What makes people laugh? I believe it can be boiled down to an equation:
Surprise + Believability = Laughter.
The most obvious answer is Surprise. “I didn’t see that coming! Who ever thought he’d do that? Woah! Can you believe that’s how it went down?!” We laugh when we are caught off-guard, our anticipations subverted or paid off in an unexpected way.
My first reaction is to panic. I woke up today with nothing on my plate until the evening. Same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next. I’ve never been so not busy in my life, except on vacation. When I’m on vacation, I allow myself to be OK without things to do. To be OK with no-doing. But outside that context, those empty swaths of calendar terrify me.
I flew to Tel Aviv and Berlin last month. I taught improv in these cites to pay for the trip, but the experience was all about dancing. I danced harder than ever in my life in these magical cities. And I had great sex with the most beautiful people.
Oh, do not worry!” Sofia, the owner of the hotel said, as my friend Aaron and I stepped into her elevator without a door. I reached out and skimmed the interior facade of the building with my hands as we rode upwards. Aaron joked out loud that this elevator would never fly for American hotel safety standards. “Never!” Sofia agreed, throwing us a devilish smile.
It was the morning of an improv gig I had booked in Oberlin, Ohio with my show Happy Karaoke Fun Time. I did what I do when I’m traveling, which is to log into Grindr as soon as we arrived. A man named Ben messaged me. Ben was a stocky, muscular guy whose photo looked the part of a corn-fed farmer bro from the great Midwest (I found out later he was a graphic designer living with his mom). We started chatting, and he was interested in meeting up for a hook-up on my one night in town. We traded pics; I liked what I saw, though he only sent one out-of-focus face pic of himself in a foggy bathroom mirror. I could have pressed for more photos, but I wasn’t being too picky. I was on the road, and I was horny.
He asked why I was in town. I mentioned my improv gig, to which he responded, “Oh, well, I’m hilarious in my downtime.” This seemed a very unfunny statement to me, but I wrote back, “Nice.”
He replied, “Ha yep. We will jive pretty good then.”
I get bored easily these days. I percolate between writing my thoughts down or just thinking them endlessly. My attention span is short. I’m smoking too many cigarettes. And it’s not even nice out yet.
I read too many lists on “How To Be Happy and Productive” on Medium.com. I check my stats on socials every hour for a little hit of dopamine because someone noticed me. I log into my email obsessively, waiting for someone to need or want me for something. I’m on my phone in parks.
It was a bright, cold morning in March, 2011 in Chicago. I had just had the best improv audition of my life at The Second City. I skipped, high on life, back to my 1992 BMW 525i car in the perfect parking spot I’d found right outside the theater. I started the engine, and the radiator exploded in a cloud of fumes and acrid smoke. It ballooned outward from the front of the car. A jogger ran right into the cloud. She coughed and stumbled to the driver side window. She started screaming at me for poisoning her lungs. She threatened to sue me. I shouted back, “It’s my car, not me!” She flipped me the middle finger and jogged away.
The car was totally dead. And, as it seems to happen in my life, I’d gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a split second.
The metaphor I want to suggest is that your improvised character is a wheel, with the center of that wheel being the first thing you say or do as your character, and the spokes being the context of the scene.
The first thing I do when I teach improv classes is ask the group to get into a circle.
I count how long it takes them. The average for a group of 16 students is about ten seconds. The quality of the group’s movement is lethargic, meandering, hesitant and a bit dismissive of the need to make a circle in the first place. Why do we have to do this…aren’t we adults?
I don’t like magical thinking. I don’t like getting my hopes up for something that isn’t feasible or attainable. I value action steps. I believe in possibility but don’t like wishing on a star. I want to wish on a business plan. You can blame this on me being a Capricorn at heart, though my astrological chart is complicated.
But there’s one place in the world where I suspend my disbelief and buy into everything I’m promised: Korean spas. I go crazy for Korean spas.
