Sunday, April 21, 2013

Satori-al Splendor

Every now and again, human beings (and for this specific essay,  comedians) are blessed with moments of  satori, which is a Japanese Buddhist term encompassing moments of  awakening, comprehension, understanding and clarity. They are usually fleeting, sometimes lasting only and minute or two but occasionally longer than that. Whatever their length, a satori experience carries a lifelong impact and an elevation in consciousness, often carrying the being experiencing it to new levels of awareness. Sometimes they are blinding, as was the case with the biblical story of Paul on the road to Damascus. I’ve always found him a fascinating character because clearly, they describe someone whose satori experience was so intense that his life was turned around because of it. 

But satori is not always so sudden. It can come over time, the result of a single experience and/or an accumulation of knowledge. It is the culmination of the magnificent human brain processing, dissecting, filtering, sorting, and realization that brings the person to that moment of clarity. Personally, I have had several of them throughout my life; the most significant, of course, was becoming aware of my gender dysphoria.

Now that you know have some background on this wonderful, glorious gift of the universe, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with standup comedy?   

In my first incarnation as a comedian (1980-2000), I can clearly remember wanting to be a writer of clever observations a la Seinfeld. My roommate at the time, Nick Cosentino, had that ability in spades, and I can recall feelings of jealousy toward him because I did not. What I had to offer on stage was more of a personal story, and I capitalized on the usual subjects, family, children spouse and sex. It was an okay act which made me a nice living for a long time, but it was not satisfying to me because even then I knew the part of me that really wanted to speak onstage was living in the shadows. Something dark was haunting me, and although I didn’t know what it was at the time, I was deathly afraid of displaying it even though my instincts screamed that I should. As a result, the potential of my act never materialized and my talent suffered.  Instead of running full speed toward my truth, I ran away and hid from it, mostly because it was too painful to face. I quit comedy because I was getting closer to my truth, not because I was tired of performing. The constant internal struggle between what I really wanted to talk about and my fear of what the public would accept was debilitating. The best thing I could do for myself at that time was to get out.

It would be eleven years before I set foot on a comedy stage again. This time, I decided, I would do it on my terms only. I made a vow that there would be no secrets anymore. All that I was as a person, all that I felt inside, would be fair game up there. I didn’t know if anyone would buy it and to be honest, I didn’t care. If I were to be driven back to anonymity, it would not be because I had feared my truth on stage, but because the public had decided that I was not their cup of tea. I would then go away quietly and permanently.

A year and a half later, I can happily tell you that it appears I took the correct path. I have gone from people telling me that they thought I had either died or went off my nut, to headlining once more. This spring will see the production of a television pilot which I co-created with the insanely talented comedian Joanne Filan. I have a manager now who believes that we are destined for great things. And my audiences have responded in ways that I never could have imagined in the past. Most of all, I’m free up there, unfettered by fear. It is a glorious time and I have never been happier. All of which leads up to this current moment of satori.  
In the last few months, my performance skills have improved, and thus my confidence, which is a key ingredient necessary for a comic to grow.

Because of this new-found confidence, I’ve noticed that my act has taken an interesting turn in its subject matter recently. Conscious of my personal vow, I’ve begun to dig deeper and deeper into those areas on which I had previously placed an internal censor and as a result, the responses I’ve gotten from my audiences have also grown in intensity. I did not realize how much progress I’d made until I ran into a couple in the parking lot after last night’s show.

I do a piece (a work in progress) on growing up with abusive parents, particularly my mother’s mental illness issues. It’s a somewhat dark piece and I always sense the audience’s anxiety level rise when I begin it. But here’s what the woman in the parking lot said to me about it.

“I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. I could relate to everything you were saying about your mother and father, because I had experiences that were very similar”

We spoke for about fifteen minutes. She revealed so much about her difficult childhood, and then she said something that flipped on the satori light.

“A lot of people in that room tonight felt the same way, but were afraid to ever talk or God forbid, laugh about it. Thank you for bringing it out in the open using humor.”

Comedians use common experiences to generate laughter with audiences. The people laugh because they recognize themselves in the comic’s piece. But I had never realized until that moment, that the horrors of my childhood were not mine alone. Others had experienced them with more or less severity, but the scars remained for all of us and needed to be addressed in a public forum other than a group therapy session.  What was so enlightening to me was that I was not alone and that this subject could be dealt with in a comedic manner.

Self-Analytical comedy is not everyone’s strength or forte. Observationalists will always gravitate to that form and I have great respect for it; Prop and musical acts too. But it is to the comedian that wants to know the why and how of whom they are that I urge to take the chance of self revelation up there. Step close to your personal edge. And when that fear starts to well up inside as you do so, take another step. Over time, you will see that your act will become something unlike any other comedian out there, because your story is unlike any other. As your skill grows, so will your voice. You’ll find that once you’ve taken those steps, material will gush from you as never before. It may come as a complete piece,  thought or a phrase or a subject, but it will come. Most of all, have faith in your moments of satori. That’s the universe telling you that you’re on the right track.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat.  Abbondanza!


Friday, April 19, 2013

Raging Innocence

There is no better day for a sixth grader than Friday. Just after lunch, all thought of learning disappears and is replaced with the rambunctious anxiety of the weekend ahead and the adventures it held for us. In my beloved Fairview, NJ, that meant stickball, baseball card flipping, practicing with my band, The Untamed, and hanging out on the street with friends on the steps of St. John the Baptist School, which was just across Walker Street from my apartment. At eleven years old, much of the world’s ugliness has not chipped away at the soul and the universe can be measured in several square city blocks.

