I get jokes. I might not always laugh, smile. Make those visual cues to let you know that I am enjoying myself, but I am. I know how it looks though. Stiff. Quiet. Too polite to make a peep.
I’m a horrible audience.
I love to watch stand up comedy on television and listen to it at home, but I’ve never once felt the need to see it live. It’s safer that way. Stand ups always tell that common story of focusing on the one person in the audience who is not laughing. It can ruin a great show. I’m too afraid that I would be that guy, even if I tried not to be. I don’t want to be the take away from their show in my town, and I don’t want to have to force myself to laugh, to give my entertained self a visual tic. So I stay away and keep my internal laughter private.
I went to my first live performance of comedy tonight and it is an immediate and incredible thing to witness a theater filled to capacity staring at a barren stage. A microphone. A stool. A flat background. Simple. In person you see what a performer needs to fill, all of that space open. There is nothing to fall back on. It is on the shoulders and the voice of the performer.
This was for Aziz Ansari, a comedian I’ve dug since the mid 2000s when I’d go on azizisbored.com and watch his videos and read his blog about meeting M.I.A. and whatever else he was doing. This was pre ‘Human Giant’ and MTV and way before ‘Parks and Recreation.’ This is not to brag about my taste. Not at all, but to get it out there that Aziz Ansari has been at this comedy thing long before he ever made any money at it. He’s given me plenty of laughs for free, so when my wife asked if I wanted to see him when he came to San Jose I said, ‘Of course. We sort of have to.’
Okay. I didn’t actually say that. I hesitated. I panicked. Anxiety hit my heart at the thought of staring at someone who was trying to make me laugh. God. Trying to make me laugh? I hate that. Total nightmare to be face to face with someone who is trying to entertain you just with their words. I have this same feeling about seminars and solo acoustic music. Just the thought of it gives me the sweats and I feel a quick urge to die, but my wife is pretty wonderful and can get me to do things that I normally wouldn’t do and going to this show was one of them.
The opener was Chelsea Peretti, a name I’d heard of before but couldn’t put a face to. She pops up in my Twitter feed a lot, reTweeted and all of that. This is the modern epidemic of ’the humorist in a cubicle’ stage we’re at in social media. Everyone becomes a minor celebrity on these media platforms, but Chelsea Peretti has an act that propels her out of that world, rather than locking her to it.
Having never seen comedy performed live, what struck me most was how much of an actual performance it is. Comedians pretend to be their everyday selves, but a kubuki-esque version. Broader. Straight forward with the darkness washed out. The jokes and stories are streamlined to cut to the point, and the chatter comes in a constant stream. That’s how you fill the stage. You have to entertain those of us in the back of the theater. Chelsea put on a great show and I really tried to get my laughs out the best I could. The crowd was way into her so I didn’t feel I had to try too hard, she had what she needed. Her stories were of family and friends and her difficulty with dating. I can’t, and won’t, spell out any of her jokes, but when you hear her you’re not surprised when you find out that she’s a writer on ‘Parks and Recreation.’
Chelsea introduced Aziz and when he took to the stage you just felt the energy change in the theater. There was no way he could not have given this crowd what they wanted, because all they wanted was him. Seeing Aziz live after watching him on television and in films you realize that he’s at his best live and on stage. This is what he does. Even being a great character in a hilarious TV show is not what his comedy is about.
Having seen his first two specials I was pleasantly surprised to see how mature his comedy has become. This show, ‘Buried Alive!’ deals with getting to an age when most people get married and have kids, and questioning both of those options. At 29, Aziz knows he’s at that age, and with some great story telling he spins a web of jokes that make you agree with him, that yes, kids are horrible and deprive you of yourself and yes, marriage is an impossible thing to expect from a total stranger, but he also swiftly brings it all back to a safe place and comforts the audience by saying something along the lines of, ‘but I see why people do them both.’
Of course, being a celebrity Aziz Ansari isn’t in the same position as the rest of us. He meets the president, parties with The Roots, and hangs out with Kanye West. As down to earth as I believe he is and he portrays himself as, he’s still in a privileged place in society where he doesn’t need anyone – he can actually party the rest of his life away and no one is going to tell him to stop. That’s his job.
Chelsea Peretti’s show is a lighter version of Aziz’s. She covers the same ground, from the same disenfranchised Hollywood perspective. This is not meant as an insult, not at all. If given more stage time to round out her performance I don’t doubt that Chelsea could bring the same depth as Aziz does, but as is – she’s still damn funny.
Obviously I don’t know how to write about comedy, but what I saw tonight were two performers who knew how to take that giant deserted stage and populate it with their voice and the characters in their heads. With ‘Buried Alive!’ Aziz Ansari created an amazing one man show about all of those thoughts everyone approaching 30 has had – do I get married? Why? Do I have kids? Why? The major one that he doesn’t touch on, the idea of career, is pretty obvious why not. He has his career. That generic doubt and struggle that the rest of us suffer with he doesn’t have, but his voice is clear. His vision sharp. The poster for his show perfectly illustrates the magic and allure of his show – he turns the same insightful eye on children and marriage that he’s previously shined on television shows and celebrity meetings (which he stills mingles with the new stuff).
His version of being ‘Buried Alive’ is death by marriage – suffocated and dragged down by children. He’s grown up, but not too much – just enough to create a powerful show that’s both full of wonderfully twisted truths and hilarious insights into some of the most basic parts of human existence all the while tossing in a few dick jokes for the hell of it.