I watched Goodfellas for the first time today, and during the mafia wedding, when the extended family lined up to give their wedding gifts, I suddenly wanted to have a wedding. It sounds insane. For whatever reason, this mafia wedding scene brought up my need to find a husband and fall in love. It made me want it bad. And not just for all those sweet mafia wedding gifts.
My friend Brian is both a Buddhist and a Bro. He seems like your typical, straight-acting, CIS, sports-obssessed, white boy until you get to know him. He bought me Infinite Jest as a present the day I stepped down running The Annoyance Theatre NY. He taught me how to ride a 150cc scooter and achieve Zen in the art of it. And when I got deservedly pissed off about something the other day, he told me, “It doesn’t matter if you’re right.”
I often want an apology from the world. I can’t fathom when people behave irrationally or rudely or in ways that go against my sense of justice. This doesn’t mean I hate when people make mistakes; on the contrary, owning up to wrongs is something I value above all and am working on myself.
But, when the world fucks me over, I want retribution. I want to duke it out. And a part of me wants to see it burn.
I’m terrible at buying things. I always screw it up.
Let’s start with my blisters. I failed to buy the same pair of shoes this week three times. I went to Macy’s after my stalwart pair of black boots I’d had for three years burst a hole in the bottom during a rainstorm. I slogged my way up to the shoe department and threw down for a size 10 pair of waterproof Timberlands. I wear a size 10 shoe…normally. But, as I later found out, Timberland shoes run big. But I ran out the door, late to some appointment, assuming the shoes (though a bit loose) would be fine. By that night, I had blisters on both feet from them rubbing against the heel, my feet jostling in the enormous shoes.
I woke up today, a week since switching to a new antidepressant called Abilify, and felt a switch had flipped inside me. Very simple: the glass was no longer half empty. I was looking at the same things as before, but instead of seeing them as less than what I needed to feel whole, they felt like blessings on top of a sturdy foundation.
I wasn’t able to confront my pain until I admitted there was nothing wrong with me.
I’ve lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember. And most of it has been a raging tide against what I felt was Life being unfair. The world doesn’t get me. It’s not fair that soandso doesn’t like me. I’m misunderstood. I’m unappreciated. And so on. But these thoughts are a cover-up for the feeling that something was wrong with me in my core. I have this image in mind of bent steel — strong but damaged from some inner failing that has handicapping me getting what I wanted out of life.
Where do you find your self-worth? I tend put my esteem in the hands of those who don’t like me and tend to sideline the affections of those who do. Why do such an insane, self-depleting behavior? Is it Popular Kid syndrome? I’ve been a loser, desperate to fit in, ever since third grade. It’s the same sad story of being bullied for being different. I was teased for being a freak and more specifically a ‘faggot’ by my peers. I remember one day asking Ms. Campagna, my 3rd grade teacher, what a “faggot” was in the middle of class. She became enraged and sent me to detention for saying the word out-loud. I remember not only feeling at a loss for why I was being bullied but also punished for trying to understand what the hell was going on.
It all started to go downhill under the fluorescent lights of the Supermarkten in Amsterdam. I had eaten a mushroom ‘space cake’ about 45 minutes earlier. It was starting to kick in; I could feel the blossoming rush of awareness. But the setting was all wrong. I was supposed to have reached the Vondelpark (the central urban park of Amsterdam) by then. Instead, I was in checkout lane hell.
I had packed gourmet cheese and a nice bottle of red in my backpack. I just needed to get some good bread to compliment it. But it was Sunday, and learned only after I’d eaten the ‘space cake,’ that all the local bakeries were closed on Sunday. I was dead set on getting bread though, so I went to the supermarket. They only had stale bread for sale. But I could feel the wonder-clock in my head beginning to tick, so I made peace with the day-old loaf, grabbed it and tried to get out.
