How Bill Maher and Russell Brand helped me nurse a broken heart at the JFL Comedy Fest
Comedy festivals are the perfect antidote to a nasty breakup. Not only because laughing activates several different sections of the brain, strengthening neurons that lead to insight and emotional balance, but because so many comedians love to bitch about heartbreak. Like Morrissey records or the films of Charlie Kaufman, a standup comic unloading his self-loathing is a comforting thing to watch when you're feeling like an unlovable jackass.
I was a few weeks into my own singledom when I flew to Chicago for the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, so I was long past the Netflix and THC cookie dough binge phase of a breakup, yet still in the oxytocin (love hormone) withdrawal period that leaves you feeling pathetic and unhinged. Though a week of thinking and giggling with Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Russell Brand and Denver's Ben Roy (who did a staggering eight shows in three days) revived me into feeling like a considerably less desperate member of society.
While visiting a city where 440 school-age children were murdered by guns last year, you'd think that my amorous misadventures would be thrown into perspective fairly quickly. But sadness and narcissism have always gone hand in hand with me.
When catching Russell Brand's set at the Chicago Theatre, I watched a heckler shout something unintelligible about Katy Perry at the comedian on stage. "Yes, you're into pop-culture, read all the magazines do you?" Brand hissed back. "You know what you're talking about, mate?"
Leading up to this, Brand had been the characteristically brash and confident wizard of linguistics that he is. But his retort was full of anger, and it took him a few moments to recover, stumbling through some false starts before settling on a Malcolm X commentary. Yeah, I know how you feel, Russell, I thought to myself. But this was ludicrous for several reasons: I hadn't been married, am not a pop-star, and have no idea what it's like to be heckled about my breakup while trying to entertain 3,600 people with only my voice. Why would I have any clue what Russell Brand's world looks like?
Still, like the hopeless sycophant that I am, my empathy for Brand inspired me to give my ex a call (the logic on this is a little fuzzy, I know). Fueled by countless whiskey-sours and an inspired hunger for the dance of language, I stumbled out of the Chicago Theater with phone pressed to ear in the ultimate picture of impulsive self-destruction.
"Honestly, why can't we transcend this cruel machine of childhood neurosis that polarizes us in the shifting whirlpool of desire and repulsion, and simply, through the will of our hearts and loins, materialize into the celestial wonder of carnality that surely still binds us?" I sputtered, leaving a voicemail for the last person I should've been calling at that moment.
Sounding as cocksure and seductive as Russell Brand appears easy when you're guzzling down booze and watching him from a darkened theater seat. But once the spotlight turns your way, you turn into wet-brained hillbilly trying to recite Shakespeare with a mouthful of sand.
In need of distraction, I headed to Stage 773, a comedy club on the north side of Chicago. Catching the stand up set of Parks and Recreation writer Chelsea Peretti, my blood boiled at the genderist (is that a word?) assumptions she made about being a man in the modern age. "I don't know if I'm extroverted enough to be a comedian," Peretti said, crushing it with the small audience. "I wish I had that male confidence. In my fantasy of what it's like to be a guy they wake up in the morning and are like 'I'm awesome! I'm going to do something great today!' Being a guy seems like a great gig. I'm always picking myself apart, thinking 'do I have a camel's toe in these jeans?' 'Do I look fat or just thick? It's hard to say.'"
The reactive, PC side of myself wanted to berate her for thinking that men don't suffer the same body image issues as women, thinking of my own avoidance of mirrors when feeling too skinny or pale. I mean, this woman has appeared on Louie; how could she think men don't hate themselves? But then I remembered the line that has been repeated to me by different people over years of therapy: The problems you're describing are typically only experienced by women. Even in self-help books, whenever there's a fictional scenario that describes me perfectly, the protagonist is always a female.
So I shut up about it and enjoyed what was an otherwise killer set.
Later in the week, I was supplied with an endless arsenal of reasons why it is great to be single. If there's one thing comics are good at, it's complaining; and aside from airports and Republicans, their favorite complaint is about domestic relationships.
"Girls don't have the same issues with people seeing their browser history as guys do," Seth Meyers said last Friday. The soon-to-be Late Night host was commenting on the evidence of weird porn sites found on men's computers, before touching on a subject very close to my frustrated heart, making me very thankful I'm no longer in a relationship: "The most embarrassing thing on a woman's Internet history is how much research she has done into the last woman her current boyfriend dated. That's some Zero Dark Thirty shit. My girlfriend is a perfectly sane, lovely woman, but she knows more about my ex-girlfriends than I do. I'll be watching college basketball and she'll be like 'oh, University of Michigan, isn't that where your ex-girlfriend Christina went?' And I'll be like 'what? How did you?' Then I'll turn and she'll be leaning in the doorway eating an apple with a switchblade."
