Jay Leno and his silver hair and long chin stood before me. He looked tired, worn out from interviewing the best and the brightest on Melrose Ave. for his well known “Jay-walking” segment. A group of Asian tourists snapped off a dozen pictures and literally smothered him. He was gracious, but was ready to go home.
After the crowd dispersed, I simply held out my hand and introduced myself. He responded with a firm grip. I told him I was an aspiring comedian from Boston. (Leno is from Andover, MA) He wished me luck and said: “Maybe I’ll see you on the show someday.” And I responded: “Maybe.”
I hopped back in my car buzzed from the brief yet memorable interaction. It was a sign. I was gonna be a famous stand-up comedian. I nodded my head and my mouth curled into a smile.
Minutes later, I bombed at a dingy coffee shop in front of 6 people.
All my life I’ve always loved making people laugh. It’s just the way my mind works. I don’t know what other people think about it during conversations, but all I can think about it is: “Where’s the joke?” Can I use a pun here? Can I play on words there? And it’s not just what you say, but also how you say it. Raise your voice a certain octave or with a hint of sarcasm, and you can get a laugh. Sometimes, I’ll make the obvious, cheesy joke and people laugh, not because of what I said, but because of my facial expression.
Everyone has a vice; maybe it’s music, art, or drugs. But for me, it’s making people laugh. I feed off of it. I remember sitting at the dinner table as a kid and exchanging funny stories with my Dad. I didn’t brag about acing a Biology test; I bragged about the one-liner I used that day to make my classmates laugh.
As a kid, I was greatly influenced by my brother’s friends. They were witty, fast talking, and always quoted movies. I loved the good nature back and forth and desperately wanted to be a part of it. I watched TV and movies incessantly just to keep up—Airplane, Naked Gun, Coming to America, Major League, Family Vacation, The Simpsons, Seinfeld. It was like I discovered a new arsenal of jokes.
My confidence as a “comedian” blew up at summer camp. I was immediately known as the funny kid. The counselors took me under their wing, and gave me free fast food, because I could make them laugh. (The same went when I pledged my fraternity. I got out of “hazing” rituals by telling jokes.)
When I became a camp counselor, I got to run nightly events, and be in plays. It was then I realized the rush of performing on stage. I got to hold a microphone for the first time. There was a surge of power and adrenalin by making hundreds of people laugh. When I was 16, I was in a cheesy play with all of my friends. None of us remembered our lines so we improvised the entire thing. We just said “fuck it”, tried to be funny, and it worked. It was an unforgettable experience.
I loved being funny. I loved making people laugh. And I wanted to keep doing it.
But then something struck me: Fear— fear of rejection and fear of failure. I hated myself when a joke didn’t land. And this was just with my friends and family. Imagine, how I would feel in front of an audience.
It’s unfortunate that fear caused me to question myself as a comedian. But it did. So when I was in college, I didn’t pursue my dreams. I took a couple of drama classes, and memorized a Shakespeare monologue, but that was it.
When I moved to LA, my friends and I attended countless comedy shows. We laughed, drank, and had a pretty good time. But in the back of my head, all I could think of was: I could do this. I’m funnier than this guy.
A couple of years passed. I worked on screenwriting, did some extra work, and was a tour guide at CBS studios. I flirted with doing stand-up, but never had the guts. Instead, I signed up for the Groundlings, an improv comedy group whose veterans included Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Pee Wee Herman, and a host of others. I chose improv comedy because if I failed, at least I had an excuse because improv was on the spot and unplanned. It wasn’t like I was delivering my own material and I would always be on stage with other people. It was a comedy safety net.
I learned a lot from the experience. I excelled with improv games which were basically like drinking games. You had to be quick, witty and sharp. But when it came to doing characters and voices, I was a complete mess. I struggled in keeping up in the advanced class, and writing and performing monologues was painful.
I never climbed the ladder high enough to make it in improv comedy. I’m sure I could’ve stuck with it, but my real passion was for stand-up. I was just too much of a wuss to try it.
Things changed in the summer of 2003. I saw a great documentary called “Comedian” which featured Jerry Seinfeld and Orny Adams. Orny was an aspiring comedian who coincidentally went to the same summer camp as me (I would meet Orny aka Adam Orenstein years later and all we talked about was Camp Tel Noar—Shabbat dinners, color war, and meeting girls behind the library.) But most of the documentary focused on Jerry Seinfeld.
It followed his stand-up career after his famous show ended. Seinfeld started from scratch and used brand new material. He would receive the obligatory standing ovation at the beginning of each set. But if he wasn’t funny, he wasn’t funny. Jerry bombed throughout the documentary until he worked himself back into comedy shape. And that stuck in my mind. If Jerry Seinfeld can bomb, who cares if I do too?
