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
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!