Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Psychology of Comedians Off Stage

If you like, you could drape a Diane Fossey metaphor over all of this, and see it as a report from some gorilla tribe that I've spent ten years observing, emulating their body language and learning their customs. Now, I've returned to polite society with my report.

The fact that I'm also a gorilla screws up the metaphor a little, but bear with me.

read moreI've already made many of these points in supposedly comedic form (see Health and Safety Warnings for Comedians) but thought it worth tackling in a longer form. And with less jokes.

I'll start with a caveat: many comedians are perfectly nice reasonable people off stage, capable of conducting a normal conversation. There, that's that out of the way. Now let's talk about the other lot.

The problem is the job: consider, a comedian walks on stage to applause. He hasn't even done anything yet. He says things. People laugh and applaud and cheer. He comes off stage to more applause and suddenly strangers want to buy him drinks and sleep with him.

This pattern repeats several times a week.

What do you think that does to the comedian's character? His ego? His sense of self? Without balancing factors, it's an almost perfect recipe for a monster.

Other issues; when you hold a mike standing in a spot-light, reality shifts. The rules are different. Taboos disappear. Want to accuse someone of paedophilia? Fine. Promiscuity? Impotence? Go right ahead. Better yet, take someone's bag from a table and go through it. Steal someone's drink. It's all allowed while you're holding the mike and getting laughs.

If someone talks to you, you are allowed to insult them, shut them up and talk over them. You have the mike, you have the power.

Then you come off stage, and suddenly civilised rules reassert themselves. You can't insult people randomly. You're expected to listen to what they have to say. You're expected to shut up while they talk. They expect you to share the power.

Some comics find this very hard. They've got a taste for being in control. They want to carry on using the rules from the stage. They sometimes forget altogether that there are any other ways to behave.

I have been in dressing rooms with several comics all trying to talk over one another, all still craving the spotlight and none of them listening to any voice but their own.

I have tried to converse with comedians who view every comment from me as a feed line to their punchline or put-down. I've had conversations with comedians who try to make every one of their responses funny. I've endured comedians who tell constant streams of jokes off stage.

This job can fuck you up royally.

There is an argument to be made that many of these character traits were already in place well before the comedian in question stepped onto a stage. The very act of wanting to be a stand up comedian is said to point to psychological imbalances in various areas.

I agree with this to a point, but would suggest that if you begin doing stand up in a real psychological mess, success in this field sure isn't going to cure you.

"What's the worst thing you can do if someone is desperate for attention?"

"Give it to them."

No comments: