I am not a stand up comedian, nor do I have the inclination to be one. Unless stand up comedy evolves to where I can mutter things under my breath in response to people’s conversations, then I don’t think I have the necessary skill set. I prefer to react, over me actually being the creator of the content. And again, I like to react quietly where it’s possible to be heard but most likely it’s indiscernible. This results in a person saying, “Oh, what was that?” and I have to awkwardly say “Oh, me? Nothing,” and we both know I’m lying, and it makes the situation uncomfortable. Let me know when that’s a viable career path to the stage.
Last night I had the pleasure of watching James Acaster perform with my lovely wife as my date. She even enjoyed it! I state this not because he’s unfunny and it was a surprise she liked it, but because he’s from Kettering, England and she once stated, “I cannot understand anything he says.” Thus, after that glowing compliment of 5 minutes of his material, I decided to spend ~100$ on two tickets to see him months down the line. James, I can call him James since he’ll never read this, was first introduced to me by watching the British TV show, Taskmaster. He was a funny fella, as most on that show are, due to being professional comedians and all. It could’ve been due to him being younger than some of the contestants, that he had an air of absurdity, and well, I just liked him. This isn’t my story of how I became a James Acaster fan, it’s just that I gravitated to his comedic persona and looked him up, eventually reading two books he’d written and buying a comedy special of his.
I like comedians that are open and vulnerable about their actual selves. Why? Because, yes, sure, it’s wonderful to just hear some jokes sometimes and laugh and not worry about someone else. However, it’s also nice to see someone funny and thoughtful and famous and be like “Oh wow, look at them. They have struggles too. Isn’t that nice?” Granted, those kinds of insights also lead to para-social relationships with fans thinking they know everything from a comedian by listening to their sets, reading their books, or streaming every episode of a podcast. So, there’s good and bad to it all. That’s why I can totally understand a comedian having a disconnect with the audience, not indulging them in any of their personal lives, and being a vessel for comedy and nothing further. I mean, that’s basically how all stand up comics were until the past 20 years or so and the advent of more alternative comics.
This isn’t a history lesson, and it definitely isn’t one because my facts are probably all wrong anyway. Isn’t that history though? The past is decided by the victors or whatever that malarky is. The point is, I saw my pal James last night, he performed, it was funny, I had a good time, he gets paid, and everyone wins. His special was called “Hecklers Welcome” and it was basically a therapeutic exercise for him to both perform stand up comedy and also allow himself to be more comfortable with outbursts that come from drunken audiences and entitled comedy fans. Part of the reason why I enjoy writing out my thoughts is due to the fact that there’s no one to judge me right at the moment. Honestly, I’d probably be bothered if someone judged me for something I wrote last week and it’d affect me just as much, but with my extremely limited, niche market I don’t typically have to worry about that. Still, I think with some distance between me and the work, it’d be easier to cope with. Comedians, any live performers, do not have that luxury. You are judged within the moment, and I can empathize with the excruciating anxieties of those moments.
I used to be a performer, but I retired early. Much like John Cazale, I had a limited run, I was critically lauded and then my career died. In regard to him, he did actually die and that cut his career short. Maybe I’m more of a Daniel Day Lewis. A string of hits, a lot of method acting and leaving on my own terms at the top of my game. I portrayed Sheriff Billy Bold and Prince Charming in my single-digit years and left with many (imaginary) Oscar nominations to my name. Or Tony awards. This was live theater after all. The point of all of this is James talked about his own anxieties, his nervousness, and his general lack of affection towards performing stand up in general. Listen, I get it, I was at the top of the church theater summer camp game, and I abandoned it. The pressure was high, the audiences were almost too loving that it didn’t feel earned, and the highs weren’t worth the pre showtime jitters. It resonates with me that good ol’ pal James is open and honest with the fact that it still sucks to be in front of an audience. He hasn’t magically grown out of a fear of public speaking, he’s just become more accepting of it as a creative endeavor to pursue and to make a living from. He made it very clear that we shouldn’t worry about how he feels during the show, instead to focus on whether we’re enjoying ourselves. Because in the end, he gets a paycheck, we get a nice night out and a laugh, and we go on our separate ways. In the end, it’s a business transaction between two entities, nothing more.
