Comic Assumptions

Librarians are over thinkers.

That is, after all, how we make our living. We are also not known for confidence, or the ability to keep things in perspective.

As a librarian, I’ve done a few articles interviewing people about their work. It’s always fascinating. Everybody’s got a story. If you can’t see that, if you can’t connect, that’s your problem.

Comedians get paid to do that, when you think about it. They get paid to connect with people. Laughter, in and of itself, is a connection with the people in the crowd. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of standup and interviews with comedians. They’re interesting people. They love to talk. Interviewing one should be really easy.A request came across the boards for a local nonprofit media outlet to interview Christopher Titus. I’d seen Titus’s first stand-up special, Norman Rockwell is Bleeding, which is damn good as far as specials go. He’s a comedian with skills I respect. Obviously, I jumped at that chance.

All it took was a 17 word e-mail. No more no less. We set up a phone interview for Tuesday. I promised to have the article done that same night. That was that.

Because I had time to think about it, I got to imagining how the interview would go down. For a couple days it was hell between my ears. I couldn’t help it. I’m a librarian.

When you have a strong emotional reaction to something, it’s always good to try and figure out what it really means. The answers will often surprise you. I found what I was really afraid of, the thing that gave me a colossal head rush of fear, was that I this guy would be an asshole, and it would make the interview a living hell for me. Interviews can happen like that; I’ve seen them. And then I’d be trapped. I’d agreed to write this thing. I’d have to do it anyway.

I think, most of the time, when we’re afraid to perform, and stretch our limits, it’s not the actual deed we’re afraid to do. It’s that the people across from us are going to be cruel, that they are going to be assholes.

It reminded me of an article I’d read awhile back. There was this kid who was playing an open mic night at a coffee shop, not terribly skilled, but trying his best to get better. A guy asks if he can take requests. Instead of giving him a song to play, he says:

“I’ll give you $10 to stop playing, right now.”

Now the point of the article was that this particular guy was an asshole. That’s true, sure; that’s a textbook asshole thing to do. But one thing that’s easy to gloss over was that there was a whole room of people who weren’t being assholes. Everyone else was either listening or politely letting the kid have his go. But asshole hipster guy is the one who sticks out to us. And there’s a reason for this.

In the book Hardwiring Happiness, the author, Dr. Rick Hanson, describes how the brain is primed to remember negative experiences rather than positive ones. A negativity bias pervades all aspects of the brain, and scientists theorize this is related to our drive to survive.

In terms of metaphorical carrots and sticks, a human can always get another carrot, but get whacked the wrong way with the stick, you’re dead; no more carrots or sticks for you. So you’re primed to remember the whacks.

The problem for us is that negativity bias gives us a skewed sense of reality. We are primed to think that people will be assholes, only because we don’t remember the ones that are gracious or supportive nearly as much.

When you see people treating a performer poorly, oftentimes that lies with the performer, and not the crowd themselves.

I was trying my hand at standup last week, and there was one guy at the open mic who could only be described as a raging asshole. His spoke while others were doing their sets; his set was homophobic, unfunny, and mean-spirited; he left the stage muttering curses at the ‘haters’ in the crowd that didn’t laugh. You could see that the other performers thought of the guy when they were up on stage. They did not have high opinions of him.

When I got up there, I had a completely different experience, because I treated others in a different way than he did. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t very funny by any stretch of the imagination. But people were generally supportive, and gracious enough to let me know where I could improve.

But I had never done real standup before; with interviewing people, I’ve been around the block. With interviewing, the best thing you can do is homework, and for Titus, I did this in spite of my nerves. I’d watched his specials, listened to his podcast, and I’d read up on where he’d been all these years. In particular, I watched Love is evoL, his special about his divorce. It’s fantastic.

There was one bit in it that really stuck out. It’s about halfway through, when Titus realizes his wife of 20 years was cheating on him. He finds a gun in Texas, historically one of the better places that one can find a gun, and intends to shoot himself. He’s in his hotel room with the gun against his chin. He starts talking to himself, listing all the things she can have: the kids, the money, the house.

But then, he gets to his hot-rods that he built from scratch. When he says that, the bit totally flips. He takes the gun away from his chin, and says:

“I’m going to need a good lawyer.”

What I loved that bit is what I love about a lot of Titus’s standup in general: you see a guy at the pit of despair, and you get see him come out the other side surviving it. You see hope in that, an embrace of the struggle.* This is a guy that is down in the muck in the best of ways. A guy like that isn’t going to be an asshole when you’re trying to interview him.

And of course he totally wasn’t. I had a blast picking his brain. In a half an hour, we covered a ton of ground, from his specials to the books he was reading. I came away from that interview thinking I could take on the world. That night, high on happiness, booze, and pierogis, I wrote. It was probably the fastest I’ve ever written an article in my life. I had it done, just like I’d promised. And I had to admit, it was pretty good.

Halfway through the interview, we even talked about me being a librarian.

When you try to connect with people, most of the time, they’re going to respond in a gracious way. They’re going to act like good people, because on the whole, that’s how people are. The problem is, we remember most vividly the ones who are assholes. We remember the ones that tell us to stop playing. but we shouldn’t. We should remember the gracious people too, so we don’t go around thinking everyone is an asshole, because that’s simply not true.

Unless you are one.

In which case, well, a librarian can only do so much.

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