"Life is a miracle. Death is inevitable. Everything else is hilarious." -- Stu Baker

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Moving Forward

Some people describe life as a river; that you go with the flow, the river takes you downstream, sometimes there are rough waters and other times it’s a gentle current. Blah, blah, blah. My experience is if life is a river, then you’re swimming upstream. In order to make any progress, you have to swim hard and fast. Take a rest, and you move backward. Eventually, it is inevitable that you’re going to drown. But that’s just the nature of the beast.

At this point, some may simply say I’m swimming the wrong way; that if I just relax and let the river take me downstream, there’s something lovely waiting for me that I was destined for. We can take nature as a cue on this and see that everything has a way of balancing itself out. The ultimate design is actually perfect and we each have a place. And some of us get eaten for dinner.

I don’t think those who know me would think of me as a negative person. To the contrary, I’m pretty sure most would say I’m positive. So, this viewpoint of a difficult struggle in life and the extraordinary effort it takes to succeed may not seem consistent with positivity. But the viewpoint is based in my experience. Nothing has ever been easy for me. The orientation of having muscular dystrophy all my life probably has something to do with that viewpoint. (I will be writing about this much more in the future). Nevertheless, it’s my experience. Life isn’t easy. You have to make an effort to get to where you want to go, otherwise you drift where life takes you. This comes down to the question we all must ask ourselves: “Is our life a matter of choice or is it predetermined?” In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve decided I have a choice in life.

So, as I undertake this current project of advancing a stand up comedy career to the next level, what ever that may be, I understand that I can’t just stay in my house, watch reruns of Golden Girls, eat potato chips, and “let the river of life take me where it wants to”. I want things to move forward. I want to get somewhere. Somewhere closer to success than I am right now. In order to do that, I do what I heard a wise person once say, “I get up each day, report for life, then do the next indicated thing.”

Today’s activity started with this blog. But I also made a booking for the tour and exchanged emails and phone calls with other comics, friends of comedy, and others regarding these plans. I updated my Facebook and Twitter status and got back with people who acknowledged me as best as I could. Here’s what I noticed; things are starting to happen. Who knew?

I want to give a quick shout out to a new comic friend Dave Robinson who wrote about me in his blog. Active comics eventually run into each other in the river rapids of life and I knew of Dave from Twitter. Though we really didn’t talk much, we exchanged a few jokes across the ether. I regarded him as an experienced and funny guy. He seems to also be on a similar journey and I just wanted to thank him for giving me some attention and a lift. Anyone who has something called "Davewear" can't be all bad.

You move forward. That’s all. You take your best shot with the resources you have at hand. You may not even have the resources of the person next to you, but if you apply yourself with a little more passion, ingenuity, and excitement, you can make some progress.

I’m swimming as hard as I can.

Ultimately Stand Up Boils Down to a Mic and Mouth

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Brain

I’m trying to get organized and focused on what I need to do to get ready for the tour. Chet is really busy with his school and job(s) but we exchange notes every day. It is starting to dawn on me how really big this job of doing a successful comedy tour is going to be. It seems like I need to do so many things, it’s hard for me focus OR get organized. I know from experience that when you’re trying to achieve something big, it’s important to make a list then focus on one thing at a time. That way you don’t get overwhelmed. But I am so A.D.D., I sometimes can’t even focus long enough to make that list. I just keep jumping from one thing to the other.

I’m blaming my brain. I can't help but think that, even at my age, my brain should be working better than it is. As bad as it is, I'm amazed I could even think THAT! What was that person's name again? The one who's shorter than me and has the same last name as me and follows me around in the house? Why am I wearing this condom? Where did I leave that brand new can of Spaghettio's? Huh, brain? Where the hell you been? And why in the hell did I dream last night that I won a brand new Ford Focus? It’s my dream! Why didn't I dream I won a Dodge Viper or at least a one of those new Dodge Caravans?

My brain just won't listen to me! My other body parts listen to me. Kidneys keep filtering crap so I can pee, my lungs work whether or not I tell them too, my pancreas does whatever pancreases do. I don't get why my brain thinks it can do whatever it wants. I mean, it's definitely not a team player.

