Sunday, January 30, 2011

My First Time

This is the story of my first time.

It's 1994 and I'm 26.

I'd never done it before because I was scared. Scared of rejection, scared of doing it wrong, scared of making a fool of myself.

I know 26-years-old seems late in life to do it for the first time but I'd always been shy. It came to me one day, if I could put myself out there - maybe, just maybe - there was a chance I could break out of the box I kept myself in and grow as a person.

So I sought out a workshop, with people who hadn't done it before either, or who had just started doing it, and the first thing Ed - the guy running the workshop - said was:

"The only way to learn how to do this is by doing it."

I was petrified.

How was this workshop going to help me? I'm a logical person; I need to learn the process. There's no workbook showing the process? No formula? No trial tests to practice on?

So once a week I went to this workshop and got tips like "You have to listen to yourself" and "When you do it, own it" and "Don't do it like other people; have your own style." I tried things out - some worked, some didn't - and I supported other workshop attendees with criticism and encouragement as they did for me.

On week six, Ed came to me before the workshop and said, "You're doing it tonight."

And that was the night I told my first joke on stage.

Unfortunately, it wasn't THAT easy.

At the beginning of the workshop, if you had never been on stage before, you had to do your act for the rest of the wannabe comics. Ed called me up and I couldn't get through the first joke. He said start again and, stumbling and stammering and shaking, I couldn't do it. I had done bits in front of the others before. But this time, with the thought of my impending real stage time before me, it wouldn't flow out.

Ed told me to go outside the club, work on my act and he would call me back in before the end of the workshop to try one more time.

Outside, it was muggy and gray. I took off my coat (I worked at a credit union during the day and would come straight from my job) and wandered around the open parking spots near the door of the club, trying to remember the order of my bits and recite them.

About 10 minutes in, three kids - maybe 12-years-old - wheeled into the parking lot riding bicycles.

Driving in circles, the biggest of the three - a portly punk with bushy hair and freckles - asked, "Hey man, whatcha doing?"

I tried ignoring him.

"Come on, whatcha doing?"

I turned away, pretending to study my set list. He made another circle.

"Hey, are you a comedian? Tell us a joke!"

I was being heckled even before I got on stage. Heckled by 12-year-old brats, no less!

I finally gave in. I told him the truth - that I'd never done this before, that I had no idea what I was doing, that I couldn't get through my set for the workshop. I guess there was squeaky desperation to my voice - actually I know there was - and the kid made another circle as I explained that I just wanted to be left alone so I could try to get my set down.

He stopped in front of me, skidding as if he thought about running me over, and said, "I'm sure you'll do okay. Good luck." Then he pointed to his buddies and said, "Let's go."

For the next 40 minutes, I worked on my bits and thought about what the kid had said. I gained some confidence and started to maintain a sense on stability in my brain where I could actually remember my set list.

Behind me, the door to the club swung open and Paul - a veteran by the group's standards - called me in to do my set for the workshop. And as I walked through the door, a wave of panic washed over me and I forgot everything.

My "trial run" in front of my peers did not go any better this time but Ed looked at me and said, "I don't care. You're going up anyway."

I sat at the back of the room with the other wannabes but I felt alone. No one spoke to me and I tried to memorize my three minute set, which was written in small script on half a 3x5 card. I could retain nothing.

The line-up was set. "Open Mic Thursday" at Comedy Works always ran the same way. Someone experienced would open with six minutes; a mid-level workshop wannabe would follow with four minutes; the two or three first-timers were sandwiched in the middle with three minutes each, followed by two of the stronger comics with eight and ten minutes respectively before the feature.

I was to be fourth of the six that night. I was following Aric - the only person in the workshop that was worse than me. He was Armenian, hardly spoke English and had bits like "How about that President Clinton guy? He's funny, right?" All premise, no punchlines.

