Comedy, hip hop and vulnerability

Last night we went to see my favourite comedian (comic? I actually prefer to say comic, but I don’t know if there is an established difference between the two so I went with comedian because that was how he was described when I looked him up,) Nate Bargatze. I first saw him perform stand up on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. (My other favourite comedian, a comedian I’d forgotten until my mom texted me while we were at the show, I said we were seeing my favourite comedian and she replied, “Jimmy Fallon?” Ooops. I guess old Jimmy’s been dethroned.) In fact, I’ve seen him there three times. ( ~ one ~ two ~ three ~)

Late last year, I bought his hour-long Comedy Central performance called Full Time Magic. I downloaded it and saved it for our flight to Florida in November and it had me literally laughing out loud on the plane. I played it again in the car on the way to the show last night (Kevin had never seen or heard it) and it got the same response from both of us.

I had seen a couple of comedy shows a long, long time ago, but Kevin had never been to one. This one was part of Just For Laughs Northwest and took place at the Biltmore Cabaret. The Biltmore could be called a Vancouver institution. Remarkably, in all the shows I’ve been in all the venues in Vancouver, I’d never made it there before. It was pretty much what I had expected – dark, dated and straddling the difference between being dingy and having character.

Just For Laughs Northwest continues now through February 25th – visit their website for more information and a list of performers

We arrived a few minutes before the show started and it was standing room only. On TV, comedy shows are always in auditoriums so everyone has a seat. In old bars, it isn’t really like that. There were rows of seats set up on what I presume would normally be a dance floor and high top tables were positioned behind them. Banks of booth seating on either side would probable have been most comfortable, but I suspect it wouldn’t have afforded the same view that we got by standing near the back of the room.

If this was a typical comedy show, then I would say that they are punctual. At a few minutes before the show was scheduled to start, a recorded message from the JFLNW organizers told us that there was a prize pack up for grabs – just look under your seat to see if you’re the winner. That was like salt in the wound from knowing that I had scoffed when Kevin suggested getting there early and now we didn’t have a place to sit.

What I hadn’t really thought about was opening acts. Like almost any musical performer, apparently comedians/comics also have openers. Unlike musical opening acts, the openers keep it short and sweet. John Cullen is somebody I probably never would have seen in my lifetime if not for his pre-Bargatze spot and he provided some good laughs. (My highlight: him utilizing his day job position as a teacher to say the things the rest of us never do about kids’ names and their rather obvious fates when christened with them. Tyler, Justin, Skyylar…)

Nate Bargatze came out and he was exactly what I was expecting. Take a look at those videos above if you want to see what that was. For about an hour, he shared his observations as a regular dude from Nashville – his material included travel, fast food, performing in prison, his visit to a serpentarium,  a childhood baseball story that had Kevin howling both in the moment and hours later and more.  (But, sadly, not his tiger joke. I love his tiger joke.)

It was a super fun time.

As we stood there at the back of the room and smiled and laughed the whole time we were there, I had these lucid moments when I would look around and just silently observe the people around me – the guys at the high top in front of us who never spoke the whole time we were there, but whose bodies shook in time with the crowd’s laughter and the guy behind me who laughed into my hair (like, right into my hair – I could feel his breath) more times than I can count (seriously, how would one not notice that they were doing that?!?!)

I looked out over all the people and back at Nate Bargatze and I thought, for the first time, “man, that must be an amazing job!” and “okay, now I understand why someone would want to do this!” I mean, gathering a group of people into a room and making them happy. What better reward than that could there be? It’s like being a musician or an actor, only better. It may not last forever, but the comic’s certain contribution to his or her audience is happiness. Man, that’s powerful.

Another thing I stood there thinking: this job has incredible rewards, but it must also be incredibly taxing. Being on the road is a tough slog and it can be a long one – years long. City to city, always coming and always going. I think about this whenever I listen to Nate Bargatze talk about his wife and his daughter. I think about what that must be like to be away and traveling with loved ones at home. It feels like it might be lonely to be out of town making other people laugh while life continues to happen at home. That’s a big price to pay for a career and it’s one that probably gets overlooked by many people.

This third thing that I was keenly aware of while watching the show was the courage that it takes to do something like that. Unlike other performers – actors are usually part of an ensemble, most musicians are not solo acts – being a comic has you on the stage alone – without props, with the shelter of other people being there, without anything else to take the focus off of  YOU. That is an incredible amount of vulnerability to exhibit.

I first started thinking about this when I went to my first hip hop show in December. My friend and I were there to see the headliner, but we were also pretty into the opener, Homeboy Sandman. Mark (my friend) had coached me in not getting my hopes up. As a rap show veteran, he said that sometimes they get a little obnoxious. (After the fact, we both agreed that wasn’t the case with this show.) I was still super jacked to be there and when we walked in, the show had already started.

There was Homeboy Sandman all alone on stage. He was performing the songs we knew and interacting with the crowd in between them. He had a great vibe and it felt good to be there. Amidst all of that, I still took to think about how exposed he was up there. Yes, he was entertaining a room full of people, but when I analyzed it more deeply, he was offering his personally crafted product to people who had the options to either celebrate it or totally reject it. I stood there looking at him with great admiration, in awe of his bravery – out there on his own, laying his life’s work down for all to see and hear, no shelter, no support.

Man, that’s gutsy.

The headliner from that night, Aesop Rock
Just because I loved that show and this pic

Funny coincidence: I found out last night that both Nate Bargatze AND Aesop Rock are on the bill for this year’s Sasquatch Festival. If that isn’t a sign that I should be there, I don’t know what is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *