My Comedy Club Bit Took a Surprising Turn

I wanted to break into the big time. Instead, I learned why I was miserable.

Two darkened figures, perched on stools near the coffee urns, give two thumbs up. The producer raises his hand in the air for the countdown and then the sweeping theme song halts the chatter in the bustling coffee shop.

Our host Genna, peering through binoculars, speaks as if narrating a golf swing at the Masters. “Gerry, look at how she’s pouring that carafe of coffee. Exquisite! Such balance, like a barista ballet!”

Over-caffeinated Gerry, dressed in an ocean blue fleece and pleated khakis, replies, “Remarkable pour! A pour with free-flowing execution demonstrating her focus on the fundamentals: controlled breathing, smooth movements and pinpoint hand-eye coordination. Genna, keep in mind the high temperatures these baristas battle every day. A wrong move here could require medical attention. They make it look so easy.”

 Airing weekly via live web-streaming, Majestic Achievements of Human Endeavor or M.A.H.E. (pronounced “maw-hee” for short), celebrates life’s mundane tasks—making lunch, wiping the counter, tying shoes, getting ready in the morning, pouring coffee—through Genna and Gerry’s energetic play-by-play analysis. M.A.H.E, as described by Genna, exists because, “where others see nothing, we see something.” The backstory is that, unable to land employment within network broadcasting, Gerry created this show (initially airing only on public-access television) to tell the mundane but grounded stories we all have but no one talks about.

Genna and Gerry are sketch comedy characters I created for a variety show I produced at a popular coffee shop in north Phoenix. They saved me from misery.

Like most people in the comedy world, I work on this show outside my day gig. I’ve always had a fool’s dream to pursue comedy, but my fear and my idea of what it meant to be a responsible husband and father (“It’ll never work! The hours are horrible! You’ll lose your family! People won’t laugh!”) kept me from trying it. Until I did. And so here I was producing, directing, hosting and sometimes acting in a two-hour variety show. It was crazy fun, and I’d get hopeful when things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

But writing, auditioning, scheduling rehearsals and rewriting—all without a sustainable source of revenue (did I mention it was at a coffee shop?)—was stressful. All too often, it seemed to me, the slightest bump would knock the metaphorical chain off the bike. And there was little I could do to fix these problems, because unless I cut hours on my day job, I had no additional time, energy or resources to invest. When I measured my high expectations for the show against its reality, I felt jaded and joyless. This trickled into other areas of my life. Whether I was spending time with my wife, playing with my kids, cooking, or tying my shoes, my mind would be running on overdrive. I couldn’t find the off-switch. I was grumpy. I couldn’t keep living like this.

Meanwhile, in bringing Genna and Gerry to life, something I didn’t intend began to happen. Sketch comedy success relies on the actors’ ability to improvise while using the script as a guide. I wrote the characters as having positive, energetic on-camera personas. Off-camera, though, they were supposed to reveal their darker, jaded attitudes towards people and towards their meaningless work, while coveting real broadcasting careers. To my surprise, as the actors improvised, Genna and Gerry remained light-hearted, celebratory and simple.

Suddenly I was asking: What if their passion for broadcasting seemingly meaningless tasks was actually genuine? What if they loved their work and weren’t looking to climb the broadcasting ladder?

And there it was. Genna and Gerry celebrate the moment the barista pours the coffee, because that moment, however small or insignificant, is gone in an instant, never to come again. Sure, planning for future successes or analyzing past failures has its place. But Genna and Gerry redirected my worry and anxiety into focusing on the present moment.

This has had huge implications for me.

Instead of measuring my results against my expectations, could savoring the richness of life’s present Majestic Achievement of Human Endeavor—no matter how small, repetitive or mundane—be the celebrated gift? Could life be that simple?

What if my joylessness hasn’t come from my actual defeats? What if instead the culprit is the yardstick by which I incessantly measure my results against my hopes? This yardstick has led to nothing but misery. I can take any task I do and make it miserable by comparing it to my ideal. On the other hand, when I learn from Genna and Gerry and engage in the present space, the future and the past wash away. Engaging in the present, I’ve found, has also delivered a surprisingly powerful by-product I didn’t expect: joy. Enjoying what is. I’m willing to keep trying that.

So it’s tomorrow morning and I’m preparing breakfast. I have a big day ahead of me, lots of critical decisions, and hard work and effort is a must. Suddenly the kitchen lights brighten, the music soars, and I look up. With binoculars in hand, Genna says, “Toast is buttered, cereal is set, milk carton is now in hand. Gerry! Here comes the delivery . . .”

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