My therapist says I use humor to deflect from my insecurities. Something about overcompensation. I tend to agree with her. She is the one with the PhD after all. The last time I visited her and she asked me how I was doing, I asked her to pull my finger and see what happens. So she’s probably right about the overcompensating thing.
In my defense, I always liked the idea of being funny. As a kid I enjoyed listening to the adults talk and tried to jam an unexpected comment in there to get a laugh from them. It gave me a sense of excitement, adulthood and intelligence.
I can’t remember the first time I discovered stand-up comedy. But I remember listening to shows on repeat that I downloaded illegally on my iPod. When I was cycling to the supermarket, when I was cleaning my room, when I was in a waiting room, going for a run… I always had comedy specials on repeat. The idea of someone making a crowd laugh by mere observations, jokes, stories, impersonations, act outs excited me. It was somewhere between watching interviews with Sarah Silverman, Daniel Sloss, Jerrod Carmichael, the Duplass brothers and David Foster Wallace when I realized that it’s in your own interest to write down the observations you have. Every life, even the boring ones, in fact especially the boring ones, are worth writing about. Of course you have to take the time to work with the observations you have, turn them into something. Ask yourself questions, imagine different scenario’s, explore different possibilities, etc. It seemed to me that the ones who bothered to pen down their observations or ideas created an opportunity for themselves to actually make something of it. I have taken it upon myself to start writing little things down. Ideas, experiences that shook me, bored me, traumatized me or made me laugh. I still have them, and some of them are still painfully awkward to read, some still make me laugh or cry. Some I have used in my stand up sets.
I was never really a class clown, I was the kid that was everyone’s friend. But I only wanted friendships with people I could ridicule and have them ridicule me. I had a sincere urge to make my friends laugh. When I joined Facebook in 2009 and Instagram in 2013, I discovered that I can share my comedic ideas with my friends by posting photos and writing snappy comments to accompany them. I loved the few likes rolling in cause it meant to me that I made those people laugh. It didn’t dawn on me that I was so desperately trying to perform then. If there ever comes a time that I can compare myself with an Instagram model, it must be now: the way these people have the patience to go through outfits, pictures, backgrounds and filters, is the way that I would take my time to come up with witty comments for pictures. I would scroll through my notes of funny experiences, observations, or just words that seemed hilarious and unusual to me. I would create separate notes for a specific picture and puzzle together something funny to write about it.
My boyfriend and I were in a New York bookstore in April this year, where we probably spent 3 hours going through different genres, sections and themes. I already had about 10 books in my hands, upon which he reminded me that we didn’t have enough space in our backpacks. But at the same time, he handed me a book and said that he wanted to buy this book for me as a gift. He’s great at giving gifts and immediately belittling those gifts, maybe he also needs therapy, I don’t know: “This book is probably no good and how can one “learn” to write comedy, but maybe it will inspire you to do something with everything you’ve been writing
down”. The book was written by some author I do not remember. It wasn’t a known comedian, they don’t have time to write books, they write comedy specials. The book hasn’t taught me how to write comedy, because that is an awfully heavy task to put on a book. I figure the only way you can learn how to write comedy is by writing and performing it and analyzing how it all went down.
In the meantime I was working a dead-end job at ING. Being fired from that place now, I believe I can with impunity say that I have done fuck all there. Since I wasn’t able to watch comedy shows at work, I would search for transcripts of Netflix comedy specials online and read stand- up at work. While ING paid me money. Again, I have since been fired from that job. And fairly so. The utter boringness of ING did apparently irritate me enough to start looking for comedy open mics. So on a Wednesday afternoon in July, I contacted the Joker in Antwerp. They wrote me back immediately saying that they’re looking for comedians to perform at the open mic that same evening. Can I make it? Physically, sure. Mentally, holy fuck no. I had 30 pages of written observations, ideas, memories. No real jokes there. Of course my first instinct was to say NO to the open mic and kindly ask them to sign me up for the next one. But I like getting myself in unexpected trouble and then try to work my way out of it. Something me and my therapist are figuring out, don’t worry about it.
