Rationally, I never had a chance as a stand-up. It’s simple common sense. If you hate being recognized or touched or complimented, and I did, you probably shouldn’t be trying to get famous.
Fortunately, I thought my love for the art would trump all that, paving the way for 10 years that I wouldn’t trade for anything and led to television writing, where I got to be funny without spending every night in a bar. Maybe that’s why we don’t get smart until we’re older: so we can make wonderful mistakes like that.
I thought I made my peace with my journey years ago. Then last week several videos resurfaced. Max, an old stand-up buddy from New York, posted a compilation of himself at about the same time a very nice person uploaded footage of me performing in a show I didn’t even remember doing. My nephew saw this and was moved to dust off a couple of ancient television appearances. They should be a pleasant nostalgic experience, happy memories of simpler times.
Instead, I haven’t been able to sit through any of them.
The problem with watching my friend’s reel was envy. He hit more of the career benchmarks than I did, including stand-up’s Holy Grail: “panel” on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” It was a big deal to get a Carson shot, as we hiply called it. It was a huge deal if Johnny let you sit down.
We started at around the same time. We both had enough talent, and we both worked hard, but Max worked smart. He saw comedy for the business that it is, so he embraced his type (New Yorker, heavy) and made the most of it. He was good at making people want to help him, and when people helped him, he did the job.
My plan, if you can call it that, was to become so good that stardom would find me. In one of the seedy bars in Jersey where I worked most nights, where the owners turned the disco ball on halfway through your set to remind people there was dancing afterwards. Turns out fewer major motion pictures get cast in the Lake Hopatcong Laff Haus than you’d think.
This odd sense of entitlement led to a tendency to shoot myself in the foot when opportunity did present itself. One night at the Improv, a friend introduced me to her companion. Let’s call him “William.” My friend was auditioning for a TV show that night. I was not. William asked me why. I said that while my friend was very funny and deserved any audition (I was nothing if not gracious), other newer, more talented comics, like myself, couldn’t get audition spots because the clubs rewarded the comics who had been there longer. William said, “I don’t know. When a comic is ready, he’ll get his chances. These shows are pretty anxious to find new faces.”
They clearly weren’t too anxious to find mine, which could only mean one thing: William knew nothing about show business. The rest of the conversation went something like this:
Me: So, are you a stand-up, William?
Me: Have you ever done any stand-up?
William: No. No, I haven’t.
Me: Oh. Well, no sense cluttering up your opinions with information, then, is there?
William smiled a world-weary smile, at which point my friend steered me to the other end of the bar and informed me that William booked the hottest talk show on television. I doubt if Max ever smack-talked himself out of an audition like that. Maybe envy isn’t keeping me from watching his video, or my own performances. It could be plain old embarrassment.
My aversion to my own performances could also be like how people hate hearing their recorded voices. Or it could be the 1980’s clothes. I did stand-up from the Skinny Leather Tie/Members Only Jacket Era through the height of the Bill Cosby Designer Sweater Fiasco, and the farthest I got into any of my videos was one introduction. I saw a very thin version of myself wearing horizontal stripes that at my current weight would make me look like a Rothko tapestry. I couldn’t turn it off fast enough.
People tell me the clothes in the other videos made similarly bold statements. Apparently, in one of them I say something like, “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Who puked on his sweater?’”
If the clothes are too upsetting to watch, I can only imagine what unresolved feelings I still have about the performances themselves. Like I said, right now I remember that time very fondly. I learned life lessons that have been invaluable. It may be better not to see how far short of your memories of yourself you fell.
This is a difference between performing and most other careers. Insurance salesmen don’t have to watch that time they totally screwed up the difference between term and single premium and feel their shoes fill up with flop sweat all over again. Or worse, have a loved one watch old video of them and say things like, “That’s funny. I remember you being more alive back then.”
Yes. I might just let sleeping dogs lie for a while.
Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at email@example.com.