Showtime's I Am Comic Sheds Sobering Light on the Lives of Comedians

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Comedians are often misunderstood. To the untrained eye, they're simple yuksters who are always "on" and ready to Make! You! Laugh! But as the documentary Comedian proved that a comic's process can make for compelling viewing, the new I Am Comic, premiering tonight on Showtime, puts the fascinating life of a stand-up comic on full display. (I didn't say "glamorous," just fascinating.) Here's a taste of what I learned while watching:

1. Comedians are self-destructive
As one puts it in the documentary, the rush of performing is epic, and it's impossible to come down from that in a satisfying way. So after the show, comedians go out drinking/smoking/other hard drug-ing/screwing till the break-a-dawn because they don't want to settle in for the night. And when substances are involved, the talk inevitably turns to trashing other comics. It's a vicious cycle—especially when you're on the road, touring clubs in the middle of nowhere.

2. Performing is addictive
That performer's "high" mentioned above is something comics seek all the time, and some crave it even after they've left the business for other things. They don't know they want it again, but they do. The documentary partially tracks Ritch Shydner as he ventures back into stand-up, and—though he's nervous as hell before going on—once he walks off that stage, he immediately wants to work on his material and do it again. Chasing the high becomes so important to him that he ditches his antidepressants because, well, he's found a new fix.

3. They think mainstream audiences are stupid
Over and over, comedians harp on audiences for not "getting" jokes and for deciding on the type of comedy they wanted to see from the get-go—often involving sex and sex-related activities, like sex. The younger comics especially are quick to blame the audience when things don't hit, and even some older ones concede the pandering steps they take to get the audience on board. A comic's biggest fear, though, is the audience at an "alternative" comedy room, seen as the smartest, savviest group of folks you'll ever encounter.

4. These guys and gals are meticulous
Every little detail of their writing is nit-picked, every detail of every set is analyzed and overanalyzed, every baby step in their careers is second-guessed. At one point, the documentary team visits the developer of a software program that tracks the percentage of each minute that the audience spends and uses that figure as some barometer of success. The term "relax" rarely enters the minds of these comics.

5. They are stand-up comics first, everything else second
Though the comedy business thrives on competition, the overarching theme of I Am Comic is that stand-ups are more united than any of us could have imagined. No matter how big and popular these guys get—no matter how huge the film or TV career—they'll always see themselves as stand-up comics, purveyors of the truth. There are speedbumps, yes, but the thrill of doing what you love, for people who love you for it, is unparalleled.

I Am Comic premieres tonight (June 11) at 11pm on Showtime, and will re-air next Thursday, June 17, at 12am.

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