Mar 13 2013
Since August, I had been hanging out at a Comedy Club called The Comedy Cottage, trying to muster up the courage to actually go on stage. Up until then, I had been telling everyone that I was a magician who specialized in close-up magic, with no desire to take it up on a big stage. I like the table magic. Truth is, I wanted desperately to go on stage and try stand-up comedy. I just lacked the courage.
That had been pretty much my life up to this point. I wanted to go on stage in high school, to do plays. I even went down one day to join the theatre department. But I was a jock, and when my friends found out, they mocked me. That ended that.
When I got to college, I was in Radio and Television. I told the instructor I wanted to learn how to direct. Truth was, I wanted to perform. Again as a jock, when my teammates found out, the ridicule started. That ended that.
Now that I had no teammates to ridicule me, I still hadn’t gone onstage, and I realized I was the one mocking me the most. The fear of being laughed at as a comedian is almost a joke in itself. No other profession I can think of exposes a human being to being ridiculed like stand-up comedy.
If you are bad public speaker, people just fall asleep. They don’t think it is their job to shout out their discontent and how much they think you stink, before they nod off. Comedy audiences, on the other hand, feel it is their obligation to let you know – as if they all got together and nominated two or three drunk guys to speak on behalf of all who have attended.
After three months of putting it off, I ran out of excuses. I was leaving my parents house after a Thanksgiving meal – which in our house was a few bites of turkey and a belly full of beer – and driving to the comedy club to hang out. Then I realized that tonight was Thursday night, Open Mike night. Anyone could get five minutes on stage.
It was time for me to suck it up and set aside my fear. I reminded myself that this was my dream. It never occurred to me that I didn’t have any stand-up comedy material. I didn’t know at the time that comics actually prepared things to say. I just thought you talked about your day, and hopefully people found it funny.
If you are a budding young comic reading this, take my word for it. Prepare something, anything. Standing on stage stuttering and drooling on yourself, no matter how entertaining to the comics in the back of the room, creates severe discomfort for the normal people in the audience.
To this day I have no idea what I said beyond my opening line. Looking into what amounted to the sun, I said, “Man, I can’t see a f-ing thing!” As a matter of fact, I don’t know if I did the whole five minutes, but I can tell you the audience probably thought it was an eternity. I finished whatever it was I did and was wiping the drool off my face as I stormed out of the club, humiliated, and I vowed I would never step foot in that place again. I cried all the way back to my apartment and pounded holes in my closet door. Again told myself I can’t go back there again and face those comics.
Good thing, as an alcoholic, humiliation was a way of life, and I lie to myself all the time. The only thing I do more than break promises to myself is breathe.
I was back in there on Sunday. The MC, a large and cool black man named Orlando, came over to me and said, “If you are going on tonight, you goin’ to have to make sense. We’re still trying to figure out what you said Thursday night.”
And so it began, my life as a stand up comic.
In 1978 there were only a few clubs in the Chicago area that did stand-up comedy. I began to hang out at all of them and eventually became a regular performer at each of them. The fact that they didn’t pay anyone really helped, and believe me, I was worth every penny they were not paying me.
It took me a long time to get over the stage fright that paralyzed me that first night. Years later, I was in therapy, trying to figure out if I was a sadist or masochist. Trust me when I tell you, every night someone was suffering an unbearable pain because of my performances. It was either them or me. I don’t know which came first, the stress or the fear, but it always manifested itself in the form of stress, and it wasn’t pretty.
It is interesting to me how different people respond to stress. Some people actually use it to heighten awareness and consequently performance improves. Bobby Jones, the great golfer, said he needed to be nervous in order to perform at his best. On the other hand, my response to extreme nervousness is that the brain goes completely blank; I lose all thought. Nothing. When I say nothing, I mean nothing. It plagues me even today; it just doesn’t happen that often. But it stills rears its ugly head every now and then. I have just developed alternative ways to deal with it rather than running off the stage and crying.
This problem has cost me more than once in my career. One of my favorite stories happened when I was living in New Jersey and working out of New York City.
I was in final callback for a VJ job on VH1, a big opportunity for me. A couple of days before, I was to meet with the executives over at the VH1 studio. Rosie O’Donnell, who was one of their stars, called me at home and told me that the buzz around the studio was that the job was mine. This audition was just a formality. I even had lunch with one of the executives and she heaped all kinds of praise on me. I was one of two finalists out of thousands that they looked at nationwide.
That was a Saturday. I was to go in and read, I believe, on Monday or Tuesday the next week.
It gave me enough time to think of what this meant for me and my young family. I thought of the cash, the exposure, and I saw what VH1 was doing for Rosie. I knew this was my break. Finally, stardom! Combine those thoughts with a core belief of worthlessness, and you have an amazing recipe for disaster. It was a recipe that unfortunately would play out over and over again in my career.
I got to the studio early and began to go over in my head what this meant, and told myself not to choke. Breathe.
It didn’t take long for the panic to set in. By the time I got through with the reading, I did everything but vomit on my shoes. My mind went blank, I stammered and stuttered and eventually started screaming at myself in front of all these VH1 executives. I even heard the tech people laughing at my meltdown in the sound booth. Believe me, it made Albert Brooks in Broadcast News look like Tom Brokaw. That is only one of many instances when fear destroyed a tremendous opportunity for me.
In hindsight, I didn’t know which I was afraid of more, failure or success. I will delve into that more in the coming weeks. The problem with recovery is that it is lived one day at a time, and those days add up to years.
There is a saying in the 12-step rooms, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift so enjoy the present.”
It took years for me to openly quit sabotaging my life and my career, and to walk in the simplicity of God’s Grace.
Blessings to you all and may God’s Grace be enough for you today.