It’s not too intimidating for an aspiring performer to wait his turn for the stage at The Comic Strip Live, the renowned comedy club in New York City. The walls are plastered with photos of previous acts, guys named Carlin, Rock, Sandler, Chappelle. Jerry Seinfeld’s scorecard when he auditioned for a spot is up there too. He passed.
As I imagined my picture up on the wall, a thought crossed my mind: Am I nuts!?! What am I doing trying to follow these guys? My eyes darted toward the front door. There was still time for me to run screaming from the club. Then I heard it, my intro from the emcee, a stranger to my act: “Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and welcome a very funny man, Andy Simmons!”
I gulped for air like a wide-mouth bass on a hook. Then I headed toward the stage. It was showtime!
When I first walked into the Comic Strip eight weeks earlier, I was a carefree man, there to take a few comedy classes. Sounds like fun, right? Over the years, I’ve been considered a pretty funny guy. So with a little persuading, I decided to try telling jokes to an actual audience, rather than a captive group of friends and family. I quickly realized that saying “funny” things to people who already like you is far different from saying them to strangers—especially ones who have just paid a cover charge. Could I make them laugh without having to resort to falling down a flight of stairs? More to the point—did I have the guts?
My classmates were an eclectic group. There was Glen, a social worker and Orthodox Jew; Andrew, a former Marine who saw action in Somalia during the Black Hawk Down days; Christopher, a gay Mormon who honed his humor chops playing the role of peacemaker in his family; and Mike, who is deaf, and has cerebral palsy and a speech impediment.
Our teacher was D. F. Sweedler, a veteran comic who has appeared on Letterman. He told us that over the next two months we would create a five-minute act, which would culminate in a performance onstage before an audience.
“Where do we find our ideas?” someone asked.
Everyday life is fodder, he told us. Family, relationships, fears. “Anything you would tell a psychiatrist. Anger is always a good source. Even if it’s petty, make mountains out of molehills.”
This worked for me. What I lacked in talent, I more than made up for in anger. My problem might be quantity over quality.
Working with my anger, I wrote a rebuke of an outrageously expensive restaurant I’d just gone to. Here’s a choice snippet:
“Rule No. 1: If a restaurant has a sommelier, you can’t afford it. After my meal I realized that if a restaurant serves food on a plate rather than in Styrofoam, I can’t afford that either. The restaurant is a converted barn. So when our stable boy hitched us up to our trough. …”
“What are you talking about?” D. interrupted during the second class. “No one knows what a sommelier is.”
“A sommelier is …”
“Yeah, I know what a sommelier is. But no one else does. And if this is a nice restaurant, why are you hitched to a trough?”
“Because it’s funny?”
The following came at me as if shot from a Gatling gun: “Too detailed … overwritten … not clear what’s going on … too fast … not funny … no … throw out …”
“It’s all about the joke,” D. implored. “Get in and get out. Whatever you don’t need, cut. Rework this bit. Try making it more relatable.”
“We’re not still at the restaurant, are we?” D. asked when I took the stage the next class.
“I’m afraid so,” I said. Poor D.
I could see his spirit leave the room.
The previous week I’d gotten rid of any mention of sommeliers and feeding troughs. Instead, I worked on making the skit relatable. So I opened with “Who here eats food?” Silence.
I soldiered on. I’d given my expensive restaurant a name: Le Second Mortgage. I then went on to say, “I ordered the octopus. Or to quote the menu, ‘An inkling of octopus served with a rumor of shiitake mushroom, bathed in a notion of seaweed and a suspicion of asparagus.’ In other words, I ordered an empty plate.’ “
This class went better than the first. “Le Second Mortgage” was a keeper, the octopus gag was chum.
D. found another problem. “What’s with your delivery?” he asked. “You sound like Alan King.”
He was right! I had an old-timey way of telling jokes, like some vaudevillian opening for a trained seal act. D. wanted me to be myself. One problem—I didn’t know what that was.
So I went home to practice my material in front of a mirror. Maybe I’d find myself there.
“A pal of mine got pulled over for DUI,” I said to my appreciative audience. “Yeah, he’s a multitasker. He can drink, drive and crash all at the same time.”
Working in front of a mirror didn’t help. All I could think was, I have Grandpa’s nose hairs! I spent the next 15 minutes trimming nose hairs before phoning Eddie Brill. If I wanted to be a comic, I needed to know what all the great ones had in common. Eddie—the guy who warms up Letterman’s audience—was the man to tell me.
“There are three things great comics share,” he said. “They’re honest, vulnerable, and they’re not looking for approval.”
I had the vulnerability part down in spades. As for honesty, to paraphrase George Burns, I can fake that.
“But what about the audience?” I whined. “I crave their approval.”
“If you have fun, they’ll have fun,” Eddie said. “And if they talk during your set, do what I do. Lean over and say, ‘Don’t you hate it when you come here for a chat and they build a comedy club around you?’ “
My classmates and I watched anxiously as the club filled up. Earlier, D. had warned me against overly high expectations. “Don’t expect to kill,” he said, using comedyspeak for doing boffo. “I’ll be happy if you go up there, don’t trip, don’t forget the material and get even one laugh.” Frankly, I’d set loftier goals for myself than not tripping.
Andrew was up first and immediately forgot half his act. But he turned that into his act and the audience ate it up. Mike followed, and the audience reacted warmly. Then it was my turn.
Hearing my name, I waded through the room, where I passed an old friend. He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. I climbed onto the stage. The crowd seemed friendly enough, at least those who were paying attention (What was it Eddie told me to say?). “You know,” I sputtered, “you really have to be a people person to be a bathroom attendant.” For some reason they found that funny.
What they didn’t find funny was the riff about drinking wine at my expensive restaurant: “The wine was just pressed. It was so fresh you could still taste the feet.” And by the time I’d tossed in a line about illegal aliens, the audience had transformed into a roomful of Edvard Munch models, their silent screams begging for someone to give me the hook.
As I left the stage to polite applause, my friend handed me a drink. “Drown your sorrows,” he said.
Here’s the checklist: I didn’t blow my lines, not most of them, anyway. I didn’t sound like Alan King. I didn’t fidget, flop-sweat or sob for my mother. I got through it. But I didn’t kill. I know D. said not to worry about it, but let’s face it, “killing” is why we took this class.
The fact is, there are some people who belong onstage. Andrew’s a natural, Mike’s charming, Christopher’s funny and Glen’s love for the stage is infectious. For the rest of us, there’s a seat in the audience. And that ain’t a bad place to be. After all, there are some funny people out there.