A few weeks later I received an email from Dan T. We had gone to Tufts together but didn’t know each other very well. It was a mass email looking for stand-up comedians. He was starting a comedy show at the Karma Coffee House every Thursday night. I thought of Seinfeld. And I looked through my notebook where I wrote down funny ideas. I could do this.
I responded that I would give it a shot. I told none of my friends (they make me more nervous than anyone.) When I admitted to nerves, Dan T assured me that as long as it was funny or interesting, then I would be fine.
A week later, I appeared at the coffee shop which had been converted to a comedy club. I carried my notebook with ideas from the last 5 years.
When I got called to the stage, I wasn’t nervous. I was relieved. I finally got to unload all of this material off my chest. And unload, I did. I rambled about a variety of topics including Von Dutch, laundry, gym class, online dating, and my inability to get laid. And people laughed. I’d never felt so good.
I looked to Dan T as to when I should stop. And he gave me the universal sign for “keep going, you’re on a roll.” It was one of the best feelings of my life. Afterwards, I discovered that a college classmate was in the audience. He shook my hand after and said: “How long have you been doing stand-up? You’re really good.” It was my first time.
Time passed and I became a regular at the Karma Coffee House. I even hosted the event a few times. I performed side by side with comedians from Last Comic Standing, and Comedy Central presents. As the show became more popular, more established comedians wanted to stop by.
I finally invited friends to come, and although they were my harshest critics, they always supported me. My excitement for stand-up led me to other shows around town. That’s when things started to go downhill.
THE BRINGER SHOW
In other venues, performing wasn’t so easy. At the “bringer show”, I could only perform if I “brought” friends that could pay the cover. I did this a few times until I realized the other comedians were just dreadful. My friends had to endure horribleness for 90 minutes, and a $10 cover, just to see me do a 6 minute set they’ve seen me do a dozen times.
THE OPEN MIC
I performed at open mic nights where the audience was basically made up of other comedians. They pretended to listen, but were more focused on jotting down ideas in their notebooks. And my smart observational humor didn’t do so well…the audience wanted to hear dick jokes and classy stuff like that. I was out of my element.
I entered a comedy contest where I performed for 3 minutes in front of 5 judges. Ten other contestants stood next to me, and we performed one by one. I was incredibly nervous. I felt weird telling jokes without a microphone, but did my best. The first minute was a success. The judges smirked and my competition was laughing. That’s when I started thinking too much, and I choked. I lost my rhythm, and the rest of the set was choppy and marginal at best. I didn’t win the contest, and I kicked myself for getting nervous.
I hosted a private charity event once. Someone actually recommended me, and I jumped at the opportunity. A group of bands were to play and I would tell jokes in between their sets. At this point, I was feeling confident with my stand-up, and I prepared nothing. I would just wing it. And I absolutely BOMBED.
I vividly remember telling jokes to the crowd and hearing the silence. At one point, after another excruciating joke, I spontaneously picked up a beer and chugged the whole thing. At least that got a few laughs. It was a terrible experience (that I still regret today), but I actually learned something from it.
#1 I always need to be prepared.
#2 If a joke doesn’t work, make fun of it and yourself, and you’ll get some laughs.
#3 Bombing sucks, but I survived.
SUCCESS VS. BOMBING
People often ask what it’s like to do stand-up comedy. This is the best comparison I can think of.
Doing stand-up is like hitting on a pretty girl. You have to psyche yourself up just to go talk to her. You formulate some thoughts in your head, and then you just go for it. If things go well, there is a rhythm, a smooth back and forth. And the time just flies by. You gain more confidence as she smiles, and then to close, you get the phone number. When it’s over, you’re full of confidence and excitement.
But when things don’t go well, it’s a disaster. You psyche yourself up, formulate thoughts in your head, and go for it. But this time you get nervous, and your timing is off. The girl wants nothing to do with you. She pretends to listen, but really looks around for a friend to rescue her. None of your lines work on her, but you insist on trying anyway. Time moves in slow motion and you wonder when the misery will end. You start sweating, turning red, speaking too quickly. Then she leaves, and it’s finally over. You grimace, shake your head, and wonder what the hell just happened. Bombs away!
Stand-up is also like riding the roller coaster. At the beginning of the ride, you climb higher and higher. And you hear that clicking noise. Part of you craps your pants, and the other part of you screams in ecstasy. Part of you is petrified of going down, but the other part just can’t wait. This is how I felt before every show.
