One thing I’ve learned is very difficult as a standup is dealing with tragedy or hard luck in your act. If someone close to you dies or you go through a divorce or bankruptcy, it doesn’t matter how much time passes. If this is the first time someone’s heard of it, they want… maybe need… to offer sympathy.
Divorce is not so hard to handle on stage. Hell, Diane helped write half the divorce set. My new lady thinks it’s the strongest part of my set. And the audiences respond to those jokes more than some of the other material.
Recently, at the monthly show at Ft. Thomas, Kentucky’s Midway Cafe, comedian Mike Gunns hosted the end-of-show segment called “One for the Road,” where Gunns will free associate in whatever medicated haze he’s in that night until a comic or even a bar patron comes up to tell a joke. This time, we seemed to be trending toward dead baby jokes. (It’s as bad as you think, which made it a crowd hit.) To be different, I went up and nailed Gunns with a zinger, to which Gunns said, “I guess that was a joke about me. I’ll ask your mother next time I do her.”
Rude? It was supposed to be. Which prompted my next comment.
“My mother’s dead, you prick!”
“I know,” he said. “Explains why she didn’t move.”
Cheap shot? Yes, but I set it up for Gunns, and he knocked it down. The crowd laughed, which is what both of us were going for.
A woman came up to me shortly afterward and said, “I’m so sorry. You must be heartsick over what that nasty man said.”
“What nasty man?”
“That stoner up on the mic.”
“What did he say?”
“About your mother.”
“My mom died six years ago. He knew that.”
“Then why did he say that?”
“Have you noticed the dead baby jokes we’ve been telling since the last set ended?”
She wasn’t happy with me.
True, she needed to notice that virtually every comedian up there was dropping an F bomb. (‘Cept me, mainly because I was doing a PG-13 set I’d first trotted out the night before.) At the same time, I’ve noticed people go straight to mourner mode when they learn both my parents are gone. Never mind that I’ve been an orphan for four years now.
People also don’t seem to handle divorce well unless I’m at the mic and in my fedora. “Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Dude, I’m almost engaged, and Diane’s flying to Australia to see her new man. We’re soooo over it.”
I keep forgetting we didn’t tell anyone until January.
“Aren’t you moving a bit too fast?”
“Faster than what?”
“It was only a couple of months ago.”
“No, you found out a couple months ago. We found out back in September.”
I just shrug. I haven’t got time to be miserable about my own hard knocks. Even if it’s for someone else’s benefit.
One guy who is really a master at this is Robert Schimmel. I first noticed Schimmel when he started talking about his heart attack in his set. Since that time, he’s amped it up a notch. Some friends of mine went to see Schimmel at the Dayton Funnybone recently. Schimmel now does a slide show…
About his cancer (“Here I am at my next-to-last chemo treatment. I’m down to 145 pounds, almost my target weight.”*) and the death of his son, also from cancer. You’d think the audience would be staring slack-jawed at him but no. Schimmel talked about taking his son out of hospice (“What’s going to happen to him out there that’s not going to happen here?”) and letting him drive his car through the desert. As his son hit every cactus and every rut, enjoying the only time in his life he would drive a car, Schimmel says, “I kept thinking ‘Why didn’t I rent a car for this?”
I wouldn’t wish Robert Schimmel’s woes on anyone, but this is his way of dealing with it.
The lesson here is don’t be afraid to laugh at tragedy. Humor will rob it of its power faster than anything.
*Paraphrasing, though I hope he does this on HBO soon.