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.

Injustice and other unfairness of life

Image via Thinkstock

What is our relationship like with injustice?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 31, 2015

The world is full of injustice. It could be a driver taking your parking spot, a dickhead keying the side of your vehicle, or a tow truck pulling your car away. When we think of injustice we often think of those frustrating situations where our instinctual reaction is fight or flight. We get angry, we want to confront the person for cutting in line. We want to throw a punch at the clerk for overcharging us. We want to lash out because we treat injustice as a direct punishment for a crime we didn’t do. We are victims.

Life is full of these situations where we are left feeling helpless. There is no immediate solution; we simply have to rise above it. If our first thought when something bad happens is to make someone else’s life worse, then we are fuelling more injustice in the world. Your fury will not get you the parking spot you wanted, it won’t fix the side of your car, and it won’t carry you to the impound. We need to understand that there are people in the world who are pricks. They take their anger out on others and get satisfaction for it. We must stand up for ourselves, but we cannot become like them. We are the solution.

Mistreatment and unfortunate situations are a part of life. There is not a microscope on you catching you at your weakest and harming you when you least expect. We are all governed by the ebb and flow of fortune and sometimes we catch the bullshit in the face. Once we understand that everybody steps in a puddle or gets nudged in a crowded space, we can learn to operate with some self-preservation and human decency. We are the change.

We cannot control other people, we cannot control the malfunctioning mechanism of the universe, we cannot force an apology, but we can change our mindset. Our self-interest is a powerful force and it often clouds our perception. We must be well-adjusted people and handle injustice with grace and humility.

It’s unlikely that the man who cut in front of you to get the prime parking spot was rushing into the store to buy medicine for his wife, who had not left the bed in days—but it could be exactly what’s happening. He could have just come from work, where he is pressured to perform as cutbacks are being issued. He wants to get in and out as quickly as possible and return to his crappy life. He wants to relax, make dinner, and go to sleep early so that he can go back to work tomorrow ready to grind it out some more. Suddenly, your injustice seems like a childish tantrum. We are all victims.

Being an adult means being able to handle these injustices and transform them into knowledge, experiences, and wisdom. There is a reason for everything that happens, and perhaps the greatest injustice in the universe is when we don’t learn from the unfairness, so that we may prevent or at least mitigate it in the future.

Twenty-five to life



How I survived in perfect conditions

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Jan. 28, 2014

This year I turn 25. I don’t feel a day older than 18—that is, until I stand beside someone who just graduated from high school. I don’t feel that young either, until I stand next to someone with kids, a spouse, a mortgage, a pension plan, and a will. When I look back at all I have accomplished in my 25 years of life, I realize that my achievements are internal. For a quarter of a century, I’ve been living the Canadian dream and if I could go back in time and tell the six-year-old version of myself what I’ve done, I think he would be proud.

I dreamt big as a child, as most children do. I wanted to be an actor, or at least someone with the opportunity to be creative. Here I am—not an actor, but definitely creating. I feel pretty accomplished in that sense, not because I have achieved anything extraordinary (anyone with an opinion can write for the Other Press), but because I’m persistent and I’m staying true to my values.

Regardless of your age, I hope you are too, and that you’re not looking down on me for doing so.

I think reaching the 25-year mark still aiming for the goals I had as a child is remarkable. After all, think of all the other stuff getting in my way. Yes, the real life shit: money, education, relationships, entry-level jobs, parents, and peers. I see my high school friends, all of whom are turning 25 this year as well, moving out, getting engaged, and being promoted. They’re settling down with their lives, and it makes me so happy to see, because another trait I want as a 25-year-old is to be supportive—the same way I want my friends to support me and my silly choices.

But does that mean I’m a failure because I don’t have any of those things my friends have? Not at all, because like I said, what I have achieved is inside of me. It’s my own investment.

If the objective of life is to get a mortgage, then sure, I’m failing so far. And by the looks of it, I’ll continue to fail until, well, maybe my mid-life crisis. Yet, I have succeeded in recognizing that I would trade in a small two-bedroom house in exchange for travelling or writing a novel or getting a robust education. I believe when I’m 65, I’m going to be proud that I’ve indulged in life as a 25-year-old instead of taking roots in an existence I have no desire to grow old in.

I glance back on my successes and failures, and dwell a little bit on the failures. Yes, I wanted to be an actor and failed. I wanted to be a film director and failed. I wanted to be a standup comedian and failed. I made money as a dishwasher, a barista, a background performer, a sandwich board advertiser, and a door-to-door canvasser. I look back now and I can’t believe I did that—the same way I can’t believe I went bungee jumping. It’s weird what I’m proud of: not my successes, but my failures.I can’t believe they felt like the right decisions at some point. I can’t believe I did those things. But I did and I survived and it’s a part of me.

Up until now, my life has been a wrestle with adversity. But man, what an experience that’s been. What a great 25 years I’ve lived. What fantastic people I’ve met along the way. What wonderful privilege I had for being able to chase my dream and for being able to continue doing so. I don’t care what your age is, you should still be able to chase your dream. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ll never grow up.

Nice guys finish last—but they get second chances


Passion versus reputation

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in The Other Press. Jan. 7, 2014

All through our upbringing, people have told us to behave nicely to each other, but there was always this voice in the back reminding us that perhaps we’re getting pushed around and being taken advantage of. We try to puff out our chests and keep our heads up high, but it always seems that when the time comes to make a complicated decision or to say no, we turn soft. For those of us who want to be successful, being nice might just be the one quality to hold us back—but I believe that opportunities are bountiful for those who are kind.

As Eminem sang, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo!” There is a general consensus that opportunities do not come around that often, so when one does arise, it’s important to seize it. It’s good to have goals and pursue them with a passion, but ambition can become a pretty ugly trait when you start pushing people over to achieve your academic, professional, or personal objectives.

Compassion may not be in the same category as work ethic or drive, but it’s a soft skill that will help you gain friends and supporters, rather than rivals and competitors. We always talk about getting a slice of the pie, but let’s be honest: if there is a pie, we aren’t getting a slice of it. We’re scurrying around under the table and we’re waiting for crumbs. It sounds pathetic, but that is how we live. Work together with those who may threaten your ability to move up, not against them. To quote Chinese general, Sun Tzu, and The Godfather: Part II, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Regardless of who succeeds in the end, having a tight network of friends is more valuable than having a one-track mind. Being a self-made man or woman is great, but it’s an illusion. Society is built upon a strong foundation, and that is constructed through kindness and shared opportunities—not through backstabbing and selfish acts.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that on average, people change jobs approximately 11 times throughout the course of their lives. Meanwhile, research from Penn State University shows that 80 per cent of American students are uncertain about their majors, and over 50 per cent change their major at least once. That means what you want now might not actually be what you want later. So don’t fret, make friends, and learn more about yourself as you go before you act self-righteous, damage your reputation, and harm others.

It doesn’t matter if you end up being a leader of a small technology start-up company or the mayor of Toronto, it’s always important to have sympathy and kindness towards others. Life is not one destination, it’s a journey—if you waste all your energy reaching a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you’ll realize that you have wasted all you second chances on the petty little things.