Being witness to the public agony of a struggling comedian is torture enough if you’re a stranger to him, just some young careless girl who stumbled into her favorite bar only to realize it was amateur joke night. Trouble rises from the floorboards when you love the man on stage. No self-respecting woman should ever allow herself to develop romantic feelings for a hopeful comedian as he paces around the mic stand, not in a purposeful way like his hero Chris Rock, but in a panicked way that resembles the bears in the Bronx zoo, the ones who still remember the outside world but can’t seem to get to it through the glass.
Semi-pro comedians are the polar opposite of semi-pro basketball players. Most of them are starting to go bald, and they punctuate their punch lines by hiking their business casual khakis up over their protruding bellies. They sweat a lot. They address the audience as “folks.” They make sounds you don’t want to hear – hehe’s and hmph’s – into the microphone they’re borrowing from their buddy, and they tell stories from the office while you’re trying to drown yourself in a Sex on the Beach down the bar. When it’s your man harumphing into the mic, when you fold your arms over your chest as he takes a nervous breath, you are invested in his dive, your bodies entwined as gravity takes over. It’s his mouth on the mic but it’s your nerves on the line, right there with his.
You watch him open his free water bottle with hands shaking so minutely only you’d notice the tremors, and you silently hope he won’t spill anything because you can’t remember if you bought him the water resistant khakis or if you went with the normal fabric. How awful for you, to notice when he drops the lead-in because his brain is working too quickly. What horror erupts in your gut when he doesn’t get quite the laugh he was expecting, though you’re teetering on your heels and jabbing other bar-patrons in their ribs, trying to get them to har a little louder.
And when you get in a fight on a Saturday evening, you stand between him and the television, mad because he’d rather look at Conan than your slim hips in your new panties, mad because he’s still got his hair but can’t get a better time-slot than the bald guy who’s at Open Mic every Tuesday, mad because you know if you slip up while yelling, your words will come raucously out of his mouth when he’s on stage tomorrow. You’ll be in his set (again), and the patrons around you will laugh at his impression of the way you make pancakes, the way your voice changes when you’re turned on, the way you talk to your retarded brother on the phone.
Should you fall in love with him, he will pursue your laughter with the same zeal he uses to coax out your moans late at night. It will stop being fun, the act of giggling, because each sound you make in amusement will be catalogued and analyzed. You’ll need a stamp of approval on your chuckles like he’s validating your parking. “That wasn’t a real one,” he’ll say, shaking his head like you came home with implants, like you tried to dupe him but didn’t succeed. You will find yourself watching stand-up on YouTube when you’re bored at your temp job, texting him things you observe. “Donald Glover’s a keeper,” you’ll find yourself thinking, making note of his tropes and attire.
Should you meet this man in college, when he admits you onto his comedy-improv team, you will find him exciting because he is strange. Do not be fooled when he begins writing poetry, when you find slips of paper in your notebooks, rhyming couplets and puns. He will write verse about your hair and your freckles, and each line will end with a punch-line, like he’s winking at you. You will feel, with a fervor, the urge to kiss him just to cease the endless stand-up routine temporarily, to hear the buzzing machine of his brain whirr into silence. You will apply yourself to him like a balm, calming the burn when he finds a bad audience, making him gleam with pride when you’re alone in his dorm room. You will sit cross-legged on his Simpsons bedsheets, your young body glowing, his attentive audience of one.
Should his comedy take off, as you so desperately hope it to, the routine he wrote when you were “on a break” for the summer will carry his fame. Girls from the new temp job will sprinkle his punch-lines around at the water cooler, and you will hear your own logic from your rickety desk. “Emily, just come back, I won’t make you share your Netflix account,” a coworker will recite, almost perfecting the lilt of his voice on stage. The administrative assistants around her will laugh, not knowing this was an actual source of debate on your unwritten relationship contract, the one you signed when you came home with him again – Let’s Get Back Together, I Love You Too Much.
And when he is sleeping, his curly (and thankfully plentiful) brown hair tangled in your loose fingers, you will remember how violently arched Jenny McCarthy’s eyebrows looked when she was bedding Jim Carrey. You will wonder how the lights will hit you on the red carpet, if you could get away wearing the dress you wore to your cousin’s Bat Mitzvah to the Emmys, when he’s up for Best Supporting. Or is it a Grammy he’d win for an album, one he’d record during his first televised special? If you fall for a man who owns a Richard Pryor poster, who listens to Patton Oswald on tape deck in the car, you will bind yourself to a paradox, to a tragic character who gets off on risking his dignity (and yours). You’ll find his set notes mixed in with your own writing. You’ll call your mother and assure her that your boyfriend has promise. You will forward him the audition dates for teams at UCB. Most of their performers at least appear to be healthy, like they might occasionally work out.