The comic was slowly pacing the stage, talking about her ex-boyfriend’s foot fetish. The other comedians and I stood against the back wall in the darkest part of the room, watching her kill. Every single person in the audience was laughing. Some were bent over and laughing at their ankles. The air was thick with their mirth. All I could think was I have to follow her.

She finished her set to a tsunami of applause. Seconds later, mouth dry and heart threatening to walk out on its job, I took the stage and began my set with a callback—a skill I have honed over eight years of performing. Sheepishly I said that I was her ex-boyfriend, and it was embarrassing to watch her set. Then I said, “I hope I don’t put my foot in my mouth.”

It worked. They laughed. I relaxed and began my next joke.


Comedy can be dangerous, and its lexicon reflects this. The highest success is to “kill,” to “murder,” to “destroy.” If no one laughs, the comic has “bombed” or even “died.” I don’t know why we use such violent terms. It’s one of many questions I can’t answer about this art.

I was in the produce section of the grocery store the other day, making an elaborate show of picking blackberries. “The feel is important,” I said to my girlfriend as I held the container of fruit up to the fluorescent lights and squinted. “These hold up,” I mused in a serious tone.

Unfazed by my intense fruit scrutiny, Sherah remained focused on the question she was trying to ask me: “Why do you do comedy?”

We had been dating for more than a year, and this wasn’t the first time she’d wanted to know this. My girlfriend is an academic and can see the theoretical undercurrents of a baked ziti. She also does not enjoy tomfoolery out of anyone over the age of eleven, so I knew her question was serious. Knowing my reason would probably satisfy some intellectual curiosity for her. Or perhaps it would simply make her feel better sleeping next to a man who regularly makes a damn fool of himself.

Running a hand through my hair, I winked and said, “For the babes, babe.” I looked casually into the distance like James Dean, one hand on my weak chin.

She was undeterred. By the time we reached the plant-based sausages, I had managed to explain only that it was a hard question to answer. As we turned onto the pet aisle, my frustration at my inability to give a reason was showing. Sherah’s brown ponytail bounced as she turned to look at me, gripping a can of Tender Turkey Tuscany, her brow furrowed behind her thick-rimmed glasses. I was admiring her round green eyes when she said, “Isn’t it foolish that you’re looking for only one answer to the question?”


I am a fool. I have always been a fool. I have always striven to be a fool. My roots as a comedian took hold in the rich topsoil of childhood insecurity and were fed by the groundwater I found in the guffaws of other children. My family lived below the poverty line, and my parents had little time and considerable stress. Christmas was the one day of the year I might receive something that wasn’t normally affordable. I’ll never forget the December I got a guitar. More often, though, Santa was broke. I mostly got Christmas gifts from charities whose idea of an appropriate present for a ten-year-old boy was Madonna’s seventh studio album. I wasn’t greedy. I didn’t want to walk into school and say, “I have a pony.” I just wanted to fit in. I was very aware of not having the same things as the other kids: trading cards, fancy light-up yo-yos, confidence. What I did have were free school lunches and hand-me-down clothes that invited comments from children and teachers alike. Looking back, it’s easy to blame my emotional struggles and ever-present insecurity on my family’s incessant moving and my dad’s drug addiction. But I really wanted that fucking yo-yo.

I was the “broke kid”: undersized and understimulated; a tiny, malnourished pariah unsure of where I belonged. This was my fate until I discovered a way to connect with people by playing the fool. Making my peers laugh brought me a sense of validation. It also allowed me to distinguish myself on my own terms. I was no longer the broke kid. I was the funny kid. During class I’d give smart-ass answers to teachers’ questions. After school I’d roam the local parks with the other latchkey children, playfully taunting passersby while my schoolmates shrieked with laughter.

One evening my friend Daniel and I were roaming a strip-mall parking lot when we saw a group of older kids who often broke into cars, sold drugs, and generally terrorized people. They left me alone for the most part since I lived in the neighborhood and knew their ringleader, Curtis. Still, we opted to duck into a Subway to avoid them.

Once inside, we exchanged awkward glances with the lone sandwich artist waiting to take our order. Daniel’s mom had given him some money for the day, so he got a footlong, and we sat down by the drink machine. He had just started eating when Curtis came in, nonchalantly locking the door behind him and turning to us. He sat down with us and proceeded to rob Daniel right in front of me. Too scared not to comply, my friend quickly gave up about sixteen bucks and his sub.

Later, as we were walking away, he asked me why Curtis hadn’t tried to shake me down, too.

“He knows I’m broke,” I said.

Just then we turned the corner and saw Curtis standing with two friends. He looked at me and, through a mouthful of sandwich, finished my sentence: “And I like you. You’re a funny little dude.”


I was onstage, following the woman who’d dated the foot fetishist and beginning to sweat underneath my shirt. The heat from the lights had me returning to my glass of water every fifth punch line or so. I was in a rhythm. The set was going well. Then, somewhere in the middle of a joke about riding public transit, I heard a glass shatter in the room. My stomach dropped as the barely visible faces in the crowd turned away.

