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JOHN VARGAS

A Mad Man and a Liar

Comedy Part II: Why Do I STILL Do It?

I may have started doing stand up comedy too late.

That’s because I had another, equally ridiculous dream before. Specifically, being a film maker. You can’t spend all your weekends watching only stand up, you have to break it up a bit. It was at that time, I found another love. One that would jealously take over everything for a long time, making me leave my first love, comedy. But she would always be waiting, I knew. Like a patient lover that knows she is the true love, and that I’d come back to her forgiving embrace.

Writing jokes is hard. I still had no idea how to do it. Oh sure, I could stand in front of a lot of people and talk, a skill few people can claim. After all, it is peoples’ number one fear. Second: death. For me, my number one fear may have been to write a joke that no one laughed at. A fear I would have to meet head on many, many… MANY times as I started to do stand up.

So, instead of comedy, I decided I was going to be a film maker. Which is stupid in my particular case, as I was poor. Learning to hone you comedic craft is practically free. Learning to make movies is very expensive. You need cameras, you need lights, you need to somehow edit. This was before everyone had a camera in their pocket that also happened to double as a phone. Very few children of underpaid immigrants, with absolutely no connection to the industry went on to film making history. Not at that time. At least none I’ve heard about. Then again, I never researched it.

My sojourn into the world of making movies lasted several years, from my late teens right into my late twenties. Went to community college, took all the film courses, made several short films, had the unshackled passion of any young lad wanting to become one of the greats, as I was sure I’d be. Then, after my last short film, “Gunshots,” I realized something: I’m not very good at this. I was a hack. I wanted to be great, but that made my hackiness only more heinous. Nothing I had made, I liked. Not even a little. I should be the first to love what I do, but I just couldn’t create and execute a movie the way I wanted it to be. My vision of every film far outreached what I had actually created.

I had to be true to myself. I had to admit that I was terrible at this.

There is a a scene the end of “The Third Man.” The last shot, actually. That interminably long shot. Alita Valli is walking towards us, a small figure getting larger as she comes closer. She walks down the middle of the road, beautifully lined with trees, weeping leaves all around her. She gets closer to Joseph Cotten, who waits in the foreground for her. We hope, as he does, that she will stop and she will know that his love for her is pure and real, and they will be happy together. But, she walks right past him, as if he was not there, uncaring; her eyes focused ahead. She walks out of frame towards something we cannot see, and only she knows. He is left there to realize he never meant anything to her.

That was me. She walked past me, never caring who I was or what I did for her, film making didn’t care.

Oh, and if I just ruined “The Third Man” for you, too bad! You really should spend more time watching great classics.

Sometimes I think the greatest curse I cast upon myself was the need to be creative. If only I had found something more meaningful to do with my life. If I had found a direction early on. A career. A place to belong amongst the professionals of the world. As a so-called “creative” I am supposed to malign those that go to work every day, and have a career, like a childish punk rocker sneering at the career oriented working class, but I don’t. I think I envy them. They found what works for them, and saw the goal, and hit it.

I, on the other hand, have lived with this grandiose vision of who I am and what I will do. Who I am is not the man in my mind. What I will do has yet to happen, and perhaps never will. But I have to create. The narcissist in me pokes and prods at my psyche. He needs the attention, he craves adulation. He is insufferable, and must be appeased.

The first time I got on stage, was at The Comedy Store in Hollywood. Sounds fabulous, right? Wrong. It was at the open mic. I went mostly for research, because I thought I might try it another time. I knew, at 32, I was a bit too old to start, but I was sure I could do it, I’ve been getting ready my whole life. So, I sat in the front row. The open mic at The Comedy Store then was a police line up of crazies that came every week to grasp at the attention they strived to get, since the day they moved out here to become a star, all the rejection and sadness had turned a potentially normal person into a lunatic. That sounds harsh, but if you’ve never been there, you’d never understand.

