Tuesday, September 25, 2007

But Seriously, Folks

Not sure what's behind me pursuing two of my my cherished dreams in two weeks, but that's how it is. Thanks to a tip from my friend Amy, I registered for a class on how to become a stand-up comic, and last night I took it. The class was taught by Sandi Shore, who is Pauli's sister and Mitzi's daughter (they like "i's" in that family) and held at The Comedy Store in La Jolla.

I wasn't at all nervous because the description said we'd be learning about the biz and how to put together a set, and there would be an "opportunity" to demo three minutes of material for critique, if (the operative word being "if") one was up for it.

But that's not how it went down. I arrived, five minutes late, and grabbed the seat next to Amy at a cocktail table. It was very dark. There seemed to be about 30 people in the audience. A tiny red-headed woman (that was Sandi) was talking about a drawing of a tree someone had handed me as I came in. The leaves represented various aspects of a comedy routine--the falling leaves were rejection. The roots had something to do with confidence and material. I really don't remember because she must have talked about it for five minutes tops, very fast, and then we opened our books (she had written the book) to an exercise about how to develop a news headline into a bit. Suddenly, though, she asked for a show of hands of who had prepared material--about six went up--and she said, "Okay, we'll do those people first, then the rest of you will get up here and present something using this exercise."

Amy and I were confused. It sounded like lesson time was over, and EVERYONE would be going up there, to the lonely mike on the blinding stage. "This isn't what I signed up for," Amy whispered. Nor me. I had imagined us slogging through the layers of a routine, making diagrams and outlines and such. But I suppose that was foolish of me, since I actually wrote a 300-page dissertation on humor, and one of the things I said is "You can't explain comedy." So that's what I get for my expectations.

Amy said she was nervous. I was nervous, too, but moreover I was...annoyed? Unsettled? Bemused? Tempted to slip out at the break and go home to complain to David? None of my reactions seemed very useful in the moment.

Next we watched the routines of The Prepared Ones. A couple people were clearly budding comedians already, and had a fairly polished set. One woman, who said she'd never been on stage before, struck me as quite quirky and brilliant, ripping a complicated yarn about schizophrenia, Jesus Christ and Criss Angel with lots of "callbacks" (this means you revisit previous jokes during your set, rewarding your audience for paying attention.) I accosted her in line for the bathroom later, saying "I really loved how you trusted us enough to relax, and when you did that, I could relax myself." Once out of my mouth, this compliment didn't make as much sense as I'd intended, but she was gracious and thanked me anyway.

Another guy expounded for what felt like an hour about how women can kill people by swinging their underarm fat, and they practically had to drag him off the stage. Then there was Dogfood.

Dogfood was a big, bald man who had mentioned at the beginning that he liked to "work blue." So I should have been prepared for his set, during which I sailed straight past discomfort to a heightened state of revelling--nay, wallowing--in my own rich, soupy embarrassment. Dogfood's set included not one but TWO interminable interludes in which he pretended to suckle and slurp at his own floppy titties, and not one but THREE demonstrations of different kinds of doggie-style sex, accompanied by high-pitched intercoital dialogue. All the best to you, Dogfood. I have no doubt you'll be hugely famous someday.

Now it was break time, and Amy and I approached Sandi to confess our misgivings and unpreparedness. Sandi said, "I'm not going to force anyone to go up there. I just want to give everyone an opportunity to experience the mike, say their name and where they're from." The second this was out of her mouth, I felt a "ping!" as if my brain had just gotten mail. I knew instinctively that I could go up there, and that it might even be funny, but if it wasn't I was going to enjoy it anyway. All thoughts of fleeing into the alley slipped away.

We had a few minutes, ostensibly to work on the headline exercise, but as I'm not very bright I couldn't even figure out the instructions. I fixated on something Sandi had said earlier, that the headline could be "something from your day," and got an idea. Since I'd just said goodbye to my in-laws from Australia--maybe I could talk about them!

[A small aside here to my few and faithful Australian readers. It's only because I know you are a saucy people that I feel free to blog about the following. A belated thank you for becoming my first stage material.]

After the break, Sandi's helper whipped down the rows, calling each person to the stage. More than a few protested, but they went anyway, introduced themselves, and said things like "I really love the Dodgers!" It was a fun, relaxed crowd, and quite intriguingly, a diverse one. Evenly divided between men and women, from '20s to '50s, with a wide range of nationalities. It was interesting to watch the people who didn't know they were funny, being funny.

When it was my turn, I sprinted up to the stage. We've been watching Last Comic Standing, and the guy who won this time was a sprinter; I guess I was channeling him. I grabbed the mike out of the holder and walked to the front of the stage. It didn't feel weird to hold a mike; I've done it before for teaching. To be frank, I felt fabulous. I looked out at the audience and couldn't really see much except for some fuzzy outlines; the lights were so bright. But I didn't care.

I opened my mouth and my voice came out clear and calm. "Hi, I'm Sam." I said. "I just spent 10 days with my in-laws. I have the best kind of in-laws. They're really nice...[beat]..and they live in AUSTRALIA."

Everyone laughed. And I was off and running. I even remembered to tell them how I went to see what was billed as stand-up comedy when I was visiting Australia.

"And what I actually saw...was a woman hike up her skirt, stuff a microphone under it, and fart three verses of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'" [beat] "It was really wonderful getting to experience Australian culture like that."

Readers, I have no idea if people were laughing during my set. For some reason, I don't remember, or maybe I just didn't notice. But what I do know is that I felt totally, utterly comfortable up there. I mean, TOTALLY. I could have yakked at them for an hour. I was having the best time.

