What People Don’t Understand: The Bipolar Ride of Self-Esteem That is Standup Comedy

eric barry standup comedy mic

I recently went on a date, and during that date I was asked what I do. As in, for a living.

It’s a tough question to be asked for someone in my position. You see, I do standup comedy. Which is to say, I don’t make a living doing what I do. Sure, I could tell them that I write for a sex and comedy site, or that I host a sex and comedy podcast, but when it comes to making a living, the fact still remains that I don’t.

I feel lucky when I’m paid $5 for a show. Maybe there’s even a free drink or two that comes with it. Generally, if I do make $5, that money is just enough to cover the bus fare and a tip for the bartender serving me. The rest of the time I’ve invested in working I’m paid in laughs and bipolar rides of self-esteem.

Jokes are so much more than the 10 minutes they take to perform. Comedians spend hours writing, refining, and memorizing their material. Then we take that material to open mics where we wait in line for literally hours with other comics wanting to signup to perform, at which point we’ll wait for hours more in a dank bar, listening to those same comics tell the same jokes, night after night, before being given our own chance to do the same.

We drink a lot. The monotony of the scene practically demands it. When we crush on stage, we celebrate by drinking. When we bomb on stage, we find ways to forget.

Music is not like comedy. When a band isn’t playing their best, it’s hard to tell from the audience’s reaction. When people are talking during a music set, it holds little bearing on the outcome of the band’s performance. And when that band does fail, they fail as a group. And when you hear a song you like, you say “let me hear that again, and again, and again.” No groupies follow comedians on tour.

Every time a comic gets on stage, he is saying to a room full of strangers, “Judge me. Judge everything I’m about to say. And if you don’t like me, you won’t just think ‘Oh, he’s not funny.’ You will think less of me. You will decide over the course of that 10 minutes whether or not you like me.” It’s insane.

Most of us have to hold side jobs in order to make ends meet, though few of those jobs offer us healthcare. We talk about being on Food Stamps, we talk about being unemployed, we talk about the unhealthy lives we lead, and we talk about all of this because people find humor in the piteous. But for many of us, when we leave that stage we’re praying to god we have $5 waiting in a tip jar.

The girl back at my date thought I was rich. “But comics are famous!” she reasoned.

Comics are not famous. Comics are struggling and grasping at every modicum of promotion, compensation, and success they’re able to, and when you do finally notice one of them that means there are a thousand more you didn’t.

“I love comedy!” People will say. “The Big Bang Theory is my favorite show.” “I know lots of comedians. Have you heard of Louis CK or Anthony Jeselnik?”

Most people do not know standup comedy. Most people do not know the raw, excruciatingly unhealthy world of waiting in those bars night after night, hoping that maybe in 5, 10, 15 years, they too can follow the paths of the Anthony Jeselnik’s and Louis CK’s.

Here’s the thing: people think they know what standup comedy is even though most people have never been to a standup comedy show in their life.

There’s a perception that standup comics  are inherently depressed, but the reality is it’s the lifestyle that performing demands that is depressing.

Are we curing cancer? Absolutely not. Do we have things of importance to say? Sometimes. But next time you’re at an independent comedy show, know that each of those performers has worked to create a show for you.

So appreciate that. And don’t heckle. And for fuck’s sake leave $5 in the tip jar.

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This week’s podcast: Episode 58: Buck Angel & On-Air Vibrator Test

About Eric Barry

Eric Barry is a Chicago comedian, writer, and creator of Full Disclosure, voted "Best Sex-Positive" podcast by the Chicago Reader. He holds a B.A. in Theater & Performance Studies from UC Berkeley, and his work has been featured on Huffington Post, Cosmo, SF Chronicle, and more. He is currently working on developing a pilot based off his time in the sex work industry.

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