“The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence.” Gertrude Stein
Thanks a lot, Gertie! You clearly never lived through a pandemic!
Whoops! Google quickly reveals Ms. Stein was born in 1874, meaning she was 43-ish when the “Spanish Flu” ravaged the world.
I stand corrected. So much for that opener! So, let’s cut to the chase.
My point is, it’s a damned tough time to be a comic actor or writer.
Yes, the world could use more laughs right now. And even with most of “legitimate” entertainment industry shuttered for the duration, many artists are finding inspiring new ways of working, and of sharing that work.
God bless everyone who have risen to the occasion, from Randy Rainbow to Tordick Hall to every TV show that has staged a Zoom-based reunion. I even did one of those myself, with the cast from my 2011-2016 gay sitcom Old Dogs & New Tricks (shameless plug: you can watch the reunion HERE and the series on Amazon Prime).
See what just happened? My train of thought completely jumped the tracks, right off the bridge, and into a ravine below. (Again!)
That’s the problem, at least for me, during this bizarre time. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to focus. As life becomes more depressing, finding “the funny” gets more elusive.
Case in point:
I was recently invited to submit a writer’s packet to a very respected, late-night network comedy program, for an opening on said show’s writing staff. It was the chance of a lifetime, right?
One little problem: I’ve never written “stand up” – much less political stand-up – in my life. When I wrote Old Dogs, I always “found the funny” with the interaction of the diverse characters. My show rarely resorted to “punch lines.” While we sometimes made political statements, we never directly commented on current events (save for when marriage equality became law. We had to address that!)
In my recently released, tongue-in-cheek memoir SUB-LEBRITY* The Queer Life of a Show-Biz Footnote, most of the humor is self-deprecating, stemming from almost 30 years in this bizarre business called show.
But I love a challenge. I can do this! I lied to myself.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always followed current events. But for the next three days, I nosedived deep into the news. I read the Los Angeles Times front to back (well, I skipped Sports). I watched CNN, MSNBC, even (gasp!) FOX News. I scoured the Times’ and the Post’s sites. I held my nose and went for a swim in the sewer that is the presidential Twitter feed.
But try as I might, the more informed I became, the less funny I grew.
Adding to the pressure? These shows are written fast! There’s no time for indecision or navel-gazing as you comment on the news viewers just watched before your show came on.
I’m a writer who’ll spend an entire day agonizing over a sentence’s structure. I’ll spend an hour searching for the most concise, descriptive word. My work style seemed in direct opposition to the task at hand. But I still refused to give up.
I finally pulled together a monologue I was proud of, and a “roll in” – a fake commercial for the “Portland Tourist Bureau”. I wrote a pithy cover email and hit “send.”
Ordinarily, I forget about a prospective gig as soon as the audition ends, or right after I drop the script in the mailbox. Not this time.
Leon, you made yourself sick this week, watching and reading the news, trying to find humor out of this national nightmare, trying to turn out ‘the funny’ on the dime, I scolded myself. What if you actually land this gig?”
My imagination jumped a year ahead. I saw my future self smoking furiously (even though I gave it up last year), drinking Maalox for an ulcer I don’t yet have, pacing like mad, driven crazy by the pressure to be funny, each day, every day, no matter how horrible the headlines.
I imagined leaving California, my home for the past 35 years, and relocating to Manhattan. When I was younger, New York City was enticing. But, at 57, was I ready now to trade LA mellow for NYC chaos?
Get a grip! They’ll never offer you the job in a million years, I reminded myself.
And I’m thrilled to report, I was right!
I’ve never been so happy to be rejected (and the email was very complimentary).
I realize, until our national prognosis improves, I’m lucky to pull off a mere blog post. I’m not so sure I was “lucky” this time!
To see how what a good writer I used to be, when I could “find the funny” and maintain my point for more than just a few paragraphs, please read SUB-LEBRITY*.
It might not provide an “antidote” to the despair we’re collectively going through, but it will provide you a temporary escape from the current headlines. And, I hope, more than a few laughs.
PS: Please vote!