“The first and best victory is to conquer self; to be conquered by self is of all things most shameful and vile.”- Plato.
It’s Sunday morning at around ten-thirty. I slept in today because I did two shows last night, and the adrenalin rush from performing didn’t subside until around 4 am.
I’ve had my two cups of steaming black coffee, the fog in my brain is slowly lifting, and I want to get these thoughts down while the memory of last night is still fresh in my head.
The Plato quote seemed fitting for today, given that this past week has seen a couple of these victories over self for me personally, and a tragic example of defeat by self in the case of Whitney Houston. While the two seem to be unrelated on the surface, I wish to examine both because last night, in what was a truly life altering moment, the news of her death swept through the audience in the middle of what was arguably the best show I’ve had since coming back, thanks to the miracle of smart phones.
There is a back story here as well that I’d like to bring into the mix because one of the events of the previous few days could have easily played a part in ruining an otherwise stellar week. Let me bring you up to date.
Back in the days when I used to travel with the other tribe, I was always working as a standup, be it in
or on the road. Those were halcyon moments; work was plentiful and most times I could get it with a few phone calls if I had the occasional last minute fallout of a gig. I worked with a number of agents and bookers and my relationship with them was pretty good. New York City
There was one, however, who had a reputation for continually promising work to comics, not returning phone calls, and for putting comics in rooms that were extremely far from home and paying very little money. Despite all of this, I liked him personally because I always felt that his biggest issue was not in being a heartless bastard by playing with comics’ heads (which are fragile to begin with), but that he was just so disorganized and couldn’t keep track of the promises he made. I considered him a friend back then and still did up until earlier this week.
When I decided to re-enter the world of stand-up, I knew that I would have to depend on bookers from my past to at least get started up. Many of them are gone now (out of the business or dead), but there were still a few around, and I looked to them as a source for rebuilding. I hoped that our friendship would make the journey a little easier by opening some doors to stage time.
Most of them did, and I understood that I was now an unfamiliar quantity; someone they had known, but who had undergone a change so drastic that there was little likelihood of her being able to regain her previous stature onstage. Add into their trepidation my age (bookers love young, hip, upcoming people), and I certainly can appreciate why they might be hesitant to ‘give me a look’. The booker mentioned earlier was one of those people.
I have been calling him about twice a week, for the last month, and always with the same result: Either his assistant would tell me that he was busy (which I understood) and that he would call me back (which he never did), or that he had “stepped out for a second”, even though I could hear him speaking on the phone in the background.
As I listened to the blathering of said assistant, I had at that instant, an explosive moment of satori, a Buddhist term for clarity and understanding. Suddenly, I understood all the times my friend Nick had told me that I didn’t need those people to be successful. I didn’t need the $75 gig in
, where I would be opening for Schlomo, the Mexican Rabbi Juggler. I had a choice; I could cave in to my feelings of low self-esteem and continue to beg for work, or I could elevate myself beyond that agent’s opinion of me and move to higher ground. I chose the latter, and fired off an email telling him exactly how I felt. In my mind, his not booking me was his loss, not mine. I would be moving on to bigger and better things. It was the first of my little victories in conquering self for this week. Roanoke, Virginia
Two days later, I was in the car, bound for
where the cast of a new weekly variety show I’m producing was meeting for the first time. All the way there, the self gnawed at my heart, filling me with fear that this idea was going to be a huge disaster. All of that disappeared the moment we sat around the table and began to plan. Philadelphia
These folks are incredibly talented, and the vibe in the room as we brainstormed ideas was nothing short of electric. When I left there, I not only felt that we would soon have standing room only outside the place in a very short period of time, but that this thing would be bigger than anything I had ever imagined. Once again, the self that had held me back for so long lost the battle to Champion Choice.
