Tonight, for a minute, I was a comedy cliché. It felt wonderful.
I emceed a small show in a dark bar with no stage for the Eaglerock Comedy Festival.
Had I been in a slightly worse mood, I would have arrived at a poorly lit bar to find a boomy, distorted, rinky-dink sound system that I had to figure out on my own. I would’ve looked through the list of comics I was to introduce, realized there were only two comics whose work I’d ever seen and a couple whose names I vaguely recognized from Facebook. I would have sighed.
I would have handed each of the performers an index card on which to write an intro for me to deliver. I would have opened charmingly, perhaps a little bit self-deprecatingly while doing all I could to let the audience know that I was comfortable with the situation and they could be, too. I would have done a short set, and then brought up each of the performers in order, giving them their proper intros with verve and enthusiasm. Over the course of the evening I would have seen some young – some irritatingly young – performers working out material in front of too few audience members, spread about the room. I would have kept the show running smoothly.
That is exactly what did and yet exactly what did not happen.
I’m on an antidepressant. I suffered from debilitating depression for all of my adult life, most of my adolescence, and the parts of my childhood that are not obscured in a careful mist of self-protective amnesia. I did not know that it was debilitating depression. I thought it was the intellectual capacity to understand the underlying malevolence of man in the face of the absolute indifference of the natural universe we inhabit.
I exaggerate, when I say “all of my adult life.” I remember a day in 1992 and also, several months right after I got married that were okay.
I suppose I also exaggerate when I say “debilitating.” I was never incapable of writing scripts or prose or jokes; my pithy snark never ran dry at the page. I was always able to hold a job long enough cover a few months’ rent before I alienated my bosses by correcting their grammar. I could pick up road gigs and as long as I kept to myself in the hotel room between shows and did not try to socialize with the club owners or the bookers or the bar tenders, I could go back again. Even when I smoked pot, I was a downer. It didn’t matter how funny I was on stage; everybody I talked to off stage had a vague unsettling sense that where I went, sorrow would follow.
A few years ago my depression got so bad that I mistook it for a dark suit. I wore it around my home until every day became a quiet funeral for an extended family of fallen minutes, a holocaust of seconds, each death mourned in silent anguish. I buried the killed time in dutiful solemnity.
Apparently, this was not what my wife had been looking for in a husband. She suggested I see a therapist or a psychiatrist about finding some sort of medication. After a couple of missteps we found one that seemed to work so the doctor told me to take Paxil for eight months and then check in with him.
The depression lifted. Some things in my career began to shift around me. I let them develop, worried that if I pushed too hard I might sabotage them. To distract myself I began a couple of new projects that didn’t look like they’d make much money but might give me an outlet for some ideas, and allow me to solidify some interesting contacts by including them as collaborators. As I took meetings to move them forward, I spoke enthusiastically about the stuff I was doing rather than disparagingly of the budgets or the flaws or the travails of it all. New opportunities opened up and not only did some people whom I met seem to actually like me and respect my work, I noticed that I liked some of them. It was all quite bizarre.
I was behaving like a grown-up with a career that involved creativity and human interaction and I was doing both regularly and without resentment.
I did not know that I was behaving like a grown-up. I thought the world had finally opened its eyes to the fact that I was a decent hard-working human and decided that I could have a place in it. That it had done so, made me feel things. I struggled to find words. They were elusive and when I caught them they seemed affected. “Happy.” “Content.” These were not words my inner voice knew how to pronounce naturally. When it tried, they came after that awkward half-pause of a septuagenarian trying to casually adopt a new bit of street slang. The quotation marks around them seemed indelible.
At the eight month mark, I contacted the psychiatrist and he suggested that I start weaning myself off the stuff, a quarter of a pill at a time, over the course of four weeks. For four days I took three quarters of a pill instead of a whole one. I began to sense that shadows were beginning to gather in corners of my office, pressing in toward me. I kept testing the feeling with my psyche trying to determine whether it was real or imagined.
Then, as I drove to a coffee meeting, the quiet, behind the wheel part of my mind came to life. The lucid waking part of my mind that makes up little stories about conversations I would like to have, imagined scenes in which I am the hero prevailing by virtue of wit and logic had begun to tell me strangely familiar tales. I hadn’t heard them in a while, but I knew them as well as any oft-repeated Dr. Seuss rhyme of my childhood. My driving mind, rolling and peaceful, had steered my down a well-worn path to a story of how tight the traffic was, how hard it is to get anywhere. I’d left extra time and still wound up worried. There was a loud red Ferrari just ahead of me in the next lane over. The expensive, powerful machine sat just as still as the rest of us and whenever we all pulled forward a few yards it roared frustration at an obnoxious volume. I realized I had seen it before, that car.
Not two weeks before, I had been stuck in traffic with that same beautiful car. The flow had slowed terribly through the Cahuenga pass and I had sat in the lazy crawl admiring that car, thinking about how powerful it sounded, how profoundly and satisfyingly indulgent it would feel to sit in a car like that in Hollywood traffic.
