Whatever made me want to do stand-up?
No one has ever accused me of being particularly funny. I can usually elicit a warm, hearty laugh from my husband for my sharp wit, but he never suggested I take my act on the road.
My brother Chris was a stand-up comedian for the last 20 years of his life, until his death at age 45. Comedy can do that to you. Or, rather, the life of a comedian can do that to you.
Last summer I took a humor-writing workshop with the writer Bizzy Coy, because I wanted to tap my own funnybone. The workshop was in Honesdale, PA at Loose Leaf Pages, a local bookstore that carries a lot of local writers. Like the pro that I am, I arrived without a notebook. Or a pen. Bizzy didn’t bat an eye. Apparently she knows a few writers. She was ready with a packet of info and extra pens for the pros. About a dozen people showed up. One had travelled all the way from Philadelphia, where Bizzy’s fame is flaming. Apparently there is a dearth of humor in Philadelphia since W.C. Fields.
Anyway, after listening to Bizzy’s lecture on humor for an hour we were encouraged to use the time-tested techniques she stole from other writers to write a short humor piece ourselves. The aim was to hone a piece of writing to the point of getting it published.
This is where my trajectory gets fuzzy. I got a really bad case of poison-something, probably the result of hugging my runaway Schnauzer on his return from chasing deer through the river flats, that resulted in furiously red, oozing, itchy patches of skin on my neck and torso. That’s not the funny part. The funny part started when the doctor prescribed steroids for my affliction. Not only did the steroids clear up my skin, they also made me believe I could be a comedian.
The mere hint from my friend and yoga teacher/entrepreneur Susan Mendoza that she was going to produce a comedy night at our local nightclub, the Emerald Ballroom, led me to excitedly proclaim my availability as an opening act.
I went home and wrote three-and-a-half minutes of material based on my life. Days later, the steroids wore off ,and I was faced with the prospect of my name on a poster for Comedy Night. Susan knew what I did not. Comedy can be funny. Or it can be a nightmare. You might think I’d know better, given Chris’s experience. But Chris had another amazing talent. If his act went well, he would declare that he “killed.” If it bombed, he would say the “audience was dead.” It was never his fault. I’m an experienced performer, but I never had that tunnel vision. I’m much too self-aware.
A deadline, however, is my best friend. As time passed, I worked on my “tight five,” as the opening act is called. As Bizzy had warned us at the workshop, I threw out the first things I thought were funny, honed the timing and the word choices (some words are funnier than others) and took out most of the jokes skewering my family. Except for the funny ones. Some jokes could go over with just a look as a punch line. Others needed more. Bizzy agreed to read an early version, and a much later one. She was encouraging—more so than the friend I met on Main Street the day before the gig who exclaimed, “What?!! You?? Comedy!?”
The show went on, as it always does, and after weeks spent worrying about flop sweat and dry mouth, I went on too. And I would do it again. No steroids needed.