Any comedian will tell you, losing an audience’s attention for even a split second can snowball. Handle it wrong, and you may die onstage like Elvis on the toilet, like Lenny Bruce beside the toilet, like William Howard Taft in a bathtub near a toilet.

It’s always best to steer into a skid. So I recaptured the room’s attention by making a quip about gravity. For the next several moments I did improv and interacted with audience members while anxiously attempting to get back to my prepared material. My brain was working on three levels at once: I had to keep talking, I had to be funny, and I had to seamlessly segue into the safety of prewritten jokes.

Eventually I expressed hope that whoever had dropped the glass wasn’t driving home. “I always take public transit to work,” I said, “because I don’t like to drink and drive.” And I was safely back to my set.


The transition from childhood to adolescence shifts the goalposts of humor. As my peers and I grew older, making them laugh suddenly became difficult. If I tried too hard, I was annoying. If I was too quiet, I felt forgotten.

On the first day of high school I climbed the stone statue of a jaguar that guarded the building’s entrance and rode it like a bronco. I bucked on its back and waved my arm over my head, welcoming the other students. Some smiled, but most looked confused. The adults looked panicked. I was suspended and sent home.

Undeterred, I continued honing my reputation as a wild-and-crazy guy. Making people laugh was more important to me than my grades or my future, and this led to additional suspensions and eventually expulsion—at which point my opportunities to perform greatly diminished. My audience had disappeared. My friend group dwindled to a few stoners, drunks, and dropouts. We spent our time getting stoned, drunk, and stupid. Being witty became irrelevant. I picked up my guitar, and music became my obsession. I was going to be a rock star. I grew my hair long, wore a leather jacket in ninety-degree weather, and maintained a committed, monogamous relationship with my Flying V. Though it gave me a place in the world, this wasn’t really me. It was a costume. I didn’t want to make people pump their fists or sing along to relatable lyrics. I wanted to make them laugh.

What happened next may or may not have been divine providence, depending on your beliefs about free will and late-night television programming: I was lying in bed stoned, watching stand-up specials on Comedy Central, when a shaggy, pale man in large sunglasses walked onto the stage, looking nervous. As Mitch Hedberg began his stand-up routine, he didn’t tell stories or talk about politics or his love life. He told absurd one-liners—a style of stand-up that harkened back to an era before my father had done his first line of methamphetamine. I was captivated. Within weeks I’d found both of Hedberg’s albums and memorized his routines. I wanted to learn how to perform this style of comedy myself, but I’d never written a formal joke. The prospect seemed impossible. Where did one begin?

Several years of underage alcoholism and three separate failed attempts at college later, I found myself working in kitchens and feeling defeated by life. Limited grill space and overboiled eggs invaded my dreams. I was in a crisis of capitalism: the burden of my intergenerational poverty had wrestled me back to being the broke kid. Only now I was a working twenty-something without aim, hope, or capital in a system of earn, spend, and die. Yeah. I was bitter.

Then, in August 2014, while browsing job postings because I couldn’t make another order of pad thai without drowning myself in the peanut sauce, I saw an ad on Craigslist for a comedy-theater intern. In exchange for cleaning their space, I’d be able to audit one of their stand-up classes. There it was: a doorway into the club to which I felt I belonged.

After my first shift the theater manager informed me they had just discontinued their stand-up class. I would have to take improv instead: learning to make up short scenes using audience prompts and teamwork. I reluctantly went to Improv 101 but dropped out after the first class. Being onstage was scary, and improv felt strange and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to act out a scene in which Marvin Gaye goes to the dentist. I wanted to tell jokes.

A few weeks later my long-term girlfriend left me. I had moved to a new city to be with her. We’d been planning to get married and build a life together. I had been so focused on learning to load the dishwasher and remembering to put the toilet seat down that I had distanced myself from my friends. Without the relationship, I’d lost something to work toward. Plus I missed our dog.

I decided to give comedy another go. No classes this time. I started performing at the theater’s open-mic night. Truly, the only way to learn to do stand-up is to do it. No class can teach you what it’s like to get onstage and tell jokes to a room full of strangers. Neither will any book. If you take only one thing away from reading this, please, for the love of Robin Williams, let it be this: don’t buy a book on how to do comedy. I’ve read many books that have changed my life and made me a better person, among them The Seven Habits of People Who’ve Dealt with Their Self-Esteem Issues and Getting on Her Nerves: The Joys of the Clitoris. But the books on comedy did nothing to help me learn the art. Telling jokes did.


Two years ago I was walking in downtown Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when a woman stopped me. “Hello!” she said as if I were an old friend. I looked for her clipboard and waited for her to ask me to sign something. “Sorry to bother you,” she continued, “but did me and my husband see you perform comedy last weekend?” A man stood next to her, smiling awkwardly.

I let out a laugh. “Oh, yeah—were you at the show?”