The capper to this new way of thinking came last night, when I appeared at the Comedy Works at Georgine’s Restaurant in
. I was booked here by Mike Kaplan about a month or so ago for the big Valentine’s Day dinner/show, which is held upstairs in the main banquet room. It’s a big money night for the club, for the restaurant and the show has got to be top-notch, lest there be about two hundred pissed off people. Bristol, Pennsylvania
I knew that Kaplan had taken a chance on booking me. A month ago, I didn’t yet have the material to pull off a half-hour show and there was no guarantee that I would do well. But he made the choice to hire me anyway and I certainly didn’t want to let him (or myself) down. I promised him that I would have the material and deliver the goods. I promised me that I would not fail. I chose to succeed.
It isn’t easy to be fearless on a stage when doing standup. There’s a risk that a bit or an idea may not be accepted by the audience. In the past, I had always worried about that, and limited the amount of chances I took up there. Often, I would go the safer route for the sake of the guaranteed laugh. And just as often, I’d leave the stage at the end of my show with the “shameful” and “vile” feeling in the pit of my stomach to which Plato refers.
Such was not the case last night, for I hit it from moment One with a sense of empowerment and fearlessness. During the show, I could feel this insane, intense energy coursing through me; a light that burned so bright and strong that I felt as if it were radiating right out of me and bathing the entire audience in it. I brought them close to me, embraced them, and they reciprocated. It was a transcendental experience and it was all the result of the choices I had made to conquer self and get to the truth of who I was up there.
The second moment of satori came about halfway through the show, when one of the audience members mentioned that Ms. Houston had passed away. Apparently the news had just broken the story and he, along with a number of other audience members had just been texted on their phones with it.
An event of that magnitude could have trashed the whole show, if I had chosen to allow it. Instead, something very different took place.
At the very same moment I announced it, a new energy took hold of me. It was the fearlessness that had eluded me for so long, and suddenly, it had propelled me to a mind-place that I had never, ever known onstage before. From that point on, I felt like I was riding a rocket, kicking beyond the gravity of earth and soaring into the vast, infinite possibilities of space.
On the way home, I tried to analyze what had occurred, and what I came up with seemed to make some sense. I think that in that moment, I realized that this brilliantly talented woman, who had it all, chose to let her self defeat her. Now I didn’t know Ms. Houston at all, but I know enough about show business to be aware that a performer never, ever lets his or her public in on their demons. The average person has enough of their own troubles in life, and goes to see performers because of the illusion they provide the consumer. What we offer is an escape from reality for a short time. But sometimes a performer’s demons gain too much power because he or she allows them to, and they take over the whole shebang; publicly and privately. Such was Whitney’s case.
And so I think at that moment on stage, I decided a number of things in less than a second. First and foremost, I will never ever let anyone impose their prejudices about me upon me. I ...and I alone, will decide who I am and how I choose to present myself to the world.
Second, whether I am a success or not is irrelevant when it comes to either comedy or my life. I will choose my path, follow my heart, believe in myself, and never let the self conquer me. I may have plenty of demons which plague me on a nearly daily basis, but I will conquer each and every one of them.
Finally, to those who think they hold the power of my professional future in their hands, I say, you may hinder me, but you won’t stop me. If you close a door, I will find another one to open. The misery of a failed self is not me. The joy of a true self is.
I wish people like Ms. Houston had learned these things in their lives. Her needless, senseless death is tragic, not because she died so young although that in itself is a loss, but because she died so unhappy. Here is someone who had more than it all, and still chose to let her personal demons conquer her. This is the shameful and vile part of Plato’s statement. And so, if you really want to pay tribute to her, then learn from her. Taking the lesson that you decide how all of this is going to turn out does far more to honor her memory than posting a video of her singing on Facebook.
I hope that all of you who read this with any regularity can apply some of what I have tried to say here to your own lives. This lesson of conquering self is not limited to the foibles and frustration of show business. It is the key to peace. And really, at the end of our lives, peace is all that we take with us.
That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat! Abbondanza!