If I want to take my comedy to the next level, I need to get more results out of my brain. So, I had a talk with it. I sat it down and said, "Look, brain, you work for me. So, either you shape up and fly right or you're history! I mean it! The next time I dial a number on the phone and you forget who I was calling, you're fired! I'm getting a new brain. (and by the way, thanks, Brain, for the immediate reminder that I'm a stupid idiot by telling me no one "dials" phone numbers anymore!)".

I'm starting to think its all my fault. I let my brain hang out with the wrong crowd. When I was young, I let it spend too much time watching television. It used to get me in trouble in my class when it was daydreaming. When it was time to take the quizzes, I would ask it for the answers and it would just sit there in silence forcing me to cover for it by making up stuff. I muddled my way through the multiple choice and it was easy to bullshit my way through the essay questions, but when it came down to the fill-in-the-blank questions, my brain was the one that was blank! The asshole!

Then, when I was a teenager, I started smoking pot. That’s when my brain really got off the leash. It started thinking "outside the box". It started asking questions like, "Why do we have to live by society's rules ... man?", and "If a tree falls in the forest, does Schrodinger's cat secretly love its mother?" Huh? Have another puff of ganja you dirty hippie! You can't even think your way out of the paper bag you're using to quiet the anxiety attack you're making me have because you're so fricking high!

Now I'm finally at an age where I'm supposed to be enjoying my life and I can't remember why I came. My brain just keeps telling me to turn on the weather channel or check my Facebook page. Did somewhat just mention me on Twitter? I think i heard my Tweetdeck chirp. Chocolate chip cookies and milk sound good to me right now.

... I'm sorry what was I talking about?

Oh yeah, the comedy tour. We seem to have gotten a good reaction to the "Cheeseburgers of Comedy" idea. So, at least we have gotten this far. I think I need to be the one to decide what's next. My brain sure isn't going to do it.

Stu Baker's Brain

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Edginess and Taking Risks

The last time I had a month break from school, I felt the freedom of not having so much schoolwork hanging over my head and I felt like I accomplished a lot with my comedy. This time Christmas is on its way and after this first week, I can already tell it’s going to be more difficult to keep focused on stand up. I have a list of things I’m going to focus on and I’ll get something done I’m sure, but I can already feel the next class coming up on the horizon. It will be my last class though, so the temporary feeling of freedom I have now will soon become more permanent.

I have a show this Saturday at a VFW in Coolidge. While this may not seem like the ideal environment for stand up, the guy who puts the show together has been successful at creating decent comedy events where the people come out to see a good comedy show. A couple comic friends of mine said they had a good time at the show when they did it because the crowd really seemed into it. So, I’m looking forward to it. I also get to headline, so I’m looking over my material to see if I am going to rearrange things a bit or stick with the one-hour format I’ve been working from for the past year. I do have some new material, but a lot of the new stuff I’ve been working on might be too edgy for this crowd. I can’t be too sure until I get there and survey the audience. Still my instincts tell me if I want to connect with them, I should steer clear of some of the stuff I’ve develop over the last year.

Part of the reason my most recent material is so edgy is because I’ve been writing and working things out in the context of the room I often work in, the Hidden House in Phoenix. Hidden House is a weekly show where most of the best comics in the area come out regularly. It’s a small room that has a capacity of only 50 or so people. The room is almost always packed (often over capacity) with a crowd of people who are there to see a good night of stand up. There is a fair amount of turnover in the audience but if you perform regularly, or even semi-regularly as I do, you need to come up with some new stuff to keep performing there or the crowd will tire of you somewhat. There is a small group of comics who produce the show and go up every week. Beyond that, there is a secondary lineup of the semi-regulars who fill out the experienced portion of the line up. But they also let newcomers and less experienced comics go up which gives a good perspective on how hard comedy really is and how good the good comics are. Sometimes, these newcomers surprise everyone and have a good set. This is more often the case than I like to admit because it sometimes makes me wonder how far I’ve really come when a comic can get up who has only done maybe 10 or 12 shows and do as well as, or better than, me. This is when I remind myself that comparisons with others are not really the best way to improve in comedy. When I compare myself with how I was when I first started, I know I am a lot better. That’s all that should really matter.

The edginess that seems to work at Hidden House is sometimes based in explicit language or topics. You can imagine that references to body parts and sexual acts get an easy laugh. Edgy material is not necessarily blue. However, it does tend to be surprising and it tests boundaries. Blue material often does this but these days, it is so common that unless you have an original approach to it, you’re not treading any new ground and you can come across looking like a hack.

