When I was 15, I signed up for a semester-long Cinema class in high school. I loved movies and now I had the option of spending 25% of a school year watching them. Seemed like a no-brainer.

The first thing we did was watch a short film called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Completely free of dialogue and set during the Civil War, it begins with a shot of a poster declaring that anyone caught by Union soldiers carrying out sabotage will be executed. Then we see a group of Union soldiers on a bridge, about to execute a prisoner, and we can assume why.

A soldier balances one end of a plank over the water and stands on the bridge end, while the prisoner is forced onto the other. As a rope is tied around his neck, we can see that he’s thinking of a woman and child, presumably his wife and son. The soldier steps off the plank and the prisoner falls, but the rope snaps and the prisoner falls harmlessly into the water. He swims to the surface, laughing with joy and relief, then swims to shore and begins running through a forest to elude his captors.

Some time later, he emerges from the forest and sees a house close by. The woman he was thinking of earlier is sitting in the garden and she looks over and sees him. We see the prisoner’s face as he begins to run towards the house, then we see the woman again. Except now she’s standing much closer to the house and wearing a different dress. Weird. We see the prisoner’s face again as he’s running, then we see the woman again, wearing yet another dress and this time a boy stands by her side, smiling. We see the prisoner reach the house…

The rope goes tight, snapping the prisoner’s neck, and he dies. Everything we had just witnessed was just a fantasy that had gone through the prisoner’s mind in the split second between falling and dying. Cool twist!

When it was done, the teacher had us watch it again, but this time pausing to highlight every flaw, and they were many. The plank, supposedly laid casually on the bridge, was clearly installed with a hinge. As the prisoner runs through the forest towards the camera, the camera was apparently on a truck driving away, as the truck’s exhaust is visible on screen. I hadn’t seen these flaws nor any of the others during the first viewing, but now I couldn’t unsee them. In fact, this one experience affected me permanently, as flaws jump out at me constantly when I’ve watched anything since.

It reminded me of a short story I had read a year prior, about an American couple in France, visiting a friend who had moved there some time before. As they walk to the pub where they’ll meet him, they walk through a street fair and enjoy the sights of a trained bear doing tricks and a beautiful young woman dancing while her father plays piano. When they meet their friend, they excitedly mention the street fair. “I know, isn’t it awful?” the man says, and the couple is confused.

He walks with them back to the fair, pointing out that the bear is half-starved and near death, while the “beautiful young woman” may not even be a teenager yet, clearly miserable under a ton of makeup, while her father is looking at her in a way that no father should look at his child. Now that the couple has seen below the lovely façade, they can’t unsee it. All enjoyment, all joy is gone for good.

This might sound like I never enjoyed watching movies ever again, but, in fact, it ignited a passion I didn’t know I had. I could still enjoy movies but on a different level, in a different way. It made me want to make movies and it’s too bad that didn’t work out as I’d planned.

This has been a long-winded prelude to talking about standup, as these things are very much related. Prior to my debut at age 36, I began to devour standup at age 11. So, for literally most of my life I was just a fan. Now that I’m a comic, I rarely watch standup outside the clubs where I’m booked, and it’s even rarer that I go to a club when I’m not booked. Despite numerous streaming subscriptions, it’s extremely uncommon that I put on a special from a comic I’ve never heard of, and when I do watch one from someone I’ve been a fan of a long time, like Bill Burr or Dave Chappelle, they don’t make the same impression on me as specials I watched while I was a civilian.

When I host, I tell the audience to laugh at jokes, not just smile. While comics perform, I get out of the audience’s sight, because I don’t want them to see how rarely I laugh. It’s not that I never laugh, but my reaction to a good joke is very often a nod and thinking, clinically, “That was a good joke.” If I ever bothered to count how often I laugh, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I laugh at good jokes as often as I do at failed jokes.

It’s like the audience is seeing the comic fly but I can see the strings. I’m so aware of the mechanics, I can’t unsee them. I’m thinking too much about how the comics holds themselves on stage, how wordy the setups are, what punchlines could be improved or missed opportunities for callbacks or on and on and on, to just switch my brain to civilian mode and enjoy it on that level. I’ve taken all the fun out of standup by doing standup.

All of this might give the impression that I’m miserable in comedy clubs and never have a good time, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Like movies, I just enjoy it differently. When a new joke or bit works – especially if I thought of it five minutes before I go on stage – it feels wonderful. If I tell a joke for the thousandth time but it still works, that feels great, too. I enjoy seeing comics do well, even if I don’t personally think they’re funny. It can even be fun to watch a comic bomb, although I’d rather not be hosting that night, since I’ll have to fill in the crater before I bring the next comic to the stage. I just sometimes miss enjoying standup for standup’s sake.