More than 30 years ago – in 1984 to be precise – I auditioned at The Comic Strip in New York City. I was young and naive, and I didn’t realize that – while stand up comics appear to be talking off-the-cuff – they actually memorize scripted material. Sure, they may go rogue on occasion – like when someone shouts a comment from the audience – but for the most part, their material is pre-written – precisely worded so that every syllable counts.
Unsuspecting 20-year-old me “winged it” at my audition at The Comic Strip. I told my most hilarious stories – like the babysitting nightmare I wrote about in Goodbye Jell-O Brick Road. I had a few cheap tricks in my back pocket, in case nobody laughed … an impression of fallopian tubes … an impersonation of Marie Osmond with pins in her eyes. But for the most part, I ad libbed. And much to my amazement, the club asked me back.
We’re talking The Comic Strip, where many now-famous comedians began their careers – Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Ray Romano, Adam Sandler … and the powers that be saw something in me and asked me back.
And I never went.
Trying to be funny, without the safety net of an actual script, was terrifying. My knees were shaking, my palms were sweating, my heart was racing. Not only didn’t I believe I could recreate my improvised routine; I didn’t think I could withstand such a traumatic experience again.
That’s okay, I thought. What I really want is musical theater, anyway. I’ll find another way to make people laugh.
I tried to get into show business for two years, but lacked the required demeanor. I believe I had the talent, but I couldn’t stop thinking about “someday.” What if I never made it? What if I woke up in 20 years and I was still a nobody, with no fallback career or regular paycheck?
Back in the early eighties, there just weren’t any parts for short ethnic girls of size. There was no Hairspray. There was no Les Mis. Even the townspeople in Fiddler on the Roof looked like Sophia Vergara. There wasn’t an ugly person in Anatevka. And there was basically one TV role out there for a young large girl – Natalie on The Facts of Life – and that part was taken. The only agent who ever agreed to meet with me told me to go find something else to do for 20 years; I was uncastable.
So I pursued a master’s in journalism. And today I make a living as a writer … corporate gigs by day, humor writing as an outlet.
In the many years since the early eighties, I’ve been told on countless occasions that I’d be a great stand up comedienne. I’ve always shrugged it off, believing I could never – would never – put myself through that agony again.
But all through the late ’80s and ’90s, when stand up comedians were getting lucrative television deals, I couldn’t help wondering what might have been. Would I have made it as a comedienne? Could that have been my ticket to making people laugh in a sitcom or Broadway musical? Look at Rosie O’Donnell. She’s not even much of a singer and got to play Rizzo in Grease, not to mention her successful talk show. Once again, I think I missed the boat.
So after years of coulda, woulda, shoulda, I decided to find out once and for all if I can cut the comedy mustard. I recently returned from the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, where I got the chance to try my hand at stand up comedy for the first time … surrounded by the support of other mostly-middle-aged funny people from every genre – novelists, essayists, columnists, sitcom writers, public speakers and screenwriters. It was a phenomenal experience.
I was one of a dozen conference attendees chosen to try a four-minute stand up set on Saturday night, at the conclusion of the conference. So it was a safe environment to try something I had wondered about for three decades.
My biggest fear wasn’t that I wouldn’t be funny; it was that my midlife memory would vacate the premises, and I’d find myself under a spotlight with no idea what on earth my next line was. Unlike in the theater (where actors routinely “save” each other), with comedy, you’re on your own. There is no one to rescue you but yourself. That’s what makes it so daunting for a newbie.
People who know me can’t understand how a gregarious talker and actress can be terrified of anything that slightly resembles public speaking. Give me a costume and a character – blackout my teeth for Bloody Mary or put me in smeared lipstick and a dress with a hole in the armpit for Miss Hannigan – and I can perform in front of hundreds of people, no problem. But make me stand in front of 10 coworkers or sing at a recital – any situation where all eyes are on me, not a character, and I get so verklempt I can barely remember my own name.
In the summer of 2014, I was asked to read one of my own pieces in front of an audience at a big blogging conference in San Jose, and my hands were shaking so badly, when I got off the stage someone asked me if I had Parkinson’s.
So just over a year ago, I decided to join Toastmasters to become more comfortable being myself in front of a crowd. Toastmasters offers regular opportunities to get up in front of a group and give short speeches on topics of your choice. You start out with five- to seven-minute speeches that each concentrate on a different element of being a good presenter. In one speech, you might focus on your body movement; in another, you might focus on your voice – varying your pitch, tone and rate of speaking to achieve a maximum effect. You get “dinged” with a penny in a tin cup when you use verbal crutches such as “um,” “uh,” “so,” “anyway,” and you quickly learn to both think on your feet and to think before you speak. I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime during this past year, my hands stopped shaking. One day I gave a speech and noticed the tremors were gone.
On stand up comedy night at the Erma conference, I was dead last in the line up. Apparently, the universe has a cruel sense of humor and wanted the middle-aged lady with memory issues to sit in fear for as long as humanly possible. It wasn’t my turn until after 11 p.m. – two hours past my peak. I had a cheat sheet, and I had to look at it a couple of times, but the audience laughed, and when it was over, I was so proud of myself for walking through a 30-year fear. That was the best part of the experience: silently saying “Die, fear!” What a metaphor that is for my life. What else have I tabled because I’m afraid? And what will I tackle next?
Encouraged by my reception at the Erma conference, I signed up for a stand up workshop at McCurdy’s comedy club in Sarasota, FL. The workshop culminated with a five-minute set at the club (one whole minute more of material!) Again, I was dead last, so I had to sit for an hour and a half in a state of panic. But people laughed – people who didn’t know me. And this time, it felt a little more comfortable. I fell into more of a rhythm with the audience.
Two times trying stand up does not a comedienne make. I did so much better the second time, but comics learn from playback tapes, just like football players. I see lots of things I want to improve. For some reason, for instance, when I’m in funny mode, I contort my posture into that of Quasi Moto. I’m also not comfortable with a mic. And while I thought I was speaking slowly, the video reveals that I still talk at a New York pace and step on my own laughs.
I’m definitely not comfortable interacting with the audience yet. An actor/director friend says that comes from being more secure with my routine. When you’re worried about your next line, you can’t chat with the audience, because you fear you’ll never find your way back to your material. You have to get your material down, so you can “be present.”
I also wore a flowy top that added about 40 pounds (I kid you not!). So I learned that my husband is right (darn it; he always is!). As a big girl, my inclination is to wear loose things that hide my shape … but they actually do make me look heavier! Live and learn.
But here it is: my second attempt at stand up comedy. I cannot begin to tell you what it takes for me to put this out there. I look at this and all I see is my weight … and the things I did wrong. I know I have a long way to go. But I’m sharing this with you – raw as it is – because I’m so proud of myself for trying this, after all this time. And I’m a perfectionist that needs to let go and stop waiting for everything to be flawless all the time. So here it is: warts and all. And I ask you:
What are you afraid of? And how might it change your life to finally conquer your fear?