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(Clayton Hanmer for The Globe and Mail)
(Clayton Hanmer for The Globe and Mail)

He stole my jokes. Literally Add to ...



It's gone. All of it. I mean, it wasn't exactly million-dollar material. But, still, it was mine. And it was all I had.

I've been doing stand-up comedy off and on for about 10 years now. Been paid for it a few times, but mostly just amateur stuff. And now, the laptop on which I stored all my material is gone. Stolen by small-time thieves who ransacked my house.

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I'm way too old and have been doing this for too long to start over. And yet here I am. Forced to either begin anew or to give up on my hobby.

That laptop was probably the single biggest thing stolen from the house. It had a lot on it besides my comedy bits: my master's thesis; all of my notes, papers and research from my time in law school; personal reflections and ruminations; even some long-abandoned poetry and creative writing.

When I tell people how much was on the computer, they always ask, "You mean, you didn't back it up?" Here's the thing the robbery taught me about backing up your computer: It's only useful if your backup doesn't also get stolen.

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Our backup was on a Zip drive disk. And that was taken too. Yup, they stole obsolete technology. That's how I know they must be small-time.

What they took and what they didn't make little sense. Fairly expensive jewellery was tossed aside. But things I can't imagine being able to hock - like our Zip drive and a portable file case - were scooped up.

This certainly couldn't have been due to haste on the part of the thieves. They stole my gym bag (to carry out some of the stolen objects) and had time to empty the side pockets of my shower kit and padlock. But they took my shower flip flops. I've never wished so hard that I had foot fungus.

The cops kept reminding me that the thieves weren't smart people. I get that - if they had better job prospects, they probably wouldn't be breaking into houses. But I'd imagine if this is their profession, they'd know the material better and be a little more discerning. You know, be an expert in their field.

But, of course, that's the kind of thing I would do. In any event, I already had a few gigs lined up, so stopping right away wasn't an option. Instead, I spent a number of nights sitting at my desk, trying to cobble together what I recalled. I'd call up friends saying, "I remember I have a bit on …" and see if they could remind me how it went. That got me back to about six minutes of material. But I had more than an hour on the laptop.

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I contemplated hanging out in comedy clubs to see if I could catch any comics performing some of my old bits. But I couldn't face the possibility of someone else performing my material and getting a much better response from the audience than I ever did. Then I'd know for sure that it's not them, it's me.

And what was I going to do if I actually caught another comic performing my jokes? Confront them? Find out how much they paid for them on the comedy black market? To be honest, I was worried to find out how cheaply my best bits would go for.

Comics have a love-hate relationship with their material and with the art form itself. When your timing's on and you kill, you feel like a rock star. Like you could sell out a stadium to tell knock-knock jokes. Your material is your best friend and brilliant.

But when you bomb, you feel both literally and figuratively impotent. Like your material has some connection to the plague and needs to be quarantined. You can feel your energy, your confidence and your sense of self-worth drain from you with every blank stare, every moment of silence after a punchline.

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You can watch this dynamic at every amateur comedy show. There are always a couple of pros who have grown a shell and can bounce back from a few leaden lines. Then there are the hobbyists like me who perform frequently and do fairly well, but can't bring themselves to stake their career on it. We lurch from moment to moment. We can usually steel our faces fairly quickly, but there'll be a moment after a failed punchline - generally you'll have to look for it - where we look like the poster child for erectile dysfunction.

Finally, there are the comics who do stand-up at most five times in their lives. These are usually people who are convinced the jokes that make their co-workers or their dinner guests laugh will make them the next Seinfeld. And then they perform at an amateur show and you can literally watch a dream die before your eyes. They're often so bad that time seems to stand still while they're on stage. You're sure this is one of the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo.

Ultimately, I'm convinced that those of us who do stand-up, either professionals or amateurs, are addicted to it. Because that high from a killer set is so good, you keep wanting more. Even when your set bombs, shortly after the pain subsides you remember the high. And it causes you to keep going back on stage.

So, in the end, I had no choice. There was no way I could quit cold turkey - the rush was in my blood and needed to be satisfied. I had to start over. Because the laptop and the material may be gone, but the comedy cravings are never going to leave me.

Brian Zeiler-Kligman lives in Toronto.

Illustration by Clayton Hanmer.

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