In the film Walk the Line, my favorite moment is when Johnny Cash auditions for Sam Phillips.
The scene opens with Johnny and his duo playing a trite, says-nothing song they believe will be a crowd-pleaser. Mere seconds into the number, Phillips shuts them down and calls Johnny out, asking: “If you had time to sing one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth… you’re telling me that’s the song you’d sing? Or would you sing something real?”
Johnny musters up the courage to sing something personal. He’s hesitant at first—nervous, even—but eventually finds his voice with Folsom Prison Blues.
I remember leaving the theater; all I could think of was that scene, those five minutes out of over two hours of movie.
It challenged me as a person. It challenges me as a comedian.
What do I want to say into my microphone? What am I trying to impart to an audience? When I leave the stage, I want the people in attendance to have a semblance of who I am. My purpose is self-expression, not hackneyed joke-telling.
After seeing the movie, I started tearing down walls. Instead of telling “clever,” empty jokes about anything and everything I thought might get a giggle, I turned inward. I talked about my life and childhood. Many people don’t know what it’s like to move ten times before you’re ten years old; most don’t have a story that involves either being abandoned by your mother, or abducted by your father.
(My parents are naturally divided on what actually happened there; each points a finger at the other.)
Being personal helped me find my June Carter.
One night in Iowa, a woman found what I was saying on stage so relatable she decided to get to know me better. Over the course of emails, phone calls, and dates, we discovered that her baggage matched my baggage; “You were an accident? I was an accident!” A similarity of thought fostered that spark that sets so many Hollywood love stories in motion. Had I been telling trite jokes about whatever was trendy, she probably wouldn’t have taken an interest in me. Without her, who knows where I’d be today? Most likely neither a husband nor a father, two of my greatest accomplishments to date.
Attempting to make personal connections introduced me to a segment of society I never knew existed. When my wife and I were going through the trials and tribulations of infertility treatment, I discussed it on stage. After every show, I was approached by people who then shared their stories with me. Some struggled for years and ended up childless; others received treatment and started their family. In each situation, a connection was made.
(Even better: making people laugh who have never experienced infertility. The goal in being personal is to cross boundaries; to be so specific that you therefore become universal.)
Having an act rooted in honesty means you’re forever a work in progress; when you go down the path of delving inward, there is no finish line. My set today isn’t the same as it was three years ago because my act is fluid, malleable. When I was single, I talked about being single. As a father, I write about my family, my tether to the outside world.
Which is all good, but there’s still a component missing. Real estate is about location, location, location. Artistry is about relationships, combinations, pairings. I found my June Carter, which means my personal happiness has been cemented. All that’s left is the rest; a final piece to the puzzle that is my life: professional success.
I am looking for my Sam Phillips.
Cross your fingers for me, because nothing in life is ever as easy as it is in the movies.
(Even if those movies are based on real life.)