Watching the Audience: Why I Did Standup Comedy and Why I Stopped

Published November 22, 2015 on Medium.

Public speaking. What an irrational fear. Yet, we are all in one way or another are terrified of it. Some harness that fear and turn it into a skill set. Others retreat into the crevasses of society, taking on jobs and lifestyles that do not demand any formal public speaking. In a digital world, we as humans no longer rely on our voices; we rely on posts and tweets, images, and upvotes. We share our opinions not on soapboxes but in textboxes. We no longer stand up on stage and watch the audience.

I wanted to be an entertainer ever since I was in elementary school, and for many years, I considered it less of a yearning and more of a destiny. The class was my audience and my teachers were my toughest critics. I got as many laughs as I did detentions and it was becoming clear that I had a knack for timing — just not in terms of professionalism.

If you don’t hit the audience with a punch line at the appropriate time, you’ve lost the opportunity, the soul of the joke. A poorly timed joke is just a corny statement. There is no time to wait for a silent break in any conversation. As a thirteen-year-old kid, I knew if I didn’t shout out the funny thought in my head when I thought it was funny, it would be gone, and the world will continue spinning one laugh less.

At the end of my seventh-grade experience, I was awarded the T.A.P. award. Never heard of it? Well, that is because it’s a bullshit award my teacher made in an effort to find something genuine to offer me in life. T.A.P. stood for “Time and Place” as in “There is a time and place for everything, and right now you should be quiet, Elliot.”

I accepted the award with pride, because it was something I earned. I remember looking around the class and seeing other students receive worthless, thoughtless certificates with horrendous compliments written by the teacher. Notable awards I’m making up but might as well have been given: “Most Lovely Shoes,” “The Best Teammate,” and “Genuine Friend.” Ugh! I wanted to vomit. I’ll keep my T.A.P. award, thanks.

My greatest achievement.

Perhaps it was kismet that I got into comedy: first as a fan, then as a hobbyist, and finally as a professional (the term “professional” is used loosely). But the thing about comedy is that it is not something that happens alone; performing comedy is a social act. You cannot tell jokes to yourself.

I really enjoyed making people laugh, but it came with a cost. The label. I sacrificed numerous things to be the funny guy, and one of them is credibility. After a while, people just assumed I was being sarcastic. In strenuous situations like a group project, my ideas would be shunned or taken as an unprompted attempt at humour. Later, once I started taking comedy seriously and told people about it, the intensity of other people’s preconceptions rose. “Tell me something funny!” is a line a comedian will hear often at social gatherings. Because 95% of people in the world think they themselves are funny, they’ll usually require proof that you are in fact what you claim to be. They are the best judges of humour after all. It’s the same way we all look at an attractive person and collectively go, “Yep! That person is attractive. Approved. Carry on.”

If it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient in anything, then I was 1.8% of the way to mastering comedy. An average of five minutes of stage time a week for one and a half years was hardly tenure. I was a Starbucks barista as long as I was a stand-up comedian, and Starbucks is very similar to comedy; after all, you acknowledge your audience and you behave accordingly. No need to think of entertaining, just be yourself. And like amateur stand-up comedy, the customers are not really there for your sake; they just want a drink, and you just so happen to be there.

When I told my friends and family that I have stopped doing stand up, many uttered grievances, sometimes in disappointment that they didn’t get to see me perform — in which they would tempt me to tell a joke — and others times with apprehension. “Oh… why did you stop? (Were you that bad?)”

My mother, who had once found my aspiration insufferable, had now become my number one fan. Passing up an opportunity to be a lawyer was one thing, but giving up on comedy now when so many doors were now closed, left a grave uncertainty in her life. After all, who would take care of her when she’s old if my stupid son is unemployed and not funny? Not Dane Cook that’s for sure. There wasn’t a final show where I bowed out. I just stopped asking for stage time. I told those booking shows that I was taking a break, trying to regroup.

I wonder what I would be if I didn’t stop. Would I be booking my own shows, headlining after performing at local bars and clubs for seven years, or would I just be another comedian like so many other comedians, spending my day in the back of the bar, waiting for my five minutes — still working at Starbucks during the day. I look back and I can’t image my success, which as someone who thought that entertainment was his destiny was a little heartbreaking. I was a carpenter in a world without lumber. I couldn’t help but ask: What happened to me?

My first paycheck as a comedian. 50 big ones! (Photo taken in the Matrix where I’m famous)

There was a moment on stage, I remember; I had my audio recorder on a stool with a notebook full of notes, usually one random word followed by another, tracking the order of my set. I remember looking down at the list and reading the next word on it “Living room.”

I loved wordplay and comedy allowed me to explore it in the weirdest ways. “Living room” was one of those words that had so many meanings, but is so dramatic in a literal sense. It’s like how a scarecrow is actually there to scarecrows. The punch line of the joke comes after a ramble about how ridiculous the notion of a living room is, because “every room you’ve ever been in is a living room.” Bam! Comedy in my books. However, when I told that joke that day a part of my inside was dying. I guess I wasn’t in a living room anymore. Har har!

