Sincerity and Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a funny thing. As evidence, I cite the fact that my mom doesn’t get it. But as a comedian it’s easy to forget that offstage – and in social media –  a little sincerity goes a long way.

I’m a big fan of sarcasm. All forms of comedy being equal, sarcasm might be my favorite. And there are times just hanging out offstage when when I engage it, especially when commiserating.

But a disinclination to be sincere is entirely different.

We all value sincerity, even – no, especially – those who are incapable of it. The man or woman incapable of sincerity is like the comedienne who is “always on” or the man who lacks the courage and maturity to say what he means and mean what he says. (Maturity, like sincerity, is a value which has fallen out of fashion, causing us  to ache for it even more).

If you’re like me, sincerity doesn’t come easy. It makes one feel vulnerable. But try it on for size and see how people react. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If I’d known how happy marrying Sabine Kaintzyk would make me I would have done it long ago. #FinallyGrewUp

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Dealing with Change

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Soccer fans know that that an injury on the field generally does not stop the game clock. Instead, “injury time” is tacked-on at the conclusion of the 90-minutes of regulation.

Similarly in life – or in your career – injuries do not stop the clock. I learned this the hard way many years ago while riding a tall unicycle through a doorway: I hit my head on the cross-beam and in an instant I went from world-champion juggler to a particularly-clumsy beginner. Because while the swelling on my forehead lasted only a few hours, the life-long casualty was my right arm, which simply stopped receiving the signals my brain would send it.

My friends – some of them world-class jugglers themselves – were fascinated. It was as if everyone was suddenly trying to set me up on a blind date. One had me attempting to juggle while clamping a small pillow in my right armpit, in order to “See what happens”. Another fashioned a rubber sling to help me ape the now-lost throwing motion of conventional juggling.

It was an anxious time for me. I was expecting my first child and for a time believed that I was experiencing some kind of psycho-somatic illness which, I hoped, would vanish once I was able to “work through” my life-altering transition to fatherhood and the greatly-increased financial obligation associated with it. I also read books on neurology and visited several neurologists, the last of whom removed his wedding ring, held it behind his back and then asked me in all seriousness to “Guess which hand it’s in”.

In hindsight, it was a good thing that I couldn’t tell life to “Stop!” while I reinvented myself into… what? I didn’t even know and had no time to figure it out: I had shows to do, contracts to honor, money to make.

The injury, more than anything, shaped me as a performer. “Shaped” isn’t really the right word: it essentially changed my occupation. The years I put into learning to juggle five balls was now for naught. My time would now be spent learning to catch an olive on a toothpick in my mouth, kicking a billiard ball into my eye socket and juggling slow-falling plastic grocery sacks.

Before my injury, audiences would ask “How do you do all that stuff?”. These days they ask “How did you think up all that stuff?” My answer is: “I had no choice”.

My talk, Winning With A Bad Hand, is the story of how I learned to roll with the punches. But more importantly, how to punch back.

Questions? Comments? Angry screed? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Excellence, Low Expectations and Graphic Design

It’s said that one of the nice things about being a pessimist is that you’re rarely disappointed. This has certainly been true in my experience, which is why I am no longer disappointed when I am referred to – to my face! – as “the next customer”: I simply expect it.

Incompetence is the rule, not the exception, and when a professional not only embodies its opposite but greatly surpasses it, that professional is someone everyone wants to work with. Such a professional is Holly Davis of Honeycomb Designs.

Holly exceeds her clients’ expectations at every turn. I connected with her after she left a comment on my blog about running over a deer in Germany and boy, was I glad she did.Since then, she has worked her special brand of magic to create for me everything from logos and t-shirts to posters mailing-list sign-ups.

My theatrical logo…

Theatrical Signature


My corporate logo…

Corporate Signature


A poster promoting my shows at The Magic Castle…


A poster promoting my corporate work…


A poster promoting my U.S. military tour…


My t-shirt design…


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How I Started Standing-Up

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When I started finding ways to work around my head and arm injury by replacing conventional juggling with stand-up comedy, there developed for me an unmistakable connection with audiences that wasn’t there before. “My wife is German” is a much better conversation starter than juggling torches on a tall unicycle. And for me the best comedy is always a conversation with the audience.

