How Bill Maher and Russell Brand helped me nurse a broken heart at the JFL Comedy Fest

Categories: Funny Ha Ha

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Comedy festivals are the perfect antidote to a nasty breakup. Not only because laughing activates several different sections of the brain, strengthening neurons that lead to insight and emotional balance, but because so many comedians love to bitch about heartbreak. Like Morrissey records or the films of Charlie Kaufman, a standup comic unloading his self-loathing is a comforting thing to watch when you're feeling like an unlovable jackass.

I was a few weeks into my own singledom when I flew to Chicago for the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, so I was long past the Netflix and THC cookie dough binge phase of a breakup, yet still in the oxytocin (love hormone) withdrawal period that leaves you feeling pathetic and unhinged. Though a week of thinking and giggling with Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Russell Brand and Denver's Ben Roy (who did a staggering eight shows in three days) revived me into feeling like a considerably less desperate member of society.

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While visiting a city where 440 school-age children were murdered by guns last year, you'd think that my amorous misadventures would be thrown into perspective fairly quickly. But sadness and narcissism have always gone hand in hand with me.

When catching Russell Brand's set at the Chicago Theatre, I watched a heckler shout something unintelligible about Katy Perry at the comedian on stage. "Yes, you're into pop-culture, read all the magazines do you?" Brand hissed back. "You know what you're talking about, mate?"

Leading up to this, Brand had been the characteristically brash and confident wizard of linguistics that he is. But his retort was full of anger, and it took him a few moments to recover, stumbling through some false starts before settling on a Malcolm X commentary. Yeah, I know how you feel, Russell, I thought to myself. But this was ludicrous for several reasons: I hadn't been married, am not a pop-star, and have no idea what it's like to be heckled about my breakup while trying to entertain 3,600 people with only my voice. Why would I have any clue what Russell Brand's world looks like?

Still, like the hopeless sycophant that I am, my empathy for Brand inspired me to give my ex a call (the logic on this is a little fuzzy, I know). Fueled by countless whiskey-sours and an inspired hunger for the dance of language, I stumbled out of the Chicago Theater with phone pressed to ear in the ultimate picture of impulsive self-destruction.

"Honestly, why can't we transcend this cruel machine of childhood neurosis that polarizes us in the shifting whirlpool of desire and repulsion, and simply, through the will of our hearts and loins, materialize into the celestial wonder of carnality that surely still binds us?" I sputtered, leaving a voicemail for the last person I should've been calling at that moment.

Sounding as cocksure and seductive as Russell Brand appears easy when you're guzzling down booze and watching him from a darkened theater seat. But once the spotlight turns your way, you turn into wet-brained hillbilly trying to recite Shakespeare with a mouthful of sand.

In need of distraction, I headed to Stage 773, a comedy club on the north side of Chicago. Catching the stand up set of Parks and Recreation writer Chelsea Peretti, my blood boiled at the genderist (is that a word?) assumptions she made about being a man in the modern age. "I don't know if I'm extroverted enough to be a comedian," Peretti said, crushing it with the small audience. "I wish I had that male confidence. In my fantasy of what it's like to be a guy they wake up in the morning and are like 'I'm awesome! I'm going to do something great today!' Being a guy seems like a great gig. I'm always picking myself apart, thinking 'do I have a camel's toe in these jeans?' 'Do I look fat or just thick? It's hard to say.'"

The reactive, PC side of myself wanted to berate her for thinking that men don't suffer the same body image issues as women, thinking of my own avoidance of mirrors when feeling too skinny or pale. I mean, this woman has appeared on Louie; how could she think men don't hate themselves? But then I remembered the line that has been repeated to me by different people over years of therapy: The problems you're describing are typically only experienced by women. Even in self-help books, whenever there's a fictional scenario that describes me perfectly, the protagonist is always a female.

So I shut up about it and enjoyed what was an otherwise killer set.

Later in the week, I was supplied with an endless arsenal of reasons why it is great to be single. If there's one thing comics are good at, it's complaining; and aside from airports and Republicans, their favorite complaint is about domestic relationships.

"Girls don't have the same issues with people seeing their browser history as guys do," Seth Meyers said last Friday. The soon-to-be Late Night host was commenting on the evidence of weird porn sites found on men's computers, before touching on a subject very close to my frustrated heart, making me very thankful I'm no longer in a relationship: "The most embarrassing thing on a woman's Internet history is how much research she has done into the last woman her current boyfriend dated. That's some Zero Dark Thirty shit. My girlfriend is a perfectly sane, lovely woman, but she knows more about my ex-girlfriends than I do. I'll be watching college basketball and she'll be like 'oh, University of Michigan, isn't that where your ex-girlfriend Christina went?' And I'll be like 'what? How did you?' Then I'll turn and she'll be leaning in the doorway eating an apple with a switchblade."

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