Do Comedians Need to Have a Train Wreck Past?

This Dude Has Problems

A couple weeks ago, I was performing at the Joke Joint Comedy Club in the Twin Cities. My competition that week at the other clubs  were Steve-O and Mike DeStefano. Never thought I would seem like I had the least amount of baggage among 3 comics, but for one week I was the safe choice.  I have mentioned before how much of my childhood was a horror.  DeStefano brought incredible truth to his stage show about his past drug use and being HIV positive.  And of course Steve-O must have had a severely fucked up childhood to become the way he is…oh wait a minute.

I did a little wikipedia-ing Steve-O and was very surprised that he was born in London and grew up in the lap of luxury which is afforded the son of the President of Pepsi’s South American division. Now I’m not going to pretend that he didn’t have his own problems, but Steve-O grew up rich with every possible economic opportunity I could have ever dreamed of.  Don’t worry, this is not another column on Steve-O, but it does lead me to my focus for the day.  Do you need to have lots of problems (past and/or present) to be a good comedian?

If you didn’t hear, Mike DeStefano, died of a heart attack on Monday. He was only 44 years old.  I did not know Mike, but I will tell you I was blown away by his raw honesty and the hilarious point of view he brought to his pain. Through the attention that Last Comic Standing provided him, he was starting to hit on a national level.  It is a definitely a case of just when things seemed to finally be going right, it all ended for him.

Now there seems to be plenty of comics like Seinfeld, Leno, etc. who had good childhoods.  Hey, even some porno stars claim they had a good childhoods, too.  When I hear these people state this, I will admit I like their acts a little less. I kind of feel like the school of hard knocks that most comedians go through is what creates funny insights.  If you were the hottest chick or dude in your school, why would you have an understanding of how life is us for the majority? If you had great parents, why would you have a unique viewpoint on the world?  If one of my children became a comedian, I’m pretty sure I will feel like I failed as a parent.

I always tell young comics that the best advice I can give in regards to your material is bring something from your own life. The more painful and honest, the better. We aren’t in the catskill mountain days of take my wife, please.  Authors like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs have used the angst of their childhoods to become huge successes.  Our society now loves to watch reality show train wrecks to feel better about their own fucked up lives.  The failures of your own life can provide that perfect mix between being completely unique and still being totally relate-able.

I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me in my life and I figure the best way to not let them overcome me is to take them to the stage.   Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying comedians should seek this dark shit out, but if it is already there, bring it out in the open.  It’s definitely therapeutic.

So here is my final plea. If you are reasonably well-adjusted, stay out of comedy. There are plenty of professions that are looking for you. The abused and ill-fitted for society have few places to find gainful employment: rock stars, strippers, politicians, standup comics.  There are too few spots in the laugh business to go around already.  We don’t need another Johnny Sunshine trying to take one of these spots when he would be better served managing a Ruby Tuesday.  Thank You.

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