Filed under: Amplified Idiots
I have written a lot of material about things I've hated. The reaction has been hit or miss. Well, if I was being honest, I'd say the reaction is generally more 'miss' than 'hit'.
If the two basic building blocks of comedic set-ups are "You ever notice?" and "Don't you hate it when?", I'd say my success rate in relating to people usually falls more into the getting people to notice stuff category, rather than getting them to agree that they all hate something.
Yet still, even to this day, I'll find myself on a stage somewhere, trying to get a crowd full of perfectly nice strangers to confirm for me that someone, something, or some non-physical representation of an idea, doctrine, or phenomena should be bludgeoned to death with a tire iron and left to rot in the sun. It's not what many people in the crowd would consider 'comedy' to be, and I'm inclined to agree.
But I still do it, and I'll probably do it again before I figure out how to do it more like a comedian, and less like a belligerent jackass.
Hate is a powerful tool. If used effectively, you can use your hate to catch and kill a bug in your apartment, shed those few extra pounds, or convince your countrymen to invade Poland. It is a driving force in our lives, for both good and bad. Well, all right, I'm sure if we were to really analyze it, it's probably always bad. Actions fueled by hate usually end poorly, but to deny that we have that anger and hate in ourselves is downright foolish. The trick is in letting it out in healthy and constructive ways, like taking up kick boxing or becoming Batman.
My outlet for the past few years has been stand up. Allowing myself to let my anger out through that medium has been one of the best ways I've found to put a little salve on those mental wounds. When I do my job right, I can connect to people and say, "You know what? This is stupid." -- and have them all agree with me. It's always a merry old time for all involved when it works out, too.
The problem is, unlike going on stage and not doing so well with a series of silly impressions or a dynamite bit about how weird Crispers are, if you fail to make an audience laugh when you're up there hollering about the injustices of the world and the things that piss you off, it's far worse than regular bombing. When this happens, you are suddenly no longer a comedian. You're just a guy yelling at people.
I have been just a guy yelling at people. I'm not proud of it, but I'm man enough to admit it. I've also been a guy in an audience who was just being yelled at. Neither were very much fun.
Connecting with an audience for me has always been about having them understand where I'm coming from. I'm on my game and in top form if people relate what I'm saying to their own lives, and if we all have a laugh at the absurdity of it all. When I fail to do that, more often than not, is when that connection is not made. Most of the time that happens when I'm pissed off about something and I can't articulate it properly. The danger at this point comes from how I choose to deal with it, and if I decide to take it out on them or on myself later on the long walk home. Usually, the punishment is dolled out a little bit to both of us.
I want to improve as a comic, and while I feel like in order to do that I must also become more honest about my feelings on stage, sometimes little episodes like that have me questioning my approach. Is it the mark of a truly great comedian that they are always able to articulate their rage into something funny and palatable, or that they know when a topic irritates them too much to be able to be made funny? Do I need to learn to hit more directly, or to stop punching everything on sight? I've learned a few things doing comedy the last couple of years, but this conundrum still eludes me.
Lenny Bruce was angry. George Carlin was really angry. Bill Hicks was angry enough to heat a small village. They connected to audiences by speaking about a common rage that we all had inside us, and were able to articulate it in a way that we all understood. Young comics aspire to gravitate beyond benign topics, and into those deep, sticky truths that we think are really on the minds of the people. In the rush to do so, we will likely spend a few sets just screaming about Walmart, Fox News, Justin Bieber, or whatever else we think is going to destroy us as a species. Meanwhile, the audience full of scared and confused people just wants to know when Ron James is going to come out to talk about Canadian Tire and make everything better.
The truth is, though it's difficult for me to realize this a lot of the time, most people think everything is all right for the most part. By and large, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to attend and perform at comedy shows, things are not that bad. It's not very often an audience member shows up to a comedy show expecting to be galvanized into a white hot heat of self-righteous fury. Even if you do articulately state your case, and sometimes even if they do fundamentally agree with you, they still may not like to hear it. It's the subjective nature of all live performance. They may just not be in the mood. You could do your job perfectly, and sometimes the people you do it for just won't care. A novelist will never know how many times their book is thrown into the trash by a jaded reader, but a comic knows the face of every single person that did not want to hear what they had to say. For an angry comic, I think that sting is twice as hard. You could be mad, tell people, get no reaction, and equate that to not only being a failure as a comedian, but also as a loss of your ability to get people to empathize with your actual feelings and emotions. And that blows, whether you're a comedian or not.
Dana Gould once said that comedy is little more than the act of applying reason to any given situation. You absorb the world's idiocy, and report what you saw with the intelligence and perceptiveness to know why it's convoluted, corrupt, or just plain stupid. If you do this well, the response you elicit is laughter. It's pretty simple if you think of it in those terms. The important thing to remember in that algorithm is the WHY factor. You need to have an answer to WHY something is the way it is. Even if the audience does not agree with your answer, they need to know that you've at least thought of something. You are the centre of attention right now. You are the leader. They need to know you have a plan of action. If all you are doing is absorbing, and all you're able to do is report with no fathomable clue WHY anything is the way it is, then all you're doing is screaming about people who don't move out of your way who are walking too slow on the sidewalk. Which I have done. (It did not go well.)
There is a strange phenomena that you can hear in a lot of comedy specials where a comedian will get an applause break for something they said that was never intended to be funny. No laughter, just applause. The next time you listen to a comedy album, try to pick them out. Every one of them has at least one, usually in the set-up. It's the audience showing that they understand the premise, and confirm that the comic is right in bringing up an issue or a topic that they are united in their opposition or support of. It's kind of the flip side of the applause breaks a politician gets, where they get applause for showing their support for gay marriage, while a comedian will get cheers for simply bringing up how dumb the opposition to gay marriage is.
I've realized, far too often, that this is the reaction I'm looking for when I write about the things that anger me. It's those rare times as a stand up that I actively don't want to be funny, but that I just want people to agree with me. It's selfish, it's not funny, and it's not fair to an audience. But it's honest.
I don't want them to laugh. I don't want to exercise my creative muscles in rationalizing it or commenting on it. I don't even really care if they like me in those moments. I just want a large group of people, tonight, right now, to confirm for me that the world is indeed a terrible place sometimes. I wish there was a way I could get them to relax, and to let them know that jokes about it are indeed on the way. Right now, though, I just need them to agree with me that it's a depressing, demoralizing, confusing, spinning orb of death that spews nothing but random acts of irrational oppression and unjustified rewards. Most importantly, I want them to understand that as a comedian, it is sometimes a huge pain in the ass to effectively report that fact to people in a funny way.
I've tried to explain that, but most audiences hate meta stuff, too.
Oh, well. I'll work on it.
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), an up-and-coming comedy empire that features live sketch, improv, video programming, stand-up, 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.