And it was a revelation. Because all my life, people have said "You should do stand-up comedy!" and a little voice inside me would chirp, "Yeah, you should do that!" and then a deeper voice with a scary rumble in it would add, "Yeah, and the first time someone heckled you, you'd crumple like a tissue, because while you seem tough on the outside, you have a soft, chewy center." And that's as much as I ever let myself think about it.

I was only on stage for a couple of minutes, but I felt like I belonged there. And then I realized something: while I think I've been avoiding my dream for decades, I've actually been in training for it. I'm not suggesting that I'm ready for the circuit (one of the working comics told us he writes for a month to get five minutes of solid, new material) but I do think I have a edge that a lot of novices don't--I've been honing my material on college students for 14 years. College students are a tough audience. They're in no mood to humor anyone. And, my friends, they may be hungover, but they are not, currently, drunk.

While I have the usual comedian bag of tricks at the ready--hideous experiences in junior high, neurotic Jewish family--I also have some on-the-job training in public speaking. I know that audiences are changeable as the wind--what kills in Lit 120 might bomb in Lit 24. I know how to "take the temperature" of the room. Most importantly, I am comfortable with silence. When I ask students a question, not only am I prepared for the chirping of crickets, I am strong like bear. "Is this silence making you uncomfortable?" I'll ask them cheerfully. "Because I'm fine with it. I can wait you out, no problem." They always break before I do.

We learned that pacing can make or break a joke. Sandi said you can say something unfunny and make everyone crack up, depending on how you say it. I think maybe that's my speciality.

So where do I go from here? I'm still a long way from midnight shows in Muskogee, followed by third-rate Scotch at a lonely bar to dull the pain of a night with no laughs. The next step is an eight-week course on building a set, culminating in a comedy showcase for family and friends. It will take some wrangling, since it's in the afternoons, when I'm with Jarrah. But if I can work it out, I'm going to do it. I'm ready. I've been ready for years.


Robyn said...

WOOHOO!!! Tell me when your showcase is and I will do my BEST to come home to see it. You are perfect for this. I always have people tell me I should do stand-up also, but I really don't think I could. I do, however, KNOW you can and I can't wait to be there supporting you. I will make a "Sam" t-shirt and wear it! You'll kill 'em, Sam. Break a leg!!!



Anonymous said...

This is awesome, Sam!! I can't wait to come to your showcase! Way to go for it.


Type (little) a said...

I will be in the front row when your tour reaches NYC.

Sam said...

Thank you for your support, ladies. I got a little tear in my eye reading your comments.

Amy said...

Woohoo Sam! I am very excited at how this chain of events has come together. Keep me posted on the class. If you do this one, be sure to let me know the showcase date. Because you know I would want to be in the front row to cheer you on. If not, perhaps we can swing the class together down the road. I know it was a huge support to me having you there with me. Here's to stretch/risk/die!!!
With gratitude,

Steph said...

What an awesome experience and the beginnng of something big...I guess you can save the pee stick humor for another set!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam. I'm a former student of yours. I hope I'm not crossing some kind of weird creepy-stalker line by commenting on your blog(I was googling some old profs, thats how I came across it), but I just want to say this: When I was at UCSD I loved taking your classes. Even if the subject was kind of snoozy you could always hold our interest. I always admired you cause I thought you were so witty. I hope you go for it.

Cheri said...

"I felt a "ping!" as if my brain had just gotten mail." LOL! That, my friend, is a line to remember and steal (without crediting you).

Your writing is so funny, cheeky, witty, clever, and brilliant, so of course with your public-speaking skills and charm it would translate to the stage.

Being a closet comic, I've followed Last Comic Standing too (Gerry Dee fan right here). I'm so jealous you got a stage, lights, and mike! The only time I get to practice my stand-up act is on an innocent troop of Brownies or Sunday School class.

Jen said...

Ditto what everyone else said.

I want my "Sam" t-shirt!

Miss J

Sam said...

C--I must know who you are! How delightful to have "Exhibit A" to support my arguments! ;) Hope post-graduate life is treating you well.

Cheri--Feel free to steal it, darling. I was rather proud of that line so thanks for noticing. ;) We were also Gerry Dee fans! Then again, I love me some Canadians in general. ;)

Miss J--Happy Birthday, dear!

Anonymous said...

Go, Sam!

You do have the knack, and if you can deal with the hecklers, you'll take this far.

Best, Gail

Martha said...

You be funny. Don't you worry your little head about hecklers.

I will bring extra ball gags and a very big baseball bat along with a heaping dose of LA attitude.

Call me your peeps or something. Just remember me when you are flipping famous, ok?

Anonymous said...

omygawd do not delay book a gig here in SD ASAP and i promise i will help turn out audience. Joanna

Anonymous said...

Yay for you Sammy! :) Lix

Anonymous said...

Wow, Sammy!

"You funny," as Joy would say! She is right!



Cheri said...

Look at all these comments! What is the lesson in this? (I teach Socratically.) You must post when you're doing your next stand-up act. You've got a ready-made audience.

You so funny, girl. You funny.

Anonymous said...

Your "soft, chewy center" is one of my most favorite things about you.


Jacob said...

You know, of course, that I've always--all my life of knowing you--introduced you as "the funniest person in the world" (my ex-husband got the rating "second funniest" and felt pretty good about it). I've also always said, you already *are* a stand up. YOU GO, GIRL! I can't wait to buy your CD.

suebdo said...

Sammy - Its your time! Do it sister! I will help you any way I can - You are a total natural and I'd love to have a comedy writing buddy. We have to talk - I sent you a loooong email but dont' know if I have your right address. Am thinking of you with the fires & would love to connect sueburtonkirdahy@yahoo.com