The checkout line was endless. The Dutch do not rush. They ask each other how it’s going and so on and overuse the word “Ok.” Panic began to creep into my awareness. If the trip hit me here, full throttled, I’d be doomed. I needed to be in nature!
“And I think Jesus would want me to tell you all, right now, that I’m gay,” I said from the pulpit of the church.
What followed was the deepest silence of my life — 200 bodies coming to total stillness and shock as I walked trembling back to my pew. It was the fourth, final day of the sacred retreat called Kairos that I’d attended with my Catholic High school Senior class. We’d been told that morning to “Live the Fourth,” and express our newfound selves. I volunteered to give the Homily at mass and then publicly came out of the closet. My peers were for mostly supportive afterwards, though the priests told me that while they were very happy for my ‘life discovery,’ Jesus would want me to be celibate…advice I did not end up taking.
THIS STORY IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK OR FOR THOSE TURNED OFF BY DESCRIPTIONS OF HARDCORE GAY SEXUAL SITUATIONS.
I’ve visited three gay bathhouses in my life. I’ve also gone to regular bathhouses, like Korean and Russian spas, which I find restorative. Those spas prohibit any sexual interaction, though that didn’t stop the guy giving everyone a blow job in the sauna one Tuesday afternoon at King Spa in Niles, IL. Or stop what happens every “Men’s Only” day at the Turkish Bathhouses on 10th street in NYC. But this story is about bathhouses set-up strictly for the pleasure and purpose of gay male sex:
At Burning Man in 2007, a French man in a maid outfit coached me how to eat dark chocolate. Savor it. Mindfully let it melt in your mouth. Let the chocolate work on you. He talked softly in my ear, coaxing patience when I wanted to chew already. It took 15 minutes to fully dissolve. It felt like a nearly orgasmic experience.
In the present day, as I was typing that last paragraph, I very unconsciously gorged on an entire bar of 70% cacao dark chocolate. His lesson didn’t stick. I still eat food like a monster.
I fell down a flight of stairs, blackout drunk, on Deck 3 in the crew quarters of the cruise ship. I awoke at the bottom of the stairwell. Spongebob Squarepants was standing above me, surrounded by his supporting cast. I thought, “I’ve gone to Hell, and this is what Hell looks like.”
It wasn’t Satan though — it was just the cast of Nickelodeon on the cruise ship I was performing on. They helped get me to my quarters. Spongebob, out of costume, was Australian and had great auburn hair (I remember thinking about how nice it looked as he hauled my ass to bed). Later, I learned he’d had preemptive laser hair surgery when he turned 18 to combat the history of hair loss in his family. He didn’t want to jeopardize his destiny of becoming a children’s TV star. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember how much I liked his hair.
As a kid, I hated it being sandwiched between Winter Holidays. My Mom went to great lengths to separate my “Christmas presents” from “Birthday presents” so I didn’t feel jipped. Mostly everyone else forgot I had a birthday.
Finally, I took matters into my own hands to make sure people would remember my birthday. I’d party-plan epic adventures, like organizing 20 friends to play laser tag at Q-ZAR in Rohnert Park, California. I’d hand out epic driving directions to my city friends on the last day before Winter break (this was almost pre-email).
I’ve been addicted to the internet ever since it came out. When I was a Freshman in high school, I got hooked on playing the massively-multiplayer-online-roleplaying game Everquest. It was the virtual fantasy world my escapist self had always dreamed of. On Everquest, I created my alias, Aleolin, an African-American Wizard, on the Prexus Server, who would become one of the most powerful wizards in the history of Everquest. I would rush home from school to play the game every day up to 14 hours. While I got fat and bleery and red-eyed in the real world, in Everquest, I radically changed the game. I enginereed a new way to use the spell MANABURN in the game. By invoking all my wizard friends, upwards of 30 of them, to cast the spell simultaneously, it created an explosion of magic so powerful it could kill Dragons. Dragons, people! Without the aid of warriors, clerics, or even a Shadowknight! I had done it with weak wizards, and the game was being overturned…that is until the makers of Everquest, a corporation known as VERANT, Nerfed it, meaning GONE, badda boom, nadda no more. This affected millions of users worldwide, in China and elsewhere, all because Aleolin, the Wizard from the Prexus Server, had found a way to cheat the system. Outrage ensued! Strangers wrote posts on the EQ forums like graffe.com, keepersofthefaith.com, Prexus.com all defending Aleolin, defending me. I would login to the computer lab at recess and lunch to read new posts strangers wrote about me, feeling validated at a time when I felt invisible to my real-life peers.
