There is nothing I enjoy more than hearing from a friend or acquaintance that they want to give stand-up comedy a try. I usually recommend they walk outside in the morning to get the paper in their underwear; it’s basically the same, especially if you decide to get the entire block’s paper for them.
I recently had a friend do just this, informing me that he had 10 minutes of material that he’s been practicing in front of his wife. This is like announcing you are ready to climb Half Dome in Yosemite, because you recently took the Christmas lights off the outside of your house.
Most are funny men or women that have heard from co-workers how hilarious they are. Or they are the life of the party at family functions. Some friends are a bit introverted and believe that they can jump out of their collective box onstage. Getting up and trying stand-up at least once seems to be an item on more than a few people’s bucket list. Whatever their reason for wanting to give it a shot, I always encourage it and prefer that I’m there when it happens because it usually ends one of two ways.
One, a short 4- to 6-minute set, containing exaggerated expletives and a few punch lines mixed in; a few laughs, usually from the three friends they brought for encouragement and moral support. They can walk away head held high knowing that itch has been scratched.
And then there is good old No. 2: They flat out bomb! There is something beautiful about watching a “newbie” bomb – much different than watching a seasoned comic have an off night. The seasoned vet has the luxury of a rip cord, at least most do. By “rip cord,” I mean a fail-safe joke, something they’ve done on stage 100 times, a sure laugh getter. When a newbie is plummeting towards their death, they can grab all they want but they are going to have to cut that chute open. I’ve seen some manage to do it, rise above an absolute fight-or-flight moment (and in this case flight is just a hopeful wish – a safe landing will suffice). The Newbie in mid-bomb emits audible fear, flounders in a hurried fidget and displays the visual realization of their worst fears realized – public speaking gone bad.
It isn’t something that brings me happiness … because happiness is not a word strong enough to describe the pleasure I derive from this moment. I know that sounds awful, but it has nothing to do with jealousy, insecurity or just a deep down ugliness that wants to see others fail. It is more of a “Guess what, dummy, IT’S NOT THAT EASY is it?!” kind of thing.
But I’m funny at the bar?
Being funny when you are hanging with friends has one distinct advantage over that moment you walk on the stage – nobody is expecting you to be funny! Social settings create gaps in conversations. Others can pick up your slack And even if you are killing ‘em at your company Christmas party, guess what? When you stop talking after your minute-long rant about Steve down at the office making the bathroom stink, nobody is expecting you to continue. You have a built in rip cord; that rip cord being you aren’t a comic and these people didn’t pay money to watch you.
But let’s just pretend they did for a minute. Well the Steve story ended four seconds ago, so keep dancing monkey! By the way, your anecdotal story about Steve that everybody at the party loved because they all know Steve, stank worse than the bathroom he ruined because nobody at a comedy club knows Steve and therefore your little inside joke fell on its face. Hurry up, buddy, you’re losing them. The Steve story took a minute-and-a-half to get to one punch line and only two people in a club of 50 laughed. (Induce anxiety, sweat, and panic ... it’s fear time, boys) There you go – mix in a few F-words because nothing says the ground is getting closer like unnecessary cussing. You better take a quick peek at your notes, but not too long though, because you’re just two minutes into something that is supposed to last 10 minutes. Maybe your wife was just being kind, Seinfeld. Composure is your only friend at this point. Rule No. 4 in comedy: If the crowd senses you are scared or near having a freak out, they will quietly wait for the splat. (What is that noise in the background?! )
Oh, I forgot to mention, you are new at comedy and this isn’t the Apollo Theater. This isn’t even a strictly comedy venue. It’s Heroes Sports Lounge in Modesto on a Tuesday night and the noise you’re hearing is the bartender blending margaritas. After all, she isn’t at work to make your Saturday Night Live breakthrough performance a hit. She’s here to serve drinks to the group of six that are watching the A’s game. Yes, the televisions are on.
Two and a half minutes in and time is frozen. Get to your best joke quick! No problem, you’ve written a great joke that is dealing with the current affairs at Hobby Lobby. You go into it. Just the fact that you’ve switched gears to something topical and relatable seems to garner a bit of crowd attention. A chuckle or two happen as you walk them through your premise. You even get a big laugh out of a large guy sitting up front. It feels great, but throws you off a bit; he laughed at a part you only thought of as a set-up. (Hmmm, someone laughed at the wrong part. It was a laugh, but the timing of the joke is off because of the pause now. Oh no, where was I in this joke?!). Find yourself , buddy, find yourself. You snap out of it and deliver the punch line – the one you were building the entire set around – but it only gets a few chuckles. It was a hard-hitting misogynistic take on the Hobby Lobby stance about birth control. Isn’t this a sports bar?! Aren’t these “guys’ guys” here?! They are, but their wives sitting next to them are not and they aren’t going to take a chance at angering the Misses on Tuesday date night.
That horrible knot in your stomach has turned to heart-racing nausea. Do you walk off stage and forgo the last few minutes? You look down at your notes and the only joke left is your least favorite. Something about an encounter with a teenager, while going through the Burger King drive-thru. May as well trudge through it because this will more than likely be the last time you do this. You start by cutting some of the fat off the joke – trying to end this torture as quickly as possible. You stick the landing on the opening and it happens – a big laugh from an entire table. One guy even slaps his buddy across the chest in a moment of “laughter bonding.” It loosens you considerably. You immediately nail them with the next part. Not only do they laugh, but so do you – something nerves had prevented you from doing the first seven minutes. You and the crowd have now bonded together. Don’t forget, they want to see that you enjoy delivering the material and you are! You even go so far as to make up a quick addition to the joke on the spot and it hits!
Guess what, friend? You are finally at the Christmas party. The rush takes over. You really don’t remember anything you say during the last minute, but it felt incredible. Fumbling to put the mic back into the stand at the end, you walk off stage ready to fly through the roof. A few customers give you the thumbs up, one even repeats a punch line back to you as he smiles with acknowledgement. You grab the beer you had left at the table you were sitting in before hitting the stage. (Rookie move on your part. You’ll learn to use that beer as a crutch on stage. A sip on stage buys you five seconds to formulate your thoughts during a set). You see a table of seasoned comics that have joined the night, no doubt looking to hone and refine their own version of Hobby Lobby. As you walk passed them towards the bathroom (and believe me you will go there because you need a moment alone to hug yourself), one of the vets says “Good set, man.” And that’s comedy, folks. If you’d like to give it a shot just let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org).