Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Where Are You From?" The Fear Of Being Called On At A Comedy Club

Every now and then I'll feel an itch to perform stand-up comedy. I've never told jokes on a stage. I've told jokes in conversation. I've told jokes on Twitter. I've told jokes on this blog. But I've never told jokes into a microphone.

The itch resurfaced earlier today, as I walked to a local comedy club to check out a showcase of up-and-coming comics. My mind started to wander. I envisioned myself on the bill of a comedy show, waiting by the side of a stage, as the host introduces me. "Our next comedian performs all over the Internet. You've seen him on Blogger, you've seen him on Twitter, you've seen him on iTunes. Please give it up for Shane!"

I'd hop onto the stage, he'd hand me the microphone, and I would kill it. Well, I wouldn't fantasize myself bombing in my stand-up debut. No, I'd have a room filled with strangers, in addition to the 10 friends and relatives I pressured to come, eating out of the palm of my hand. I would tell them joke after joke after joke, and they would laugh and laugh and laugh. For five minutes straight. It would be the five greatest minutes of my life. And probably the five greatest minutes of their lives, too. 

Afterward, they would approach me -- all of them, one by one -- congratulate me on my set, and give me big hugs. Then, as I'm sipping on a virgin pina colada, an executive from a TV network would track me down: "I came here to scout another comic, but I was blown away by what I saw from you. Please tell me you'll sign this talent holding deal right now."

That's what it would be like if I were to perform stand-up. It would be exciting. It would be fun. It would be awesome. So what's holding me back?

My mind refocused, I arrived at the club, and was seated right by the stage. And then the itch went away. I remembered what is holding me back: fear.

Not fear of standing on a stage, in front of an audience. I have some experience in public speaking -- not in a comedy club, but I have made presentations at the office, and speeches at weddings. I'm comfortable with it. 

What I do fear is sitting near a stage, in front of a lineup of comedians. Because chances are very good that at least one of them will try to talk with me. That scares the heck out of me, and in some strange, unexplainable way has discouraged me from becoming a comedian myself.

The idea of being called on makes me very anxious. I trace it back to the seventh grade, when I was a nominee at an award ceremony for students at my middle school. This was a very important ceremony; It was the Oscars of middle school award shows in suburban New York. A nomination alone meant your academic career would take off.

Anyway, I was half-asleep by the time my category came up. Even middle school award shows can drag on for hours. When the winner was announced, I thought I heard the presenter call my name, but I wasn't quite sure. I asked a friend seated next to me, "Did he just call my name?" He answered, a little too eagerly, "He sure did! Get up there and get your award!" I still had my doubts, but I decided I should go on stage and ask the presenter himself. He told me that, no, my name had not been called. (The winner was not in attendance, but the presenter accepted on his behalf.) I walked back to my seat, my head hanging in shame, as my fellow classmates and their families laughed at me. 

Ever since then, I've been afraid of any situation in which I might be called on.

So I was on edge as I sat by the stage, waiting for the show to begin. My only hope for the show was to be ignored. I just wanted each comedian to not engage me in conversation, or make eye contact with me, or look in my general direction, or do anything else that would result in the audience laughing at me. In return, I would behave myself and cackle at every joke, regardless of how funny it is. I'd smile my fake smile I normally reserve for co-workers when I enter the office every morning.

I was so uptight that I could barely drink the $8 sparkling water I'd ordered. I paid $8 for a sparkling water, at a show for up-and-coming comics. How much is sparkling water at a Louis C.K. concert? $150? 

There I was, with a pricey bottle of sparkling water trembling in my hands, as the host took the stage to start the show. He told a couple of warm-up jokes, and then it happened...he locked eyes with me. Oh, no. Please ignore....

"Where are you from?"

Not even two minutes into his set, and he called on me. I cursed to myself. A million thoughts raced through my head, but mainly I wondered, What answer could I give that a) won't enable him to tease me, and b) will put an end to this exchange as quickly as possible? Upper West Side? Upper East Side? Morningside Heights? Midtown? Murray Hill? East Village? West Village? Greenwich Village? Gramercy Park? Central Park? Chelsea? SoHo? NoHo? Financial District? Flatiron District?

After I silently ran through all of the neighborhoods in Manhattan, and the other four boroughs, I finally answered, vaguely, New York. By that point, thankfully, he lost all interest in what I had to say and transitioned into his next bit. I made a mental note: Before I sign a lease on my next apartment, I need to look up the neighborhood on YouTube to make sure no comedians have good material on it.

Over the course of the night, five more comedians called on me -- half of the lineup. It was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to happen. They pried and pried and pried, digging for more information they could use against me. They asked for my age, my race, my occupation, my relationship status, my thoughts on certain parts of the male and female anatomies. It was a Tinder conversation come to life. 

Also, one comic danced in front of me, pulling up his shirt and jiggling his hairy stomach inches away from my face. It was a Tinder photo come to life.

The audience loved it. They laughed and laughed and laughed. At me. It was seventh grade all over again.

As I walked back home, with my head hanging in shame, I revisited my fantasy of performing stand-up comedy. I was still killing it. The crowd was still laughing, not at me, but with me. 

In the crowd were the comedians I had just seen, sitting together at a table. I didn't ask them where they lived, or whether they were married, or anything about the male or female anatomies. I didn't tease any of them.

They did have to pay $8 each for sparkling water.