This essay is drawn from the author's book, Therapy, Stand-Up, and the Gesture of Writing: Towards Creative-Relational Inquiry, which explores the connections between therapy, stand-up comedy, and writing as a method of inquiry. The essay is a poetic meditation on being given the green light and not taking it. A meditation on permission, a meditation on warning: on the insistent green flash the performer heeds or ignores; and the invitations the client gives—there, then gone—there, then gone—there, then gone—that the therapist takes or misses. It is a meditation on hope, regret, and shame.


I pass through the threshold door into the tight crowd. The MC and I cross and shake hands, and I'm there and it's familiar and comfortable. It feels good to be on the small, semicircular, wooden platform. My gallows.

Detach mic, lift the stand out of the way, and begin.

The comedy rule is you must get a laugh within the first seconds. Find a quick line that'll break the ice and let them know you're okay. If you're okay, they're okay. On the other hand, if you open with, say, a statement like “You need to know everything that happens from now is material for a book I'm writing,” anyone will tell you it's not likely to go well. Instead, you sound smug and manipulative and someone not to trust. If you then move on to complain to the audience about being given only five minutes, if you also distance yourself from the usual comedy fare of jokes about failed sex, which you're not going to do, the declaring of all of which you imagine will captivate the audience with its hilarious and obvious ironic self-deprecation, the crack in the floor will begin to open to the chasm below.

In this moment, if you're alert, what you should do is ’fess up, because, after all, as you've said in a previous set, in stand-up you have to make judgments in the moment, in the thick of it. You should make explicit to your still-willing audience that you can see what's happening; you should be open with them that you've got off on the wrong foot, and offer a reflexive insight that reassures them you're experienced enough to work with the immediacy of the here-and-now dynamics. You might say something like “This isn't going so well, is it? Perhaps I'll just leave now,” and pretend to walk off the stage. The audience will laugh and you're back on track.

That's not what happens. Instead, I plough my relentless furrow. I tell my poor, captive audience how doing stand-up is therapy for me these days and, boy, do I need it because I have no friends, my son has emigrated to the United States, and I'm ageing and losing hope. Note I deliver this when everyone present1 already sees me as obnoxious and can therefore quite believe I am both miserable and friendless, and deserve to be.

Now, even now, there's a way to handle this. You cut your losses and leave the stage. You check your watch, see your time is not far from being up, and you leave the stage. You're polite, you're self-deprecating, you say, “Thank you for bearing with me. I'll be off then. I'm heading back to my drawing-board.”

That's not what happens. I stay. I have more, much more. I haven't rehearsed the timing and I keep going and going and going, and the green light—that well-known signal every performer needs to respect—flashes to warn me I have a minute left to wrap up. I don't notice it. Jenny, the techie, flashes the green light again a minute later. I still don't see it. When “Reet Petite” blasts from the sound system, I stand for one, two, three, four seconds too long, unable to register what's taking place. Leave, Jonathan, I should say to myself, get off, go, please go. At last, I get it, and I fumble the mic back into the stand and, to relieved applause, leave, passing the MC on the way. She shakes my hand and tries to smile.


      Green Light Bulb
Green is go
Green is a call, a summons, a prompt
      A light bulb
      is straight and
      curving glass
Green is raw
Green is young
Green is growing
Green is naive
      A light bulb
      is incandescent with tungsten filament
      and conductors
Green is life
Green is nature, safety, soothing
      A light bulb
      is a silent vacuum
      empty, replete with absence
Green is life
Green is nature, raging, troubled
Green is life
Green is nature, this room, this floor
      A light bulb
      is a teeming vacuum
      “the scene of wild activities”2 
Green is open
Green is inviting, ready, accepting
      A light bulb
      is a hedonist vacuum,
      a “jubilant exploration of virtuality”3 
Green is open,
Green is welcome, inclusive, available
      A light bulb
      is a debauched absence
      full of “virtual particles & having a field day”4 
Green is envy
Green is reaching, yearning, loss
      A light bulb
      is incandescent with noble gas
      with xenon, or krypton or helium, or mercury
      vapor or neon, or argon
Green is envy
Green is destructive, violent, loss
      A light bulb, incandescent with argon,
      charged, coursing with fire through phosphors
      becomes alive as green
Green is go
Green is permission, invitation, welcome
      A light bulb,
      coursing with fire in argon through phosphors,
      is incandescent with go, leave, go
Green is go
Green is go, leave, go


The stage is set: empty, open,
hugged by tables and chairs that spread
like dead leaves on autumn ground
meeting blood-red walls
The stage is set: the quiet mic on its stand,
metal bodies resting on wooden floor-body
human bodies pour in and pour themselves
onto chairs and liquid bodies down open throats
The stage is set: the mic on its stand shudders
with its own expectancy, touching itself—
“touched by all possible others”5 
all others, there and not there, then and not then
The MC struts and swears, mic in hand,
soft shoes, sharp eyes, keen tongue
the first laughters, then again, then again
rolling the room into the night, heat rising
She calls, she shouts, she rouses, she summons
the man onto that stage. He's quiet, he's slow
quiet feels its way, a hush, a pause, a puzzle
a doubt, the mic heavy in his hand
Not waiting, now
A light show only for him, an explosion in his eye
there, gone, there, gone, there, gone
an explosion he does not see, will not see
and subtle light gives way to brutal sound


   7 Questions to the Green Light Bulb

  1. Did you know what was happening?

  2. What does it mean for you to know or not know?

  3. Did you care?

  4. What does it mean for you to care or not care?

  5. Were you, do you think, morally neutral?

  6. Is such a stance possible?

  7. Are you familiar with shame?


      Therapy Signals
when the moment arises
as if from nowhere
a moment you're not searching for
a moment that takes you by surprise
a moment you know will come, sometime
now you sense it, now you don't
in the “minor gestures” of eyes lifting
or when he says nothing
but his sigh reaches out
against the pale wall and
brushes your cheek
now you sense it, now you don't
or a gust of wind outside
lifts then eases the leaves,
a glimpse in the corner of your eye,
or a cat passes the window
its soft, tabby fur flattening
now you sense it, now you don't
or when he reaches for water
like he does, like he always does
only this time there's a catch in the move
a signal, a flash, a clustering,
an opening, an invitation, a call
which now you sense, and now you don't


Including my fellow performers behind me in the greenroom who, I imagine, were staring in disbelief at the greenroom's audio speaker as it channelled this unfolding disaster.
Tian Yu Cao and Silvan S. Schweber, “The Conceptual Foundations and the Philosophical Aspects of Renormalization Theory,” Synthese 97, no. 1 (1993): 39.
Karen Barad, “On Touching—the Inhuman that Therefore I Am,” Differences 25, no. 5 (2012): 210.
Barad, “On Touching,” 210.
Barad, “On Touching,” 212.