I Really Miss Stand-Up Comedy: Adam Cayton-Holland on How It Feels to Not Perform During the QuarantinePhoto by Nick Holmby, provided by Adam Cayton-Holland Comedy Features coronavirus
Doubletree released its chocolate chip cookie recipe the other day and everybody lost their minds.
I was heading out for my afternoon COVID dog-walk—masked, be-sweatpanted, squinting angrily at the sun—when I encountered two neighbors discoursing six feet away from one another.
“What’s new?” I asked, half in jest, as if anything could be new; as if every day hasn’t become Groundhog Day.
“Oh some hotel chain released their cookie recipe and the internet is flipping out,” they said.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, quivering with rage at the mere prospect of them messing with me about something so important. “Was it Doubletree?”
“That’s it!” they said. “Boy, you really know your hotels!”
Doy hickey. I know my hotels. I’m a professional comedian.
I know hotels the way that Bo knows bittersweet 30 for 30 documentaries that make you wonder what he was capable of if he hadn’t gotten injured but also happy that he found archery. On top of that, I’m a Hilton Honors member. Doubletrees are the unsung hero of the dick-joke operas that I unfurl upon audiences across this bloated carcass of an empire. And after a long-day of unfurlin’ those cookies are the much-appreciated gooey, delicious symbol that I’ve come home, away from home.
I wanted to tell my neighbors all of this but by that point they were talking to a wisp of smoke shaped like a man and a dog, as I had sprinted back to my house to scream-announce the news to my wife.
She was appropriately floored. Two days later she greeted me with some freshly-baked Doubletree-brand signature chocolate chip cookies.
“Thought these might remind you of being out on the road,” she said.
My wife is a great woman.
I bit into that cookie and it was so good it made me want to cry.
I realized how badly I miss stand-up comedy.
There’s an old adage about existence that goes something like “who you are is not what you do.” I don’t know if that’s true of stand-up comics. Sure, we all wish it was. We desperately add hyphens whenever we acquire them in an attempt to escape the title of mere comic. We edit our Twitter-bios to let the world know that we are comic-actors or comic-writers or comic-novelty-T-shirt-makers.
And those of us who manage to tear our gaze away from our navels long enough to somehow start families eagerly push that part of our selves into the foreground. I am a husband, we say. I am a father.
But in spite of all of that, go one week without getting on stage and that old open-micer inside of every comic starts talking shit.
Haven’t done a show in eleven days. Pathetic. You said you’d never become this. Look at you now. Hobby-comic.
And every day this god-awful virus keeps comics from being the thing that it is we do, that voice grows louder inside of us. Like many people in these terrifying times, we feel ourselves drifting further away from the thing that we thought defined us. We begin to wonder if in this strange new world that thing even matters anymore.
I did a Zoom comedy show the other night, my first since the outbreak. I was excited. I’d been seeing them pop up online and I was naturally curious. It’s the current comedy landscape, after all, and I was eager to scratch that itch.
At the appointed time I clicked on the link and was taken to a Zoom “green room,” where a bunch of other comics were hanging out, little heads in little boxes, Hollywood Squares style. I saw a number of comedians I’ve met over the years, all sitting in corners of their homes looking as confused as I was. We all smiled and waved at one another. We were told we could chat in the green room and not be heard on the live stream but no one did. I think we were all worried we might disrupt the other comic’s performance somehow if we started talking. It was weird. Green rooms are never silent. That’s where you’re supposed to complain about your career. Instead we just remained silent and watched whoever was “on” tell their jokes. From their homes. Seated.
When it was my turn to perform, I could tell I was delivering my jokes way too fast. In the absence of an audible audience response I didn’t know where to pause; my timing was all off. I felt distinctly like I was bombing but I felt powerless to right the ship, to dip into the bag of tricks and turn the performance around.
The whole experience left me depressed. And not just because stand-up comedy is an art form that really can’t exist without a live audience. It all just felt pointless somehow. I couldn’t help but think about all the doctors and grocers and bus drivers and janitors putting their lives on the line every single day, for all of us. I couldn’t help but think about how every night we open our windows or go out on our porches and balconies and applaud their heroic efforts. And here we were telling dick jokes on the internet. It felt futile, like throwing a whoopee cushion into a tidal wave.
Still, I made 30 bucks.
I did another show a few days later that went a lot better. It wasn’t a stand-up show, per se, but it was hosted by a very funny comic named Chris Gethard. Chris regularly hosts a variety of shows and podcasts where random people from the internet call in to shoot the breeze. He’s carved a nice niche of outcasts who are drawn to his humor and warmth, and you never know where any of his shows are going to go.
Chris had me and my two cohorts in the comedy group The Grawlix on, and his premise for the evening’s entertainment was that between the four of us, and our many collective years of comedy touring, no matter where anyone was calling in from, odds are one of us would have performed there. So people called in trying to stump us. And they couldn’t. Chris was right. No matter where anyone called in from, one of us had been there. We had bombed there. Or we had gotten screwed out of money there. Or we had triumphed. Or puked in the alley behind the venue.
The show turned into a night of rollicking road stories, one that just kept going and going and going. After two-and-a-half hours we were still talking passionately about being out there in strange towns telling jokes. Looking back on our careers from quarantine the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia were firmly in place. But you could tell every single one of us truly missed it, every part of it, from the disgusting greenrooms to the harrowing flights, the terrible food to the terrible pay. And you could tell the people calling in really missed seeing live stand-up comedy.
I texted Chris the next day. Thank you, I wrote. I needed that.
I have this recurring anxiety dream where I’m about to go on stage and I can’t remember my set. I’m waiting there on the side of the stage and I know that I have to do an hour but I just can’t seem to cull together a set list. I’ll remember an opener, then maybe a second and a third joke, but no matter how hard I rack my brain I can’t seem to remember any more jokes beyond that. Then the MC announces me and I’m forced to take the stage having absolutely no idea how I’m going to fill the time. It’s harrowing but in a perverse way I like that I keep having this dream. To me it means that I still respect the craft enough to fear it; that I haven’t gotten cocky.
A few nights ago I had a dream that people were finally starting to gather for live events again, cautiously, responsibly. My home club, Denver’s legendary Comedy Works, decided their first night back would be a showcase of some local favorites and I was asked to perform. They sat audience members six feet apart; everyone wore masks. There were only 50 or so people in a room meant for 300. But no one cared. They were all just excited to be there. To be experiencing comedy again.
Backstage all the comics on the bill were equally excited, if not more. We kept our distance but you couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. We ran jokes by one another, we bullshitted. We watched each other’s sets and laughed louder than the jokes deserved. We were just so happy to be back doing the thing that defines us, doing the thing that we love. It felt like we were finally able to breathe again.
Then I took the stage and I couldn’t remember any of my jokes. Not a single one. And everyone just sat there in silence, watching me flounder.
Damn, I thought.
Still got it.
Adam Cayton-Holland is a member of the Grawlix, the co-host of The Grawlix Saves the World podcast, a co-creator and co-star of TruTV’s Those Who Can’t, and the author of Tragedy Plus Time. He’ll be performing online on Catching Up with Mike Carozza on Friday, May 8, and on the 24 Hour Comedy Festival on Friday, May 15.