Why Stand Up Comedy is the Most Human (& Most Difficult) Artform
Unpacking My Newest Obsession
Trying a new writing style here. Much more stream of consciousness focused, with less prose. Bear with me as I see this through
So, a funny thing happened recently —just like the emperor, I got my groove back. I’d been feeling down on myself and out of it, uninspired (see 3-month hiatus). Just kinda going through the motions, getting older, the usual.
Until two weekends ago.
I went to see my favorite rapper perform his first concert in 2 years over the Thanksgiving weekend, and last weekend saw my first stand-up show in New York City, where two comic legends (Aziz Ansari & Chris Rock) unexpectedly showed up and performed sets at the iconic Comedy Cellar.
In short, it was sick.
I knew someone big was coming because they asked us to lock our phones up in plastic bags before we went in, but still was in shock when it happened. At my first show?!? How am I so lucky.
I’d recently read Aziz’s book on modern romance (titled as such) that he co-authored with a sociologist and honestly wasn’t a huge fan. The material was fascinating — the book did a deep dive on how our values and attitudes towards dating and what we find attractive have changed with the advent of online dating, rejecting some of my assumptions that we’ve become more superficial and more judgey.
What I didn’t like about the book was Aziz’s sense of humor. To me, it was a bit childish and overly sarcastic — just not something I vibed with. Which makes it even more astounding just how absolutely blown away I was by his set.
Most of it was crowd work-based, where he went around the front rows asking for stories on areas of his life he’d been entering, from proposals to child names, finding ways to make the same lighthearted jokes I hated reading but loved seeing in person. His quirky intonations and high energy definitely resonated on stage; I even got roasted by saying I turn my phone off before I go to sleep (“good job, because we wanna make sure you can’t use your phone when you’re asleep, nice” he replied.)
Side note — he got a flip phone recently and talked about it a lot during his set. I’m seriously considering doing the same now.
Above all, though, it was his storytelling that stuck out to me. Aziz’s ability to engage and connect with the audience had me captivated in what must’ve been 30 minutes that felt like 10. I’ve never clapped so hard for a performance in my life. For those curious, Chris Rock was solid too, but he was just trying out jokes he had written on paper, which were funny, but not as powerful of an experience overall.
Anyway, what Aziz’s performance last weekend showed me was for the first time what stand-up does — serves as a powerful facilitator of shared companionship & intimacy at scale. We all know how humor is used as a tool to disarm people, and standup is basically a test of a comic’s ability to get a bunch of strangers to become comfortable enough (through his/her example) with each other to emotionally open up. Basically, they trick people into being vulnerable through humor while also holding their complete, undivided attention. If that’s not hard enough, standup is also the only performance art form where you get visible & audible feedback on how you’re doing in real-time.
I noticed just how much comics would react to the response of a certain joke, their faces tensing up or lightening based on the amount of laughter they heard (often compared to what they’ve grown to expect from previous sets), then continue to push through to the next one. Comics live in uncertainty on a perpetual basis every time they open their mouth, with no artifice or ruse to hide behind. Talk about a tough gig.
Laughter has always helped me through my darkest times — my early memories of side-splitting laughter from Kevin Hart specials I watched during late high school nights of homework and more homework are very close to my heart. It was in those dark rooms I learned the importance of laughter as an antidote to many of life’s ills. As I grew older and began to realize just how intense of a person I was, I began to appreciate standup as a way to lighten my outlook on the world and for my own sake, take myself less seriously.
Now that I’ve gotten a taste of the real thing, I’m hooked. Since last weekend, I’ve obsessively planned who I want to see live and booked as many reservations at the Cellar as I can. I’ve even started looking at a lot of my daily experiences through the lens of stand-up and writing material off of it. I’ve found tons of parallels to the longer form stuff I do here — both are forms of storytelling, albeit for different purposes. One of my life goals is to perform a set at an open mic somewhere in New York (while I’m still here) and I certainly intend on completing it.
Now that I’ve seen stand-up for what it represents, I have so much respect for those who provide it as a service to bring laughter into the world. Lord knows we all need more of it.