I’d spent years telling myself that I was going to do standup comedy. Years of being sure I was a pretty witty person, watching panel shows on TV and rating my quips above the panelists, feeling very pleased with myself. I could make my friends laugh, so how hard could it be? Despite this, the concept of actually writing five minutes apropos of nothing to perform to a bunch of strangers permanently felt like tomorrow’s problem. I told myself it was because I was taking myself seriously as a musician, I didn’t have time for it, but deep down it was because I was afraid. Afraid they wouldn’t laugh and that could invalidate one of the few things in my life I considered a strength. The ignorance was blissful, it was safe.
In 2014 I lived outside of the UK for the first time in my life after my girlfriend got a job in Brisbane in Australia. Moving to a country I’d never been to before on the opposite side of the planet was simultaneously a terrifying and liberating prospect. My friends and family were in opposing time zones, over 24 hours away from me. Suddenly we had to rebuild everything from furniture to friends, start over. Determined to make the most of the situation I saw it as a great opportunity to redefine who I was. You’re supposed to do that in your early twenties but I didn’t do a very good last time so it seemed like a convenient chance to try again. My musical project had wound down just before the move, and now it felt as though there was world of opportunity available to me. I could do anything. Aside from my girlfriend there was no-one else to disappoint. I went wild and took up Taekwondo despite the fact that I can’t touch my toes without bending my knees. Then I saw an advert for something which was to change my life. A stand-up comedy course.
I signed up almost immediately before I over-thought it and chickened out. For three hours each Tuesday evening for seven weeks I would be sculpted into the perfect standup comedian by Brisbane’s finest comedy scientists before a showcase of my new powers at the biggest comedy club in Brisbane. I’m a big fan of shifting my own responsibilities onto others, so this was just what I was looking for. Surely the powers-that-be wouldn’t let me perform if I was going to be a total disaster, and getting some feedback before I took the stage for the first time felt like just the safety blanket I needed. I didn’t have any material prepared. None at all. The only thing I felt confident in was my stage presence having been the frontman in bands for most of my life. The only thing was, I’d have no songs to hide behind anymore. This course would become my new song, as no-one has ever said before.
The lessons were run at the same comedy club we would be performing in after meeting my fellow students I surmised that they were a keen bunch, taking the whole thing very seriously. It’s amazing how much of a difference a little financial investment can make to people’s attitudes to something. One guy in particular was driving two hours each from Gympie just to attend these lessons. Serious dedication. I didn’t even know where Gympie was, but was amused by the fact that a place existed called Gympie and yes it does rhyme with Stimpy. I felt good about this group that fate had paired me with, we all seemed like we really wanted to learn a new skill. Well, all aside from one guy. One guy in the group had already done a couple of open-mic stand-up performances before. I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable about this “pro” infiltrating our newbie safe space. He had that vibe of a guy who’d seen it all too, like that kid in school who swears he actually fingered a girl on the weekend with an expression of pride and smugness across his face. Of course most of these traits I was projecting onto him, but it didn’t change the fact that his big-time credentials made me uneasy.
With each week you could see the tangible improvement from each member of the group. Everyone had their own style, but wasn’t afraid to try something new and see what happened. We were bonding as a group. Then just as we were getting comfortable with this weekly regime, the lessons were over and all that remained was the performance. At the end of the last lesson, none of us really looked convinced that we were truly ready, even Mr Professional. All we had were our self-composed five-minutes of words that would overwhelm our waking thoughts for every hour until showtime. Every evening I spent my time rehearsing my script to myself in the mirror, hoping that repetition was the reason I wasn’t finding the material amusing. I had never been good at remembering scripts, even back in school trying to remember a sentence by rote was a task beyond my brain. With each passing day this frustrating lack of progress turned to nerves. I didn’t have anything else to fall back on, just this one series of words. Every time I read it aloud I’d change a word here, a phrase there, it was no wonder I was struggling, it was a moving target. I had no plan B. Mental images of standing there frozen, unable to think of the next thing to say became a recurring visualisation, usually as I was lying in bed at night.
