It was a Monday. There was a limit to the memorizing and practicing I could do, no more reciting in the mirror or in front of the camera – it was time to push, time to take leaden steps toward the stage despite the fear. The host of the open mic terrified me – she was a short, thick, brusque Latina woman who moved through The Other Bar with purpose. The audience was a jigsaw puzzle of semi-attentive civilians scattered among the apathetic, self-absorbed comedians with aspirations towards stage time. I wiped my palms on my shorts, waited to hear my name, heart beating a staccato rhythm in my ears, and after a short, generic, noncommittal introduction, the host yielded the stage to me. My material was awkward and drenched with nerves, sharpened with adrenaline, but it wrenched a laugh or three from those who were listening, and I was hooked.
That was two years ago today.
Now, that host is a friend – an irascible, lovable friend named Carmen Morales. Today, I am the house emcee at Gregory’s Upstairs Comedy Club in Cocoa Beach, where I perform every Thursday and Friday night. Every Tuesday, I run an open mic at On The Rocks Downtown in Orlando, with a paying gig for local headliners and feature acts the third Tuesday of every month. Mondays I usually visit The Other Bar for open mic, and I’ve just started to perform as a feature act. The stage is compelling – a hot stove with a giant “Do Not Touch” sign. Performing stand-up is a huge part of my life, and it’s hard to imagine what things were like before.
Last year, for my one-year stand-up anniversary (which I erroneously selected as the day I first performed in front of a non-open mic audience), I listed some of the lessons I had learned after a year of comedy. Another year has passed, and more lessons have followed.
1. Don’t be afraid of silence. I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with using pregnant pauses as an inherent part of my set. Sometimes the absence of sound is more powerful than anything you could say. It can draw attention, create reflection, cause laughter, even build awkwardness until the dam breaks. A planned and focused period of silence can be integral to a successful set.
2. Edit. I’ve suggested this for every aspect of life, actually. Edit your words, edit your friends, and edit your material. Some of the bits that survived my first open mic have been cut from a minute or two in length to fifteen or twenty seconds, and they still have the same impact. You can never go wrong if you edit something down, because there are always ways to build it up better, stronger, and/or funnier than before.
3. Respect the stage. The first time I performed stand-up at the open mic, I was in shorts and sandals. At the time, I argued that it shouldn’t matter what you wear to do comedy – comedians come in all shapes, sizes, and outfits. But I have realized since that it’s not what you wear – it’s how you view yourself. To me, dressing in shorts and sandals was a symbol of how casually I approached the audience. Everyone shows respect to the stage in different ways, but that respect translates into a respect for the audience, for your material, and for your ability, and your work will benefit as a result.
4. Take your own path. Emulating those you admire is always okay, but don’t become a carbon copy of anyone. Do what works for you. Whether you’re dark, light, angry, happy, sexual, clean – whatever it is that feels natural and normal for you is exactly what you should be doing on stage. An audience senses artificiality and shuns those who aren’t true to themselves.
5. The more painful the truth, the better the comedy. Whenever you can get humor out of the raw agonizing pain you’ve suffered, it will be worth its weight in audience response. That type of honesty resonates with your audience, and it brings you closer with them, resulting in better material and a better experience for everyone.
I don’t know it all. I don’t even know a tiny amount of it. But I know enough to know that comedy is a learning process. Those who succeed are the ones who pay attention, absorb information, expand their horizons and evolve. As soon as you think you know everything, you become stagnant and stop growing as an entertainer, as a speaker, as a comedian, and as a person. These are the lessons I’ve learned this year – next year and the year after and the years after those, I’ll continue to learn and develop until, obviously, I rule the world.