Stand Up comedy might be my favourite art form, when it’s done right. I mean that genuinely, I love my favourite stand up comics, specials & bits, more than I love most of my family members. Good bits are like songs that I can hear, over and over again, because they inspire something in me. I honestly go back & rewatch Dave Chappelle's Tale of Iceberg Slim at least once a month because I believe its a beautiful piece. I go to standup in order to see an interesting person's unfiltered perspective, because standup is one of the only remaining genres that operates on Truth.
I remember the first time I ever watched a stand up special. It was on a Saturday in 2008, I was 9 years old, living in Kuwait at the time, my brothers and I would usually go to the movies on weekends, we were all dressed up & ready to go watch The Spiderwick Chronicles, but something came up & my parents told us we weren’t allowed to go.
There’s nothing worse for a kid than when your parents promise that you were going somewhere, and then change their mind. We were distraught, but to make up for it, my parents told us we were allowed to order pizza as consolation. So we all sat in front of the tv, my dictator older brother held the remote control & was mindlessly turning channels, while the rest of us were eating slices like a bunch of jaded seniors in a home. He finally landed on Showtime, and there was this guy speaking on a stage, for a show called “Minorities Rule!”
I had no idea what I was watching. I knew what stand up comedy was, but I had never seen an actual set. The comedian speaking was named Ronnie Khalil, he was an American-Egyptian comic, doing bits around his personal life as an Arab-Muslim person, growing up in a western world, & as a Muslim person, who grew up among Arabs in Arab culture, in a Western world, I understood the bits & related to them. What he was saying was true, I could see myself in what he was saying. I remember almost peeing my pants while watching that set, I didn’t know people could do that as a job.
Laughter is cross cultural, it's one of the most important things in human gatherings. I’ve always wanted to be around the funniest people & I’ve always easily laughed. Growing up, the most important thing was looking for a laugh, anyway we could get it. Laughter is how we bond with other people, those little glimpses you share with someone in class that lets you know, they just noticed the same funny thing that you just noticed, that shared truth is the building block of love, friendship & unity. The fact that someone could take control of that, and do it on a mass level, and have thousands of people connecting on that same honest perspective, blew my mind.
That sent my brothers & I on a quest, to watch every single comedian & special we could come across. It became how we bonded, we would sit down around the television with my dad & try to show him our favourite comedy specials. I would spend every minute I could as a teenager watching specials, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, interviews, I would go on YouTube and watch Red Foxx specials, old Carlin, Pryor, Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy and Lenny Bruce specials. I was just trying to learn about what type of person would do this, and what exactly it was they were doing.
I was a little kid that was afraid to speak in class, & it was insane to me that someone could stand up in front of all those people & say all those things they would say, it was marvelous. My favourite comics shaped my worldview as a human. Guys like Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Bill Burr & Patrice O’neal, have shaped how I look at the world, through their art. It was a trojan horse, & I thought it was the coolest thing on Earth, even at the time. I remember realizing it with Dave Chappelle.
Chappelle is my favourite comedian, for a lot of reasons that I have mentioned trillions of times before, but I quickly realized why. Dave makes me laugh really hard, but after I’m done with his specials, I’m thinking about the material, it was a profound & insightful truth, that was disguised as a joke. That's what I saw in all of my favourite comedians. My favourite comedians subvert social truth in their performance art, like Epic theatre, which is a dramatic form developed in Germany after World War I by Bertolt Brecht and others, intended to provoke rational thought rather than to create illusion. The purpose of epic theatre is not to encourage an audience to suspend their disbelief, but rather to force them to see their world as it is. Guys like Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K, Chris Rock & George Carlin make you think about harsh social truths, instead of giving you an escape from the world, but they disguise it with humour, which gives us all a shared perspective of reality.
The truth is disguised behind the laughter, because if my teacher made the exact same point, I would sleep in class. My favourite comedians made thinking for ourselves cool, and they all focused on truth first.
For a lot of my teenage years, I really wanted to be a comedian. Comedians could go in front of people, tell the truth, say wild things & get away with it, which is something kids are constantly trying to do.
Being a kid, at least in my childhood, was just trying to get away with things. That attempt at getting away with things has always stuck with me as a creative person, that is what I am constantly trying to do, & that has always been what drew me to comedy.
Jerry Seinfeld has described crafting a great bit as “dodging laser beams.” That's exactly what it feels like watching a masterful comedian with great bravura assert his position, you’re amazed that he’s able to land the punchline, with that rhythm. Dave Chappelle is able to craft a stream of consciousness with anecdotes, narratives, philosophical inquiries, & mythology, before hitting you with a punch line out of thin air. Comedians are like daredevils, and a joke that works is sticking the landing across the grand canyon. We love when a comic words his horrible and frightening thought, in a palatable, humorous & truthful way. That feeling of trying to stay up late & stay on your phone under a blanket, or talk in class by passing notes, that is what every artist chases.
Kids & creatives have barely any freedom in society, so artists, like comedians, seem like the most free people. Nina Simone once defined Freedom as having “no fear” & for a kid with a lot of opinions and a fear of public speaking, comedians seemed like the most fearless & most free people in society.