I stopped performing standup because I didn’t have any conviction to what I was saying. I stopped performing stand-up because what I was saying was irrelevant. I stopped doing standup because I didn’t want to waste people’s precious time with mindless wordplay and frictionless jokes. I wasn’t a good comedian because I wasn’t tackling any important issues. I was twenty years old and I had nothing to fight for except my own pride. Pride came in the form of laughter and applause. That is not what a comedian should do, that is not what any public speaker should do.

Public speaking, including comedy, is an act of influence. When an entertainer steps on stage they should bring more than their good looks and charms, they need to have something worth saying, something they are passionate about, something worth sharing. Jokes are delicious. Jokes are tasty. But jokes are cheap. It’s not hard to get a good laugh, but to be able to connect the laughter with something tangible, something genuine, well that is priceless.

I stopped doing standup because I didn’t have a reason to talk. It was elementary school all over again, but now I understood what my teacher was talking about. Time and Place.

Nevertheless, the time has changed and the place where I choose to communicate is not on stage in front of an audience, but instead in the written world, where I can pretend to have some proficiency in articulation.

There is little fear when we communicate online, the same way I had little fear when I spoke up in class. The consequence is light and so we continue to speak into the void. Sometimes people get annoyed, i.e. my teachers. Other times it’s so ephemeral that it goes unnoticed, i.e. my ramblings at the bar. Nevertheless, when we have something to say, we should make sure we are doing it at the right time and place. We should watch our audience and make certain that what we have to offer is more than reminding everyone that they are currently sitting in a living room. Although it’s hard to argue that it is an important reminder, sometimes.

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Sparking interest

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Talking less and asking more will make you more interesting

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Dec. 9, 2015

Every person in the world is filled with his or her own experiences, problems, and knowledge; therefore, everyone in the world is interesting. However, in a social environment we are often put on the spot and are required to present ourselves in the most “interesting” way possible. That’s a lot of pressure. After all, we are all so interesting, and life is but a competition.

It’s natural to list off the most unique things about yourself—things other people wouldn’t have done—in an effort to appear interesting. You’ll talk about the places you’ve traveled, all the cool hobbies you have, and even the accomplishments you’ve made. While it’s important to be entertaining, you must also remember that your interests are one-dimensional. In a conversation, it’s not something you can truly share.

It’s reflex to talk about yourself when you are in a crowd, because that is what you know best. You may feel like the celebrity of the party, but in reality, you are probably dominating the conversation. You’re keeping everybody hostage, and that may taint their engagement with you.

The best way to appear interesting is not to stand centre stage, but rather to sit in the audience. Yes, your backpacking trip to South America is interesting. But learning about your friend’s new computer program may be as interesting, at least to him.

An interesting person is not one that goes off on a tangent, but rather connects interesting topics together, so search for ways to segue into your topics from theirs. While there may not seem to be a link between your vacation and your friend’s computer program, there is, because we are all part of this planet, we all follow human customs, and we all kill boredom with interests. “How does he work on his computer program when he is on vacation?” you may wonder, and therefore, you should ask.

A great way to be interesting is by being around people who are different from you. It may feel like you are on the verge of an argument sometimes, but that is perhaps just a passionate discussion. So you are not religious, but you want to learn. Find someone willing to share his or her faith with you and don’t just talk about how you don’t believe it.

Life is full of little mysteries and each person is a clue. The more people you meet, the more you learn, and the more interesting you become. Being interesting is not the experience that you have alone, but rather what you can learn from other people. Appear open minded, with the capacity to acknowledge other people’s interests. That is more interesting than dressing funny, buying expensive items, and surrounding yourself with people who agree that you are awesome.

Don’t brag about your work ethic, ever

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Why nobody needs to know that you are a hard worker

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Dec. 9, 2015

You think you work hard. Well guess what? Nobody cares. Nobody cares how hard you work. People care if you get the work done or not. How hard you work is your business, and even then it’s just your own perception of yourself, and we know how often that is flawed.

It’s a competitive world out there and hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. However, when you start advertising your efforts as if what you’re doing is so much more significant than everybody else, you are putting a target on your back. You think announcing your hard work will get you praise, but rarely is that the case. Telling someone you’ve worked hard, even if you did, is like a pretty skinny person telling you that they are attractive. On the other hand, if you tell someone that you’ve worked hard and they found flaws in your project, then don’t you look like an idiot?

Wanting people to know that you’ve spent significant time on something is natural. We live in an age where sharing information—regardless of how mundane—is as normal as sharing an elevator. But when you are telling people that you work hard all the time, what you convey is that you are stressed out and under pressure all the time. Many people see hard working people, not as inspiring, but as pitiful. They have to work harder, because they suck at what they are doing. Other people with the same job and same assignment as you are getting it done with ease, but here you are, working hard. Pfft! Don’t make a job sound hard; make a job sound enjoyable and painless.

You might think that your boss wants you to work hard, but that’s not true. Your boss wants you to bite off what you can chew and swallow it well. The Canadian workforce loses $16.6 billion a year in sick days. Keeping you healthy and working consistently is better than having you breaking your back and winding up out of commission. Working recklessly doesn’t impress anyone, not even the person paying you to do so.

