A little over a week ago, I did a gig at The La Quinta Country Club. La Quinta is an affluent resort town just outside of Palm Springs. And I was to be the comedy entertainment at a 13 year old’s birthday party. Not for the 13 year olds in attendance – although I do have a joke about how lame 8th grade is that’s been totally killing since 9th grade – but for the 13 year olds’ family and family friends in the next room. I have to say, doing stand up for the kids looked more promising when I first arrived.
Let’s just say this was not my demographic. It was a lot of parents and grandparents. I would have thought a comic who talks about being a mom would be best for the gig, but hey, I’m not one to turn down some dough in exchange for some dick jokes. Which brings me to dick jokes. Not that I really have any. Comics sometimes like to refer to doing stand up as “telling dick jokes” in an attempt to belittle what we do. After all, we’re just hired clowns telling dirty jokes, right?
Looking at the crowd, I worried. These were white, upscale, conservative folks, many over the age of 60. Again, not my demographic. How would I connect to them?
My job as a comic is to connect to people. Making them laugh is good, too. But first and foremost, I believe that good stand up is all about connection. Bringing the room together. Helping everyone there feel a connection not just to me but to each other. And those connection moments of “aha!” where we realize we’re not alone in being human, sound like laughter.
The stage was set apart from the audience and the first two rows of tables were empty. About 50 or 60 audience members sat at the back of the room sipping wine and I stood on a little stage waaaay across the other side of the room. None of this is conducive to connection, let alone comedy.
I started out testing the waters…the jokes that usually go over well were met with stares and polite chuckles. There was so much staring. Ugh. “TV has ruined peoples’ enjoyment of live events!” I thought. Or maybe I sucked. It’s all possible. I looked at my watch: 2 minutes down, 43 minutes to go.
And I experienced that moment of: “Oh just give up” mixed with “I wish this was different/better/at least not as awful as it is”.
But by having a meditation practice, I've learned to meet the moment, work with what is and remain curious and determined. Wishing things were different, feeling bad for myself and resisting what is compounds suffering. Meet the moment. So I decided to meet them.
|From now on, I insist on doing comedy flanked by desert landscape paintings.|
And by minute 3 I hopped off the stage, walked past the rows of empty tables up to the full tables and began talking to them. Suddenly they realized they were not at home watching T.V. and sat up straighter, their eyes glinting, perhaps with fear and the chilling thought: “I hope this comic doesn’t talk to me.” But I did. And I learned so much! Paul and Dina have been married a long time and Paul knows her cup size but Dina’s long forgotten it. Shelly is in her 50s and single and has made a new year’s resolution to meet a man who will remember her cup size. And Jenny is a saucy 70 + woman with five kids and five grand-kids she adores, all of whom have watched her cup size grow over the years.
By minute 10, there was a sort of cohesiveness to the room; everyone had been seen, acknowledged. They loosened. I loosened. I had thought I needed to keep it clean, given the crowd, but I dropped an F-bomb early on to test the waters. OK, good. Now let’s talk about sex. Aha. Yep: everyone does it, has done it or wants to do more of it. Like Shelly, whose new year's resolution involves doing a lot of it. We’re all joined by relationships - to our spouses, significant others, our families, to each other. Connection.
Minute 25 and there were still some people holding back and I respected that. I didn’t get in their face. I didn’t ask them questions. But I acknowledged them, included them. Minute 30 and guards were dropped. Laughter was coming easily and in my closing 10 minutes I managed to slip in my one, actual dick joke. I witnessed several people laughing so hard, they were choking on their pinot noir. There was no more holding back from them. They were with me. I was with them. We were all connected. They applauded heartily and loudly as I left the stage and I heard a few “woot woot”s coming from the AARP members in the corner.
Simply put, this was a gig that required “crowd work”. Call it what you will, but the job got done: connection, laughter. Laughter, connection. It was nice. But what happened next was wonderful.
A man came up to me and excitedly asked for the microphone. I handed it to him and he jumped up on that little stage.
“Now I want to tell a joke!” he declared to the crowd and with that, he launched in to a rambling old-school joke. He finished, looking positively lit up at the laughter in the room. I sat down in front at an empty table, cheering and applauding. A woman who had been sitting in the back of the audience came and joined me.
Another person stood up and said: “I want to tell a joke!” And another. And another. Laughter, applause, connection. These fledgling comics beamed.
A man grabbed the mic to tell his joke and he nervously began, “So a teacher ---“ but he stopped. “Oh no." He whispered. "I’m so nervous, I forgot.”
“Take a breath and trust that you know it." I called out from the front row. "Take your time! We’ll wait!” He looked down at the ground, took a breath and his head popped up:
“So a teacher was in the classroom one day—“
He turned to me in disbelief and delight and said: “It worked!”
And like a comic on his way to being pro he turned back to the crowd and reveled in finishing the joke.
And this kept going. There were punch lines we had heard before, stories that were silly, jokes that were so old they were around way before Sally was born. The mic was like a torch being passed to everyone. Maybe I brought them together. Maybe I inspired them. Or maybe after witnessing my 45 minutes they thought: ”Hell, I can do that”. It doesn't matter what started it! What mattered was that it was happening. Something had been kindled and fanned and flamed and now it was being tended to. I was touched. And if I had anything at all to do with it, then I had done my real job. Not the "front" job I have, that of making people laugh, but my real job: connection.
It was getting late and I finally started to leave right after a woman got up and sang something so pretty it brought tears to my eyes. And as I slipped out the door, paycheck in hand, I looked back at all of them, the people who I labeled “not my demographic.” They looked so different now than they did before. And I realized: we’re all each others’ demographic simply because we’re human. There is so much that connects us. And connection is what we crave. As well as the occasional good dick joke.