The Comedian


By Colson Whitehead

Electric Literature No. 2, 2009

ONE TIME on a talk show, before he made the change in his comedy, the comedian was asked why he started telling jokes. He took a sip from his mug and responded that he just wanted some attention. As a child he’d felt unseen. He was a handsome baby (photographs confirm) but his impression was that no one cooed at him or went cross-eyed to make him smile. Common expressions of affection, such as loving glances, approving grins, and hearty that-a-boys, eluded him. His mother told him “Hush, now,” when he came to her with his needs or questions and he frowned and padded off quietly. He received a measly portion of affirmation from grandparents, elderly neighbors, and wizened aunts who never married, folks who were practically in the affirmation-of-children business. In kindergarten, he was downright appalled to find the bullies stingy with noogies and degrading nicknames. The comedian believed that he was unseen, overlooked, and not-perceived to a greater extent than other people were unseen, overlooked, and not-perceived, when in actuality he was overlooked as much as everyone else, he just felt it more keenly. The talk show host asked him what his first joke was. He said he didn’t remember, but he must have liked what happened because he did it again.

The boy practiced and practiced. In the bathroom down the hall, he made funny faces before the white hexagonal tile, he devised oddball catch-phrases and made unlikely connections between seemingly dissimilar objects and phenomena. When he later shoe-horned these observations into conversation, people laughed. He experimented with metaphor and figurative language. Like, when a mouse died in the walls and no one could get to it, he said, That smells like a hundred Roger farts. They were having holiday dinner, the far-flung generations, and the vulgarity cracked everyone up. He broke it down later, staring at the ceiling of his room while the grownups whooped it up in the living room. A familiar situation disrupted by an unexpected and forbidden element produced laughter. The smell of the decomposing mouse was not one Roger fart, but a hundred. Exaggeration was key. Exaggeration was a kind of truth-telling and it made people laugh. If he made someone chuckle or snicker, he took notes and tried to recreate the circumstances later. Cousin Roger never forgave the comedian this humiliation, notwithstanding, many years later, his enthusiasm for the comedian’s success in his annual Xmas letter.

The comedian expanded his act. One day he decided he needed weapons. Other people were an army straying into his territories and this sent him fashioning defenses before the bathroom mirror. He gathered specific putdowns for use against his friends and family in case they suddenly turned on him, which happened from time to time. He stole jokes from comics he saw on television and didn’t give credit. Years later he’d make ridiculous apologies to these men, who were flattered to be remembered and boasted of their influence on him to their grandchildren on their infrequent visits. When his fifth grade teacher named him Class Clown, he knew it wasn’t a foolhardy plan after all, this strategy of getting seen. Look at me, look at me.

The comedian learned how to get girls by making them laugh and blush. You’d see him whisper in a girl’s ear and she’d giggle and shake her head in sweet outrage. Guys who really wanted to beat him up were disarmed by some weird baboon face of his, and forgot all about it. He got into the local college and joined an improvisational comedy troupe his first semester. The group’s fliers were everywhere, stapled to utility poles and taped to the doors of lecture halls, and were much better designed than those of other campus societies, like the ones from the a cappella groups. How strange it was, he thought, to be in an a cappella group, and advertise it.

Improv was not his forte. Group interaction in general, frankly. The audience yelled out words – Cantaloupe! Rooster! Watchfob! – and it was their job to construct a jokey situation incorporating them. They kidnapped these mundane things from the familiar and smuggled them to the realm of the absurd. Success was measured by the distance between the original context and the new, alien context of the sketch. The comedian, however, did not believe that things had to travel very far to be funny or sad. You could look at pretty much anything and say, How laughable, or, What a pity. The rest of the troupe liked his sensibility, the wit he’d exhibited during tryouts, but were perplexed by his behavior. They’d set him up perfectly and he’d just stand there playing pocket pool. They parted ways after Halloween Weekend.

