The live performer’s divided brain

Dick Cavett talks about not remembering what just happened on stage: [via JK]

A worried Johnny Carson once admitted to me that he frequently couldn’t remember what was said on a show he had just finished taping. And, sometimes, who the guests were. It’s a strange thing, and one I haven’t quite figured out.

Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it happened to me too, and that a few days earlier I got home and it took me a good 10 minutes to be able to report with whom I had just done 90 minutes. (It was only Lucille Ball!) It’s an oddity peculiar to the live performer’s divided brain that needs exploring. It has to do with the fact that you — and the “you” that performs — are not identical.

Reminds me of a set I did a few weeks back. I got thrown up last minute at a very fun Taint Comedy Great show (a quarterly show run by Chesley Calloway). Crowd was hopping. I had a few drinks in me already. Just got up and ripped it with a completely filthy, over the top, fun set.

Not sure whether it was the drinks, the limited prep time, or what, but I remember getting off stage after killing and feeling like, "What just happened?" I couldn't even remember what jokes I had told (other than every blue joke I have). I riffed on the room a lot but couldn't remember what I actually said. It was all a blur. I'm looking forward to getting a tape of the set just so I can see exactly what happened.

Reminds me of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls flow.

Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

Look at the components of flow and they're all right there in a great standup set:

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).
2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.
5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

I think getting into that state is one of the best things about standup or any creative activity. It transports you. It's kind of a holy thing. Just touching a moment like that can sustain you through weeks or even months of shitty shows.

"The live performer’s divided brain" is something Steve Martin talks about in his book too. He discusses how your mouth is saying one thing while your brain is already somewhere else.

My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the boy delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next.

With the brain that occupied, it must be tough for it to also remember what's going on.


Kevin Tor said...

This happened to me at VH1 the other night. I remember starting my set but all of a sudden I was at the end. I'm glad too because I was freaking out. Also, I'm kinda hooked on your blog.

Aalap said...

Good post. The way I read Martin's excerpt (and I've read the book as well) is something almost the opposite of flow. What Steve seems to be saying is that he was not flowing, that he was directing his voice and body while his brain is searching for where to go next. Am I reading this wrong? The words that tipped me most in that direction were judging and worrying, both of which seem poisonous to flow.

myq said...

I was totally in the zone while reading this blog, so I don't remember anything it said.

Was it good?

Matteson said...

I think this idea of "flow" is a big reason why a lot of people do comedy (or perform in general). We all spend a lot of our time chasing moments when we are totally in the present, little moments of zen when our brains are devoid of any extraneous thoughts. There are many ways to achieve the moments of zen: meditation, drugs/alcohol, sports, sex. Performing is the way comics choose to find them (well, that and drugs/alcohol...and sex).

Chesley Calloway said...

Ruby: about that video... best case scenario: missing. worst case: taped over.

I'm usually anal about my minidv's, so it's frustrating to not know its whereabouts (esp my Taint!)... ought be floating around somewhere--as soon as it turns up I'll get you video of that filthy set of yours.

soce said...

When I'm interviewing comedians and ask them for their favorite moment of this whole crazy pursuit, their response is often that they're happiest when on stage, hitting that sweet spot when they're completely vibing with the audience. As Wali Collins said, "Ppeople say it's better than sex. Sometimes it is. Sometimes."

I certainly can think of times doing improvised freestyles or while playing soccer, basketball, pingpong or other such manly sports or even many conversations-- I couldn't necessarily give you a play-by-play of what just happened, but generally I feel that something nice happened.. I certainly would've remembered if there was a sour vibe or if I lost the game vs if people were feeling me or I had won.

I think it's a lot of information to capture all at once, so it's okay to have some of it go in and out of your ears. And it's nice to have photos or videos (or pre-written set lists you can go back and look at) just to help remember what actually went down.

Matt Ruby said...

KT: "I'm kinda hooked on your blog."


CC: "about that video... best case scenario: missing. worst case: taped over."

aigh, hope it turns up.

Hank in Chicago said...

It's definitely a pursuit of these moments that has motivated me to get into standup. I've had occasional experiences similar to those described, albeit in social settings rather than performance ones-- a transcendental zone where your mind thinks in chords and stanzas rather than single notes and fragments.

Ironic that the moments I look forward to most are the ones I expect to not remember.

london calling said...

I wonder if there are comedians who are in flow everytime they do a gig ? They enter that state of grace and every gig is a joy .Is the rareness of " being in flow " what makes it special .

Great blog BTW

Luke Cunningham said...

This connects with another previous post about the evolution of comedians. (Louis CK, Birbiglia, etc.) They were always naturally funny people, but the key is gaining enough repetitions that your natural ability to be funny, your "Flow" is totally unhindered. And that's the most difficult part or this pursuit, it's really, really difficult to get those repetitions. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in "Outliers." How The Beatles may have been 3 pop music geniuses.. but they were enormously benefited by gigs in Germany that provided hours of stage time to hone their craft.

Finding that opportunity is extraordinarily difficult... says the guy who just submitted his email reply for Monday at Ochi's Lounge.

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