Post by Auntie Vice
Comics, especially really good comics, are known for laying out their lives and pain on stage. Think Wyatt Cenak and his bit about his father’s murder, Robin Williams and his bits about drug addiction, Whoopi Goldberg’s first special and her piece on being a young Black girl and wanting long blonde hair. These are all really powerful pieces and yet, they are still funny.
As I have been out on the local scene, I have chatted with a bunch of comics. Some have admitted that most, if not all, of their stuff is made up. They are funny for the most part, but they do not base their comedy on their lives. I will admit, this surprised me. When I started writing for comedy, I just told stories about the crap that happens in my life. My bit about the tiny-dicked White guy and the 40ish guy I suspected of building a lady-suit, totally true. And I will give you that dating and sleeping around has given me a lot of material… slutty can be funny. But everyone has stuff that happens and is amusing in their lives.
I was chatting with Paul Brumbaugh this week about a Ted Talk and was reminded of the Brene Brown talk about vulnerability. Brown had a similar career path to me in her early career, so I identify a lot with her. In her vulnerability talk, she speaks about the power of opening up, being honest about who you are, and working from that premise.
This type of vulnerability is hard, really hard, for most people. Many of us (myself included) are not always fully honest, even with ourselves. It is hard to look at your life and your actions and say, “I fucked this up,” or “this is a real strength” or “this is a deep fear.” Even among close friends and family, it can be hard to lay stuff out on the table and be open and honest.
The difficulty with being vulnerable is compounded when you have a public image to maintain. When I worked for the state as an appointed official, honesty and openness were seen as a threat to my job. Political consultants monitored all my social media accounts and had to approve what I put out, even on private pages. I was told what to wear and my work was vetted by several people before it was allowed to appear anywhere. At one point when I was working for them, the announcement that George W. had opened his presidential library came out in papers. For me, this was ridiculous. This is a man who publicly stated he never read news papers, he eschewed reading reports for summaries, and arguably did more damage to the communities I am a part of then any modern president. I sent out a Tweet on my private Twitter account. Within the hour, this nasty consultant called me screaming that my Tweet “Bush opens library. So many potential jokes…,” must be taken down immediately because it compromised my agency. Not that anyone who was a Bush supporter would ever fund or vote to maintain the agency, or that I had even cracked a joke about the absurdity of W having a library… but even that little indiscretion got me yelled at for 30 minutes as I changed planes in Dallas.
I can also speak the the power of vulnerability. In 2013, the State Department of Education launched their Girls in STEM conference. I was invited to speak along with Kareem Abdul Jabar. Two speakers preceded me. Then I got up to talk. I spoke about failing out of undergrad during my sophomore year because I couldn’t hack the o-chem and physics classes and was only re-admitted because I agreed to be a psych major. I talked about my frustration with math. Then I spoke about learning to code and the first time I wrote code that successfully mapped data onto a state map. I got away with this speech because I didn’t submit the full speech for vetting.
Afterward, Jabar’s manager approached me to work on a project with him. He had been impressed that anyone would admit to a room full of political dignitaries and CEO’s that I failed out of college the first time and talk openly about my educational struggles. I was the only person in the room he reached out to in order to connect (he was, of course, mobbed by people wanting his time). Honesty and vulnerability has power.
As comics, we can come from all sorts of perspectives. Sometimes its just fun to crack a stupid joke. I personally love my impression of a French existentialist chicken (Pourqoi? Pourqoi?). There is nothing vulnerable in that. But, I think if you are looking to have your comedy make a real impact, it is worth thinking about being open and vulnerable. That part is scary as shit. The rest of it is pretty easy.