What do you do if you’re fully aware and yet allow your manic side to run your life? Acting like a busy-bee: always working, always occupied…but having the self-awareness to (every once in a blue moon) wake up in a panic, knowing that you’re driving yourself into exhaustion. And then vacillating between shame and wanting to take action and wanting to justify not doing anything about it. Fix your behaviors later. Next time. You’re tired now. Whatever the excuse. Choosing to live in constant motion and fear of the maelstrom.
I fear missing out on life. I find myself shifting and worrying about whether I should commit to the present moment or try to find a better one. I’m uneasy these days when I’m being social. I’m constantly sifting through a million superficial conversations, like eating a diet of Skittles when all I want is a steak. I gibber and gossip out-loud while thinking, “Should I stay or should I go?” Wishing I was in public when I’m alone and vice versa. And then mid-thought slams the gavel from the part of me who doesn’t want to think about any of this. The part that wants to live my 20’s now in my 30’s. I was always so responsible and heady and careful, and now I’m turning 31 in two weeks and I just want to get drunk and and say fuck these feelings; just drink and they will go away. And then I’m downing alcohol, all the while worrying about the next day’s hangover, trying to find an equilibrium between my conflicting wants and needs. I usually end up unhappy wherever I’m at.
Disclosure on this article: I give full credit to the incredible teachers I had at The Annoyance Theatre for teaching me the basis of many of these concepts.
My favorite type of improvisers these days are the ones that truly themselves don’t know what they are going to say next.
The audience can see this — they can tell when someone is living in the present moment — alive! Yet, I find most improvisers are stuck onstage planning three steps ahead, three beats ahead, sometimes three scenes ahead — trying to manipulate or control where the scene or show is going and thereby exercise some level of control over the chaos. I find it tends to kill the funny.
When I close most of the improv classes I teach, I quote one of my favorite things Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre, ever taught me: assuming competence.
So often we enter learning situations with a losing perspective. It may be feeling like we need to “fix” something wrong with ourselves. Or, feeling like we’re we’re up for the challenge…but only to the point of initial discomfort, at which point we decide we’ve made our maximum effort and that’s the limit of our abilities. My friend Annie yells at me for not working hard enough at the gym — I flex my muscles till I can feel them warmed up, but she insists that the muscles must shake for them to actually improve!
After my mother died, I went through the things in my childhood bedroom. I was going to be home for awhile, and I didn’t have much to do, except feel pain. So, I rummaged around a bit.
I found the cassette tape my mom gave me on my 18th birthday. It was an audio recording of my natal astrological reading from a famous astrologist in San Francisco, delivered shortly after I was born on 12/29/1985.
It’s traveling season. Everyone and everything will likely be insane at the airport.
So, I’ll share with you tip that make some people’s day and possibly upgrade your airline experience at the same time. This tip was taught to me by the illustratious Brad Moore, who is a kind and smart man and also a contender for the Mars 100 project to save the human race.
I was in Cyprus, standing over an ancient cliff, looking at churning waters below.
My body would not do it. Physically, all the nerves in my body resisted. Alarm bells! The drop was two, maybe three stories, and you had to jump far enough to make it to the deep water, or you’d land on the rocks. It was enough to stop me cold. My body wouldn’t jump. No, no, it would not.
“JUMP!” My friends were screaming at me from the crystal waters below.