Five of my friends have had babies in the last two weeks. The birth of a baby is supposed to be a happy thing, but it can also be a funeral for a friendship.
It’s great that everyone I know is immediately, rapturously in love with their child, and I wouldn’t wish anything else for them. I see the joy and happiness that my sister and her husband feel now that my nephew is here, and I genuinely want everyone I care about to feel that, too. But it’s not like I stopped needing someone to hang out with, talk to, commiserate with about the crushing grind that is art and performance in NYC, get super baked on pot cookies and watch sci-fi flicks together.
I’m not suggesting that the emotional needs of a 36 year old man should never come ahead of a baby’s, either. If any of my friends kept hanging out like everything was exactly the same, that would be even worse. I’d hate to find out that a close friend was so into our friendship that he was willing to become a deadbeat dad just to keep our train on the tracks.
I think a lot more kids are accidents than people let on. After a certain age, people just go to a different doctor when they find out they’re pregnant than they did in their twenties. I think so, anyway. But after my run-in with testicular cancer a few years back, I’m not going to be surprising anybody.
So while I grieve for my lost – or suddenly, drastically changed – friendships, I’m also jealous. Not like, snatch-a-baby jealous, but with the option of sudden, natural conception behind me, it makes me a lot more conscious of my choices. And I don’t feel like my life is in a place where I could drop everything and support a new life.
I’m really, obsessively focused on writing and performing now. It takes up almost every waking hour, and it pretty much has to until further notice. It’s crushing and exhausting, but sometimes it works out.
For example, I was honored to be the only white guy in a tribute to Richard Pryor at BAM last month. I grew up listening to Richard Pryor records in my room, mimicking his cadence and timing and trying to learn how he could conjure so many characters in a story. Not imitating them, but just becoming them. I’m a storyteller, Pryor was too. And I’ve got a story about a guy who pretty much is the living embodiment of his “Mudbone” character. It was a perfect lock, and such a thrill to be there.
The room was packed, standing room only, maybe 300 people or so. I went on second, after a guy who just crushed it. He’s brash and sharp, grew up incredibly poor in Washington, D.C., and the crowd loved him. Then I went on, and things changed.
They weren’t trying to hear anything from a huge white dude that looks like most people’s boss, dressed in a cowboy shirt. Especially not if the story was a complex story about a friendship with a schizophrenic black man. A large Caribbean woman sat right in front of me, frowning a hole in my skull with arms crossed in front of her like two giant pythons guarding a gateway to laughter on the far, opposite side of an echoing room. I saw dates look at one another and mutually decide to wrap it up early and claim they had an early meeting the next day.
Some people laughed here and there, but I knew in 30 seconds that it was going to be a fight. Comics can go to backup material, but when you’re telling a story and it’s going bad, you’ve got to land that burning airline no matter what happens.
Phones were coming out and lighting up all over the place, and I could hear the audience start to chatter. I swear I heard someone say, “it’s cool, we can talk over this guy.” I zeroed in on a friend’s face and just started talking to her, just to get through it.
And then, also in the front row, I saw this:
A haggard, middle-aged woman pulled a sharpie out of her pocket, and drew a mustache onto her face with a very practiced motion. Then she reached into her coat and took her shirt off completely, unfurling her boobs like faded, trusty flags she’d flown a million times before.
It’s not like things were going well before, but I really didn’t need that. At all.
I wrapped it up the best I could, jumped off the stage. Maggie (my fiance) was in the back, and she said “you ended that one fast and weird, what happened?” I pointed to the stage. The woman jumped up there, mustache on and shirt off, screaming a bunch of bullshit that nobody heard while waving a FlipCam around. I don’t think we would have understood the context much better if we’d been able to understand what she was saying.
I want a time machine, just so I can go back to my 14 year-old self and say “I know that this is going to be tough to imagine, but the day will come that you’re doing the thing you love the most in front of a HUGE audience, and a woman is going to tear her top off … and you’ll feel no appreciation at all, no joy, just a blinding, white rage.”
Eventually, security escorted her out, and the next comic made some solid gold off of it. I was able to tell myself that when nobody met my eyes in the restroom later, at the bar after the show, or when they congratulated the other comics, it was because this woman’s stunt had just wiped my performance from their memory completely. Certainly not that they had hated it and didn’t know what to say, so they didn’t say anything.
It probably didn’t go as badly as it felt to me at the time. Bombing is pretty personal, and people I trust wouldn’t have lied to me about it to spare my feelings. Unless they would. That’s the thing about this: you never really know for sure.
Colin Quinn was the surprise celebrity drop-in at the show, and he got there late. I got to talk to him for a few minutes backstage, in an empty room, just him and me, talking about Flannery O’Connor like we were old friends. He was so gracious and kind, at a time when he really didn’t have to be. He just wanted to talk to the new guy a little bit, and I really, really needed that right then.
He missed the mustache lady. When I told him about her, he said “Really? She did the same fucking thing to me at UCB last week!”
So who needs a bundle of unconditional love when you’ve got all this to live for?
This is a pretty common experience, one way or another. Every performer goes through this, constantly, and it’s part of the deal. I’m trying to do something new, merging storytelling with comedy in a way that works. And it’s hard as hell. Nothing worth doing isn’t. Plenty of other people are working as hard as I am, or harder, but this is the hardest that I’ve ever worked at anything.
I can see other people that I know starting to lift off, getting their first appearances on Conan, on Letterman, etc. These aren’t people that I know well, but folks whose work I admire that I know from around.
I know them well enough to be happy for them if they were to become parents, but not so well that I’ll feel guilty for bitterly missing their company.
It feels like E.T. must have felt toward the end of the movie, when he was “phoning home.” I’m really starting to wonder
“Is there a ship out there? Can it hear me? Have I constructed a communications device, or am I just stumbling around in a field by myself with a Speak-And-Spell duct-taped to an umbrella?”
There are bright lights on the horizon, and from this great distance, they look like ships landing and picking up the people that are supposed to be on them. It may be a trick of the light, or the wrong ship entirely. But it’s hard to tell from this far away.
This isn’t something that only happens to me, either. I mean, yeah, poor me and all, but poor everyone else that does this too. You don’t get good when everything goes well. That’s how assholes are born: money and prestige in the absence of struggle. As usual, Joan Rivers nails it perfectly:
I’m not talking about quitting here. Not because I don’t think about it, but because I honestly don’t know how. I love art, but art doesn’t love me back. It can’t. It’s not a person, it doesn’t have feelings. It’s just a shimmering stream I want to swim in for as long as I can.
by Jeff Simmermon