The fall of 1988 was an interesting time. Movies like “They Live” and “The Accused” (yep, my taste is widely varied) were bringing in some major box office, and for some reason, people really seemed to like Bobby McFerrin (not my taste).
I was working a temp job at a collection agency. “Hello, <sir/miss>, I’m calling from <hospital name> to talk to you today about how we can help you with your outstanding healthcare balance.” The work was not easy or fun, and the customers that we were dealing with (the hospitals, not the patients) made it practically impossible. After I completed my three days of training, I was assigned a desk, a phone, and a stack of files with names and phone numbers. As it happened, my desk was next to that of another young man who, like me, was wildly uncomfortable with the work that our temp agency had arranged.
Over the course of a few weeks, Chris and I got to know each other and discovered a shared love of comedy. I told him about how I had memorized every comedy album that I ever had. I figured that sounded pretty weird. He said not to worry about it because he had done the same. I told him that my mother was a fan of comedy, too, and that she had started taking me to comedy clubs when I was thirteen. We went often that the doormen and managers recognized me and some even called me by name. They didn’t mind letting me in as long as my mom didn’t have a problem with me hearing some strong language or being around people who were eager to exceed the ‘two-drink minimum’ rule that the club had. Considering my mother had very few boundaries, this wasn’t a concern at all.
One Thursday at the office, Chris told me that he had recently joined an improv group that performed regularly at a local comedy club. “You’re funny,” he said. “You should try it.” He told me that the group wasn’t looking for any new members, but that the club’s open mic night show for stand-up comics happened right before the group performances. “Write up five minutes of jokes, come to the workshop at the club on Saturday and if the other comics think you’re ready, you’ll get to go up on Monday night.”
Okay, so I was a fan of comedy, not a writer of it. I had a fair sense of timing, but it was all about being funny in a conversation, not on a stage. The idea of actually writing up a set of jokes and then performing it was well outside my comfort zone. Sure, I did some stand-up in a high school talent show, but I basically performed three short bits, two of which were Steve Martin’s and one of which was Gallagher’s. I wasn’t sure if I could take the plunge.
By the end of the work day, Chris had convinced me that I could do it, and had even given me a couple of writing tips. He also assured me that the other local comics were always happy to see new faces at the workshops.
And so I did it. I spent as much time as I could writing furiously between then and the Saturday morning workshop. I got the green light from everyone to go ahead and get up on stage the following Monday and in the before I knew it I was walking off the stage after having performed my five-minute set. I didn’t kill that night, but I didn’t bomb either.
Chris had been in the back of the club, watching the open mic show. He had also kept an eye on the micro-cassette recorder that I had brought along to record myself. A lot of comics did that so they could review their performances. As I listened to the tape, I wasn’t sure if I would ever actually do it again. I had done a passable job, but how would I write new stuff? What would I do if I bombed? What if the other comics ended up hating me? But something happened at the end of my set. There was applause from the audience as I left the stage and the MC came back up the introduce the next comic in line, and then the sound of the recorder being picked up. It was Chris, who had to speak loudly into the mic over the applause. He said, “That was really good, man. Do it again.”
That was a watershed moment for me. It changed my life in more ways than I can ever fully describe. I ended up opening for that improv group more than any other local comic – they liked me. Over time, I performed for as many as three hundred people in large clubs and halls, and to as few as four people in a hotel bar. I expanded that original five minutes to thirty. I had people tell me I was great and had people threaten to kick my ass because I offended them. I killed. I bombed. It was all great.
I expanded my otherwise socially awkward horizons and met a lot of really, really funny people. We were all striving for something – finding ourselves, expressing our pain, getting on the Ha! channel. We were all damaged people, some more than others. That sad clown thing? Yeah, it’s generally true. We were all unsure of ourselves and struggled every week with the idea that this comedy thing was never going to work out. We supported each other, leaned on each other – especially when someone did drop out of the game because it was too much to handle or life (drink, drugs, relationships) got in the way. Out of the ten or so of us that I started with, I only know of one that is still performing comedy to this day. Everyone else dropped out somewhere along the line. I was lucky enough to make it five years before I walked off the stage for the last time.
Here’s the thing, though: we all had at least one person who had told us that we could do it in the first place. We all had someone who told us in some way that they saw or heard something that showed we had a spark. That we needed to strike hard and fast so we could catch fire and hope to make it last a while.
And so it is with writing fiction, non-fiction, blogs, cookbooks, or whatever floats your boogie board. We all have someone who has read our work and said, “You should do this.” And if you’re lucky, you will succeed, you will fail, you will get up, brush the dust off, and start over. You will stretch yourself in unexpected ways, make new friends, be supported and be supportive. The writing community of today is not unlike the stand-up comedy community in the late 80’s. There’s a lot of mentoring that you can receive and give, regardless of where you are in your journey.
So, if you’ve written anything, and I mean anything, that you took a chance on and put out in the world, I have three words for you:
Do it again.