Having lunch with a good friend about a year ago, it came out we’d both had an interest in trying standup comedy for a while.
Wary of my human tendency to talk and talk and never act, I tried something. We made a deal: we would take 30 days to work on material and in the meantime I’d find an open mic and get us signed up. Time to work, a deadline, action.
I’ve been a standup comedy fan since stumbling upon some Bill Cosby records in grade school. I’d never gone to see comedy live before.
I started a comedy journal. Wrote some stuff in there. Essays even. Weeks passed. I found a venue and mashed go. I figured I’d have to request a spot a coupla few times before I’d get one. That was not the case.
When I got the email and saw my name in the lineup I felt intensely nervous for the first time in years and years. What a rush- I haven’t had that kind of performance anxiety in a very long time- I got over being nervous before gigs in grade school.
The day of the show was a disaster. The infamous Derecho of July 2012 had knocked the power out in my neighborhood. It was in the upper 90s outside. Everything smelled terrible. My wife and I got in a near-felonious argument over how to inflate an air mattress. We decided to check into a hotel. We picked one close to where the show was happening.
I forgot my show clothes and had to stop at Target to buy a pair of jeans and a presentable t-shirt. I still got to the club early. I made notes on some index cards to help me remember my set. Some friends started showing up. My wife and two-year old daughter were there.
At this show, brand new comics go on first with no warmup from the host. Throw ‘em right under the bus! Absolutely brutal. The show started. The club was three quarters empty. I went up and grabbed the mic.
And I freaking killed. I had everybody peeing their pants within a minute. And if you believe that, you are such a sucker.
I sucked. Stunk on ice. I stumbled on my words. I had no energy.
I didn’t know amateur comics regularly looked at their notes during sets. So I didn’t take out my cards. I forgot my jokes.
It was the longest four and a half minutes of my life. I didn’t even make it to the end of my time- I wrapped up my set and put down the mic.
My tiny daughter ran up to the front of the club yelling “Dadddddeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” So that was nice.
Reasons I did it, and will continue to occasionally:
- guts. it takes come chutzpah to take the mic. you’re essentially saying, ‘I’m funny enough to make a bunch of strangers laugh.’ having guts takes practice. standup is awesome guts practice (especially when you suck.)
- it’s the same overall vibe and performance rush I got playing in rock bands for years and years, but I don’t have to carry drums or deal with the baggage and drama that come with a roomful of musicians.
- Standup is the most brutally difficult form of public speaking imaginable. 5 minutes in front of a hostile (or even just indifferent) crowd is far worse than an IRS interrogation. I’ve done both more than once. If you can survive a shitty standup set from behind the mic nothing will ever faze you. That’s my theory.
Stuff I learned about standup:
- practice makes perfect. the masters you see doing it for a living have hours and hours and hours under their belt. And you can often find footage of them doing standup as teenagers.
- by and large, comics are miserable people.
- a highly skilled touring comic will write, work and rework material over the course of many many shows.
Reasons I’ll never be a successful comic:
- I don’t know how many hours I’ll eventually accumulate but I know I’m just not willing to put in the kind of time it takes to be really good.
- Comics tell the same stories and jokes over and over in order to hone them and make them great. I feel like a phony telling a story more than once. I understand this is dumb, as I’ll play the same setlist with a band over and over without worrying about it.
- I go to bed at 9PM.
I put two extra constraints on myself that eliminate 75% of the material I might otherwise develop:
- In person I can be pretty salty. I think of myself as delightfully profane. On stage I keep it clean. I think it’s mainly because my family all want to see my stuff and I don’t want to horrify my mother.
- I will not use material that is mean or hurtful to anybody.
In any case it’s been an experience that’s been as valuable as it has been excruciating. And a side effect has been that I appreciate and enjoy the standup comics I watch and listen to far more, having stood in their shoes (if only briefly.)