Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rage Across America Tour: Postamble

"Our fellow citizens had fallen into line, adapted themselves, as people say, to the situation, because there was no way of doing otherwise. Naturally they retained the attitudes of sadness and suffering, but they had ceased to feel their sting. Indeed, to some...this precisely was the most disheartening thing: that the habit of despair is worse than despair itself."

- Albert Camus, The Plague

Well, that was a not-insignificant chunk of my life and career.

One of the major obstacles I've had to any kind of successful branding is my predilection for genre-hopping -- up next for me (and I'll hold off on the official announcement for a few more weeks) is my take on some squeaky-clean children's fantasy, and the audience I've built over the past few months is unlikely to follow me to it.

It's been a few years since I really dug into straight-up political satire, and it'll probably be a few more years before I plumb that well again -- until I, y'know, have something more to say on the subject. Of the genres I play with, it's by far the most exhausting. It requires the cultivation of a sharp tongue and a cynical outlook, and while I absolutely believe in the moral importance of rage -- its darker sister, as Camus well knows, is despair -- it's difficult to sustain that level of anger. Particularly for someone as introverted as me.

Like most of my projects, the end-product wasn't so much a goal as a by-product of an existing process. This was my attempt to compile some of my most successful short pieces in one place -- not an attempt to sit down and write a political show, but to recognize that a huge proportion of my comedy writing is political. I remain bewildered by the fact that the material that has consistently killed it with spoken-word crowds (one of the pieces placed me in MN Story Slam Finals) was so challenging to sell outside of that demographic.

So what's different? Two things leap out at me:

1) the environment. Most of these sets were developed in front of late-night crowds -- pubs 'n' clubs -- where the audience was generally young, knocking back a few drinks, and looking to have a good time. That's a different experience from the more formal one of reserving a ticket and sitting down in a darkened theatre.

Most notably, many of the audiences I performed for seemed to be actively looking to have a bad time, staring daggers and seething hostility before I opened my mouth. Which, I mean, I can handle audience hostility, but it raises the question: why were they there in the first place?

Actually, this I think I get -- I get the impulse to seek out entertainment to hate-watch. I was an avid listener to Air America back in the day -- I would drive, scream, swear, and pound the steering wheel. That rush of adrenalin that anger brings can feel fantastic, and I'm indebted to the radio network for birthing many of the stories in the show.

So, hey, if I was serving that function for the audience, I'm happy to take my place in the circle of rage. the ciiiiiiiircle of raaaaaage

2) but the bigger factor, I suspect, is packaging. It's one thing to be out for a night of entertainment, and to have some guy appear in front of you cracking political jokes, many of which happen to libertarian. It's another thing entirely to grit your teeth and buy a ticket to see a libertarian comic.

Not only is that a tougher sell, but that marketing re-contextualizes all of the individual jokes. Didactic or not, the stories become so when the title implies a message. Which, y'know, I'm disinclined to shy away from, but dem's the breaks.

But, yeah, I'm wiped -- more so than I usually am at the end of a tour -- and it's largely because I once again utterly failed to properly market this thing. One question I get asked a lot on the road is "Don't you get tired of the material?" ...and my answer is usually no, I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. I do, however, grow exceedingly tired of the wildly erratic crowds. Any performer will tell you that, while a large crowd buoys you, a thin one just sucks the energy out of you -- you have to work that much harder to keep the room alive. And for several stretches of this particular tour, I was working very, very hard.

It spreads, too, to other aspects of the experience. If you've got a hit show, then everybody's your best friend. If your material is struggling, no one will look twice at you. I had one defining experience, with another political comic whom I thought I was getting along quite well with. During one post-show drinking session, I made some crack, and he did a double-take, stating "I thought the libertarian thing was ironic." Er, no, I responded -- and he then looked away, avoiding me for the rest of the week.

But, y'know? This is all bruised-ego shit, and my ego has proven to be not unlike Prometheus' liver in its ability to continually regenerate itself. The exhaustion will pass, the psychic wounds will heal, and the frustrations will fade. So what will I remember?

I'll remember the fact that, after nearly every show I've done for the past couple of months, I've had at least one person pull me aside to try to express their shared rage, their loneliness, their frustrated idealism. I had one guy grab me firmly by the hand, look me in the eye with somewhat alarming intensity, and say "Most people aren't going to get what you're doing here. But it's important." And putting aside for the moment my usual cynicism (i.e. how important can it possibly be if most people aren't getting it?) -- I can't pretend I wasn't a little moved.

I've now been doing political comedy long enough to get the fact that politics in popular culture are cyclical. Right now, libertarianism -- particularly in the liberal arts world -- is an object of scorn. But that doesn't mean that all the impassioned libertarians go away. We're still here, even if there doesn't seem to be a place for us in the zeitgeist right now. And if I can provide a space for us to step back, point at the soul-crushing, hellishly absurd nightmare that our economic and electoral system has become, and laugh -- then that's something I can feel proud of on my deathbed.

I'll do one more compilation of online writing next week, just so it's all in one place. Before I go, I couldn't resist sharing this: a word cloud I put together from all of my First Amendment Box responses. If you want a cross-section of the country's collective unconscious, this is my contribution.

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