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.
PROMPTING THE GREEN LIGHT
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.
7 Questions to the Green Light Bulb
Did you know what was happening?
What does it mean for you to know or not know?
Did you care?
What does it mean for you to care or not care?
Were you, do you think, morally neutral?
Is such a stance possible?
Are you familiar with shame?