“Hey David, I don’t know if you were planning on going, but…”
Whenever someone uses my full first name, I am immediately aware that what follows will be correspondence from someone I grew up with.
“We were wondering if you would be interested in doing stand-up comedy at the reunion in October.”
I received this Facebook message from the organizer of my upcoming high school reunion last week. I was not aware at the time that reunions included potentially embarrassing displays of talent from members of the class. I certainly didn’t think that the talent in question was one I should be sharing with people that knew me when I was a virgin.
I don’t do as much stand-up as I used to. I started doing comedy in college, then had a solid two years of really putting a concerted effort into stand-up as my primary pursuit. At some point in the last year, I started to feel like I was chasing something unfulfilling and depressing, sort of like driving through town to find the last store selling Microsoft Zunes. A life spent going from city to city, sleeping in motel rooms and begging for love from strangers at two AM was something close to the dictionary definition of sadness. I’m depressed enough when the McRib goes away for the year. Why would I add more excuses for me to cover myself in five blankets and play Smiths songs until it “stops hurting” to my routine? I perform when I feel like it’s worth my effort, but I may never go back to the days when I’d stay up all night trying to find a half-deserted coffee shop that will let me be funny for seven minutes.
In lieu of stand-up, I spend most of my time writing, cursing at tourists, attending craft fairs, cleaning the hair out of my shower drain and figuring out credible excuses for not going to my high school reunion. Most of those activities are more fun than being on a stage. As I read the Facebook message a second time, I felt a twinge of guilt when pondering the concept of agreeing to do something I don’t even take seriously anymore. I hatched a scheme to offer a series of alternative talents. I could write them some emotionally raw essays or perhaps model my collection of modestly priced blazers. Surely they would be in awe of the oversharing of my personal demons and my keen ability to be stylish, yet thrifty.
After a few hours of thinking, pacing, sweating and cowering in a corner sucking my own thumb, I came to the realization that I couldn’t say no. It wasn’t a moral imperative, a sense of duty or even a twinge of genuine excitement. All it took was the following sentence:
“We watched your videos and we think you’re pretty funny.”
Vanity. Pride is the key to duping me into doing anything. If a stranger walked up to me tomorrow morning and said “Dave, I really believe that you are an excellent synchronized swimmer,” I’d be spending the rest of the week dog paddling in my bathtub. Sometimes, I just want someone to ‘tell me I’m pretty,’ in a metaphorical sense… or a literal sense. Fortunately for the organizer of my high school reunion, he unwittingly stumbled upon my greatest weakness. My greatest weakness is myself.
Now, I’m trapped. I can’t walk away from this obligation easily. The last thing I want to deal with at my reunion is a bunch of people coming up to me saying, “hey man, I heard you were going to do stand-up, but you were too much of a coward.” I had a nickname in high school, which happened to be “Mr. Coward.” After I graduated from college, it became “Dr. Coward.” If I ever move to England, I’m guessing people would start calling me “Sir Coward, Knight of the Realm.” To be blunt, I have a bad reputation. I can’t willingly exacerbate what has become a truly debilitating problem. It was bad enough when I refused to leave my bedroom for six weeks after 9/11 because I was sure they “couldn’t draft me if they couldn’t see me.” It doesn’t need to get worse.
I really just have to do it. I must tell jokes. They just might be funny. I will be completely clean. I don’t want little Whitney going back to her mom and telling her that Dave Schilling has a potty mouth. I won’t say the “A-word,” the “B-word,” the “C-word” or any of the other words. I might avoid all words with four letters just to be sure I don’t slip up.
There is also the possibility I could fail. I could be colossally unfunny. If so, I’ll be forever branded as a hack by my ex-classmates. Regardless of what I do on stage, I will be judged, because that’s what high school reunions are for. They’re not about getting back in touch with old friends or embracing the moist, warm bosom of nostalgia. They’re about judging people. You want to see who got fat, who went bald, who got ugly, who got pregnant and who was too cool to show up. Even in this age of constant internet surveillance, the power of in-person schadenfreude is still potent. It actually doesn’t matter what I say in my act, or how funny I am. Someone at my high school reunion is going to find a way to feel superior to me, and I will be sure to return the favor.
The only thing that truly matters is how I want to be judged. So, I guess I want to be judged as myself. Funny or not funny, coward or hero, I need to do this. It’s because I’m the guy who does things that sound really stupid, and then regrets them later. If there was a superlative for “Most Likely to Do Something Really Stupid and Later Tell His Therapist How Stupid He Was for Doing That Thing,” I would have won without opposition. I’m sure there will be many decisions to regret at my reunion. Most of them will involve alcohol or married women. Doing stand-up will be the only one that involves artistic expression of any kind. I should be flattered, and I am.
Now, I just need to lose 20 pounds in two months and I’ll really be happy.