I first got the itch to do comedy when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I wasn’t specifically interested in standup, but I liked to be funny. My brother and I used to ab-lib skits into a portable cassette recorder we got for Christmas.
My first shot at standup was in college at the University of Illinois in 1990. There was a contest sponsored by Certs, the breath mint (with Retsyn for those of you old enough to remember the commercials see below). I entered along with 20 or so other students.
The show was at 6pm on a Friday night in the student union. I waited until the very last minute to tell anyone about it. Then when the time came, I tried to play it cool and said, “yeah, I got dared to do this, so you know”. There were a shitload more people than I expected in the audience, at least 500-600.
I went to happy hour beforehand to get some liquid courage. I went on 3rd. I did absolutely nothing to prepare. I had one joke. I thought being a smart ass was enough to carry me. It was the longest 3 minutes of my life. I stared out into a sea of cold dead stares. The only people with any expression on their faces were my friends who were grimacing like they witnessed a paper cut to the eye.
I don’t remember it verbatim, but I think the joke I told went something like this:
I was talking to this chick, and said, “so, are those Lee Press-on Jeans?”. And she said, “they’re stretch pants.” So I said, “like they had a choice.”
Imagine that in a slight Dice Clay accent and you get the horrible picture.
Most of the people were hacky but at least they had prepared material. The guy who won had great stage presence and killed. I learned being prepared and polished is better than being funny.
Fast forward to 1990. The contest is back. This time I tell more friends, including my future wife (though we weren’t an item then, and god knows how she could date me after that night).
Same place, same time, same size crowd, and I made the exact same mistake. This time, I don’t even remember the joke. I just remember no one wanted anything to do with me after.
So I hung up my high-top Chuck Taylors1 and took a 26 year break from standup.
The good news is I have learned the my lesson. I have done tons of public speaking since then and make an effort to rehearse and be prepared. I have presented in front of some the stiffest people you can imagine, so I know what it’s like to stand in front of a crowd and get zero reaction.
1. I actually didn’t own a pair of Chuck Taylors. That was probably the only smart choice I made that night. I did, however, own a leather biker’s jacket.