It’s embarrassing to admit this, especially as someone with a degree in theatre, but I still suffer from stage fright. You would think that the repetition of performing on stage would quell my anxieties, but they in fact intensified. I’m not sure why. I began learning more about acting theory and textual analysis, but became so stuck in my head that I lost my facility for being comfortable on stage.
Naturally, now that I perform a lot less, this anxiety has crossed over to my day-to-day life. I’ve always felt my pulse quicken and palms sweat each time I’ve had to introduce myself to a group of strangers, no matter the situation. I used to be saved by hiding behind a character, but it’s a moot point when I’m playing myself.
So I set my sights on a man challenge that would cover all the facets of my fear of public speaking – I’ll have to be myself, speak off the top of my head, and stand in front of people I’ve never met before. The plus side is that it’s something I’ve always wanted to try. I’ve decided to do an open mic at a stand-up comedy club in what some would call the world capital of stand-up comedy. Thankfully, I’m not going to attempt this without a safety net – my friend Bob has been a stand up comic for the last ten years.
I meet with Bob at a café in Astoria a week before I plan to do the open mic. I once read that Astoria has the largest contingent of stand-up comedians in all of New York (something to do with its proximity to LaGuardia Airport and the cheap rents), so talking shop with a comic in an Astoria café has to lend me some credibility right off the bat. I ask Bob about his background so I can delay showing him my material, about which I’m not the most confident. Bob moved to New York to pursue a career in acting, and he found his way into a stand-up comedy class at the Learning Annex. His class culminated with a showcase, and through that he met a booking agent who asked him to host a gay-themed stand-up night at one of the clubs he represented. The show turned into Homo Comicus, a monthly show that runs at Gotham Comedy Club to this day.
Bob has great advice for a novice such as myself, the kind of knowledge that only comes from years of experience hosting and performing. During our hour-long talk on the mechanics and philosophy behind stand-up comedy, I come away with several great tips: open and close strong; make it personal, autobiographical, or intimate; and aim to surprise. Bob and I had already been discussing comedy here and there over the past week, so I thought that I had followed his advice when I prepared my material. But then I told him my jokes and saw his reaction.
Granted, a café table with a frittata and mocha frappe between us isn’t the most conducive arena for stand-up comedy, but when a joke isn’t working, it’s apparent even if we were on the moon (assuming we could communicate in our space helmets). Bob is kind enough to laugh even when there is only the semblance of humor, but also is fair and honest in his assessment – he breaks down bits that aren’t working, explains why, and offers some better lines in places where ideas are salvageable. When I find myself having to explain why I thought a certain joke could be funny, it’s abundantly clear that I have gone way off track.
Bob is extremely encouraging, offering to read more of my attempts later in the week and give more feedback. Bob suggests that I actually write down my jokes word-for-word, and after seeing that my improvisational method results in a lot of “like, you know”s and stammering, I think that fully writing it out might be okay for my first go round. Bob asks me when I plan to actually perform, and when I tell him I’m going to an open mic this Friday with only a week’s worth of preparation, he pauses and then asks with impeccable timing: “Are you thin-skinned?” I assume he hasn’t read the blog.
After the test run with Bob, I realize I have to scrap literally every idea I have at this point and start anew. I’m more at ease with the format of writing everything out, so I write and revise and write again until I discover something that makes me laugh. I take hour-long showers where I “perform” my material, edit it throughout the day and second guess myself back to a blank page, at which point I write into the wee hours of the night until I have five minutes of material. That is, until I start the whole routine over again the next day. Finally, it’s the evening before and I only have three minutes of material to fill a five minute spot. Maybe two minutes of awkward silence could be a funny conceptual joke?
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