The goat joke isn’t ready.
How five long minutes of stand-up comedy feels.
“I think there’s a correlation between how badly you need the toilet and how hard it is to find your house keys”
I’m standing in a basement, under a light with a microphone in front of me and about 20 other comedians staring back at me in silence.
Nobody is laughing… yet.
This joke always takes a while for people to assemble in their minds. A second for them to realise I’ve finished it, another second for them to go back over the component parts, and then another second for them to construct the scene, see the joke and then laugh at the fact they missed it, but retroactively constructed it, essentially laughing at their own understanding of the joke*. It’s relatively fast in real time, but when you’re standing there in front of that mic under that light; time slows to a trickle and those seconds feels like an eternity.
Some low chuckles begin to emerge from the back, which then start spreading across the room, but… stop. That’s it. A fleeting low chuckle. I mentally mark down the joke as ‘okay’; It’s no side-splitter, but it’s been a good one to start with and so from there I launch into the rest of the one liners.
There’s a memory trick, where in order to be able to recall a large amount of information, you store that information in a familiar physical space that you can reconstruct in your mind, like your house or your local bar. As you walk from room to room you can then place the information you need to remember in certain places within that space, which are then more easily recalled the next time you walk through your new mental storage facility.
I do this for jokes, and so while that smattering of laughter is dying off into the 4th second, I’m mentally bounding up the stairs of my house, into my kitchen and into my bedroom where an existential joke is waiting for me on the bed.
No real laughs here. I’m not looking for them really, I just want to bring this crowd down to be honest. The joke here isn’t laughing at the frivolity of life, but rather in myself as a character experiencing an existential crisis. I give it another second and then stare hopelessly into the ground about 2 meters ahead of me and let out a defeated sigh.
Another second. Still no laughter. There should be some laughter here. New tactic: keep waiting, double down on it, push all the chips back in. I look sideways, blow out my cheeks and give another exhale, letting the silence come closer, leaning in on me.
Now there’s some laughter. It just takes one person, and now a few more join in. Nobody’s really sure what’s exactly funny here, but it’s awkward enough to garner laughs, and that feels really good. It’s also quite relieving, and I mentally note to keep that long pause in for the next time I try that joke.
From there I head into my kitchen where a vegan, a conspiracy theorist and a crossfit guy are sitting around my kitchen table. Their joke gets no laughs whatsoever, and so from there I run out of the house and over the road to my local bar where I’ve left a joke that calls into question the idea of tipping — this one falls flat as well, and gets tossed into the ‘needs work’ bin along with the vegan and his mates.
Two dead flat one-liners sucks up a lot of oxygen in the room, and that confidence that the one successful joke had brought on is now quickly receding and I’m back in my house running from room to room trying to find something that might work.
I’m not bombing yet, but the threat is looming over me more heavily as each second wastes away. Thankfully I’ve taken a lot of time between jokes up until this point, and as such long pauses don’t look too out of place, and with any luck they all assume I’m pausing for effect rather than realising I’m in the process of mentally raiding my house for a joke.
In a state of desperation, I’ve run into the bathroom and frantically pulled back the shower curtain to reveal a goat.
A goat. A big beautiful white mountain goat is in my mental bath-tub having a shower. The goat joke. The goat joke isn’t even ready. It’s barely even a joke. It needs more time, but right now I’m completely out of time and so the goat is just going to have to do.
“So…. yesterday I woke up as a goat….”
Laughter. Holy shit, laughter?
“…which was awkward”
More laughter. Keep going then… So I delve into it, I start talking about how hard it was using an iphone with my hoofs, how having a shower was tricky, the fact I couldn’t use a towel to dry myself, how catching the train would be difficult. I’m not even looking for jokes now, mentally I’ve changed my physical form and now I’m just walking around New York, Gregor the goat, observing my new goat life and explaining it to this audience of comedians in this basement and some of them are laughing at all of this and that threat of failure has stopped leering at me from the sidelines and this feels good.
I keep it going as long as I can, I pass the 4 minute mark and catch the flash of a light in the side of my eye, a smartphone held up to indicate 1 minute of time left. I could go longer, but I’m not sure the material is strong enough and after the near miss early on, I want to end strong here, and so I wait for one more laugh, throw out a ‘That’s it for me, thanks guys’, awkwardly slot the mic back in its stand, step down off the stage, and walk back through 20 clapping comedians to my seat, and then… exhale.
There’s a feeling here, a kind of giddy burning knot in the chest, as if you’ve almost fallen off a cliff but caught yourself just in time and now you’ve taken a step back to a safer distance you can take in the view and think about all the bad things that almost just happened, but didn’t. It’s an addictive little rush, and once the rest of the comics have finished I end up sitting at the bar scouring the open mics list for my next little hit of fear.
- In a 1941 essay in the The Saturday Review of Literature entitled ‘The Preaching Humorist’ E. B. White and Katharine S. White observed that: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process” and 76 years later this obviously still holds true.