Emerson Dameron is a talented writer and former stand up, still sort-of comedian. He lost a tape. It’s most likely for the best. -ed.
It’s difficult to remember the best shows. It’s difficult for me to remember a lot of things. It’s difficult for me to remember my worst show, although I know exactly when and where it occurred.
I perform comedy, but I’m not exactly a comedian. It’s a term I use occasionally to distinguish myself from people who get on stage and expect to be taken seriously, but I do not consider myself an accredited member of the trade. I am what is called, usually with derision, an open-mic comedian.
For a litany of reasons, particularly my incompetence at networking and my inability to really, really get it together, consistently, as a stand-up, I have done a hell of a lot of open mics. There are some fringe advantages to this approach. It has versed me well in the terse realities of open mics. And it grants me generous creative leverage, the ability to experiment much more than I would if I got booked or worked the road regularly.
I’ve been a comedy fan for as long as I can recollect. In 2006, as I burned out on self-publishing, I became an ardent comedy autodidact and started working that into my radio shows and readings and hitting the open mics here and there. It wasn’t until 2008, when I moved to Los Angeles for a dream job, that I began doing open mics almost nightly. It was a release valve, but something more than a hobby.
In 2009, after the Fourth of July weekend, I lost my dream job. I remember the excruciating pain, the self-laceration, quite well. Much of my actual experience from around that time is hazy at best – that was the exact day I took on the new avocation of severe alcoholism and addiction, you see – but I remember the pain. And I remember that I hit an open mic that night.
It was a Tuesday night. I performed for five minutes at Westwood Brewing Company, as part of a once quite popular, now defunct LA open mic night. As I recall, it was excruciating for everyone involved.
I had already had a few, so I was sloppy and emotional. The bitterness seeped out of my pores. Take a man prone to intense fits of depression, force him to watch as you squish his dream like an errant cockroach, and don’t give him too much time to process it – just get him up on stage for five minutes – and this is what you would get.
I have almost always taped every set I’ve done. I wish I still had that tape.
After those five minutes of torture, the host Robert Yasumura (one of my favorite LA comedians, for the extra dash of humiliation that got me) got up and gave us all a stern lecture on when not to perform comedy, if one is an amateur, as I have always been. Don’t perform when you’ve just had a bad breakup. Or just gotten fired.
If I had saved that tape, perhaps I could have taken six months and gotten a nice, tight set out of it.
That show marked the beginning of a long, downward spiral. I stopped performing as much and began drinking myself into mumbling stupors every day. When I did perform, it often went about as well as could be expected. In 2011, returned to Chicago in hopes of saving a relationship that, if you can believe this, instead foundered on my own extreme dickishness, the core emptiness of the far-gone addict.
As a release valve, I started performing again and even booking shows, but something was lost. I kept myself sober for just long enough to get that stuff handled, but my comedy was empty because my life was empty and everyone knew it. I did one disastrous podcast that the host kindly agreed not to distribute. By 2012, I had ceased almost all performances and thrown myself completely into chemicals. I stayed that course until, in 2014, I nearly killed myself. I really do have a problem with commitment.
In its full glory, depression feels like gospel truth. It feels like reality. What it is, as my friend Ciaran Healy pointed out to me many years later, is a work of art. It’s an unpleasant work of art, but it’s quite sophisticated. The self takes the shape of that depression and expresses itself through that. It’s not failure. It’s the wrong kind of success. Given the right perspective, one can admire the intricacies of the theatrical facade.
Goddamn, I wish I had that fucking tape. For the historical record. I will be forever haunted by that horrible, horrible show. I wish I could listen to it again and really take it apart, piece by piece, and maybe even admire the fiasco that it was. Maybe now, someone would finally get a laugh out of it.