Peace, Love and Comedy

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.

Farewell, Maestro

Maestro is a title of extreme respect given to a master musician.

Greg Giraldo was a maestro, a master of his craft. One of the things I treasure most about coming up through the New York City comedy scene is the opportunity to learn by watching the very best in NY’s clubs, an unconventional university scattered over the expanse of New York’s five boroughs. Classes are rarely scheduled, they often just pop up and if you’re lucky, you’re in the right place at the right time. Professors Attell, Rock, Chappelle, CK, Barry, Giraldo- maestros, one and all- hold court and we, the students, sit and learn. And from the very start, Professor Giraldo was one of my very favorites.

An exciting thing happens when one of these maestros takes the stage. The mundane rhythms of a comedy club are transformed. Comedians line the back of the room with childlike excitement in anticipation of something special. Even the waitstaff momentarily stops and becomes part of the audience. The fractured energies and scattered focus of the many are harnessed and fused into one energy- something inexplicably beautiful- in the hands of the maestros. When Greg Giraldo walked into a club, class was in session.
I remember countless nights when I was filled with giddy excitement at the sight of Greg’s arrival at a club. I’d take my place in the back and savor every moment of his performance. Greg possessed a very rare and special combination of gifts. He had a fierce intellect, a quick wit, a philosopher’s insight and a sweet, goofy innocence that was infectious. The best comedians distill their essence with ease and you could see all of Greg up on stage every time he took the mic from the stand.

His ideas would spill out with a fury that was intoxicating and overwhelming. His rhythm was rapid fire, smart, funny, surprising- brilliant. The kind of funny that makes you turn to the person next to you because you need to share the moment with another soul and affirm that it is real. Greg Giraldo raised the bar and often left you in disbelief, as the maestros do, sending you home with an assignment to get to work. Certain nights it seemed like he was channeling something from the heavens and sharing it with the fortunate humble assemblage.

After September 11th New York City, like the rest of the country and much of the world, was in shock and grieving the terrorist attacks. Comedy essentially shut down for several days and even when it started up again, many comedians- myself included- were floundering, wondering how to proceed. How could anything be funny? How could you dare attempt to broach that topic? Doing the same old jokes the same way felt so hollow and insignificant. Enter the maestro.

It was a week or so after September 11th and Greg walked into Gotham Comedy Club. I was thrilled because I was curious to see if he would address the attacks and how he would handle it. I hadn’t really seen anyone do it yet. Greg proceeded to launch head on into the topic with a daring and magical set that was both astoundingly funny and cathartic. I laughed so hard that I cried. I cried because maestro Giraldo had taught us all a lesson once again. Nothing stops life. Nothing is off limits. It is all fodder, it is all available to us to create something beautiful. There was something so reassuring in his cocksure presence on stage. It was like “Okay motherfuckers, here we go!”

I don’t remember much but I do remember a bit about seeing a bachelorette party with penises on their heads, post 9/11. The sight of these bachelorettes made him realize “The terrorists haven’t won. Life will go on!” Greg, with his performance, embodied that very lesson that night.

Another indelible impression that Greg made on me occurred on “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn”. One night Denis Leary was among the guests on the panel, alongside Greg, a frequent panelist. Leary was his usual cocky, aggressive self. At one point Leary, blustery and condescending, made the mistake of going after Greg. The dynamic was fascinating; it was like the bully assuming he could take a shot at the young gun, who he took to obviously be beneath him. What happened next was classic. Greg undressed Leary with a barrage that was fast, brilliant and decisive. It was the perfect display of Greg’s brilliance, sending Leary to the deck before he even realized what hit him. Leary had a look of shock, it reminded me of a disoriented Mike Tyson on his knees searching for his mouthpiece after being knocked out by Buster Douglas.

The beauty of this moment for me was that Greg was never a bully. In my experience he was always humble, kind, sweet, gentle and inclusive, the opposite of a bully. But when a bully picked a fight, Greg had the tools to switch gears and say “Okay, motherfucker. Here we go.” And he did it in a way that was pure Giraldo- fast, surprising and brilliant- driven not by ego but by a desire to see justice. Perhaps this was the lawyer in him.

When one of your heroes becomes your friend, as Greg did over the years, it is such an exciting, rewarding experience. Greg had his demons, his struggles with addiction and it was sad to see my friend, one of my heroes, struggling so mightily. Certain nights you could sense him putting on a happy face but there was a raw pain apparent that allowed you to glimpse his inner conflict.
When I was a kid I was taught that drugs were bad and I naively assumed people who did drugs were bad people. Adulthood has repeatedly taught me otherwise. I don’t know why some people do drugs and other don’t. I don’t know why some people become addicted and others don’t. I do know that all kinds of people do all kinds of things, behave all kinds of ways, and it is not necessarily a character flaw. Often it is a disease, an illness that one must ultimately come to terms with and accept on one’s own- with the help of others. I know Greg had so many people in his life who loved and supported him throughout his battles with addiction. Sadly, this battle, this illness took Greg’s life in the end. This is what makes the illness of addiction so baffling and heartbreaking. Greg loved exploring the gray areas and what could be more inexplicably gray than a brilliant mind, a radiant spirit- so adept at dissecting life and humanity, yet unable to control his own behaviors?

I am saddened by the loss of my friend, my mentor, one of my strongest inspirations. I remember Greg Giraldo’s brilliance, his formidable mind and spirit. I cherish his contagious smile and his childlike, infectious joy. I take solace and inspiration from Greg’s own words, one of my favorite bits about letters from Civil War soldiers to their girlfriends back home:

“This morn finds me wrecked by the fiery pangs of your absence. I will bear your cherished memory with me as I battle the forces of tyranny and oppression.”

And so, Greg, we will. Thank you Greg Giraldo, sweet soul, dear friend.

Farewell, Maestro.