Friday, November 11, 2011

What it’s like to do stand-up comedy.

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Oh no.
Oh no, who?
Oh no, I crapped my pants on stage in front of everyone I know.

You really don’t need to read any further. But you’re a literary lot, so I’ll give you a brief glimpse behind the laughter.

The first time I performed stand-up comedy was in the fifth grade*. It’s true: this isn’t some revisionist history. My elementary school held a talent show and I performed a routine that was essentially a parody commercial. I don’t remember the details—I never wrote it down—but it involved kitchen tongs and one of the product benefits was stealing candy from a baby. It was a crystalline moment. For the first time I had had the spark of an idea, grabbed onto it, worked it around in my head and brought it fully formed to life on stage. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) the routine killed**.

What didn’t kill was my first foray on stage during college. I wrote a routine. Practiced it in private. Performed it in public. And died an agonizing, lingering, sweaty death. It was like getting dumped by a girl, but you’re naked and everyone you know is there laughing at you while they punch you in the stomach until you cry. And then they laugh at you for crying. This was before YouTube, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Luckily, a year or so later, a good friend pushed me to take a comedy class with him. It was a weeklong session with 15 or so participants. Everyone developed a routine and tried out their material in front of the class. People gave positive feedback and we had about two chances to tweak our material before the final test—a 5-minute routine performed at a local comedy club in front of a friendly audience made up of family and friends. It was both awesome and horrible.

Here’s how it broke down:
3 people were hilarious (myself, my friend and one other guy)
7 people gave a good effort and had a decent joke or two
5 people were painfully, embarrassingly unfunny

But all of the people tried and it was a great learning experience. As such:
·      You are going to be nervous. Probably the most nervous you’ve ever been or will be outside of a wedding or a second wedding to a person none of your family or friends approve of***. The only way to combat that nervousness is to KNOW YOUR MATERIAL.
·      You will want to PRACTICE and then practice again. And again.
·      If you think you’ve heard a joke before, you have. DO NOT STEAL JOKES.
·      Try to be funny without swearing or being “outrageous”. Yes, some of the funniest comedians work “blue”, but the best can be funny without relying on sexual, religious or offensive material.
·      Prepare for the unexpected. There could be technical difficulties. The place could burn down. But if you keep your wits about you, you could joke about how you started the fire … by lighting your own farts. 

Thank you. Tip your waitress. Try the veal. I’ll be here all week.

*It might have been sixth grade, in case anyone is writing a biography of my life
**I wasn’t new to the spotlight. I was essentially the lead or a major speaking part in every one of my elementary school’s productions. I doubt a VHS tape exists, but trust me, my rendition of “Tilly” in “Tilly the Tooth”, a play about dental hygiene, in second grade had gravitas. The pathos I displayed for brushing and flossing put many an area dentist out of business. Or so I assume.
***You know of whom I speak