Before I knew it, it was show day. I could barely concentrate on anything at my day job, it was a surprise I wasn’t sent home. Our teacher, Fiona McGary, had encouraged us to invite as many people as we knew to come along and support us. I didn’t really know many people so I invited my workmates. The predominant reaction when I told them what I was doing was to balk at the $20 entry price. For some it was too much, but for most they still bought a ticket after they’d gotten their rant out of their system. I did agree with them that it was a steep price for a line-up of self-confessed beginners, but it was out of my hands. I personally wouldn’t pay $20 to watch someone play piano for the first time after having spent a few evenings practicing. It would be awful. Why should this be any different? I began to question the motivation behind our teacher encouraging us to get all of our friends there as I did the calculations in my head of how much money was being made.
We got to the venue before the time the doors were due to open and watched the audience funnelling into our safe space, robbing it of its previous sanctuary. Before long Fiona gathered Team Virgin into the backstage area for one last pep talk to drill the key facts into our chaotic brains. As I looked around the huddle I could see the stress of the impending situation find its own manifestation across the different faces. Some filled with pseudo confidence, some with quiet intensity, that one emotion took many forms. The talk ended with the revelation of the running order where I was disappointed to discover I wouldn’t be on until the second half. The effort to resist the urge to get a beer or two to loosen me up was real. As we waited for the show to begin there was an air of visible discomfort in the backstage area. We all sat there separately miming along to our sets, frantically checking the scripts for accuracy between peeks out into the audience to see the ever-growing numbers. No more eye contact, no more polite smiles, each person for themselves. Before we knew it, the lights went down, the background music died, and the show began. This was really happening. It was too late to back out. Shit.
Fiona took the role as MC, which proved a temporary distraction as I’d never actually seen her do any comedy before that point. I was curious to see what this person who’d been coaching us over the weeks was like herself as a comedian. It felt a bit like when you’d bump into one of your school teachers in the pub as an adult and remember that they were humans who did other things too. She worked through a little safe material, but spent most of the time drilling home the fact that the performers they were going to be seeing that evening were first timers. No heckling, give them the response you’d give to your favourite comedian, all of the words necessary to set expectations firmly on the ground. I was thankful for this since those people who I’d brought to the show had assured me that they would heckle throughout, maybe this would be enough to discourage their mean-spirited intentions. Of course I was fairly certain that this was just a joke, but at times of high stress, you can find a way to turn any idea into a reason to panic.
I didn’t envy the guy who had to go up first, but I was impressed at the illusion of confidence he’d managed to paint across his face. I knew he was a newbie, he knew he was a newbie, but somehow he didn’t look like one. It was also a relief to see how the crowd whooping and hollering him from the start. Sure it was laced with sympathy, but the intention came from a good place. I couldn’t get over how calm he appeared. Don’t get me wrong, there was still an air of primal fear in his microexpressions, but he had that basic swagger that I associate with professional stand up comedians. An undeserved air of confidence and belonging in front of all of these people who mostly had no idea who he was. As I was pondering these thoughts, analysing the room, I was snapped out of my trance by him saying goodnight and Fiona coming back out to the stage. Was it over already? I couldn’t remember a single word he’d actually said. The process felt so sudden, so clinical. This pattern continued and as each set ended I felt this pang of fear hit me knowing that my set was getting ever nearer. It wouldn’t be long before this process of bringing on the next comedian would be one of bringing on me. I would be the next comedian.
When the break arrived, I hid backstage for its entirety, too nervous to extend the smalltalk I’d offered my workmates any further. I felt the words slipping away from my memory as I tried to recall them, realising that without key words or pauses, entire parts of my set were no longer jokes but just a series of words. The elevating fear was at risk of turning to full-blown terror so I focused my efforts on my breathing. I tried to tell myself to trust that the words were all there in my memory and everything would be OK when I began. Of course my rational brain didn’t believe that, but it felt like the right thing to do and somehow still managed to have a positive effect. I started to understand how religion works. You’ve got to have faith.
