In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth. - Patti Smith
Mid-evening at about a half-hour ’til, the producers begin to trickle in. They shake off the day like they shake out of their coats and begin moving tables and chairs to set up; quickly. The lineup: Who will host, who will headline. This has most likely already been decided. They are all comics, on rotation. Not all of whom get behind the mic tonight, however they are here to make and witness a happening- monitor the experience and observe their compatriots in action.
It's been a couple years since they've secured this spot, where I work as a cashier, for the monthly first Thursday gig. Right now in Chicago, comedy's biggest night seems to be Thursday. For the most part, the (best) shows are free. This one is.
They take donations at the end. It's also BYOB and in a bookstore. The producers even buy a brick of PBR to give away to patrons.
Add a dash of social media presence and each month the place is packed. Not to mention they are the nicest people around. Real talk at work. Very Chicago.
Do I hear some of the same jokes more than twice? Sure. But who says they're not getting better on the third and even fourth pass? This is a craft, and these comics almost make it seem effortless, even as they engage in hairy, mind-warping live experimentation.
In his lovingly-crafted memoir Silver Screen Fiend, Patton Oswalt, a stand-up comic, mentions his affinity and necessity for fellow comics as friends. Those friendships, in their healthiest forms he notes, bolster morale. They also keep a comic a comic- honest and quick and working and fearless.
I watch the genuine and easy interactions of this particular collection of late-20s to late-30somethings, many of extremely varied racial backgrounds, and sigh. I could envy them their casual closeness. Mostly I’m just happy to be in the room with them. Sharing a space together and watching the night unfold. Who knows if they consider what they do to be art. Some do probably. I haven’t thought to ask until just now.
Instead of a comic, I am a poet. I notice a few similarities. Like poets, comics occasionally write a few things down. Their scrawl on tiny paper looks to be a manic blubbering suicide note to the untrained eye. To the poet- “Oh, hey, it’s just another first draft.” You’ll never see these notes from a comic. But some of them have been known to publish a book or two from time to time.
Like poets, comics embrace the absurd. The strange. The underappreciated and oft-unnoticed. The genius in the average moment.
They can also be very dark. Isolation, depression and drugs may be an issue. For a comic, even an overdose on the impossibly addictive drug of other’s laughter can be a deterrent. This was the case for David Cross, who went thru a period in his stand-up career wherein if he felt he was doing too well on stage, he would deliberately start bombing. Perhaps in order to start from zero and see if he couldn’t build it all back up again.
One time a long while back, my dad and I were talking about work. Work as in “your job for money.” Your day-to-day. My old man struggled with wanting to be a steady corporate white-collar-man while having more blue-collar sensibilities; Ie: common sense, practicality in work and modesty in living. I’m pretty sure this was a discussion about upward mobility and money equalling status. Another chat among many of ours wherein we discovered later we had been talking about two different things.
But at one point I said “Dad, you’ll always be blue collar.”
“Oh, thanks!” He remarked as if I’d insulted him. But I’d meant that as a compliment. That’s how I knew how deep our disconnect went. He’s not an artist. For me, the best artists are blue collar.
True comics, like true poets, speak with the people. They can never be part of the 1%, and never should be. Working class life is a real life one can be proud of and stick up for. To live it fully is a bittersweet struggle inside as well as out.
Our favorite musicians understand this intimately, too. Richard Hell says it best in his song, the simple and blusey I Live My Life-
I live my life
to be myself
don’t worry about
well if you love the life you live,
live it all by yourself.
I go to work
But when it's nice
I love to play
well if you love the life you live,
live it every day.
I try real hard
to do what’s right
but all of the folks
they try to run my life
But I love the life I live,
and I try to live it right.
The oddball coda to all this being:
When we look back at the intensive damage wrought upon art and artists by 9-11 and the Bush Administration, we feel a deep lament. But the energy we spent then sifting thru half-truths and thinly-veiled deceits we now liberate with the highly-cogent and full understanding that “it’s ALL bullshit.”
It is in this way we can choose to embrace possibility rather than brute circumstance inherent in the four years to come.
Back to the night at hand. Donations collected. Performers paid. Spills are wiped up and all equipment gets stashed. People collect belongings and conversations and take them to the street. The store is technically closed, but of course I let some people check out anyway.
The comics are the last to leave. They thank me a bunch. It’s been a good night and we all know it. Maybe they’ll go to a bar or someone’s place nearby and hang to chat it thru, to ride the high. I thank them too as I take out the trash and check a few things before flipping off the lights.
Long live the Arts which make life truly livable. There should be no rules except those which an artist embraces and engages out of respect for their chosen form. Though our bodies still are not completely free, we can always practice using our minds to make them so.