I Recently Made My Stand Up Comedy Debut. It Was Terrifying, But So Rewarding.
When was the last time you did something that completely terrified you? For me, it was this past fall, when I made my debut stand-up comedy performance.
I had been the first to arrive at New York City's Gotham Comedy Club for rehearsal. The bartenders hadn't even finished setting up the tables and chairs yet, and my first thought upon seeing the intimate room was, "oh, great, you can see everyone's face from the stage."
But after a quick run through, which proved that the bright spotlights would prevent me from seeing anyone's potentially stone-faced expression in the event that things went south, and a brief tutorial about how to maneuver the microphone stand as to avoid any unintended moments of physical comedy during the set, all I could do was wait.
The last time I tried stand-up comedy, it was 1996 and I was in the first grade.
A platypus puppet and the line, "I just flew in from Cincinnati and boy are my arms tired" were integral parts of my routine. It was adorable. I'm thrilled no pictures of that talent show exist today.
I've never considered myself a performer. My stage bona fides are extremely limited. There was a starring role as Oliver Twist when I was a very homesick 11 year old at summer camp, a couple of drama classes in high school including an audition for a one-act play with a monologue from Brighton Beach Memoirs (I remember walking into the room and leaving it and nothing in between) and an intimidating playwriting course in college in which we cast our classmates for weekly table reads.
With that behind me, combined with what I think is a quite healthy fear of embarrassing myself in public, I decided to take a three-week stand up comedy workshop that would end with a performance in front of perfect strangers. It was an unsettling prospect for someone who always tries to never be at a loss for words.
The workshop would help me figure out if this belief that I wasn't a performer was incorrect, or if I was right to give it a wide berth all along.
My first class at the American Comedy Institute didn't actually consist of me being handed a microphone and someone saying, "OK, make us laugh," which my fevered, irrational brain thought might be the case.
Instead, our teacher, Stephen Rosenfield, the founder of ACI, walked me and two other students through an introduction to comedy. We talked about the different types of stand up, the mechanics of set ups and punchlines and the elements of a strong performance. Steve emphasized that it was perspective, our takes on the world, which would set our comedy acts apart.
Our assignment for the next class was to write down anything we heard or said that was funny. Steve also told us to write about anything that annoyed us. With these first drafts, he said it was important not to self-edit, because something that wasn't quite resonating could be revised into something great.
Two days later, I walked into the classroom to see nine other people including my two orientation buddies. It was a mix of more veteran comics and complete beginners like me. Someone would go up, run through the material they had, and then would get feedback. And while it was fun watching everyone, as it got closer to my turn, the hand-shaking, foot-tapping unease from earlier in the week began to creep back in.
When my turn arrived, and I looked into the faces of those very nice strangers, I was reminded of how nervous being in front of a crowd makes me. In the beginning, I heard myself falter a little and lose my voice and felt my brain trying to grab for the next thought even though the material was right in front of me.
But I kept going. I just reminded myself that I was telling a story. And then I got my first laugh. When I got home that night, I just kept listening to the recording of myself over and over again. I could hear how the big laughs came at the points where I was the most like myself, and where it felt the least rehearsed.
When you're doing stand up, you have to be comfortable enough with what you're saying and your perspective to get people on your side. You have to surprise them. I kept listening to that recording like it was someone else, because in a way, it was. When my voice was confident and I knew that the turn that would come next in the story would catch them off guard -- it felt pretty great.
Takeaway: Remember that there is no one’s perspective like yours. Don’t discount what you bring to the table.
As someone who reports the news, I always think about accuracy and relaying the story exactly the way it happened. That doesn't help you write comedy.
The second class was an individual writing session with Steve. As we were revising material, I often found myself explaining how I had come up with a joke, and I would go through it almost chronologically. But Steve would offer suggestions to make the routine sharper, such as the event happening at night instead of the morning, or if I was around other people instead of by myself.
I learned that in stand up, you don't have to include every detail of a story because it can slow things down. You don't want an endless set up because by the time you get to the punchline, people will have already checked out.
For comedy to resonate, it has to be emotionally true.
