Billy Crystal once made a movie called Mr. Saturday Night (or something like that – I’m not looking it up). It wasn’t a really funny movie, the way people expect Billy Crystal movies to be, but it was good for other reasons. There were some lessons in there that I think he learned that he wanted to express, and
they are lessons worth knowing.
One of the things he says (and to me it’s a big lesson from the movie but it’s not his main point at all) is this: there’s funny in the living room and there’s funny on stage.
Right now you are like, what???
That’s okay. I know it’s early.
I’ll never forget when I went from eighth grade to high school. Eighth grade was the highest level at the Catholic grade school I went to, and eighth graders were the oldest students there. Freshman year in high school – just a quick three months from the end of eighth grade to the beginning of freshman year at high school – was a whole New World. I went from being at the top of the food chain to being plankton. The seniors run the high school and the freshmen are insignificant. Or at least they feel that way.
Both, that is. The seniors feel very superior and most of the freshman feel very insecure.
That doesn’t last of course but the initial transaction was very shocking to me.
In eighth grade, I knew everything. I knew where to go, what to do, who to see. I knew all the teachers, the principal, the janitor… I knew how to get around.
That was not the case my first day in high school.
My first day, I didn’t know room 231 was on the second floor because it started with a 2.
I was kinda lost.
(But from learning that I now know that room 1408 in a hotel is on the 14th floor, and I know an address that’s 1216 Maple St. is probably 12 blocks away from the main artery in that town.)
They are two sides of the same point, I think, and there’s a lesson for us all in this – or a lesson for you guys at least – and it’s one that is hard to explain, so bear with me.
See, I have a friend who, it turns out, is very, very funny. She is crushing it on her Twitter account. Well, not actually her Twitter account, but one she created under a fake name…
Her modus operandi was to tell snarky little jokes and whisper them to a friend, maybe in a classroom. Bust up the friend without drawing attention from the teacher. Or to whisper something snarky and humorous at Thanksgiving dinner to her sister about her mom, without mom ever catching on. Or to literally be watching a movie in the living room and text back-and-forth with one another without letting mom find out.
This is being funny in the living room, and it’s good stuff. If you have a sibling like this, they are likely your favorite.
To take that on stage and do it in front of strangers, whether high school or grade school or community theater or internet or late night TV, that’s the big leap.
Yeah, ALL of those are BIG leaps.
We can see going from snarking quietly about Mom to cracking jokes on Fallon is a big leap, but they are ALL big leaps. Every one of the steps in between is a big leap. A giant chasm filled with possible eternal humiliation.
That’s where you have to have confidence in what you’ve done. What you know.
Comedians in a nightclub will warm up the crowd a little bit. Once you make somebody laugh one time, it’s easier to keep them laughing.
A writer does not necessarily enjoy feedback at that speed.
You may write your story for weeks or months… For some of you, years… Before getting any feedback on it.
If you blog or post on Facebook, you get feedback pretty quickly. A blog will tell you within a few days, maybe a few hours but sometimes as much as a week; a Facebook post is pretty quick. At the end of the day you know if you said something that got a reaction.
You also might pay attention to things (the way I do) like how a comedian phrases a joke that gets a laugh, building upon that theme with variation and repetition while making it new each time he restates it. If he has to refer to a red door three times in a joke, the first time it’s the red door, the second time it’s the red opening, the third time it is the crimson rectangle that gains passage to the house – I mean, repetition breeds boredom unless thesaurusized, you know?
So for those of you who are yet to make the leap, here’s what you need to know.
I’m not going to pretend it’s hard. For me, it was not. (Not noticeably, anyway – but we’ll talk about that in a sec.) I was always able to crack a joke quietly to a friend, and as I built up my confidence I was able to go onstage in high school and do a standup routine in front of hundreds of people.
It was not an overnight thing but an evolution.
During one of the high school plays my freshman year I was kind of the announcer, a role created to fill time between scenes while they dropped the curtain and changed the set. The announcer’s lines were kind of funny and I realized people – adults I didn’t know – laughed. Senior year I did a man-and-woman standup comedy routine, with some ad libs that brought down the house when my beautiful co-player forgot her lines and skipped two pages of material.
What was my evolution to get there, from almost crawling under a desk to killing it onstage???
Because it seems like a series of obvious small steps – but was it?
I came from a large family and a lot of my brothers and sisters had good senses of humor, but in order to get any attention – at least this is how it seemed – around the dining room table from my parents, you had to be able to speak up. The thing my dad enjoyed most was a good laugh. Probably we all do, but dad worked hard and we didn’t see as much of him as we did my mom, so getting a good laugh out of Dad was a really great way to end the day. Also, if you made dad laugh you probably made everybody else laughed, too.
Instant celebrity status – at least within the family.
And it was minor celebrity status, to be sure.
Go try that crap out at school in the middle of a fourth grade classroom and the teacher frowns – and most of the kids don’t laugh because they (correctly) don’t think they should – and you will feel heat on your cheeks like you didn’t know was possible. Somebody has parked an oven next your face on each side.
(See that door analogy coming back? Cheeks went heat to ovens.)
