It took me a long time to realize that no matter what we do or how old we get, we'll never stop telling the story of our lives. And it's not just because the story keeps changing, although that's part of it. But there will always be someone that hasn't heard your story, even if you just finished telling your story perfectly five minutes ago and you're on your death bed and you don't feel like telling it again.
The danger of having stories to tell is that you'll grow weary of repeating them. If you're a performing songwriter and you want your songs to have meaning, and you want to perform those songs for people and let them in on the meaning, just remember that you can never stop telling those stories.
In my somewhat financially-dictated quest to explore whether I can put on a compelling solo show, I've been looking to stand-up comedy for inspiration. Not that I'm trying to be funny or come up with jokes, but I'm fascinated with how a great stand-up comedian can command a room with nothing but his or her mind. Often they're not even great performers in the theatrical sense, they just have a relentless desire to strip away their defenses and leave themselves honest and open.
Performing comedy can be a lot like performing music, except that musicians can always take extended guitar solos instead of talking about their genitals. Comedians are essentially FORCED to talk about their genitals. They are up there alone for up to an hour and need some way of making themselves vulnerable. Discussion of the genitals is always one route to vulnerability. Musicians can talk between songs in a similar way to stand-up comedy and they may even be charming and funny, but if they start bombing with that they always have the safety net of saying, "Well enough talking, let's play a song… Two, THREE, FOUR!!" And then the audience forgives them for saying something inane a second ago. But comedians have to push through that awkwardness. If they start telling their jokes and nobody laughs they have to keep going. They have to dig in and see if they can get people to come over to their side. It's kind of fascinating in a way that makes me feel a little sorry them. Plus, they are only able to succeed on one level. A musician measures his success at a show by many factors: whether the audience applauded or danced or held their lovers' hands or a dozen other heartening occurrences. Comedians are only successful if they get laughs. I'm not the first person to make the observation that music and comedy are very similar. They are both dependent on rhythm and timing, dynamics, intimacy and terror, among other things. But musicians can always hide behind something, and comedians have nowhere to hide.
I went to the UCB Theater in Los Angeles the other night to see the Comedy Bang Bang showcase. It cost five dollars to sit in a hundred-seat theater with the promise of seeing a handful of unspecified comedians. The first was Jen Kirkman, who was rehearsing a set she was going to be doing later that week on Conan. After she finished, the audience had a ripple of surprise when the host said, "And now here's Patton Oswalt!"
Patton told the audience that he was preparing to record a new comedy album in Seattle that weekend and was fine-tuning some new material. He read subjects from his notebook and did little bits on Disneyland, malls and handwriting. He's a very good comedian, and it was fascinating to get to see him work on material that he wasn't completely sure of. At one point he said that he hopes the FBI never bugs his car because what he does to entertain himself while he's driving alone is similar to what you'd expect from an unstable and dangerous individual. He then did a minute of examples of this: stupid made-up songs, silly noises, weird gibberish, the same sort of crazy things we all do to entertain ourselves. The bit got a few laughs and he started to move on to something else and then said, "Man, if I'm going to do that bit, I just have to go for it. I've got to stand in front of that theater and just keep doing those sounds for an uncomfortably long period of time." Which is essentially what any comedian or musician needs to do: Sell it. Believe in your material so much that people start to question your sanity before they question your commitment.
There is something else that comedians do well by necessity that musicians could learn something from, and that is connecting to the audience. It's easy for a musician to hide behind his instrument and blow through his setlist without considering where he is or who he's performing for. It's harder to allow the audience inside his walls. Great comedians acknowledge the space that they're in, how big it is, the constraints and limitations of it. They gauge the mood of the audience and how responsive it is. They have to do this to survive. Musicians can easily bypass that whole consideration, but I think they do it to the detriment of their art. That doesn't mean that a musician has to stop in the middle of tuning his guitar to say to someone in the audience, "Where are you from, sir? Cleveland?!" But every audience member, whether they acknowledge it or not, comes to a performance for a personal connection. They want to know that the performer KNOWS he's in Portland or wherever, that there is something different and unique about this show than all the others, even if all the songs are the same. Some wink, or nod that we are all here now, that this is a moment that is occurring and the only moment of our lives. It's surprising how often musicians fail to do that. It's hard to remember that it is currently now, RIGHT NOW, and that we can always share that knowledge of the moment with the people around us. I forget to do it all the time.
I saw the great comedian Louis C.K. in New York a few months ago. He has dedicated himself to working up a new hour of material every year and never revisiting old stuff, which is a rigorous work ethic for a comedian to have. It would be like a band coming up with a new hour of music every year and never playing old songs. I wanted to see if Louis C.K. did anything performance-wise that was different from just a normal guy on a stage. Indeed, he has no particular theatricality to him, no special body awareness or physical humor. He IS just a guy on a stage talking about what's in his head. What makes him special is of course that his thoughts are brilliant and funny, and that he allows himself to talk about potentially embarrassing subjects without flinching. After seeing him I decided I wanted to try stand-up comedy just once, not because I thought I would be successful at it, but rather because I thought I'd bomb and learn a lot from bombing. I wanted to go to an open mic and just try for three to five minutes. I still haven't done it. I think it comes down to being afraid to be that vulnerable on stage. I'd like to get to the point where I'm not even slightly afraid of being myself in front of people, where I don't care whether people might be turned off be what I might say, where I'm trying to please anyone. Someday maybe I'll have the confidence to do that. Just once.