Last week, a friend of mine mentioned in conversation that stand up comedy and blues music were two forms of expression that couldn’t be farther apart from each other. “One makes you feel sad, the other one makes you feel happy,” she explained. I’ve performed my share of both, so that was an odd concept to me, and as I do with odd concepts that I don’t agree with, I jumped onto it with classic self-serving pride and decided to write about it.
Comedy’s representation in the mainstream makes a lot of people think of stand up as something that’ll cheer them up and make them feel good. The blues has a different background, of course. Inherently, sure, it’s a sad thing, yet somehow I never thought of the blues as something that gets me sad. The spirit in which it is done and, especially, the point of playing it, is to feel better, to cope, to deal with the sad, uncomfortable or terrifying things in life.
That’s the reason we do comedy, too. To face, not to escape. We know ourselves well enough to know there’s no escaping that. In the tradition of all minorities, we take what’s been given to us, deconstruct it and make the best we can with it. These are two art forms that are not really there to distract you, but to dig deeper into them.
If I listen to an old delta blues song, with its heartfelt vocals, dark lyrics and unbridled candidness, I don’t think that could ever truly depress me. If anything, it’s soothing, it calms me down; it makes me feel supported and understood. And that’s probably what it comes down to: we want to empathize with other people. We want others to relate to our stories, and there’s no area we need that more than in our struggles.
Charley Patton was a legendary blues performer; the type people still talk about almost 100 years after. All your bluesman stereotypes were present with him: the booze, the women, the pain, the poverty, but also the showmanship, the passion to entertain and the absolute need to connect and to be noticed.
One thing they definitely have in common is that you have to live a little before doing either. Going through stuff is a must, it’s what inspires what you write, and you can’t really fake it convincingly. There’s no such thing as an overly-positive stand up comedian, not a good one, anyway; but what you will find are comics who, in spite of dark subject matters, still have the need to make it all better through jokes and openness. It’s the defense mechanism we’ve developed. At its core, comedy is about honesty. Even if your jokes are exaggerations of the truth, the emotional backbone of a joke should still be truthful. The same goes for a blues song. We look for brave moments, naked moments. We expose our souls, what we fear and rage about.
“The blues was like that problem child that you may have had in the family,” BB King once said. “You was a little bit ashamed to let anybody see him, but you loved him. You just didn’t know how other people would take it.”
In exposing that, with no fear, that’s where the magic happens.