If you work hard, the product will speak for itself, and nobody will ever be able to take it away from you. It’s true—sometimes, hard work doesn’t pay off immediately. You can play a great game and still lose. But if you are genuinely putting in the effort, with a set goal in mind, you are not after the praise. You probably don’t even care what other people think. You want to do your best. How you get to your accomplishment doesn’t matter, the key is that you get there.

The right to be racist

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Does honest hate equal harmony?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

How do we hold people accountable for their racist actions? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps their racist actions are justified.

Everyone is a little racist. It doesn’t matter if you belong to a race with privilege or one without; you are a little racist. The thing is, racism doesn’t always come out as hate, very often the solidarity we exhume is an act of boorish racism—sure, it’s not oppression or violence, but acting like a whole coloured community needs your help is a brand of arrogance that sits on one end of the spectrum. I’m not calling you a racist, but I’m saying that if you are, that’s okay.

Sometimes I wonder why there is that divide. Why one brand of people is so intolerant and the other, so righteous. Perhaps it’s the old way of thinking versus the new way of thinking.

I grew up in a conservative Chinese family. My whole life I felt ashamed of the things my parents would say in Cantonese—out in public. They aren’t bad people. They don’t have an AK47 or a diabolical plan for genocide. They just don’t know too many people of different ethnicities, and those they do know have a history of taking advantage of them because they weren’t as well-versed in their “new” country. They see, they feel, they act—just like we all do.

I don’t blame my parents for their behaviour. They have the freedom to say whatever they want and they aren’t hurting anybody. So how can I blame other people for acting the same way?

The majority of my friends are Caucasians. In a way, I’m the token. I think they forget that I’m of a different race most of the time, which is why they are my friends. They rarely call me out and make me feel awkward (but they still do… rarely). However, now and then I catch them in a conversation where the topic falls upon race. I tend to sit back and watch them interact: talking, debating, and agreeing on what is a racist act and what isn’t. I wonder if white supremacists do the same thing but on a different scale. If that’s the case, don’t we all just create our own cultural norm?

If we look at racism not as a thing to eliminate but as a thing to be accountable for, I believe we would live in a more peaceful world. We don’t like everyone, and that’s fine. To not like someone because of his or her race is okay. To not like someone because of their weight, gender, and other factors they can’t control is okay. But own up to it, own up to being an imperfect, shallow person. And allow other people to make the same judgement about you.

We can never know what it feels like to be a different person with different challenges and upbringings. While you may want to call people out for being racist, your actions aren’t as justified as you think. You’ve happened to pick a side, just like how they did. Being tolerant of people means accepting that some people won’t see the world the way you do.

People have the freedom to be racist just like how you have the freedom to be righteous. If we start pulling freedom away from a group of people because they have a different belief, is that not oppression?

One day I hope to be in a room with a group of friends of all colours talking about what racism is to them. I hope, then, we can still all agree.

Wake up and compromise

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The pursuit of dream may not be the same journey as the pursuit of happiness

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Happiness is not getting everything we want. Happiness is accepting what we have.

We all want glory and success. As children, we dream of our achievements as adults and all the possibilities. People will ask what we want to be when we grow up and we’ll list off all the options: actor, athlete, astronaut, doctor, etc. At some point, we need to face reality; perhaps our childhood desires are not what we want forever.

Having a dream is having a goal. When you are young you have all the potential in the world. Nothing seems impossible. You can become a doctor if you want. It’s like buying a lottery ticket, and you are anxiously awaiting the draw. You haven’t lost yet. You haven’t won either. As you grow older, you might realize that you aren’t that interested in medicine, and studying makes you sick. Pursuing a career as a doctor—not only dedicating time and money but also excelling in the programs—is likely to be torturous if that’s the case. So I ask: is it worth it for a well-paying job?

When we talk about dream jobs, we aren’t really talking about the job itself, we are talking about being successful in one particular field. The problem is that our society only shines the spotlight on certain roles, placing them on a higher pedestal than others. The CEO gets the spotlight, the lead actor gets the spotlight, the star athlete gets the spotlight, but we ignore the supporting cast. Rarely do children dream of being part of the pit crew. They want to be the driver.

We want to take our interest and transform it into a lifestyle. The problem with turning hobbies and interests into work is that we turn something we enjoy—music for example—into something tedious. Putting pressure onto anything may often destroy it. And so it goes with dreams.

We chase our dreams, but what we should do is chase our passion. Dreams are a fabrication, while our passions aren’t. Once we accept that, regardless of what we do, we’ll have to work hard, we can then hone in and identify what actually makes us happy—or not. That’s the thing about passion, it changes, and we can allow it to.

It’s not a crime to give up on your dreams. We are lucky to have an opportunity to pursue it, so don’t feel guilty. Not everyone is built to climb Mt. Everest and to be stupid enough to believe you can without the hard work is irresponsible. Dream is a finish line. Happiness is the desire to improve and seek progress. Dreams just happen. Happiness requires work. Find work that makes you happy and that may mean changing paths now.