Comedian Jerry Seinfeld does a great bit about a study he saw that said speaking in front of a crowd is considered the No. 1 fear of the average person:
“Death is No. 2?” he shrieks. “This means to the average person that if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
I totally get that. I took The Comedy Zone’s six-week stand-up comedy course and most of the time keeling over seemed like the better option. I thought it’d be a cool thing to try – but even as a humor writer and public speaker, it’s so completely out of my comfort zone, and I admit I was scared stiff.
Six feet under
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A 400-seat room built downstairs in the NC Music Factory, The Comedy Zone has the grittiness of old-time clubs in big cities, where nightspots were underground in basements.
Led by Comedy Zone booking agents Joel Pace and Len Kure, the class meets for six weeks, with a graduation showcase on week seven.
“There are two reasons people take the course,” says Pace. “They think they’re funny or somebody told them they’re funny – or they want to get better at public speaking.”
The course teaches the fundamentals of writing and performing stand-up comedy, methods for generating original material and formulating jokes.
I’ll say. My first night of class, I descended the stairs to the comedy tomb, wondering if this is where I’m gonna get buried alive, when I was met with a sign-in sheet that asked for name, number, email and shoe size. I felt my first of many panic attacks, trying to make sense of this.
Are they going to make us wear funny shoes? Or is there some slippery finish on the stage that’s hazardous without a padded sole? I was already worried about what to wear for graduation, now I gotta worry about being assigned some kind of special shoes that don’t go with my outfit?
Turns out, it was a joke. Two minutes into class, and I had already lost my sense of humor.
Pace, who’s been teaching the course for 15 years, understands what takes us all to the dark side:
“Stand-up comedy is the most purest form of art there is, because it’s you and a microphone. You don’t have a band behind you playing instruments. This is you and a microphone and your words, trying to entertain an audience. Good luck!”
Thanks, Joel. Although, I will say the class does give you the tools to put together a strong three-minute set.
Tools like GTTF – Get To The Funny. The joke is three parts – premise, setup, punch. We were taught to cut out unnecessary words and get to that punchline as fast as possible so you don’t lose the audience. And die.
And LPMs – Laughs Per Minute. Make sure you have eight and you’ll have a solid set because you don’t give the audience time to fade. And die.
And we learned to take real-life experiences – serious things – and add a twist to make it funny. True life, plus exaggeration, equals comedy.
Dying is easy, comedy is hard
“My name is Zaidoon Al-Zubaidy,” my classmate opened during our first run-through. “I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. I’m so nervous out here, I hope I don’t bomb.”
Well, that’s not fair. We can’t all be from Iraq. He’s sure to disarm the audience and win over the crowd with that one. And with my days being numbered, there were so many things I was beginning to fear, blowing up on stage being at the top of the list. Followed by forgetting my set, not getting 8 LPMs and talking 90 MPH.
The people with the death wish are the people who are terrified of public speaking, but choose stand-up as a way to tackle their fear. Brian Baltosiewich, senior marketing producer at WBTV, grew up with a stutter and has performed at The Comedy Zone.
“Once I got into my career, I knew I’d have to do something to get out in front of it,” he said. “It’s the communication business and I have to communicate. I wanted to do something that was really going to scare the crap out of me. To speak in front of a crowd with my own material, not knowing how they would react, I thought that would shock me into being OK with myself and my stutter.”
Mary Tribble, who ran events for the 2012 Democratic National Convention, doesn’t have a fear of public speaking, but was scared of doing stand-up. She took the class last year.
“There’s a vulnerability that lies within the unknown. I was scared to death in every single class – my palms were sweaty, my heart raced,” she said. “But every class I learned something that demystified things for me. Each nugget of information got me more comfortable and less scared.”
Tribble also had grave concerns about memorizing her material. She rehearsed her set while walking around Elmwood Cemetery. Talk about a dead audience. And why … ?
“Because it was a big audience,” she said, laughing. “But I knew they wouldn’t be critical.”
Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight
Graduation night I was terrified of becoming a comedy casualty. And still wanting to confirm that nobody’s going to take my shoes – these heels totally go with my dress.
All day I was imagining being on the stage, looking into that dark space, not able to see anything except the spotlight ahead. It’s a helpless feeling, like standing in front of a train, knowing you have to get out of the way.
But the truth is, on that stage the only thing I had to get out of the way of was me. I had done the work, I knew the material and my shoes were buckled tight on the last hole. I just needed to get that first laugh and keep going.
Everything that kills me makes me feel alive
There’s something about that first laugh. It means “you’re doing it!” Now just enjoy it. It’s a feeling like nothing I’ve ever experienced, making a room full of people laugh. Eight times a minute, of course.
As Tribble puts it, “People are drawn to stand-up because of the rush you get. There’s a big payoff with a lot of pain.”
A payoff that, in some cases, can be life-changing.
“No question that at least in terms of my stutter, I was a different person when I walked off that stage,” said Baltosiewich. “There was something so empowering. … It helped me to see that what I had to say was much more important than how I said it.”
And he has some thoughts on burying fear: “If you have a fear of heights, jump out of an airplane; a fear of snakes, grab a snake and really look at it. There’s no feeling in the world like looking your fear in the eye and realizing, you know, maybe this isn’t as big a deal as I made it out to be.”
I think the only thing that scared me more than actually doing it was never trying it. Getting out of my comfort zone was scary and exhilarating and I can’t wait to do it again. At the very least, I want to do a two-woman show with Mary Tribble in Elmwood Cemetery.
Something tells me we would kill.