlfriend, what about my seven minute bit on how I can never get a girlfriend?!"
Self-destruction and the world of comedy have gone hand in hand since time immemorial. Well, to be fair, I suppose I'm not the best authority on the subject. After all, I'm the guy who makes a habit out of listening to one song on repeat for twenty-four hours in the name of... comedy? I guess? Whatever. I'm probably biased in my assessment of the craft. I can't blame comedy for making me self-destructive, since it might be just as likely that comedy appeals to those of us predisposed with self-destructive tendencies. However, it is undeniable that there is something about comedy, like anything that someone truly obsesses over, that can drive otherwise rational people to act against their own best interests, be they personal, financial, physical, and more often than not, mental.
In a profession driven primarily by childlike cries for attention, it becomes all too common to see people try to get that attention for negative reasons. It is much easier to be a success in the entertainment industry as a human catastrophe than as a well-rounded person with clever thoughts and ideas (if this information comes as a surprise to you, congratulations on the purchase of your first computer). It may not manifest itself as an aggressively conscious effort at first, but you are likely to see a very passive attitude of indulgence and neglect glossed over, where in a different occupation it would otherwise be addressed (The Funny Fat Guy, The Lovable Drunk, The Junky Who Makes Silly Faces, etc.). More people can relate to failure and calamity than wit and competence, so for a comedian to abandon themselves and embrace their ignorance is actually a very savvy move, at least from a career standpoint. What's worse is that these transgressions are almost always encouraged by bookers, managers, agents, club owners, and even other comics, because they all know how hard it is to have an identity and a persona that people can identify with.
Building a persona is something that all comedians are gunning for, from the highest of highbrow to the lowest of lowbrow. For those of you not hip to the lingo, "building a persona" essentially means summarizing who you are and what you do into the simplest description possible, or as comedian and podcaster Marc Maron refers to it, "building a clown that works". The moment people look at you, they should be able to know exactly what you are about. Your message should be short enough to fit on a bumper sticker, and your entire act should be surmisable in one paragraph to put on the back of your DVD. The problem with that is the vast majority of comedians out there are also human beings (TRUE!), and human beings are usually three-dimensional, emotionally-complicated creatures with incredibly varied and unique characteristics and personality traits. You can see where some personal conflict might be found in there.
Being the clown you built all day can plague you, especially if it is vastly different from who you really are. This is why you keep hearing all those terrible-sounding new age-y advice chunklets about "your voice". Ask any comic for advice on stand up, and chances are good they will give you some dusty old anecdote about how you have to "find", "honor", or "stay true" to your voice. These sound bites are so common they are almost laughably quaint after the first hundred or so times that you hear them. The imagery of poorly photoshoped motivational posters spring to mind. Something taped to the door of a guidance counselor's office with a guy sliding down a rainbow reading a book, and in the pantheon of empty statements along with "hang in there, baby" and "keep on truckin'" in terms of potency and reverence. The thing is, as corny and played out as those statements are, they are still the best advice you will ever get, though not for the reasons you may think. The biggest misconception about them is that they are career advice, when really they have nothing to do with that at all. You should not stay true to your voice because it's some kind of tactic you can use to be more likable as a comedian, or if you think you're so damn special that being yourself is enough to make you a success. As someone who does his best to stay true to his charmingly ill-informed and perpetually flawed voice, trust me, it's not and it won't.
The reason you should be true to your voice is because you will quite literally want to kill yourself if you don't. Worse than being an unsuccessful comic in the eyes of the industry is getting that success at the expense of your identity and sense of self. Think Citizen Kane, but with dick jokes.
Don't believe me? Just talk to some working comedians, and you will quickly differentiate between the ones who stuck to this advice and the ones that didn't. Meeting a comic with reverence for his or her craft and a satisfied mind about themselves and their work is a really enlightening experience. I've met my share, and the underlying thread to their happiness always seems to be the refusal to abandon themselves on stage in favor of some character or attitude that does not represent who they are. They also have lives outside of comedy, if you can believe that. You know, families, friends, kids, houses, pets, hobbies. That kind of crap.
Conversely, go chat with some road dog comic who has been trudging through the same act for the past decade or two. Listen to him bitch at the bar for hours about the business, what he thinks he's entitled to, his contempt for the audience, what he's had to sacrifice, the people who have screwed him over in the industry, and so on. Buckets of sunshine, they are. The biggest thing you notice about these comics is that beyond the bitterness, there is really not much else to their lives. Their warped devotion to what they think comedy is is the only reality they know anymore. You know why the whole "what's the deal with airline food?" line is the go-to for an impression of a hack comic? It's because if you're not going anywhere or doing anything beyond doing your act and traveling to do your act, the only worlds you know and can comment on are airports, comedy clubs, and hotel rooms. If you let comedy take over your life, you will quickly find yourself out of touch, out of inspiration, and out of energy for the craft you fought so hard to get into in the first place. It is vital for you to be a three dimensional human being, because then and only then are you qualified to observe and poke fun at other things. Even if who you are is a crotchety, sour jackass, it's better to honor that and maintain your dignity than it is to bottle it up in favour of a demeanor that is deceitful to yourself and your audiance.
In short, you can't lie up there, to yourself or anyone else.
Does comedy make you self-destructive, or are self-destructive people drawn to do comedy? Probably a little of both. Either way, if you want to get involved in it, do your best to have a healthy life outside of it. If you don't, what the hell do you plan on talking about? You need a life to be a good comedian, even if you only get to live that life some of the time. Devote at least one night a week to something that has nothing to do with you being the center of attention. Learn a skill. Take a trip. Meet new people. Leave your comfort zone. Plus, even if those pursuits don't work out and you end up making a complete ass of yourself, the failures that result can always be mined for material in the future! It's win-win! (Or lose-win, depending on your perspective.)
So move aside, seven minute bit about how I never get any! I've got to make room for my new hour of suicidal heartbreak jokes about the bitch who done me wrong!
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, and producer from Oakville, Ontario, now living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He runs and curates The Placeholder Show (www.theplaceholdershow.com), a weekly comedy variety show that features live sketch, improv, video programming, and game shows. He is in this way too deep to go back now.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.