Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why I Love Being A Comedian

After a decade of slinging jokes in virtually every conceivable venue and pushing myself to diligently strive for upward mobility in the biz, I am prone to losing perspective on the blessings of my life.  Like many of you, I stay busy focusing on career advancement and lamenting my lack of progress (Almost every comedian feels entitled to more opportunities than he/she has been given).  From my previous life working in the non-profit sector, I learned that it is important to pause for reflection and do a little introspection  (Generally, people who work in the non-profit world are much more emotionally healthy than comedians).

Since I have devoted an inordinate amount of time to being a comedian, I have decided to take time out to express what I enjoy about my life as a professional joke-teller, because comedy is not a business for those who don't love it enough to sacrifice the stability and benefits that other industries offer (In fact, I don't know if there is an industry that offers less stability or fewer benefits).  I don't have to remind myself why I love performing and making people laugh, so I shall be focusing on the 99% of my life which happens when I am not on a stage speaking into a microphone.  Perhaps the non-comedian folk will find this insightful, and I assume that much of what I am about to write will resonate with my comedian brethren.

As a person who has always abhorred authority, routine, and the status quo, comedy has given me no greater gift than that of freedom and independence.  Even though staying self-motivated can be a challenging task, every day I'm thankful that I don't have an asshole boss looking over my shoulder, pestering me with late-night calls/e-mails, or scolding me for his mistakes.  Every so often, I will take a Tuesday afternoon trip to the beach or a casino, just to give a metaphorical middle finger to "the man".

And I have the freedom to express myself in a way in which my "professional" friends are only capable of doing in the privacy of their own homes or among their non-work friends.  The average professional has to be vigilant about ensuring that his online presence does not contain anything "inappropriate".  No expletives.  No images of debauchery.  No controversial political statements.  Comedians tend to be encouraged to use expletives, detail their debauchery, and make controversial political statements, except by comedy bookers and club owners who do not understand why the average person enjoys going to see stand-up comedy.

Being part of the comedian fraternity is truly incredible, and I am grateful to be part of such an eclectic group.  I love that my comedian peers and co-workers are former lawyers and felons, and former lawyers who are felons.  Even though there are various cliques within the comedy community based on level of success and style of comedy, there is a bond between all working comics. Most comedians possess the ability to look past the superficial, and, when interacting with a fellow comic, only consider two things: "Is this person funny?", and sadly, "How can this person help my career?"  But, the latter question I'll ignore since we're keeping this post positive.  And, yes, stand-up comedy is mostly a boys' club, but in my experience, most female comics who are committed to the craft are treated as "one of the boys".

Even though I entered the world of comedy just as I was concluding my formal education, I have learned so much from my years as a comedian.  I thought that becoming a comic would steer me away from the world of business, but as a self-employed person, I've been forced to develop business acumen.  I have acquired entrepreneurial skills; I have learned how to take a creative idea and develop it as a vehicle for monetary gain.  I have learned about the importance of networking, self-promotion, and negotiating, even though I'm still trying to hone those skills ("still trying to hone those skills"= I still suck at those things).

Most importantly, I have gained empathy, and possess a more intimate understanding of people.  I have been able to bond with folks from all walks of life, and from all parts of the world.  Comedy has afforded me the opportunity to visit every part of the US, and learn about the various cultures, environments, cuisines, and pastimes of people throughout the country.  I've been able to visit other countries, and see destitution that surpasses that of any US "ghetto".  I've performed for the troops, and many of them vividly described their experiences in the military and in war, and a few surreptitiously provided me with their uncensored views of US foreign policy. From hosting events for Children's Hospital, I've befriended mothers whose children have battled cancer.  These women demonstrate true strength, selflessness, the importance of maintaining a sense of humor, and an unwillingness to accept the gravest of injustices.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned how much I enjoy writing or creating comedic content.  Personally, I thoroughly explore my mind and my heart to find the premises to my jokes, so that process can be a little exhausting.  I don't enjoy writing a joke nearly as much as I enjoy having a finished joke that I know is funny enough to elicit laughter from all the random people who come to my shows.