Bryan Cook and Ben Roy performing in the Erotic Fan Fiction Competition at JFL Chicago
Later that night, I was sharing a joint with a Portland comedian outside of Stage 773. Inevitably, our conversation turned toward my breakup (this is what you do when you're sad and have no shame), and his advice to me was to hook up with a random stranger I had no intention of seeing again.
This may have been a good prescription for a confident, detached, brawny bro who can process heartbreak faster than a bowl of Metamucil, but trying to seduce a girl when you're a sad twee-pop nerd just turns you into an emotional vampire, the subtext of every word screaming, "my Mother never hugged me when I was a child, and I'm feeling vulnerable tonight; can I borrow the warmth of your body for about twenty minutes until this storm passes?"
Thankfully, the antidote to this kind of sexual frustration was popping up almost every night of the festival. Not only do comics love to pontificate about how dreary relationships can be, but they also have a way of illustrating how hilariously morbid sex sometimes is. "So I finish getting this $40 Thai massage, and now it's time for the masseuse to ask me if I want the extra part," the Daily Show's Al Madrigal said on Friday. "But she can't say what she wants to say, she's gotta be cryptic about it, so she says these words: 'You want me make banana cry?' 'Uh, no, I don't want you to make banana cry. But can you ask me again? Because that's fucking hilarious.'"
The night only got weirder when I headed over to Bryan Cook's Erotic Fan Fiction Competition. Denver's Ben Roy is a consistent champion of the show (which recently became a podcast on The Nerdist Network), and his sultry take on the world of What's Eating Gilbert Grape gave me the biggest anti-erection of my life.
With Johnny Depp resting in his own private yurt on the set of the film, "cloaked in a gown woven by the rarest spider-silk and bound together by Sudanese orphan wishes, sitting on a bean-bag chair made of dried elephant scrotums and filled with abalone pearls," Ben Roy described a morbid scene of contorted sodomy between Depp and a method-acting retarded Leonardo DiCaprio.
"Leonardo growled before he exploded forward," Ben Roy said, reading aloud his short story, "entering Johnny Depp's cobbler-hued gristle dimple with a thud that instantly released a methane and clove cigarette fart so slimy and textural that it caused the yurts mule-skin walls to ripple like Johnny Depp's swollen and slightly perforated dung-ditch."
I'll save you the horrors of when Gilbert's morbidly obese mother entered the sex scene, only mentioning that she was lowered through the roof via crane and harness, her "freckled acreage of stress marked and varicose veined skin bulged through the leg harnesses as if she was Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element reacting to a serious peanut allergy."
I was expecting more of this kind of anti-eros sentiment when Bill Maher closed the festival during his performance Sunday night. Maher is notoriously anti-marriage and non-monogamous, but his set was mostly a bitch-fest about the GOP, describing Sarah Palin as "the least qualified public servant since Caligula nominated his horse."
While this stirred up the crowd into a frenzied carnality not unlike intently listening to a bunch of people insult your ex for your own amusement (a sin I must confess guilt to), my own catharsis came later when he made a joke about self-pleasuring fowl. "All birds masturbate, it's true," Maher said, slaughtering the crowd with the followup line, "you thought that was shit on the hood of your car."
This line got one of the biggest laughs of the night, and I think I may have been the only person in the audience with a stone-sober face in that moment. It's not that I didn't think it was funny, it's that I'd already heard the joke fourteen years earlier when he said it on Politically Incorrect. At first, the fact that I knew this and the rest of the crowd didn't depressed the hell out of me, the idea being that I was a socially inept, oversaturated pop-nerd that can remember network TV jokes from the '90s but can never, for the life of me, recall a girlfriend's birthday.
Maybe it was a week's worth of laughter strengthening the neo-cortex of my brain, or maybe just the camaraderie of hanging out with fellow self-loathing culture snobs, but a few seconds later that same idea that had left me despondent had begun to cheer me up. I'd been very hard on myself for behaving so pathetically following this breakup, wishing I could be the confident neanderthal Chelsea Peretti described, or the seductive asshole the Portland comic suggested I should be. But the kind of person who spends all of their waking hours absorbing volumes of records, films and books (or nurses a broken heart with a week-long comedy festival binge), simply can't be held to the same standards as normal people. Fantasy addicts like us don't wake up bursting with self-adulation, and we don't gracefully bewitch strangers with our charm. We make misguided phone-calls while drunk and curb our sex-drives with bizarre short stories.
This conclusion left me feeling much better as I walked out of the Chicago Theatre and headed to the airport. Though it was inevitably followed by a third and undeniable conclusion that remained with me throughout my flight back to Denver: God help the next woman who falls in love with me.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.