Emboldened by the 2016 Presidential election, which has taught me that any unqualified fool can grab a microphone and say outrageous things in front of a crowd, I decided to try stand-up comedy.
I made my debut on July 17 with an outfit called StandupComedyToGo.com at O’Sullivan’s in Clarendon, having had no real training beyond an improv comedy class I took in 2006, taught by the incomparable Shawn Westfall. As great as the class was, the skills didn’t really transfer because improv and standup are kind of like baseball and golf: beyond a few surface similarities — copious whiffing, profanity and beer — the two don’t have all that much in common. Though I lacked formal training, I didn’t go into this thing cold (c’mon, people, I may have a weak attachment to my dignity, but I’m not a complete moron); I’ve been working up to it for the past two years, with the help of my friend Larry. Larry and I first crossed paths at the Westover Beer Garden in the summer of 2014, when I was wrapping up the manuscript for Good Luck With That Thing You’re Doing and he was hanging out enjoying an IPA. We bonded right away over humor, and when I mentioned in passing that I’d always wanted to try standup, Larry, who has a background in comedy, made it his mission to help me.
We started meeting on Tuesdays to toss back a few beers and a lot of ideas, leading Larry to call our weekly get-togethers the “Spitball Sessions.” Larry brought his notebook to every SBS and jotted down any line that made us laugh. We figured someday we’d take the best of our SBS notes and whip them into shape until they resembled a decent standup routine. It was a fine plan, except that I’m 45 and Larry is 61, and we don’t whip things into shape anymore so much as beg, plead and cajole them. And even then, the things need a compelling event. We didn’t have one, so I manufactured it by signing up for a 3-minute set on an open mic night two weeks out. And that was all it took because, as regular readers know, nothing spurs me to action like the threat of public humiliation.
Larry and I started culling through our SBS notes, which was like corralling sea monkeys. I wrote a rough draft, Larry edited, we kicked it around 85 more times, and then I started testing it out on unsuspecting audiences, like my brother and sister-in-law in Atlanta. I knew I could trust those two for honest feedback: we have the same last name, so the risk of humiliation by association was real. They watched the video I sent and then called to give me their assessment. Both of them work in Corporate America and understand the importance of encouragement, so they delivered their comments in the form of a “feedback sandwich.” They didn’t call it that, of course, but I work in Corporate America too, so I knew what it was as soon as I heard it. For those who haven’t ever dined on a feedback sandwich, the stuff you did well is the bread and the stuff in the middle is what you really need to work on, so you usually care most about the middle. You hope for something positive, the equivalent of PB&J, and you live in fear of liverwurst. (Unless you’re my sister Lynne, who adores not only liverwurst but also split-pea soup, leading me to believe her taste buds were removed at birth.) My Atlanta consultants, who are standup connoisseurs, went heavy on the bread and light on the filling, buoying my hopes that I might be able to pull it off.
I made a few changes based on their advice and then performed it live for Larry, who serves up a different kind of feedback sandwich. He left out the bread altogether, and the filling consisted of: “You just need to suck less.” I choked on it at first, bitter and tough to swallow as it was, but it was what I needed. And I had to admit, it was the best line of the day. I went back to the drawing board, and after just 74 additional run-throughs, I thought I might be ready.
Then I went to the Standupcomedytogo.com website. It’s run by a nice, supportive guy named Curt whose noble, and slightly insane, goal is to enable newbies to break into a sometimes cliquish local comedy scene. I scrolled down to the five tips for first-timers. They were great except for #3, which was one-half super-practical (“bring water and your set notes on stage with you”) and one-half unintentionally subversive (“Your mouth will go dry and your mind will go blank within the 1st minute”).
We newbies also had to bring five hostages, er, friends to the performance, and that’s the part that really made me nervous. I don’t mind embarrassing myself in front of a room full of strangers, but in front of people I love and whose opinions matter to me (one of whom, Janice, drove four hours one way for my three-minute set)? That’s terrifying. When the time came, I did as Curt instructed and brought my water and cheat sheet up with me. I tucked the latter into my bra, figuring that if all else failed, I’d at least get one laugh if I had to pull it out.
The minute I got onstage, the nerves began to dissipate and I just enjoyed myself. And fortunately for all concerned, I got more than one laugh without ever having to reach into my bra. I was told the lion’s share of the laughs came from the stranger faction because most of my loved ones, and certainly Larry, were too terrified on my behalf to laugh.
And the feedback I got from Curt was all bread: I’ll be back at O’Sullivan’s on August 14 to do a five-minute set. The show starts at 7, and though I don’t have to bring hostages, I’m hoping some of you will surrender yourselves to the cause!