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JOHN VARGAS

A Mad Man and a Liar

Comedy Part I: Why I Do It

I’m not sure why I do comedy anymore.

When I was a kid, I loved stand up comedy. I remember watching Richard Pryor Live on The Sunset Strip before I was old enough to understand 70% of what he was talking about. I must have been 11 or 12. There was a lot of foul language, a lot of talk about the female anatomy, a lot about racism. Very little did I fully understand. And yet I laughed. I laughed and I laughed. It was his mannerisms, his punctuations, his pauses. Implicitly, somehow I understood it was funny. Even if didn’t know what sex was. I had a vague idea, as I do now…

I spent the better part of my early teens watching as much stand up comedy as I could on stolen cable, on VHS tapes rented from the video stores that once were ubiquitous, now missing from our landscape. Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kinison, Bill Cosby, Gallagher. What do you want? I was 12! Of course Gallagher appealed to me! I was a human child with a still developing mind!

If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you should know that I spent the better part of my youth in front of a television. With few friends, due to my awkward shyness, and my usual distance from the one or two friends I had because of the fact we had to live out of our own school district for financial reasons, I had little to do on weekends but watch TV and read.

But no book was ever as funny as Richard Pryor.

That’s why I wanted to become a comic. Even at that age. I wanted to make people laugh, I wanted them to like me, I wanted them to see past this little heap of nervous fear and see the person I was underneath. The person I want to be, even if that isn’t the person I am everyday. My comedy would show the world that I am the confident, strong ego maniac I was in my mind.

But… How do you do it? Am I supposed to write my own jokes? Seriously? How is that even possible?

I remember buying joke books, in the hope I would get an idea of how to write jokes. At that time in the mid 80s, there was a series of books called “Truly Tasteless Jokes.” There were many in the series. Full of jokes that no one, NO ONE would publish, let alone say out loud today. Racist, homophobic, sexist, disgusting jokes. They were brilliant. Some of them were quite awful, but some were amazing, even if they were abhorrently offensive.

Well. That didn’t help at all.

How could I even fathom creating anything near as funny or original as what was in those awful books, let alone do what Pryor could do? I just wasn’t that creative, and I surely wasn’t that brilliant. Also, I didn’t even consider the horror of standing in front of strangers and talking. Let alone telling jokes. Jokes that were a part of my innermost psyche, words that I would never share with any one person, but was supposed to with a roomful of people. That’s what Pryor did, and I could never, ever do that.

So, I gave up. I went to school everyday, like most kids, in a haze. One class to another, one day to the next, I didn’t care. I just existed in school.

For some reason, early in my academic career, some teacher saw in me the potential for brilliance. Obviously, she was a crazy person. I do remember a room, with my teacher and a man I never met, and a book. My teacher asking me to read aloud. Thinking this was weird. Doing it anyway. After a few minutes, the man stopped me and I was excused. Next day, I was placed with the more advanced students. At least for reading and comprehension, as I believe it was called in elementary school. Quite the accomplishment for a Mexican boy in a mostly white school, who did not speak much English until kindergarten.

I’m not sure what they heard in me. Sometimes I think perhaps they heard my penchant for performance more than any real brilliance in my reading. Maybe I’m not that smart. Maybe I’m just an actor.

So, as a freshman in high school, I was in advanced placement English. Big deal, I thought. I didn’t take it seriously, I mean, I was in my teens, how the hell could I ever take that, or anything, seriously? I do remember one odd thing: the class was populated almost exclusively by girls. Something like 18 girls, and two boys: Chi-Hang and I. Josh, as he is now known, is now a multi-millionaire, because he took his life seriously and succeeded. The other boy? Well, let’s just say he’s still trying to realize his “potential.”

Of course, it was difficult for me to concentrate in that class. So many girls. And Jenny. The girl who was ever present in my adolescent fantasies of love and companionship. I wanted her to like me. I wanted her to like me so much. But she seemed to barely notice the space I took up. I spent most of those 45 minutes sitting in the back of the room, hoping she’d turn around and notice me, and see what a good and talented guy I was. That age is mired in masochism and fantasy, self-hatred and self-delusion.

One day, the teacher announced that we were all to do an oral report. We could choose almost any topic, but it had to be presented in front of the class. We could use visual aids, but it had to be concentrated on the oral presentation.

