My friends asked, “Why go? It’s just sweltering heat, huge dust storms, and a bunch of dirty, crazy people drinking and doing drugs. Why are you doing this? And at your age?”
The simple answer: To build an 11-story phallus. The theme of Burning Man this year was “Fertility” and my fellow campers were dedicated to building an 11-story structure so we could give other Burners a panorama view of the entire playa.
The more complicated answer: I needed a creative jumpstart. My new book was completed, my jokes felt stale, and the message of my current speech no longer excited me. I firmly believe that creative people need to search out fresh perspectives on life so they can continue to see the world anew. And no place does that better than Burning Man – where fantastic art is created just for the joy of it, and the economy is based on the notion of “unconditional gifting” – I give to you out of the sheer joy of wanting to share, and I expect nothing from you in return except for a thank you.
I got early entry to BM and when I arrived, the playa was as empty as a blank page. I spent four long days lifting heavy scaffolding to build the largest structure at Burning Man. Once opened, my job was to spank the people who wanted to climb to the top. That was my favorite job.
When it was erected (pun intended), I climbed to the top and the once empty playa was filled with dance clubs, bars, art cars, a giant fire shooting octopus, and gigantic sculptures, porn and doughnuts. As I walked the playa, and stopped in camps like Porn & Donuts, Suspended Animation, and Camp Beaverton, I had deep conversations with people of all ages and religions from all over the world. I was offered music, workshops, food, drinks, hugs and kisses. I wrote the name of my high school drama teacher, Mrs. Moody, and my cat Harry who had recently died on the wall of the Temple. As I cried over my losses and the thousands of others so lovingly documented all over the Temple, complete strangers came over to hug me, soothe me, and hear about those I lost.
Despite the harshness of the location, Burning Man was one of the safest environments I’ve ever been in. By my third day, I had let go of my clothes, along with all the judgments I had about myself – my looks, my age, my deficiencies. They all vanished in this city that’s based not only on personal freedom and expression, but also on community, acceptance of all, and a desire to give to others.
From BM I flew to a corporate speaking gig for Iowa bankers.
In my speech, something magical happened.
In the past, when performing for people I deemed “conservative,” I’ve always modified who I was. I have always felt different -- I was “that weird kid” in school – so I gave those audiences a more “normalized” version of me. Burning Man changed that. I learned that there are bridges that we comics and speakers can make to connect to any audience, without compromising our authenticity. Day after day, night after night, this was proven to me over and over. I realized that it wasn’t the audience’s judgments that made me insecure – it was my own judgments. That insight gave me the guts to spontaneously share a deeply personal story with my audience. The results were that people didn’t just say that they enjoyed my speech, but rather they hugged me afterwards with tears in their eyes.
I brought Burning Man energy to Iowa, and got the Burning Man connection back.
In the end, there is no greater gift you can give an audience than the gift of your true, authentic self. When we performers give the gift of ourselves, failure is impossible.
Click here for a video from Burning Man 2012.