Stand-Up Level I was the first class I enrolled in for decades. What on earth makes an old dude pursue a course that by its very nature leads to fear, insecurity and discomfort just to make people laugh? Because I think there is talent that I’ve acknowledged and enjoyed but never respected. I feel like an amateur magician that has spent his life doing silly parlor tricks but never studied Harry Houdini. The only way I know to show respect to your talent is to try to make it better. Anyway, how hard could it be. I felt like I had a lifetime of stand-up behind me so how hard would it be. It was a challenge!
My own brand of comedy has always been through storytelling and spontaneous one-liners. The first thing I had to acknowledge was that I had been doing stand-up all wrong without knowing it. Our instructor, Hannah Harvey Vaughan, with the assistance of Wes Corwin, taught that there is a significant difference between storytelling and stand-up. I thought they were the same. My storytelling allowed me to express myself using words to paint the pictures my audience could see, while expressing my humor. I’m proud of my storytelling. I never felt the need to use profanity or bad language when telling a story – not because I’m a prude which I am definitely not. Using prosaic language, I could paint a picture that was far more shocking than using bad language. It also gave me plausible deniability when someone thought I was being too dirty. I could generally tell people all I did was paint the picture, if their interpretation of the picture was “dirty”, that was on them – but the reality was it was they saw the picture exactly the way I painted it. In my brain, my stories were like chamber music.
Stand-up is all about the joke and requires the comic to remove all of the words that don’t support the joke. Damn, that sounds so simple, but for me it was so difficult. The critique I received weekly was that I had too much “fluff” in my material. In the nicest possible ways. I was encouraged to use a butcher knife to remove the fluff but I kept picking up a paring knife. It was all about the music in my head. Have you ever seen an orchestra when the musicians are warming up? The resulting sound is discordant. There is no soothing music, no common rhythm and no uniting beat. In other words, it’s musical chaos. Every time I would cut the fluff it didn’t sound right in my head. Very, very slowly, I began thinking I was listening for the wrong music. I was listening for Beethoven and stand-up would never fit that mold. So, I began listening for jazz. It’s taken some time, but I’m finally starting to hear the horns, sharp starts and stops and the joy that comes from the brassiness.
I approached my first day of class with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. Since I didn’t know anyone who had attended a comedy class, I was looking at a blank canvas. I was a little nervous on my first day of class because it had been so long since I had been in a training environment and I suspected I would be the oldest person there (and I was). A student I was sitting next to slew the gorilla from the room when she observed that I obviously the oldest person in the class. When I read my homework in class, several straight students made suggestions on ways I could make it gayer. It was a safe space for all of us. The class was diverse with men and women whose ancestors came from every corner of the world – some generations ago and some very recently. It was a beautifully diverse tapestry of what makes our community, our state and our country great.
I haven’t found my voice yet. I have a good idea of what I want it to be, but I’m still exploring. I’m a normal, not so well-adjusted guy that’s still taking baby steps. While still in Level I, I talked to Hannah that I didn’t want to be a gay comic. I want to be a normal guy who, as a comic, talks about his life and experiences – some of those experiences will be gay themed because that is who I am. Yes, I’m a proud gay man, but I want to appeal to wider audiences to share perspectives and viewpoints that are unique to me. I didn’t think she would understand because I was looking through a lens that was much too narrow. Hannah understood because she was conscious about how gender sometimes impacts how people perceive her when she just wants to be seen as a good comic, not a good female comic. I’ve seen her stand-up and she is an amazing comic. The difference is subtle but that’s what makes it such a healthy challenge. If you’re thinking about putting your toe in the water, my suggestion is that you dive in doing a belly flop taking Level I. Belly flops have always embarrassed me but I’ve always learned from them.
Kerry is a student of stand-up comedy at the Dallas Comedy House. He lives happily with his long-suffering husband of many years and enjoys the humor he sees all around him every day.