About a month ago, I got up on stage to perform stand-up comedy. I had done it a few times in college, and it had always gone pretty well. This, however, was my first time going to a bar, performing for people out of my age group. On top of that, I was the only one doing comedy. All of the other acts were people with guitars, people with banjos, and more people with guitars.
I had a set planned. A whole bit about the bachelor and how they should have married couples on instead of single couples, and see who gets divorced instead of see who falls in love. It was a good joke. There were a lot of good jokes in there.
I thought I had memorized the whole set. I mean, I had. I memorized it, but I didn’t really rehearse it. I figured that if I could recite it in my head over and over again, I wouldn’t have a problem reciting it on stage. Well, that sounded great. Then I got on stage.
The first two sentences of the bit came out perfectly normal. I hit the punch line for my first joke: “I think they should get a bunch of married couples on there, give them alcohol, and see who gets divorced. Whoever is still together at the end of the show, you’ll know they’re truly in love.”
And then, my mind went blank. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what came next. My mind scrambled like a batch of eggs on Sunday morning, desperately reaching for something to say. I immediately skipped to a semi-related joke that was supposed to come much later in my set. My mind went blank again.
I stood there, awkwardly staring into the crowd, the crowd even more awkwardly staring back. Seconds felt like hours. But I stood there. I wanted to run off the stage. Seriously, I really wanted to just run off the stage, cry, drive home, and never talk to anyone again. But I stood there in agony, waiting for something, anything, to come to my mind.
I skipped right to the end of my bit. I mustered out the words, hit the final punch line, got a few laughs, and walked off the stage. A man smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up as I was walking back to sit with my friends. I said, “I need a drink.” So, I walked over to the bar, and somebody bought me a drink. I still wanted to crawl into the fetal position for ever, but I felt a sense of raw humanity inside me. Granted, most of it was sheer humiliation and disappointment, but it was something. Something strong.
I cringe every time I think about that moment on stage. It’s painful. But once I got home, I knew I had to go back. I knew I only had myself to blame. I wasn’t prepared. I failed because I didn’t put the work in to succeed. Granted I didn’t really know how to put the work in since this was still so new to me, but I didn’t put the work in nonetheless. I knew I could do better. I knew my jokes were good. I also knew that even if I did humiliate myself, people would still be supportive. My friends were supportive, and even strangers were supportive.
So, I started rehearsing. I wrote new jokes, and I rehearsed them out loud every day. In front of the mirror, in front of the fireplace, in front of my dog. They were some tough crowds, but I got through it. I decided to go back to the same place where I humiliated myself.
I was more confident this time, but the memory of the previous performance was still circling through my head. I was deathly afraid it would all leave me once I got on stage. With a half hour before my spot time, I went into the bathroom to meditate on the toilet. I rehearsed my set one more time, and I told myself I had this in the bag.
And I did. I went up on stage, and the jokes flowed out of me like water through a freshly lubed pipe. Do pipes even get lubed? Whatever, you get the point. Anyways, my timing was great. I didn’t stumble, I didn’t forget. I got laughs. I got some really big laughs. I knew when I got off stage that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve written jokes since I was a little kid, and a comedian is the only thing I’ve ever honestly seen myself as. Even when I humiliated myself, I felt a deep sense of meaning. I was disappointed, but I knew my focus was aligned with who I am.
More meaningful than anything was the satisfaction of overcoming something difficult. It was the act of facing the dragon head on and conquering it. Going back to the exact place of some of my deepest fears and squashing them, right then and there.