Comedy is Hard

Company Culture Posted Sep 26, 2014 by chenpr

During the 1980s comedy was in the midst of a renaissance in America as a new generation of stand-ups was finding its footing thanks in part to cable television. Comedy clubs seemed to be popping up on every corner in every city in the country; open mic auditions and amateur talent contests were common fare as every one of those clubs tried to sate the public’s thirst for funny. Consequently, every jamoke who was ever voted class clown or managed to ape a line they’d heard on Saturday Night Live thought they had a shot at becoming the next Don Rickles or Flip Wilson.

Including me.

micI’d always been something of a cutup, probably as a compensatory exercise at finding something I could be good at. No matter how hard I tried at school or athletics the best I could manage was downright average, but no one ever cracked wiser. Of course, I grew up in a small town, so being the funniest kid in a class of a dozen wasn’t much of an accomplishment in hindsight, but it was all the encouragement I needed. In high school the field expanded tenfold, but I kept at it and managed to cop two of the three senior superlative categories related to humor.

Having ignored academics in favor of hysterics my post-high school options were limited, and so I joined the Navy. I found that—despite what I’d learned from television and the movies—the military doesn’t value a quick wit nearly as much as it does obeisance. I finished my four-year hitch and moved back to New England and enrolled in the University of Southern Maine.

When I arrived in Portland it was a great place to be young, single and irresponsible. And when the comedy craze hit the City by the Sea, it seemed like it would be an even better place to be young, single, irresponsible and funny. The Old Port Tavern put out a call for lunchtime auditions and so I jotted down some ideas on a yellow legal pad and signed up. When my turn came I leapt on the stage, walked behind the mic and bungled my opening so badly that I went blank on the rest of my routine. Twenty seconds of marginally funny words were followed by an eternity of uncomfortable silence. I apologized and made a hasty exit.

My ego may have been bruised, but my optimism was intact. It wasn’t that my material was bad, it was that I hadn’t prepared well enough. I learned that comedy is hard. It takes effort. Being funny with pals isn’t the same as being funny for an audience. Lesson learned.

A few weeks later when the Top of the East nightclub announced a weekly comedy competition I determined to do better. I supplemented my act with new bits and worked harder at memorizing my segues, spent a few weekends sizing up the competition, and finally marched to the club and put my name on the contestant sign-in to give it another go.

There were two comedic hopefuls scheduled before me, so I sat at the bar and ordered a beer to help pass the time. My first rival was a guy who got up and did impressions of local figures, each of which sounded remarkably similar to one another. His friends, gathered around two tables against the wall, laughed politely and clapped but their response was born of loyalty. He wasn’t that funny.

The next contender was introduced as Big Bob. I’d seen Big Bob’s act during one of my reconnaissance runs. Big Bob used crib sheets from which he, without irony, read a series of jokes related to the size of his phallus. Patrons squirmed uncomfortably. Big Bob’s table of compatriots roared from their corner table. They were laughing at him. Big Bob wasn’t funny.

When I made the decision to enter the Top of the East comedy competition I told my best friend, John and made him promise not to show. Although I had enough courage to take the stage, given my previous experience I didn’t have the courage to bomb in front of my friends. I realized now, as I swiveled away from the bar and made my way to the front of the club, that this was a grievous error in judgment on my part. As bad as the first two comics were, they’d given themselves the benefit of friendly support. I was on my own. Worse, the night’s winner would be determined by audience response.

Nervous and alone, I launched into my routine. Every eye in the place was trained on me and my sweating brow. My opener was flat and got an appropriate response, but at the end of my second joke someone from the impressionist’s table snickered enough that I heard. Encouraged I segued into the heart of my routine and after the punch line a woman at the bar laughed. It was a genuine laugh and it was loud.

It’s a universal anecdote among comedians that, no matter what their experience, getting that first laugh from an audience is all that mattered and is what kept them going no matter what else happened. I get it. I made it through the rest of my set and returned to my place at the bar to polite applause where I finished my drink—and lost the competition.

That was 25 years ago, and I never gave comedy another try after that. It was hard work. I wasn’t very good. But that laugh has stayed with me over the years and is the reason I’ve decided to do it again. I don’t know exactly where or when, but I’m working on a routine that I plan to deliver somewhere in Boston before the year is out.

When the time comes I’ll let everyone know the details. Keep your eyes on the CHEN Blog and on my Twitter.