You could almost feel the room become a vacuum of fear. These were not “oral report” types, these were book types. The room breathed with apprehension, and smelled of terror. I slouched in my chair a little more. We had three weeks to write and create our 5 minute presentation.

I spent those three weeks watching stand up.

The day, like death, finally came. The girls (and Josh) had spent many an hour researching and writing and gathering visual aids for their reports that were due this week. The teacher, to keep it fair, would call on people randomly. So you had no idea when you might be called up.

I was ready. I guess… I showed up to school with a rolled up poster of a Lamborghini Countach from my bedroom wall. This is what my report was going to be on: a car I will never afford. In the class prior to English, I had Science, which was taught by a very amiable, though rather ineffectual teacher. Everybody loved him. Nobody did anything. I wrote down a few notes on a few pieces of paper, spaced liberally. One note, then 8 lines later, another note, and so on. A few of the girls from my English class were in that same science class and saw what I was doing, they could tell I hadn’t prepared. Indeed, I had made it absolutely clear in the days leading up to this that I had not done any work on my presentation, and was not going to. For a shy kid afraid of girls, I had quite a bit of hubris. Most kids in my advanced English class knew I had done nothing, and fully expected me to burn in a halo of failure.

There are few things more mortifying to watch than a bunch of nerdy kids trying to speak in front of a class. I felt so much grief for them, they were all so very nervous, you can almost feel the bile churning in their stomachs. They read straight from their notes, as if the were reading a book in public, rarely looking up, for fear of feeling more shame. I sat in the back of the room, nervous, but not nearly as scared as the rest of the class.

My name was called.  I went up to the front of the class with my poster and several sheets of paper, of which, only the first two pages had the sparsest of notes. Taped the poster up and talked about the car. The engine, the torque, about Ferruccio Lamborghini, the man who was insulted by Enzo Ferrari and built his own supercar, mostly out of spite.

Almost immediately, I felt  an ease standing in front of these people. My classmates. A audience of all women. I’m sure Josh was in there somewhere, but he’s not nearly as cute as any of the girls in my class, so I have no idea where he was. Every eye focused on me, they were listening to me, they were with me. They laughed at my stupid jokes, they were paying attention to me. I never felt so connected to humanity in any significant way before this. There’s a warmth that floods over you in these moments that cannot be replicated by anything else I have ever experienced. Perhaps it is the feeling that no matter what the differences in life, in opinions, in lifestyles, you can always connect with humanity. There’s nothing I have ever felt that was more important to me than those moments in front of people.

Pretty sure I went over my time talking about my dream car, that I would never own. Incidentally, Josh owns a Lamborghini now, we both fantasized about it, he realized it. But then, he never was cursed with the need to perform.

I seem to remember being graded publicly. Not getting a letter grade for this per se, but the teacher telling us what was our strengths and where were our weaknesses as it pertained to this public speaking assignment. In front of everyone. So if you were terrible, you were told that. Looking back, it seems very unorthodox, but what do you want? It was the 80s, and no one knew what the hell they were doing. Maybe they were experimenting on us.

These advanced classes are extraordinarily competitive. Everyone wants to know how well they did in reference to their peers. After it was all over, someone asked the teacher who she felt did the best. “Honestly, John was the best one.” Before she could start the next sentence, explaining that I was the most relaxed and confident and had the most well thought out report; the entire class of girls turned around to glare at me. They knew I had not prepared at all. I caught Jenny’s eye. Was that a glimmer of respect, perhaps girlish fascination? I wondered if she saw me differently now? More than just the creepy guy in the back of the room? I bet she likes me now, and maybe we will finally be together, just like we had been every day (in my fantasies) since the first day I saw her. She likes me!

The bell rang, and Jenny picked up her things and walked out. She still didn’t notice me.

Twenty years or so later, I got on stage for the first time.

Being in front of people and engaging them, introducing them to the world of fear, bravery, weakness and strength, that resides in my mind makes me feel bigger and bolder than any human I have pretended to be. Ironically, that persona is a distilled version of me. It is me without my own pretense, without my own judgement; I am up there, my low self esteem shouted down by my ego’s need to be heard.

To somehow make people see what you think is funny and make them laugh is a power I do not fully understand, nor do I want to. It makes me feel stronger than anyone in the room. It makes my sense of self a gluttonous monster that can do anything.

But it could never give me the strength to talk to her. Because even though I had the guts to get in front of this group of girls as a freshman in high school and speak, I could never speak to one alone. Let alone, her.

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