WARNING: The following essay contains strong language/adult content and may cause heart palpitations, nervous fidgeting, restlessness, unbridled outrage and/or uncomfortable silence.
My comedic saga began in 2006 with a newspaper advertisement encouraging amateurs to attend a six-week standup comedy class. I’ve always wanted to try standup comedy, believing it my destiny to make drunken strangers laugh. Ever since I recited Bill Cosby’s Wonderfulness album to my fellow 7th graders in the school cafeteria, comedy flowed in my blood.
Or so I thought.
The first time I tried standup was in 1991 at Glassboro State College on student talent night. I did it twice, and both five-minute sets were complete trainwrecks. I didn’t actually get booed, but the hostility was palpable. If you’ve never been heckled, you’ve never truly performed standup.
Having put those early uncomfortable experiences 20 years behind me, I was ready to try again, because,
A. I was a complete masochist, and
B. I was a gullible idiot who hadn’t the slightest notion of what I was getting into.
Two standup comics taught the class, which attracted some pretty frightening people. If you think the bus stop at 2 a.m. is a freak show, take an amateur comedy class. Lunatic central. A school teacher who did a bit about his whiny Colombian girlfriend, a pizza shop worker with five kids who joked about Nintendo games, a construction worker with an obnoxious obsession for celebrities, and an ex-professional wrestler whose colorful euphemism for penis was “rancid piss dispenser.”
We slogged through the course and eventually performed in front of audiences. They videotaped our sets. I have yet to watch mine, because I’m not into disaster porn.
After the class, a few of us formed a comedy troupe and struck out on our own, driving to shitty bars and clubs for a few minutes on stage.
Comedians are damaged. Irretrievably psychologically wounded outsiders who crave attention and praise. A balancing act of ego and insecurity teetering on the brink of self-destruction. I would be a natural fit.
Plummeting down the rabbit hole into the comedian’s warped universe, I had no inkling of what awaited me.
Comedy, like anything worth pursuing, is hard work.
In time, you learn to craft a unique set, a series of jokes and bits wholly yours. The routine should say something about your exclusive experiences and impressions of the world. But in assembling this elusive set, you must tap into the powerful Zen-like notion of humor. Learn what is funny and work it like a blacksmith forges iron, fashioning it into a sophisticated bit, filigrees of hilarity, ornamentation of chuckles.
The hardest thing about standup is actually doing it. Hauling your ass on stage after butterflies fluttering in your stomach, the flop sweats, the anxiousness and anticipation. When the emcee calls your name and the audience throws you polite applause.
Then you’re in the spotlight, blinded, trying to discern the shuffling shapes in the darkness.
You grab that microphone and must make a choice. Will I bomb or will I kill?
You launch into your bit, stumble, recover, and the seconds tick by like an eternity. Yet you weather it all. The hecklers. The pauses. Forgetting details and backtracking. Staring nervously at your set list. It looked easy on TV, but they’re professional standup comics. George Carlin. Bill Hicks. Louie CK, Patton Oswalt. Ricky Gervais. All of them faced terrible audiences, dodgy club owners, and anonymity.
Yet they persevered. For them, it was the thrill of killing.
Killing is good. I killed twice, and the satisfaction, the approbation from the audience’s applause, carried me through the weekend. Euphoria. A blissful high. There’s nothing in the world like creating something and having strangers enjoy it.
Our travels continued, and we clamored for more stage time. When you start out, you play the most atrocious dives. I performed standup at a bowling alley, a bar, a Moose lodge, a coffee shop and a strip club. Nothing but class.
I had a really bad set at the Comedy Cabaret in northeast Philadelphia. I have it all on tape. Schindler’s List was funnier by comparison.
My worst set ever was performed at a Salem County country club in February. The audience consisted of my girlfriend, two comics, the event promoter and the promoter’s family. All I remember from that night (besides the inherent urge to slash my wrists) was the promoter doing ten minutes on receiving an enema from his wife. And I thought Lenny Bruce was a revolutionary comedic talent.
When you’re starting out, humor is scatological, crude and childish. Through time you learn subtleness and sensibility and aren’t so gratuitously vulgar. You can be funny without wallowing in the muck. Unfortunately, the muck was where I felt most comfortable because,
A. I was a masochist, and
B. I was an idiot.
Here’s an example of one of my earliest jokes:
“You know how they say eating Chinese food makes you hungry and hour later? Does eating out a Chinese woman make you horny an hour later?”
Somebody actually left the room after I told that joke. Comedy club in Atlantic City, I told that joke and a white-bearded man in a red shirt left the room. Afterwards a fellow comic told me I had just walked Santa Claus.
So why did I leave the promising and lucrative world of standup comedy? The old adage timing is everything applied to my personal life. At the time, I was embroiled in a messy divorce and wasn’t connecting with people while onstage. You could only do so many ex-wife jokes before it becomes tiresome. Like listening to an ancient record that keeps skipping, hissing and popping. After a while, its not music. It’s a cacophony of shit.
I grew jaded of the routine, of scribbling observations and punch lines in a notebook, of traveling to backwoods bars, of the futile circlejerk rotation of opening, closing, emceeing. Southern New Jersey isn’t New York or Los Angeles. The audience for the brand of comedy I wanted to pursue, a more sardonic and intellectual variety, wasn’t here.
Writing is my one true passion. Words are always on the periphery, lurking nearby. Comedy is something I do because I feel silly or am comfortable enough. Yet writing is what I was put on Earth to do, not make dick jokes to a rowdy crowd. I’d rather be the sage on the page than the fool on stage.
So I fled the open mics, the smoke-filled clubs, the late nights driving to and from gigs. Somewhere in that ridiculous blur I had fun. Met some nice people and some assholes. Had my time on stage and performed a flawless ten-minute set. Performing in public frightens most people, and I did it. In a way I conquered a fear and learned a bit about the world while making an ass of myself.
That’s what life is, when you get down to it.
We’re all up on a stage, exposed, naked and vulnerable. Eyes upon us. Nowhere to run. You just have to plow through it the best you can. Maybe you’ll get heckled, maybe applauded.
But you never know until you try. So get on the stage.