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Curtis Cook is the funniest stand up I saw for the first time in 2014. Hands down the best. He’s the kind of performer that makes me excited to see new people. Like most of us, he’s entered competitions he could never win. -ed.

My nightmare gig was a string of shows for a comedy competition in the Pacific Northwest. Not in Portland. Not in Seattle. Not even in fucking Eugene. Just Wherever, Washington and homogeneous li’l bum-fuck towns with community arts centers filled with seas of old white people for shows where the point was not the comedy, the point was making the producer as much money as possible.

Way before the contest kicked off, I had taken a bus to an out-of-town show to audition for the contest, stayed up all night drinking coffee in a Denny’s because I couldn’t afford a hotel, and hitched a bus back the next day. I was excited to have even been given the chance to try out and dedicated to finding a way to get to the audition, because I couldn’t believe anyone would want me to do their shows in that capacity. I even called my mom when I heard I was accepted, amazed that I was getting to perform for an event of such alleged prestige, and honored to be on the same bill as professional comics.

Then the competition started.

One comic legitimately used the words, “bitches be shopping,” without even a faint hint of irony. Another comics did a bit about how zany automatic toilets are. There was a joke about how Mexicans would have been better slaves because they work harder then Black people, and the tag was something about how Mexicans would’ve also been less uppity than Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. And I specifically remember hearing about the Cracker Barrel franchise competing with one comic’s hypothetical restaurant, the “Nigger Bucket,” and how the fried chicken served at the “Nigger Bucket” would be delicious.

And these jokes consistently killed every single night.

In sold out theaters, I would watch people buckle over laughing at the word “nigger” and the question of which minority would’ve been better at being enslaved.

And it wasn’t white people telling those particular jokes. That would have been disturbing and frightening in it’s own right; but it was Black comics and Mexican comics doing it to themselves – and that was more tragic than anything. These were the handful of minority comics on the lineup in small, white towns telling jokes that reaffirmed racism in the worst way. I couldn’t tell if they hated these jokes and were doing it for the money, or if they were so far gone that they thought it was funny.

For the record, I didn’t do well in the competition, and I’m not bitter about it.

I’m aware that at this point it’s impossible for me not to seem bitter, and that this comes off like me saying, “Hey, I’ma write multiple paragraphs about how this contest can go fuck itself – but I ain’t mad tho.”

But I’m really not upset about it.

I knew going in that I had no business winning. I went in feeling lucky to have been invited, and validated to be hanging out with professional comics. I didn’t care who won or lost, I was only disappointed to walk away disillusioned, feeling like stand-up was nothing but a series of cheap shots and cash grabs. I was upset to walk away from something I’d been so looking forward to with a bullshit sense of pride in having done poorly in front of an audience that applauds for a joke about how crazy it is when toilets flush themselves.

I almost quit comedy after that competition. Not because of something as ridiculous as not doing well in a contest, but because I’d seen these men and women – these relatively successful men and women – these people with TV credits who worked clubs across the country – tell these bullshit jokes. I’d listened to them kill in sold-out rooms with actively bigoted material, or with bits I could swear I’d heard a hundred times before. By the end of it, I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be thinking, “Oh, so this is how it’s done,” or, “WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING IT LIKE THAT?!”

The thing is, I talk shit like I can’t believe these comics and their counter-progressive jokes were so well received, but these were the people who placed in the contest and went on to the next round. These are the comics who get paid to professionally do shows across the country, and I’m still just some kid hoping that one day the local club will throw me a bone, because right now, I don’t get work anywhere. So who am I to say these comics were in the wrong? For all my distaste in their material and its reception, those comics actually work in comedy, and I’m on the outskirts with notes like, “Hey man, you’re funny, but you need to be more general,” or, “You get laughs, but we’re not sure you’re a good fit for this audience.”

And at this point, I don’t know what the fuck that means.

I don’t know if that means I need to have racist, sexist, mean-spirited material to ensure that I have widespread appeal. I don’t know if it means I should have kids so I can craft an hour of jokes about how sometimes children say wacky things. I don’t know if it means grabbing a drink with So-And-So is sometimes more important than writing or if it means to increase my OkCupid joke output tenfold or if it means that I need to be the same carbon-copied white dude I see sitting pretty in every comedy scene in every city I’ve ever visited, and it scares me. It makes me constantly question what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Because we all want to be Richard Pryor, Patton Oswalt, or Maria Bamford. We all want to be that cool, hip, true-to-themself comic who rose above all the bullshit just from being dedicated, passionate, talented, and hardworking. We want to simultaneously have self respect, the respect of our peers, and to be respected by the audience; but most of us won’t ever get there, and I have to accept that I would still count my blessings as among the lucky few if I can ever do comedy for a living, even if it means hating every word that comes out of my mouth.

Ultimately, the contest momentarily solidified my constant fear: Maybe I suck at comedy and just need to accept that, move on, and give up; because how long can you question everyone else’s success before you realize that you either need to get with it or get out? How long can you do open mics and free showcases before you start saying, “bitches be shoppin’,” in hopes of getting paid booking? At what point does professional compromise become tap-dancing for an audience of people who would hate you in any other context? Because eventually that tipping point will find all of us, and we can’t all be the rare success story.

My nightmare gig was the realization that we won’t all end up being the comics we start out wanting to be, and at some point, one way or another, there’s a good chance we’ll sell ourselves down the river for a laugh.

But hey, fo’real, I bet the chicken at the Nigger Bucket is fuckin’ spectacular.

Wocka wocka wocka!