After a few of these weirdos, I started heckling them. I should immediately tell you, I’m not proud of this, and I have never done it since. I hate hecklers, and don’t ever condone it. Nonetheless, that’s what I did. None of them got laughs, but I did. After a few more, the MC noticed I was making people laugh, and singled me out, “This guy here is getting more laughs than anyone else on stage! Dude, why don’t you come up here and do it?”

I recognized the meaning of this moment. My first time I have ever gotten on stage to tell jokes. This will be significant. And while, I didn’t have any great jokes, I had a couple interesting  premises. The crowd applauded. A few of my friends who came with me, pushed my shoulder. “This is it,” I thought. And went up.

With little exaggeration, I did very well that first time. The small audience laughed, they were with me. They got me. The power of that first time in high school english class surged through me once again, as if the power was always there, dormant. The warmth of the connection to humanity. She had waited for me, and she held her arms open to greet me, I thought.

It was 5 of the greatest minutes of my life. I could do this, I could succeed at this. This will not be a problem for me.

That night, I had a hard time sleeping, envisioning my future as a stand up comic, trying to come up with new jokes, ecstatic that I finally found her again. I came back to my first love, and she embraced me. Without jealously. Without judgement.

The next night, I went to The Improv to try out their open mic. I wrote down my name and waited to kill. I was gonna destroy. The place was packed with other comics waiting to go up as well. A big audience. Perfect! I will show them what almost twenty years of preparation looks like, it will be the best. I will be the best.

My first love is not without her faults. She is petty. She is vindictive. She is brutal.

Every single joked bounced off the wall like a ricocheting bullet. They hit nothing. They hit no one. The comics stared at me. I realized at that moment, that the powerful high you get from connecting with an audience comes with a price: the crushing powerlessness of abject failure. When I say nothing worked, I mean nothing. Every joke that people laughed at the night before, this audience hated. In two nights, I got a crash course in comedy, emphasis on crash: not everything works with every audience, and you’re never as good as you think you are.

But. I came back. Begging forgiveness for my transgression to her. And she would forgive me. But I had to work for it. I had to come back every time I could and do jokes at open mics, write new jokes. Keep coming back, keep coming back, keep coming back…

Here I am now. Comedy and I lived together for a while. It has been a good relationship, mostly. Though it has gotten comfortable, boring. We saw each other in our worst states. Gone are the tumultuous days when I would do her bidding and annoy people for spots, find her at open mics, and spend quiet nights reflecting on what went wrong.

I’m not sure if I love her anymore. She’s different. She’s not the girl I knew in high school and rekindled with in adulthood.

I remember the excitement, I miss it the most. The shows I’ve been to, some I was on, some I just went to watch and learn. It all seemed to mean more then, we were all trying things out, trying to find our own voices… Some voices were shrill and distasteful, some were dulcet and brilliant. But always, the voices pushed their own boundaries, feeling in the darkness for that sustenance that is laughter.

Then came the police. Like always, the police ruin everything. They tell you what to do, how to think, and more importantly, what you cannot say. To be fair, you can say what you like, but you will be labeled a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist.

Even if the moniker does not fit well, what matters is that comedy is nice. Never mean.

We fight over the words we say, while the monsters destroy humanity more and more each day. We quibble. They win. And there is no one left to fight them, not with words, not with stones.

Whimsy is the current flavor of comedy. Comics try to outdo each others’ fantastical tales, rife with the most esoteric of references. Tales of “what if.” What if Edison was gay? What if the founding fathers were black? No offense, guys, but what if who the fuck cares? I do not belittle their power of storytelling or of creativity, I challenge that this is not comedy anymore. It’s a pulpit to show how extraordinary you are. But that does not make you a comedian.

Recently, at least I think it was recent, I’m getting old now, and the word “recent” has gotten more and more relative and has carried less meaning. Could have been a few years ago… Nonetheless! I remember being at an open mic, waiting my turn, I had been one of the last whose name was randomly picked out of a hat, and therefore was to go up like 25th in the line up. Great. Okay, fine. I’ll watch, while I wait my turn. I’ll try to wipe my judgmental slate clean and watch and see why I don’t like this particular new brand of comedy. Is it me? I was willing to set aside my ego and self-criticize. No easy task, as anyone who knows me, recognizes that my ego often needs a forklift to be moved anywhere. So. I sat. I listened. I wanted to see, I wanted the blinders to be lifted.

