As I sat in the bar, sipping my beer and watching the would-be comedian struggle through a painfully unfunny set, I couldn’t help but notice that not a single patron was laughing. It was open mic night, and a handful of comics had taken it in turns to attempt entertainment in the form of five-minute chunks of material. Some were genuinely funny, some were less so, but watching this guy was brutal. There’s an immediacy to stand-up comedy that is lacking in other forms of performance. People will generally listen to a bad speech, and attempt to find some pleasure in an inept rock band’s noisemaking. Even if they don’t, the performers can delude themselves into thinking that it went okay. Not so, for comedians. The point of comedy is to elicit a specific sound—a laugh—at a specific moment—the punchline. If you don’t get the right sound at the right time, it’s instantly obvious to both you and the audience that something has gone horribly wrong.
In this particular case, it wasn’t a bad night or a tough crowd. I had seen this same kid come back, night after night, only to face utter rejection by the audience each and every time. He told a joke, it was met with silence, and he went right ahead and told another one, bomb after excruciating bomb. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to try comedy for myself.
Like most people, I suppose, I have always been enamored with wit, with the ability to make people laugh. Some of my friends and family have charitably described me as “funny” and I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching and enjoying the world’s best comics do what they do best. Jerry Seinfeld, Andy Kaufman, Patton Oswalt, Bill Burr, Louis CK, Eddie Murphy, and so on. All these people were inspiring to me, but at the same time I always thought “I could never do what they do. I’m not funny enough, not confident enough, not talented enough.”
It’s easy to be inspired by greatness, but it’s also easy to be intimidated and paralyzed by it. As beginners, we can’t imagine ourselves reaching the heights of geniuses who have been honing their craft for years. What no one ever talks about is how important it is to be inspired by mediocrity. I didn’t have the guts to try to emulate my comedy heroes, but when I saw that poor guy courageously bombing night after night at a local dive bar, I thought, “Well, I can definitely do better than that!”
That thought is what separates the doers from the dreamers. In order to get off the couch and do something meaningful, we first have to be willing to risk embarrassment. The important thing is to recognize that being embarrassed isn’t the end of the world, and that the world is full of heroes who have blazed the trail of embarrassment before us. Adopting this mindset will take you a long way towards achieving your goals.
Want to write a novel? Great! You may never write like your favorite author, but why not pick up a trashy airport paperback for inspiration? It’s unlikely you can do much worse than that, and hey, those people are professionals! Read Dickens and Dostoevsky, sure, but also read Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer. If they can be taken seriously as writers, you can too.
The biggest obstacle on the long road to success is simply gathering the courage to get started. This is true for everything in life, from politics and activism, to art, to community building, to business, to simply living your life the way you want to. Gathering inspiration from the less-than-talented may sound harsh, but if it gets you over that initial hurdle, there’s no telling how far you can ultimately go.
I eventually did try my hand at stand up, a couple of times, and it went all right. I’m not going to be making a career out of it any time soon, but I got some laughs and felt good about myself for facing my fears and giving it a shot. You can do the same, for anything that interests you. Just remember that while there will always be someone better than you, there’s also someone out there who’s much, much worse.