When I was eighteen, I began, in earnest, to pursue standup comedy. I had never been much of a performer. Sure, I’d held minor roles in poorly-lit, overacted school plays and had strummed chords at coffee houses, but other than that, my performance resume was woefully incomplete. What I did have (and still do) was a brain that refuses to turn off, always insistent on racing, festering, dwelling and dwelling some more. Too nervous for therapy, I took my stupid head to the stage where I spewed forth streams of bile, wretched dick-jokes and half-baked thoughts about social nuances and faux-pas. I kept at it for awhile, nearly ten years, but never quite got to a level that would heft me upward from the dim basement bars of New York City. To be sure, I wasn’t perpetually eating it onstage, rather, I did get laughs but it was rare for those laughs to be hard-won. In other words, I cloaked myself onstage, letting true moments peek out here and there, but ultimately I lunged at punchlines that would resonate more widely, jokes less about examining myself and more about safety, using words designed to detonate the largest quantity of laugh-bombs, or whatever you want to call them. I favored f-bombs for critical thought, and delivered missives on the particulars of girl-on-girl pornography rather than asking myself why I had these thoughts in the first place. A joke whore, was I.
After some time, I began to feel weary due to my stagnancy and eventually did what most lost souls seem to do these days. I went to grad school. In many ways, my transition was immediately relieving. Gone were the pre and post show anxieties of: will people show up? If they show up will they be drunk? If they’re drunk am I going to have to deal with hecklers? Will they like me? What if an agent shows up? (she won’t, ever, by the way) What if I bomb and someone records it and puts it on YouTube with a title like “Watch This Dude With a Big Nose Totally Fail Onstage,” and what if and what if and what if and on and endlessly on, the great Mobius strip of anxiety, fully operational along the rim of my skull.
It’s rare that I get deep, wistful pangs for standup, though every so often it happens. Specifically, that little twinge of want crept up upon my viewing of Woody Allen’s standup from the 1965 broadcast on Manchester, England’s Granada TV.
Before delving into Allen’s act, I should note here: I am far from an Allen aficionado. I’ve seen maybe four of his films, and can remember little from them as the viewings likely took place in college under the influences of many things. And so while I’d like to make some sweeping statement about what the man means to American cinema in relation to where he began as a standup, I cannot and will not and actually, you should probably be thankful for that because you’d be clicking tiredly over to twitter, hoping that Shaquille O’Neal’s latest aphorism might bring you out of the doldrums brought on by boring analysis from me.
Onward, then, to Allen onstage. Right off the bat, his neuroses are on display. Allen hides little, immediately fiddling with the microphone cord, himself swaying constantly, grabbing the mic stand and running his left hand through his hair. At certain points, the camera can’t even keep up with him, swiveling with a panic to make sure he doesn’t leap out of the frame. However, this is an immediate comfort for the audience. Seeing this unique body language alerts the viewer that this is as raw as it gets; this is Allen exposed and really, that’s what standup ought to be.
His bits are a bit cloaked in the wordplay Allen very much uses as a crutch sure, but it’s how he gets to the punchline that’s the most fascinating. He begins every bit with a kernel of truth: “I dropped out of college,” or “I used to cheat on tests,” or “I took part in group psychotherapy.” And then, from there, Allen does what I failed so often to do onstage for ten years: he exploits the strange and interesting thing about the truth and follows it where it wants to go, building on the weirdness, chasing it even, until reaches its peak: a crescendo of laughter and a wry smile from Allen as he nods, sways and moves to the next set of material. Often, his style seems almost wholly improvised, but the jokes are just too good and complex enough for that. Every other line is a joke, and every other line gets more absurd as he heightens from grounded reality to a surreal world that can only exist in his mind’s eye.
Often, the “strange thing” within that initial kernel of truth is indeed a neurosis of which Allen can claim ownership and ultimately, we learn that Allen’s entire shtick relies on making fun of himself, though it’s a bit more complicated than that. By telling the audience about one of his idiosyncrasies he’s altering us to the fact that this is something he’s working out. The absurdity that follows is a sort of magical train of thought that allows us to see how Allen deals with the harder-to-control particulars of the human brain. He’s working things out, right there before us.
It takes a performance like that for me to miss the stage and for me to realize what I was missing in the first place.
Still, I won’t be getting up there at a comedy club anytime soon. But, if I do, I’ll surely use Woody as my spiritual comedy guide, following my own and neuroses and internal complications all the way to the other side, where I’d exploit them for all the world to laugh at.