I believe there’s something so noble & chivalrous about the artform. Most comedians aren’t rich, they are just people that have something they need to get off their chest, & are trying to make people laugh along the way.
My first time at a comedy show always stands out in my mind. I was 18 years old, out with my best friend at the time. We had just spent all day doing things I can’t say on here because my parents read some of these articles, and we decided to go to this $5 dollar comedy show at this smoky lounge in Downtown Toronto. The comedian stood on this little brown step, under some flickering dimly lit fluorescent lights, performing to a room of 30 teenagers, young adults and a single old man in front at 1 am. The guy was not very funny, but he was trying his hardest to please us. You could tell he was a young guy, probably only a few years into the craft at that time, he wasn’t like the refined headliners you often see in specials. He was getting a few laughs here and there, coming from some high people in the audience, but most people weren’t laughing.
My friend & I were laughing at the fact that he was bombing, so we decided we would make each other laugh, and we became overtly obnoxious and began slightly heckling the show. On a certain level, I was wishing he would come at one of us and start roasting us like Bill Burr at the Philly rant or something, but the comic just looked in our general direction & I saw a look in his eyes that made me feel like the worst person in the world.
I saw humanity, a soul, this guy is just trying, in the most frightening, possibly humiliating & slightly subservient position a human being could be in, to be ultimately human and tell the truth. I was a call center employee at the time, I would spend all day like a robot, reading a phony script someone else wrote for me, this man was standing in front of a bored audience, past midnight, in this rundown lounge, with his own brain on full display, accepting all judgement, just to be able to tell some truth. If I ever wanted to be a comedian, my dreams disappeared right there. I realized I couldn’t do that, I’m not even that funny & I don’t want to please people. I love laughing at things way more than making people laugh at things, but I realized what I connected with in the artform that I saw in that man's eyes & it's something I carry with me through life.
It's what connects me with Tupac through his music & interviews. The greatest artists are like documentary filmmakers who were supposed to document life as it is, but instead of filming their surroundings, they use themselves as the case study for this quest for truth, & they live it, everyday, passionately. Their flaws, insecurities, vulnerabilities, opinions & truth are all in full display.
The connection I had with standup is the same connection I have to music, when done right, it's a certain transcendent truth being explored by this craftsman, & they use the medium as a vehicle through this inward journey. Their creative process is an idealistic quest. That’s what I love in all of my favourite art, and that’s what I pursue in my own art. All of my favourite artists try to explore some transcendent & overarching truth that unites, by exploring & expressing the human condition. Uncensored truth seeking makes for the best art. Comedy is the most high octane and personal version of that.
Truth is the most important piece of the puzzle, your experience during the act of creation has to be genuine. My favourite artists are always trying to find transparency, & the truth of themselves, their society & their craft in that moment, in order to try & change the world, spark conversation and impact people in some way, because they see something that requires addressing. Richard Pryor, Kurt Cobain, XXXTentacion, J Dilla, Tupac Shakur, James Baldwin, Jean Luc Godard, John Coltrane, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Patrice O'neal, Dave Chappelle, Martin Scorsese & Stanley Kubrick, all had the same intention before embarking on the journey in the crafting of their work, which has substantially impacted & shaped my life. It was to tell the truth and assert their positions with their take on the world, not just please people.
Artists are the opposite of politicians. Politicians manipulate reality in order to create truth, artists dissect reality in order to find truth. Art loses its luster when it stops feeling real, the reason we don’t hold most commercials to the standards of short films is because we can feel the artists attempt at manipulating reality, instead of asserting themselves & their truth on the landscape.
Due to the amount of corporate interest that controls the art market today, comedy is one of the few remaining safe havens for people to have this free quest for truth, and say whatever they like. There are only a few left, but there are artists in other genres with comic tendencies, and by that I mean, completely punk, living in truth & being unabashed in their opinion.
I believe Tupac Shakur lived like a standup comic. I could see the level of passion he had in every single word he spoke, in an interview or in a song. I truly believe he believed everything he said, when he said it. That level of honesty can’t be faked, we saw the consequences of what he was saying come back to haunt him, he was living in a truth most humans couldn’t imagine.
I believe the same applies to Kanye West, James Baldwin, Andrei Tarkovsky, Nina Simone, DMX, David Foster Wallace, David Choe, John Lennon, I believe all of these people live in a Comics truth, at all times. I think they were pure artists, with real causes, and a real quest for truth that they believed in, and you could feel them on their journey when they spoke, that doesn't mean they weren't flawed, it means they were openly flawed and expressed it.
Comedy is a reminder for all artists to embark on this quest when crafting their work. The truth is a constant adventure. In the best moments, you're able to tap into it effortlessly, you enter this flow state where time & your sense of self disappears, the opposite is to lie & propagandize. When Tupac spoke, he rarely stuttered, his words would constantly flow out effortlessly like a saxophone solo, they would give you goosebumps, you could feel him mean every single word. That comes from living in truth, and constantly searching for the ultimate truth.
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