I touched on pre-pandemic events in the past, but thought I’d review them again to give this week’s post a bit of context. By the end of 2019, I was put in a position where I had to take a break from it all. Standup had me out four or five nights a week, I had a full-time job that was coming to an end, and my glorified hobby was feeling more and more like a chore. My life in the clubs was negatively affecting my life outside the clubs and I had to go into self-imposed exile.

As for the job, although I’d been laid off, a headhunter had lined up a new position. During my last official week of work, I had a third interview with a CEO who all but promised that the job was mine, they just needed to call my references first. A few days later, they said that, due to Italy’s decision to impose a massive shutdown in the face of the new covid threat, they were putting a temporary hold on hiring. However, they’d call me in a month to see if I was still available.

As of this writing, nearly three years later, I’ve yet to hear from them. Sitting next to the phone is exhausting, let me tell you.

The new decade began with me out of work and out of standup. My day-to-day was, wake up late, go to the gym, go to the grocery store, park my ass on the couch until way too late, pass out. My wife had returned to school but from home, our daughter doing the same, I wondered how long this could go on before I lost my mind with cabin fever.

To my astonishment, though, the opposite happened. I was fine at home. So much so, in fact, that I found my few trips away from home exhausting. I didn’t miss standup, I didn’t even miss other people. Home had everything I could want.

I was curious what the opposite of cabin fever is called and was disappointed to see the Urban Dictionary defines it as Reverse Cabin Fever (RCF). Not very imaginative. I couldn’t throw stones, though. Barely spending any time outside my apartment, I didn’t feel very imaginative, either.

When I did feel ready to perform again, I didn’t have many options. Sweden’s restrictions don’t compare to what other countries experienced, but they still had an effect. Clubs began to shut down, one after another. In April 2020 I made my way to a gig at one of the few clubs still running, but during the hour-long trip to Stockholm, I felt my anxiety growing. By the time I exited the train, a five-minute walk to the club all that was left of the trip, I seriously considered turning around for the hour home. I was still excited to be on stage, it was the thought of having to interact with other people that was getting to me.

I forced myself to keep going. As I walked, I spotted a comic I know and like (those two don’t always go together) on the street ahead of me. He hadn’t noticed me, but a light shout of hello is all it would’ve taken to get his attention. I hadn’t seen him in several months and I can’t remember a time I didn’t enjoy his company. I was so wrapped up in feeling like shit, I just kept moving forward.

Being at the club was pretty much how I expected, or feared. Certainly there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here. The other comics in attendance, I knew them but not especially well; I’m far from talkative when I’m at my best, and this time I was far from my best. I had a spot in the first half, so I nursed a beer while I stood awkwardly alone until my turn, happily had a good set despite being very rusty, then stood awkwardly alone with a second beer while the show continued. I’d planned to stay for the whole show and hang out after, but then I realized that I could just leave and go home, which I did without saying goodbye to anyone. I didn’t even finish that beer.

Over the next few months I made a few more attempts at standup and I felt the anxiety grow looser as the covid restrictions grew tighter. Restaurants were expected to have no more than fifty people with a minimum distance between them and then, suddenly, public entertainment was limited to no more than eight people. I know this was an arbitrary decision, made to appear that the government was actually doing something to protect people, but I’ll always be fascinated by the number eight. Why not ten? Or five? Or zero?

As a result, every club shut down. Except one. Since food was served they said they could have fifty people, ignoring the rule that said no more than eight could be at a performance. They got away with it, so good for them, I guess. I’m not throwing shade at them for being open, at comics who chose to perform there, or for the audience. They knew the risk they were taking and it was their choice to make. There were comics who had to tell dick jokes and small crowds who had to hear them and it was the one place open. I just felt weird about the whole thing and was perfectly comfortable in isolation to bother going there.

I was part of a chat group on Messenger for comics looking for or being offered gigs there, and if I hadn’t already realized how silly things had become, it was when a rookie from Gothenburg enthusiastically wrote her plan to take a four-hour trip to Stockholm from the other side of the country, do a seven-minute set, then return to Gothenburg immediately afterward. I didn’t chime in but didn’t have to, as another comic reminded that rookie that we were balls-deep in a pandemic and maybe this wasn’t the most responsible decision.

It did make me think of a joke that I very nearly posted on the thread, but stopped myself. I wasn’t sure how it would be received and I’ve already blacklisted myself from enough clubs. Instead, I made a general post to everyone on Facebook, which I suppose was a bit passive-aggressive. The text was, “Stockholm comics be like,” along with a picture of the band playing on the Titanic as it went down.

Turns out, I didn’t have to worry about that club owner finding the joke offensive. In fact, he thought it was very funny! So funny that he took my image as a post on his club’s page without giving me credit. (And they say Americans are the ones who don’t understand irony.) Theft in comedy is supposed to be a cardinal sin but it just made me chuckle. It wasn’t the first thing he’d stolen and certainly wouldn’t be the last. Some people, you know?

Other than my wife and my daughter, my ego was a constant companion, but not a very good one. I don’t have many close friends but I know enough people that I wondered why so few reached out to me when I went from being out all the time to not at all. I complained about that to a friend and he said standup was a job, asked me, “When you leave a company, how many of your old coworkers check in on you?” I saw his point and appreciated it.

Now that the club scene is slowly getting back to normal, my Ego wonders why unsolicited offers for gigs aren’t pouring in. After all, I’m coming up on twelve years in standup and haven’t I done a lot for other people?! I remind myself that my self-imposed exile never really ended. Sure, I feel much better about being out and there’s a club I practically live at, but as host. The bad thing about hosting is that the audience doesn’t think you’re a comic; the bad thing about only hosting is that comics forget you’re a comic. It’s rare that I just do a set, which is a shame because I have new ideas I’m excited about and want to work on.

I’m not out in the clubs and I’m barely on social media. When I post something and it gets two likes, my Ego wonders why the engagement is so low. I remind myself that I can’t expect the masses to engage with me when I’m not engaging with them. I’m not liking dozens of statuses or watching reels or even noticing everyone’s birthdays. Later today, I’ll post this blog on Facebook and likely sign out immediately, then peek in now and then to see if anyone has liked it. It’s silly because it’s my Ego that drives this and also my Ego that’s bothered by the low numbers. I remind myself that, while I have no idea how many people read this thing and I don’t imagine it’s many, it’s still more than I know, and it always feels good when someone comes up to me randomly and says they enjoy this blog. I do this for you happy few and absolutely for myself.

Why am I not offered gigs left and right? The truth is, I never was. Even when I was at my peak and doing three to six gigs a week, I’d hunted, nagged, pleaded for those spots. Which is how it should be. Whenever I see a comic make a general post of “I’m available, book me!” I shake my head and mumble that it’s not how things are supposed to work. Club owners should be so buried in requests that they don’t have time or spots left to invite anyone else.

It’s like the old joke about the man who prays to God every night that he could win the lottery, but after fifty years with no result he gets angry with God for not making it happen. God appears and says, “You have to buy a lottery ticket first!” You can’t complain about not being on anyone’s radar when you’re flying low and I’m still flying so low I can taste dirt. Also, while I’m mostly hosting these days and they might not all consider me a comic, I’m still performing to over two hundred people a week, so I can’t really complain.

That said, the next comic I hear whining that their latest post got less than 20,000 views is getting slapped.