What a stupid question. Of course she was at the show. Where else would she see me doing comedy? Jimmy Kimmel?

She shook my hand and told me that she and her husband had enjoyed my performance. I thanked her and went on my way.

This small interaction made me feel like I was floating through fields of heavenly scented flowers for at least two days. That such a brief encounter could do this speaks to how much my sense of self has developed through comedy. When I write, perform, and claim comedy as my art I feel a sense of purpose. It allows me to know who I am. This is one answer to Sherah’s question. Another may be that comedy is a coping mechanism. By making a stranger happy, entertaining someone who may be struggling with stress, or confronting the absurdity of everyday existence, I can help others cope. And comedy can help me cope.


At the end of my set I delivered my last joke to a round of applause. Despite the shattered glass, I hadn’t bombed. I thanked the audience and stepped back into the darkness, my pulse returning to normal. The other comedians all met me with “Good set.” I felt good.

The host called the next comic to the stage, and a pang of regret suddenly ran through my body. As I thought back to the performance I’d just given, the repeating thought came cycling through my head: “I should have . . .” This feeling is likely familiar to all stand-up comics: the zap of immediate revision.

After the show a group of us stood outside the club, prolonging the high and grasping at leftover laughs. Once most of the available jokes had been plucked and traded, the topic changed to performing again after a year of quarantine: safe-to-breathe air, friendly faces, and camaraderie. The conversation then turned somber. A few of us had recently lost loved ones. A friend’s grandfather had died. Another had almost lost her beloved cousin. I mentioned that my mother had died—but not from COVID, I quickly added.

“Oh? How’d she die?” my friend asked.

I found myself unsure how to answer this. Although I had gone out and performed the night after she’d died, even crying to a close friend outside this very comedy club, I didn’t know where to begin.

We were unsure what had killed her. My mother had a long battle with diabetes complications, heart problems, a compromised immune system exacerbated by HIV, and general stress. All we really knew was that her heart had stopped, and she had died in one of her favorite places. The bathtub.

On October 9, 2019, I had come home from a performance, entered the two-bedroom apartment I shared with my parents, and heard the bathwater running. This wasn’t unusual. I went to my bedroom, plopped onto my bed, and probably put on a horror movie. I remember hearing my father arrive home not long after I did, then hearing him frantically yelling my mother’s name.

When I found them, he was pulling her out of the tub and laying her on the floor. Her arms were limp, and her eyes were closed. My father put his face directly in front of hers and screamed her name as if trying to call her back to this world. He slapped her. He put his mouth on hers and pushed air into her lungs.

I called 911, and the operator instructed me to perform CPR until the EMTs arrived. I began pumping on my mother’s chest. I tried not to be too rough; she was frail. Regardless, I felt her ribs break almost immediately. It’s a sensation I can still feel if I think about it too much. Over the next ten minutes I compressed her chest hundreds of times. I heard air come out of her throat, but it was my father’s breath, not hers.

So when the comic outside the club asked how she’d died, my stomach tightened, and I felt a ripple of grief pass through me. I found an answer that both soothed and acknowledged that grief. I gave the comic’s answer.

“She died impersonating William Howard Taft.”


To be a comedian is to memorize, rehearse, and express life; to both create and destroy, a trick of the mind. It is to solve puzzles, to find the right word, to create bonds between people. It is to watch and to think, to mimic, to lie. Also to juxtapose, contradict, understate, and oversimplify myriad happenings, situations, and musings. To implant an idea and then smash it with the hammer of absurdity or cut it down with the sickle of truth. Whether talking about two-party politics, the death of a loved one, or light-up yo-yos, being a comedian means being a fool.

A few days ago I walked into Sherah’s home office, where she sat at her desk apparently in pain. She was staring, face contorted, at the Word document open on her computer screen. It showed half sentences, general statements, disconnected thoughts. She’d been trying to write a dissertation proposal for two years and was no closer to finishing than when she’d started.

I sat the French press of coffee I’d made for her on her desk and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. Her gaze stayed distant, off in another world of property law, urban planning, and questioning every decision she’d made since choosing to enter grad school in her mid-thirties.

Sherah thanked me for the coffee and the affection, and I moved to leave. But then I stopped and, without thinking, pulled my basketball shorts all the way up to my nipples. My torso appeared to shrink, while my very thin legs looked even longer and thinner. I started to high-step, throwing my knees up as far as they’d go in a slow, lumbering rhythm.

It took longer than I expected for her to notice, but soon she turned her head and took in the sight of me. We made eye contact as I continued my cartoonish walk. Finally she let out a laugh.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered, continuing to throw my knees in the air.

She shook her head, still laughing, and tried again: “Well, why are you doing it?”

As I silly-stepped out of the room, I called from the doorway, “I don’t know!”

Author’s note: I’m aware William Howard Taft didn’t actually die in a bathtub. I wish it were true, though, because dying of heart disease isn’t funny, and we should all have a silly death.