Not exactly how I envisioned my first stand-up introduction, but if Jim taught us anything, it’s that comedy is a tough business, often conducted in front of people addled by a few scotches. As I approach the stage, my heart banging like a screen door in a windstorm, I recall his words from last week’s class: “I guarantee everyone in this room will bomb their faces off.”
And at first I do. Ignoring my mentor’s advice, I launch into my beauty-pageant bit, but no one is paying attention. They are talking to their friends and the bartender, ordering drinks, chatting on cellphones and putting on their coats to leave. No one is looking at me — let alone listening. I’m dying a slow death, flayed by the buzz of conversation. I want to disappear in a cloud of cigar smoke, but then I hear Jim’s voice in my head as clear as an NFL announcer: “You are the arbiter of your art.”
As my jokes plunge to the raunchy side of funny, the crowd begins quieting. People start smiling and leaning forward in their chairs. A few throw back their heads in delight. The mood in the room shifts, and I feel the power of holding a crowd by making them laugh.
When it’s over, every cell in my body is tingling with joy. As I walk to my table in the back of the bar, people clap me on the back, shake my hand and hand me a drink. Even my husband is looking at me with new appreciation. “You were funny,” he says.
The bandleader stops by and asks if I’d like to open for them next week and tell jokes between sets. I’m flattered, but I don’t want to risk marring the perfection of this memory by returning and falling flat on my face. That would happen later, at a hookah bar.
The next week, when Jim asks who performed at an open-mic night, my hand is the first one up. I briefly recount my experience, but Jim’s not too impressed with my early success. Comedy is a process, not an event, he says. It takes time and patience and a lot of hard work.
Take Bob Newhart, for example. “He’s renowned for working on bits so every single syllable progresses the story,” Jim says. “A joke is a precious commodity. When you pull it from the ground, it doesn’t look like a diamond.”