I gave up trying to figure out what kind of person gets into standup comedy long ago. The hacky takes you’ll hear at open mics are as follows: "We all had shitty childhoods." "We’re all depressed." "We’re alcoholics." "Standup is cheaper than therapy." These are mostly just attempts by comics to rationalize their addictions, angst and dependence on the validation of strangers. Or, more charitably, to affirm their membership in a club consisting of people who can’t—or won’t—fit in anywhere else. Either way, I can assure you they are wrong.
I’ve known as many well-adjusted comics as trainwrecks. I’ve known comics both sober and perpetually drunk and/or stoned. I’ve known comics who have ten minutes of brutalizing "A" material on homeless people and comics who volunteer at food banks and overnight shelters. I’ve known comics with extreme mental illness, and comics who are social workers and group home supervisors. I’ve known revolutionary socialists and alt-right trolls. I’ve known radical intersectional feminists and actual rapists.
Those last two binaries have recently become points of particular controversy in the Pacific Northwest comedy scene, following a pair of gut-churning developments in the contentious, cliquish community. Earlier this month a local comic was documented participating in the Proud Boys’ “anti-sharia” march in downtown Seattle, baiting anti-Islamophobia counter-protesters and engaging in street violence and wide-open bigotry. Then, last Sunday, a local female comic made a public Facebook post announcing that she was raped by a fellow comic. In both cases, the offenders had a long and well-established history of similar actions—at least among comics who bother to keep tabs on such things (predominantly women and queer people of color).
This one-two punch of white supremacy and sexual assault in our midst has left comics feeling furious, defensive, demoralized and defiant, turbulent emotions engendered by dark times and exacerbated by the horrors that lurk among us in the subculture.
This is why I refuse to put a finger on any defining personality trait shared by all comics. Some of the best and very worst people I’ve known have engaged in the strange and simple practice of telling jokes in dark rooms for strangers. The only thing they all seem to have in common is that they’re willing to confront the fear of speaking in front of a crowd, number one on most top-ten lists of phobias. Comics harness and convert that fear into something manageable and even enjoyable.
It’s what they do with that harnessed fear that matters most. Do they use it to further marginalize and lampoon already oppressed groups? Or do they use it to empower the dismissed and overlooked, to be an affirming expression of their own identity standing there in the bright lights? Do they use it to delve into their hyper-particular personal peccadilloes and peculiarities, thus creating a bond of shared humanity through honest self-disclosure? Or, more sneakily, do they use it to project an image of themselves that’s not what they are at all? Or do they have ten killer minutes on peanut butter that will grant the audience a silly reprieve from the avalanche of Important Hot Takes and Problematic Opinions that beset us from all sides?
These days, I can honestly say I don’t care whether a comic is funny or not. What matters most to me now, after more than 10 years doing comedy and observing the endless possible permutations of onstage signifying, comes down to these simple questions: Are you a good person? Are you someone I can root for, vouch for and enjoy hanging out with in the green room? Are you safe?
I’ve been a not-good person, a not-safe person, a shit-talker and a jerk and a drunk and a phony careerist in my many incarnations as a comic, trying to do this thing I love despite the awfulness that somehow clings to it at every turn. I’m ashamed that I let the fear of failing at this completely subjective art form turn me away from some of those good people and embrace a few of the terrible ones.
I’m trying my hardest to not be any of those people anymore, to leave all those fearful incarnations behind. Laughter dissipates and is quickly forgotten. We’ve got plenty of comics out there in the world. What we’re most sorely lacking, especially now, are good people.