He went solo. He practiced, and his bits eventually became routines. At open mikes he did impressions of a previous generation’s celebrities. They were really impressions of other people’s impressions, stuff he got from television. Whenever he needed to stretch out a set and riff for a few minutes, he could rely on the voices of these dead people inside him. The comedian developed a character named Danny the Dentist, who liked to interrogate his patients about weighty matters while their mouths were stuffed with metal and latex. As Danny parsed their grunts – “I totally agree, never let an encyclopedia salesman use your commode on a weekend” – the humor derived from the contrast between the patients’ nonsense syllables and his extravagant interpretations. Danny the Dentist spoke a language beyond the audience’s understanding. Looking at it one way, it was a kind of commentary on the comedian’s lot – to translate between the world as it is and the world as people perceive it. The character caught on and in a few years he’d do Danny on variety shows and cable programs. When they bring out the old footage for the occasional documentary on the history of comedy, or a ranking of the top twenty-five stand-ups according to a poll, it’s always a shock to see Danny. It’s like hearing about some backward medieval practice. You can’t believe people used to live like that.

He got his diploma because he didn’t want to let anyone down and because a graduation ceremony was an opportunity to get attention from those he needed attention from. He wasn’t disappointed, with regards to their attendance. His family showed up and they all went out to lunch. They asked, What are you going to do now?

He kept hitting the clubs and expanding his routine. He cut jokes. Why did he ever think that corny bit was funny? This is my new style, he told himself, and six months later the new style was out the window and a newer strain dominating his set list. The old jokes testified to how stupid he’d been. But if people laughed, what did that say about people? Local comedy clubs gave him some slots and he started hanging out with his peers. The other comics weren’t threatened. He wasn’t exactly pushing the boundaries. Like, in one of his bits, three representatives of different religious faiths were trapped in an isolated place where their differences were struck into sharp relief. Or, he closed his act with the observation that one group of people tended to do things differently than another group of people, and he listed a few examples. Plodder, the other comics said. Word came down that a scout from the big late night talk show was going to check out “the scene” and everybody worried and fussed. The scout frowned throughout the comedian’s set. A month later, when they went out for drinks after his appearance on the talk show, the scout told him, I try to laugh on the inside.

This was the start of his celebrity. They flew him around the country. He got a manager and learned how to pack efficiently. He didn’t have what you called a distinctive style, but he ran the bases and that was enough, even if they had a hard time remembering his name afterward. He played bigger and bigger rooms. A screenwriter got in touch about writing a spec script based on one of the comedian’s characters, the Limo Driver. The Limo Driver was always sticking his nose into his passengers’ affairs, hilariously clueless about his lack of boundaries. The comedian met the screenwriter in a coffee shop and they brainstormed. He was surprised that there were professions more desperate and sad than his own. He told the screenwriter that it was probably a bad idea. When offered cameo gigs on sitcoms and small independent features, he passed. He didn’t like make believe. Even when the Limo Driver exaggerated some human weakness, he didn’t think he was stretching the truth.

He enjoyed the money and the flattery that was thousands of people listening to his every word. His girlfriend moved into his condo and this was a period he always looked back fondly upon, even though it didn’t work out in the end for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was all the travel. He was never around. Every new city and gig was a chance to get it right finally, and nothing could compete with that.

When he thought back on the day he changed his comedy, he never came up with an explanation. He’d been on a good run, and it was just another gig. He was in an American city of a certain size, the kind where if you were a B-list comedian there was really only one venue for you to perform in, and he was performing on its stage. He was halfway through his act, up there doing Danny. Danny the Dentist was elbow deep in the mouth of a German tourist who’d been in a weiner shnitzel accident (the bit had a rather long and baroque setup). As the comedian said the words he’d said a hundred times before, he heard a high-pitched whistling in his ears. No one else seemed to notice it, and he thought for a minute that it was another one of his mysterious physical or mental symptoms, but quickly understood that it was more than that. He stopped speaking (his mouth had continued the routine, such was his professionalism) and looked into the audience. They were a hive of faces before him, still and attentive, arranged like hexagonal tile in a bathroom. The comedian said the words that popped into his head: “If I had known what little came from talking to other people, I never would have learned how to speak.” The microphone dispatched these words into the sound system and into the void of the auditorium. And then they laughed. They laughed for a nice comfortable while. The comedian resumed his act (poor Danny, poor German tourist), but he knew something had changed.

The next night and the night after that, a thousand miles away, he shared another one of his confidences with the audience, and they ate it up. He shared more and more confidences with the people who came to see him and after two weeks they had become his whole act, the confidences crowding out Danny the Dentist, the Limo Driver, the Stuttering Hooker, stepping on their lines and hogging the spotlight until they stopped showing up. Out of habit he persisted with the tools of the trade – the crooked eyebrows, head wagging, and shrugs – not trusting people to understand his new message. But they did understand. One by one the gestures fell away, he left them behind in city after city, until his act was unadorned by the traditional flourishes of comedy, the nudges and cues the jester uses to urge the audience to laughter. They were no longer necessary.

