Today someone asked me about the phrase "The Wrong Monkey," and I explained that I came up with it at a moment when my feelings were hurt because I felt that a clique was snubbing me a little bit. I meant it in the sense of, "I'll show them! I'm the wrong monkey to be snubbing! They'll be sorry!" It was completely empty bluster. I don't believe I ended up showing them anything in particular, but the name "The Wrong Monkey" stuck as an Internet handle, and later also became the name of my blog.
I explained all this, and the lady who'd asked me said that I had told the story in an amusing way, but also apologized for laughing at what she imagined to be a painful episode in my life. I didn't feel it was like that: the pain was slight, brief and long since forgotten, and I got that cool name out of it. This story was almost all upside. But what she said reminded me of some stand-up comics I've known.
I'm not a good stand-up comic. I found this out in the early 1990's when I tried to make a career out of it. Now, I can sometimes be very funny one-on-one: sometimes someone I'm talking to will be amused by what I'm saying, and I'll be able to really feel their amusement, to grab it, and spontaneously keep it going, and growing, and often get that one person laughing so hard they can't stand up any more and they're wheezing and begging me to stop.
What I didn't realize until I finally tried stand-up comedy is that a comic has to do that with an entire group of people at once. Which, for me at least, is a totally different thing. In retrospect, it seems that it shouldn't have surprised me that I can't work a room, because I can't make just anybody laugh -- it's only a few individuals, here and there, now and then. It's not something I can do whenever I want.
So anyway, I worked some comedy clubs, and bombed, and I hung out with some comedians and got to know them a little. And there's a range of personality types among them, but many of the funniest ones are just brutally downbeat offstage, horribly depressed and pessimistic. Now, I've had my battles with depression. But not like these comics. You know that episode of Seinfeldwhere George has started dating a woman who laughs a lot at the things he says, and he asks Jerry not to be funny around her, and Jerry happens to be sitting alone with her in the diner and has just finished a long spiel about how horrible and pointless life is, and she asks him what he does, and he replies, "I'm a comedian!" ? Well, that's especially funny if you know a lot of comics. Funny, because it's true. Offstage, a lot of them could give Bleak Jerry a real run for his horribly-depressed money.
One of the most memorable moments from the time when I failed to make it as a stand-up comic came when I was watching another guy on stage, a much better comic than I'll ever be, a guy who night after night felt the collective funny bone of an entire roomful of people at once and manipulated it unmercifully, made them laugh so hard that they fell out of their seats and cried, the way I can sometimes do with one person, and offstage -- oh my God! That poor guy, you don't wanna know.
The moment I remember was a few seconds into a big laugh he'd gotten. I've long since forgotten the joke he told that got that laugh going. What I remember was what he improvised to make that laugh bigger: he said, "Thank you. Thank you for laughing at my pain."
Okay, that might not seem like such a brilliant thing to say. You may have heard comics say close to the same thing several different times -- maybe exactly the same thing, word for word. Because it's an honest and succinct summing up of what a lot of comics do: bare their horrible anguish for the amusement of the general public.
Because I knew that guy a little bit, I knew how completely sincere he was being when he said that. I think that was when I realized I wasn't going to make it as a comic. Because I wanted to be that kind of comic, but I wasn't nearly unhappy enough.