For my next class, instead of going near the end like last time, I was up second. And the confidence I thought I had disappeared when I got to the front of the room. I felt so awkward. I tried to recreate the first performance, complete with the delivery of certain lines, but it felt plastic. There were some scattered laughs and somehow I managed to talk at hyper speed and be low energy at exactly the same time.
When I sat down, I said, jokingly, "clearly, that went well because you all were very quiet," but I felt like I wanted to sink into the floor. Steve said that I had to slow down to the point that it might even sound strange to my own ear -- but it wouldn't sound odd to an audience. He told me that I was adding in too many words and that I wasn't vocally committing to my punchlines.
With all that in mind, I learned that I needed to believe I deserved to be on that stage -- because if I didn't, no one else would.
Takeaway: When you have something important to say, don’t doubt yourself.
Here’s a tip for you: If you come up with what seems like a great idea at 2 in the morning, write it down. But here's the "but": look at it again before you decide to share it.
The night before the final full class before the performance, I was lying awake, mad about something that had happened to me earlier in the day. I started writing about all the things that made me angry, but then I started to reframe it and try to turn it into something funny.
After the less than enthused response from my classmates the week before, I made the executive decision to throw out a bunch of material that I felt wasn't working. So, operating on about five hours of sleep, I performed the new jokes.
I got probably two laughs over the course of four minutes, and the space between them was pretty torturous. At one point I think I actually said, "have some sympathy for me," but to no avail. The biggest laugh I got was when I sat down -- I said, "so the first part was kind of new, thought you all should know that."
But Andrew, the comedian and teacher who was leading the third session, said that while one big piece wasn't working at all -- much to my quiet despair -- the new part had potential. I needed to do more, to lock into what had made me so angry in that moment, and really go off on it.
This time, instead of just sitting and wallowing in what had gone wrong, I explained what happened and was honest with everyone -- I was a little scared about the performance and was starting to spiral out. Everyone was supportive, and Andrew said to bring everything I had with me to my last writing session. It would all work out.
I went home feeling kind of dejected about how it had gone, but I woke up the next morning and felt surprisingly OK. I learned I can feel embarrassed in front of complete strangers, joke about it and survive.
The next day, I met with Steve. What surprised me was there was more to salvage than I thought there would be, and actually, the solution was a simple as cutting out what I didn’t need. The solid material had been hidden behind a curtain of unnecessary words.
By the time Friday arrived, everyone who wanted to come had made reservations and bought tickets. It was a real thing that was really happening. So, of course, all the stress had finally caught up to me and I felt a cold coming on.
At 2 a.m. the day of the show, I laid awake in the dark after spending the better part of the day hydrating and praying to the comedy gods to stave off a coming illness for at least another 24 hours. I took a deep breath and went through my set over and over again.
When I realized I had it completely memorized, I finally fell asleep.
Takeaway: You learn something from every failure. What you create next will be better for it.
I woke up on Saturday and I could breathe through my nose. It was a comedy miracle.
At one point during the run through, someone likened getting up there to skydiving, and I said, "right, just with more emotional stakes." I looked over my notes one more time as the lights went down on the packed room.
I was set to go right in the middle of the show, which featured a mix of more seasoned comedians along with a few people who were making their debut, like me.
Finally, my turn arrived.
The emcee introduced me, I took a deep breath and walked up to the stage. The lights were blinding, but I could kind of make out one of my friends in the front row and the red light in the back of the room that would flash if I ran over time.
I was nervous, but it wasn’t long before I got my first laugh. It was a little bit of an out-of-body experience, but people were laughing when they were supposed to and I was never searching for the words -- they were all there when I needed them. Five minutes passed almost instantly, and then it was over.
I couldn't wait to do it again.
A few months removed from the big night, I still want to do more stand up. During my last class, we got to watch our performances. I was surprised that even when I knew I felt terrified, I looked like I was confident.
Takeaway: If you're reading this site, it's pretty likely that you are thinking about trying something new and scary that requires you to reach out to strangers and friends and convince them to buy into your vision. My advice is that if an opportunity presents itself, take it. Even if it doesn't shake out exactly the way you think or hope it will, you'll learn that you are more capable, and can handle more than you realized.