He couldn’t walk down the street anymore. The first concert film broke a lot of records and he sold a ton of CDs -- although not as many as you’d think. He made his millions performing live, recordings failing to capture the essence of his new routine. As with a lot of non-traditional humor, “you had to be there,” but the recordings were still popular among those who’d seen him in person and, late at night, needed to relive his confidences. Even when robbed of indefinable energies, the sound of his voice helped bring them back. When other comics tried to rip off his style, they discovered that the comedian was impossible to copy. Something was lost. It was in him.

His new shtick fell into two subject areas:

Everything Is Terrible

People Are Disappointing

To his notion of the Terrible, there were a variety of responses. Some were relieved. If everything is terrible, then the only thing distinguishing one idea, object or course of action from another is its degree of terribleness. This, one might say, is obviously much more terrible than that, and once you made the calculation, you were good to go. It saved a lot of time. Others were grateful. Let’s stop pretending, the comedian said. Isn’t it all so tedious and wearying pretending that the world is other than that which it is, namely, terrible. We walk around, jibber at each other, share our dreams in order to change the subject, but we all know what’s going on, we know what we’re avoiding with all this food, fucking, weekend getaways, and “try some of this, you’ll like it.” Now there was this man before them just saying it: Things are terrible. They’ve been terrible for a long time. In fact, they’ve always been terrible, and the more people there are in the world, implementing their awful imaginations, the more rapidly things get more terrible.

For some of the folks leaning forward in the rows out there, he was the perfect older brother or sister or parent they’d always been waiting for, the ones who set them straight, told them how to do it, reserving all the mistakes for themselves, sparing us.

People Are Disappointing needs no elaboration.

Observational humor was a sturdy genre. “Did you ever notice this minor, everyday aspect of modern life that I will now blow up to absurd proportion?” “Why is it that this familiar situation, when I describe it in a certain way, is the apotheosis of life’s tribulations?” But the comedian’s new brand required no rhetorical shenanigans. His observations did not need to be massaged. They required only to be shared. For so many years the comedian had believed that what he called the “lack of attention” had been part of a sadness particular to himself, when in fact it was universal. Everyone hid it. No one spoke of it. Until now.

He was the only guy I know, recalled one of his contemporaries, who didn’t have any hecklers.

The comedian adjusted to his new fame the best he could. Many performers describe a rush or exhilaration following a show, an ecstatic quickening of the body’s processes. Not the comedian. Before he changed his comedy, sure, he was pumped that people had listened to him and seen him, thus proving that he did, in fact, exist. But after his new routines he experienced none of that. He walked off stage but could not help feeling that he was still on stage, with a glass of water and a wooden stool and nothing else. Surrounded by darkness. He got used to it. Members of the service industry, such as waiters and dry cleaners, marveled at how polite the comedian was, what a generous tipper. “You’re a different person on stage,” they said, and he thought, No. After a lifetime of the reverse, that’s the real me up there and the rest of the time I’m performing. Here, he captured a feeling common to many artists in other disciplines, although he was loathe to call himself an artist. He thought he was simply telling the truth, and that’s not art, is it?

The years passed. He had a good run, but eventually the novelty of his confidences wore off. That’s the way it goes. He still sold out the house, but the lovely enthusiasm of that early wave was long gone. One day he called it quits. He didn’t announce it or take out a page in the trades or anything. He did the rest of the gigs he’d agreed to do and that was that. He’d said all he had to say. He wasn’t hurting for money and for a time he traveled to the places he’d always wanted to go to. (He never found an audience overseas until after his death, when he was “discovered” by a noted French critic.) The comedian finally saw the world. It was more or less as he expected, not disappointing in any novel way.

His new life was quiet and he liked it. When he forced himself to admit it he felt better about things, having got it all off his chest. There had never been anything setting him apart from other people. The audiences proved it. They had been made of the same stuff all along. He chose an unlikely spot to retire, a small town up the coast where he eventually shacked up with a woman who had her own business selling shawls and quilts to summer people. They got along okay. He’d played in the town once, long before, when he was just starting out. It seemed like the whole town showed up that night, filling the old theater and chuckling and applauding. It was the kind of place where people know that life is hard and sometimes what we need at the end of a long day, most of all, is a good laugh.