Edginess is more than that. It’s more of an attitudinal thing. The best comics I observe there have a kind of detachment from the actual effect they expect from the room. That is not to say they don’t care about the room or if anyone laughs. To the contrary, they all know if they don’t get laughs there are essentially bombing. But many of the comics working material out know that you have to take chances to get better. You have to try new jokes or new ways to do old ones. You pick topics no one is talking about or you talk about old topics in new ways. To do that on a regular basis, the best comics seem one step removed from the whether a particular joke works in a particular moment. So this overall attitude of “OK. You didn’t like that, here’s something else”, prevails. They don’t crumble or get flustered. Perhaps another way of stating it is that these comics have confidence or that they come from experience. But these terms don’t quite describe this process of experimenting with the right orientation, this air of detachment to results.

One thing I’ve learned about comedy that has applications to life in general is that to improve at something, you have to be willing to take chances. This carries with it the fact that from time-to-time you will fail, otherwise, it wouldn’t really be considered a risk. This sets up an interesting combination of competing goals when doing comedy on any given night. While we all want to do well – to “slay” and “destroy” in the dramatic and violent vernacular of the comic (which I will discuss later) – we must also experiment and take chances. Since taking chances means we will sometimes fail, we weigh each night and measure our prepared material against the situation (the audience, venue, management. etc.) and make decisions about whether we are going to construct a set of so-called “A” material to create the best result we can, or are we going to mix in new stuff and see how it goes. Or, perhaps we even improv moments to see where they will go and see if we can create a one-of-a-kind memorable moment. Each comic comes to a decision on these variables each night whether they aware they of it or not.

For me, I need to feel I am growing in some way. I take each opportunity to perform seriously. I feel like I need to either perform my usual material better in some way, or find a new joke within the structure of a bit, or run some new material. One night I did a 10-minute set in front of an audience that had never seen me before. I chose a set of jokes I was completely comfortable with and was very familiar with. For me, it was a “safe” set. I got a good reaction but I wasn’t very happy when I got off stage. I felt like I phoned it in and was not really in the moment. I was performing for the crowd, but not interacting with them much. I was telling jokes and getting laughs but I was not really taking any risks. The set lacked the kind of spark I look forward to as an indication I am growing in some way. I decided that night that playing it safe was not the reason I got into stand up. You don't get up in front of group of people to try to make them laugh if you like to play it safe.

So, taking risks in style, performance or material is key to growth and perhaps why stand up can be so satisfying. It has been said that stand up comedy is the last soapbox. It is the last place one can get up in front of a group of people and say anything you want about any subject. Not only do you not have to be politically correct, you don’t even have to be correct. As long as you are getting laughs, you can keep talking. The very best comics in stand up history not only tested boundaries but also made us think. I believe the only way a comic gets to that point is to take risks.

A Passionate Set at Hidden House

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cheeseburgers of Comedy

As I finish up this year, I’m preparing to go on tour next year with some other comics. Myke Dehu and I have been on several road trips together and we met Chet Wild at Kyle Cease’s Stand Up Bootcamp this past year. Chet is a very funny comic who is also a hard worker and an idea guy. It’s hard for me to keep up with all the shows he’s doing back East He threw out the idea of going on tour to the rest of the Boootcampers and I responded since I was planning to tour too. We kept the conversations going and now the conversations have turned into plans and goals. We plan to do some shows back East, some in the Midwest, and eventually the West Coast including Seattle down to LA. Other Bootcampers will also go with us for different legs of the tour. Eventually, there will be several other comics including perhaps Bootcampers Dartanion London, Halli Borgfjord, or others. As well as many guest appearances from comics we have performed with over the years like Don Steinmetz, Shawna Whitlock, David Lew, Jimmy Shaw and Roy Brewster. Maybe even a few others we have met along the way! And ... maybe even some special guests!

The logo above is the concept we’re considering for the tour. Everyone knows that when a comedian is on tour, he or she eats a lot of cheeseburgers. We plan to find the best burger joints along the way and will seek out the best cheeseburger in every city we perform in. We’ll be putting up YouTube videos of our exploits doing comedy and eating burgers. Who could not love that?

Any comments would be welcome.

