Monday, August 11, 2014

Waiting For an Open Mic the Day Robin Williams Died

I write and re-write and erase the title a few times before I start.

There are twenty to thirty comedians waiting for an open mic to start. 

Stand-up comedy is primarily waiting.  (For a while anyway.)

Waiting for the list, waiting for your spot, waiting to hear from a booker, waiting to see your friends, waiting to go up, waiting to go home.

Most nights are spent in distraction.  Check Twitter.  Check Facebook.  Check email.  Get a drink.  Smoke.  Talk shit.  Go to the bathroom.  Check the list.  Check your notebook.  Walk to the front of the bar then to the back of the bar.  Talk more shit.  Listen to your friend's set.  Half-listen to the others.

There are twenty to thirty comedians waiting.  It's quiet.  Tonight it's mostly phones.

Robin Williams died earlier in the day.  News didn't get around to Facebook until a few hours beforehand.  Most of us, embarrassingly, get the news this way.

In the hours that follow every comedian with a personal story about him--a connection to his career, a fond memory about one of his roles--posts it.  Some post suicide hotlines.  Some change their profile picture to the Genie from Aladdin.  Few talk in person.

A handful of comics, myself included, worry aloud about the possibility of sitting through hacky, tasteless Robin Williams jokes.  Aurora, Sandy Hook, Heath Ledger--doesn't matter the scope--someone can't resist.  The jokes fail instantly.  The offender is chastised (assuming they're worth acknowledging) and the night continues.

Some of the comics in town met Robin Williams a few times.  Some saw a drop-in at a show a few years back.  Some were complimented by him after a set.  Comedians (even young ones if they're lucky) sometimes get to break through the status of worldwide celebrity and make a personal connection.  The ins and outs of those anecdotes are quickly posted as well.

Two quick hack premises about comedians:

They're depressed
They're addicts

Two quick observational truths about comedians:

Many are depressed
Most don't prioritize their mental health

Sit through an open mic and you'll hear it ad nauseum: self-medication, depression, denial, repression, anxiety, panic.  Many times it's funny.  Sometimes the jokes are new...or the "jokes" aren't jokes...and the stories are tough to hear.  Stand-up comedy can be therapeutic.  Stand-up comedy is not therapy.  More than a few comedians can't tell the difference.

The anecdotes and memories continue from my friends.  Most sentiments occur on social media.  I can't say for sure why the stories get posted.  I would like to believe it's a communal grieving.  I would like to believe it's a sharing of a final send-off of positivity for someone who successfully accomplished what my friends and I strive for.  I would like to believe it's a way to stay positive amidst a loss that feels both distant and immediate.

I worry though.  I have friends who don't take care of themselves.  Most of my friends don't take care of themselves.  I don't always take care of myself.
I'm aware of the pointlessness of the worry.  I know that mental health can't be championed from the outside.  I can't make anyone help themselves.

I can go to an open mic and wait.  My friends will wait.  We'll take our turns and beg for our immediate gratification and take our notes and wait.  That's what we do.  We internalize, editorialize, and wait for the review.  

On the day where a man who accomplished more than I or any of my present company will likely ever see, I am sitting at an open mic with 20 or 30 comedians and waiting.  I am hoping they are okay.  Not because Robin Williams died.  Because the funniest people in the world, the people who are the best at making the most excruciating circumstances bearable and occasionally joyous, the people who actively seek to make themselves and their friends laugh...those are the people who are the hardest to watch when they break.  They're my friends. 

Sometimes we watch each other not take care of ourselves.

Some nights it's harder than others.

But we'll do it again.  Tomorrow night we'll wait.