My first night on stage was more than 20 years ago. I wore an over-sized red blazer and black stir-up pants (remember those???) and of course, my big hair. Don't judge--the 80's had just ended.
It was a Monday night. A cold Monday night. I parked my car in the garage across the street from Nick's (Nick's Comedy Stop on Warrenton in Boston--it's still there, by the way...along with the inimitable, John Tobin). I hurried across the street--it was dark at that point. I had missed the early call and wasn't even sure I'd get on stage. Ah, but I'd forgotten about my ace in the proverbial hole--I was female. And being female in a predominantly male arena meant that I got noticed. Sure, the headliner that night probably hoped he could get into my pants if he put me on stage--but who cares?!?! That was his problem. Mine was quite different: Actually telling some jokes.
I'd first decided to go on stage earlier that morning; while getting ready for work, I completed my 3-5 minute open-mic routine simultaneously to my 3-5 minute hair routine. Both seemed to be in good order when I left that morning but I can't really remember any of the jokes (the mile-high hair is a different story), except for one:
"What is it with McDonald's? Did you ever notice how everything is prefaced with a "Mc"??? I get that you order a McShake but what happens when you go to the bathroom in McDonalds, McShit?"
Ugh. That joke, to be fair, wasn't really mine. Some of the very supportive comedians waiting to go on, like me but not nearly as green, tried to help bolster my routine. Despite my new friends' best efforts, the biggest laughs came from my own improvisation:
When it was my turn, I got up on stage and began to tell a few of my own jokes--surprisingly, people actually laughed. A lot. Within the first 60-seconds on stage, I was hooked. Forget the line. Forget the sinker. I didn't need either. By the time I got to the McDonald's joke, I (rather appropriately) had the audience eating out of my hands...and then, the joke bombed.
See, comedians NEVER bomb--but our jokes, now that's another story. And it's also the reason I remember the joke so well. No one laughed. Crickets seemed to respond though....
A few of the comedians in the back started to clap and make some noise. That's when my "pity-clap" joke was born. "Pity-clap" was a total improv moment. A lot like my recent "porn-voice" improv: "I'm such a whore, I'll give porn-voice to just about anyone...." Of course, hearing a vertically-challenged, chubby, Jewish-mother-type call herself a whore is what makes that line funny...because I give terrible porn-voice. Just terrible.
"Pity-clap" was funny because there was no need to give me pity. I was a young, attractive woman--I mean, that very night, while walking to Nick's from the parking garage, a hooker wearing thigh-high gold-lame boots had even propositioned me. Talk about getting lucky!
There's something incredibly empowering about making people laugh. I mean, it's not that hard to get an audience in a comedy club laughing--that's why they're there--and the copious amounts of alcohol in their systems doesn't hurt either. But to get the unsuspecting crowd to laugh is the much bigger high--at least for me. Which is probably one of the things that appealed to me about teaching.
After my first night on stage--followed by many more comedic performances in between--I somehow managed to grow up. Went to school. Collected a bunch of college degrees. Became a professor. And while that doesn't seem like the natural choice for a comedian, all good professors are also good performers. Not saying that they were all once comedians, or even stage actors for that matter--but the good ones, the ones you remember decades after leaving--are the professors who were most engaging, both in and out of the classroom. It's why I've been nominated for eleven teaching awards since 2003.
"And the Award for Biggest Ego goes to...." *cough, cough*
Kidding (and ego) aside, comedy is the flip side of real life. It's the thing that brings light to every inch of human darkness. And I mean EVERY inch. We all need to laugh. It's actually good for us. When we see another person smiling, or hear laughter, it awakens the feel-good part of our brains. Physically laughing releases endorphins in the same way as having sexual intercourse or working out in the gym...of course, which one of those two options do you think the "porn-voice" queen votes for??? You guessed it: Bench-pressing every time!
Now THAT'S a pity-clap moment if ever there was one....
So go ahead, giggle. Chuckle. Chort. Snort. Laughing relieves stress, anxiety, and the social tensions that cause both. They say laughter is the best medicine--not sure who "they" are, but it's not too far from the truth. People who have the strongest social connections laugh more than people who are isolated from others. Guess who lives longer? Yup. The folks who laugh more with friends.
Now, if only laughter could help me get through the chapter I'm avoiding by writing this essay...what? You think comedians can't procrastinate??? Hey, the comedian in me is far-more ambitious than the professor. Professor's careers are all about putting off today what you can do tomorrow...except for that one guy who ended up dating his student. That, he felt compelled to do as quickly as possible.
Keep laughing! I know I will....
And to insure you do, too--here's the YouTube link to my most recent performance. Enjoy!