I’ve always had a bit of The Ham in me.
In the 3rd grade talent show I did an exuberant lip-synch performance of “Everyday” by Buddy Holly, replete with shiny silver jacket and Ray-Bans. The next year I did a stand-up comedy routine with a gigantic stuffed Spuds Mackenzie doll as my silent partner onstage. And finally, in the fifth grade I did a choreographed basketball-bouncing routine to the song “Elvira” (which, coincidentally, also featured fellow Austin comedian Braden Walker, of Your Terrific Neighbors fame).
Here’s me doing a magic show for friends and family members when I was nine-years-old:
I would routinely get sent to the principal’s office in elementary school for, as the crotchety Miss Lewis said, “cracking wise.” When my fifth-grade math teacher, Mr. Jackson, cut my shoelaces off for leaving them untied one too many times, I penned a “Declaration of Independence from Math,” and lead my classmates on a march through the playground and into his classroom that would’ve made Thomas Jefferson proud.
The Ham was strong in me. I tried out for the Christmas pageant, and the speech team, and later, in high school, a bunch of plays and one or two musicals. In college I began performing at the Austin Poetry Slam every week, quick becoming known as “the funny poet” who did silly poems while everyone else was earnestly talking about Rwanda and unrequited love.
So it might seem at first glance that improv is a perfect place for me to end up. It’s improv comedy, after all—and I’m pretty much the funniest fucker I know. (Except for all the others.) But as I learned about a year into my improv career, the comedy in improv is born from being in the moment and real. Telling a bunch of jokes isn’t going to sustain an improv show. You gotta be utterly present to find the comedy in truth, the truth in comedy.
So The Ham that still thumps away inside my ribcage has had to keep itself restrained. Which is maybe why I have grown to love short-form improv too—shows like Maestro: because The Ham is allowed to run naked and wild across the stage. Short-form tends to reward the lightning-fast wit of The Ham more so than long-form.
But this Sunday I’m auditioning for a main-stage show at The Hideout Theatre in which The Ham is not welcome. The show is “I Love You So Much” and it’s about love in its various incarnations. And while it will surely be a funny show, it will also likely be a touching one—a show with a lot of “awwwwww” moments, and maybe even some heartbreaking ones.
In other words, The Ham needs to go away.
But here’s the thing: This whole time The Ham has been disguising the mushy sensitive man beneath. In fact, some might say that The Ham was created to prevent the sensitive mush from being too stung by life’s inevitable slings and arrows. Humor as defense mechanism. Comedy as shiny distraction.
So the question becomes: How do I subdue The Ham just enough to let the inner-romantic to bubble to the surface? How do I audition for a show that requires onstage vulnerability without taking the easy, if funny, way out?
I’m not sure there’s any other answer than: Just do it. If I hope to be a significant performer someday (whatever that means) then I’ll have to complement The Ham with another force—-let’s call it, The Poet. The Ham must share space with The Poet. Because The Poet, while not always the funniest or wittiest, is also the most relatable. The Poet is the part of me that cries at the end of just about every mildly dramatic movie. (By the way, go see Captain Phillips right away.)
The Poet doesn’t write poetry so much as read it. The Poet knows it’s OK to displays its insecurities and fears and griefs because everybody experiences them. If the Buddha was right about life being suffering, then suffering—in all of its degrees—is what we all share with each other. Humor is one of the necessary pressure valves in life, the way we cope with the vagaries of a brutish existence without succumbing to its power. But humor cannot be, and should not be, the only way we experience life. The Ham cannot reign supreme. He has to share his throne with The Poet.
The Poet is the why. The Ham is the how.
So my aim is to approach this particular audition for this particular show with a willingness to look neurotic or insecure or anxious or unsure. In other words, my aim is to be me. To let The Poet spread his wings a bit and show that he’s got something to say too.
Long live The Ham. Long live The Poet. We all got ’em.