Why I Left Stand-Up Comedy

Carlos Varela
Carlos Varela

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it until now, but it had escaped my mind until just the other day: back when I was 16 or 17, I’d always call my friends when I wanted to spend time with them (a way of behaving the likes of which no one had never seen before, which landed me on the front cover of newspapers and magazines all across the world), and there was one friend in particular who always seemed to have a harder time than others when it came to answering their phone. So I did what came naturally and pretended to be Ted Kennedy and Mitt Romney leaving attack ads on that one particular answering machine — i.e., “I don’t know what my opponent’s talking about. I always leave a message after the beep. What do you think this is?” “See — these are the kind of denials I’m campaigning against. I — oh, god, how many more of these do I have to do? Couldn’t we just buy a TV ad or something?”

But why? And to what end? Was I aspiring towards a larger point? Was I secretly hoping I’d dialed the wrong number and was leaving a string of messages for someone who would end up being very, very confused, bringing friends and family inside to listen to their now-cognizant phone give a go at running for office? It didn’t really change the behavior of the person I’d been trying to reach, so what good was it? Was I trying to spin an impossible situation into an outburst of productivity, usefulness, and joy? Would I suddenly want to become all John McPhee-like and begin describing to you the kind and quality of copper wiring that composed a telephone line, its initial harvesting, formation, and eventual all?

In a way, this is all emblematic of why I left stand up comedy. I’d interviewed Eugene Mirman and he’d told me that it took ten years for a comic to ‘find his voice.’ I knew I was funny, I knew how to be funny, I had (and have) funny friends, and I knew how to function as a comedian. I had reached the point at which the indifference or hostility of an audience wasn’t of personal consequence. When I bombed — when — for instance — I asked people at Yale in 2009 if they were worried about the economy and most of them said, “No” (which — thanks) — I had a few jokes at the ready, i.e., “I appreciate the fact that you’re thinking about that — that you’re mulling [that joke] over and ruminating about it, because the most important thing in a situation like this is thought,” and so on.

Anyway: the combination of waiting ten years and the looming threat of wasting my time seemed daunting. I’m very patient, but I don’t like wasting my time. There are days when I feel like I could have been the guy way back when yelling at Frederick Winslow Taylor to hurry the hell up. And the more shows I did, the more it felt like I was wasting my time: comics would get up and kill with awkward sex stories you could sleep through and I’d get one bout of nervous laughter for announcing that I wanted to have “a minute of silence for the fifth minute of my set, which I did not write.”

It all felt emotively narrow and short-circuited in a way I knew it didn’t have to be. I’m perfectly fine with the idea of writing quotable airtight koans, but there’s also something to be said for the messy, meandering rhetorical rhythm of everything else, too. Which is why I probably forgot the story and why I left stand-up — it was funny, and I enjoyed it, but there’s always more to do. TC mark

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