Free Advice

LABA Fellow Charlie Buckholtz writes about his experience giving free advice as both a standup comic and a rabbi.

I’d felt for a while that I was stuck in my standup, and it sucked. I mean for one thing…I was doing standup! Writing jokes and stories I thought were funny and getting up on open mics and telling them in front of strangers, a small contingent of whom even laughed (or perhaps coughed while vaguely grimacing, hard to tell)! Wasn’t that enough? What more do you want from me, voice in my head??

I felt it though: I wasn’t connecting. The material was good but I was reciting it like an actor doing a monologue: rehearsing intensely, revising compulsively, making sure I went out there and hit all the notes. I looked out just above the crowd, not letting my eyes rest anywhere for too long. And because of that, nothing ever fully landed. I was getting up and doing it, which good for me. But the process of doing it was teaching me that part of doing it well would mean opening myself to a genuine interaction with the audience. Not ‘crowd work’ necessarily, something more subtle: letting myself stop, meet them, and be seen.

Once I realized what would be required, my first thought was naturally: give up! Beyond being scary and more than I thought I’d signed up for, it didn’t make sense to me. I could write jokes and with enough practice deliver them in a funny way…isn’t that what the audience showed up for? Why would they be looking for anything deeper than that at a comedy show?

This line of questioning brought me to an unexpected place and time: my first year in my first job out of rabbinical school, as a synagogue rabbi in the East Village. To get to know my new neighbors, every Tuesday I set up at a busy corner with two chairs and a turned-around pizza box scrawled in Sharpie, “FREE ADVICE.” The sign didn’t mention that I was a rabbi.

The response to this little gimmick — which I’d hoped at most might spark a few double-takes and some light conversation — was no joke. People lined up with genuine questions about Big Decisions they were confronting with Big Consequences, unresolved issues with friends and relatives, basic questions of meaning that had followed them around their whole lives. And while it’s true in part that they were looking for someone to listen, that wasn’t the only reason they were there. I had advertised free advice, and they were earnestly, desperately seeking the clarity to help them better comprehend – and the wisdom to more gracefully navigate – the trials, traumas, and impossible choices this earthy existence had placed in their paths.

In a recent interview, Neal Brennan (Chappelle’s Show, 3 Mics) connected this primal and quintessentially human quest for wisdom to standup in a way that remined me of those Tuesday afternoons in the innocent haze of the mid-aughts East Village. In conversation with fellow comic Owen Smith on Smith’s new YouTube show Notebooks, Brennan reflected on standup’s unique and awesome calling:

Smith: “[As a comic, just by staying curious,] you suddenly find yourself like, taking down institutions that we all believed in.”

Brennan: “That’s the whole point of standup to me! The whole point of standup is like, ‘Wait what are you saying??’ Like, the world just throws dumb shit at you — just a constant stream of dumb shit — and then you go like, ‘I—let me respond. Ahem, I have some things I’d like to say…?’ “

When a stranger sat down with me at the corner of 10th and 2nd and asked for advice, I wasn’t trying to pretend to be an expert in anything and I certainly wasn’t trying to tell them what to do (I only disclosed I was a rabbi if it came up in the flow of the conversation). I was mainly trying to listen as fully as possible and let them feel that I accepted their question on the terms they presented it—that I accepted them; to share relevant experiences I had learned from and dispel as much of the ambient ‘dumb shit’ they had unwittingly internalized from the people and world around them, that were hurting them and making them sad. As they saw me listening, thinking, and genuinely grappling with the same issues and dynamics they grappled with in their own lives, a certain trust clicked on and they settled in hear what I had to say. I didn’t always say it with humor. But it always helped when I did.

Ever since then I’ve been trying to re-frame my comedy, in my mind, a la Brennan, as a form of Free Advice. I’m listening. I’m hearing the same things you’re hearing, I struggle with the same things you struggle with. This is how, to this point, I have managed to work some of them out.

Ahem. I have some things I’d like to say…