And so, on this particular November Friday in 1963, we expected nothing different until Sister Marie Rene paid an unusual visit to our class. She seemed in a hurry as she glided across the floor in that angelic way that only nun can. It’s as if their feet never touch the floor. They are little black and white Hovercraft who do the Lord’s work.

Sister Rene’s eyes seemed soft, weary and moist as she whispered something into the ear of our teacher, Sister Jane Aloysius. Whatever the message was, it was brief in nature for she left the classroom as suddenly as she entered. It wasn’t until Sister Jane’s countenance had changed dramatically and tears had welled up in her eyes that we knew something wasn’t right.

“Class,” she began tentatively, “I’ve just been told that President Kennedy has been shot. We don’t know how bad he is, but in a couple of minutes, the radio is going to be broadcasting over the P.A. system.”

The clock on the wall, which prior to Sister Jane’s announcement had ticked happily toward 3 pm and freedom now thudded ominously with endless space between clicks as we awaited the news. Finally the speaker next to the clock crackled to life and the voice coming from it was unmistakable even to our class who cared nothing for the news of the world. It was Walter Cronkite.

“Dallas...President Kennedy.... assassination attempt...two or three shots.... Parkland Memorial Hospital... Last Rites dead”

It was all a blur at that point, all happening so fast until shortly after 1 pm when the announcement came from Walter Cronkite via Dan Rather in Dallas that our President was dead; thus marked the end of my age of childhood innocence.

That weekend, instead of running and playing, I sat gripped in fear and sorrow over what had taken place in the country. I watched as President Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One with Lady Bird beside him and Jackie Kennedy, still in shock and still covered in her blood-stained outfit, stood by the coffin as it was unloaded from the plane. I watched in shock as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby in front of the entire country just two days later.

I wondered how it could happen here. Here I was, still feeling the effects of my parents’ divorce, feeling alone and strange, and now the roots of my country, the one place where I was supposed to be safe had been pulled out of the ground and rode in that funeral cortege to that place in Arlington, Virginia where the President was to be buried. There was Caroline and John-John saluting when just weeks earlier he had been playing under his Dad’s desk in the Oval Office and Life Magazine had shown us all how happy they were.  How could this be? What was happening to America?

In the years to come, I would be witness to so many more moments like that one, though November 22 will always stand out in my memory as if it happened yesterday. The murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy only a few years later would trigger the memory of Dallas once more. Riots and bloodshed just twenty minutes from my home in Newark, NJ, bombings of churches in which innocent little girls were killed, students shot by National Guard troops at Kent State University, riots at the Chicago Convention and in Watts, my country nearly torn apart by a war in Viet Nam,  would all follow. Columbine, 9/11, Aurora, Tucson, Newtown, and now Boston were still to come. Each time a new group of eleven year olds would hear the news maybe from a parent or teacher. And each time, a new generation would lose their insulation of innocence to wonder the same things about their country. Horrific events have sadly become a rite of passage for America’s youth it seems and a way of life for us older folk. And yet each time one occurs we ask, how could this happen in America? Things like this are supposed to happen in far away places full of strange looking and fanatical people, but not here.

The truth of the matter is that our country’s history is rife with similar tragedies of lesser and greater proportion. We’d like to believe that the seemingly recent spike in horrific events is a relatively new phenomenon, but the reality is that you would be hard pressed to find a decade where one or more of these things didn’t occur. In fact the real surprise would be if we could get through an entire decade without one.

But we are an idealistic people, a nation of eternal optimists who believe in the better nature of mankind.. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the original Transcendentalist would be proud of us I think because over and over again, in the face of profound sorrow and pain, we choose instead to imagine a reality where love abounds and triumphs over dastardly acts such as this most recent one in Boston. Instead of spiraling down into anarchy, distrust of one another and hatred for those who do us harm, we reinforce our vision of a world where peace and love abound and seem genuinely perplexed when someone perpetrates a heinous act which contradicts that vision.

This view of ourselves seems naïve and Pollyanna-like around the world perhaps, but it is our greatest treasure as Americans. We choose to believe that the founding principles of our country are genuine and that we are a collective family. And because of that belief, the vast majority of us hold fast in our commitment to make America a better place during our time here by elevating those principles.

These events will not stop in our lifetime or in the lifetimes of the many generations to come. Someone will always come along who feels disenfranchised enough, or angry enough, or will be mentally ill enough to remind us of the black thread of evil that runs throughout the land and which occasionally becomes frayed enough to rip the fabric of our souls. But age and hindsight will eventually reveal to everyone that although horror shows itself from time to time, the goodness of our people will triumph. We will see that in general, we live remarkably peacefully and that the ideal of America is in the hearts of its people and not its government. And we will pass from this planet choosing to focus on the positivity that abounds in our hearts and the collective heart of our people.

Mourn the dead and wounded once more. Hold the hand of a stranger in these times and share the love of friendship and comradeship for this moment of sorrow. But resolve to walk away from the belief that fear and despair will triumph here because it will not. Not now. Not ever.

I would like to sign off with the words of Emerson, who was a pretty insightful guy. Peace and love to you all. .    

“Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.” 
Ralph Waldo Emerson