I don’t usually write sincere posts on here, but “here goes” or whatever “people” “say” “anymore”. And this is not about my secret Scientology past (oops!), or my illegal Roomba family that I keep in a bunker in Poughkeepsie (hey guyz). Nope, this is even more serious. And it’s about comedy.
For a brief tiempo while the regular host (Leo Allen, no relation to Tim) is away being successful, I have the distinct privilege of hosting a New York show that is a bonafide institution, for newcomers and vets alike: it’s called Whiplash and it’s every Monday at 11 p.m. at UCB Chelsea. This show has been around for a long time, by comedy standards, and dates back in initial forms to Aziz Ansari and before that, the Ancient Greeks. I only mention this to explain what I was doing there, officer, so please unhand my laptop, thank you so much.
So last night, something magical happened, as often happens at long-running, hot New York underground comedy shows. A special guest drops by unannounced! And it was a real crazy surprise! It was Chris Rock. I! Was! So! Excited! For! The! Crowd! To! Experience! Such! A! Treat!
I brought Chris up to a few open mic credits, etc. and obviously, everyone was ecstatic and it felt very cool and on-message with what live performance is about. (ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!) Then I went back around to watch him. He mentions that he’s there to work out stuff and then gets into one of his first bits. He gets out the setup and then suddenly addresses someone in the audience to put away their phone, because he can see them taping. Oh. No.
It gets worse. He goes back to start his joke again, momentarily thrown off, as he’s just there working on stuff. And then notices ANOTHER person taping him, a guy in the front row. It seems like the guy starts arguing with him a little, and then Chris gets fed up and walks offstage, barely over a minute or two after he got there. I guess as any successful multimillionaire artist might when they’re just trying to work on their craft and not have to be some show pony trotted out for the public’s consumption. It was heartbreaking. The stage is empty. I go out and we are all shocked. My brain is in full panic mode.
Someone announces that he’s truly left and I try to address and sit in the utter suck of the moment, and then attempt to remind the audience how many utterly fantastic comics are on the show that night (Nick Thune, Josie Long, Jermaine Fowler, Julian McCullough), and not to take out a couple people’s unfortunate behavior on the others. And the one guy who was taping in the front row left, and I think it was for the best. He seemed genuinely remorseful but I think he had ruined enough of the audience’s night that it was better that he didn’t stick around. And the rest of the audience really rallied after that point. Truly, they made it matter why live performance can be so important and special and unique and not some stupid video to throw on YouTube or SnapChat to your personal trainer.
I think I just wanted to retell all this because I think, in certain places, I assume audiences know the protocol of how to behave at a live performance show. But I think I take for granted, that with the Internet and smartphones and instant gratification, the lines have blurred between private and public space. Everything feels like fair game to post or tweet or ‘gram. But no. That’s not true. I know the Internet has made us feel like “Hey, you’re the main character in this super boring movie where you’re on your phone more or less the whole time, and everyone else is an extra here to embellish the story.” Many of us are guilty of it. We’re all becoming the devil. I know I’ve taken a picture of a sleeping person on the train and thought, oh goody, let’s see those likes roll in.
Comedy is a rather unique performance art form in that even in its creation, it relies on testing it in front of an audience. Not everything will work, but there has to be an implicit agreement to be there and be present for it. Trying to record things on your phone is a part of the time we live in. Some of us are so mindlessly on our devices all day that you might not even consciously realize how much space they take up in your lives. Nobody experiences anything anymore just for the sake of experiencing it. You know what’s cool about live performance? You were there for it. You got to hear something that was just meant for you. Not for hits or views or clicks. And artists make their living by their ideas. To take them and then get to decide what you want to do with them is unfair and a straight-up violation of another person. And that’s the thing. Chris Rock is a person.
This is all very diluted and not cohesive but these are my thoughts. Treat all people like they are people, respect art, try experiencing a moment without sucking the soul out of it. You can always gasp write about it later and what it meant to you or faint tell it in person to friends so they can relive your experience of it. In the meantime, remember we’re all trying to share and make the most of this limited space and time we have here together. Don’t be a jerk.