In a recent trip to the movies I saw the a trailer that was overall unmemorable, except for one line that I heard mixed within:
“The more successful you become, the more you begin to fear that you’re a fraud.”
I wanted to enjoy the movie I paid to see, but from that point on, all I could hear was this quote echoing through my skull again and again. So much of what I have felt recently was compacted into that one simple statement. From the first time I chose to call myself a comedian, I had placed a tremendous amount of weight on my shoulders and it seems that with each step forward in my career, instead of feeling a sense of relief I almost feel a sense of high expectations and mounting anxiety. In taking that title, I began to second guess myself. Am I a fraud?
It is not that I steal jokes, or copy a style, and it is not that I had others write for me. It is that each and every time I step on that stage, tell someone my occupation, or write another joke, I fear that someone will call me out, and I will fail them.
What if they ask me to tell them a joke? What if this joke has been done before? What if they don’t find me funny tonight? What if someone is funnier than me? I could have the best set of my career, get offstage and then see a youtube video of another comedian spewing jokes in an impromptu interview that would have taken me years to write and endlessly compare myself to them, second-guessing if I am even a comedian at all. How can they make it seem so easy? Why does it not come naturally to me? Maybe my jokes are too formulaic, or maybe it will come with time. I am still new to this. But then again, how much time? What if it doesn’t come at all? Is there a time when I should throw in the towel?
In any normal job it seems that once you are hired, that is what you are. No one ever second guesses if a wide receiver is indeed a football player if he misses a catch. No one sees a postman and asks for proof that he delivers letters. No parent sits in on classes to see if their child’s teacher actually teaches. But tell one joke to no effect, and I suddenly feel like I am waiting for Shaggy and Scooby to come and rip off my mask.
Every time we take the stage as comedians, we are being judged on one of the hardest scales in existence: our ability to make other’s laugh. If we follow through and do a good job, then we are congratulated with laughter and applause that satisfy our own egos during the brief time we are on stage. The feeling is unmatched. However, the second that time is up, the clock restarts again and we have to prove our worth on the next show, time and time again. The stage becomes our own personal Groundhog Day.
Even today, when Jerry Seinfeld steps onto a late night stage to deliver jokes, people look for him to prove his worth. The man has the most successful TV show of all time, several top selling specials, and a hit internet series. Yet still we stare at him, arms crossed, eyes fixed, with one demand: be funny. Not only be funny, be as funny as we think you are. If not, we may doubt your abilities, your passion, possibly your entire career. Imagine being an NBA player and being expected to hit your career scoring high in every game. Still though, if you had one bad game, people wouldn’t stop cheering for you. No one ever talks about the 90 shows Dave Chappelle kills, but if he has one breakdown with a heckler then the media and public drag him through the mud talking about how he lost his touch.
If that isn’t pressure enough, just waiting for your turn on stage most clubs have walls surrounding you with floor to ceiling pictures of comedians that have graced their stage. Comedians once in your shoes. Comedians that made people laugh. Comedians that once shared your dream. And now they are laughed at not for the jokes we remember them by, but for the crazy hairstyles and off-the-wall gimmicks from decades ago. Names few recognize, and fewer can recall. It is the Dark Souls comedy ghosts of those that came before you, many of whom if they could talk would probably tell you “Don’t do it.”
Comedy is a constant audition for a job that has more variables than constants. It is a matter of proving yourself night in and night out with end goals in mind that often result in newer career paths with exponentially harder goals being thrown at you. Every step up the ladder is met with a “The Princess isn’t in this castle” and a trip back down to start on another ladder. One slip up can set you back years, or possibly end your career. Despite this, it is a fear that I try to embrace and overcome even though when I really think about it I am not sure I truly grasp what I fear in the first place. When I am successful at making people laugh, it is a level of fun and gratification that goes unmatched in the real world, but when I fail it is a sucker punch that would make even the Hulk wince in pain. But yet something about it keeps me coming back for more.
Even now I sit here fearful of posting this, worried that other comedians will not share my sentiment and will say I am not cut out for comedy. Then again, maybe it is the worrying and constant analysis that makes a good comedian. I really don’t know to be honest. What I do know is that the amount of fear that I have inside of me cannot stop my desire to take that stage and keep going at it night in and night out just to bring some joy and laughter to someone’s life, so I think that that is a good sign that I am meant to be doing this. Time will tell, or at the very least, the picture on the club walls will.