Within the past week, I’ve now seen 2 comedy/storytelling shows and 2 improv shows from comedians that I’m truly huge fan of. James Acaster, Mike Birbiglia, and the improv group, Big Grande. I’ve listened to or watched them for more hours than I can count and I’m not going to say that I didn’t create some fictional friendship between us all in my brain. However, I have the wherewithal to recognize that what I created is an illusion and not representative of reality. They are more or less public figures and I’m just a fan who enjoys their content. I’m not going to say that I haven’t fantasized about situations where we all become best friends and make each other giggle incessantly, but again, I have my own friends for that even if they are a little less famous. Did I diverge from my point? Trust me, I’ll get back to it. At the end of the show, Mr. Acaster said his final punchline, walked off and came back for a brief encore. He also opened to the floor if they had any final heckles, to conclude his therapeutic exercise. Apparently drunken people think of heckles as impromptu Q+A sessions and rattled off inane questions. Listen, I like the guy, I think he’s hilarious! Do I care about how his recent vacation went? Sure, if he crafted it into a bit. If someone is just asking if he had fun, does that matter? Does his personal life matter? Sure, again, I hope he’s happy and healthy, but I don’t need the details. I enjoy his material, but again, we’re not actually friends. Just as he wants me to laugh at his show and have a nice time and recommend him or whatever, I don’t think he specifically cares about how my day went. Which is normal and okay and fine and better that way! I don’t need his faux investment in me, and I don’t need to do the same.
The point though? Apparently, this way of thinking makes me an outlier. Or maybe not even an outlier, just part of the silent majority. I think this applies to most of the audience, this understanding, it’s just that the ones who differentiate from this way of thinking tend to be the most outspoken. Or the ones with the highest bar tabs. It might not have anything to do with alcohol, but I’m trying to give human decency the benefit of the doubt and blame it on the booze. It just seems to happen at so many types of shows nowadays. Through social media, through hours and hours of recorded dialogues from our favorite what have yous, we foster this relationship with folx and we treat them accordingly. Based on our own hypothetical, NOT REAL, relationships with them. There are things I could say to a friend that if I said to a stranger, they would rightfully beat my ass. And instead, we think these public figures are immune from that. That we can say whatever we want to them, and they earned the right to hear our ire or adoration. A gentleman last night complained that he’d read one of the stories that Acaster performed in his set in a book. Guess what? I’d also read that book and the story seemed a little familiar. And also guess what? I enjoyed hearing it done performatively by the creator himself! If I did not enjoy it, I wouldn’t specifically point out that I read one of their “jokes” a decade prior in a book and say that to their face? Why? For I am not a rude, entitled asshole. We are not owed 100% original material that is catered to us. He’s performing another show tonight, and it’ll have the same stories. A bit of banter could be different, depending on the heckles. How can one expect a person to cultivate an original 90 minutes every night he ever performs? That’s insanity and it seems that nowadays audiences seem like they’re entitled to complain to the comedian’s face. Or to DM them on Twitter, or publicly put them on blast. It just seems we’ve moved past the point of just enjoying something and nothing ever is good enough.
I have to end this paragraph and this blog as a whole because I do not want to come across as some out-of-touch boomer as well. It was just a frustrating end to the show that the comedian himself even mentioned saying, “I was going to tell a story of the worst ending to a show I ever had, but I think this will fit the bill.” And another quote by a gentleman sitting just beside me, “Why wouldn’t people shut the fuck up? I just wanted to hear the story.” As did I, as did I. Because contrary to what audience members seem to think, there is a reason that they are not on stage. We paid to see the professional and the blurts by the general public, there’s a reason they have jobs in accounting and not in comedy. I do not want to discredit the entire point of his special, or how James himself responded to the comments, which were wonderful and hilarious, etc. I regret that I went on and on about so much because I think the main point is, he’s great, he’s funny, and I hope his mental health continues to improve and his confidence soar and anxiety wanes. I can say this because I actually do have a background in mental health, so comparatively, I’m not speaking out of my ass. Anyways, I’ve written far too much because I don’t think my poor wife could tolerate me going on any more diatribes about this. If you take anything out of this, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, listen to the comedy of James Acaster, and don’t be an asshole. So it goes.