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.

Isn’t it ironic

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How to deal with people who don’t understand sarcasm

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. October 6, 2015

There is nothing better than someone who doesn’t understand sarcasm. Nothing. If you can’t tell, which so many can’t, I was being sarcastic. I wouldn’t say my sense of humour is of the highest level. But I would say a lot of it relies on irony.

In many situations, sarcasm is classified as inappropriate behaviour, as if I’m acting out of line or to offend. I’m not. It’s just my unique way of dealing with an awkward or uneventful scenario. I love using sarcasm to lighten the mood, especially in a social gathering or workplace. Work can get awfully serious if you allow it to, but I won’t. So, when someone tells me to do something, I say: “Never, I won’t! You do it.” Of course, I’m not refusing to do my task; I’m merely making light of the task and their authority. I’m pretty much saying that neither you nor I should take our duties too seriously. I’ll get to the work as soon as possible.

People who don’t understand sarcasm are often those who take everything seriously. Yes, doctors, lawyers, and police officers shouldn’t be making jokes during their job, and that’s what makes them such wonderful satirical characters on television. But, in reality, not all of us have serious jobs—even school is not that serious when you actually think about it. Will anybody die if you don’t finish your project? Maybe your parents, who invested so much into your life, but nobody else. Nobody cares. So have some fun.

Sarcasm is a great way to break the tension. It’s like a little splash of cold water for those who are serious. Once they realize that my little jokes will not harm them or the task at hand, they tend to lighten up a bit. If they don’t, you probably don’t want to develop any further relationship with them anyway. Their life is probably a straightjacket. You want none of that.

Like strong spice or perfume, sarcasm should be used sparingly when the situation calls for it. Over time, you’ll be able to detect when you are in a situation where you can use it. It’ll show that you are carefree yet daring. Nobody likes a sarcastic douche that can’t take anything seriously, just like how nobody likes an uptight jerk that can’t take or tell a joke.

If you are meeting new people and you want to identify who is conversational in the dialect of sarcasm, present some irony in a group environment first. “Wow! I sure love vegetables at parties.” It really is like another language, and if even one or two catches your drift, they’ll continue the trend and you’ll have suddenly developed a new channel of conversation that isn’t as boring as reading a textbook. Communication should have flavour and sarcasm is a unique spice—and an acquired taste.

For those who don’t get it, luckily for them, they’ll learn. That’s the wonderful thing about languages: they grow on people overtime. As long as it’s presented in a harmless way that is also engaging, people will continue to speak it. According to Smithsonian magazine, those who are sarcastic are highly intelligent, even more than those who are always sincere. If you are able to back it up with hard work, class, and respect, you don’t have to worry—be sarcastic. Yeah, right…