Two weeks after the 2009 NZ International Comedy Festival I debriefed the experience - if not for whoever might be reading, at least for my own clarity and peace of mind. I was at the end of a week's holiday where I managed to stay clear enough of the computer to read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (which was well worth it, by the way), so I was feeling well-rested and ready to get back into work. I'd also had enough time to come to the realisation that, after nearly 15 years of struggling to find my place in the comedy industry, I should stop.
At the end of the previous year, when I set the goal of doing a show in the festival, I set myself two objectives:
- To experiment with combining my comedian and social entrepreneur roles
- To decide whether or not I should continue to pursue a career in comedy
The outcome of my first objective was mildly successful but posed the problem of expectations – a traditional comedy audience expects to laugh, not consider complex meta-theories of functional and experiential diversity, however much I warmed them up to it.
A serious comedian
Sure, the theories are interesting and I can make them light and mildly funny, but that's not comedy. In my audience's eyes, I became a comedian talking about serious ideas and that's like going to see a band who suddenly start to read half their lyrics as poetry. When poets sing it's like a value-add and they score brownie points with their audience, but a music audience deprived of music has every right to feel slightly ripped off and consider whether a refund is in order, whether or not they enjoy poetry.
I think my Auckland audiences were slightly bewildered and disappointed, and rightly so. Among a few positive responses I had enough feedback to realise that the format didn't work, and I dropped the detailed social entrepreneur routine for Wellington.
Even so, as with Auckland, Wellington audiences were small to the point that I had to cancel one show due to having no bookings. While I'm quite comfortable working with a group of twelve people, given my background in group work and running training workshops, I couldn't blame my audience for furtively glancing around, wondering if they were in the right place and what everyone else who wasn't there knew that they didn't. Don't get me wrong, I'm being self-deprecating for comic effect rather than as a result of low self-esteem, but I'm not egotistical enough to not empathise with my audience.
Ranging from great to shaky
And speaking of ego, I finally realised that you do need rather a big one (as well as a large ego) to be a comedian, male or female. As I watched other comedians - mainly men - perform at late-night shows and the like, it finally sunk home: I just don't have the kind of brash, out-there personality that "deliver-every-time" comics have. My performances ranged from great to shaky over nine shows, depending on the kind of day I had had and the kind of day my audience had had. Comedy is a two-way street, to be sure, but it is up to a comedian to front up every time. I simply didn't have what it takes. Nor did I want it anymore, to be honest.
I also remembered why I hadn't done a solo show for so many years: it's friggin' hard work. Conceiving, writing, directing, producing, marketing and then performing a solo one-hour show nine times over a three-week period feels like torture at times. When you end up performing it to, at most, 200 people, well, however constructively you try and think about it, it just doesn't add up. One glaring reality blinded me with its obviousness: the comedy market is not - and probably never was to begin with - mine.
Comedy not about a great sense of humour
All this is not to say that I don't think I have a great sense of humour and can be funny - this is not some shrouded cry for affirmation. But comedy is not about having a great sense of humour (in fact a lot of comedians I know don't, in my opinion). As Wayne Brady so rightly alluded to in the title of his show, comedy is about talking enough shit to get a decent laugh per minute ratio so as to appease your audience's expectations.
I have no problem with people who do, but I don't wanna talk shit to make people laugh anymore.
So, back to my second objective - to decide whether or not I should continue to pursue a career in comedy. My decision was no. My days as a professional comedian were over. I no longer aspired to be a comedian. If my being a comedian was being in a relationship with one of my roles, then I was no longer in love. I broke up with and ended a long-term relationship with my comedic self.
I used to be a comedian.
When the social entrepreneur showed up again
To draw out the analogy just a little more, for several years I wanted to be with the other part of me, the social entrepreneur I'd known for 20 years - longer than the comedian. But the comedian swept me off my feet with its glamorous, youthful and risky allure. When the social entrepreneur showed up again in 2005, it was happy to take second place to the comedian, whom everyone knew and with whom I obviously still had unfinished business. The final six months was a last-ditch attempt to make it work with the comedian but, when I woke up in a grungy Wellington hotel room with a hangover, I could only ask myself what I was doing, at 41, living this lifestyle. It was then that I told the comedian it was over.
So, finally, I decided to give it a go with my social entrepreneur. It was him I began to introduce proudly at dinner parties and on planes. It was projects, workshops, social networks and speaking engagements we worked on together, not late night gigs at half-filled bars. We would grow old together and maybe even seem a little boring to the outside world, but secretly we'd know we were living with quiet excitement our shared passion: to leave the world a little different. Better? Perhaps but not necessarily – just changed.
But I've never forgotten the many fun years I spent with the comedian. In fact, the social entrepreneur and I had him round for dinner and he worked with us at times. But he was content to sit in the back row and watch, chuckling softly every now and then.