Dig Baton Rouge

East of the River: April 9, 2014

By KATIE EAST
DIG Featured Columnist

I’m in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, walking in an abandoned warehouse district heading to a show that for all I know isn’t even real. Luckily, I’m not alone this time – I’m with two equally nervous girls and a bag filled with koozies and shot glasses.

That is where I found myself last weekend while on tour. The life of a comedian is one filled with darkened alleys, smoky bars and questionable life decisions. Almost anytime I tell someone I’m a comic, they say, “Oh that’s so much fun.”

Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.

As a performer, it’s always fun to be onstage doing a killer set and connecting with a group of strangers. Getting to the venue and on the stage, however, is the challenging part.

As I’ve learned on the way to many shows I’ve performed, Google Maps is not to be trusted. As one of my fellow tour members joked at the Jackson show, “Did I accidentally put ‘Rape me’ into Google Maps?” Our treacherous walk led us in a circle around our destination, through a construction zone and past every abandoned warehouse you could imagine.

Thankfully, the show went pretty well. We put our faith in a show three hours away booked off of Facebook by a man on house arrest that none of us had ever met. And with only a few hecklers, the outcome could have been a lot worse.

I shouldn’t complain; I feel very lucky to be booking great shows around the country with 50-plus audience members that have paid to see me perform. It takes many years to get to that point.

The early years are spent losing money at open mics where you spend hours waiting to get anywhere from one to five minutes onstage. Even the most naturally talented and driven comedians can’t get past that point in less than a couple of years.

Being “funny” is the least relevant skill when it comes to the job of a comedian. You have to be a marketer, advertiser, website designer, social networker, sales person, motivational speaker, emotional translator, therapist and more. It doesn’t hurt if you’re funny. It’s also one of the only jobs that a casual observer thinks they could also do, even though they’ve never even tried it.

“Oh, you’re a comic?” someone might say. “People always tell me I could be a comic.” I don’t think people realize that’s an insult. I can’t imagine ever saying: “Doctor? Oh, I always felt like I would be a great doctor.” Go to med school and then have that conversation.

Although we’re not saving lives, it’s the same for comedians. We may not get a degree but we spend years working our way up through the dregs of the comedy underbelly, feeling talented, crappy, and then talented again as we hone our material. Getting on the stage and being funny is only a daily battle. Performing in a thankless art form is a lifetime war.

It takes a special kind of person to get onstage and talk about themselves to drunken strangers demanding entertainment. It takes an even more specific type of person to keep doing it over and over again after failing. Often times it’s a narcissistic or even psychotic type of person.

This year, Oxford University released a study that showed comedians, like other artists, are very likely to suffer from mental illness. (I know this because like every comedian I know a family member posted the article to my Facebook wall.) The most interesting part of the study found that comedians are usually introverted. So a comic’s lot in life is to be just as crazy as every other artist but with less glory and even less friends.

A high-school theatre teacher once told me that theatergoers attend a play in order to enjoy a new experience. Audiences at a comedy show come in with crossed arms and they usually expect to be disappointed.

To those audience members out there: get over yourself and have fun. Comedy is hard and grueling but it’s our job to make it look easy. Skip the next band you want to see and support some live comedy. Those creepy walks to shows and the late-night bar scene always produce great material. So get excited. You get to live vicariously through these professional miscreants all from the comfort of your seat.

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