Also, less sweating.

How I Started Standing Up: Part II

Over time, my stand-up comedy became a natural prelude to my “Unnatural Act”. Here I am performing face juggling with a billiard and a ping pong ball.

I didn’t start doing stand-up until my mid-thirties. I had a lot of experience speaking to audiences by that time, however: I had been performing for nearly two-decades as a comedy juggler. When I started hitting open-mics in Denver and elsewhere working on my first five minutes of stand-up material, I would walk on stage with a highlighter pen, a slap bracelet, two half dollars and a billiard ball neatly concealed in my pockets and a host of other time-tested accouterment. The moment I lost trust in (or, just as likely, simply blanked on) my stand-up material, I’d hit the eject button and break-out the props from my pocket and then could coast from there.

Sometimes I’d bail on the stand-up if I if I had the least little memory lapse. Not wishing to be seen looking at my crib sheet, if I had one,  I’d simply bail and boom! my variety act would inflate in seconds and I was gold again.

When I stopped working with a crib sheet on the stage stool – it all seems so shabby now – is when I really progressed in terms of memorization (a facet of the job which was much less onerous than I feared when I realized I only have to memorize as I write, not commit to memory a 45-minute set.

Crib sheets are a crutch, not to mention an unwelcome distraction to the audience to see you pouring or – sometimes worse – glancing over your notes. Stand-up comedy is a conversation between the audience and the comedian. Why give them even a brief invitation to end the conversation?

Anyway, if I bailed on the stand-up (or just had more time to fill) I’d produce a highlighter pen from my pocket and and noticed an unmistakable increase in focus from the audience: the comedian is doing something unexpected and suddenly everyone’s curious about what’s going to happen next. That was a powerful thing to harness for me and has been ever since.

I learned the importance of being interesting at all times. I wish lecturers and teachers would learn this from the best comedians! It’s pretty simple: engage the audience and start telling jokes.

I learned to resist any urge to be explicit with the audience about demanding their attention: I pretended to just assume it. “Never let them see you sweat” became my mantra, if not my motto.

In terms of developing material I would have been better off without all those props, as all it did in the end was postpone my emergence from hypersensitive in terms of audience reaction to sort of a “Trust, but verify” approach: I don’t sweat any given moment but keep my eyes on the big picture.

And for the love of God, don’t be loud. What’s that? You have to “sell” the material? Please. Have you stood in the back of the room beneath the speakers and shouted into the microphone as you do? It’s horrible.

My friend and one of my favorite comedians in Jeff Wayne. He taught me a lot of valuable things. Among them was “Of course if a joke gets absolutely no response, you have to comment on it. But as long as you’re getting something – anything – from the audience, you’re best bet is to smile and get on with it.

A lot of it is the overall impression you leave with the audience during the show. Little things can undermine your credibility or like ability. Sometimes jokes stop being funny for no apparent reason. Easy come, easy go!

Many of my fellow open-mic comedians were the exact opposite. They seemed to be utterly oblivious to the audience’s non-reaction. I’d see the same guys week after week sharing onstage the same stories, telling the same anecdotes (rarely did they tell “jokes”, i.e., “As a comedian married to a German I sometimes have to go outside the marriage for laughs…” ). The hacks plow through their material like bloodthirsty wolverines, utterly indifferent to the audience’s reaction

I was the other way: I had to learn to resist my tendency to be hypersensitive and made even more so because I had in my pockets the comedy equivalent to the military’s meals Ready To Eat.

Another good rule of thumb I learned from Jeff: if you hear or see something from the stage that the audience can’t hear or see, forget about it. They don’t know what you’re talking about. Get back to the jokes.

It takes discipline to sit down and write daily, whether it’s a stand-up comedy bit, a blog or prose or fiction of any length. Writing what comes to mind throughout the day is easy:  jokes, like trouble in New York, find me. I write throughout the day (except on those not-infrequent days when theres no signal) so that I can get on with my day. Staring at a blank screen while standing over the joke hole just doesn’t work for me. If I am going to transition to longer-form writing – maybe take baby steps with some two liners? – then I will have to learn to sit down and organize my thoughts. Just learning to be not-necessarily funny when writing is a challenge.

