Last week I experienced something I’d never experienced before in my sixteen years as a comedian. While I was trying out new material, hashing out unpolished ideas, some audience members reacted angrily, even violently, to the point where they interrupted the show. They cursed at me and grabbed me as I was leaving the stage, yelling “You’re a piece of shit!”
And yet, even while those people yelled and cursed me, others in the room shouted them down, offering their support and encouragement. It was bizarre. Ultimately, I managed to somehow regain enough control of the room to finish my set.
I’ve always felt a desire to connect. Ever since I was a child I’ve reveled in the opportunity to connect with others, be it through performance or simple interaction. Over the course of my life I’ve felt that connection distinctly through the arts; music, acting, singing, writing, comedy. Now in my sixteenth year as a comedian, my ideas on what that connection means and how I attempt to connect have evolved as I have evolved and grown as a person and performer. It is that basic desire for connection that has fueled my creative process and ultimately taken me around the world, affording me opportunities for personal and professional growth beyond my wildest expectations. I am so grateful for and amazed by this path of standup comedian and I will continue to explore with gratitude and enthusiasm.
Last week’s outburst has really made me think. It was a powerful experience to encounter such a visceral reaction to ideas, thoughts, words. Afterwards, and even still, I felt upset, scared, angry, excited, invigorated, proud, disappointed and alive.
The bit that triggered their reaction was an idea about how after 9/11 we now sing “God Bless America” at every major league baseball game during the 7th inning stretch. I was exploring the oddity of how a terrorist attack directly led to, essentially, prayer for our country at baseball games. That correlation struck me as strange.
As one good friend said “Ted, I don’t see why they got upset. You were only doing a bit about religion, 9/11, America, terrorism and baseball.” I had to laugh. I definitely managed to cover every hot button topic in one ball of fire.
But for me it’s not even about those topics so much as behaviors; unexamined behaviors and how symbols are sometimes forced upon us and we are expected to tacitly comply. As I went on to say that night, “People attend baseball games who aren’t American. People attend baseball games who don’t believe in God. ‘Now everyone stand and sing a prayer to God to bless America’.”
I abhor the battle of “Who’s more American/patriotic”. The folks who were angered by my ideas probably had an emotional and personal connection, either through military service or some direct connection to 9/11, that prevented them from listening to any exploration of those concepts. I understand that but it doesn’t preclude me from discussing it on stage. It also doesn’t make me less American than they to explore those ideas.
I, too, am American. Not that I need to validate my “American-ness” but I have performed U.S.O. shows for the troops. I’ve done benefit shows for military families. I’ve gone with fellow comedians to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital in DC. I say this merely to point out the absurdity of trying to restrict the definition of what it means to be American or even human. Would that woman yell “You’re a piece of shit!” at me as I walked out of Walter Reed Hospital? I presume not. A person can do both things; visit wounded soldiers yet also question the singing of “God Bless America” at a baseball game. Doing the latter is not tantamount to burning the flag or a terrorist attack.
Although I was upset and angry last Saturday night, I also resist the knee jerk urge to dismiss the people who yelled at me. I don’t want to react with “Fuck them! They’re idiots!” It’s way too easy to give into that pervasive “us against them” mentality, a mentality that dehumanizes us and prevents any real discourse or progress. It’s okay that they were angry. They are allowed to disagree with me, as I am allowed to voice my thoughts. I sometimes have fights with loved ones and friends, too. Why should an audience be any different? I don’t censor myself in conversations with my most intimate friends and family, nor should I do so in front of an audience. I’m certain that, in other circumstances, I could be friends with the very people who yelled at me, cursed me and grabbed me. It’s awful and unfortunate that it happened the way it did but it’s also fine. Ultimately, I was trying out new ideas that were not polished and apparently not very funny, but they were, as I suspected, interesting and worth exploring.
I like exploring ideas, behaviors and ambiguities. I am fortunate to be able to make my living doing just that, in a humorous way (most of the time). Comedy allows me to explore my humanity/our humanity and connect with people from around the entire world, which is so beautiful and something I give thanks for every day.
I am grateful, too, for the experience I had last week, as crazy and upsetting as it was. It was a moment of pure emotion, real passion and genuine human interaction. I’ll never forget it and I’m sure anyone who was there never will, either. That is worthwhile. I don’t set out to shock or provoke anger but if it happens, that’s absolutely okay. This experience made me think, made me feel, made me question and it made me grateful to be a comedian.
God Bless America.
Allah Bless America.
God Bless Allah.
Allah Bless God.
God and Allah Bless Every Country.
Everyone Bless Everywhere and Everything Unless You’re Atheist and the Word ‘Bless’ Offends, Then Replace It With a Word That Best Captures Your Sentiments.
Anyway. That is all.