I called my psychiatrist to say, “Listen, doctor. This might sound insane, but I’ve cut the dose a quarter of a pill for – what? – four days now and I don’t know if this is even possible. But I feel like the oceanic depths are starting to drown the bright edges of the world. Also I’m on my way to see someone and for no reason at all I’m planning the things I’m going to be pissed off about when I get there. I remember this. I used to do this all the time, every time I went somewhere I would rehearse my irritability on the way. As if that’s not something I could improvise organically if it came up in the moment when I got there. Does this sound like something that could be happening after a reduction of a quarter pill for four days?”
He sounded a bit shocked as he said, “Wow. And you say this medication was to treat your first bout of serious depression?”
I said, “What? I never said that. I’ve been depressed most of my life.”
He said, “Oh! In that case, stay on it. With a first onset of depression, sometimes we can do a course and rebalance the brain but that’s much less likely with a long-term sufferer. And you seem to be supremely sensitive to this medication. Let’s just keep you on it. Huh?”
I felt a wave of relief and re-upped to my previous dose that night. I’ve been on it ever since.
I sometimes get sad. I still worry some about man’s inhumanity to man, but I don’t obsess on it. I try not to participate in it when I can help it.
Recently I’ve had a bit of a run of professional good luck. I’m feeling entirely comfortable in my own skin. I have revitalized hope for my future and my career. There’s a litany of details cycling happily through my head these days. Last year one of my literary heroes invited me to appear on his stage with him. Yesterday he invited me back to do so again for two more shows. I’ve developed a relationship with a new label that will not only put out comedy recordings with me but has an interest in my spoken-word work as well. I’ve picked up a couple of over-lapping freelance clients. I’ve had a few relaxed, enjoyable pitch meetings, some of which may prove lucrative, all of which proved valuable
Tonight, I emceed a show in a bar with no stage for the Eaglerock Comedy Festival.
The Festival Organizers had arranged to have a small amplifier and microphone set up for us in a space that was clearly not accustomed to having performers but had opened its doors to us as a participating festival venue. The bartender came to help me set up the space to make it as conducive as possible for performance and he gave me a couple of options for lighting, none of which was perfect, one of which was certainly adequate for the definition of stage space. The little sound system wasn’t sophisticated but it was pretty easy to figure out. We could all be heard.
I opened up a manila envelope to find fairly detailed instructions as to how the show was to run, including performance order, time restrictions. The packet provided more than I needed to make me feel as though the festival was run by supportive professionals who knew what they were doing. More importantly, I realized it was exactly what a less experienced emcee would need to be able to take the stage confidently and with a clear agenda. The lineup included two comics whose work I’d seen before and both of whom I remembered enjoying. I vaguely recognized a couple of other names from Facebook. I looked forward to seeing their work and finding out what these virtual acquaintances did behind the microphone.
I handed each of the performers an index card on which to write an intro. I opened charmingly, and let the audience know that I was comfortable with the situation and they could be, too. I did a short set, and then brought up each of the performers, giving them their proper intros with verve and enthusiasm. Over the course of the evening I saw some young, wonderfully talented performers working out material in front of too few audience members, spread about the room. I enjoyed their work and was delighted to act as their host and watch them assess the situation and adapt to it. All were professional, none bad. I kept the show running smoothly. I was able to appreciate the writing and the performances of some marvelous up-and-coming performers.
That’s how good a mood I was in tonight. The way I processed the evening was so different from my usual perception that I kept noticing I was having a good time. As I figured out how to work an unfamiliar sound board, I was aware that on another night I might have worked myself into a rage over the need to do such a thing for myself. I kept spotting elements of the evening that I could have found distressing or annoying or infuriating or insulting or demeaning but did not distress or annoy or infuriate or insult or demean.
As I met one of the comics I would be introducing during the show, we had a moment of conversation. He asked me what I’ve been doing and I told him about the upcoming release of my $5 hour-long video special. I started to tell him about the e-mail I just got about the upcoming redesign and rerelease of my comedy E-book, but I realized that each thing I thought to mention led to another in the festival of fine fortune I've been enjoying so I shifted the conversation, asking him what he had going for the summer. He said that sometimes, when he can’t get any decent bookings he puts up a show in his back yard that he calls “I Have a Hammock.”
I imagined a gathering of friends and local fans. I imagined a few comics who like working together showing up for a low-key semi-impromptu house concert. It sounded like fun.
Had I been in a slightly worse mood, I might have snorted in a way that was meant to sound sympathetic and amused but would have held a soupçon of palpable derision. I would never have noticed the slight twinge of embarrassing envy I felt toward those young friends who would gather, but in an unconscious bid to dismiss the feeling I would have dismissed the event. I might have dismissed the idea, dismissed the very notion so thoroughly as to assume he was kidding rather than embrace even the chance that such a thing might be real.
I was in this good mood, though. So, I heard the young man in the under lit bar tell me that sometimes he puts together a show in his back yard and I responded with the casual relaxation of the wholly unrehearsed. I stepped forward tonight with nothing but joy and anticipation in my heart and I became a comedy cliché.
With my litany of happy happenstance, burgeoning revenue streams, opportunities and bright futures parading colorfully through my psyche, I said, “who books that room?” And I meant it.