Let’s face it. Part of the reason I experimented with stand-up was to meet women. Every girl says she loves a man with a sense of humor. I figured if I performed enough, I could get laid once in a while too. This theory went down the drain pretty quickly. I met one girl, but for the most part, I didn’t see much action. Maybe I wasn’t that funny. Or maybe I just didn’t seize the right opportunities. Either way, I usually went home alone.
If I couldn’t get laid, I’d figure I’d make some friends doing stand-up comedy. But here’s a little secret: stand-up comedians are strange, weird, bizarre people. I met some characters including one guy who within seconds of meeting me described how he was going to Cleveland Steam the waitress at the bar. And he wasn’t funny about it. I prayed he was kidding, but he had this crazy look in his eye.
Many of the comedians were socially inept and couldn’t carry a conversation. The amount of insecurity in the room could fill the Grand Canyon. Comedians passively encouraged each other, but if you read between the lines, they all prayed each other would fail.
There was even one comedian who stole my set. He was hosting the show. He directed me out of the comedy room and into the bar. He told me that he would come get me in about 40 minutes for my set. Apparently, he called me up second, and since I wasn’t in the room, he stole my time. After the show a group of girls that I hit on earlier asked why I didn’t perform. And that’s when I realized the bastard had tricked me and stolen my time. After that, my passion for comedy started to fizzle.
Even though the majority of my sets were successful, I still struggled in the world of comedy. I hated repeating the same jokes and garnered a newfound respect for musicians and comedians who passionately performed the same material over and over again. As a result, I tried new jokes almost every set, and obviously not everything worked. I vowed to never curse (a la Bill Cosby) or go for the cheap, dirty joke, but sometimes I wanted to because it would be easier.
I also wasn’t comfortable with my comedic identity—I wasn’t an angry comic, or a one-liner comic, or a dirty comic. Instead, I was myself. I told stories about my life (pretty much like this blog.) The only problem is when things didn’t go well, I took it personally. My skin wasn’t thick enough to take any criticism at all. And I was my worst critic. Even if 9 out of 10 jokes landed, I would focus only on the one that didn’t work, and kick myself for it.
Before I knew it, I had stopped doing stand-up. Dan T, the guy who got me started, was moving away, and the Karma Coffee House closed down not too long after. I had lost confidence and patience with the art, and felt it was time to move on. I kept myself busy with other hobbies and pretended not to be interested anymore.
For the next six years, I only performed for friends and family at bachelor party roasts, weddings, and rehearsal dinners. I still loved making people laugh, and it was the safest and easiest way to still perform. When I thought of hitting the stage again, I was once again instilled with fear: fear of rejection and fear of failure. I wished it would have evaporated by now, but every time I thought it would, the fear returned to me. My microphone was retired, and it was time to move on.
A few months ago I received an email from a comedy show searching for stand-up comedians. I don’t know what came over me (maybe I needed an ending to this journey) but I replied, and they booked me for a Wednesday night. I didn’t tell any of my friends, just like seven years before.
I got to the bar early, downed a beer, and flirted with the female bartender. I retrieved a crumpled piece of paper from my pocket. I studied the notes that I messily scribbled down the night before.
I exhaled and headed to the comedy room. I met a few comedians who lacked social skills—just like old times. The energy was nostalgic—a mix of nervousness, tension, excitement, and fake encouragement.
There were 20 comics performing, and I was slated to go up eighth. I sat through seven lackluster performances, and patiently awaited my turn. That’s when my name got called.
The lights blinded me and I could barely see into the crowd. I forgot about this. When you perform, the lights hit you in eyes. Everyone can see you, but you can barely see them. My set flowed pretty well. I talked about school, work, being a nice guy, buffalo wings, and not having friends. The audience was laughing, and I fed off of it.
The time flew by. I probably could’ve performed for a good 30 minutes. Not everything would’ve worked, but it just would’ve been fun to rant. I tried to stay with my act and not apologize or second guess myself if something went wrong. When I did The Groundlings, I was taught to think that everything is gold even if it sucks. In a way, it’s sort of a life lesson. If you convince yourself to be confident, you actually can be. As a result, I rolled smoothly, had a nice rhythm and was definitely funny.
Several people shook my hand after the show and paid me compliments. I couldn’t tell if they were being sincere, but I was happy with my performance so I didn’t care all that much.
I walked home with a smile on my face. After all these years, I could still do my thing on stage. I started flirting with the idea of performing weekly or even on a nightly basis. My imagination ran wild as I pictured myself shooting up the ranks, and performing at the top tier clubs. I fantasized about being on TV, and performing on the Tonight Show. Maybe I would get to meet Jay Leno once again after all.
A few days later, I got preoccupied with something else, and forgot about my master plan. But part of me will always remember it.
That’s the hardest part about dreams. They never die even if part of you wished they did.