P.S. I like cheeseburgers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Finishing My Master's and Going on Tour in 2010

Myke and Me on Tour!
This past Monday, I finished my next-to-the-last class in my pursuit of my Master’s Degree in Psychology at University of Phoenix. I started taking classes towards my Master’s right after finishing my undergraduate degree in 1979 but I quit after one semester to play music for a living. I was then performing with in an acoustic duo called “The Other Guys”. That act broke up in the summer of 1979 and after playing in another acoustic act of a short while my daughter Amy was born. I quit playing music to get a real job.

I always thought that someday, I would go back to school and get my Master’s but going back to school seemed like a big commitment in time and money, and frankly, physical effort. University of Phoenix (UoP) offered a program online and I funded it with student loans. So, it fit all my criteria for getting my degree and I thought I could do it in my spare time since I am online frequently. It turned out to be harder and more consuming than I thought. However, after two years in the program, I am now only one class away.

Being involved in the study of psychology again taught me some important and interesting lessons. I always felt that with my undergraduate degree, I had learned enough to be to know that I still had a lot to learn. With a Master’s, I feel like I now know enough to be dangerous. That is, I feel like the background, credentials and knowledge now qualify me to make some commentary on why people behave that way I do, however, I still haven’t learned enough to be an expert on anything, so I should probably keep my mouth shut. It’s difficult to articulate the lessons I’ve learned from this Master’s program, however, I will try to bring things into focus a little at a time with this blog.

The time and energy I spent getting my Master’s did take away from my comedy career somewhat, but I’m hoping that as the lessons I learned along the way sink in, they will eventually inform and elevate my comedy. I will finish my Master’s in February and I look forward to having more time and energy to work on my comedy.

Next year, I will be touring a fair amount doing stand up comedy across the US and have started the blog to create a public journey trying to get to the next level in stand up. Besides the usual open mics, I only have a few bookings until the end of March 2010, when I will do a short tour in Oregon and Washington with Myke Dehu and Chet Wild. We intend to start in LA with a few guest sets and will do four nights after that as a part of a Tribble run. Tribble is an agency that books comedians for one-nighters across the Northwest. These days, it’s generally casinos and comedy nights at various bars. It takes a fair amount of driving to get to the first gig of any tour, but then after that the distance between gigs is usually only 4 or 5 hours. The pay is not great but if the headliner and feature travel together, as Myke and I usually do, you can make a buck or two. It is, however, very good experience for comedians who aspire to get to the next level. While on these tours, I have an opportunity to work on my 45-60 minute headliner set. In my local area, I have very few opportunities for that.

For me, it’s nice to have second person along because then there are two people around to help me on stage. With Muscular Dystrophy, I can’t climb steps so I need a couple of people to help me on stage. Myke and I did one tour together with just the two of us and we had to find that second person each time to help me get on stage. It generally worked out, but it had the potential of being awkward.

Chet Wild and I are planning a series of 2 or 3 tours across the US this coming year (2010). Tentatively called the “Cheeseburgers of Comedy” tour, we will do some East coast gigs, some Midwest and a few out here in the West. All told, we should probably do at least 4 to 6 weeks on the road this year.

So, this blog will offer some insight into what it’s like to be on tour as a comic and also what it’s like to aspire to the next level in comedy. This information is all offered in context of the fact that I also have Muscular Dystrophy (MD), so, I’m doing stand up even though I can barely stand up. As the blog moves forward, I’ll offer as many insights on getting better at comedy as I can as well as what it’s like to aspire to anything. The desire to improve and be successful in comedy has elements that are similar to improving in other pursuits. As I mentioned before, at one time, I tried my hand playing music for a living. So, as I am attempting to be better at comedy, (be funnier), I’m also trying to understand what it takes to be more successful in life in general. I’m aware other people are on a similar journey. Some are trying to make it in the music business. Some are authors trying to publish their first book. Some people are simply trying to figure out how to go to college and get a degree in spite of challenging circumstances. These journey’s all have features in common. So, as I move along the timeline and hopefully improve, maybe others can look over my shoulder and learn to and be inspired in some way to be better themselves.

Feel free to comment on the blog or to write me at djstudbaker@yahoo.com. I will try to get back with anyone who takes the time to drop me a note.

My Life Philosophy

"Life is a miracle. Death is inevitable. Everything else is hilarious." - Stu Baker