Anyway, when my jokes for flat at school, they did not get repeated – and I became pretty quiet.
Except maybe with my friends after a loooooong period of soul searching.
And as my confidence grew again I would occasionally make a witty comment, but not usually at school, usually in a more appropriate forum like being the announcer at a play. That was when I found out, Hey I can be funny and if I do it the right way I can get a lot of recognition and status and prestige and probably respect. People respect you if you can get up in front of a group and tell a joke.
Hell, people respect you if you can get up in front of a group and speak.
Now, my older brother had been class president in our high school, so it seemed like a good idea to get involved in student council like he did. I had no idea what I was doing. I figured I would just go to meetings. And I did.
But when it came time to read the minutes of the student council meeting in front of the class, that was public speaking 101 – and guess what?
Public speaking is people’s number 1 fear. They fear it more than death.
And with good reason.
Nobody teases you for ten years after you fuck up your death.
I kind of held the paper in front of my face and almost made myself into a little ball, and spoke very, very quietly (and as fast as possible) and got that stuff the hell over with.
That evolved, too. I was a homeroom representative for three years (most of freshman year I just pinned the minutes to the bulletin board because
John White picked me up by the neck from behind while I was reading them.
I didn’t know what to do, so I kept reading the minutes as he strangled me.
It was pretty embarrassing. Inferno cheeks and much laughter from the class.) Somehow, I kept on being homeroom rep, and being part of student council.
And then senior year I ran for class president.
I didn’t win, but I was one of the two finalists, giving our speeches in front of the entire school in the gymnasium.
And I’m still proud of that. Obviously. (I got voted onto prom court, too.)
But during the interim years, my band – I was a drummer in a rock band – played in garages and then my friend got the idea that maybe we would play the music at the school masses. See, I went to a Catholic high school, too, and every once in while we would have a big school mass in the gymnasium. That was basically like putting on a rock concert, in my opinion. A concert with some prayers around it. That is totally how I viewed it. With myself as the centerpiece of the band, of course.
And then we had to practice, so we got to get out of certain classes to go practice for the mass. That’s prestigious, too. Kids can’t get out of class, and if you can, you have esteem.
Suffice it to say the nuns found us too loud
when we practiced and too loud during the masses, but the cool young priest gave us a thumbs up and I guess he outranked them so that was that. We got to play.
And then from there we did other stuff, dances and parties, including the back-to-school dance. Which was a big deal. A concert, as we saw it, featuring us, with all our classmates in attendance. Not Revenge Of The Nerds, exactly, but…
Wait, WHERE are all these wild, unrelated analogies going?
It’s an evolution, people!
You have to make the step. You have to decide you’re going to make the step and then make the step. You must put yourself out there.
You will think this comes natural to me to me because I do it all the time for you.
I write stories and I do video shows and I am a boisterous and outgoing personality. I crank out amazing books.
I’m telling you it didn’t happen overnight.
It didn’t for me and for most of you it’s not going to, either.
But what I’m also telling you is, it’s possible.
It’s a skill like anything else, and unless you find it extremely unpalatable, you can do it.
I’m not saying you should start working on your standup routine, because as writers that’s pretty much death by a million embarrassments in your eyes.
(You’re probably wrong about that but okay.)
What I am saying is, you can write a great story.
I think you believe that but you don’t have the confidence to believe anybody else believes it.
Or as I like to say, if your kid had this challenge, what would you tell them? Follow that advice yourself.
“Whatever your objective, you must define it, create a plan for achieving it.”
C’mon, you gonna argue with Dr Phil?
I am here to tell you, if you would just put it out there… well, you might fall on your face.
(John White is not lurking in the shadows anymore, though, I don’t think.)
But don’t get discouraged.
The first time I glowed beet red in a classroom for telling a joke that fell flat, I wanted to crawl under a rock and never come back out again. And I probably did for a few days.
But for whatever reason, my confidence and ego was such that I had to stage a resurgence. Maybe I didn’t know better. Maybe my parents wouldn’t let me quit. Maybe I knew I had to find another way, one that didn’t involve python-like decapitation at the hands of a larger classmate.
Maybe I had somebody quietly encouraging me.
Despite my many setbacks in life, and they are numerous, here I still am pushing out stories for other people to pay money for and enjoy.
Think about that. Total strangers plop down money to read what I write.
They laugh at the right places, they cry at the right places, they swoon sometimes… And then they write to me.
And I will tell you this: somebody writing to express how good a writer you are is probably one of the most amazing experiences you will ever have.
So please stop denying yourself. If I can help you in any way – and I can – to boost that confidence, let me know. You can enter a contest I host. You can join my private critique group. You can submit a story for the anthology. I’m a pretty nice guy when it comes to helping people, ask anybody. And as writer types, I get it. I wanna boost you by showing what you do well and helping you fix what needs improvement.
(By the way, did you see what I did a moment ago? I told you – on a blog read by tens of thousands of people – about one of my most embarrassing moments in high school. And nothing bad happened when I told you.)
Oh, and my funny, snarky friend? She put out a bestseller.
But it has to come from you. You have to want it.
I can’t make you want it – or maybe I can.