I started going through all my notes, desperately trying to write a funny 8 minutes of material. Good thing I’m a natural procrastinator, I thrive on panic, fear and deadlines biting my ass. I took the train to Antwerp, trembling all the way there, practicing the text over and over again, stopping at random apartment hallways, performing my set there. I was going to perform in English, that was the only thing I was sure of. I speak Dutch, but I don’t follow the Belgian comedy scene. I do not relate to it. I do not write comedy in Dutch. The Joker in Antwerp is a typical Flemish brown pub. I told the MC, who is a famous Belgian comedian, how to pronounce my name, he asked me if I was nervous. Wanting to say “The fuck you think?”, I instead said “A little bit” with a bright red face and went outside the pub to practice my set one more time. At this point, I didn’t bother to find an apartment hallway to perform at, I was performing in the street, whispering my set to myself, ignoring people that were passing me by.
It was July, so at 20h30 it was still light outside. I irrationally started to panic that performing comedy while it’s still light out was a horrible idea. How can anyone laugh at my jokes if it’s still light out?! At that moment the MC started to close the thick theatre like curtains, he told me we were going to start and I was the third up. That was the best place in the lineup, he said. I knew he only said that to try and calm my nerves. But I could still feel my heart sweating. I could feel all my organs inside my body. I wanted so desperately to have an opening line that would make them laugh. I really wanted this moment to be some sort of Hollywood movie type situation, where I unexpectedly discovered that I was good at stand- up comedy. I wanted this to be a moment that I would look back at and think “that was the moment I knew I would be a comedian”. I like to build such romantic ideas up in my head and then instantly shatter them: “What the fuck is wrong with you, of course this will not be such a moment, such moments do not exist, you naïve cunt!”
The show started and I decided I would focus on not having an awkward handshake with the MC when I would go up there. I analyzed the way he shook hands with the other comedians, I knew exactly how to grab his chubby hand when it was my turn. I do not remember what the other comedians were like, I guess I did not want to compare myself at that moment. I find that comparisons more often kill my own confidence instead of building it up. I do remember that one comedian did not stick to his 8 minutes. The “round it up” light was on for more than 2 minutes, so the MC started to mute his mic. Now I was fearful of the “round it up” light. I was up next. The MC introduced me by saying that “we were switching to English for some reason”. I wanted to explain my situation to the crowd: I’m Russian, born in Uzbekistan, raised in Belgium from the age of 6, studied in English in the Netherlands, I always write in English, I follow English speaking comedians, I feel more comfortable in English, you all speak and understand English, so can you just not make a big deal out of this English thing, please! Obviously I did not do any of that. Went up, grabbed the MC’s hand as if we were buddies, grabbed the mic from the stand and started my set.
I started my set and immediately understood that I didn’t know what to do with my hand that wasn’t holding the mic. My jeans pockets seemed like a good idea. Sticking my hand in one of them, I realized how fucking small it was. Only the tips of my fingers could bury themselves in that pocket. The rest of the hand remained very visible to the audience. Looking back at the video, I cringe every single time at how awkward that pose was. Female jeans need normal pockets to put our hands in. Can some influencer please start that movement already?
When leaving the stage, I once again focused on getting a cool laidback type of handshake with the MC. His wet hand brought me back to reality, it was over, I did it, I performed my first 8 minutes of stand- up comedy. To this day I hope the wetness was his cold beer condensate.
I did okay. It wasn’t a magical Hollywood moment were I was discovered as the hidden comedic genius everyone has been waiting for. It was like most first time sets: I was visibly nervous, my set was 70% shit, but 30% actually made the crowd laugh. I did not want to be a comic that only talked about her weird sexual experiences, so I was disappointed to notice that mostly words like “fuck, vomit, vagina and gay” got the most laughs, but looking back at my set, the truth is just that those were actually the jokes that worked. A lot of what I did was not relatable to the audience nor was it actually funny. The moment my ass touched the barstool again, the jokes I forgot to do instantly rushed back to my mind. You finish every set with that combined feeling of exhilaration and failure. I still have it every time I perform. It’s my “fuck yeah, oh fuck” feeling.
In the train on my way back home, I was still trembling from the excitement, the pride and power. I guess that’s the feeling I still pursue every single time I go out to perform. It’s truly an addiction. I try to perform three times a week now. If that doesn’t happen, I genuinely feel like I can sell a kidney for a gig. My procrastination hasn’t gotten any better, I still push myself into a panic corner each time I have to perform. But I accept it for now. As long as I throw myself into a comedy cellar every week, I’m fine with whatever way I get my material on paper and on to a stage. There is so much room for improvement, so why not continue.
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