Most people shy away from the stage because they don't want to be criticized.
Afraid to hazard their self-esteem, they withhold their talents and linger forever
in the wings.
Man, are they smart.
I have written standup comedy for as long as I can remember. No one ever
asked me to do it. It just happens.
Having amassed 22 coffee cans of notes, I decided it was time to do something
about it. I registered for a comedy class at the L.A. Cabaret (now known
as "that place that used to smell like urine") and readied myself
for the big time.
I presented my humor to the other students, who laughed maniacally. Not
at the jokes but at my gall to tell them. Over the next 8 weeks, my teacher
massaged the humor into something bearable, and I practiced around the clock.
By night, I rehearsed into a hairbrush in the living room. The cats loved
me. On the freeway, I spoke into a Tootsie Pop. The other drivers thought
I was crazy. If they only knew.
Each time I practiced, my routine got better. In fact, "routine" is
a silly word for something that is always changing. When I knew my act like
the back of my Tootsie Pop, I took it to a club called Hornblowers. The owner
recognized the hunger in my eyes and said, "For free, right?"
That Saturday, I arrived at the club 10 hours early (in case of traffic).
The club was empty. I took the stage and did my done-to-death act for an
imaginary audience. People were rolling in the aisles, begging me to stop
for the sake of their hernias.
I finished my make-believe set and handed the mike to my make-believe host.
The people roared their approval. Everything went as I had hoped.
Touching down in reality, I walked offstage to the sound of my own footsteps.
People filed into the theater in high spirits. They were ready for a professional
belly laugh. After an eternity, they announced my name and I went up. All
those years of dabbling had culminated at this moment. I took a deep breath.
Remember the advice of your teacher, Jason: Don't bomb.
As the opening act, I introduced myself as the young soldier you send up
the mountain to see where the bullets are coming from. A woman chuckled,
bless her heart. A man cleared his throat. Did they not understand the joke?
I elaborated by comparing myself to a native forced to eat unknown berries.
[Injun voice]: "Jason, tell us if these berries are edible."
Nothin'. Everyone stared at me with tilted heads like so many RCA dogs.
They wondered who I was to kill their buzz like that.
Okay. Plan B.
I tried a skit about "no swimming" signs at the beach. I was,
after all, performing in front of a heavily polluted harbor. I timed the
punch line and sold it for all it was worth: "Of course, the police
tracked us down pretty easily...we were glowing."
Glowing? Get it. Glowing.
My voice echoed off the far wall and returned like a lost traveler. The
audience watched me cross-armed and stony-faced. Generally, people don't
hate me until they get to know me. I shifted uneasily, wondering if my clothes
were wrong. The crowd smelled my doubt as might a dog. An RCA dog.
I was officially bombing.
I tried a bit about creating at the Mexican border an express lane for "really
white people." A bald man ordered his drink over my punch line. An Hispanic
woman heard it just the same and vowed revenge on behalf of her people. So
I tried to crack the tension: "When I told that joke to my cats this
morning, it killed."
The club owner laughed in the wings.
A poison spilled over me, hot and syrupy. I had not only put my foot in
my mouth, but I couldn't get it out. "Embarrassed" would have felt
cozy at this point.
Against the counsel of my teacher, I began to rush the material in my effort
to get offstage. The more I rushed, the more I killed the funny.
Finally, an intoxicated gentleman three teeth short of a set yelled, "Someone
lookin' for his momma."
He had stepped on my breaking point.
"Sir, if you let these feelings out when you're sober, they wouldn't
be so ugly when you're drunk..."
"I am sober!"
"Then may I suggest speech class
A guy at Table 2 chuckled to cover the discomfort. It was my best reaction
yet. We had arrived at that moment in the Western when the bad guy is challenged
to a duel and the others duck for cover. I think I was the bad guy. A red
light blinked at the back of the room. My time was up. Or was it a mercy
I dismissed the heckler and finished with a number about Clint Black being
white and Barry White being black and Prince being neither, but even I wasn't
listening. The words went straight from my mouth to comedy hell. I handed
the mike to the emcee and walked offstage to the sound of my own footsteps.
That night marked a milestone in my life. It was a defining moment from
which I have nowhere to go but up. Now, when I cross an embarrassing moment
in my life, I say, "What are you going to do, ridicule me in public?" I've
been there. I have been tarred and feathered and hung on display for you
to mock. I am free.