So, not only was I going to stand in front of a roomful of strangers with nothing to say because I couldn't remember anything, but the guy before me was going to suck all the life out of the crowd.

The club was almost full, which was strange for a Thursday. I don't remember much after the moment Ed, who was also the emcee, took the stage to start the show. I have a flash memory of watching Aric bomb with his opening joke but I couldn't bear to watch - or listen - so I just tuned him out.

The next thing I remember was my name. Not even Ed saying it was my first time on stage or I was from Tampa or the hack intro I had asked him use. ("He calls himself The Wonder Comic because he wonders things about the world.") The only thing I heard was "Don Smith."

I glided to the stage like I'd been smoking pot for a week straight. I don't remember my feet moving at all. Ed shook my hand and exited the stage. I turned, standing before the microphone, cautious of touching it like the apes in "2001: A Space Odyssey." And then my first joke came to me.

It didn't go over as well as I'd have liked, a few chuckles, and I couldn't remember my next bit. I glanced at my palm, where I had the half of index card cupped, and went on to joke number two. Better reaction. I glanced again and did joke three and got an even better response.

Joke four was my next-to-last and my most formed - it had a longer premise and several tags. It was also heady and referential. Applause break and heavy laughter. I had a chance to breath. If I were thinking clearly, I'd have realized I should have stopped right there. Invigorated, I tried to close hard and fell a little flat. Thanking the audience, I left the stage. (My first faux pas of many as a comedian as I left it before Ed got back up there.)

The others in the workshop congratulated me and I nodded my thanks, still completely dazed from the experience. Ed came back after intro'ing the next comic and told me, after thinking I was just going to eat it up there, he was completely surprised by the applause break.

So I sat there, trying to focus and remember what just happened. I ordered a beer and watched the rest of the show. The club let us watch the whole show for free Thursdays and Sundays if we abided by the two drink minimum. It gave us a chance to watch professionals and possibly talk to them after the show to get tips or, for the more advanced wannabes, references to other clubs.

Still a little stunned, I stood as the lights came up at the end of the night and wandered through the crowd to find the waitress, as she hadn't brought me my tab. A middle-aged woman smiled as I passed her and muttered "Funny stuff." As I got deeper in the crowd, a guy - kind of touristy-looking in khaki shorts and a loud red shirt - stopped me. He said he really enjoyed my set and the only thing I should work on was not glancing at my hand repeatedly.

He left me with a handshake. I paid my tab and, in my exuberant state, insanely overtipped the waitress. At the back of the club, the morose-looking headliner (whose name I wish I could remember) sat looking into a glass of ice. I thought to myself, if I'm going to do this, I might as well start meeting professionals who do it regularly.

I walked to his table and he looked up. I introduced myself and this was the rest of our conversation:

"That was your first time on stage?" he asked.

"Yeah, first time."

"You did really well," he said after swigging the last liquid from his glass.

"Thanks. Any tips you can give me?"

He looked at me as he rose to leave. "Yeah... don't get used to it."

And he walked off.

I stood there stunned for a moment then wandered out of the club to my car.

I pondered what he said for two weeks, until the next time I went up again. Then I understood what he meant.

It was another "Open Mic Thursday." The same three minutes. The same set.

But this night there were 15 people in the crowd. I'm not sure you could even call them people. They were more like zombies.

Everyone - experienced or not - died up there that night. My three minute set ended up being only two minutes long as I was speaking quickly from nerves and no laughs. I made up a joke - there on the spot - to fill the time. I might as well have arranged flowers. It would have got more laughs.

I watched the feature struggle and the headliner fight for every laugh. And I also understood why the morose-looking headliner had said what he did.

Each and every time, it's never the same. There are nights when you have them when they walk through the door. There are nights you couldn't catch them with a fishing net. Many variables are out of your control. But as you get better, you learn the techniques and tricks and it gets easier, though never without risk.

But everyone has to do one thing - get through that first night, realize it's only one of many to come and go from there.