I’m an idiot. Because only an idiot decides to seriously pursue stand-up comedy at thirty, which is when I began. Stand-up is something dumb you start doing in your twenties, like drugs or believing you can change the world. It’s for when you’re full of youthful idealism, energy and collagen. It’s not something you begin when you’re approaching midlife crisis, feeling insecure about your poor life choices and uncomfortable with your aging body in an industry that worships youth.
Stand-up is undoubtedly the hardest, most unforgiving performance medium on the planet. Although I grew up memorizing comedy albums, it seemed like something only geniuses and lunatics such as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Robin Williams got to do. Like a scary movie, it was terrifying to watch yet safely out of reach — and certainly not an option.
I think realistically it takes at least ten years of solid grinding to even get to a point where you can say you’ve given it a good effort. Guys like Louis C.K. and Bill Burr have been performing for over thirty years. I’ll be sixty years old when and if I ever hit that milestone. Sixty.
I popped my comedy cherry in summer 2010. It was a “bringer” show run by a raging cokehead at the Comedy Store. (A bringer show is when you have to bring a minimum number of guests in exchange for stage time.) From an audience perspective, it was probably a trash set by a virgin comedian.
My debut performance reminded me of when I first did heroin — my brain was quiet, but this time it was because the voice in my head finally had a microphone. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be the same again.
I also had a feeling I didn’t have what it takes to make it.
The learning curve in stand-up is impossibly steep. It’s more like a learning cliff and you’re a base jumper praying that conditions remain cooperative for that perfectly timed moment your parachute (hopefully) opens. It usually doesn’t. You fall on your face. You don’t die. You jump off another cliff. Over and over again.
The laughs are intoxicating but the bombs… the bombs are traumatic until you’re immune to them. My good friend the late Erik Myers gave me great advice. He told me to get on stage with the intention of bombing and keep getting up until I wasn’t fazed by it.
One time before I quit drinking, early in my attempts at stand-up, I bombed so badly in front of a man that I once loved and all of his friends. I can remember the feeling of shame to this day. I got up on stage and completely blanked. Every single word abandoned me and all I could say was, “I’m cold and afraid.” It would have been hilarious if it were a joke. It wasn’t. They played music over whatever I was mumbling to get me off the stage. I cried on the Comedy Store patio after that set and vowed to quit comedy and drinking. My old friend and mentor, the late Gary Garfinkel, came up to me after that set and said, “It’s the people who get back on stage after that who make it.” I didn’t get back on stage for six weeks.
To become truly great, you can’t dabble. It’s a true grind and the grind never stops. It’s always late nights. Forever, even when you succeed. In the beginning it’s long open mics filled with horrible jokes. It’s sitting in two hours of traffic for five minutes of stage time. Subjecting yourself to hostile rooms of angry Angelenos, arms crossed, refusing to laugh. “Dance, monkey,” is written on their faces. The grind of the city. The grind of travel. Airports. Shit hotels. Waiting tables and hustling side jobs maybe forever. The egos. The drugs. The jealousy. The competition.
For all these reasons, stand-up feels more like a calling than something I’ve dreamed of doing my whole life; that’s why I always doubted my ability to endure the growing pains. It’s been twelve years since my first set and in the past five I’ve only been dabbling in stand-up comedy. That comes down more to the fact that I love being home with my husband, and now my new baby, more than I love telling jokes.
But the medium haunts me. I dream about being on stage. I’m still writing bits. In fact, I’m stockpiling them. Because I know that I don’t do stand-up — stand-up does me. And it’s not done with me yet. The good news is, stand-up never goes away (at least until the next plague) and the older I get, the less I care, and the more life experience I can mine for comedy gold. I’ll probably never be a comedy legend — but frankly, I was probably never going to be one anyway.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2022 World edition.