But I digress (I've always wanted to write "but I digress").  Thus far, my journey in the world of comedy has not led me to a life of opulence.  However, my journey has been enlightening and fun.  So, the next time I find myself alone in an Econolodge hotel room after doing a gig for 10 people, and I'm questioning my life decisions and wondering what went wrong, I can remember that a lot has gone right.  After all, I'll probably be eating pizza, drinking a Mountain Dew, and watching SportsCenter.  Nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Going Global: Thoughts on Performing For the Military

In the past four months, I have had the privilege to embark on two tours entertaining US troops and State Department personnel who were deployed abroad.  Before I went on these tours, my international travel had basically been limited to nighttime trips to border cities in Canada and Mexico (Most of these trips were to Tijuana.  Good times.).  Many of my college friends would tell me tales of their exotic journeys to Europe and Asia, and I could only counter with stories about the cultural practices of folks in the South and Midwest of the United States (I have had to educate many of my peers about such things as sweet tea, hush puppies, muddin', and float trips.).  Anyways, I figured I would write about my military tours.  These tours were incredibly fun and enlightening, and it has been a long time since I've written a blog.

My first tour took place from Dec. 24-Jan.4., and this tour took Justin Berkman, "the Jew", to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.  I only mention being of Jewish descent because I'm pretty sure that most American Jews don't take their first overseas trips to Beirut and Amman.  Also, traveling to the Middle East caused way too much anxiety for my stereotypically neurotic Jewish parents.  They assumed I was going to be staying with radical, anti-Semites, and that I would be the target of every jihad in the region.

I'm happy to report that my experiences in these countries were pleasant, and that I was not forced to wear a Jewish star when I went through customs.  The tour started off in Beirut, and our first show was at the US Embassy in Lebanon.  From there, we went to Jordan for two shows for the Tennessee and North Carolina National Guards, followed by one show in Adana, Turkey at an Air Force base, and then we closed out the tour with two shows in Egypt for MFOs (Multinational Forces and Observers).  All of the shows were fun, but the one in Adana stood out.  As a comedian, you cherish the shows like the one we had in Adana.  The venue was spectacular, and we performed for a sold-out, enthusiastic crowd that appreciated comedy and treated me and my tour mates to a vigorous standing ovation at the show's conclusion.

Besides the shows, there were many other fun times on this trip.  I stood in the Dead Sea.  I snorkeled in the Red Sea. I took a pic next to the Mediterranean Sea.  I played softball with the troops in Egypt.  I rode in a Black Hawk helicopter.  I rode a camel.  I joked around with a Kiwi general and the US Ambassador to Lebanon.  And the food was tasty!!  Pita, falafel, hummus, and shwarama, oh my!

My next tour was from March 13-29.  This tour was less cultural and more tropical.  In order, we visited Greenland, the Bahamas, Curacao, Guantanamo, Puerto Rico and Honduras.  Greenland was definitely the outlier on the trip.  It was not tropical.  You can only get to Thule, Greenland via a military plane, and there is nothing to see there other than snow and rocks. And fjords (google "fjords", if necessary).  Once we survived the Greenland cold, the rest of the trip consisted of great weather, beaches, and tan acquisition (true story).  Again, the shows were great, and I truly enjoyed all my performances.

Here were the off-stage highlights from this tour. I kayaked in the Bahamas. I drove a Coast Guard boat in Guantanamo.  I did some flipping and twisting off a diving board in Honduras (still got it).  I was kicked out of a casino in Puerto Rico (I believe I was asked to leave because I was giving my friend blackjack tips, and he was winning money).  I ate more tasty food.  Paella, ceviche, and empanadas, que rico!!!

I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to have gone on these tours.  Besides the good shows, quality food, and super cool recreational activities, these were extremely educational and enriching experiences.  Specifically, I learned that GTMO is much more than a detention center, but also an enormous naval base with great amenities, including a kick-ass Jamaican restaurant.  Puerto Rico is an ideal vacation destination due to its culture, environment, food, weather, and you don't need a passport to go there (I hope you knew that).  I became more acutely aware of how our deployed soldiers live and the many sacrifices they make to serve.  I saw the effects of sequestration first-hand; budget cuts were being implemented, many of which are decreasing the quality of life for our troops.  I learned about our missions in all these various countries, and talked to military folks about US foreign policy.

While I appreciated having had these opportunities, the troops were equally appreciative to have us there.  At times, I feel like what I do is fairly insignificant and inconsequential, but for many of these troops, watching a comedy show is a much-needed diversion.  Never have so many people come up to me after my shows and expressed such sincere gratitude to me for merely showing up to perform.  I was embarrassed that the troops were thanking me since what they do is much more deserving of gratitude, so I would always thank them, too.

I look forward to doing another one of these tours in the future, and I'll try to keep you posted about all the places my comedy journey takes me.  Finally, I have to acknowledge Mark Serritella, Johnny Cardinale, David Forseth, and Luchana Gatica, my fellow comedians who accompanied me on these trips.  They are quality comedians and excellent traveling companions.

OK, this blog is too long.  I'm done.