Health

How I Learned to Deal With Stress After My Creative Escape Became My Job

As I started to make more money off of stand-up comedy, I had to find a new way to blow off steam.

by Josh Gondelman
Jul 29 2019, 4:55pm

Photo by Bridget Badore

This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, the comedian and writer Josh Gondelman talks about how stand-up was his main stress reliever—until it wasn't. His book, Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results, comes out on September 17 and is available for preorder. Sign up here to receive an essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.

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Illustration by Esme Blegvad

I started doing stand-up comedy when I was 19. It’s been the most constant feature of my adult life. I’ve taken and left day jobs, drifted apart from and grown back together with sets of friends, moved apartments, started and ended romantic relationships (or sat and nodded quietly while someone else ended them). For the past 15 years—a somewhat embarrassingly long time, considering most people reading this have never heard of me—I have gotten onstage and tried to make people laugh. Through repetition, stand-up became what centered and recalibrated me in difficult times.

It’s not the audience’s laughter and attention that's soothing—although the more they laugh, the better it feels. (Well—that’s not always true. Sometimes, people laugh too much, and you can’t trust their judgement anymore.) Quality of the show itself aside: Performing gives me a controlled environment in a turbulent world.

No matter what city I’m in or venue I’m performing at, the routine is largely the same. I show up and make small talk with the other comics as they're waiting to go on. There is a specific energy to these conversations: Some are fully engaged with one another. Some zone out, jotting down set lists in their notebooks. If you get up and walk away, no one thinks you’re rude. It is a social structure without obligation. I can come and go without accountability, which, under other circumstances, would feel like a friendship-ending transgression.

The evening following my grandmother's funeral, I performed three stand-up sets. While spending the day in remembrance with loved ones was comforting and meaningful, it felt good to have a reason to take a break from being around family—to talk to people who only knew the things about me that I wanted them to. To stand in the back of the showroom unnoticed, waiting for my turn. To feel the small thrill of getting a free drink at a place I’d never been with the unthinking ease of getting a glass of water from my own refrigerator. When life is overwhelming, a comedy club is the arena I know how to navigate.

Onstage for 10–60 minutes, depending on the venue, I am busy and engaged. After a decade and a half of this, I’m not nervous when I perform. I’m focused, but at ease. It’s like highway driving—another skill that took me a long time to get good at. I can’t check out mentally, but I’ve done it enough that I don’t have to spend the whole time thinking: Is this OK? Am I doing it right? Is that guy on my left mad at me? As long as I’m onstage, there’s a pretty narrow spectrum of possibility. People laugh, or they don’t. No one can give me bad news: They’re not allowed to talk to me. If I feel my phone vibrate, I ignore it and feel no guilt. It doesn’t matter if my taxes are due or I have a pile of dirty laundry at home or I think my friend is mad at me for missing his wedding. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, with one thing to focus on. I’m in the moment, and weirdly, out of my own head. I talk, people listen, and that’s enough.

There’s a piece of conventional wisdom that states that stand-up comedy can be "like therapy" for the performer. That the comedian's job is to take the stage and speak from the heart, transforming stress and pain into laughter and insight, the way pressure creates diamonds.

But the night my grandmother died, three stand-up sets, it turned out, was too many stand-up sets. During the third set, when an intractably drunk audience member wouldn't stop talking loudly, I couldn't muster a witty retort and instead wished into the microphone that he was dead. (I am not proud of that, but it happened.)

Imagine if your therapist paid you money and expected you to entertain them. On one hand, it seems better than the healthcare system we have now! On the other, you would never make any emotional progress. While it can be cathartic, stand-up comedy isn't that much like talk therapy. It's more like physical therapy: repetitive—or slightly varied—motion, performed over and over at regular intervals to achieve a desired result. Like going to the gym, which is definitely a way that only someone who does not go to the gym would describe the act of standing still and saying words for several minutes. Either way, it’s not therapy, but I have definitely leaned on it for therapeutic benefits.

For the past several years, as comedy has become my job, using work to decompress from the rest of my life has started to feel dystopian. It’s like the plot of a lesser Black Mirror episode: People are enticed to play a flight simulator with real cash rewards, but it turns out they’re piloting drones for Amazon. It’s like The Last Starfighter meets Postmates. Far be it from me to knock anyone’s (side) hustle, but I can’t fully shake the (gag) Orwellian overtones of vocation-as-relaxation. As comedy took up a larger and larger slice of my life, performing felt more compulsory, and less like a realm over which I could exercise control. I needed an escape from my escape.

During the week of the third anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I went to a concert (shoutout to the Hold Steady) with my wedding officiant and my oldest comedian friend (two different people). I felt overwhelmed by the music, the very idea of friendship, and the gin that Dan kept buying me, and I gave my whole consciousness over to the music and the feeling. My eyes teared up, and it didn’t even occur to me to look at my phone. After the show, I took a cab home, where I threw up on the lid of my toilet. (I am not proud of that, but it happened.) For the whole evening, I didn’t stress or stew or plan or pace.

Now, I try to replicate that night as often as I can (minus the throwing up). Instead of making plans to perform, I carve out time to enjoy a performance as a spectator—music, usually, since watching comedy tends to activate the how would I do this differently than the person onstage? part of my brain. I coordinate with friends instead of arriving solo. I pay for drinks. I stand in the back of the room waiting for someone else to go onstage, knowing it could be an hour after the goddamn start time. (Is the show at 8, or are the doors at 8? This matters!!!) When the music starts, I try not to think about my own work or my overflowing email inbox or my dishes that need putting away. I let myself be overwhelmed by the sound and hope that it blots out any outside thoughts. It doesn’t always work, but it feels healthier to let myself be an audience member rather than a performer. It helps me remember that I don’t always have to be in control—it's OK to allow someone else to transform my stress and pain into insight, too.

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