After the break I was second on the lineup. Just one other person between me and the lions. As Fiona settled the crowd again for the second half I became hyper-aware of everything happening in real-time. No longer did I have the safety of the backstage area but instead I was stood behind the curtain immediately backstage waiting for the inevitable. Nothing but fabric between me and the audience. The comedian on stage might as well have been another language for his set as far as I was concerned. He could have stood up there barking like a dog for five minutes and I wouldn’t have noticed. My mind couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than a fraction of a second at this point, a temporary yet extreme ADHD drowning my tired brain. I desperately focused on my opening lines, the first things that would come out of my mouth. Around and around they went in my head, with the assumption that if I could remember them then the rest would flow naturally. I had no way to know if that was really true, but it felt like a logical idea, and it was the only one I had left.
In what felt like no time at all, the comedian before me was saying his good-nights. As he finished up and came through the curtain, I patted his arm and said well done as though on auto-pilot. I had no idea if he’d done well, I just wanted some sort of reciprocal reassurance. I wanted a hug and him to tell me it was all going to be alright. Tragically no hug came and moments later I heard my own name echo out of Fiona’s mouth, signalling me to push the curtain open. As I pushed them away, the lights beamed on my face as I looked out to a room full of eyes staring directly at me. The expressions were mostly positive but all I could focus on were the few bored ones who looked like they wished the night were over already. I tried to look as calm as possible as shook Fiona’s hand and unseated the microphone from its stand. Then I began.
I launched into my opening line with the awkwardness of giving a speech at a wedding. Before I knew it, my brain wasn’t operating on a conscious level, but instead the words were just flowing out of my mouth as I’d hoped. I started to relax as some of my lines even got a few laughs, mostly in the places where they were supposed to laugh too, it was going well. I was so impressed with myself for remembering it all and doing so well, that it was almost distracting. I still felt like I was driving a car for the first time by taking it on the motorway, but it started to feel like I had a relative control of the situation, that maybe this wasn’t going to result in bloody death. The overwhelming stress no longer felt like the choking restriction it had until this point. I was so liberated at this point that I even managed to break free from the memory of my set.
I stood there on stage, aware that I had to continue talking but having completely forgotten what it was that I was supposed to be saying. The previous bit had ended but my brain had lost the content of the bit that followed. The files had been deleted. In that moment there were no words at all, I had nothing. The script was gone, replaced with a bunch of screaming voices in my head simultaneously telling me not to panic and to say something, anything. My face subtly contorted as a primal fear took over my consciousness, becoming acutely aware of the multitude of eyes staring straight at me. A stubborn instinct took over, valuing getting the next bit right more than addressing the fact that this room full of people just wanted to hear me say something, anything. As my brain thrashed around, frantically searching for the missing bit, it took all resources from the rest of my body leaving my physical form frozen like a cheap android in need of a reboot. Days passed in my mind as the quadrants of my brain furiously debated what to do about this potentially life-threatening situation. Logic tussled with passion as my self confidence sat trembling in the corner. Eventually the braintrust reached the consensus to ditch the bit and move on to a later part of the set. In real-world-time, this all took less than a couple of seconds, but to my malfunctioning brain it felt like days.
Whether the crowd were sympathetic to my scenario or just unaware of the internal turmoil I’d just been through was hard to say, but they remained upbeat as they had done for the entire evening. They weren’t to know that a chunk of material from the original script had mysteriously vanished, I didn’t hand it to each person on arrival to mark me for accuracy. Thankfully I had vastly underestimated the amount of time my material would take to relay on stage so with this missing piece my set ended up finishing just on time.
As I closed out my set with the words “Good Night”, I was filled with an addictive cocktail of emotion and relief as I shook Fiona’s hand and made my way for the curtains. It was finally over, I was allowed to turn to liquid now. The relief was intense, all I wanted to do was run around the venue basking in the glory of having popped my cherry yet instead I had to make my way backstage as the next comedian took to the stage. I couldn’t take anything in, instead standing there churning through what had come before. Some bits felt good, some bits felt bad but through it all I felt alive. Feelings channelled through me in a way I’d never before achieved without narcotics. It was an addictive rush. I knew it hadn’t been a perfect performance, it was clear that some bits worked better on paper than in practice, but the satisfaction that I’d done it at all was enough for me in that moment. Real life was slowly bringing me back down to earth as the time continued to pass by, but in place of that adrenaline, an addiction remained and has remained to this day.