Halfway through one young man’s set, who was going on and on about Hitler and time travel, and some kind of homoeroticism (there is a distinct fascination with homoeroticism in comedy, presently), I realized the “why.” The “why” of my disdain towards this particular brand of comedy. There is nothing about you in anything you say. Only how creative and interesting your musings are, which is nice, and a great gift, but does it make you a comedian? All the greats I watched as kid, Pryor, Hicks, Cosby, all let me into their world. Of course, it was by no means an all access pass, but rather a guided tour of their ideas, their lives, their shortcomings. Hell, even Gallagher let me into his life, in between showing me weird props and smashing fruits and vegetables.

But you, young man I don’t remember, you and all your ilk, you refuse to share yourself to me, the audience. Instead, you choose to share cute bedtime stories for adults living in a perpetual childhood.

I support your use of homoeroticism, but please make it about yourself.

I should note that not all current comedians fall into this category. Some are truly great and deserving of success. I only address those that seem to pave this new road. This road paved with nice, lined with whimsy that will most likely end on a cliff.

I have said things on stage that I would never tell anyone in private. Not because I wanted to shock, but because I wanted to connect. I hoped that in saying these frightful thoughts that fly inside my mind like a hundred caged birds; some beautiful, some disgusting; that some people in the audience would identify with me. Recognize that they too have had these thoughts, and then we could laugh together about them, about the weaknesses we all share.

That, to me, is comedy,

The comedians I loved so much, they were vulgar, they were hateful, but they loved humanity. They wanted to make you laugh at all costs, and a few of them wanted to change the world. These are the men and women I worshipped. The people that gave solace, so many years before, to a teen who spent all his weekends alone, too far from his few friends. These were his friends. And they’re gone now.

Today, I have a decent job. I like the folks I work with, and that is worth a lot. I’ve suffered through many menial and terrible jobs with the tiniest of human minds, to make rent, to buy food, to put gas in my car to get to the next gig in San Clemente for twenty bucks. Just so I can be with her again, my first love: comedy. Even if was only for 8 fucking minutes.

I like this job, for the most part. It doesn’t pay well, but if I stay the course, it will. I have the chance to work my way up in this company and potentially become like the men I secretly envied. The men with careers and goals.

A career…

This is what scares me and makes me the saddest. That I want to be him, this new man. This man, whom I’ve just met.

My ten year “anniversary” of my romance with stand up comedy has past, and I am thinking about my future in this company I now work for. Is this the guy I want to be? I don’t even know this guy, this man that looks to his future and is afraid of what he sees. This man who sits here and writes these words, when did he take over? He wants the tangible, he has forfeited the intangible. The connection to humanity that he so loved, that burned so brightly, that he felt that first time in front of that crowd of teenagers… It’s still there, but it has dwindled. Dwindled like the last flutterings of a candle on a blackened wick, almost to oblivion.

Comedy. She was so beautiful. She meant everything to me. Right now, we have taken a break from each other. She has changed, and she hates that I didn’t change with her. I don’t hate her, I could never hate her. I cannot hate that which has brought me so much joy. I struggle to understand her, and when I do, I hope that she will again accept me. Though I’m sure she will punish me for staying away.

I used to be so cavalier, so daring. I was going to be a film maker. I failed at that. I was going to be a comedian. Did I fail at that as well?

I stand in the foreground, waiting. Leaning against a car abandoned on the side of a road, lined with beautiful trees that weep leaves onto everything. Onto me. In the distance, a figure walks down the center of the road. Towards me. I do not look towards the figure, but I know whom it is. It is the figure of a woman, this time a different woman. The wind picks up, making the trees weep more leaves.

She has walked a long time, the shot lasts so long. She comes ever closer…

Will she stop when she comes to me?

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