When they posted the list of comics performing that night, I found my name next to the number seven. “Perfect,” I thought, “God’s holy number.”
As a first-timer, I knew I wanted to go somewhere in the middle of the dozen or so other comedians. Not too early so I could feel out the crowd and not too late so everyone still had the energy to laugh. Plus, I needed time to make some last-minute adjustments to my material, so after I saw the number seven, I pointed to heaven and gave a small fist pump.
I wandered back stage into a small room over-stuffed with couches that seemed collected from various roadsides and alleyways. Before I could even think about sitting down on one, a guy with a pony tail—the type of person who looked like he drove around picking up the furniture—pointed to a sign on the door. “Regulars Only.” I apologized and stood out in the hall, waiting for the host to call my name. The glass ceiling between me and the real comedians looked a lot like a brown door.
As I waited for my turn, I decided to start wiping the sweat from my hands on the back of my jeans instead of the front because I didn’t want the spotlight to illuminate the dark marks I had created (insert a new appreciation for handkerchiefs).
Too nervous to talk with the other comedians around me, let alone the audience awaiting all of us, I kept my head down over the notes on my phone as I went through the transitions between each joke. For some reason, I had my mind set on creating a steady flow through all my bits. Even though I knew I might bomb harder than my tone-deaf aunt at a karaoke bar, I decided I was going to be as smooth as the little red ball bouncing on top of the song lyrics while I did it.
Finally, I heard my name called. My neck snapped to attention. I walked out on stage, greeted the host with a smile and a handshake and started trying to make people laugh.
Comedy is universal. We all want to laugh and we’ve all experienced it in one way or another. Maybe you’ve watched funny TV shows, maybe you have a favorite comedy movie, or maybe you just have that one funny friend. Jokes may take different forms in different cultures, but laughter sounds the same in every language.
In high school, I formed my entire sense of humor off the television show The Office. I remember watching every episode on Thursday nights (this was before Netflix when you had to actually watch shows on a set night), so I could go to school the next day and talk about it with my friends.
Heaven forbid I show up at school on a Friday without having watched The Office the night before, because by the end of the day my friends would have ruined the entire episode for me by quoting all the funny parts.
I still can’t explain the strange sense of community surrounding this television show. We didn’t even watch the show with each other, but something about it brought us together. The Office had an uncanny ability to mock the mundane and this somehow turned life in a cubicle into enjoyable entertainment. The ability to laugh at the normalcy of life made the normalcy more engaging.
The Office taught me that humor’s greatest strength lies not in its ability to make fun of things, rather in its ability to welcome and include anyone. The Office took the reality of life in a nine-to-five, something everyone can relate to, and made it something to laugh about. By poking fun at life in a dull job, the creators of the show allowed viewers to laugh with them.
When done right, comedy invites others into a shared experienced. And once everyone stands on the common ground comedy creates, the door for conversation opens.
When I started my first nine-to-five job, I watched The Office with a whole new perspective. Yes, I still laughed, but now I wondered about what I wanted my life and my job to look like. These thoughts turned quickly into conversations with many of my young adult friends, all asking the same questions. When we laughed about our jobs in comparison to a funny TV show, we could then talk freely about our experiences.
That’s the beauty of comedy. These conversations went deeper than I ever could have imagined. Why? Because you cannot be defensive and laugh at the same time. To make people laugh is to make them put down their guard.
Our jobs created a sense of humor. Our laughter created a space of vulnerability. Comedy facilitates honest conversation because once laughter allows us to drop our guard, we can talk freely about anything. Comedy does not point and laugh. Comedy beckons you to come closer and share in the fun.
When I walked off stage after my set, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I had just performed comedy. But therein lies the difference. I performed. The comedy you see on stage, on TV, and in the movies represents a performance, an imitation of the real thing.
True comedy happens in community. The crowd that laughed at me is very different from my friends who laugh with me. True comedy occurs in the circles of friends, not the rows of an audience.
It took me getting up on stage to realize I have lived life as a comedian since as long as I could make people laugh. I realize now that comedy doesn’t exist for the people inside the “Regulars Only” room. Comedy exists for all of us.
Cover image by Kane Reinholdtsen.