In the meantime, I have succeeded making my bed most days. The good Admiral McRaven is right: one of the satisfactions of making your bed each morning is repairing to it each night. Here’s my made bed.

Anyway, this signal I’ve been receiving makes my job mostly clerical: sorting the jokes by category (I keep every joke in a single document and hashtag it with one of the above routines that would likely provide cover for it. For example, a joke about my wife would be tagged with #family). I then gauge the jokes onstage with my patented “Tell joke, listen to audience reaction” stand-up comedy system.

I learned I wouldn’t write anything funny until I found I was performing it regularly. Looking back at my first notebooks I literally wonder: “What was I aiming at here?” The notebook was quiet and comfortable and never tested me. So the problem was I wasn’t going out there to perform stand-up enough. You have to be a writer and a performer – a rare combination.

At real gigs I’d throw in a line here or there during my show, but the audience wasn’t expecting stand-up and if they had, they would have been disappointed. A couple of reliable lines here and there, yes, but nothing qualifying as an actual bit.

I had to begin performing as a stand-up regularly to figure out who I was really writing for. My only clue to answer the question “What’s my persona gonna be?”  was the from observing the patter and speaking-style I employed in my comedy juggling act. There was surely a lot of overlap in in my stand-up persona and my variety act persona – but whatever rough transition remained I hope I have polished into something deemed seamless.

I knew it important to meld the two modes together stylistically, especially since it became apparent that my juggling days were numbered. I have the advantage, too, that audiences tend to get giddy when my kind-of nerdy, boastful comedian personae suddenly gives way  to this nerdy, boastful juggler persona who’s kicking a billiard balls into his eye socket and stuff.

Stand-up comedy also made me at once more self-aware and less self-conscious. I learned that I was kind of clever, not to mention preoccupied with TSA guidelines. Stylistically, I  strive to be a pretty cool customer who manipulates the audience onto his wavelength without appearing to be striving do so. My motto is “Never let ’em see you sweat”.

When I finally started performing stand-up regularly – in-and-around Denver – I had an interesting perspective. Backstage, I’d be surrounded more-or-less relaxed open-mic guys who had more experience than me in stand-up but whose overall performing experience was dwarfed by my own (having performed some iteration of my comedy juggling act my whole adult life). I remember at one venue in a relatively small but beautiful old stone theater in Arvada we were told shortly before the show that the microphone wasn’t functioning and we’d simply do without.

Well, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. For the other guys it seemed a minor detail. Holding a microphone in my hand was for me a welcome thumb to suck and served as a small equalizer between a novice like me, who had long grown accustomed to speaking with both hands free – and guys who had been hitting the open mic for months or years. In other words, holding a microphone was comforting luxury for me and deprived it I felt distracted. For them, it simply meant they’d have to do their act the way they’ve done it many times before: at other open mics, at home in the shower, driving, or whatever.

Memorization and desensitization were other big factors: memorizing my material and desensitizing myself from constantly checking the pulse of the audience and learning to simply charge on.

The microphone looms larger in the mind of comedians than most audiences will believe. What’s the big deal? Remove it from the stand and put it back when you’re done! But my friend and arguably world’s funniest man Phil Tag likes to rehearse his stand-up when possible on the stage with the lights under show conditions and the microphone on. For a guy who’s been doing it for decades and with appearances on The Tonight Show, you’d think he’d enjoy the comedian’s unique privilege of not requiring much, if any, tech rehearsal.

Over time, I would learn the lesson which I still apply to so many aspects of life: that most things that happen during a show are as big a deal to the audience as they appear to be to you.  If doing your set without a hand-held microphone is no big deal to you, it will be a non-issue to the audience. The same goes for your bald head, paunch, cleft lip, whatever.

Mentally, I divide my stand-up into a handful of routines, or, to save time, I call “bits”. They are, in the generic order I do them, whatever that means:

family; drinking; work/little man; S.F. vs. L.V.;/gambling; dad; headlines; nude cruise; reading; credit/ID theft; stimulus/ hair gel/flying;

I did not write out any of these routines in anything close to a linear fashion. As outlined above, I just wrote stuff down throughout the day and over the above themes emerged and coalesced as I cherry-picked jokes like these.

