Editor’s Note: Many people believe that anyone with a mouth can be a stand-up comedian. But standing on a stage in front of a crowd to prove how funny you are is much harder than it looks. High school senior Joe Shaffer tells us about his first time behind the mic.
I was raised listening to great comedians–people with the ability to turn embarrassing moments into hilarious stories. Having no shortage of embarrassments myself, I figured I could be a stand-up comic.
Luckily, my hometown of Madison has a strong comedy scene. Almost every night of the week, local bars host open-mikes, where even a teenage rookie like me can get actual stage time.
I spent weeks writing jokes in preparation for my public debut. Every night, I practiced in front of my parents, giving myself a glorious introduction at the start of my act. But even with only two people in the audience, I got the shakes when I heard myself say my own name:
“And here’s…. Joe Shaffer!”
Admittedly, being terrified to do your act in your own living room is not a good sign. But I finally worked up the courage to go to an open mike at a small downtown bar. To my dismay, my parents insisted on coming with me. “The place is probably full of wackos,” they argued.
There were only three people in the bar, all comedians. They sat far apart, each studying a notebook. In the front was a tough-looking guy in a motorcycle jacket and, strangely, a silky red wig. On the right, a man whispered his routine to himself. I caught a few alarming words about an “evil twin.” On the left, a young woman in a sweatshirt had her hood pulled down so tightly that only her nose was visible. Were these the “wackos” my parents had worried about?
From the back, I craned my neck to see the other comics’ notebooks. Each page was crammed with dozens of jokes. I looked at my own index card. I had four.
The MC was late, giving me more time to stare at the back of the red wig and wish I’d never been born. He finally bounded in, checked the sign-up sheet, and turned to the microphone.
“Please welcome the very funny… Joe…SHAAF-her?”
“SHA-fer,” I muttered, walking up to the mike. So much for a glorious introduction.
I scanned the crowd, almost half of which was my parents. My index card was smudged with sweat, barely legible.
I took a deep breath and began my routine. It didn’t sound funny anymore as it came out of my mouth. My jokes about being a lame high-schooler suddenly seemed less like comic exaggeration and more tragically autobiographical. And yet, the other comics were kind to me. They smiled at my punchlines, and the man in the wig even laughed at a couple of them. I left the stage feeling much better than I deserved to.
Their generosity encouraged me to try the open-mike night again. This seemed to be a group that even a stammering high school kid might one day feel comfortable in. I figured they knew exactly what kind of person would want to do standup comedy.