Terror at the Improv
I don’t consider myself an especially outgoing person. For most of my adult life, I have suffered apoplectic fear of speaking in public. It’s not that I’m not sociable. Or entertaining. I’m deft and quick-witted when discussing my latest public humiliation among friends and colleagues. (see America’s Funniest Videos for similar examples). Yet the thought of speaking in front of people has paralyzed me with fear since I hit puberty.
I had to give a presentation at work last year, in front of no more than a handful of people. Mind you, these were people I have worked with for more than two years and who know me well, or anyway as well as you can know anybody with whom you’ve gotten stupidly drunk each week at every drinking establishment within a five-block radius of your office. Still, I had huge sweat stains under my arms, my hands were clammy and my voice was shaky. Maybe it’s because, since I was a tyke at my mother’s hyper-critical knee, I have been way too concerned about what other people think of me. Trying, and then failing, to gain acceptance from every single person on the planet has sent better souls than mine (those with overcritical mothers, anyway) to shrinks…or worse, to comedy class.
I found myself among these souls. Last year, after reading an especially uplifting issue of Oprah, I decided it was time to take this bull by the horns and shake him until the change fell out of his pockets. So I signed up for some comedy classes at the Improv in DC. First, I took a couple of improvisation classes to test/flex my comic muscle. Let’s just say that I won’t soon be wearing any spandex, metaphorically speaking. But then I decided to throw all caution to the wind and take the stand-up class, a six-week-long immersion in telling jokes in front of a microphone, culminating in a death-defying five-minute performance in front of a full house at the Improv.
I was so sure I was going to go down in flames that I told almost no one of my debut. I didn’t have to fret: almost everyone went down in flames before me.
Most comedians are men. Our instructor told us this is because they can get away with saying stuff that women can’t–things ‘most’ people find side-splittingly funny, e.g., anything, anything at all, that has to do with a penis, and the million and one ways in which said organ can be used or in what ‘vehicles’ it can be placed. This guffaw-inducing category includes anything from date rape to sadomasochism to wife-beating to incest to the hundred-plus names for, and ways to, ‘masturbate.’ I was simply bereft at my inability to regale my audience with vivid descriptions of the scent of a vagina, but I needn’t have worried: a classmate went before me and filled everyone in.
I don’t think I could have been more terrified in all my life, but by the time I got to the stage, it was late and the audience was mostly drunk. I know that, because it was the first thing I asked when I stood in front of the mike. They replied with a resounding round of applause, and at that moment, every last drop of fear I had melted away. They laughed in all the right places, and once or twice I even got some spontaneous applause. I was on a roll! I couldn’t fail! For good measure, and to ensure I wouldn’t alienate anyone, I added a few gratuitous “fucks,” and one “shit-eating cocksucker,” which went over very well.
I’m not sure if I will continue with my stand-up career, (I encourage everyone to try at least once), but I’m proud of myself–fucking proud, even–that I did it. Now I can move on to something much less terrifying. Like bungee jumping.