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.