It is almost time to go on stage, and I am terrified. Thoughts are bouncing around inside my head like frenzied bees, and I’ve broken out in a full flop sweat — the kind that immobilizes you with its awful gravity and torrential volume.
The act before me consists of a frazzled old man philosophically dissecting the idea of why the chicken crossed the road. What a lead-in. When the coffee shop emcee asks me if I’ve paid my $5 yet, I respond with a grave stare and a slow nod. I endure a few fist-clenching moments of tension, and before I realize it I am standing before a small crowd with my nerves wound tightly, my teeth grinding from nervousness.
How did I find myself here?
I belong to a family of cynics. If you were to travel back to the Globe Theater in Shakespeare’s heyday, there would be a Shields standing in the back of the crowd pointing out plot holes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Growing up, I learned that the most popular view was not as important as the one that questioned why certain ideas were seen as correct or great. Content to keep my head down during high school, I spent a lot of time buried in books thinking up (and rarely acting upon) ideas that would topple the prevailing ideology — often acerbic, but mostly absurd. I never thought I would exercise these traits in front of a live crowd.
My stand-up career really started with my younger brother Zane. He spent much of his childhood too small, too uncoordinated or too undisciplined to really succeed at anything, with the exception of describing his bitterness at being all of these things. Luckily for him, self-deprecation is one of the pillars of stand-up comedy.
Zane performed his first show at the legendary Hollywood Improv (albeit with the curtains drawn). He did very well, so well that some of the older women in the crowd playfully hit on him after the show. He was beaming, only partially because of the flirting.
As he performed more shows at Los Angeles clubs like the Vault, Zane gained more confidence. One of my brother’s best jokes was about how the tenets of Christianity — if they were supposedly handed down from on high and then edited and translated and edited again — were the result of a giant game of telephone. He was very proud of that joke and only told it if he needed to shore up new material.
Almost a year later, I found myself watching a David Cross special. Cross, a comic not afraid to step on toes, began a routine about the Bible. Yes, yes, religion is funny, David. But then something strange happened. He told the exact same joke my brother had written nearly two years prior — the “Christianity is the result of a game of telephone” bit.
And I realized that the smallest observations can resonate with great numbers of people.
At its core, stand-up comedy is about self-realization. As an audience member, we can enjoy jokes as the products of offbeat perspectives that force us to examine our beliefs in spite of ourselves. It is the magic of stand-up comedy that allowed Stephen Colbert to openly insult former President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and get away with it. It is the same magic that forces us to re-examine ourselves when George Carlin lambastes American capitalism and tells us we have too much stuff. The truth is not often pretty, but if attacked from an unexpected angle it can cause an audience to pay more attention.
For performers like my brother, comedy is therapeutic. It is the pressure valve that produces Louis C.K. and Larry David’s self-deprecatory rants and the socially conscious acts of comedians such as Richard Pryor. Comedians — my brother included — enjoy feeling clever or cynical because it makes them feel more powerful, like they have some measure of control over themselves and their surroundings because they figured it out first, and they are the only ones who see the world in this way. The rest is simply a process of sharing what they’ve found.
It may sound like a narcissist’s wet dream, but the reality is that comedy is about commiseration, not self-aggrandizement. For me — a graduating senior with no girlfriend, few career prospects and few places to hang up my hat — it seemed like the perfect way to complain without being a nuisance.
And so here I am on a stage at a coffee shop in West Oakland, trembling to the core of my being while I stand before a surly-looking crowd. Say something. Anything. They came here to hear you. Maybe. You are sort of the main event. You matter, if only as a source of cheap laughs. Just talk.
“Hey folks … how are we doing tonight?”