When I was little, I would stay up past my bedtime to sneak a peek at the latest comic who was getting national stage time on The Tonight Show. Even though I knew I had to get up early for school the next day and that I would pay for it in the morning, it was totally worth it.
Even back then, I felt a pull toward comedy and comedians but I didn’t fully grasp why. I’ve always loved laughing. (Who doesn’t?) I was insatiably curious and enamored with hearing their take on life either because it resonated with my own quirky inner dialogue or it was a completely different twist that stretched and/or challenged my perception. What I didn’t know then was how comedy would play such a big part in my own life path and eventual career.
For years, I’ve jokingly referred to myself as a recovering journalist. I earned my Bachelor of Science in broadcast journalism while at Stephens College in Columbia, MO, and during my senior year I worked for the local ABC affiliate. My plans to attend the J-School at University of Missouri changed when I received an offer to be part of the startup production staff at The View in New York City. The leap from small-town local TV to national network TV was monumental, both personally and professionally.
Being at The View was a dream job in many respects: from the relationships I formed, many which still exist today, to acquiring skills that armed me with the tools to produce, book and write for television; but something was missing from that experience. About two years in, I found myself echoing the line Anne Hathaway’s character so famously uttered in The Devil Wears Prada: “A million girls would kill for this job! Why am I miserable?!”
When I became clear and honest with myself, the issue was that I missed having a creative outlet where I could freely express my voice.
That’s when I found stand-up comedy, or rather, when stand-up comedy found me.
Instantly, I became enamored with and immersed in the NYC comedy scene. They say when you truly want to learn another language, go to that country and become part of the culture. Well, if you want to learn to be a stellar stand-up comic who can perform to any crowd anywhere, go to New York City. It’s where the best and toughest audiences in the world are and some of the most brilliant minds in comedy meet up to offer their wares. It was like being at The Tonight Show on steroids on a nightly basis. There is honestly nothing that can compare to a live and in-person experience with comedic greatness.
The mystery was solved and I understood why I love and have always loved comedy so much. It was coupled with the immeasurable appreciation not just for how quick, intelligent and witty one must be to do stand-up successfully, but how vulnerable.
Vulnerable. That is not a word people generally associate with comedy since the image one usually conjures up of a comic is someone who is gusty, dare I say brash, possibly even vulgar at times, owning the stage, commanding an audience, dominating the experience.
But the reality is stand-up comedy is one of, if not the, most vulnerable art forms that exists. As a stand-up comedian, I can vouch for the fact that it is all you on that stage for complete acceptance or complete rejection — in real time. There is no waiting for a review to come out — the audience will let you know by their laughter or lack thereof if you are “killing it” or “bombing” (both figuratively, of course!).
Being a comedian is so utterly vulnerable because it is your face, your words, your voice, your body, your thoughts and ideas all at the mercy of complete strangers whom you’re wagering, hoping and sometimes praying, will find the same things as entertaining, plausible and ridiculous as you do.
We rarely acknowledge it, possibly because we’re not really conscious of it, but it is this vulnerability that attracts most of us to comedy like moths to a flame. Sure, we enjoy being entertained and having a good laugh, but on a much deeper and visceral level, the idea that someone has the cajoñes to share their opinion — an opinion we may hold too, but would never dare speak it in mixed company or the light of day — is a relief. It offers comfort and validation in one fell swoop.
It is this vulnerability and honesty that paves the way for addressing society’s less-than-desirable topics, including all the taboo stuff — the isms: racism, sexism, antisemitism, etc… and don’t forget phobias and the other antis.
Another reason this vulnerability is so spectacularly vital is because with it comes the unspoken acknowledgement that we are not perfect. We are human and fallible. We don’t always have, or know, the right thing to say. If we can use and allow humor to soften the sharp edges or create a neutral space in place of one where the default mode is one of offense or defense, then we’re winning the battle for Conscious Communication.
There is a famous equation all comedians know. Tragedy + Time = Comedy. How could that be? How could anything tragic or uncomfortable ever be funny? Surprisingly, that’s the other lesson comedy and comedians teach us. When you can laugh at something, you can get through it and hopefully get past it; you can take the sting out of it and relinquish its negative stronghold over you.
Now, we do not all have to laugh at the same things, nor do we have to find the same things funny. That’s the beauty of comedy — it’s subjective. However, when you can find the humor, even if it’s dark humor, know that there is an opportunity for catharsis and healing that comes with it. For that reason and all of the reasons that I mentioned above, we would be remiss to too quickly dismiss the power of humor and the value of comedians, especially when speaking up about difficult topics.
Karith Foster is a Speaker, Humorist and Author of the best-selling book “You Can Be Perfect or You Can Be Happy” and creator of INVERSITY™ (A revolutionary way to address Diversity, Equity & Inclusion)