By not straying from my comfort zone I’ve been able, over time, to generate a stand-up comedy act which aesthetically and temperamentally suits me nicely enough. If I am going to write anything of any length, though, I’ll l have to leave my comfort zone.

When I’m ready, I’ll let you know about it.

Thanks for reading,


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My Week In Review

I can’t believe it’s only been four days since I dropped off my wife and kids at LAX for a two-month trip their making to Germany. It’s been exhilarating and lonely. I’m amazed by how much time you have when you don’t have loved ones around. I went out for a run, for example, and when I realized I didn’t have my watch. I had to resist the urge to continue without it. Under normal circumstances I would’ve had to agree to be back from my run at a certain time, skip my shower and be prepared to take Lucas to swimming or whatever. Instead, I simply jogged back home and got my watch – I had oodles and oodles of time. At least one 30 minute run ended going over an hour because I was feeling good. 

It’s I’m in the middle of a time orgy or something.

It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t have a family. It’s been a damn productive week – and it’s not even over. On the other hand, I sure miss having that little angel of mine smacking me in the face an hour before I need to wake up. The boy, now five years old, also holds great appeal for me although he also tests my patience from time to time.

Here’s some things that happened since holding down the fort alone over the last four days.

A clinically insane lawyer who saw my show at The Magic Castle in Hollywood and has confessed to me that can’t put it out of his head. Check out picture he posted yesterday of his wall:

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I say “clinically insane” but of course I mean, merely, that he’s a:) is a Democrat party activist/fundraiser and b:) a fan of my work. We met for drinks the other night at what became immediately clear was a consolation party for Carl Kemp, running for Long Beach city council’s 5th district seat. Kemp kept his dignity – he didn’t weep anything like that. I don’t mind it when a grow man weeps – it’s when he tries to speak through it like Mike Schmidt did at his retirement announcement that makes me uncomfortable. Just shut up and have a good cry and wait until you’ve gathered yourself together if you have something to say. That’s how I feel about it, anyway. But like I said, Kemp made everybody feel comfortable and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from him again.

Stacy Mungo was Kemp’s Republican opponent. When she handed me a yard sign for her campaign I was impressed by her directness, her energy and  self-confidence. My personal opinion is that she’s too hot for a career in politics, but I have great confidence that she will serve the 5th district well and that if she returns to the private sector she will resume her former success.

Last month I got a phone call from a woman writing an article for the New York Times about gps-equipped luggage. Last Tuesday the NYT Business Travel section published the piece, which begins with my tale of woe after I grabbed the wrong luggage from the airport in Singapore. (My full account of of the incident is here).

It was neat, seeing my names in the NYT without anything like “The United States Of America vs.” before it.

The good people at p2 Photography and I “partnered”, in today’s parlance, on this video about the head injury which put me on a very different path in my craft. The video is really about me and my story but we are restructuring it to a:) distinguish my comedy show from my talk and b:) make clients understand that one nicely sets-up the other: a 45 minute comedy show then, when everybody’s loose and in a good mood – I hit the ground running with the talk.

The video was even posted at a neurology forum for “nerd-ology” types and a discussion ensued on injury, recovery, consciousness, etc. I think it’s behind a registration wall so I won’t post it.

I did post a couple of new stand-up routines to my YouTube channel, including this true story about a conversation I had on an elevator and this one about Germans and Germany. It’s gratifying to see how these different routines have really come into their own. Each routine has it’s own personality: some are grittier than others, for example, when dueling it out each night with each other on that smokey stage, having driven for four hours to this dusty little town outside Bakersfield while your buddies are giving another Royal Command Performance in London…


I’ve been keeping to our regular sleeping routine and when awake spending a lot more time signing contracts, promoting articles, paying bills, etc. I’ve tried going out at night but usually by 9 o’clock or so I’m beat and more than happy to go to sleep in preparation for a good start the next day. Tonight I’ll attempt to go to the Magic Castle but we’ll see.



Monday, June 2: Let’s Talk About Boarding Airplanes

Whatever sense of humor people have they tend to lose it when boarding the airplane: everybody’s preoccupied with getting settled into their seat as quickly as possible. Yesterday I was getting onboard and I very politely asked the guy in the seat behind me if would mind swapping seats with me so that his wife and I could sit together.

No sense of humor.

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