True to my word, I got on stage this week. Three times, in fact: two comedy open mics and a reading of The Hart Compound at Vin Club in San Francisco. The reading was incredible – I’ll share the video and details next week! The open mics were, eh, what they should be. The first time, everyone has assured me, is terrible for everyone, so I was right on par.
This was not only my first comedy open mic; it was pretty much my first performance ever. The closest I’ve come was the toast I gave at my sister’s wedding, and I was able to write that out and read it straight from the page. Plus, no one there expected to be entertained.
I have been in the comedy audience for probably a thousand shows and mics, but witnessing it, however closely, could not prepare me for what it would feel like to be on the other side of the microphone.
“You know what they say,” Joe Gorman began my introduction at the Deco Lounge, “Behind every great comedian, there’s a great woman — who also does comedy…”
When I stepped on stage, the darkness hit me like a brick wall. I was suddenly alone in space, a floating head, totally separated from other people, yet keenly aware that all of their attention and expectations were focused directly at me. That I couldn’t see them frightened me more than that they were watching.
I knew, in theory, that performers can’t see outside of the spotlight (no metaphor intended), but I wasn’t prepared for what that was like. I thought not seeing the audience would make it easier, because I couldn’t have to worry about their reaction. But it was the first obstacle I faced, suddenly existing in a vacuum, with no interaction but the occasional laugh (I did get them!) from someone I didn’t know existed.
I had stepped into a world that is so foreign from the one just a few feet away in which I’ve lived so many nights, so foreign that my body and my mind took a few seconds to adjust. I forgot how to start, even though I’d been rehearsing it in my mind for days, even though I’ve heard it thousands of times from other comedians:
“Keep it going for your host. Thanks for having me!” And, then, you go into Joke No. 1.
Instead, I froze, then mumbled a frightened hello through a smile with no cause and fumbled for the introduction to my first joke:
“I, uh, I’m Dana, for those who don’t know me. Uh… I’m a vegetarian, an atheist, and a feminist.”
And freeze, and retreat inside my head. Alright, Dana, the joke has begun. Don’t forget how you rehearsed it! It doesn’t work if you don’t say it right. Deep breath.
“But I’m not very dedicated to any of them—”
Okay that’s not how that goes. It’s supposed to be “passionate”, not “dedicated.” But someone just laughed. Oh! I didn’t know that would be funny. Note that. Okay, you still have a few lines to go. Say it right.
“Like, I eat bacon once in a while…”
Oh shit, what else do I do? I forgot the next line already. It’s silent, say something. You’re just babbling now; that’s going to ruin the punchline; it has be delivered with a bite. Next line…
“And I pray sometimes…”
Made a weird face. Where did that weird face come from? I don’t ever make that face. A little chuckle from the back. Is that face funny? Maybe I should do it every time. How did it go again? Hey! You still have to tell the punchline… Okay, here it is –
“And, I think some women are asking for it.”
Oh. They didn’t laugh. Well, you said it wrong, that’s okay. Oh, now Roman’s laughing from the back. Is that a pity laugh, or did it take him a second to get it? If it takes a second, it probably needs work. Well, it’s nice of Roman, anyway.
I’ll say, “Thanks, Roman,” maybe that will be funny.
No, that wasn’t funny. Okay, do your next joke. This one’s longer, check your notes.
Oh, it’s a lot nicer with the notes. Keep those close. But don’t look at them too much! Am I looking at my notes too much? I should make more eye contact. But, wait, I can’t see any eyes! It’s dark everywhere, so does it even matter which way I look? Yes, yes it does. Remember when you were in the crowd? You can see the performer clearly.
That’s weird. They can see me totally clear, and I can’t see them at all. What’s the science behind that? I wish it weren’t like that.
Next joke. Oh, I know this one’s funny. Someone retweeted it last week…
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