I have always been a reactionary comedian, probably because I’m a reactionary person. My number 1 goal at a show is for the audience to have a great time, and I don’t go after anyone in the crowd without reason, but if you offer up yourself by heckling, you will quickly find my red-hot rage focused towards you. I’m not a bully, but I will attack your weaknesses until I have control again. In the standup world this is a great skill to possess. It’s not such a good trait to have in life, though.
As I’ve outlined here before, (too many times for some of you, I’m sure), I grew up with an abusive father and this was my defense mechanism. Sure the comedic element I bring to it dissipates the edge of it a little, but it’s still something I have to work hard to suppress, as it is something very instinctual to me. I’ve never picked on someone who couldn’t defend themselves, but plenty of times I’ve taken it too far with those who start shit with me. Go ahead and poke the Bear, but let me warn you, if you do you better be able to climb the highest tree.
Having a daughter with developmental disabilities has softened me a little, though. I’m sure age has something to do with that, as well. At a recent Friday night show in Milwaukee my growth was on display. (And no, I was not arrested for this public display of growth. Out of the gutter everybuddy.) During my bit where I ask who gets drug-tested at their job, I got a quick response from 1 woman.. She said her drug-testing happened when she was working with kids with special needs. I’m sure for most comics this would have been open season for jokes. A big reason I ask the question is to find jobs that I can riff off of why or why not you should get drug-tested at them. The only exceptions for me is if you are in the military or if you have a job like this woman had. My response then is thank you for doing what you do.
** At this point I should mention that the woman had a unique speaking voice. It was clear and intelligent, but with a tone to it that was different than what you usually hear. When you are on-stage by yourself, having to entertain a large group of people, (230 to 1 in this situation) you learn to grab onto and exploit any weakness you can find. I’m guessing most comics would’ve have at the very least commented on her voice. My life experience made me feel pretty confident that she was on the spectrum, so I stayed away from it. Soon after, she told the audience she was in fact autistic.
The woman then followed up that her brother got drug tested as well. I asked what job he did. She responded with he was tested when applying to be a police officer. I asked if he got the job. She told me that he hadn’t yet. My next question was how long ago did this drug testing happen? Her matter of fact answer was 6 years ago. Huge laugh. Priceless. You can’t script stuff this good. It’s the awesome element of live standup. The shared experience which makes for a one of a kind moment. You don’t get that from a comedy central presents or a late night talkshow.
The combination of me knowing people on the spectrum, plus my years of stage experience made this all work. It’s rare when you can say you are the the perfect person to be onstage in a moment, but I can’t think of anyone else who was better equipped to get the most out of this situation. Being calm onstage and not trying to rush back to your material is a great skill to have. Letting someone in the audience get a bigger laugh than you is a sign to the audience that you are confident and in control. I see a standup show as an organic event. The best show to me is for people leaving the show and having something they will always remember about it.
If you think this is where it ends, hold on. She then told me that her brother cried when he was 8 because his cat Natasha died. I told her maybe it’s good that her brother didn’t become a cop because he sounds like kind of a wuss. I then told her she might be the best co-host I have ever had and maybe we should go out on the road together, because she has impeccable comedy timing. Later on when I did my bit about my daughter not being able to pronounce the G in my dog Angus’ name, my co-host mentioned I should have named him Natasha. I told you she had great timing. After the next huge laugh started to die down, I told her I was going to have to rescind my offer of going out on the road with me, as my ego could never handle her being funnier than me. Just so there wouldn’t be any confusion from this statement, I told her I was so happy she had come out that night and that I loved her.
I felt the timing was perfect to go into my piece about how we should rethink the use of R words. In a sold out show with a younger crowd filled with raucous energy, you could have heard a pin drop. I’m guessing of the 230 people in the showroom, over 200 of them had never had a real conversation with someone on the autism spectrum. Mostly because of my co-host efforts and a little bit of my own, some minds opened a little that night. The audience came there to laugh and they got a buttload of yuks, but I’m pretty confident they also left with a little more.
Now here is a little inside baseball about what it is like being a person at a comedy club who has people in their life they love who have a developmental disability. You have a constant uneasy feeling always lurking that some joke(s) are going to be hurled at this group. I’m pretty certain that my co-host friends were feeling this to a very magnified degree during this show. They didn’t know how I was going to respond to their friend. They didn’t know about the message I have about the journey my life has taken from having Maddie in my life. When they were leaving the show a number of these friends told me how much they appreciated the way I handled the show. They had a look like they had been on a 45 minute roller coaster ride where they weren’t sure if it had passed safety inspection, but by the end were thrilled to still be in tact. I know that feeling, as I have a similar protective instinct.
Here is where I’m in a unique position. I am in a business where political correctness is often the enemy of the ultimate result we are seeking. I’m not saying that it’s the comedians job to worry about offending a few people. I can’t tell you that I wouldn’t have gotten huge laughs if I would made fun of her. I do think there was just as good of chance, though, if I would’ve have taken the show that direction, I could’ve turned the room against me. Look, I’m not saying I’m the ruler of comedy and you have to do it my way. What I am trying to do here is tell a story of how sometimes taking a different approach can bring an optimal result.
Too many comics only celebrate the most cringe-inducing elements of our business. It’s why so many of us get into it. We are firestarters who don’t fit into society and want to torch the earth around us. I know for the first 15 years of my career that would have been the case with me. Having raw edge is great, but never forget that the best standup is not pointed towards the easiest targets.
So after the show I came face to face with my co-host. She had a big smile on her face and told me she had a great time that night. It was her first time ever at a comedy club. This beautiful young woman’s name was Dana and she told me she was a PhD student studying existentialism at Marquette University. If you don’t know what that means, I will try to be kind. Lets just say in many ways she is a lot smarter than you and me. My degree is in standup comedy, but I feel like I earned my PhD that night. I promise you I won’t forget this show and I’m happy to have a new friend named Dana.
Who knew Robert Palmer was such visionary?